Chapter 8

The Early Church Problem

The last Pretrib Problem that we will cover in this film concerns patristics which is a name for the study of the writings and beliefs of the early church.

The writings from the early church fathers date back to the first century, and of course, we should never take their writings as proof of one doctrine over another. The Bible is always the ultimate source for our doctrine.

But at the same time most, if not all of the doctrines we hold today, were taught at some point by the early church fathers.

At the very least these writings provide insight into what the earliest Christians believed about certain subjects whether those beliefs were right or wrong.

So, the big question is what did the early church believe about the timing of the rapture? And in one sense, the answer to that question is pretty simple.

Alan Kurschner: “Every single early church father who taught on the relationship between the Church and the antichrist believed that the Church would face the Antichrist before Jesus returns.”

Charles Cooper: “The belief that Christ was going to return after Antichrist had done damage to the body, that believers had suffered and had been under his rampage, and that they would be set free from that by the appearing of Christ in the sky. That is the basic sequence. And you will see that in the writings of the fathers; you’ll see that in the, say, the Didache….”

Ryan Habbena: “As we kind of look at their collected writings, they believed in the truth that the Church was going to encounter the Antichrist and that the coming of Christ was going to occur in the wake of their encountering of the Antichrist.”

It’s not just Prewrathers that think this either. Pretrib scholars would by and large agree with what was just said.

I mentioned in the section of this film about imminence a paper written by a Pretribulational early church expert named Larry Crutchfield, in which he concluded that while he couldn’t find any evidence of Pretribulationism in the early church. He did find what he called “intratribulationism” by which he meant people who believed they would be raptured out of the middle of the persecution of the Antichrist, which is essentially Prewrath.

In another paper written more recently, James Stitzinger, who is very much a Pretribulationist, agrees with Crutchfield’s conclusion when he wrote:

“The early fathers largely held to a period of persecution that would be ongoing when the return of the Lord takes place, and most would see the church suffering through some portion of the tribulation period.”

He further writes:

“A type of imminent intratribulationism (Crutchfield) or imminent posttribulationism (Walvoord) with occasional pretribulational inferences was believed.”

In this paper, he quotes fifteen church fathers which as we will see, certainly do not help his case, and then oddly concludes his paper by contradicting his opening statement when he says:

“George Ladd (post tribulationlist) is no longer credible when he writes, “We can find no trace of pretribulationism in the early church, and no modern pretribulationist has successfully proved that this particular doctrine was held by any of the church fathers or students of the Word before the nineteenth century.”

So, I’m going to go through these quotes he provided, so I can show you his logic and by extension, most Pretribulational logic as it concerns the church fathers.

Before we get started though, I want to reiterate something that is crucially important:

As I said, these Pretribbers know and freely admit that the early church almost without exception believed that the rapture would occur after the Antichrist showed up and began to persecute the Church. They also freely admit those church fathers that mentioned the 7-year timeline in relationship to the rapture, universally believed the rapture would take place in the last half of the 3.5-year period.

So, Pretribbers know very well that they will never, ever win an argument about the early church teaching Pretribulationism in any kind of traditional way. It’s just far too obvious that the early church was anything but Pretribulational.

So, what they do is never mention to their congregations what they early church actually believed about the timing of the rapture, and instead claim that the early church believed in imminence. You’ll remember that is the idea that Jesus could return at any moment. So the thinking is, if they can prove that the early church believed the rapture could come at any moment, they will call that proof of Pretribulationism, even if the church father in question also taught the rapture would occur after the midpoint, and after the persecution of the Church by the Antichrist which is the very opposite of Pretribulationism.

And as absurd as that premise is, they don’t even manage to accomplish that much.

In Stitzinger’s paper, six out of the fifteen quotes from the early church can be placed into a category which could be called "imaginary imminence prooftexts."

This is where he quotes early church fathers who mention words that Pretribbers have defined as meaning imminence, but don’t actually mean imminence.

For example, a church father might mention that the rapture is coming "soon" or that it is "near" or that it will be "sudden" or that we should "watch" for it.

On the one hand we could rehash what we talked about in the section on imminence, which is, that just because something is soon or near doesn’t mean it is imminent. A harvest of crops can be near, but that doesn’t mean the harvest will occur at any moment with no preceding signs.

