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What Did the Early Church Believe About Eschatology? (Part 2)

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By David Sheldon

Last Updated: February 27, 2024

Early Church Eschatology Continued

This article is a continuation of some frequently asked questions regarding eschatology (study of end times). With the many different eschatological views, how can one know what to believe? If we go back to the early church fathers, they agreed on one viewpoint!

So we write this article with answers gathered from the perspective of Irenaeus (130-202 a.d.), an early church father, who was discipled by Polycarp (69-155 a.d.) who was discipled by the Apostle John! We can safely say Irenaeus had good input! He penned his book Against Heresies in 180 a.d. from which we have gathered much of our information.

In Part 1, we looked at eschatological questions about the Antichrist, the False Prophet, the false worship associated with 666, and the Abomination of Desolation.

In this second part, we will consider a few particular events including the rapture of the church, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Millennium.

Some anticipate the church will be raptured before Christ returns and before the 7-year tribulation. Others believe it will be at Christ’s Second Coming. Some think the millennium is a spiritual/allegorical thousand years. Others believe it is a literal thousand years where Christ reigns and rules on the earth. How can we determine the truth about such things?

The truth about these events can be based on Scriptural evidence. For example, the timing of the rapture can be based upon the promises given to Abraham; and whether the millennium is literal or allegorical depends upon how certain passages should be interpreted.

Eschatology of The Early Church

So let’s take a look. As always, please have your Bible open while reading our articles. We want you to see what God says, not what we (nor Irenaeus) say!

Again, this document is not a comprehensive study of Against Heresies. We attempt to cover some of the more well-known teachings within premillennial thought. If you would like, you can read the quotes in their full context online – Book V, Chapters 25-36 of Against Heresies. Links for further information have also been provided.

7. When will the rapture of the church occur?

To understand Irenaeus’ position on the rapture, we must first discuss a few items.

Scripture tells us that God promised Abraham and his seed two things: the inheritance of all the land of Israel (literally) (Genesis 13:14-15) and that the nations of the earth will be blessed (spiritually) (Genesis 12:2-3, Genesis 22:15-18). The former has not been fulfilled, the latter has been fulfilled in part. Abraham did not receive the inheritance of the land during his lifetime, but the nations of the earth have been blessed in that Christ has come and secured salvation for those of His children who have already repented and believed.

Since the whole of the land (and the earth) is yet to be inherited by Abraham and his seed, we need to know when this will occur and to whom it refers. Irenaeus says Abraham’s seed is ‘those who fear God and believe in Him.’ (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 32.2) This is one seed. Irenaeus does not separate Jewish believers from Gentile believers. Neither does the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:6). Thus, Abraham along with all believers will receive the inheritance of the land at the same time. Irenaeus says they will receive it at ‘the resurrection of the just.’ (Against Heresies, Book V, Ch 32.2, Ch 34.2, 34.3, Ch 36.3) This leaves us asking, when is the resurrection of the just?

Irenaeus refers to Revelation 20:4b-6a which says, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection.” The resurrection of the just is the first resurrection. When is this? Notice what it says after they come to life. They “reigned with Christ a thousand years.” How can the righteous reign with Christ? This must be because Christ has returned!

Does this lend to a “pre-tribulation rapture”? Again, notice the sequence. All believers will be resurrected at the same time, the first resurrection, and share in the inheritance of the land. This takes place at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ which occurs at the end of this present evil age and before the reign of Christ. For there to be a “rapture and (first) second coming” at the beginning of the tribulation there would have to be a “(first) first resurrection of the just” at the same time. This just is not the case. What is now popular pre-tribulation rapture teaching did not come into the church until the early 1800’s (through J.N. Darby).

Unfortunately, some think Irenaeus believed in a pre-tribulation rapture when he says, “the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this” (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 29.1). But he is not talking about the church being removed from the earth before the Tribulation. Look what he says next, “for this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.” It is when they overcome, after all the turmoil of the tribulation, they (the righteous) will be “caught up.” They will meet Jesus in the air. This is at Christ’s Second Coming! (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) It is after the Tribulation, which they have just endured, that they will be crowned with their eternal reward.

(Notice that Irenaeus doesn’t refer to a particular set of saints who are saved during the Tribulation. He just says “the Church.” Other indicators in Irenaeus’ writings would confirm a post-tribulation rapture if one is interested in digging further!)

This should not be surprising to us. “Overcoming” was an ongoing theme for the early church. Why should the church at the end of the age have it any different? In fact, “overcoming” is still prominent in the book of Revelation (Rev. 2 & 3, Rev. 12:11, 13:7, 21:7).

So now we can answer when will the rapture of the church occur. It occurs at the resurrection of the just. That is, when Christ comes at the end of this present evil age, after the reign of the Antichrist and after the tribulation, not before.

For more information on this topic: Is the Rapture of the Church found in Revelation 4?

8. What happens when Christ returns?

Irenaeus believed that after the Antichrist’s reign and the Tribulation, the Lord would descend from heaven in the clouds. He will send the Antichrist into the lake of fire. The righteous will be resurrected (first resurrection) and join Abraham in receiving the promised inheritance. (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 30.4).

