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There are a lot of differing opinions on when the rapture will take place (pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, or mid-tribulation). From my own attempts to research the topic and look at Scripture from outside my presuppositions, I have found good arguments for all sides of the issue.

What did the early church actually believe about the "rapture"?

Note: This question is (obviously) not a duplicate of the question "What view of eschatology did the early church believe?" — I wrote that question and, seeing that I needed to be more specific about the different aspects of eschatology, I wrote this question that specifically dealt with the "rapture." The other question, by contrast, mentions nothing about the "rapture" in any of the answers.

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Thanks to books like Left Behind, the English word rapture often conjures up images of bodies mysteriously disappearing into thin air, followed by several years of severe tribulation, leading up to the final judgment and resurrection. Such a view is a product of dispensationalism, a relatively new theological framework, and not one that the church fathers espoused.

Does that mean that the church fathers did not believe in a rapture? On the contrary: they did believe in it, though not in the same sense as the word is commonly understood today.

The word rapture comes from the Latin word raptus, meaning "a carrying off." This idea is included in non-religious definitions of rapture:

a state or experience of being carried away by overwhelming emotion (MW)

A related Latin word, rapio, is used in the Latin Vulgate's translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up [rapiemur] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. [ESV]

The rapture, then, is not a concept that suddenly appeared when dispensationalism came along. The word was used in English and Latin long prior. However, it was understood differently, so we need to examine what the church fathers wrote regarding this rapio or raptus: a) what is it, b) when does it occur and c) is it secret or visible.

What is the rapture?

Church fathers widely understand the rapture to be a future physical meeting of Christ and Christians in the air.

Origen gives no indication of a hidden meaning in Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. He simply writes that both the dead and alive in Christ will rise:

Those whom we spoke of as dead have special need of the resurrection, since not even those who are alive can be taken up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air before the dead in Christ first rise. (Commentary on John, 20.233)

Rufinus of Aquileia clearly indicates a physical reunion with Christ in the sky:

And do not marvel that the flesh of the saints is to be changed into such a glorious condition at the resurrection as to be caught up to meet God, suspended in the clouds and borne in the air. (Commentary on the Apostles' Creed, 46)

Augustine says that living Christians will "both die and rise again at once while caught up into the air":

And why should it seem to us incredible that that multitude of bodies should be, as it were, sown in the air, and should in the air forthwith revive immortal and incorruptible, when we believe, on the testimony of the same apostle, that the resurrection shall take place in the twinkling of an eye, and that the dust of bodies long dead shall return with incomprehensible facility and swiftness to those members that are now to live endlessly? (City of God, 20.20)

When will the rapture occur?

Church fathers routinely associate the rapture with the physical resurrection of believers following the tribulation, and many see a close connection between the rapture and other eschatological events, such as the final judgment.

Hippolytus, one of the relatively few proponents of a premillennialist view (chiliasm), sees the rapture as following the tribulation and rule of the Antichrist:

These things, then, being to come to pass, beloved, and the one week being divided into two parts, and the abomination of desolation being manifested then, and the two prophets and forerunners of the Lord having finished their course, and the whole world finally approaching the consummation, what remains but the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ from heaven, for whom we have looked in hope? (On Christ and Antichrist, 64)

Others connect even more prophecies with the rapture. For example, Gregory of Nazianzus, using the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, writes:

I shall await the voice of the archangel, the last trumpet, the transformation of heaven, the change of earth, the freedom of the elements, the renewal of the universe. Then shall I see Caesarius himself, no longer in exile, no longer being buried, no longer mourned, no longer pitied, but splendid, glorious, sublime. (Fathers of the Church, v22, p22)

Similarly, Augustine writes that this passage refers to both the taking up of believers as well as the final judgment:

These words of the apostle most distinctly proclaim the future resurrection of the dead, when the Lord Christ shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (City of God, 20.20)

Chrysostom and Jerome (quoted below) also connect the rapture with the final judgment.

Will the rapture be secret?

