7. History of Pre- and Post-Tribulationism
No Pre-Tribulationists Before the Last Century · The Early Church
No Pre-Tribulationists Before the Last Century
It has long been pointed out that pre-tribulationism is a relatively new doctrine. With one possible exception, there is no record of it being taught before the past century. Now this does not in itself mean that it is false, but it should raise some eyebrows. If Peter and Paul taught pre-tribulationism, then we would expect the early church to have been pre-trib. This challenge intrigued Grant R. Jeffrey so much that he searched for over ten years for evidence of pre-tribulationism before the 1800s.1 He found one person in the fourth century whom he claims was a pre-tribulationist.2 This person is called Pseudo-Ephraem.3 Since there had been no official translation of this work into English, Jeffrey had someone translate it for him.
According to his translation, Pseudo-Ephraem wrote "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!’ Because all saints and the Elect of the Lord are gathered together before the tribulation which is about to come and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins." Now on the surface this does seem to support Jeffrey’s claim. But a few things are worthy of note. According to this document, Pseudo-Ephraem correctly understood the Tribulation to refer to the second 3 ½ years of Daniel’s seventieth week, not in the common way it is used today, which is to refer to the entire period.
Also, in this same document Pseudo-Ephraem says, "Already there have been hunger and plagues, violent movements of nations and signs, which have been predicted by the Lord, they have already been fulfilled, and there is not other which remains, except the advent of the wicked one in the completion of the Roman kingdom." If Pseudo-Ephraem is claiming that some of the things which Jesus had predicted were then being fulfilled, then he thought that he was already in Daniel’s seventieth week. Also, he expected to see the antichrist before the Lord would return. At best, Pseudo-Ephraem was what we would today call a mid-tribulationist.
Furthermore, I think it is amazing evidence against Jeffrey’s position that in over ten years of research this is all that he could find. This shows that even if Pseudo-Ephraem was a pre-tribulationist, this was the exception, not the rule.4
The Early Church
In this section I wish to show evidence of post-tribulationism in the early church. From what we can gather, they expected to see and be persecuted by the antichrist before the Lord came back, and they expected to go through the Tribulation. They also applied passages which speak of the Tribulation to the church while pre-tribulationists would say that these are for the Jews or for the "tribulational saints" who will be on earth during that time.
The Didache (possibly before A.D. 100)
The author of this work substituted "church" for "elect" where Jesus spoke of gathering together his elect after the Tribulation (Matt. 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27).
So let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom [chapter 9].
Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou hast prepared for it [chapter 10].5
Barnabas (A.D. 100)
The final stumbling-block approaches . . . [here the author begins to describe the beast, or antichrist]. We take earnest heed in these last days; for the whole [past] time of your faith will profit you nothing, unless now in this wicked time we also withstand coming sources of danger, as becometh the sons of God. That the Black One may find no means of entrance [The Epistle of Barnabas, chapter 4].6
Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165)
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 with Trypho, chapter 110].7
Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202)
Tradition says that Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John the apostle.
And they [the ten kings] 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 [Against Heresies 5.26.1].
But he [John] indicates the number of the name now [the mark of the Beast], that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is [Against Heresies 5.30.4].
For all these and other words were unquestionably spoken in reference to the resurrection of the just, which takes place after the coming of Antichrist, and the destruction of all nations under his rule; in [the times of] which [resurrection] the righteous shall reign in the earth [Against Heresies 5.35.1].8
Tertullian (A.D. 145-220)
He equates Paul’s description of the rapture of the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 with Daniel’s description of the second coming.
For we shall, according to the apostle, be caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord [even the Son of man, who shall come in the clouds, according to Daniel] and so shall we ever be with the Lord [Against Marcion 3.25].
And that the beast Antichrist with his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God . . . Since, then, 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, chapter 25].
Now the privilege of this favor [to be clothed with immortality] awaits those who shall at the coming of the Lord be found in the flesh, and who shall, owing to the oppressions of the time of Antichrist, deserve by an instantaneous death, which is accomplished by a sudden change, to become qualified to join the rising saints; as he writes to the Thessalonians: [He goes on to quote 1 Thess. 4:15-17, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, chapter 41].9
Hermas (A.D. 160)
Happy are ye who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and happy are they who shall not deny their own life [The Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2:2].
Now some have seen a pre-tribulation rapture in the following passage:
Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye 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, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly [Vision 4:2].
