Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Church Fathers & the Rapture: A Closer Look


The Wise and Foolish Virgins, Ludwig Denig, 1784

The concept of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture is essentially the idea that, before the Great Tribulation, before the reign of Anti-Christ, God will assume His faithful ones into heaven, so that they will not have to endure the world's final and most desolating struggle. There will be no true church upon the earth when the End of Days approaches because the Bride of Christ will have been stolen away from the earth.

One frequent objection to this doctrine by those who don't adhere to it (such as myself) is that the concept was scarcely, if at all, brought up by any of the Early Church Fathers, and that it really wasn't ever truly flushed out until the 1830's, by a man named John Nelson Darby. 

In attempts to defend the doctrine, I've seen a handful of people on the web appeal to a handful of the Fathers and provide quotes from them in order to defend the doctrine, claiming that the said men espoused such a view. (One such website: here.)

In this post, I will go through those quotes from the Fathers and demonstrate how they are not indicative of a Rapture which occurs before the Tribulation. The patristic quotations that will be looked at, on account of their being most frequently used, will be from:
  1. Irenaeus of Lyons
  2. Cyprian of Carthage
  3. (Pseudo) Ephraim the Syrian

1. Irenaeus of Lyons

The first quotation presented here is one from the ancient bishop of Lyons, writing in the latter half of the second century in his treatise Against Heresies
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." For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption. [Against Heresies V:29:1]

This quote, taken in isolation, can certainly be read as being suggestive of the idea. Does Irenaeus believe the Church will not be present for the Great Tribulation, because they will have been assumed into heaven beforehand? If this were the case, it would appear that Irenaeus contradicts himself in multiple places of the same work.
It is manifest, therefore, that of these [ten kings], he [the Anti-Christ] who is to come shall slay three, and subject the remainder to his power, and that he shall be himself the eighth among them. And they shall lay Babylon waste, and burn her with fire, and shall give their kingdom to the beast, and put the Church to flight. After that they shall be destroyed by the coming of our Lord. (ibid. V:26:1, emphasis mine)
But [John the Revelator] indicates the number of the name [666] now, that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is. (ibid. V:30:4)

If the Church isn't on earth for the coming of Antichrist, how can they be put to flight once he assumed power? Further, St. Irenaeus says that John gives the number of the name so that "we" will recognize and avoid the Antichrist. Who will recognize the person, name and number if the Church is gone? He obviously isn't expecting to be raptured away with his fellow believers if he says that"we" will be aware of who he is.

How then should we understand the words of Irenaeus pertaining to the Church being "suddenly caught up"? Larger context of the paragraph (and of book five of Against Heresies) will be key. The previous four-or-so chapters of the treatise are on the subject of the end times, the devil, the Anti-Christ, the tribulation, and the like. He treats of how the powers of evil will essentially take control of the nations.

Therefore, let us reexamine the quote which supposed endorses the Pre-T Rapture: "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'  For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption."

One simply needs to reread to see what Irenaeus is actually saying. There will never be such tribulation again, because its completion shall be, quite literally, the end of all things. The 'this' he referring to is the Great Tribulation, the "last contest of the righteous" and the Church shall suddenly be caught up from 'this' in the end, that is, at its completion, and shall be crowned "when they overcome." There's not much to be crowned for if you're taken up before the contest even starts.

2. Cyprian of Carthage

Next, let's take a look at St. Cyprian, who was bishop of Carthage and martyred in the middle of the third century:
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. (Treatise VII, 25)

Again, if taken in isolation, this excerpt might "tickle the ears" of those who are familiar with the idea of the Pre-Trib Rapture. What's more, Cyprian uses the language of "translation", and even compares the translation of believers to that of Enoch, being taken early on account of their holiness. (cf. ibid, 23)

And again, context is key; though Cyprian speaks of hastening, of translation, of passing over, and uses Enoch as an example of early exit on account of holiness, he qualifies the discussion of these things by saying:
"That in the meantime we die, we are passing over to immortality by death; nor can eternal life follow, unless it should befall us to depart from this life. That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity. Who would not hasten to better things?" (ibid., 22, emphasis mine)

Cyprian is not speaking of a bodily assumption into heaven, but of physical death. In fact, the paragraph before the seemingly pro-Rapture quotation, he says "laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows." (ibid., 24, emphasis mine) He is encouraging his readers to not fear the inevitability of death, but to lay hold of God's will for their lives and receive it with trust and gratitude. The reality that the Great Tribulation and the End of Days has not ushered in is all the more reason to be thankful for death, for it means that those who died have escaped being required of God to have gone through the greater trials imposed by the Anti-Christ.

3. Ephraim the Syrian

Here is the most controversial quote of all, one attributed to St. Ephraim. The work it comes from is titled "On the Last Times"
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. And so, brothers most dear to me, it is the eleventh hour, and the end of the world comes to the harvest, and angels, armed and prepared, hold sickles in their hands, awaiting the empire of the Lord. (On the Last Times 2)

There's a problem with this quotation: it is spurious. The saint lived in the late fourth century, yet the document these words come makes explicit reference to the invading forces of Islam, which could date it only as early as the 700's. So if this text actually espouses anything remotely similar to a pre-tribulation rapture, it would have only been introduced in the eighth century, and it would have been the only document in all of the Patristic Era (from the Apostolic Fathers in the late first century to Second Council of Nicea in 787) to carry such a teaching on the end times.

It still may not, however, actually teach the rapture doctrine. In the ninth and final section of the text, it says that the faithful of Christ will arise from their graves at His coming. It is more logically consistent to understand this text the same way one ought to understand St. Cyprian's words, that the translation unto God is via death.

One final factor which ought be looked at is to not simply analyse these writers in their own context, but in the wider context of their contemporaries and predecessors. Below are a few testimonies from other early Christian writers which demonstrate a more "orthodox" view and are incompatible with the belief in a pre-Trib rapture.
Justin Martyr (100-165): "[W]hen the man of apostasy, who speaks strange things against the Most High, shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against us the Christians..." (Dialogue w/ Trypho, 110)
Tertullian (160-220): "...the beast Antichrist with his false prophet [will] wage war on the Church of God . . . the Scriptures both indicate the stages of the last times, and concentrate the harvest of the Christian hope in the very end of the world..." (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 25)
Hippolytus of Rome (170-235): "Now, concerning the tribulation of the persecution which is to fall upon the Church from the adversary, John also speaks thus: [extensive quote from Revelation 12] ... [the time the Woman spends in the desert fleeing from the dragon] refers to the one thousand two hundred and threescore days (the half of the week) during which the tyrant is to reign and persecute the Church..." (On Christ and Antichrist 60-61)
Victorinus (d. 303): "Thence here he places, and by and by here he renews, that of which the Lord, admonishing His churches concerning the last times and their dangers, says: But when you shall see the contempt which is spoken of by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place, let him who reads understand.' (Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27) It is called a contempt when God is provoked, because idols are worshipped instead of God, or when the dogma of heretics is introduced in the churches. But it is a turning away because steadfast men, seduced by false signs and portents, are turned away from their salvation." (Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John 13:13)

IN SUMMARY: These are the three quotations of ancient Christian texts which I have seen used consistently as proposing that the Pre-Trib rapture was believed and taught in the early Church. All three, when observed in greater detail with rightly established context, are actually in opposition to the concept. And even if one were to cede that the quotations from Irenaeus, Cyprian and Pseudo-Eprhaim actually were in favor of Darby's doctrine, they would register as anomalies in the greater context of Church history. Therefore, the assertion that these ancient Christians taught Darby's doctrine is left doubtful.