The Ante-Nicene Church and Non-Systematized Eschatology


A high percentage of the Ante-Nicene church fathers held to a premillennial return of Christ.  At times a given father made prima facie contrary statements regarding the timing and nature of this advent.  The inquiry here considers how these contrary statements may actually be in harmony when the father’s writings and historical setting are considered.  This is a responsible consideration to ponder as the statements are only contrary as opposed to contradictory.  These contrary statements deal primarily with the fathers holding to both imminency and prerequisites.  This is such a distinct oddity to be found in the Ante-Nicene Father’s writings that noted church historian Larry Crutchfield coined the term “imminent intratribulationism” in an effort to give some definition to the teaching.[1]  While many fathers could be utilized in this study, due to the need for brevity only a select few are examined.  These include Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian and the writer of the Didache.

The contrary statements regarding the return of Jesus among several Ante-Nicene Fathers speak to a time in church history when there was no systematized eschatology.  Several Ante-Nicene writings are briefly drawn upon to demonstrate the veracity of this thesis.


 In “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” Clement makes some claims that deal with the imminent return of Christ.  However, he also explains that Christ is going to save the Church from wrath and would return to the temple.  This seems to be a problem as if Christ is coming back in only one stage then the Church would not be able to avoid the very wrath Clement refers to, nor could His coming be without prerequisites.  Clement summarizes his views on the coming of Christ here:

Ye foolish ones! compare yourselves to a tree: take [for instance] the vine. First of all, it sheds its leaves, then it buds, next it puts forth leaves, and then it flowers; after that comes the sour grape, and then follows the ripened fruit. Ye perceive how in a little time the fruit of a tree comes to maturity. Of a truth, soon and suddenly shall His will be accomplished, as the Scripture also bears witness, saying, “Speedily will He come, and will not tarry;” and “The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Holy One, for whom ye look.”  (Clement of Rome, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, Kindle Electronic Edition Chapter 23, Location 729-735.)

Clement uses language drawing upon classic Scriptural illustrations regarding the Second Coming (E.G. Matt. 24:32-33).  He does this to stress that Jesus will both come soon and suddenly.  This is the case because Clement attributes the words to God’s will being accomplished.  The will is then defined through the quoting of Scripture (Hab. 2:3, Heb. 10:37, Mal. 3:1).  How exactly does Clement hold to Christ not tarrying and yet teach that when he comes it will be to His temple?  Clement certainly could not have been speaking of Herod’s temple, as this letter was written well after its destruction.[2]  Given that there was no temple when Clement wrote this, it would have to be built before the Second Coming could occur.  This is then a clear prerequisite that Clement puts on the return.  Jesus coming soon and suddenly seems like a teaching on imminency.  A prerequisite as significant as the building of a new temple would abrogate any normative view of Jesus coming soon and suddenly.  This would be the case even if Clement was not speaking to true imminency but would allow for quickly occurring prerequisites (a type of expectancy).

It is difficult to postulate how this example of an imminent intratribulationial statement can be harmonized without resorting to baseless speculation.  There is however at least one possibility that can be gleaned from his writings.

Let us steadfastly contemplate those who have perfectly ministered to His excellent glory. Let us take (for instance) Enoch, who, being found righteous in obedience, was translated, and death was never known to happen to him. Noah, being found faithful, preached regeneration to the world through his ministry; and the Lord saved by him the animals which, with one accord, entered into the ark. (Clement of Rome, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, Kindle Electronic Edition Chapter 9, Location 418-425.)

This is an excellent example that speaks to Clement’s teaching that believers are not to suffer God’s coming wrath upon the world.  This is not speculative as Clement says, “The righteous were indeed persecuted, but only by the wicked. They were cast into prison, but only by the unholy; they were stoned, but only by transgressors; they were slain, but only by the accursed…”  According to Clement, God was not the persecuting agent upon the just.  To Clement, God is not looking to harm the believers with His wrath.  Therefore, based on his reference to Enoch and the Ark, it may be possible to harmonize the contrary statements.  When Clement speaks about coming soon and suddenly it may be about Him appearing in some way to either translate the believers (the reference to Enoch here) or protect them in some manner from His wrath (the reference to the Ark).   The reference of the temple then could be limited to the Parousia, while the preceding statements may not be.