If the rapture corresponds with the defeat of the Antichrist and final judgment, it follows that it will not be secret. Jerome says the "world shall howl" and "its peoples shall tremble," which is obviously not indicative of secrecy. (Letter 14.11)

Chrysostom uses the analogy of the entrance of a king into a city, arguing that honor is the purpose of this event, thus seeming to emphasize the visible nature of the rapture:

If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. [...] Seest thou how great is the honor? and as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him. (Homily on 1 Thessalonians, VIII)

Summary

We must be careful not to impose our modern understanding of rapture on the church fathers: they believed that 1 Thessalonians 4 refers to a rapture in which living Christians will meet Christ in the sky and be transformed. They saw this visible event as closely associated with at least the end of the tribulation and the defeat of the Antichrist, and often the final judgment itself.

Dispensational ideas like a "secret" rapture and significant gap in time between the rapture and final judgment are not expressed by the church fathers. If we wish to say that the church fathers "believed in the rapture," we must be very careful to specify that we are using rapture in the traditional sense—a taking up, a carrying off—not the dispensational sense.

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The original question asked:

What did the early church actually believe about what we call the "rapture"?

There are two prominent meanings of the word "rapture". The most common meaning today is the one used by Dispensational theology, in which

the rapture refers to the belief that either before, or simultaneously with, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to earth, believers who have died will be raised and believers who are still alive and remain shall be caught up together with them (the resurrected dead believers) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Wikipedia

This concept of rapture was popularized starting in the late 18th century, although as early as the 16th century some were beginning to talk about similar concepts.

In this sense of "rapture", it is clear that by any meaningful definition of "early church," there were no beliefs about this. Nobody had even considered it

But Wikipedia also points out that

The other, older use of the term "Rapture" is simply as a synonym for the final resurrection generally, without a belief that a group of people is left behind on earth for an extended Tribulation period after the events of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

Certainly the early church had beliefs regarding this sense of rapture. But 1 Thessalonians 4:17 wouldn't have had much sway over this, except as an affirmation that it would happen. As NT Wright points out in numerous places, When Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, he did so with poetic prosody which is inevitably lost in translation, but would have been immediately recognized by his original audience reading the text in the original language. He also used many rich metaphors which also would have been immediately recognized by his original audience, but which can become easily lost over the centuries as culture has changed and the original meanings of these metaphors fell out of public consciousness.

Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery—from biblical and political sources—to enhance his message. Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later. Farewell to the Rapture

Wright further explains the multiple metaphors that Paul employs in describing these coming events:

  • First, Paul echoes the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah.
  • Second, he echoes Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy
  • Third, Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province (this being the literal meaning of the word "parousia" found in verse 15 and translated "coming" (of the Lord), which Wright elaborates on further in this video).

So where many modern (and predominantly American) Christians take these verses as a literal (more or less) description of Christ's second coming, if Wright is to be believed, the early church would not have seen it this way. They would have seen it as metaphorical language, describing a more general truth, and not prescribing anything specific or literal about any sense of "rapture," except perhaps to affirm that those dead in Christ, and those still living, would, in some way unknown, be united when Christ returns in his metaphorical "parousia."

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Yes there were early church writers who did believe in a Pre-Tribulational rapture.

1) Paul the Apostle. Read 1 Thessalonians 4:17, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, 1 Cor. 15:50-51. The challenge is not that the text doesn't say it, but whether you accept the plain language (literal translation), or accept the allegorical interpretation that Augustine, Origin, and Covenant Theologians that believe the Church has replaced Israel. In other words, your opinion heads to pre-tribulational rapture with a literal interpretation, or a post-tribulational/amillennial rapture if you lean towards an allegorical interpretation.

2) In 1844 at St. Catherine Monestary near the foot of Mt. Sinai a NT was found along with 2 other books. One, “The Shepherd of Hermes” (A.D. 110) indicates that there was an escape to Tribulation.

3). In A.D. 376, Ephraim the Syrian published a book called “Antichrist and the End of the World” which indicated the Rapture was before the Tribulation.

P.S. I don't need to know what the early church fathers thought about the rapture. I have the preserved Word of God and His Holy Spirit to teach me. If you're interested in a good and detailed eschatological read, pick up "Things to Come" by J. Dwight Pentecost. Awesome book!

God bless brothers!

