Will the Church Go Through the Great Tribulation?

If you attend an evangelical church, especially a Baptist, Pentecostal or non-denominational church, you might be surprised to know how many Christians do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture or in a “great tribulation” lasting seven years or that Revelation chapter 20 speaks of a literal thousand-year period (millennium) when Christ rules on earth.

According to LifeWay Research, only one-third of American Protestant pastors believe in a pre-tribulation rapture and only half believe in a future, literal thousand-year reign of Christ.1

Who Believes What

The prevailing interpretations of Revelation chapter 20 can generally be categorized into three options – premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism.

Premillennialists believe:

  • Christ will return physically to reign on earth for a thousand years.
  • Jesus’ return will result in a sharp contrast between the worst period of history (the great tribulation) and the best period of history (the thousand-year reign of Christ).
  • Christ’s second coming will result in Satan being bound for one thousand years.
  • Near the end of the millennium Satan will be released and launch a final rebellion that Christ will squash and Satan and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire.
  • There will be two physical resurrections, one for believers and one for unbelievers, separated by the thousand years of the millennium.
  • The arrival of new heavens and the new earth follow the final judgment.

Amillennialists believe:

  • The thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 are symbolic rather than literal and represents the entire church age. Persecution increases toward the end, prior to Christ’s return, but there is no distinct seven-year period of tribulation.
  • There will be no earthly, personal reign of Christ (no millennium). Christ’s rule is in the hearts and minds of Christians who experience trials and tribulations throughout the church age.
  • The two resurrections of Revelation 20 are not separated by a thousand years and are not both physical resurrections as in premillennialism.
  • Final judgment immediately follows Christ’s return, whereupon both the righteous and the wicked will enter into their respective final states.

Postmillennialists believe:

  • The thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 are symbolic rather than literal and represents the entire church age. Persecution increases toward the end, prior to Christ’s return, but there is no distinct seven-year period of tribulation.
  • The kingdom is present now and Christ rules in the hearts of men.
  • Prior to Christ’s return, the world will, over time, get better rather than worse. Evil will be reduced to negligible proportions through conversion of most of the world. When enough people submit to God, a long period of earthly peace of unknown length (millennium) will result.
  • At the end of the millennium a brief period of evil and apostasy arise associated with the Antichrist.Then Christ will return which will immediately be followed by a resurrection that includes all people, the final judgment and assignment of the wicked and righteous to their eternal destiny.

So, it would seem that for a Christian to consider the rapture debate to be of any import, she must first decide whether or not the millennium is a literal thousand-year period and if there is a distinct period of great tribulation to be rescued from.

We should probably not attempt to convince anyone of a particular eschatological position based on who has held it in the past. It is interesting, though, to realize that Christians we may look to for guidance understanding the Scriptures or for inspiration in missionary efforts, have held a position on the end-times we find untenable.

For example, William Carey was a postmillennialist. Jonathan Edwards, who ranks very high on my list of favorite theologians, was a postmillennialist. In the wake of the Great Awakening in America many Christians thought perhaps this amazing spread of the gospel meant the millennium was approaching. But, the optimism of postmillennialism is captive to the times we live in, to world events. Two World Wars, the Great Depression and horrifying genocides in the twentieth century, unsurprisingly diminished enthusiasm for the idea that the world was getting better.

The time we live in influences us greatly. When the Church undergoes persecution, a millennium brought about by a dramatic, sudden intervention of God’s power seems more plausible. Perhaps this is why the early Church (until the time of Augustine) was largely premillennial in its eschatology.

Revelation 20

Proponents of the different millennial views, understandably, believe their view best explains various biblical passages. However, Revelation 20 is the only place in the Bible that mentions a thousand-year period in which Christ reigns and Satan is bound. It is the focal point of the millennial debate.

George Murray (in defense of amillennialism) argues we should interpret an obscure passage in light of more clear statements. He contends that one can read the entire Bible without discovering the doctrine of two resurrections separated by a literal thousand years until he arrives at Revelation 20. Then, by interpreting one sentence literally, he is obliged to retrace his steps and re-interpret all eschatological passages in light of this one sentence.2

Another common argument from amillennialists is that the book of Revelation is structured so that it describes the period between Christ’s first advent and His second advent numerous times but with different emphasis. So, according to this reasoning, Revelation 20 starts a new description that begins with Satan’s defeat at Christ’s 1st Advent (the binding of Satan) and ends with judgment day at Christ’s 2nd Advent (Christ’s reign).3

Denver Seminary professor Craig Blomberg counters this latter argument by addressing the logical flow of thought in Revelation 19 and 20. Amillennialists and postmillennialists break the narrative between the two chapters because in order for the tribulation to refer to the church age, Revelation 20 must begin a new description of the church age starting with events that take place at the 1st Advent. But since the end of chapter 19 reveals the fate of two members of the unholy trinity (the beast and the false prophet), readers expect to hear next about the fate of Satan, the mastermind of the group. This is indeed what happens. Since Revelation 20 reveals Satan’s fate, it makes sense to consider chapters 19 and 20 together, thus placing the events of Revelation 20 at the 2nd Advent rather than the first, supporting the idea of a literal millennium.4


Of course, this by no means settles the matter. Differing methods of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and insights from other passages of Scripture contribute significantly to the differing conclusions reached by students of eschatology.

Pre or Post Tribulation Rapture?

Let’s lay aside for now attempts to resolve the millennial issue because, while it helps us understand what people believe, the purpose of this article is to answer the question – will the Church go through the great tribulation?

We don’t need to choose between amillennialism or postmillennialism to answer the question, because if either are correct, then there is no unique period of tribulation to escape from since the Church experiences tribulation throughout history.5 Also, neither teaches that the Church will escape the intensified tribulation at the end of the age.6,7

But what about premillennialism? Do all premillennialists believe the Church will be raptured before the tribulation? Evangelicals who believe Christ reigns physically on the earth for a thousand years and who believe there will be a future seven-year period called the Great Tribulation, typically subscribe to either historic premillennialism or dispensational premillennialism.

We don’t need to choose between historic premillennialism and post- or a- millennialism to answer our question because historic premillennialism teaches that Christ returns for his Church after the Great Tribulation. Only dispensational premillennialism teaches that Christ returns for his elect before the Great Tribulation (a pre-tribulation “rapture”).Therefore the debate as to whether the Church goes through the tribulation is really an in-house debate among premillennialists and centers around the timing of Christ’s return for his elect.

My next article will examine the pre-tribulation and post- tribulation rapture positions. After investigating the reasoning and assumptions that lead people to reach different conclusions about the timing of Jesus’ return while citing the same Bible verses, I will attempt to answer the question – will the Church go through the Great Tribulation?

Notes:

  1. Smietana, Bob (2016) “Pastors: The End of the World is Complicated” http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/04/26/pastors-the-end-of-the-world-is-complicated/
  2. Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (1979). Grand Rapids, MI:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p 242
  3. The End Times: A Study On Eschatology and Millennialism, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, September 1989, p 39-40
  4. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, e version, p 67
  5. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, e version, p 66
  6. The End Times: A Study On Eschatology and Millennialism, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, September 1989, p 22
  7. However, it would appear from current world conditions, that postmillennialists have little reason to worry about the increased season of tribulation at the end as it appears it will be a long time before the the world attains a period of peace comparable to their envisioned millennium.

 

References:

The End Times: A Study On Eschatology and Millennialism, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, September 1989

Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009

Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 1977

Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume Three, Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan Publishing House, 1994

One comment

  • You forgot the “Panmillenialism” – It’ll all pan out in the end! There may be some truth in it since only the Father knows when all this will happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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