The Trouble with Tribulation
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation…” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4a)
A few days ago on a Sunday, a demoniacally deranged man shot up a Christian church in Sutherland Springs Texas. The shooter was a radical atheist who wanted to kill everyone in that church. The list of the dead range from an 18-month-old baby to a 77-year-old grandmother. Unfortunately, this kind of violence against churches has become the new norm in the United States, and Christians are genuinely perplexed how something like this could happen here. But this phenomenon is nothing new to the Church of Jesus Christ. Both our Lord and the Apostles warned us in Scripture that times of persecution would come upon the people of God. They warned us that tribulation would follow genuine devotion to Christ. Throughout the centuries the authentic followers of Jesus Christ have suffered greatly for their faith. They have been slandered, mocked, beaten, crucified, stoned, ravaged by wild beasts, tortured on the rack, sold into slavery, burned at the stake, and had their heads cut off for the sake of the true Gospel. Even today, all around the world, Christians are suffering horrible tribulation for their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, more and more, this persecution is coming to America. And because of poor teaching, the American church is ill-prepared to deal with it.
We orthodox evangelicals pride ourselves in our ability to rightly divide the Word of God. We preach and teach the Historical / Grammatical method of interpretation, and rightly so. To us, the idea of reading allegories or other foreign ideas into the text is reprehensible. We also tend to pride ourselves on our ability to weed out theological positions that are purely based on false traditions and cultic mysticism, rather than solid scriptural evidence. This is because we rightly believe the Word of God is the inerrant final authority on all matters of faith and practice. For the most part, orthodox evangelicals contend for these hermeneutical principles in every area of theology, with one exception, eschatology. When it comes to the end times, preachers use all kinds of poetic license to develop their pet theories. No longer do they adhere to the notion that the Bible interprets the Bible; and that context determines the exact meaning of words. With eschatology, they tend to speculate when the bible is silent, and they diminish the clear meaning of God’s Word when it does not fit their narrative. With eschatology, all the rules are thrown out so they can change the meaning of words (just like cult leaders do) to support their aberrant end-time doctrines.
I will give you one glaring example of this trend using the word “tribulation.” The most popular end-times scenario, popularized by the late Tim Lehay and Jerry B. Jenkins in their Left Behind series of books goes something like this: The Great Tribulation is a period of future time when God’s wrath is poured out on the earth against unbelievers. This period of time lasts 7 years and marks the rise of the Antichrist. Since Christians are not subject to the wrath of God, all true believers in Christ will be raptured off planet earth just prior to the start of this seven year tribulation period. Sounds good, but there is a serious flaw in this definition of the word “tribulation.” Only a few times in scripture is the word tribulation used to speak of God’s punishment of the wicked. In 2 Thessalonians chapter one, God promises tribulation (affliction) to the ungodly immediately after He appears at His second coming. And in Revelation chapter two, Jesus says He will use tribulation (affliction) as a means of chastisement for the woman called Jezebel and those who follow her. All the rest of the references to tribulation are about Christians suffering affliction for their faith.
There is a serious problem with equating the concept of the great tribulation with the wrath of God. Because these ideas are two different concepts. Predominately the word “tribulation” in Scripture means the wrath of demoniacally inspired unbelievers persecuting the true believers of God. Thus, when authentic Christians are persecuted for their steadfast loyalty to the Savior Jesus Christ, they suffer tribulation. This tribulation is the wrath of Satan on genuine born again Christians. But on the other hand, “wrath” is God punishing the wicked for their sins, especially those who persecute true believers. Therefore, one concept is the wrath of God, and the other, the great tribulation, is the wrath of Satan.
Somehow through the writings of John Nelson Darby and C. I. Scofield, these concepts got intermingled and confused. To many evangelicals, Darby and Scofield are prophets of equal worth to the original 12 apostles. To them, when Scofield speaks, God must surrender to his interpretation. This is the kind of false traditionalism that many evangelicals unfortunately like. Since by their tradition, when Scofield speaks the debate is ended. And since Scofield has spoken, there is no need to test the spirits to see if they are of God. But if we really want to be true to our Reformation roots, we must examine what Darby, Scofield, Lehay, Jenkins and other pre-tribulationist say in the light of Scripture, just like anyone else.