Another way to prove this wrong is by noticing that in most cases, the same writers Stitzinger says believed in imminency, also teach in other places that lots of signs, will come before the rapture. In other words, when a church father said that the rapture is “at hand” or “near” they clearly didn’t mean it was imminent since they also said there would be lots of prophesied events before the rapture.

One of the best ways to illustrate this is with the Didache:

Alan Kurschner: “The very first document outside of the New Testament is called the Didache. And it was written roughly of the turn of the first century.”

In his paper Stitzinger says the following: “The final chapter of the Didache provides one of the clearest and comprehensive statements on imminency.”

And then, he quotes this line:

Be watchful for your life; let your lamps not be quenched and your loins not ungirded but be ye ready; for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.”

So, the writer of the Didache is simply telling his readers to be watchful and to be ready because they don’t know the day or the hour of the rapture.

As we have seen, in the Pretrib mind, if you are watchful and ready for something it means that thing could occur at any moment, and that such words in and of themselves are proof of imminence.

But If you read the full quote from the Didache, you will see that the writer goes on to name the various signs he wanted them to watch for. Signs he believed, must come before the rapture. By my count there are 18 events that the writer believed would need to come to pass before the rapture. Most notably the Antichrist declaring himself to be the Son of God, and the persecution of Christians that would follow that event.

So, you can see the problem. Stitzinger tells his readers that the writers of the Didache clearly and comprehensively taught the rapture could come at any moment just like he believes. But all you have to do is read a few lines after this quote to find out that the writer actually believed there were multiple things that must happen before the rapture i.e., the opposite of imminence. This is by no means the only instance of a Pretribulational scholar, in a highly respected journal quoting church fathers out of context. It’s unfortunately incredibly common.

David Rosenthal: “Many have tried to look at some of the quotes from some of the early church fathers and have tried to say, ‘Well, see, it looks like they’re Pretribulational because they hold to imminence (which is the idea that Jesus Christ can return at any moment). There are no prophesied events that need to transpire before He returns.’ And I would suggest to you, strongly, that the early church fathers did not subscribe to an imminent rapture. Conversely, many of them understood and made it clear in their writings that there would be a time of coming persecution before believers would be raptured.”

The centerpiece of Pretribulational church father quotes, though, is from Psuedo-Ephraem, and I should mention that we have moved well beyond the early church at this point. This particular quote was from the Middle Ages, and it is almost certainly a forgery.

Charles Cooper: “Psuedo-Ephraem. Thousands of dollars spent, countless hours spent searching every historical record we could find for a reference or proof of the Pretrib position. [They] come up with a document that's called Psuedo-Ephraem. Pseudo means false. So, here is a writing ascribed to a man named Ephraem that everybody knows he didn't write it. And it supposedly is proof of a Pretrib rapture. Now, [we have] lots of writings written by somebody who wanted it to be more important than it really was, so, he put the name of an important person on it in order to give it legitimacy. We have lots of those writings. But the fact that the Pretrib system would use one of those writings as a basis for the proof of their position, to me, is unconscionable.”

But regardless of who wrote it, this is the section they will usually quote:

“All the saints and elect of God are gathered together before the tribulation, which is 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.”

Stitzinger says the following of Psuedo-

Ephraem in general:

“It describes the imminent rapture, followed by 3½ years of great tribulation under the rule of Antichrist, followed by the coming of Christ, the defeat of Antichrist, and the eternal state.”

Let’s talk about the “ before the tribulation” quote first. As we discussed at the beginning of this film, the word “tribulation” has only recently been used to refer to the entire 7-year period, like the way modern Pretribbers use it. And if Psuedo-Ephraem did mean to refer to the entire 7-year period when he used this word “tribulation,” it would be the earliest recorded instance of the word being used that way.

The Greek word thilipsis, or tribulation, is used in many ways in the Bible. It can refer to the Wrath of God, general persecution, or earthly worries; it depends on the context. So, the question that Stitzinger forgets to ask here, is what does this writer mean when he uses the word “tribulation”? What does the writer think we are going to escape by the rapture—is it the Wrath of God, the persecution of the antichrist, all of it?

