By Mark Swarbrick
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This article covers the Pre Trib vs Post Trib debate from the point of history. Post trib advocates claim that the early church was not pre trib and that such a position is a late construction. However an examination of early church writings does not support that conclusion. While the majority of people believe there will be a Rapture at some point, whether pre, mid, or post trib, there are increasingly people within Christendom who deny that there will a Rapture at all. This was predicted by the Apostles:
In the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:3-4)
Anti-rapture-ism – It is not a word you will find in the dictionary, but it represents a movement of people that are anti-Rapture or at least anti-pre-trib Rapture. A few even claim there will never be a Rapture of any kind. Among these is Barbara Rossing, a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. In her book The Rapture Exposed, she states: “We are not raptured off the earth…the notion of any kind of Rapture – whether pri-Trib, post-Trib, or mid-Trib – was imported into the Bible only 170 years ago.”
The concept of a teaching being “imported into the Bible 170 years ago” is unscholarly. We have over 5,000 ancient copies of the Greek New Testament, some portions of them dating back to within 100 years of the original autograph. The texts of the Rapture passages are therein recorded, even in the oldest of manuscripts. They could not have been added later. Scholars of biblical textual criticism who study the ancient manuscripts would laugh at Rossing’s statement. The Apostle Paul wrote the Rapture passages and they absolutely were contained in the original autograph. That is beyond question.
Her tenuous position of Rapture denial is in line with the doctrinal position of her Church. The Lutheran is the official publication of the ELCA. In the December 99 edition, in the Since You Asked column, page 23, it is stated: “These literal views of the ‘rapture’ — which is not part of Lutheran teaching — mislead us. They are drawn from two biblical images that are symbolic…The Rapture: The idea that believers alive at the end times will physically ascend to meet Christ. This is not a part of Lutheran teaching”
It may not be part of Lutheran teaching, but it is certainly the teaching of the Apostle Paul. He wrote, “We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will…be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) The Rapture is Pauline theology. It is biblical theology and, unless Paul is lying, it comes directly from the Lord Jesus Christ. Martin Luther himself believed that Christians would physically ascend to meet Christ. Luther wrote: “Paul writes these words to comfort Christians who were troubled about what would take place…Shall all rise together? Paul answers them by saying that Christ would take all his believers to himself at the same time.” Luther used to say, “I have on my calendar only two days — today and ‘that day.’
The Apostle Paul believed in a Rapture. The Bible teaches a Rapture. Martin Luther wrote of it. But the church that bears Luther’s name now denies it. Denial of clear biblical teaching is endemic to a number of mainline denominations. It is indicative of the prophecy by Paul that “in later times some will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1). Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:3 that “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…” and that “men will arise from among your own selves, speaking perverse things…” (Acts 20:30)
The MacDonald/Darby Myth
Rapture deniers typically claim that a pre-trib position was never a position found in historical Christianity. They put forward a far-fetched claim that no one in all of Church history every heard of a pre-trib Rapture; that the idea of a pre-trib Rapture sprang up recently from demonic sources. They say that a girl by the name of Margaret MacDonald had a sinister vision in 1830 that predicted a pre-trib Rapture. Then a Plymouth Brethren preacher by the name of John Darby was impressed with MacDonald’s vision and popularized her concept of a pre-trib Rapture. So they say.
Dave MacPherson is the originator of this myth, and it has spread far and wide, popularized by his rabidly anti-pre-trib Rapture books. As proof of God’s blessings upon his books, he claims that as he started writing, his dog became demon-possessed and bit his writing hand. MacPherson was expelled from Bible college for being controversial and argumentative with others about the Rapture. He says this caused him to go on a drinking spree in Mexico. His father also was voted out of his pastorate for dogmatically insisting his people believe in a post-trib Rapture.