This is only a possibility as Clement does not explain the order of events he is teaching on, nor does he indicate that there is any sort of inconsistency in his views.  His “First Epistle to the Corinthians” is more concerned with encouraging the reader to seek righteousness and encourage him with the knowledge that Christ will soon return than provide specifics, let alone systematization.


The “Epistle of Barnabas” is attributed to one “Barnabas.”  It is this turn of the first century[3] work where more imminent intratribulational teaching is found.  Barnabas says, “On this account there will be a resurrection…for the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one]. The Lord is near…”[4]  The day being at hand indicates that Barnabas believed that the evil things and Satan (or the Anti-Christ/”wicked one”) were just about to appear.  He looks to this as proof that the Lord is near.  Barnabas is clearer than Clement in that he looked to certain events as one unit to happen soon, as opposed to the return itself happening suddenly.  However, there is one considerable prerequisite that seems to make claims of the day being at hand seriously in question.  He writes:

Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, “Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years.”  Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And He rested on the seventh day.” This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the-sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day.  (Barnabas, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, Kindle Electronic Edition Chapter 15, Location 8603-8612.)

Here is a solid early church example of the doctrine of the sexta-septamillennial construct.  This is actually a common teaching among the early Church.  The basic idea is that because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, there will be six thousand years of Earth’s existence before the Millennium.  This early Church doctrine comes primarily from 2 Peter 3:8 where the days of creation from Genesis 1 are taken and applied to Peter’s atemporal explanation of days being to God as Millenniums and the reversal also being true.  The seventh Millennium is then looked to as the ultimate fulfillment of the Sabbath.  The true Sabbath here is the millennial reign of Christ.

Barnabas places the Second Coming to after the appearing of the Wicked Man (for Jesus comes to destroy him).  Then Jesus will truly “rest” during the seventh day/Millennial Kingdom.  Barnabas’ teaching here of the eschatological timetable is important.  He is quite specific about when Jesus will return.  Recall that Barnabas said that the day was at hand when the Wicked One would be destroyed by the return of the Lord.  How could this be possible given that the sexta-septamillennial construct would require a minimum of two thousand more years to pass?

These may in fact only be prima facie contrary teachings to those far removed from Barnabas’ historical setting.  One way to reconcile Barnabas’ statements is to postulate that Barnabas believed that in his time that six thousand years had passed since creation.  As astonishing as this may seem, it is the simplest way to reconcile Barnabas’ teaching on the soon return with his eschatological timetable.  Furthermore, Barnabas is not alone in this phenomenon (as can be seen in the Irenaeus and Cyprian sections).


Irenaeus does not see an imminent return of Christ, but does see it as conceivably happening soon.  He speaks on the possible name of the Anti-Christ and why it should not be asserted as of yet.

It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfillment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved. For if there are many names found possessing this number…We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this time present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision.  For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.  (Irenaeus, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, Kindle Electronic Edition Chapter 30, Location 32608-32633.)

Irenaeus teaches that a couple of things must occur before the Anti-Christ is revealed.  First must come the division of the kingdom into ten. Then the kings over those divisions must be advancing their kingdoms when another leader comes to terrify them.[5]  Only after these things happen will Irenaeus become comfortable with pointing out with certainty the identity of the Anti-Christ.  Irenaeus advises his contemporaries not to caste out names.  Apparently there were many names at that time that could fit the number “666” in what must have been a fairly common use of Greek gematria.  In the use of Irenaeus’ words above, some text was not included which is represented by the “….”  It is here where Irenaeus weighs the likelihood of a litany of names which include Evanthas, Lateinos, Teitan and Titan.[6]  Irenaeus admits that many of these names are possible or even probable (in the case of Leteinos).

Even with a list of distinct possibilities, Irenaeus further explains why the identity should not be asserted by appealing to John not revealing his actual name in his apocalypse.  Irenaeus explains that the vision was beheld recently and identifies it as happening during the end of the reign of Domitian (95-96 A.D.).  Irenaeus was writing “Against Heresies” in the middle of the first century.  He teaches that the vision was given to John in a time that was almost in Irenaeus’ generation.  By his own reasoning it would seem as if Irenaeus should conclude that John was not trying to identify any names of those in the first or (at least) early second century.  This is because Irenaeus says that it was not necessary for the present time that the name of the Anti-Christ should be revealed.  However, he seems comfortable in taking contemporary candidates seriously.  Therefore, Irenaeus must have thought it was a distinct possibility that the Anti-Christ would soon be revealed.

