Tag Archives: Church

Will the Church Go Through the Great Tribulation?

sunset heaven 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 Shepherd, One King, One Holy Nation

Both Israel and the Church are referred to in Scripture as God’s Bride.  But, there are other names they share.

Both Israel and the Church Are Called God’s Chosen People

Prior to giving Moses the Ten Commandments, God gave these words to Moses and instructed him to deliver this message to the Israelites:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5-6 (See also Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Psalm 135:4)

God worked on Israel’s behalf; He chose them for himself. Peter applies the description of Israel found in Exodus 19 to the Church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9

Both Israel and the Church Are Called God’s Holy Nation, Priests and a Treasured Possession

Both Israel and the Church are called out of humanity at large to be a treasured possession, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. God certainly could have described Israel and the Church using different terms, but the fact that he did not is significant. This is one reason for the teaching that the Church is a continuation of Israel, a continuation of the ingathering of a people of God in his redemptive plan.

Because of her idolatry, God said to Israel, “you are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea1:9). But Hosea also speaks of a future time of restoration when Israel and Judah are reunited under one ruler (v10). God, through Hosea, promises a future for Israel when they will again be his people:

I will plant her for myself in the land;

I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’

I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;

and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23

The New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament a lot, oftentimes, as noted above, applying to the Church verses originally addressed to Israel. I don’t believe these verses teach a Replacement Theology as some have suggested, but they do seem to indicate that God views his redeemed people as a whole.  For example:

What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—  even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;

and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”

and, “In the very place where it was said to them,

‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’” 

Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,only the remnant will be saved. Romans 9:22-26

Romans 9:24-25 applies Hosea 2:23 to the Gentiles. Not all Israel is saved, only the remnant. Paul is saying that not only is there hope for apostate Israel, who, because of disobedience were placed outside of the people of God, but there is hope for the Gentiles who were heretofore naturally outside the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). God calls to himself a people out of both groups.1

Jesus Is the Good Shepherd

I suppose one could still argue that the use of the same names for the Church and Israel does not disprove there are two groups of chosen people. The Bible, however, seems to go out of its way to say that there is no such distinction. Jesus appears to have settled the question in his declaration that he is the Good Shepherd.

God is the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 40:11). It is interesting that Jeremiah, in the context of God gathering the remnant of his flock, speaks of the righteous Branch of David who will rule as King and bring salvation:

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.

This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior. Jeremiah 23:3-6

We know this Savior and King from the lineage of David is Jesus (Matthew 1:1; Revelation 17:14; 19:16; 22:16; 1 Timothy 6:15).

Jesus Said Israel and the Church Shall Be One Flock

Jesus claimed to be the good shepherd who will not only gather the remnant of Israel, laying down his life for them, but will also shepherd and die for sheep not of the Jewish pen:

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father-and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.            John 10:14-16

Not only does God call his people out of both groups – he makes those he has chosen into one entity, one flock. Thus, it makes little sense to say that Israel and the Church are distinct and will spend eternity separated from each other with one group in heaven and the other on the New Earth.

This series of three articles has made the case that there is one people of God who has one Husband and one Shepherd and one King. Israel and the Church are not completely different entities with different eternal destinies. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian and not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. But those who truly are the elect, the chosen, share a common destiny.

The assumptions we start with when interpreting prophetic Scripture impact the conclusions we reach. If, when reading prophecy, we imagine that every occurrence of the word Israel refers to a national, ethnic entity with a future different from our own, then we are bound to err. But what other assumptions might lead us to conclusions about the future that are inconsistent with the way God deals with his people throughout the Bible? Upcoming articles exploring God’s Redemptive History will address some of these assumptions.

 

Note:

  1. Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (1988). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p 370