The Origin of the Concept of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture
From Man or the Bible?
“The Pre-Tribulation Rapture is a johnny-come-lately idea that is too new to be true.” This is the most common argument that I encounter against the concept of the Rapture of the Church occurring before the Tribulation begins.
There are several problems with this argument. The first is that it ignores the fact that the Bible teaches that end time prophecies will not be understood until the time comes for the predicted events to take place.
When the prophet Daniel was given some specific prophecies about the end times, he complained to the Lord that he did not understand them. The Lord responded with these words: “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end times” (Daniel 12:9). Jeremiah was told the same thing by the Lord on two occasions (Jeremiah 23:20 and 30:24).
Waiting on Events
There are many end time prophecies that can not be understood apart from historical or technological developments. For example, all of end time prophecy revolves around the state of Israel. Those prophecies were not fully understandable before the re-establishment of the state of Israel in May of 1948. Think of it for a moment — how could anyone in 1900 understand the prophecy in Ezekiel 38 that Russia will invade Israel in the end times? Israel did not exist, nor was there any prospect of Israel ever existing again. And Russia was a peaceful Christian Orthodox country.
In like manner, before modern times, how could anyone understand the prophecy in Revelation 11 about the killing and resurrection of the two witnesses of God? That prophecy says that the whole world will look upon their bodies and witness their resurrection and rapture to Heaven (Revelation 11:9-12). No one could understand this prophecy before the development of satellite television communication in the 1960’s.
In summary, the Bible clearly teaches that the understanding of end time prophecy will be progressive in nature. We will understand more of the prophecies the closer we get to the time of their fulfillment.
Waiting on Proper Interpretation
In this regard, the reason the Pre-Tribulation concept of the timing of the Rapture was delayed in its refinement until the 19th Century was because the Roman Catholic Church adopted St. Augustine’s amillennial viewpoint of prophecy hook-line-and-sinker around 430 AD. In his book, The City of God, Augustine spiritualized Bible prophecy and then argued that the Millennium began at the Cross and would continue until the Second Coming.
This spiritualizing approach to the interpretation of Bible prophecy proceeded to dominate theology for the next thousand years. Protestants adopted it after the Reformation and expressed it in the Postmillennial view that emerged in the mid-17th Century. Both Amillennialism and Postmillennialism are based on the assumption that Bible prophecy does not mean what it says.
I grew up in a church that taught that assumption. It was a conservative, fundamentalist church that interpreted the Bible literally from cover to cover except for prophecies related to the Second Coming. The First Coming prophecies were accepted as literal. But the Second Coming prophecies were dismissed as allegorical or symbolic or apocalyptic — which, to us, meant that they had to be spiritualized.
The Impact of Literal Interpretation
The discovery of the distinction which the Bible makes between the Rapture and the Second Coming had to await the revival of the application of literal interpretation to Bible prophecy. I say “revival” because the writings of the Church Fathers during the first 300 years of church history (100 AD to 400 AD) reveal that they interpreted prophecy for its plain sense meaning. Accordingly, they were nearly all Premillennialists. In fact, Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) went so far as to suggest that anyone with a different viewpoint was heretical.1
The revival of literal interpretation began in earnest among the Puritans in the 17th Century, and it quickly led to an understanding that the Rapture would be an event separate from and preceding the Second Coming. Puritan leader, Increase Mather (1639-1723), argued “that the saints would be caught up into the air” and thus escape the world’s final conflagration.2
Most people I encounter seem to believe that the concept of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture originated in the writings of C. I. Scofield, as expressed in his famous study Bible that was published in 1909. It is true that Scofield’s writing helped to popularize the idea, but he was by no means the originator of it.