Irenaeus’ readiness to accept possible names for the Anti-Christ does not settle with his belief in the sexta-septamillennial construct.

For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years shall it be concluded. And for this reason the Scripture says: “Thus the heaven and the earth were finished, and all their adornment. And God brought to a conclusion upon the sixth day the works that He had made; and God rested upon the seventh day from all His works.”  This is an account of the things formerly created, as also it is a prophecy of what is to come. For the day of the Lord is as a thousand years; and in six days created things were completed: it is evident, therefore, that they will come to an end at the sixth thousand year.  (Irenaeus, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, Kindle Electronic Edition Chapter 28, Location 32515-32520.)

Among other places in his writings, Irenaeus touches here upon the sexta-septamillennial construct belief.  However, in this instance Irenaeus adds another detail that was only implied with Barnabas.  The Scriptural Day of YHWH is identified as the “day” that occurs after the first six “days” or millenniums.  This is made all the more clear with, “…the kingdom, that is, upon the seventh day, which has been sanctified, in which God rested from all the works which He created…”[7]  The Millennium, the Kingdom and the true Sabbath are seen as one in the same by Irenaeus.

The inconsistency found with Irenaeus is two-fold.  He did not believe that John had an immediate reason to reveal the identity of the Anti-Christ.  Yet, even though the Apocalypse had recently been penned, Irenaeus believed the Anti-Christ could be near.  This alone is only a minor inconsistency.  Yet, coupled with Irenaeus’ teaching of the sexta-septamillennial construct, his views on the timing of the Parousia seem at odds.  Again, the only reasonable conclusion is to say that Irenaeus may have believed that six-thousand years had nearly passed since creation in his lifetime.  The belief that six thousand years had passed since creation during the first few centuries A.D. represents a remarkable aspect of pre-Nicene Creed eschatology.


But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One! What that exultation of the angelic hosts! What the glory of the rising saints! What the kingdom of the just thereafter! What the city New Jerusalem! Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame!  (Tertullian, ed. Menzies, Kindle Electronic Edition, The Shows Chapter 30, Location 3077-3081.)

Tertullian demonstrates here that he expects the Second Coming to be either imminent or within a very short amount of time.  When Christ returns He will act as the ultimate victor.  Apparently the saints are to experience the resurrection soon after this advent.  Just after the resurrection is the beginning of the Kingdom, and finally the appearance of the New Jerusalem.  This list of events is only a summation, but still represents a specific order.

The inconsistency regarding the Second Coming in Tertullian’s writings primarily come from his teaching on when the Anti-Christ will be made manifest.

For that day shall not come, unless indeed there first come a falling away,’ he [Paul] means indeed of this present empire, ‘and that man of sin be revealed,’ that is to say, Antichrist…For the mystery of iniquity doth already work; only he who now hinders must hinder, until he be taken out of the way.’ What obstacles is there but the Roman state, the falling away of which, by being scattered into the ten kingdoms, shall introduce Antichrist upon (its own ruins)? And then shall be revealed the wicked one, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming: even him whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power, and signs, and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.  (Tertullian, ed. Menzies, Kindle Electronic Edition, On the Resurrection of the Flesh Chapter 24, Location 22051-22058.)

Based on the previous context “that day” is referring to the Second Coming of Christ and a resurrection of the dead.[8]  By “present empire” Tertullian is referencing Rome.  He identifies the “man of sin” as the Anti-Christ.   Once the Anti-Christ has come, only then will Christ return. Because in doing so He will destroy the Anti-Christ.  It is of special interest, that Tertullian calls the breakup of Rome an “obstacle” to the rise of the Anti-Christ.  He sees the division of Rome as absolutely essential before the Anti-Christ can even become known.  And only after the Anti-Christ has risen will Jesus return.  His return will be in part as a response to the evil dominion that Satan has established via his proxy.  Indeed, Rome’s coming division is seen by Tertullian as the first requirement for the end.

