The doctrine of the ‘pre-tribulation secret rapture’ is the belief that faithful Christians will be removed suddenly and secretly from the earth prior to a time of ‘tribulation’ which will immediately precede the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. Although the concept of believers being removed from the earth at the time of Christ (the ‘rapture’), had been expressed by earlier expositors such as Increase and Cotton Mather in the 17th century[1] [2] and 18th century commentators Phillip Doddridge[3] and John Gill,[4]  the origin of the ‘pre-tribulation’ belief is typically attributed to John Nelson Darby, a 19th century member of the Plymouth Brethren. His contemporary Edward Irving (a Scottish clergyman), developed the idea further.[5]

Darby’s source for the doctrine has been much disputed. A long standing view that he was inspired by an ecstatic vision by Irvingite Margaret McDonald[6] is generally dismissed by historians, who typically consider the doctrine to be a unique interpretation of the Bible by Darby himself.[7] [8] It is also understood that the belief was original to the 19th century, and the challenge of explaining why it was not held previously in Christian history is recognized even by advocates of the ‘pre-tribulation secret rapture’.[9] [10]

Attempts to locate the doctrine earlier in Christian history[11] [12] have failed to win acceptance from the broader scholarly community.

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[1] Kyle, ‘The Last Days Are Here Again: A History of the End Times’, pp. 78-79 (1998).

[2] Boyer, ‘When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture’, p. 75 (1992).

[3] Doddridge, ‘Practical reflections on the character and translation of Enoch’ (1738).

[4] Gill, ‘An exposition of the Revelation of St. John the divine’ (1748).

[5] Edward ‘The history and doctrines of Irvingism’, volume 2, p. 8 (1878).

[6] ‘According to MacPherson, Darby pilfered this two-stage teaching from Macdonald and then developed it systematically, skillfully passing it off as the fruit of his personal Bible study.’, Ice, ‘Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulational Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret McDonald’, Bibliotheca Sacra (147.586.157), 1990.

[7] ‘Historian Timothy P. Weber’s evaluation is as follows:  The pretribulation rapture was a neat solution to a thorny problem and historians are still trying to determine how or where Darby got it…. A newer though still not totally convincing view contends that the doctrine initially appeared in a prophetic vision of Margaret Macdonald….   Possibly, we may have to settle for Darby’s own explanation. He claimed that the doctrine virtually jumped out of the pages of Scripture once he accepted and consistently maintained the distinction between Israel and the church.’, Ice, ‘Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulational Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret McDonald’, Bibliotheca Sacra (147.586.162), 1990.

[8] ‘Posttribulationist William E. Bell asserts,  It seems only fair, however, in the absence of eyewitnesses to settle the argument conclusively, that the benefit of the doubt should be given to Darby, and that the charge made by Tregelles be regarded as a possibility but with insufficient support to merit its acceptance…. On the  whole, however, it seems that Darby is perhaps the most likely choice—with help from Tweedy. This conclusion is greatly strengthened by Darby’s own claim to have arrived at the doctrine through his study of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–2.’, Ice, ‘Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulational Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret McDonald’, Bibliotheca Sacra (147.586.162-163), 1990.

[9] ‘If the pretribulation rapture is taught in the New Testament, as this writer believes, why did it take 1, 800 years for Christians to realize this doctrine?’, Ice, ‘Why the Doctrine of the Pretribulational Rapture Did Not Begin with Margaret McDonald’, Bibliotheca Sacra (147.586.164), 1990.

[10] ‘Some advocates of pretribulationalism hold a different theory of the history of the rapture, a “lost-and-found” model that is equally unsatisfactory. They believe that the teaching of the pretribulational rapture is in the Bible, but that this doctrine was lost in history soon after the writing of the New Testament. Then in the early nineteenth century Darby was enlightened by the Holy Spirit to the correct doctrine about the rapture.’, Gumerlock, ‘A Rapture Citation in the Fourteenth Century’, Bibliotheca Sacra (158.635.350), 2002.

[11] Demy & Ice, ‘The Rapture and an Early Medieval Citation’, Bibliotheca Sacra (152.697.305-317), 1995.

[12] Gumerlock, ‘A Rapture Citation in the Fourteenth Century’, Bibliotheca Sacra (158.635.348-362), 2002.

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