Author Robert L. Sumner documented that “MacPherson has a bad habit of attributing all kinds of personal tragedies to the pre-trib teaching: his mother’s death, his sister’s inability to have more children, his failure to follow through on his calling as an evangelist, and other matters.” It does not seem to occur to him that it may be an argumentative demeanor and a narrow abrasive dogmatism that is rubbing people the wrong way and causing his problems.
Barbara Rossing has picked up MacPherson’s MacDonald/Darby myth and has repeated it as fact in her Rapture bashing book, claiming that no one ever believed in a pre-trib Rapture before MacDonald’s vision in 1830. Despite Rossing’s credentials, it is evident that she has not researched the facts herself but has swallowed MacPherson’s Macdonald/Darby myth, hook, line, and sinker.
The facts are these:
- The reading of MacDonald’s vision reveals that it explicitly supports a post-trib position, not pre-trib.
- Darby says that he had arrived at his pre-trib views via prayer and Bible study. He wrote them down in January of 1827, three years before MacDonald had her vision.
- Darby is on record as saying that he thought MacDonald’s vision was not from God and may even be demonic. It is, therefore, untenable to suppose that Darby would use MacDonald’s vision as a foundation.
For these and other reasons, scholars consider MacPherson’s alleged MacDonald/Darby connection to be unsound.
Pre Trib vs Post Trib in Church History
Since it is claimed by Rapture bashers that no one believed in a pre-trib Rapture before 1830, let us examine Church history in that regard. Aside from the clear pre-tribulation Rapture teaching of Scripture, we also find that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers speak of an imminent return of Christ before the Tribulation:
Irenaeus (AD 130-202)
…when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, there shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning… (Against Heresies 5.29)
Victorinus (AD 240)
…and these shall be in the last time, when the Church shall have gone out of the midst.
Cyprian (AD 220-258)
We who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. Do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an early departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence, and sets us free from the snares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom.
The Shepherd of Hermas (1st or 2nd Century )
…escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith… the great tribulation that is coming…if you prepare yourselves in advance and turn to the Lord with all your heart, you will be able to escape it, 
Pseudo-Ephraem (Between AD 374 and 627)
Ephraem of Nisibis, considered to be the greatest theologian in the history of the Syrian church is the author of a sermon entitled, Sermon on the End of the World. It was widely copied and translated into numerous languages in the early history of the Church. This ancient manuscript reads:
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.
Research at The Bible Museum
As part of my research on the Rapture in Church history, I traveled to the Bible Museum in Goodyear, Arizona. Their website says, “The Bible Museum is a unique museum where you can actually hold, turn pages and read some of the rarest printed Bibles and rare theological books on the planet.” True to their word, I was allowed to browse through ancient documents and extremely old Bibles. A special awe is felt when you hold a Bible that is nearly 500 years old. While at the museum, I learned that most Bibles of past eras had commentary notes in the margin. This was a fantastic opportunity to see what scholars thought of the Rapture in bygone years. I discovered the following quotes as I carefully and gingerly examined the following original edition Bibles and commentaries.
Remains of Bishop Myles Coverdale 1535 
Coverdale was Bishop of Exeter, England. Note that this speaks of being caught up in the clouds with heaven as the destination.
Then shall we that live and remain be caught up with them also into the clouds, to meet the Lord…for to the Philippians he saith: “Our dwelling is in heaven: From whence we look for the Savior, even Jesus Christ the Lord; which shall change our vile earthly body…
The Works of John Jewel 1564
Note how the language portrays a rapture into heaven where we will “eat of the tree of life which is in the middle of the paradise of God.” Clearly, this is not a post-trib scenario, where it is said the saints go up and immediately come right back down to earth.
