Blessed Hope or False Hope? — What Holly Thinks

On Saturday night, Adam and I were watching Hal Lindsey on Christian television when he made a statement that received cheers from his audience. When speaking of the persecution of the Antichrist, Lindsey said (my paraphrase), “But we Christians don’t need to worry about that because we won’t be here. We’ll be raptured before the tribulation begins.”

His words were assuring to those believers who, understandably, don’t want to go through the tribulation. He meant to give them hope by encouraging them with a popular teaching called the “pretribulation rapture” — which means that God will snatch Christians from the earth before the tribulation begins. But did he give them false hope?

This is an important question, especially considering the recent news from Europe and the Middle East that indicates the tribulation may soon be here. Christians who believe they won’t have to face persecution may be woefully unprepared for this great test of their faith.

Lindsey’s confidence in the pretrib rapture is curious given that this teaching was unknown until the 19th century. If the Bible teaches it, then how is it possible that Christians throughout church history had no concept of a pretrib rapture — including those who lived closest to the time of Christ and the apostles?

Of course, pretribbers claim that pretrib teaching can be found in church history. The Pre-Trib Research Center — a pretrib think tank founded by best-selling author Tim LaHaye — lists examples of pretrib teaching in an article on its Web site titled, Myths of the Origin of Pretribulationalism. But a close look at these examples reveals how weak the evidence is.

Scant Evidence

The center quotes just two sources from the early church fathers that allegedly teach a pretrib rapture. Amazingly, both quotations are taken out of context and both appear to argue for a “posttribulation rapture” — meaning the rapture will occur after the tribulation, not before.

The first example is from a document called “The Shepherd of Hermas,” which was written by an anonymous author about 150 A.D. Here’s the quotation:

You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. 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. (The Shepherd of Hermas, 1.4.2).

Pretribbers think the word “escape” means rapture. But, in context, it doesn’t mean that at all. The quotation is part of an allegorical story about a man named Hermas. Hermas runs across a fearful beast that symbolizes the tribulation. He prays to be rescued from the beast, but instead is reminded that he can withstand it if he has a strong faith. After he stands up to the beast, he is told to prepare other Christians to face the tribulation — which will serve to purify their faith.

The second quotation is from a sermon titled, “On the Last Times, The Antichrist, and The End of the World.” The sermon claims to be be written by Ephraem the Syrian, who lived in the fourth century. Yet, most scholars believe it’s part of a group of writings that were falsely attributed to Ephraem and were actually written much later than his lifetime. Here’s the quotation:

Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world? . . . 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. (Full text of the sermon)

The phrases “draw us” and “taken to the Lord” are said to refer to the rapture. But they may be better understood as the Lord protecting Christians during the tribulation by taking them to a remote place on the earth. There are two reasons this is a better interpretation. First, later in the same sermon the writer refers to believers during the tribulation who are being nourished by God in the wilderness. He says:

But those who wander through the deserts, fleeing from the face of the serpent, bend their knees to God, just as lambs to the adders of their mothers, being sustained by the salvation of the Lord, and while wandering in states of desertion, they eat herbs. (Section 8)

Second, several statements made by the real Ephraem of Syria show he believed Christians would have to go through the tribulation. Learn more about these statements in Robert H. Gundry’s book, First the Antichrist.

But it’s very telling that of all the writings we have from the early church, the Pre-Trib Research Center could only offer these two quotations in support of pretrib teaching.

From Bad to Worse

The remaining evidence isn’t convincing, either. The center mentions writings by church fathers who thought Christ’s return was near, like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Barnabas and the author of The Didache. Yet, belief that Christ’s return is near isn’t the same as belief in a pre-trib rapture. They still believed we’d have to suffer at the hands of the Antichrist.

The center also cites supporters of “premillennial teaching” — but that doesn’t mean much since posttribbers as well as pretribbers support this view.

Finally, the center hints at writings from the 17th to 18th centuries that may have supported elements of pretrib teaching. It’s hard to evaluate them since the center provides only vague references to them. But many of them seem to merely support the teaching that Christ will return soon or even support a “prewrath rapture” (meaning the rapture will occur after the Antichrist’s persecution of Christians, but before God unleashes his wrath on the earth). The center admits that the earliest examples of modern pretrib teaching can’t be found until John Nelson Darby promoted it in the 19th century.

Modern Myth?

Though there’s scant support for the pretrib teaching in church history, many Christians today are resting easy — assuming the church always believed this way. The truth is, from the very beginning, generations of believers have expected to go through the tribulation. I plan to share more of their views in future posts.

Maybe they were all wrong. Or maybe today’s church is wrong. One thing is for sure, too much is at stake to get this wrong. We’d better know what the Bible really teaches, or we could be in for a rude awakening.

— Holly Pivec
1/15/08