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Insight #129 — Did the Early Church Teach the Rapture?

A visitor to my website recently sent me a question about teaching on the Rapture in the early church. Some pre-millennial-futurists, headed by Grant Jeffrey, are now claiming that a sermon by Pseudo-Ephraem is proof the early church believed in a pre-tribulational rapture. Following is my reply.

Thank you for your interest and question. I must admit I was ignorant regarding Pseudo-Ephraem. Nonetheless, I have done some investigation and hope that I can be a little helpful.

If you type “Pseudo-Ephraem” into Google you will get nearly 400 hits. I looked over about the first 40 hits and it seems the majority have to do with your question: Does Pseudo-Ephraem offer proof that the early church believed in the pre-tribulation rapture as Grant Jeffrey and others claim? If you really want to dig deeply and in detail into the issue, there is plenty of material there on the Internet written by individuals far more acquainted with the issue than I am. Nevertheless, I will offer my preliminary thoughts.

The writing in question is a short “Sermon by Pseudo-Ephraem,” entitled “On the Last Times, the Anti-Christ, and the End of the World.” The main sentence that Grant Jeffrey and others point to is this: “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.” It must be admitted that this sentence would seem to support the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture. Nevertheless, I believe there are several things that need to be considered to properly evaluate the meaning and importance of this quotation.

I have read the entire sermon more than once and am a long way from being able to explain all that the unknown writer believes about end times. I consider it especially difficult to put all his ideas into a timetable. In general I would say that sometimes he seems to be in line with Scripture, sometimes he seems to be using Scripture out of context, and sometimes I have no idea what Scripture he has in mind as a basis for what he is saying.

Shortly before the sentence quoted above, the unknown writer says, “Believe you me, dearest brother, because the coming (advent) of the Lord is nigh, believe you me, because the end of the world is at hand, believe me, because it is the very last time.” He seems to be saying that the coming of the Lord will take place along with the end of the world. Even if he allows a relatively short period for tribulation upon the earth following Jesus’ coming, he seems to offer no room for a long thousand-year reign following Jesus’ coming. Rather, he lumps Jesus’ coming, the end of the world, and the very last time all into one package. I confess that as I read the sermon it was difficult to clarify the entire timetable he has in mind. He does mention a three-and-one-half-year period based on Revelation. However, he nowhere mentions a seven-year period, or a thousand years, or a millennium. He never speaks of a “rapture.” He did believe that “It is necessary that the world come to an end at the completion of the Roman empire.” That was a common belief in the days before the fall of the Roman Empire; but, of course, we now know, more than 1500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, that that belief was not correct.

Aside from examining the sermon itself, the very name of the work should ring a bell of alarm. “Pseudo-” means “false,” “sham,” “deceptive.” This name is given to the sermon because of the claim that it was written by Ephraem. Scholars, however, seem to be united in rejecting the claim. Several web sites give the date of Pseudo-Ephraem as between the years 373-627 and others offer a similar timeframe. Why this great spread of 254 years? It is because three manuscripts ascribe the sermon to Ephraem who died about 373, and a fourth manuscript ascribes it to Isidore, who died about 636. The real author is unknown. The real Ephraem of Syria was a well-known and influential figure in the Syrian church who wrote great quantities of commentaries, sermons, and hymns. It seems clear, however, that the sermon in question is not the work of the real Ephraem. The fact is that nobody today knows who wrote this sermon, or when.

Some make the claim that this sermon gives us information about the belief of the early church. This claim is baseless. The sermon says nothing about what the churches and Christians of the time believed. The unknown author only presents his own views.  Whatever one unknown Christian believed at some unknown time is in no way proof of what the early church believed. It does tell us what one person somewhere sometime believed. And, since manuscripts of the sermon remain until this day, it may mean that others shared his views. But that is a long way from making a claim that the sermon shows what “the early church believed.”

Not only so, but we must examine the use of the term “early church.” A.D. 373 sounds early to us in 2004. However, by the year 373, the Lord’s church was 343 years old. By way of comparison the USA is only 228 years old. How long ago can be considered early church history? I believe many would consider it “early” up to the time of Constantine and the Nicene Council in A.D. 325, which takes in a full three centuries. Any student of church history knows that things drastically changed after that. Unless Pseudo-Ephraem is a total fabrication by someone writing after the fact, the text indicates that the sermon was written when the Roman Empire was not far from its fall, which happened in A.D. 476. The century between 373 and 476 may seem to be “early church” from our perspective today, but that was ten generations removed from the founding of the church.

As for myself, the portion of this sermon that most interests me in regard to beliefs in the church before the fall of Rome is the writer’s belief that “when the Roman empire begins to be consumed by the sword, the coming of the Evil One is at hand.” “Evil One” is identified in the title as “Anti-Christ.” What is interesting to me is that this is not an isolated statement of just one writer. Rather, it is one more quotation to add to the many that I have quoted in my book, Nobody Left Behind. The early (and not-so-early) Christians in general, based on solid Scriptural prophetic interpretation, believed that the Anti-Christ would come with the fall of the Roman Empire. It was also widely believed, as this unknown writer believed, that the world would come to an end when Rome fell. History has proven the latter idea false just as history has equally proven the former idea to be correct. The man of sin did, indeed, come with the fall of Rome. The Evil One, the Anti-Christ, the man of sin is not someone yet to arrive in our future. The entire third section of my book, entitled “The Roman Connection,” deals with this vital subject. For more information visit Insight #6.