Just as one might expect, there is a significant amount of diversity with regard to the Second Advent among the early church fathers. This is to be expected since the Second Advent is a speculative matter until it actually happens. It would be a mistake to get dogmatic on a matter that was neither essential nor explicitly defined in Scripture. If we were to make some generalities with regard to the doctrine of the early church fathers in comparison with current conservative theology, we could make a few broad statements.
1) The ante-Nicene church unanimously agreed that Christ would return bodily to the earth, and establish his Kingdom on the earth. His Kingdom would be eventually given up to God the Father, which would consummate all of time by our reckoning. As far as the popular labels go, we could classify the ante-Nicene church as "Premillennial". (believing in a personal return of Christ before his 1000 year reign.)
2) Christ's return would involve cataclysmic events that would be evident to all of the world. The actual specifics of these events are in dispute, but the essence is that they are purposed for the destruction of the wicked and unrighteous. His subsequent physical return would be seen by all.
Although there is nothing here that is foreign to what now is commonly held, one must note that there is absolutely no evidence that anyone in the early church believed in anything having any resemblance to a pre-tribulational rapture. As a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to find the classifications and categories in the early church that are commonly associated with eschatology today. The eschatology of the church ran on to primary modes of thought; one that emphasized the victory of the church in the last days, and one that emphasized the struggle of the church against the antichrist before Christ's final victory. The former view has some general things in common with the opinion of dominion/ reconstructionist theologians of today, while the latter has some resemblance to a "post-tribulational" viewpoint, although the correlation breaks down in many places.. An important yardstick is the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, the text which lays out the "70 week " prophecy regarding the coming of Christ. Much modern eschatology uses this text to support the idea that there is a future seven year period in which God will revert back to His covenantal terms with Israel, chastise the world with a "Great Tribulation", and unleash an antichrist who will destroy a rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Almost every post-apostolic Christian would take issue with these concepts. Most early church fathers up until the early third century assumed that the prophecy of Daniel was fulfilled when the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Following are some extended quotes from the earliest writers on the Second Coming of Christ
Didache (100 A.D.)
Watch for your life's sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins be unloosed, but be ye ready, for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh. But as often as you come together, seeking the things that are befitting to your souls: for that whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you are not made perfect in the last time. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep turned into wolves, and love will be turned to hate; when the lawlessness increases, they shall hate and betray one another, and then shall appear the world deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders and the world shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. Then the creation of men shall come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and perish; but they that endure in the faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of truth; first, the sign of the outspreading in heaven; then the sign of the sound of the trumpet; and the third, the resurrection from the dead; yet not all, but as it is said: The Lord is coming and all his saints with Him, then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven."
The Didache is what would be called historical Premillennial position. In this case, the emphasis is on the cataclysmic events surrounding the coming of Christ. The anti-Christ, although present in spirit during the days of the apostle John (see I John 4:3), finds a final personification at the end. He will try and purge the saints with tribulation, but will be brought to an end at the visible coming of Christ. Notice that it is presumed that the believer church will experience this purging, evidenced by the repeated admonition to stand fast throughout these events.
Notice the distinction when compared with Justin Martyrís writing, which carries a theme of the ascendancy of the church.
Justin Martyr (First Apology 150 A.D.)
"He (Christ) should be believed on by men of every race, and how God calls Him His Son, and has declared that He will subdue all His enemies under Him, and how the devils, as much as they can, strive to escape the power of God, the Father, the Lord of all, and the power of Christ Himself; and how God calls all to repentance before the Day of Judgment comes."
(First Apology, XLV, 150 A.D.).
And that God the Father of all would bring Christ to heaven after He had raised him from the dead, and would keep him there until he had subdued His enemies the devils, and until the number of those who are fore known by Him as good and virtuous is complete, on whose account He has delayed the consummation.
(Dialogue with Trypho 155 A.D.)
The Father of all, has brought Him (Christ) again from the earth, setting Him at His own right hand, until he makes His enemies a footstool for His feet, which indeed happens from the time that our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, after His resurrection from the dead, the times now running into their consummation."
Justin's focus of the last days revolves around the dominion of the church and Christ's kingdom. He does acknowledge that the antichrist is given "time, times, and half a time" (three and one-half years) in which he can prevail over the saints. After which, the saints of God will have dominion over him until the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom. Given the historical context of the early church, with the bloody persecutions, and a emperor in Rome, declaring himself "god", it would be no surprise if some of the early church father's expressed that they felt they were living in the midst of those days of distress. Justin makes some allusions to this possibility. Nevertheless, Justin remains firmly optimistic with regard to the final victory of the church. This may be largely a product of Justinís experience of witnessing the gospel spread throughout the Western world. He writes in his First Apology that there "Is not a village where the gospel has not been preached."
Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 180 A.D.)
Irenaeus believed that the church was going to endure a three year and one-half years of tribulation, and that the antichrist would be a Jew from the tribe of Dan who would set up his throne in Jerusalem. He does mention his belief in a three and one-half year period when the antichrist would "prevail and force the church to flee". The antichrist would be destroyed by the Lamb of God at Christ's second advent. Irenaeus believed that the apostasy was not a future period, but was current, and that Christ would return at the end of 6,000 years of human history. Irenaeus was apparently the first to refer to a literal temple in Jerusalem as being an integral part of the end-times, although there was not a temple in Jerusalem in his day (and there is not one now).
Clement of Alexandria (The Stromata, 195 A.D.)
Most of Clement's writings are focused on refuting Greek mythology, but Clement does mention Daniel's 70th week prophecy. Clement goes into detail how the entire prophecy was fulfilled by the time the temple was destroyed (70 A.D.). He believed that Titus was the "prince who was to come" spoken of Daniel. Since the text from Daniel is the only one in the Bible that could be used to support a seven year tribulation, the logical conclusion of this is that the popular "dispensationalist" view with a seven year period, end-times temple in Jerusalem, and an antichrist who makes a covenant with Israel was not yet widely accepted.
Tertullian (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 210 A.D.)
"In the Revelation of John, again, the order of these times is spread out to view...in order that the world may first drink the dregs of the plagues that await it... and that the city of fornication may receive from the ten kings it's deserved doom, and that the beast antichrist and his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God...and after that, the blessed prerogative of the first resurrection may be ordained from the thrones...Since then, the Scriptures both indicate the stages of the last times, and concentrate the harvest of the Christian hope in the very end of the world, it is evident ...that which God promises to us receives it's accomplishment then."
Tertullian, like the majority of the fathers, also puts forth his research on how the 70 weeks of Daniel were completed with Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem. As above, this demonstrates that the "Dispensationalist" scenario, with a 7 year period of tribulation still in the future, was unknown at this time. Tertullian is also explicit in the fact that the church is ordained to enter into final combat with the antichrist, and that the first resurrection is subsequent to that.
Moving on to Origen, we find much of the same expectant optimism that we saw with Justin Martyr. The subjugation of evil in the focus of his eschatology.
Origen (On First Principles, 240 A.D.)
The end of the world, then, the final consummation, will take place when everyone (the wicked) will be subject for the punishment of their sins. A time when only God knows, that he will bestow on each one what he deserves...even his enemies being conquered and subdued. For thus says holy Scripture "The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." And if the prophet's language here be less than clear, we may ascertain it from the apostle Paul, who speaks more openly, thus, "For Christ must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet."
(Against Celsus, 240 A.D.)
For every form of worship must be destroyed except the religion of Christ, which alone will prevail. And it indeed will one day triumph, as it's principles takes possession of the minds of men more and more every day.
For Origen, the consummation of the church age means that the church has come to a maturity and unity in the faith, and Christ's enemies are subjected to Christ. Elsewhere he writes that Christ's prayer for his disciples to "be one, as We are one" finds fulfillment as the church becomes the form for the final manifestation of God's Kingdom. By the Second Advent, the church has come to ascendancy in the world through "word, reason, and doctrine", and at Christ's return, the unrighteous are swept away in judgment, or repent and join the Body of Christ.
Hippolytus (On Christ and Antichrist, 235 A.D.)
Hippolytus was the first recorded author to apply the Daniel's full 70th week to a future date, ascribing much of the prophecy once applied to Christ, to the antichrist. Likewise, he is perhaps the first to speculate that the Jews would build a temple again. He speculates on some possible interpretations of the "mark of the beast" and numerous other elements from Revelations and Daniel. Most of his writing on the Second Coming reflects a view consistent with many conservative evangelicals (a personal antichrist, a seven-year tribulation, the two prophets being two resurrected saints from the Old Testament, a rebuilt temple, etc.) but there is no "pre-trib" rapture stated or implied. In fact, he states quite explicitly
Now, concerning the Tribulation of persecution which is to come upon the Church from the Adversary, John wrote thus ...(Hippolytus here quotes from Revelation chapter 12)...That 1260 days (half of a "week") is the time which the tyrant (antichrist) is to reign and persecute the church.
Julius Africanus (Extant Writings, 240 A.D.) Since only a small fragments of his writings remain, we have very little of his work in existence. We do, however, have his chronology of the life of Christ along with his notes on Daniel. Africanus clearly writes on how Daniel's 70th week was fulfilled with Christ's first advent. As before, that would nullify that prophecy being applied to a future personal antichrist, cast doubt on a future literal temple, or seven-year tribulation.
Commodianus (Instructions of Commodianus, 240 A.D.)