The answer is not what Pretribbers want it to be at all which is why they never quote the final paragraph of this letter, which says:

And when the three and a half years have been completed, the time of the antichrist, through which he will have seduced the world...will come the sign of the Son of Man, and coming forward the Lord shall appear with great power and much majesty,... and also even with all the powers of the heavens with the whole chorus of the saints, with those who bear the sign of the holy cross upon their shoulders, as the angelic trumpet precedes him, which shall sound and declare: Arise, O sleeping ones, arise, meet Christ, because His hour of judgment has come! Then Christ shall come, and the enemy shall be thrown into confusion, and the Lord shall destroy him by the spirit of his mouth.”

Now remember Stitzinger said that this writer said that the rapture would be followed by 3.5 years of rule under of the Antichrist.

But this shows that the writer believed that the rapture, where the sleeping ones arise at the angelic trumpet sound, would occur after the 3.5 year period, so that’s either Midrib, Prewrath or Posttrib, the only thing it really can’t be is Pretrib.

Charles Cooper: “When I looked at the document and studied it, it seemed to me that it argued more for a Midtrib rapture or a rapture that was certainly not Pretribulational. It didn’t seem to me to support the idea that there was going to be a rapture before the 70th week even started.”

There [are] actually a couple ways to check our facts here. The first is this idea about being thrown into confusion. Here in this last paragraph this confusion is what happens after the rapture, the author equates the judgment of the world and the Wrath of God with “confusion.”

And if we go back up to the quote Pretribbers always use, we can see something interesting when it says:

“All the saints and elect of God are gathered together before the tribulation, which is 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.”

This confusion is what the writer said Christians would escape by participating in the rapture. So, we have contextual proof that when the writer said the Church would escape the tribulation, he was using the word “tribulation” to describe the wrath or judgment of God upon those left behind.

We certainly know he wasn’t talking about escaping the Antichrist or persecution since he absolutely believed the Church would face the Antichrist before the rapture. So once again, the Pretrib’s swing and miss when it comes to the church fathers.

Another five of his fifteen quotes in this paper are from about 1586 to 1795. They are quotes from Premillennial Historicists who believed in something called the “pre-conflagration theory.”

Now on the one hand these quotes are irrelevant because they are all things that Prewrathers believe, too. Take, for example, this quote from Peter Jurieu who died in 1713:

“Christ would come in the air to rapture the saints and return to heaven before the battle of Armageddon.”

This quote may be a problem for some Posttribulationists, but Prewrathers—like Pretribbers—believe that the rapture will happen well before Armageddon. That is—the rapture happens, and then Armageddon happens later on.

So, it’s notable that Stitzinger wastes a full five of his fifteen quotes on something that is at best a rebuke of some Posttribulationists. You might as well call these proof for the Prewrath rapture, if your only criteria is that the quote must be bad for Posttribulationists.

Interestingly, Thomas Ice of the Pretrib Resource Center wrote a paper which is effectively rebuking people like Stitzinger, who use quotes from pre-conflagrationalists and claim they are supporting Pretribulationism, because as Ice (who obviously is a Pretribber) notes:

“Mede’s interval (The pre-conflagration theory) between the rapture and the second coming is likely only hours or days, but not years as required by a Pretribulational viewpoint. The 2nd Peter 3:10 conflagration is a final destruction of the heavens and earth in preparation for the millennium within Mede’s system.”

Stitzinger never mentioned any of this in his paper. In fact, he points to one of these conflagration quotes from John Gill in his conclusion as conclusive proof for a pre-Darby belief in the Pretrib rapture which is utterly absurd.

The few quotes I haven’t dealt with yet are pretty easily dismissed. For example, he quotes a cult leader in the 1300s—and even the guy who originally published this particular quote admits that the writer actually believed that “they were living in the last three and a half years of End-time tribulation.” So, whatever it is, it’s not Pretribulationism.

In conclusion, Pretribbers know they can’t find anything close to Pretribulationism in the early church fathers.

The early church almost without exception taught that the rapture would take place at some unknown time after the Antichrist arrived and began persecuting Christians. In other words, if you had to pick a modern rapture position that best fit the early church, it’s obviously the Prewrath position.


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