Let’s get the definition of “tribulation” and see if it fits the Scofield / Lahay scenario. In Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, the word tribulation means “affliction.” He wrote that the great tribulation is a time when the fury (wrath) of antichristian powers are focused on the Palestinian Jews primarily, and on the Gentile witnesses of God secondarily. In other words, the great tribulation is the distress of God’s people when they are persecuted by the enemies of God. Additionally, in Arndt and Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, tribulation is defined by the Greek words thlibo and thipsis to primarily mean the distress of Christians as they are persecuted, afflicted and troubled by outward forces and circumstances. This definition is clearly taught by our Lord as He spoke to his disciples (the church) about the end-times,
“Therefore when you (the church) see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the house-top not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect sake those days shall be shortened.” (Matthew 24:15-22)
It is therefore evident by the context of Jesus Christ’s words that the great tribulation is defined as a time of horrible persecution of God’s elect, the church, who must flee from the wrath of Satan that comes by way of the Antichrist. The prophet Daniel said this period of time would last 3 ½ years and that “the power of the holy people (saints/elect) [would be] completely shattered.” (Daniel 12:7) Therefore the elect must endure through the great tribulation. This is the plain and correct meaning of both texts. And as the Lord tells us in the Book of Revelation,
“Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘Who are these arrayed in white robes, where did they come from?’ And I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ So he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:13,14)
To come out of something means you first have to be in something. These are Christians who were martyred in the great tribulation. Thus, the great tribulation is not God’s wrath on unbelievers, but Satan’s antichristian wrath upon authentic blood bought believers in Christ. The term “elect” means anyone who is in Christ at the time.
But again, based on the writings of Scofield and other per-tribulation rapture theorists, the great tribulation is equal to the wrath of God. However, there is no evidence of this in Scripture. And because the Apostle Paul tells us Christians are not “appointed to wrath” (1 Thessalonians. 5:9), they assume Christians do not have to suffer through the great tribulation. But there is nothing in Scripture that specifically states every Christian is exempt from tribulation, including the great tribulation. In fact the opposite is true, as the Apostle Paul said, “So that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you suffer.” (II Thessalonians 1:4,5)
Some Christians may be spared persecution in the great tribulation by the Lord in His sovereignty (Revelation 3:7-13), but many others will suffer for Christ. Even today, prior to the great tribulation, many people suffer horrible persecution and tribulation in hostile parts of the world, while other Christians live in relative peace and safety. During the great tribulation, a few pockets of Christians may be spared by God, but most Christians will endure the greatest tribulation the world has ever seen. And as Christ said, unless He shortened those days, no flesh would be spared. But for the sake of the elect (the Church), he shortens those days.
There is a massive multi-million dollar industry dedicated to the assumption that the great tribulation is equal to the wrath of God. These proponents of the pre-tribulation rapture make millions of dollars writing books and making movies assuring Christian they do not have to suffer persecution or tribulation for their faith prior to the rapture. But these massive, complicated and bulky theories are held up by the flimsiest of Scriptural speculation and wordplay. It is like trying to lift the weight of an elephant off the ground using a kite string. No matter how hard you try the weight will break that string. Defining the great tribulation as the wrath of God is the kite string that can’t support the theory. It is the lynchpin that connects the whole thing. Without it, the entire theory falls apart. The Left Behind doctrines are nothing more than giant sand castles, giving people the false hope of evacuation just prior to a tsunami of end-time persecution. So instead of soberly preparing people to face the tribulation to come, the American evangelical church is throwing parties in their fortresses made of sand. Instead of putting on the whole armor of God, the church is putting on its party hat. Instead of making solid disciples, the church is making spiritual revelers, drunk on the wine of end-time myths and fables. Once these notions are dispelled, the entire theory is washed away by the reality of Christ’s sobering predictions.
I believe the Lord is calling us back to His word. Back to counting the costs involved with true discipleship and devotion to Jesus Christ. We need to stop acting like the victory is final, because there is still more to come. We need to stop the elitist mentality that assumes persecution can never happen to us. We need to stop partying like we are already in Heaven. We need to stop the complacency and tom-foolery associated with false security. We need to take off our party hats and put back on the whole armor of God so we can stand in the evil day. We need to remember God has called us to be willing to suffer tribulation for His namesake. We need to be soberly prepared to walk through the great tribulation. We need to understand once again this world is not our home, and that we are only passing through on our way to our glorious reward in the life to come. We need to be prepared, along with our brothers and sisters around the world, to give up everything, even our lives if necessary, to be with the Lord in glory. The trouble with tribulation is that it is coming our way. Are you spiritually prepared?
[Contributed by P. E. Harris]
Harris has been a Christan pastor at Seely Community Church, teacher, and lecturer for 30 years. He and his wife Aloma live in Southern California. The Harris’ have 5 children and 8 grandchildren. Mr. Harris’ two books will be available in 2018. Christian Fiction: Royal Rodger and the Great King: And Christian Non-Fiction: Anchors of Salvation.