Paul N. Benware, in his book, Understanding End Times Prophecy, notes that many writers in the 17th and 18th Centuries began to speak of a Rapture separate and apart from the Second Coming:3
“Peter Jurieu in his book, Approaching Deliverance of the Church (1687) taught that Christ would come in the air to rapture the saints and return to Heaven before the battle of Armageddon… Philip Doddridge’s commentary on the New Testament (1738) and John Gill’s commentary on the New Testament (1748) both use the term rapture and speak of it as imminent. It is clear these men believed that this coming will precede Christ’s descent to the earth and the time of judgment. The purpose was to preserve believers from the time of judgment. James Macknight (1763) and Thomas Scott (1792) taught that the righteous will be carried to heaven, where they will be secure until the time of judgment is over.”
Tommy Ice, the director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, asserts that the first person to spell out in detail the idea that the Rapture would occur before the Tribulation begins was a Baptist leader named Morgan Edwards.4 This remarkable man was born in Wales and preached at churches in England and Ireland before emigrating to the United States in 1761 to become pastor of a church in Philadelphia. He proceeded to become the founder of Brown University and was recognized as the leading Baptist historian of his day.
As early as the 1740’s Edwards was espousing a pre-tribulational viewpoint in his writings about eschatology. The difference in his view and the modern Pre-Trib concept is that he believed the Rapture would occur in the middle of Daniel’s 70th week, about 3 1/2 years before the Second Coming.
The Modern Pre-Trib View
The person who crystallized the modern Pre-Trib viewpoint was a man named John Darby (1800-1882).5 Darby was born in London and was trained in the law. He practiced law for only one year before he was overcome by a deep spiritual struggle that finally led to a decision to enter the ministry. He became an Anglican priest but quickly became disillusioned when the church decreed that all converts would have to swear allegiance to the King of England. Darby considered this to be a compromise with the lordship of Christ.
Darby decided to leave the Anglican Church. In the years following, he and other dissenters from the established state church inaugurated a movement that came to be known as the Plymouth Brethren.
In 1826 Darby broke one of his legs, and during the long convalescence that followed, he engaged in an intensive study of the Scriptures that convinced him of the clear distinction between the Church and Israel. He also became convicted of the imminent return of Jesus. Thus, by 1827 he had developed the fundamental principles that would come to characterize a new theological system that would be called Dispensationalism.
The Dissemination of the View
After John Darby refined the concept, it spread rapidly throughout Europe and America. The viewpoint has always been blessed by gifted communicators. In 1878 the very first best-selling prophecy book incorporated the idea. It was Jesus is Coming by William E. Blackstone (1841-1935).6 In 1909 the very first study Bible ever published — The Scofield Study Bible — developed the scriptural arguments for the viewpoint in detail.7 Then came the amazing charts and diagrams of Clarence Larkin (1850-1924) in his book Dispensational Truth.8
Harry Ironside (1876-1951), the popular pastor of the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, preached the concept in his sermons and books during the 1930’s and 40’s.9 In 1970 Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth and once again the viewpoint was expressed in a best seller.10 The 20th Century ended with the view being espoused in the “Left Behind” block-buster series of books written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.11
Attacks on the View
Over the years there have been many attacks on the Pre-Trib viewpoint. The most sustained — and the most ridiculous — has been the one launched in the 1970’s by Dave MacPherson.12 In a book he keeps re-publishing under different, sensational titles, MacPherson argued that the whole notion of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture was supposedly given to Darby when he attended a Charismatic prayer meeting in Scotland in 1830 where a 15 year old girl, Margaret MacDonald, went into a state of ecstasy during which she declared there would be a Rapture prior to the Tribulation. MacPherson asserts: “Darby borrowed from her, modified her views, and then popularized them under his own name without giving her credit.”13
The first problem with MacPherson’s assertions is that we know that Darby developed his concept of the Rapture’s timing in the winter of 1826-1827, some three years before the prayer meeting in Scotland. The second problem relates to a strange aspect of MacPherson’s book. In an appendix, he reproduces Margaret MacDonald’s handwritten account of what she said at the 1830 meeting, and there is nothing in it that even suggests a Pre-Tribulation Rapture!14
But the biggest problem with MacPherson’s assertion is that it is really irrelevant. The crucial question is not where the Pre-Tribulation Rapture concept originated; rather, the only question that matters is whether or not it is biblical.