For seven years the earth will tremble. But Elijah shall occupy for one half, Nero will occupy the other half...the Latin conqueror shall say "I am Christ, whom you always pray to"...Moreover, when the tyrant shall dash himself against the army of God, his soldiery are overthrown by the celestial terror; the false prophet himself is seized with the wicked one, and by the decree of the Lord, are thrown into Gehenna...The trumpet gives the sign in heaven, the lion being taken away, and suddenly there is darkness with the din of heaven...In the flame of fire the Lord will judge the wicked. But the fire will not touch the just, but shall all means lick up (the wicked)...From heaven will descend the city in the first resurrection; this is what we may tell of such celestial fabric. We shall arise again to Him, who have been devoted to Him.
Cyprian of Carthage (Epistle to the People of Thibaris, 250 A.D.)
The antichrist is coming, but Christ is coming also. The enemy goes about and rages, but immediately the Lord follows to avenge our sufferings and our wounds....Let the camp of God go to the battle-field which is appointed for us. Let the sound ones be armed...Wherefore put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand in the most evil Day...Let your feet be shod with evangelical teaching and so armed that so that when the serpent begins to be trodden and crushed by us, he may not be able to bite us or trip us up.
Cyprian here acknowledges a future antichrist, but envisions the Second Advent of Christ as a cataclysmic battle where the Church is pitted against the antichrist. In his opinion, our spiritual armaments are "mighty through God" and more than sufficient to ultimately tread upon and crush the serpent. He, however, does not deny the trials and persecutions that the church must endure throughout this ordeal.
Methodius (Banquet of the Ten Virgins, 295 A.D.)
For the delay (of the bridegroom) is the interval which precedes the coming of Christ...the midnight is the kingdom of the antichrist, during which the destroying angel passes over the houses. But the cry will go our "Behold the bridegroom cometh!" and a voice shall be heard from heaven, and the trumpet, when the saints and all their bodies shall be raised, and be caught up, and shall meet the Lord in the clouds.
Methodius clearly has the church on the earth during the reign of the antichrist and the judgment of God, but drawing from the similarity of the plagues from the book of Revelation and the plagues that hit Egypt before the Jewish exodus, implies that the church, although on the earth, is divinely protected from God's judgment upon the world system in a manner similar to how the Hebrews were protected on the night of the Passover. This is also alluded to in the Epistle to Diognetus (written by a disciple of the apostle Paul in the early second century) where the author notes that
the apostles are filled with understanding, the Passover of the Lord advances, and the choirs are gathered together.
Victorinius (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 300 A.D.) The writings of Victorinius follow closely to Hippolytus in style and opinion. Other than the identity of the two witnesses, and the identity of the name of the beast, they are almost identical in their eschatology. Just like Hippolytus and most of the other writers, he frequently stresses the extreme trials of the church during the tribulation.
Most other early writers (Epistle of Barnabas, Homilies of Clement, Shepherd of Hermas) reiterate the belief that there is not to be a literal temple again, for we are the temple of God. Because of the diversity of opinion, it is difficult to try to determine what, if at all, was the unified apostolic "rule of faith" regarding the Second Coming. The two streams of thought, the victory of the church on the earth, and the increase of wickedness wrought by the antichrist (including violence against the church), seemed paradoxical. In some of the more obscure writings we might find justification for almost any eschatological view. Amillennial. Post-millennial. Post-tribulational. Virtually all views, perhaps excepting the pre-tribulation rapture view. In conclusion regarding this subject, we might say that the early church held to a confrontational rather than escapists view of the Second Coming. Where we tend to think (and unfortunately, divide over) questions about when we are getting out of here, (Pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib), the early church was focused on being prepared for fulfilling their destiny in the midst of whatever might come.
The distinction in mentality we might liken to the Dunkirk vs. D-Day mentality. Both D-Day and Dunkirk were significant events in World War II. At Dunkirk, the allies were being driven into the ocean by the Nazis. Miraculously, an armada of ships was amassed in England to pick the tens of thousands of soldiers off the beach before the Nazis got them. It was a great rescue. On D-Day, on the other hand, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy and began the slow but relentless push to send Hitler back to Berlin, and ultimately, to defeat. Modern day eschatology is Dunkirk. The devil is coming, and we need a rescue. The debates between Pre, Mid, or Post trib is merely a question of how many casualties we take before we get off the beach. The fact that we are being driven back and are failing is presumed. In the early church, however, the eschatology was typified by D-Day. The apostles saw the "Last Days" as starting on Pentecost, and the invasion of the Kingdom of God onto this earth began. The early church fathers labored to drive back the enemy and had considerable success. The differences in view as to the wrath of the antichrist was merely a question of how much we may need to endure n our way to success and dominion on the earth.