Gary Stearman of Prophecy Watchers interviewed Ken Johnson on his show this week. The program is an exercise of wishful thinking claiming that the early church writers were “pretribulationists” (see the video below).
Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of what the early church writers taught on this issue understands that they taught that the church would encounter the Antichrist’s great tribulation before Jesus returns to mete out his wrath (e.g. The Didache; see also a pamphlet of their primary statements here).
I want to answer two commonly flawed pretrib attempts to read pretribulationism back into the early church.
My First Point: The early church writers distinguished between the tribulation of the persecution of the Antichrist that the church would face from the period of tribulation of God’s wrath that the world would face.
During the entire program, not once did Ken Johnson cite any early church writer who believed that the rapture would occur before the Antichrist’s great tribulation. The operative word is “cite,” which means actually providing their primary statements in their own words—something I have actually done.
Rather, Johnson was long on assertions, mentioning this or that early church writer who made pretrib statements. But not once did he actually provide evidence. Why is this? Because Ken Johnson is incapable of producing a single instance in early church history where the rapture takes place before the Antichrist’s great tribulation. (Incidentally, my critique in this article applies to pretribber and historian William Watson, who also abuses these early church writers with historical eisegesis and anachronisms).
Johnson knows that he cannot provide this evidence, which is why he will turn to the typical MO of pretribulationism by stating that the early church writers believed that the rapture would occur before the “tribulation,” “wrath,” and other descriptions. The problem with their MO is that prewrathers and posttribbbers believe this as well, that the rapture takes place before God pours out his wrath.
So what is going on here?
Johnson and many other pretribulationists make the baseless assumption that the Antichrist’s great tribulation against the saints occurs during the time of God’s wrath. Johnson and others fail to recognize that the early church writers consistently distinguished between the tribulation of the persecution of the Antichrist that the church would face from the period of tribulation of God’s wrath that the world would face. So when the early church fathers speak of the church escaping before wrath or tribulation through resurrection or rapture, they never describe it as the period of the Antichrist’s persecution.
This is why it is very typical for pretribbers to cherry-pick statements from the early church fathers that speak of escaping wrath, while ignoring—in the exact same context!—statements of the church being persecuted by the Antichrist. It is first rank selective reading of the early church writers. For example, Johnson did this very thing in the Prophcey Watcher’s program, claiming that Irenaeus believed in the pretrib rapture. Johnson manipulated Irenaeus’s teaching by selectively and conveniently leaving out Irenaeus’s explicit teaching that the church would face the Antichrist (see Against Heresies, V, 26,1; V, 29, 1; V, 30, 3, 4; V, 35, 1).
In summary, it is invalid for pretribbers to say this or that early church writer says that the church would escape the tribulation, because you have to examine what they meant by that event. And invariably they meant God’s wrath. This is why Johnson and other pretribbers such as William Watson have never been able to produce a single statement from the early church concerning the rapture taking place before the arrival of the Antichrist.
My Second Point: The early church writers never speak of ‘tribulation saints’ during the wrath of God.
Someone may ask, surely pretribbers are aware of the explicit statements of the early church writers that teach believers would face the Antichrist?
Yes, they are, in fact Ken Johnson in the program admits this. But the way he explains it away is the deus ex machina of. . . you guessed it: “tribulation saints.” This is another pretrib MO twisting the teachings of the early church writers. They will say that clear statements of believers being persecuted by Antichrist is describing, not the church, but saints who come to believe on Jesus after the rapture; hence, the so-called “tribulation saints.”
This is as desperate as you can get to maintain 19th century pretribulationism and place it on the lips of the early church writers. This pretrib MO is easily answered for the following reasons:
- Not once do any early church writers mention a rapture event before any descriptions of so-called “tribulation saints.” So pretribs recklessly read this artificial theological category back into the early church.
- Many of the early writers use the term “church,” not just “saints” to describe those suffering at the hands of the Antichrist’s great tribulation (e.g. Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, IV; On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 25). This contradicts pretrib theology that claims that the church is raptured before the Antichrist.
- The early writers often included themselves in the prospects of facing the future Antichrist’s great tribulation by using the first person plural (e.g. Epistle of Barnabas, 4) or the same generation using the second person plural (e.g. Cyprian, Epistle 55,1, 7).
- They spoke of a singular, blessed hope resurrection of the church that would take place after the Antichrist’s persecution (e.g. Didache, 16:3–8; Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, V, 29, 1; V, 35, 1).
- Early church writers, as noted above, distinguished the period of the Antichrist, which occurs first, with the period of the day of the Lord’s wrath (Didache 16:3–8; Hippolytus, On Daniel, II, 7; Cyprian, Epislte 55,7).
- Early church writers have linked the rapture in 1 Thess 4 as taking place after the period of Antichrist’s persecution (Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 41).
In summary, for these reasons, the notion that the early church writers taught about “tribulation saints” is wishful thinking and out of the realm of sober handling of the early church writers. Every early church writer, who taught on the relationship between the Antichrist and the church, without exception, describes the church encountering the Antichrist before the return of Jesus.
And that is exactly what the prewrath position teaches, not because the early church writers were inspired, but because they are echoing the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the other biblical writers, who taught that the church would face the Antichrist’s great tribulation before the tribulation of God’s wrath is poured out on the world.
But as Christians we should not fret about this biblical truth. Rather, we should consider the teaching of another early church writer, who wrote The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 95–150):
“[Blessed are] you who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and [blessed are] they who shall not deny their own life. . . . Those, therefore, who continue steadfast, and are put through the fire, will be purified by means of it. . . . This then is the type of the great tribulation that is to come (Vision 2:2, 4:3)
Perhaps pretribulationists should spend less time and effort explaining away the clear teachings of the early church and begin to emulate them by warning and edifying the body of Christ in order to prepare them for the terrible times that the church will face before she experiences the blessed hope.