Ancient Examples of the Concept
As I have demonstrated in other articles, the concept is completely biblical. It has always been in the Scriptures, waiting for those with a literal approach to interpretation to discover it and develop it in detail. In this regard, I think it is important to note that more and more ancient writings are being discovered that contain intimations of a Rapture separate and apart from the Second Coming.
One of the early Church Fathers, The Shepherd of Hermas, writing in the early 2nd Century, makes an interesting observation about “the great tribulation that is coming.” He says, “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.”15
In medieval times evidence of pretribulational thinking can be found in the recently discovered sermon attributed to Ephraem the Syrian.16 This sermon, which was written sometime between the 4th and 6th Centuries, encourages believers to prepare themselves for meeting the Lord because “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.” Scholars believe this text was derived from the writings of the original Ephraem who lived from 306 to 373 AD. He was one of the leading theologians of the early Byzantine Church.17
It is very likely that there were always some forms of premillennialism and pretribulational thought throughout the Middle Ages but, if so, these viewpoints had to be expressed underground because they violated Catholic dogma. Sects like the Albigenses, Lombards, and the Waldenses were attracted to a literal interpretation of the Bible, but little is know about their detailed beliefs because the Catholic Church declared their writings to be heretical and destroyed them.
Two final observations before I conclude. First, there is a mistaken idea that only Dispensationalists believe in a Pre-Trib Rapture. That is not so. In the 1920’s the view was adopted by many Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God. I personally am a good example of a person who holds to the Pre-Trib viewpoint but who is not a full-blown Dispensationalist.
My final observation is that I am not dogmatic about the timing of the Rapture. Unlike some of my colleagues who are downright uncompromising about the timing, I prefer to say that “I believe the best inference of Scripture is that the Rapture is most likely to occur before the Tribulation begins.” The Bible never clearly states when the Rapture will occur, and there is, therefore, legitimate room for differences of opinion.
1) “The Early Church Fathers”
2) Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992), page 75.
3) Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), pages 197-198.
4) Tommy Ice, “Morgan Edwards: A Pre-Darby Rapturist,” The Conservative Theological Journal, April 1997, pages 4-12.
5) Tim LaHaye, “Target Number One,” Pre-Trib Perspectives, September 2002, pages 1-3.
6) William E. Blackstone, Jesus is Coming (1878). The modern day version is published by Kregel (1989).
7) C. I. Scofield, The Scofield Study Bible (London: Oxford University Press, 1909).
8) Clarence Larkin, Dispensational Truth (Philadelphia, 1920).
9) Ed Reese, “Henry (Harry) Allan Ironside”
10) Hal Lindsey with C. C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).
11) Beginning in 1996 Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins started publishing a series of scriptural novels about the Rapture which came to be known as “The Left Behind” books. A total of 12 volumes have been published in the series, and to date, they have sold 55 million copies.
12) Dave MacPherson, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin (Heart of America Bible Society, 1973). The author has republished this book over the years under several different titles. For an excellent commentary on MacPherson’s theory, see “Dave MacPherson: Inventor of False Pre-Trib History” by Tommy Ice.
13) Dave MacPherson, The Incredible Cover-Up: Exposing the Origins of the Rapture Theories (Plainfield, NJ: Logos 1975) page 85.
14) MacPherson, pages 151-154.
15) The Shepherd of Hermas, 2:5. A copy of the complete writings of The Shepherd of Hermas can be found on the Internet.
16) Timothy J. Denny and Thomas D. Ice, “The Rapture and an Early Medieval Citation,” Bibliotheca Sacra, July-September 1995, pages 306-317.
17) “St. Ephraem” in the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Internet.