There is also another and a greater necessity for our offering prayer in behalf of the emperors, nay, for the complete stability of the empire, and for Roman interests in general. For we know that a mighty shock impending over the whole earth—in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes—is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire.  We have no desire, then, to be overtaken by these dire events; and in praying that their coming may be delayed, we are lending our aid to Rome’s duration.   (Tertullian, ed. Menzies, Kindle Electronic Edition, Apology Chapter 32, Location 1355-1362.)

Tertullian actually teaches that Christians should pray for the stability of Rome.  He speaks of the most important reason being that it would keep the end of things at bay.  It is of note that he even desires that prayer be for Roman interests in general, not just the continued existence of the empire.  As seen earlier, Tertullian understands that when Rome is divided into ten kingdoms, the Anti-Christ will arise, and the real Christ sometime after that.  He fears this division happening so much that he does not even want to risk Rome’s interests at all.

Surely, Tertullian does not fear the coming of Jesus Christ.  However, his fear of what must come first is clearly very strong.  He understands that this will be a terrible time and would rather it be delayed.  It is likely he desires this delay to last for his entire life so that he does not have to experience what is to come.  Like Amos, he strongly advises not seeking out the day of the YHWH.  Because he speaks on the desire to keep Rome intact so that the coming shock upon the Earth be delayed, then he logically believes that these events are not necessarily determined to happen in his near future.  And if this is the case, then how can Tertullian proclaim that the Second Advent is fast approaching?


First and foremost of interest is Cyprian’s bold assertion on the imminent return of Christ.  Cyprian teaches, “Let us always with solicitude and caution wait for the sudden coming of the Lord, that when He shall knock, our faith may be on the watch, and receive from the Lord the reward of our vigilance.”[9]

Cyprian teaches that the coming of the Lord will not only be sudden but should be watched for with solicitude.  For the translator to use “solicitude” indicates that Cyprian taught without compunction that Christ could return at any moment.  Cyprian required no prerequisite here.

Cyprian also held to the sexta-septamillennial construct belief.  He writes, “It is an ancient adversary and an old enemy with whom we wage our battle: six thousand years are now nearly completed since the devil first attacked man.”[10]  He teaches that he is living towards the end of the sixth thousandth year in which the Anti-Christ will be in power.  This statement confirms that at least one father believed that six thousand years had passed since creation.  While it is not proof that the others who held to the construct also believed the earth was of such an age, it provides solid historical evidence that the belief did exist.  Therefore, it makes it more likely that others holding to the construct also believed that six thousand years had passed since creation.

Despite his teaching on Christ coming suddenly, Cyprian appears to require something else to happen first; the rise of the Anti-Christ.  He writes, “For you ought to know and to believe, and hold it for certain, that the day of affliction has begun to hang over our heads, and the end of the world and the time of Antichrist to draw near, so that we must all stand prepared for the battle…”[11]

Cyprian teaches that Christ could return at any moment, yet he says that he is awaiting the Anti-Christ.  His language regarding the return of Christ speaks to imminency. He teaches that the Anti-Christ and the end of the world are to draw near.  But by “drawing near” a timetable is expected.  The Anti-Christ must come first and then the end of the world.  The critical thing to notice is that if Jesus could return suddenly, then He could return before the rise of the Anti-Christ.  It would be an anomaly in eschatology to believe that the Second Advent would occur before the rise of the Anti-Christ.  As such, it does not seem likely that Cyprian is even implying this.  Perhaps he is alluding to a coming of Jesus that is not the Parousia?  This is a plausible way to reconcile his contrary statements.  But because Cyprian never makes any plain statements about this, it cannot be asserted.  The only thing that is clear is that Cyprian’s various teachings on the Second Coming are vague and at times contrary.


The Didache was written sometime in the late first century.[12]  While the writer may not be considered an Ante-Nicene Father in that he is unknown, he yet wrote a very influential work when Christianity was still in its infancy.  Of interest here are the striking eschatological comments.  The first of these begins with an exhortation in regards to the unknown time of the coming of Christ.  The work says, “Watch for your life’s sake.  Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come.”[13]  The writer exhorts the reader to be prepared as to when Jesus will come cannot be known.  Yet, the writer later teaches that there are some things that need to occur before Jesus comes.