  • The difficulty with the passages you have presented here are that the ones which talk about the rapture are different from the ones which talk about the tribulation. If you believe that the Bible does lay out a clear chronology, then please edit this to explain. – curiousdannii Jan 15 '18 at 5:01
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    If you have more information, especially quotes, from Ephraim the Syrian then that would make this a very useful answer. – curiousdannii Jan 15 '18 at 5:02
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The Rapture

The Rapture is a heterodox doctrine stating that faithful Christians will be removed suddenly without notice from the earth prior to a time of ‘tribulation’ preceding the return of Jesus Christ to the earth, saving them from this time of persecution. The idea behind it is that Christ will ‘save’ His Church from persecution.

Where does the word "Rapture" come from?

The word does not exist in the English Bible. Its involvement comes from the Latin Vulgate version of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. This is a description of the Second Coming of Christ.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be caught up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

In this verse, St. Paul uses the verb ἁρπαγησόμεθα (harpagisometha), which means "caught up" or "taken away", with the connotation that this is a "sudden event". The dictionary form of this Greek verb is harpazō (ἁρπάζω).

The Latin Vulgate Bible translates the word ἁρπαγησόμεθα as rapiemur, from the Latin verb rapio meaning "to catch up" or "take away". It is from this slight translation difference that the word Rapture comes in.

Expositors of the Rapture have many different beliefs about it – none of them agreeing with the other. There are those who believe in pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation, pre-wrath and partial Raptures. What is the difference between them?

Suffice it to say that they simply place the Rapture at different times with relation to the Great Tribulation. But since there actually is no rapture in Orthodox Christian theology, the point becomes moot.

Origins of Rapture concepts.

The beginnings of the modern Rapture for certain protestant denominations are rooted in premillenialism, an extension of the Protestant reformation. Premillenialism is simply the heresy of chiliasm – the belief that Jesus' reign at his return will last 1,000 years. This new idea contrasts greatly with the early Christian Church as the Nicene Creed states (“His Kingdom will have no end”).

You can find plenty on the origin of the Rapture online in many places, but suffice it to say that no one, anywhere in history, ever believed in the Rapture until nearly the 19th century and only certain groups in the West.

Who started it? How did this all begin?

It all began in the 19th century, with Edward Irving, a Scottish clergyman, and John Nelson Darby, a member of the Plymouth Brethren. Irving was intensely interested in the study of prophecy. Darby specifically taught that the Rapture would take place before the coming of Christ. For the most part, it all starts with Darby.

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield embraced Darby's views about the Rapture, and placed them prominently in the footnotes of his Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, and which was widely used in England and America.

Once the Rapture idea appeared in the Scofield Reference Bible, it spread like fire among fundamentalist protestants and throughout the budding Protestant denominations which appeared in the 19th century.

In the 1970's Hal Lindsey's book “The Late, Great Planet Earth” spurred interest in prophecy studies again, and the Rapture played a prominent part of Prophecy studies at large, and sales skyrocketed.

Of course, Tim LeHaye's “Left Behind” series of books, merchandise, and even video games pushed this idea even further in the West.

Premillennialists

There are two kinds of premillennialists: "Date setters" and "Date Teasers". "Date setters", set specific dates which are in fact a countdown clock to the extinction of their own ministries. (William Miller, Charles Taize Russell, Harold Camping, etc.) They are always wrong. Why?

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. (Matthew) 24:36

"Date teasers", share the same rhetoric of urgency that the "end is very soon", but refuse to set a specific date. This includes folks like Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye, Grant Jefferies, Jack Van Impe , Pentecostals, Baptists, Christadelphians, and more but not all.

The Secret Rapture?

There is no secret Rapture, in which the Lord sneaks by the earth to grab the faithful without anyone seeing Him. Folks will not be here one moment and be gone the next in a mass disappearance that no one can explain.

At the Second Coming of our Lord, there will be no possible doubt. We will know it – it will be impossible not to know it.

He will come:

  • "In the clouds of heaven," Matthew 24:30; Revelation 1:7

  • "As the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west." Matthew 24:27

  • "Every eye shall see Him!" Revelation 1:7

  • "The dead will rise from their graves!" I Thessalonians 4:16

  • "Time will stop! The heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat!" 2 Peter 3:10

The event will be unmistakable, to say the least.