However, if we keep reading we see that the way of escape is by protection through the Tribulation:
For as gold is tested by fire, and thus becomes useful, so are you tested who dwell in it. Those, therefore, who continue steadfast, and are put through the fire, will be purified by means of it. For as gold casts away its dross, so also will ye cast away all sadness and straitness, and will be made pure so as to fit into the building of the tower. But the white part is the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell, since those elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure. Wherefore cease not speaking these things into the ears of the saints. This then is the type of the great tribulation that is to come. If ye wish it, it will be nothing [Vision 4:3].10
However, this is not a doctrinal work but is the record of a vision which Hermas experienced. Here a woman is telling him these things which he is in turn recording. This entire book is riddled with very strange teachings.
Now, concerning the tribulation of the persecution which is to fall upon the Church from the adversary, John also speaks thus: "And I saw a great and wondrous sign in heaven . . ." That 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 [Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, chapters 60-61].11
Cyprian (A.D. 200-258)
With the exhortation of His fore-seeing word, instructing, and teaching, and preparing, and strengthening the people of His Church for all endurance of things to come, He predicted and said that wars, and famines, and earthquakes, and pestilences would arise in each place . . . as the Lord Himself promises, saying, "But when ye see all these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is at hand" [Treatise 7.2].
The day of affliction has begun to hang over our heads, and the end of the world and the time of Antichrist to draw near, so that we must all stand prepared for the battle . . . A severer and a fiercer fight is now threatening [Epistle 55:1].12
Victorinus (third or fourth century)
Victorinus wrote the first known commentary on the book of Revelation. Notice how he expects the church to see these events in his comments on 7:2:
He speaks of Elias the prophet, who is the precursor of the times of Antichrist, for the restoration and establishment of the churches from the great and intolerable persecution [Commentary on the Apocalypse of John 7:2].13
But he who reads this passage[Daniel 12], even half asleep, cannot fail to see that the kingdom of Antichrist shall fiercely, though for a short time, assail the Church before the last judgment of God shall introduce the eternal reign of the saints [The City of God, Chapter 23].14
1. Grant R Jeffrey, "A Pretrib Rapture Statement in the Early Midieval Church" in When the Trumpet Sounds, 105-125. <back>
2. Actually, he claims two. John Gill taught that after the church is caught up to meet Christ we will be taken away while the earth is burned and then return. Since this happens after the Millennium, John Gill could hardly be considered a pre-tribulationist. <back>
3. It was common in antiquity for unknown writers to write in the name and style of someone who was rather well respected, hence the name "Pseudo-Ephraem." <back>
4. It was not until after I had completed the rough draft of this book that I began to read books by other post-tribulationists. Robert Gundry in his book, First the Antichrist (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), gives very convincing evidence that this passage has been taken out of its context and misapplied. A summary of his argument is as follows:
First, he states that "neither of the slightly separated passages cited for early pretribulationism mentions a coming of the Lord (as in the classic New Testament description of the rapture at 1 Thess. 4:16-17), or a resurrection of deceased Christians and translation of living ones (as in 1 Cor. 15:51-52; see again 1 Thess. 4:16-17 for the resurrection), or a heavenly destination (as in a pretrib understanding of John 14:2-4 and, often, of Rev 4:1-2)."
Second, just a casual reading of the some of the surviving works of the real Ephraem (which Pseudo-Ephraem is undoubtedly building on) will show that he was clearly a post-tribulationist. Ephraem expected to see the antichrist and stated that he would come before Jesus would. He said that "the tribulation will be upon us . . . the dawn of the morning will be near to us for the good news and joy of our Lord; as also our Savior said, . . . 'For the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.'" Also that "before the rise of the Man of Wickedness we must teach and admonish people (about) his ways, and his deceits . . . Even our Savior said, . . . 'If possible, he would lead astray many of the elect.'" This passage goes on to describe as our hope the coming of Christ after the tribulation. He also warns Christians against being deceived by "the Man of Sin" (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-12). He says that Jesus spoke his command to flee to the mountains (during the tribulation, Matt. 24:16) "concerning the church." Gundry also gives several other examples and states that such quotations could be multiplied indefinitely.
Finally, Gundry demonstrates that Ephraem very commonly spoke of "gathering" in reference to evangelism and conversion. Once again, many examples are cited. He even states that "This theme of Christ's gathering Christian believers to himself attains so much force that Ephraem even makes the Antichrist imitate that gathering with one of his own: 'Like a partridge he [Antichrist] will gather to himself the sons of confusion.'" If there is still any question on this matter the reader is urged to read Gundry's book, First the Antichrist for himself. <back>
5. Taken from Sage Digital Library, CD-ROM. <back>
6. Ibid. <back>
7. Ibid. <back>
8. Ibid. <back>
9. Ibid. <back>
10. Ibid. <back>
11. Ibid. <back>
12. Ibid. <back>
13. Ibid. <back>
14. Saint Augustine, The City of God, in The Nicene and Post-Nicean Fathers vol. 2, (Grand Rapids MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 443. <back>