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What is the history of the doctrine of the ‘pre-tribulation secret rapture’?

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.


[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.

6 Replies to “What is the history of the doctrine of the ‘pre-tribulation secret rapture’?”

  1. I noticed that almost half of the above sources are tied to Thomas Ice. For background on him, Google “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers” (note link showing that Ice’s “Ph.D” came from a non-accredited school that was fined for illegally issuing degrees!), “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” and “Pretrib Rapture Scholar Wannabes.” Patricia

  2. I googled ” who created the secret rapture belief” and this at the second hit.(It was a Jesuit named Ribera who created it to take the focus of all the reformers identifying the Pope as Antichrist.)At the time of the Reformation, the first Protestants widely believed and taught that the Papacy was Antichrist, and the Roman Church the Harlot System of Revelation 17. It therefore became necessary for certain Romish theologians to take the pressure off the Pope by inventing a new school of prophetic interpretation now known as Futurism. It was a Jesuit priest named Ribera (1537-1591) who first taught that the events prophesied in the books of Daniel and Revelation would not be fulfilled until three and a half years at the end of the age when an individual world dictator called Anti-Christ would arise. Thus Ribera laid the foundation of a system of prophetic interpretation of which the Secret Rapture has now become an integral part.
    Nevertheless in spite of the efforts of false prophets like Ribera and Cardinal Bellarmine it was not for another two and a half centuries that the Jesuit fables began to gain acceptance by Evangelical Christians. In the early 19th Century Futurism entered the bloodstream of Protestant prophetic teaching by:
    (a) A Chilean Jesuit priest, Emmanuel Lacunza wrote a book entitled ‘The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty’, and in its pages taught the novel notion that Christ returns not once, but twice, and at the ‘first stage’ of His return He ‘raptures’ His Church so they can escape the reign of the ‘future Antichrist’. In order to avoid any taint of Romanism, Lacunza published his book under the assumed name of Rabbi Ben Ezra, a supposedly converted Jew. Lacunza’s book found its way to the library of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and there in 1826 Dr Maitland, the Archbishop’s librarian came upon it and read it and soon after began to issue a series of pamphlets giving the Jesuit, Futurist view of prophecy. The idea soon found acceptance in the Anglo-Catholic Ritualist movement in the National Church of England, and soon it tainted the very heart of Protestantism.
    (b) The Secret Rapture doctrine was given a second door of entrance at this time by the ministry of one, Edward Irving….
    (c) However, it was necessary for Jesuitry to have a third door of entrance to the Reformed fold and this they gained via a sincere Christian, J. N. Darby, generally regarded as the founder of the ‘Brethren’. As an Anglican curate Darby attended a number of mysteriously organized meetings on Bible Prophecy at Powerscourt in Ireland, and at these gatherings he learned about the ‘secret rapture’. He carried the teaching into the Brethren and hence into the heart of Evangelicalism. With a new veneer of being scriptural the teaching spread and was later popularized in the notes of the Schofield Reference Bible.
    So today the three measures of Roman leaven have corrupted the Prophetic teaching of almost all the Fundamentalist world

    • Bob, you are grossly overstating your case on Ribera. As long ago as the second century Irenaeus of Lyon taught that Daniel’s 70th week was future (although he also saw the church going through the tribulation). See “Against Heresies” Book 5, Chapter 25, sections 2-4 for futurism, and Book 5, Chapter 26 for the church entering the tribulation..

  3. [Speaking of the devil – I mean the rapture – here’s a goodie I ran smack into on the net.]

    Catholicism Invented the Rapture? C’mon!

    Many web
    sites claim that a 16th century Jesuit Catholic priest named Francisco
    Ribera taught an early form of the famous evangelical “rapture” that
    reportedly precedes and is disconnected from the final Second Coming.

    To see the actual thrust of this claim, Google “Francisco Ribera taught
    a rapture 45 days before the end of Antichrist’s future reign.”

    But no one ever quotes even one sentence from Ribera’s monumental
    commentary on the Book of Revelation which is said to be the source of
    the 45-day rapture claim.
    Claimants are challenged to produce
    Ribera’s own words on this matter. If they cannot, their names should be
    blazoned on the web as hysterical historians! (BTW, no other Catholic
    leader, including Jesuit priest Manuel Lacunza, has ever taught a prior
    Curious about the real beginnings of the same mystical
    “fly-away” belief (a.k.a. the “pre-tribulation rapture”) that has
    captivated many evangelical leaders including Darby, Scofield, Lindsey,
    Falwell, LaHaye, and Hagee? Google “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.”

  4. [Thomas Ice is the biggest promoter of the spurious and desperate claim that a pretrib rapture was taught before 1830. I spotted the following interesting item on the net.]

    Carl Sweatman, a PhD student in England, has penned an electrifying
    “tribute” to Bible prophecy specialist Thomas Ice that all Ice fans and
    others may enjoy reading. To read it Google “be careful in polemics – 26
    December 2012.”

  5. There are other fascinating Google articles (covering these matters) including “Catholics did NOT invent the rapture,” “The Real Manuel Lacunza,” “Pretrib Rapture Pride,” “Pretrib Rapture Stealth,” “Margaret Macdonald’s Rapture Chart,” and “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism.”