Whether we be standing or sitting, doing well or ill occupied, we shall be caught up…for saith St Paul: “Behold, I shew you a secret thing; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…to meet the Lord in the air…this is a comfortable end of all troubles and persecutions in which the godly suffer in this life, that they be received into the glory of God…then shall they eat of the tree of life, which is in the middle of the paradise of God…you shall be caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord, and so shall abide with Him forever…the world, the heaven, the earth, the sun and the moon shall have an end; that the day of the Lord shall come suddenly, as a thief in the night. This warning God hath given us, that we should not be taken unawares; but that we repent, and stand in readiness, and watch, and pray, that we may be caught up into the clouds to meet our redeemer…your conversation is in heaven…
The 1599 Geneva Study Bible (1560)
The Geneva Bible was the first complete Bible to be translated into English from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. In part due to the extensive marginal notes, it was the most widely read and influential English Bible of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the Bible of choice for many of the greatest writers, thinkers, and historical figures of the Reformation era. Protestants published the Geneva Bible in 1560. This is the first Bible to have chapters and numbered verses and was the Bible used by the Puritans and brought to America by the Pilgrims. It was the Bible of the Protestant Reformation. As I held an original 1601 edition of the Geneva Bible in my hands, I read these words of commentary:
“The saints which shall then be found alive…shall be taken into the clouds to meet the Lord and shall be in perpetual glory with Him…therefore every one of us ought to be in such a readiness, as if the Lord were coming at every moment…suddenly as in the twinkling of an eye (1Co 15:52).
Clearly, the scholars in 1560 saw in scripture an imminent Rapture wherein the saints are taken up into the glory of heaven.
The Dutch Annotations Upon the Whole Bible (1637)
Note that this states that after we are caught up into the clouds, we are then with the Lord in heaven. I have left the old English spelling as-is:
We that are left alive, shall be taken up [Gk. Pluckt, Haled], namely, after that they shall be changed, and in a moment of time be made conformable to his glorious body. Together with them in the clouds, [namely, which shall be as a chariot, whereby they shall be carried up to Christ in the aire, as is said of Elias, [2Kings 2:11] and of Christ himself [Acts 1:9] to meet the Lord in the aire…and so shall we always be with the Lord, namely, Christ Jesus in heaven [John 14:2,3]…he shall come unawares and unexpectedly.
Matthew Henry (1662–1714)
Matthew Henry was a Presbyterian minister and Bible commentator. His Bible commentaries have always enjoyed much popularity for “their penetrating insight, their exhilarating freshness, and their ingenuity of thought and expression.” Rapture bashers are fond of claiming the word “Rapture” was invented, is not in the Bible, and the concept was unheard of before Darby. Yet, here we have a reference to the Rapture long before Darby. Matthew Henry’s Commentary, a work of antiquity that is on the bookshelf of almost every pastor in the nation, does not mention the timing of the Rapture relative to the Tribulation, but he most definitely refers to the event as a rapture:
This change will be in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52), in the very instant, or not long after the raising up of those that sleep in Jesus. And those who are raised, and thus changed, shall meet together in the clouds, and there meet with their Lord…They shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, v. 17. At, or immediately before, this rapture into the clouds, those who are alive will undergo a mighty change…
John Gill (1697–1771)
(English Baptist theologian)
Pay close attention to this one. Gill’s Rapture scenario is identical to the pre-trib position. Christians meet the Lord in the air, continue on to heaven with Jesus, and then later descend with Christ at the Second Coming and reign with Him during the Millennium.
He will stay in the air, and his saints shall meet him there, and whom he will take up with him into the third heaven, till the general conflagration and burning of the world is over, and to preserve them from it; and then shall all the elect of God descend from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, and he with them, and the tabernacle of God shall be with men…then they shall be ever with him; wherever he is; first in the air, where they shall meet him; then in the third heaven, where they shall go up with him; then on earth, where they shall descend and reign with him a thousand years; and then in the ultimate glory to all eternity.
The Cottage Bible & Family Expositor (1700s)
This was published in 1845, but the preface states the commentary was written in the 1700s. Note that the writer references the alarm that will be created by the Rapture upon those left behind:
But the dead in Christ (we are told) shall rise first and then those who believe in him on earth shall be changed, and their rarified bodies (so to speak) shall be “caught up” to meet their descending Saviour; and so shall they be “forever with the Lord.” The suddenness of this great event and the alarm which it will create, are well represented by comparing it (as our Lord had before done) to the coming of a thief in the night.