…and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning.  Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish, but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself.  And then shall appear the signs of the truth: fist, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet.  And third, the resurrection of the dead — yet not of all, but as it is said: “The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.”  Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.  (The Didache, Kindle Electronic Edition Chapter 16, Location 170.)

This entire quote is provided to demonstrate the litany of things that the Didache teaches will happen before Jesus comes upon the clouds of Heaven.  These requirements are at odds with the first teaching that believers needed to look as they did not know when the Lord would return.  Obviously a specific time of the return being unknown would be in harmony with the list of requirements.  However, there would then be no need to “be ready” and watch for one’s life sake in regards to Jesus’ coming.  The concern would be to watch out for the world-deceiver first.

The writer of the Didache could be speaking about watching for the Lord as a way to encompass watching for all tribulation events that come before as well.  This is entirely plausible as there would then be no more confusion.  Because the text does not actually indicate that this is the case, it is only a theory.  The Didache as it is written seems to make statements about the requirements of the coming of Jesus that belie the need to watch for him coming at any hour.


Several of the Ante-Nicene Fathers have been reviewed in respect to their beliefs on the premillennial Second Coming of Christ.  Now that some cursory analysis has been completed, the most immediate conclusion is that Larry Crutchfield was right.  These early fathers did indeed hold to some inconsistent views in regards to the Tribulation and the return of Jesus.  They did largely hold to the idea that they lived around the time of the Tribulation and that Jesus could return at any second.  However, they also taught that He would return only after various requirements were met.  The most common of these requirements were the rise of the Anti-Christ and the need for six thousand years to have passed since creation.  What is truly fascinating about these men is that they would hold to contrary views with what appears to be a complete ignorance on the problem of doing so.  Either that or they were more comfortable understanding different Biblical teachings in a more isolated fashion.  That is, they may not have felt forced to modify their ideas to fit a system.

Therefore, the examples provided speak to a phenomenon in Ante-Nicene eschatological writings.  The writers appeared to be more concerned with teaching on a particular topic one by one over the need to systematize those teachings.  This was the case even if the various teachings did not immediately harmonize.

[1] Larry Crutchfield, When the Trumpet Signs. ed. Thomas Ice  and Timothy Demy, “The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation in the Apostolic Fathers” (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1995), p. 103.

[2] A. Cleveland Cox, Ante-Nicene Fathers volume I (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Preface, Location 104.

[3] A. Cleveland Cox, Ante-Nicene Fathers (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Introductory Note, Location 7609.

[4] Barnabas, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 21, Location 8856.

[5] Irenaeus, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 30, Location 32604.

[6] Irenaeus, Location 32616-32628.

[7] Irenaeus, Chapter 33, Location 32814.

[8] Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3.  Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 24, Location 22046.

[9] Cyprian, Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume V (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Treatise 1, Location 12759.

[10] Cyprian, Treatise 11, Location 16809.

[11] Cyprian, Epistle 11, Location 9058.

[12] The Didache (Amazon), Kindle Electronic Edition: Introductory Note, Location 11.

[13] The Didache Location 170.


  1. Thank you for summarizing the eschatological views of the early church fathers. This was a great service to me, since you quoted them without attempting to fit their statements with any given view of eschatology.
    May I offer this explanation as a possible way of harmonizing their statements?
    The church father’s statements seem contrary when we assume they are referring to the coming of Christ in its specific sense, that is, only the actual appearing of Christ.
    If the coming of Christ in their view included all of the accompanying precursors, just as harvest time includes the ripening and the actual harvest, as Jesus says, “When you begin to see all these things, know that the coming of the son of man is near, even at the door”, then the watchfulness for the sudden appearing of Christ would include a watchfulness for each of these precursors as well, since they would progress rapidly toward the coming of Christ.
    The point at which fruit ripens to its picking point is sudden, but requires constant attention so that point is not missed. A lazy farmer who is not attentive to the signs of ripening, will miss that sudden point of ripeness when the fruit should be picked.
    This would harmonize the church father’s sense of a sudden coming of Christ with a watchfulness for certain things that must happen first.

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