The Origin of Pre-Trib Viewpoint
Premillennialism was the dominant view among the early Church Fathers, and although the vast majority of them did not have any concept of a Pre-Trib Rapture, they did have a very strong belief in imminence — meaning they believed that the Lord could return any moment.
For example, Paul exhorted the Christians in Corinth to be “awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Corinthians 1:7). James, the brother of Jesus, warned the Jerusalem church to “…be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near ….behold, the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:8-9). Peter urged his readers to “….prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). And even Jesus Himself cautioned that He might return at any moment. Consider His statement recorded in Matthew 24:36 and 42 — “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone ….Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”
Expressions of imminency abound in the writings and sermons of Church Fathers like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, both of whom lived in the First Century. Statements about the Lord’s imminent return can also be found in early publications like The Didache (60-100 AD), The Epistle of Barnabas (130-131 AD), and The Shepherd of Hermas (110 AD). This latter publication actually contains a pre-tribulational concept of escaping the Great Tribulation: “If then you prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless….”6
So, the early Church Fathers, based on the Scriptures, had a strong sense of imminency, but they evidently had not thought through the consequences because nearly all of them believed the Rapture would be combined at the end of the Tribulation with the Second Coming. But how could that be? After all, when you combine the Rapture with the Second Coming as all one event, then the Lord’s return is not imminent. Rather, it must await developments like the revelation of the Antichrist, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the completion of the Tribulation.
A Recent Discovery
A prophecy researcher, Lee Brainard, has recently discovered ten references to a Pre-Trib Rapture in the writings of Ephraim the Syrian (306-373).7 Ephraim is especially revered in Syriac Christianity and is counted as a Venerable Father (i.e., a sainted monk) in the Eastern Orthodox Church. So popular were his works, that, for centuries after his death, Christian authors wrote hundreds of pseudo-works in his name. He has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac-speaking church tradition.8 Here are some of the quotes from his sermons:
“Blessed is he who unceasingly remembers the fear of Gehenna and hastens to sincerely repent… for he shall be delivered from the great tribulation.”9
“For the elect shall be gathered prior to the tribulation so they will not see the confusion and the great tribulation coming upon the unrighteous world.”10
“Watch always, praying continually, that you may be worthy to escape the tribulation.”11
“Count us worthy, Lord, of the rapture of the righteous, when they meet You the Master in the clouds, that we might not be tried in the bitter and inexorable judgment.”12
Brainard has also found a previously unknown quote in the writings of Irenaeus (130-202 AD). He was tutored by Polycarp (69-155 AD) who, in turn was a student of the Apostle John. Irenaeus wrote:13
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.
These quotations leave no doubt that there was a definite concept in the early Church of an imminent return of Jesus before the Tribulation. But with the adoption of Augustine’s Amillennial view by the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-5th Century, the literal interpretation of prophecy was cast aside, and the concept of a Pre-Trib Rapture fell into obscurity.
In the third and final part of this study, we will look at the development of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture viewpoint in the post-Reformation era.
6) The Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 4, chapter 2, www.newadvent.org/fathers/02011.htm.
7) Ken Parry, editor, The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999) page 180.
8) Lee W. Brainard, “Recent Pre-Trib Rapture Findings in the Early Church,” paper presented at the December 2021 Pre-Trib Annual Conference. Available online at www.pre-trib.org/ images/2021_Conference/2021-Pre-Trib-Brainard-Recent_Pre-Trib_Rapture_Findings-Paper. pdf.
9) Lee Brainard, page 4.
10) Ibid., page 5.
11) Ibid., page 6,
13) Ibid., page 9.