Conclusion

We won't see this on TV. Our Lord's awesome Coming will follow the reign of the Antichrist, and will initiate the complete transformation of the world. There is no "secret Rapture" where the Lord comes secretly and takes all the "good guys" to heaven and then plunges the world into all sorts of horrible tribulations.

Though many believe and some protestant groups teach this “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” theory, they erroneously do so, because neither Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, nor any of the other writers of the Bible taught this.

Nor did the early church fathers in all their many writings , nor any others for centuries upon centuries ... none of this was ever taught prior to 1812 and again only in the West, and only within certain Protestant groups.

It should be noted again that not all Protestant pastors believe in the Rapture. Until the 1970's, only a "small" minority of Protestant Christian groups believed it.

Just to re-affirm, within early church writings no such idea has ever existed within Roman Catholicism (Rome) nor within the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church (Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople), that still exists to this day. There are thousands of writings for nearly 2,000 years now, and no such ideas exist in the Orthodox East.

This answer could be expanded even further in certain areas, but this is the most concise, direct, historical and theological factual answer I can give, trying to keep the answer readable. I hope it will enlighten everyone on the subject and you will do further research on the subject.

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    I cleaned up the typesetting of this answer and it is easier on the eyes now, but it just barely answers the question that was asked. This question specifically asks about the beliefs of the early church fathers. Because you trace some of the history of ‘rapture’ theology in a round about way this shows that the fathers didn't believe this, but this answer is very weak on identifying early church beliefs. Your argument for a Biblical case doesn't count at all, what you need to show is how the early church fathers commented on these topics. – Caleb Jun 11 '17 at 7:22
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Looking at statements in the Bible, we see 1 Thess.3:13 says,

To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.

 In 2Thess.2:3, we see the view of a rapture where Dr.H. Wayne House says, "Biblical scholars have understood the word Greek word apostasia (translated 'falling away' in the KJV) in four different ways.

How one understands this Greek word may impact how one sees the return of Jesus. Let us examine the different interpretations below."

We also see Ephraim the Syrian in AD.373 saying,

"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"(On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World, by Ephraem the Syrian, A.D. 373). ref.Rev.3:10

In addition, Ephraem declares his belief in a personal, Jewish Antichrist, who will rule the Roman Empire during the last days, a rebuilt temple, the two witnesses and a literal Great Tribulation lasting 1,260 days.

He also says,

"Most dearly beloved brothers, believe the Holy Spirit who speaks in us. Now we have spoken before, because the end of the world is very near, and the consummation remains. Has not the first faith withered away in men? ..."

Then, later come up people like Hippolytus, with the mid-trib, saying:

These things, then, being to come to pass, beloved, and the one week being divided into two parts, and the abomination of desolation being manifested then, and the two prophets and forerunners of the Lord having finished their course, and the whole world finally approaching the consummation, what remains but the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ from heaven, for whom we have looked in hope? (On Christ and Antichrist, 64)

Augustine, later in the 4th Century, comes up to teach the Post-trib saying:

These words of the apostle most distinctly proclaim the future resurrection of the dead, when the Lord Christ shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (City of God, 20.20)

Chrysostom and Jerome, later also say:

If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. [...] Seest thou how great is the honor? and as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him. (Homily on 1 Thessalonians, VIII).

Studying the word deeper, we see Matthew 24:43 says,

But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.

 Revelation 16:15,1 Thessalonians 5:2 says,

Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. and For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

 Luke 21:36 says,

Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

We see that even when the early Church believed in the rapture(pre-trib), the Protestant Church fell for the Post-trib lie because they felt it was a better idea to prove them of heaven. Feeling, they have to be made worthy to enter the presence(courts) of the King. They felt they needed to adopt this doctrine and that's why re-awakening the Pre-trib led to the labelling of many as False prophets for example Post-tribbers believed John Darby to be heretical in doctrine.

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    I have broken up your wall of text to make is actually readable. Please edit it again to (1) improve the prose and (2) answer the question directly as asked. Your last paragraph borders on beginning an interdenominational bickering round, which our site will not put up with. Please revise that to be less "we versus they" in tone, or just delete it. – KorvinStarmast Feb 21 '18 at 21:53

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