The earth will be restored to a pre-fall type condition as is described by Isaiah in Isaiah 11:6-9 (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 32.1 and Chapter 33.4). Irenaeus refers to the restored earth as “the kingdom.” (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 36.3). This is the same kingdom that was prophesied about in Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45 and Revelation 11:15. And Jesus Himself speaks of it in Mark 14:25, Luke 22:28-30, and Matthew 8:11. This kingdom will be Christ’s kingdom as He will reign and rule over the earth for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:6).

This brings us to our next question. Is this millennial kingdom literal or is it simply figurative?

9. Is the millennium literal or spiritual?

Some think that the millennium is not a literal thousand-year reign of Christ upon the earth. They think it is merely a long period, even currently happening, where Christ rules in a spiritual sense. Are the texts that speak of the millennium (ie. Revelation 20:6-7) to be interpreted literally or figuratively? The answer to this lies in Scripture itself.

Irenaeus points out that if you allegorize the millennium, you also have to allegorize texts like Habakkuk 2:14. This verse speaks of a literal filling of the earth with the Lord’s glory after His Second Coming. It is not a “spiritual” or “invisible” reigning from heaven. We cannot just choose to allegorize certain texts. Irenaeus said doing this would lead to further confusion. (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 35.1)

Furthermore, Irenaeus believed that Paul’s teaching in Romans was consistent with the idea that there would be a literal future millennial kingdom. (Romans 8:19-21) This coming reality will be at the first resurrection. It will be the liberation from the bondage of decay (the fall), and the glory of God will be manifest with them as they inherit the earth under a pre-fall type of condition. (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 36.3(B))

For even more proof, Irenaeus lists several items that occur after the millennial kingdom: Great White Throne judgment, New Heavens and Earth, New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to the New Earth. These are literal events. Why would the millennium be any different? Irenaeus sees them all as literal and sequential (as drawn from Rev.  20:7 – 21:14). (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter 35.2)

So, when King Jesus reigns in His millennial kingdom, the whole creation is restored to a pre-fall kind of condition; the glory of His power and majesty is seen upon the earth in His reign; and, as Irenaeus stated the meek shall inherit the earth (Against Heresies, Book V, Ch 32.2). This is the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth.

10. Which eschatological viewpoint did Irenaeus hold and why should we consider it?

Irenaeus’ writings regarding eschatology show that he was a historic pre-millennialist. Historic premillennialism is defined by placing “the return of Christ just before the millennium and just after a time of great apostasy and tribulation. After the millennium, Satan will be loosed and Gog and Magog will rise against the kingdom of God; this will be immediately followed by the final judgment”. (See Eschatology: Four Views on the Millennium at Blue Letter Bible.) Historic premillennialism is a literal thousand-year reign of Christ’s kingdom upon the earth.

Simply put, historic premillennialism holds that certain prophecies in places like Daniel and Revelation are yet to be fulfilled.

This was not only Irenaeus’ view. It was the consistent and prevailing perspective by post-apostolic church fathers into the third century a.d. This included Clement of Rome (35-99), Ignatius of Antioch (?-110), Papias (60-130), Polycarp (69-155), Justin Martyr (100-165), Theophilus of Antioch (?-184), Tertullian (155-220), and Hippolytus of Rome (170-235)). (See Pre-Millennialism and the Early Church Fathers by Bob DeWaay )

You may be wondering, “If Irenaeus is so accurate, why do we never hear about him or his viewpoint?” Unfortunately, theologians have ignored Irenaeus’ writings over the centuries, most likely due to two distinct reasons:

      1. Irenaeus never referred to a pre-tribulation rapture of the church. He included the church within the final seven years (the Tribulation; the “70th week” of Daniel 9:24-27) of this present evil age. This is quite a sobering teaching to consider.
      2. Irenaeus believed the millennial reign of Jesus Christ upon the earth is literal and should not be allegorized. Many who believe the event of 70 a.d. was the fulfillment of other prophetically significant events push out the Second Coming to what is now the distant future and believe the millennium is now. And yet, we now have prophecies coming true about the regathering of Israel and its ruling itself, i.e. the time of the Gentiles coming to a close. But you hear very little to nothing about these prophecies being fulfilled because they have become irrelevant (for the most part) to the amillennial belief system.

    So, we conclude by asking, are you willing to consider Irenaeus’ writings regarding eschatology? What we believe about these things affects how we think about and live the Christian life. It tends to influence our worldview and the role of the church throughout the world. If we are looking at what might be the end of this present evil age, isn’t it incumbent upon us to understand and embrace the prevailing teaching of the post-apostolic church fathers?

See Part 1

Part 1 covers eschatological questions about the Antichrist, the False Prophet, the false worship associated with 666, and the Abomination of Desolation.

Reference

Irenaeus’ quotes are taken from his book Against Heresies, Book V, Chapters 25-36 which is available for download or to be viewed.

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