When did the idea of the rapture originate? Many claim this teaching originated with a man named John Darby who lived in the early nineteenth century. They insist the idea of Jesus’ appearing for His church started with visions of a woman acquainted who was with Darby.
As a result, those who oppose our beliefs in a pretribulation rapture fill up social media and the Internet with stories mocking the rapture as something no one believed until the nineteenth century. They discredit it solely on the basis of its relatively recent appearance in the life of the church.
So, is our belief in the rapture something new in church history? No, absolutely not! As will see in the following sections, saints in the early days of the church looked for Jesus’ appearing to take away His church ahead of a time of tribulation on the earth. The doctrine existed long before people began calling it “the rapture” during the 1800’s.
The Didache, which means “teaching” in the Greek, is a brief document from the early years of the church that provides valuable insight into the thoughts of early believers regarding the return of Jesus. Scholars believe The Didache originates from about AD 70 although they say it’s likely the church did not formally compile it until around AD 300.
Chapter 16 of The Didache says this about the nearness of the coming of the Lord, “Watch for your life's sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come.”[i] These words indicate an imminency regarding the Lord’s appearing such as would be the case for someone anticipating Jesus’ return to happen at any moment.
Such imminency presupposes the rapture. Matthew 24 reveals that certain specific events must occur before the Second Coming as described in verses 29-31. Yet The Didache shows that saints from the earliest days of the church watched for Jesus’ appearing as though it could happen at any moment. This sense of imminency points to an event that must occur before the Second Coming.
Irenaeus (AD 130 to 202)
In AD 180, a prominent theologian of the early church named Irenaeus wrote his famous work Against Heresies to refute the errors of Gnosticism. Besides addressing the errors of this heresy, the book provides important insight into the beliefs of the church toward the end of the second century AD, including those relating to Jesus’ return.
In Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 29, Irenaeus wrote this about Jesus’ return for his church, “And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, ‘There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.’”[ii]
This quote is significant for the following reasons:
1. Irenaeus used the same Greek word for “caught up” (harpazo) that Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 for the Lord catching up living believers to meet him in the air. He believed in a return of Jesus for His church that was sudden just as Paul described it in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55. Irenaeus’ description of this event is far different than the Second Coming, which is not a sudden event and does not involve the “catching up” of believers.
2. The sequence of events in the above quote is thus that of Jesus catching up His church from the earth followed by the time of great tribulation that Jesus talked about in Matthew 24:21, which Irenaeus referred to in the above quote.
3. After writing about Jesus catching up his church, Irenaeus turns his attention to the rise of the antichrist, which he evidently saw as something that takes place after Jesus removes His church from the world (Against Heresies, Book 5, and Chapter 29).
Cyprian (AD 200 to 258)
Cyprian was Bishop of the church in Carthage in the third century AD. During this time, he guided the flock through intense persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. In 258 AD, the Roman authorities beheaded him for his faith in Jesus.
In his book, Treatises of Cyprian, he wrote the following:
We who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. Do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an early departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence, and sets us free from the snares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom.
Cyprian here expresses his belief in “an early departure” of the church before further disasters occur in the world. Although he did not refer to it as the rapture, Cyprian believed the time of additional trouble was “imminent” and thus also Jesus’ appearing before it. His reference to “snatches us” sounds much like the catching up of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
Is not the scenario in Cyprian’s quotation the pretribulation belief of today? We see the terrible things happening in the world as precursors to the tribulation and thus to the rapture that occurs before it.
Ephraim the Syrian (AD 306 to 373)
Another reference to a belief in the rapture in early church history comes from Saint Ephraim of Edessa. He was a monk, a poet, a writer of hymns, and a preacher. Many scholars believe he attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325.
Ephraim’s sermon entitled On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World, is perhaps his best known and most controversial message. A few historians believe someone else wrote it in about AD 622, but ascribed it to Ephraim to add credibility to it. It’s more likely, however, that Ephraim preached the sermon himself in AD 323.[iii] Either way, his message reflects an unmistakable pretribulation rapture belief dating from the early centuries of the church.
The following quote is from section 2 of Ephraim’s sermon:
Believe you me, dearest brother, because the coming (advent) of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it is the very last time. Or do you not believe unless you see with your eyes? See to it that this sentence be not fulfilled among you of the prophet who declares: “Woe to those who desire to see the day of the Lord!” For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.[iv]
The quote from Ephraim demonstrates a belief in the pretribulation rapture dating back to the early fourth century AD. Even if someone wrote this sermon in AD 622, we have a positive and definitive reference to the pretribulation rapture that’s 1,200 years before John Darby existed.
Although Bible teachers did not designate Jesus’ return for His church as the “rapture” until the nineteenth century, many in the earliest years of the church eagerly anticipated this same event as something that happened prior to and separate from Jesus’ Second Coming. Not only that, they believed Jesus would take His church out of the world before a time of disasters and great suffering on the earth.
Don’t be misled by those who tell you that no one believed in a pretribulation rapture until John Darby. As I have demonstrated, this is simply not true.
However, as always Scripture must be the sole source for our beliefs about Jesus’ future appearing. This article, however, does negate the church history argument used against our belief in the pretribulation rapture. Christians held this viewpoint from the earliest days of the church.
[i] The Didache, Chapter 16, as translated on the Early Christian Writings website: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html
[ii] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) Vol. 1, p. 558
[iii] Grant R. Jeffrey, Triumphant Return: The Coming Kingdom of God (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001), p. 174
[iv]Ibid., pp. 175-76