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THEOLOGY > Future > End of the Age > The Rapture Question > Historical Overview


After presenting the origins of Dispensationalism in the previous article (see: A Recent Interpretation), it would be proper to set in historical sequence the development of the various eschatological views, namely, Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. And that is the order in which they appeared. Premillennialism characterized the early church era, and Amillennialism was prominent during the Middle Ages, while Postmillennialism arose after the Protestant Reformation. And believers in the present day embrace all three views.


Without a doubt the early Church embraced what has come to be known as Premillennialism. Numerous Church Fathers from the first few centuries attest to the fact that the Lord would return and rule on this earth for one thousand years. That future Millennium would be preceded by a time of Great Tribulation dominated by the coming Antichrist, at whose hand the Church would greatly suffer. The following quotes reflect the belief of the early Church:

Be watchful for your life; don't let your lamps be quenched and your loins ungirded, but be ready; for you don't know the hour in which our Lord comes. You must gather yourselves together frequently, seeking what is fitting for your souls; for the whole time of your faith shall not profit you, if you are not perfected at the last season.

In the last days the false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate. For as lawlessness increases, they shall hate one another and shall persecute and betray.

Then the world-deceiver shall appear as a son of God; and shall work signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands; and he shall do unholy things which have never been since the world began. Then all created mankind shall come to the fire of testing, and many shall be offended and perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved by the Curse Himself.

Then shall the signs of the truth appear; first a sign of a rift in the heaven, then a sign of a voice of a trumpet, and thirdly a resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it was said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 16).

That the Black One may find no means of entrance, let us flee from every vanity, let us utterly hate the works of the way of wickedness (The Epistle of Barnabas, IV).

Take heed, lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called [of God], we should fall asleep in our sins, and the wicked prince, acquiring power over, should thrust us away from the kingdom (The Epistle of Barnabas, IV).

Happy ye who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and happy they who shall not deny their own life (Shepherd of Hermas, Vision Two)

He shall come from heaven with glory, when 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 (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 110).

And they [the ten Kings] 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 (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V, XXVI, l).

Now, that the promises were not announced to the prophets and the fathers alone, but to the Churches united to these from the nations, whom also the Spirit terms “islands” (both because they are established in the midst of turbulence, suffer the storm of blasphemies, exist as a harbour of safety to those in peril, and are the refuge of those who love the height [of heaven] (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V, XXXIV, 3).

But he [John] indicates the number of the name [Antichrist, 666] now, that when this man comes we may avoid him, being aware who he is (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V, XXX, 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 (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V, XXXV, I).

In the Revelation of John, again, the order of these times is spread out . . . the beast Antichrist with his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God; and that, after the casting of the devil into the bottomless pit for a while, the blessed prerogative of the first resurrection may be ordained from the thrones (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 25).

Now the privilege of this favour 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: "For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we too shall ourselves be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 25).

Now, concerning the tribulation of the persecution which is to fall upon the Church from the adversary . . . (Hippolytus, Treatise of Christ and Antichrist, 60).

“By the woman then clothed with the sun," he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father's word . . . "And the dragon," he says, "saw and persecuted the woman which brought forth the man-child. And to the woman were given two wings of the great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent." 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, which flees from city to city, and seeks concealment in the wilderness among the mountains (Hippolytus, Treatise of Christ and Antichrist, 61).

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; and lest an unexpected and new dread of mischiefs should shake us, He previously warned us that adversity would increase more and more in the last times (Cyprian, Treatise VII).

“And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God.”] 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 (Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John, VII, 2; this is the first know commentary on the book of Revelation).

The Kingdom of antichrist shall fiercely, though for a short time, assail the Church (Augustine, City of God, XX, 23).

These sample quotes reveal the Premillennialism that was dominant in the early Church. It was a common consensus that Christ would return after the Tribulation and before the Millennium. In none of the early Fathers is there a trace of what later came to be knows as Dispensationalism. No one wrote of a return of Christ before the Great Tribulation, which would enable the Church to escape the Tribulation. There is no support for a secret Rapture of the Church seven years before a public Revelation. There is no limitation of the Church to the New Testament period. The Fathers who touched on eschatology believed in a literal Antichrist who would persecute the Church during a period of Great Tribulation. Through suffering the Church would be purified and prepared for the Lord’s return. For nearly 400 years the view known today as Premillennialism prevailed. Ladd stated: “We can find no trace of pretribulationism in the early church” (The Blessed Hope, 31). Walvoord agreed: “Posttribulationism has long been a common doctrine held by the majority of the church” (The Rapture Question, rev. ed., 131); he made a more telling statement when he admitted that “the early church did not teach twentieth-century pretribulationism” (Ibid., 157). Katterjohn came to the same conclusion:

This point of view is called historic Premillennialism, since its roots can be traced as far back as the early church fathers. It should be noted that some historic Premillennialists believed that Jesus’ second coming could occur at any time and that the tribulation could already be in progress. Others felt that the tribulation still lay ahead. But all agreed that Christ’s return would terminate the tribulation (Tribulation People, 12).


Amillennialism is attributed to Augustine, who identified the Millennium as the period from the time of Christ until His return, which would be one thousand years after His life on earth. So for Augustine the Millennium was equal to the first one thousand years of Church history. At this point Augustine was influenced by the spiritualizing principles of Origen, who spiritualized much of Revelation, as well as the rest of Scripture. Eclipsed in Augustine’s interpretation, which was to dominate the Middle Ages, was the older Premillennialism of the early Church. When one thousand years passed without the Second Coming, the Millennium became synonymous with the age of the Church, however long that proved to be.

At the Reformation, Augustine’s Amillennialism continued to be embraced, although with some variations. Revelation was viewed mainly as the history of the Church Age, which was also the age of Tribulation. Many Reformers identified the papacy with the Antichrist or as the second beast of Revelation 13. At the conclusion of the Church Age the Lord would return as described in Revelation 19. Lost was any concept of a literal Millennium. Although some embraced Premillennialism, the Reformers did not recover the understanding of the early Church. The essential character of Roman Catholic eschatology was kept by the leaders of the Reformation.


Postmillennialism arose out of the thought of the Puritan thinkers. Daniel Whitby felt that the world would be won to Christ and that the Church would rule the world. This incipient idea developed into full-fledged Postmillennialism. It was thought that the Kingdom of God would come to fulfillment through the preaching of the Gospel and the work of the Church. Slowly but surely the Gospel would triumph. Following a period of righteousness, the Lord would return to this earth and eternity would begin. Instead of a concentrated period of evil at the end-time, there would be an extended period of goodness and relative peace before the end. This interpretation gained a following during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but was greatly weakened by the two world wars of the twentieth century. Recently, it has received new impetus through the writings of Reformed thinkers in general and, in particular, those who embrace Christian Reconstructionism.

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