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Rapture Before John Darby
In Defense of the Faith
Friday, February 05, 2016
Alf Cengia

The rapture before John Darby? Say it isn't so!

Some years ago Grant Jeffrey excitedly contacted Dr. Thomas Ice and announced that he'd found a pre-Darby pre-conflagration rapture statement. The document was from someone dubbed Pseudo-Ephraem. PE presumably believed in a pre three-and-a-half-year rapture.

According to PE:

"Woe to those who desire to see the day of the Lord! 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…."

Seems pretty straight forward doesn't it? But it really messed with some people's heads.

I recall a few non-pretribulationists working themselves up into a lather over it. Bloggers scrambled to spiritualize PE's words into the "Catholic language of his day." Robert Gundry quickly wrote an article asserting why PE couldn't have meant what he plainly wrote. In turn, Dr. Ice responded to Gundry.

Why was it so important to debunk PE? Prewrathers and posttribbers didn't like the fact that someone prior to Darby incorporated the Day of the Lord into the final three-and-a-half years of tribulation, and kept the church out of it.

It was a stock standard polemic to point to John Darby as the wayward originator of the pretrib view and then demonize him as one way deal with it. Now they also had PE to contend with.

Darby is a favorite target for every non-pretrib activist with a blogger account, as well as a string of published anti-pretribulational writers. They claimed no one prior to Darby ever taught a "dual-phase" Second Advent, much less the pretrib rapture. Most accused Darby of being influenced by the unstable Margaret MacDonald or Edward Irving.

Here's a typical example from Robert Van Kampen's website:

"First of all, pretribulationism didn't exist before 1830 and there is considerable documentary proof that it was initially introduced in England by Edward Irving, the father of the charismatic Apostolic Church and not John Darby...In reality, with whom the pretribulationism position originated really does not make that much difference other than the fact that it contradicts the first 1800 years of prophetic thought and contradicts the plain teaching of the New Testament."

It's an irony which seems to have escaped the writer that no one had heard of Van Kampen's position prior to the late 20th century, when he conceived it. In fact the origin of the pretrib rapture is important to these people, or they wouldn't mention it to begin with. It's a self-serving contradiction to say it isn't important while simultaneously asserting that it never existed until Darby or Irving.

Note: Irving was a historicist who thought he was living in the last three-and-a-half years prior to Christ's return. His view bore little semblance to what Darby believed.

The "Left Behind or Led Astray?" documentary leaned heavily on demonizing "cultist" John Darby as a possible origin of the view. In order to cover all bases they presented other possible nefarious origins - for example, the Jesuits. Following criticism of the documentary, the LBLA folk denied explicitly saying that Darby-MacDonald were behind the pretrib rapture.

Despite the LBLA denial, one contributor recently chastised David Reagan, and trotted out usual suspect John Darby once more. This time, Darby gets the red flag, not because he's a pretribulationist but, allegedly, because of a number of disreputable issues he's posthumously accused of.

Incidentally, the author pleads for discussion, not division. Sadly his article is largely polemical. It included the irrelevant fact that Dr. Reagan is an annihilationist. John MacArthur's position on the Beast of Revelation was also raised. Clearly, this approach is meant to smear pretribulationalists in order to denigrate the view.

Was John Darby the only person who wrote about a pre-judgment rapture? Were there others prior to him?

Enter Professor of History William C. Watson. Taking advantage of modern, searchable, theological data bases, Watson has shown that many puritans in the 17th and 18th centuries held eschatological beliefs similar to Darby's in many aspects. Remember also that it was as late as the 16th to 17th centuries that Covenant Theology was still being developed.

Note: You can view a brief summary of Professor Watson's findings on Vimeo and read his online article Pretribulational Rapture in 17th & 18th Century England. For those who want to study this further, he has also written a book, Dispensationalism Before Darby. I highly recommend it.

The tidal wave of evidence shows that some 200 years before Darby puritans began rethinking eschatology. One of the reasons for this was the gradual movement towards a more literal prophetic hermeneutic than previously held by the church. Interestingly, some of these men were concerned about being ostracized for these views.

Some puritans expected a rebirth of national Israel based on this literal approach. Watson showcases many examples of the rapture of the church before God's judgment on the world. While these don't exactly conform to Darby's dispensational, pretribulational model, one can see a gradual progression towards what we believe today.

In some cases, the church is removed and a three-and-a-half-year period of judgment ensues. This may now be classified as a midtrib view. However, Watson gives at least two accounts where a future seven year period is discussed or expected before Christ's Second Advent.

It's important to remember that the idea of a future 70th week of Daniel became more fully developed as scholars began to better understand Israel's relationship to eschatology. This is something that non-pretrib premillennialists who believe in a 70th week should be mindful of when they criticize the newness of pretribulationism. In other words, their view is also relatively new.

It's disingenuous for critics to demonize Darby (who wasn't perfect) in order to falsify the pretrib rapture doctrine. It's also of little value citing critics like Spurgeon, Muller or Tregelles. They weren't perfect either. Not only did they misrepresent Darby, but they likely would have disagreed with some of the eschatological views held by those who appeal to them.

In summary, the pretribulational rapture doctrine was germinating among puritan prophecy scholars long before John Darby. Had Darby not popularized it, someone else would have (as some did) because Scripture appears to infer it (Rev 3:10).

Isn't it about time rapture cynics stopped dividing over this and move on to more important issues affecting the church today?

I can think of a number of worthier battles to wage.

About Alf Cengia

Last week: Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God



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