Irenaeus of Lyons and the Assumption of the Church

In this paper, I argue that Irenaeus’s view of the “assumption” of the church (Haer. 5.29.1) does not comfortably fit modern “rapture” views and is best understood in the context of his own soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology as a “partial rapture” position. In the past several decades, approaches to the assumption of the church in the early fathers has ranged from maximalist to minimalist positions. Maximalists have claimed historical precedence for a pre-tribulation assumption to heaven of the whole church while minimalists have either overlooked or denied passages in the fathers that seem to suggest some kind of connection between the assumption of at least some righteous prior to the coming judgment. On the surface, the evidence from the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons seems to bifurcate, resulting in advocates of both pre-tribulationalism and post-tribulationism conscripting him into their cause. By examining Haer. 5.29.1 in light of Irenaeus’s discussion of the bodily assumptions of Enoch and Elijah to heaven as types of the future assumption of the church (Haer. 5.5.1) and his understanding of “spiritual ones” (4.33.1; 5.6.1; 5.8.1, 2, 4) as a subset of baptized Christians, I resolve Irenaeus’s apparent contradiction of both an assumption of the church prior to the tribulation and the presence of the church under the antichrist during the tribulation. Given Irenaeus’s second-century ecclesiology and soteriology, his reference to the pre-tribulation assumption is best understood as a special privilege not of all Christians but of the “spiritual ones.” The rest of the church will then be tested and purified through the “last contest of the righteous,” facing the ordeal of the antichrist. This paper suggests that Irenaeus likely drew his eschatological expectation of a special privilege for the “spiritual ones” from similar teachings found in the Shepherd of Hermas Visions 2, 3, and 4.