Morgan Edwards (1722 –1792)
Morgan Edwards was an American Church historian and Baptist pastor. He taught a pre-trib Rapture long before Margaret Macdonald or John Darby were even born. Note that Edwards wrote the Church would be raptured up to heaven and remain there while Tribulation events occur.
The dead saints will be raised, and the living changed at Christ’s appearing in the air…they will ascend to paradise, and so disappear during the foresaid period of time…Another event previous to the Millennium will be the appearing of the son of man in the clouds, coming to raise the dead saints and change the living, and to catch them up to himself, and then withdraw with them, as observed before.
John Wesley’s Commentary (1754 & 1765)
His commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 has the Rapture taking Christians to heaven where they are “assessors with their Lord” in executing judgment upon the world.
Verse 17. Together – In the same moment. In the air – The wicked will remain beneath, while the righteous, being absolved, shall be assessors with their Lord in the judgment, with the Lord in heaven.
The Self Interpreting Bible (1790)
Note that this has the saints going directly to heaven after being raptured. That is decidedly not a post-trib scenario. It reads:
The members of his body, to which we all belong, who shall be then living, shall undergo a refining change; and, together with the raised saints, be carried up by his almighty power, into the air, that we may sit down at his right hand…
Pre Trib vs Post Trib Conclusion
As I have pointed out, Rapture deniers insist that no one heard of the Rapture before Margaret MacDonald’s vision and that it was scarcely known before John Darby made it popular in the 1800s. Yet, I spent one afternoon in a Bible museum and was able to ascertain that the Rapture, even a pre-trib Rapture, has been common teaching for many hundreds of years. Three hundred years ago, we read of a pre-trib Rapture. Five hundred years ago, we see a Rapture into heaven being taught in Bible commentaries. Even the Pilgrims new about the Rapture, for the Geneva Bible, the Holy Scripture of the Puritans, the Bible carried to America by the Pilgrims, has commentary that teaches the Rapture. The Church fathers of the 1st and 2nd centuries onward taught a pre-trib Rapture. Ephraem of Nisibis, AD 374 taught the same. The evidence from Church history provides a plethora of testimonies to a pre-trib Rapture stretching back to the time of the apostles.
Are we supposed to believe that a professor of religion in a prestigious seminary could not see this? How was this missed? How could such a thing be? The answer, very simply, I believe, is that those who are bound to a denominational dogmatism only see what they want to see. Whether it be a disgruntled reject from a Bible college or a seminary professor with degrees, truth evades those who don’t want to let the Bible speak for itself.
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 She also denies a judgment to come upon the earth. Her teaching of no coming judgment upon the earth is a fulfillment of 2 Peter 3:3-7 which predicted that scoffers would be “willfully ignorant” of the flood, which portends the coming destruction by fire.
 Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2007), 2, 36.
 For excerpts from MacDonald’s vision and a scholarly refutation of MacPherson’s allegations, see: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a022/076e5db991fb93d71b265f9513e2566e3c8b.pdf
 John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), pp. 24-25. In all fairness, it must be pointed out that it is unclear if the Shephard of Hermas document refers to a current tribulation or the great tribulation of the end times.
 If not actually written by Ephraem, Caspari and Alexander (see footnote below) have demonstrated that Pseudo-Ephraem was “heavily influenced by the genuine works of Ephraem.”
 Paul J. Alexander, “The Diffusion of Byzantine Apocalypses in the Medieval West and the Beginnings of Joachimism,” in Prophecy and Millenarianism: Essays in Honour of Marjorie Reeves, ed. Ann Williams (Essex, U.K. : Longman, 1980), 59.
  In the 16th century it was a common practice, but to us a peculiar one, for authors to refer to their commentary as their “remains.”