Home > Bible Prophecy, church history, eschatology, premillennialism, rapture, S. Lewis Johnson > The Real Story Behind the Pre-Conflagration, Supposed ‘Pre-Trib’ Rapture

The Real Story Behind the Pre-Conflagration, Supposed ‘Pre-Trib’ Rapture


Recently an online posting has been circulating around, listing a number of well-known Christians throughout history who supposedly believed in a pre-tribulational rapture.  This posting does not include any actual source quotes from the people claimed to have believed in a pre-trib rapture, but asserts a “pre-trib” view for many of the early church fathers including Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Victorinus, as well as post-Reformation pre-19th century teachers including John Gill and Morgan Edwards.

I had already seen several quotes from the specific early church fathers, statements that show they understood that the saints (same group as the church), would experience the future time of antichrist.  Here are a few such statements, showing also their futurist (and premillennial) understanding of the events in Revelation:

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, XXV, 4

And then he points out the time that his tyranny shall last, during which the saints shall be put to flight, they who offer a pure sacrifice unto God: ‘And in the midst of the week,’ he says, ‘the sacrifice and the libation shall be taken away, and the abomination of desolation [shall be brought] into the temple: even unto the consummation of the time shall the desolation be complete.’ Now three years and six months constitute the half-week.

Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 47

For this is meant by the little horn that grows up. He, being now elated in heart, begins to exalt himself, and to glorify himself as God, persecuting the saints and blaspheming Christ, even as Daniel says, ‘I considered the horn, and, behold, in the horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things; and he opened his mouth to blaspheme God. And that horn made war against the saints, and prevailed against them until the beast was slain, and perished, and his body was given to be burned.’

Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 61

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,…

Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 20:1

The little season signifies three years and six months, in which with all his power the devil will avenge himself trader Antichrist against the Church.

As to the many current-day claims of pre-trib belief before the mid-19th century, it is interesting to note here that previous generations of dispensationalists —  Darby himself, also Scofield and later John Walvoord – all recognized and admitted that the pre-trib teaching was in fact a recent development.  This agrees with S. Lewis Johnson’s observation in 1989 during his series through Revelation, that those who held to pre-trib acknowledged that it was a recent teaching. The claims of pre-trib belief prior to the mid-19th century, are themselves a revision introduced by more recent pre-trib and prophecy teachers.

The idea that historicist Christians, including Morgan Edwards and John Gill, believed in a type of “pre-tribulational rapture,” comes from a twisting of their “pre-conflagration” statements, such as the following from John Gill:  He’ll stay in the air, and His saints shall meet Him there, and whom He’ll 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….   I note here, first, that these statements still show an idea of one First Resurrection and not a two-stage coming with one group before the Great Tribulation followed by another resurrection/rapture after that event – really a type of “pre-wrath” rapture of believers taken out before God’s wrath.

A further point of distinction must also be noted here:  the difference between historicist and futurist ideas of the book of Revelation.  The historicists were generally premillennial (John Gill, and at least a few others), but they understood the Great Tribulation in a non-literal way, as occurring throughout church history, with the events in Revelation describing longer periods of time, symbolic descriptions of various wars with the Turks or other enemies throughout the church age.  According to the historicist view, the Great Tribulation is already occurring, we are already experiencing it:  an idea obviously incompatible with the very notion of a pre-Tribulational rapture of one group of believers.  If the whole church age is the Tribulation, a “pre-trib rapture” could only occur before the church age began, which becomes speculative nonsense.

Thus, the present-day claims of a pre-1830 belief in a pretribulational rapture of the church, “found” in the statements of 18th century historicist pre-conflagrationists, is really deceptive handling of true Christian doctrine (what these men actually believed) and church history.   Here I also can appreciate the honesty of the earlier dispensationalists, such as Walvoord, who at least recognized the correct time period for the origin of the pre-trib rapture idea.

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  1. Neil Schoch
    December 17, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Hi Lynda,
    Paul wrote to the Church in Thessalonica and taught the truth of the rapture of the Church in Ch 4:13-18 and then in chapter five went on to clearly distinguish between believers and unbelievers by the use of the pronouns “you” and “they.”
    You or the believers were not to see wrath but the “they’s” or unbelievers will receive God’s wrath at the “day of the Lord” when Christ returns as a “thief in the night” for judgement.
    He makes a very clear distinction.

    It would seem to me that the Pre Trib as we know it today would have been taught by the Apostles but with a rapid weakening of the truth as time passed, and on many different doctrinal truths.

    Thanks for your thought provoking posts,
    God bless.

    • December 23, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Thanks, Neil. Yes, that is the standard pre-trib explanation of those verses, as well as the pre-trib approach to the question of the history of the doctrine, for the many who are honest about the history of the teaching.

  2. Elaine Bittencourt
    December 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    What do you mean by “supposed pre-conflagration pre-trib rapture”?

    • December 17, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Well, a better wording would be ‘Pre-conflagration, supposed pre-trib rapture’. The historicist premillennialists did have a pre-conflagration idea, and some current-day revisionists want to claim that in support of a pre-19th century pre-tribulation rapture idea.

  3. December 20, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Thomas Ice has a paper on the history of the Pre-Conflagration Rapture, called:
    A History of the Pre-Conflagration Rapture” – in which he says, “With the revival of premillennialism during the post-Reformation period, there have been a number of two-
    stage second coming theories postulated. There are numerous claims or suggestions of pre-trib rapture statements that have been made down through recent history. However, this writer thinks that many of them should be grouped into a category that could be called “a two-stage second coming.” In other words, this species is not pretribulationism that is composed of the rapture of the church, followed by a few years of the tribulation, resulting in the second coming of Christ to planet earth. Instead, this variety occurs at the end of the tribulation and may have two stages involved in the second coming. Therefore, it is posttribulational and may have as much as a 45-day interval between the two comings. See: http://www.bbc.edu/barndollar/barndollar_history_rapture.pdf

    • December 23, 2013 at 7:37 am

      Thanks for the link, Kathryn, and it’s nice to see that Thomas Ice agrees that John Gill and other historicists did not believe in a pre-trib rapture.

  4. December 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks, Lynda. You can give more facts about pretrib rapturism in a few sentences than some books can say in a chapter or two. You should be a prof in some Bible college or seminary! The best and most accurate and most fully documented nonfiction book I know of on the earliest beginnings of the pretrib rapture view in 1830 is journalist/historian Dave MacPherson’s 300-page work entitled “The Rapture Plot” which can be obtained by calling 800.643.4645. Google “Scholars Weigh My Research” to see how top scholars have evaluated his research. Lynda, if you haven’t done so, you should write a book!

    • December 31, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Hi Irv. Yes, there is some question as to where Darby got his ideas, such as S.P. Tregelles’ later statements. But it’s more important to just recognize the general history and the time period when the pre-trib rapture was introduced, through Darby — and then to focus more on the issue of the actual scriptures which indeed set forth Christ’s Return and the Resurrection/rapture at that time, after the Tribulation (yet before the Day of the Lord, the wrath that we are not appointed to).

  5. Daren
    January 2, 2014 at 6:18 am
    • January 2, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Thanks for this link, good points, including this excerpt: “The late Dr R. V. Bingham once held the common doctrine of a secret appearing of the Lord and a secret rapture of the saints, but, on being asked by his wife for a proof-text, he found that he could not produce one. There are plenty of texts on the other side.”

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