It was 4:09 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, on Thursday, August 14, 2003. It started with a blip. Lights flickered, then went out; and in a few hours, it was dark from New York City to Cleveland and to Detroit, even into Canada. The August 25 front cover of Newsweek labeled the event “Blackout of 2003,” and called it “the largest power outage in our history.” Thankfully, the 50 million North Americans affected, took it quite well. Looting was minimal, and no one died.
But there’s a spiritual blackout coming within Christianity about what true Christians will endure, or escape, immediately before the second coming of Jesus Christ.
It’s no secret that multitudes of today’s prophecy teachers firmly believe that prior to “ ‘the great tribulation’ ” (Revelation 7:14, NKJV),* true believers will be suddenly whisked from earth to heaven in a mysterious event called “the rapture.” Perhaps you’ve seen bumper stickers reading, “In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.” Ministers often tell their congregations, “Future times will be tough, but don’t worry, we’ll be gone soon. Only unbelievers will endure the great tribulation, they say, for God wouldn’t allow the church He loves to suffer through it.”
Is this true? Let’s take a look.
Tribulation in the Bible
To begin with, if you look up the word tribulation in any Strong’s or Young’s Concordance, you may be surprised to discover that almost every reference is about what Christians pass through, not what they escape from. Jesus Himself told His followers, “ ‘In the world you will have tribulation’ ” (John 16:33; emphasis added). Paul told his converts that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22, KJV; emphasis added). On the Isle of Patmos, John wrote that he was a “companion in . . . tribulation” (Revelation 1:9; emphasis added). Speaking to His church in Smyrna, Jesus stated, “ ‘I know your works [and] tribulation’ ” (Revelation 2:9; emphasis added).
Therefore, at least in these texts, the idea of Christians escaping tribulation doesn’t fit the New Testament evidence.
Some might respond that these verses are talking about tribulation in general, not the great tribulation at the end. However, if the majority of the New Testament’s “tribulation” texts plainly refer to what true believers go through, then why would God’s Word suddenly shift gears by teaching that “the Tribulation” is something believers will not go through? Others argue, “If the church is destined to endure the great tribulation described in the middle of Revelation, then why isn’t the church mentioned after Revelation 4?”
Let’s take a closer look.
The church in Revelation
In Revelation 4:1, John was told to “ ‘come up here.’ ” Many conclude that this represents the rapture, and they think the church isn’t mentioned anymore. However, it was John who was invited to “ ‘come up here,’ ” not the church. And John did not actually go to heaven. He was simply taken up in a vision while his toes remained on Patmos. Secondly, the church is represented as being on earth after Revelation 4. How do we know this? Because Revelation says that the beast will make “war with the saints” (13:7; emphasis added). We also read about “the faith of the saints” (verse 10; emphasis added), and finally, during the mark of the beast crisis, it is “the saints” who have “the faith of Jesus” (14:12; emphasis added).
To identify these “saints,” we need only read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he wrote about “the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33). This tells us that wherever God’s saints are, that’s where the church is! Thus, it is God’s church, composed of saints, that will pass through earth’s final days prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ (see Revelation 14:12, 14–16).
If you really think about it, as hard as trials, conflicts, battles, and even suffering are, they can help us develop stronger characters if we endure them properly. In other words, tribulation can be good for us, not bad for us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul stated exactly that. Carefully notice the following: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3, 4; emphasis added).
The benefit of tribulation
About two years ago, my lower back became so sore that I could hardly walk. My wife even had to tie my shoelaces! This may seem minor, but to me, it was a “tribulation.” Yet this trial was actually good for me because it motivated me to start exercising regularly—which eventually healed my back.
More seriously, nearly three years ago, our three-year-old son Seth developed a seizure disorder. After talking with specialists, we discovered that Seth’s seizures were triggered by sleep deprivation. The result was that my wife and I have become very conscientious about making sure Seth follows a regular schedule and goes to bed early so that he will get a good night’s sleep. In retrospect, as hard as this trial has been for our family, our boy’s overall health and development have improved as a result of it.
The principle is this: trials and tribulations can become blessings if we deal with them properly. John Aughey once wrote, “God brings men into deep waters not to drown them, but to cleanse them.” “The gem cannot be polished without friction,” reports an ancient Chinese proverb, “nor man perfected without trials.” Another wise saying states, “A beautiful diamond is nothing more than a chunk of coal that made good under pressure.”
The same principle applies to God’s church passing through earth’s final tribulation before Jesus returns. Yes, times are tough now, but they will get tougher. Looming on the horizon is a “ ‘time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation’ ” (Daniel 12:1). What will be its catalyst? No one knows. Perhaps it will be an economic meltdown, a major terrorist attack, military conquest, or a sequence of horrific natural disasters. Whatever the event, or sequence of events, when earth’s last crisis hits, God’s people will go through it, not escape from it. And believe it or not, God will use this “great tribulation” to strengthen the faith of His people, to purify their hearts from the last stains of earthliness, and to fully develop their characters to reflect the image of His Son.
Shortly after the Bible’s prediction that there will be a “time of trouble,” these words appear, “ ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand’ ” (Daniel 12:9, 10; emphasis added).
In other words, “the wise shall understand” God’s purpose to “purify,” “make white,” and refine His people before the end. Thus, the popular teaching that Christians will escape the Tribulation is quite dangerous because it can easily lead to spiritual laziness, a lack of personal preparation, and even to a person’s falling away from God when the last crisis hits. Jesus understood this possibility, which is why, in His parable of the sower, He warned, “ ‘But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles’ ” (Matthew 13:20, 21; emphasis added).
Luke’s version of this same parable predicts that those who have “ ‘no root [will] . . . in time of temptation fall away’ ” (Luke 8:13; emphasis added). Here is the danger. The stony ground hearers are surprised by tribulation, caught off guard, and end up in full apostasy. Using the language of God’s last book, in the final times, such a class will take “the mark of the beast” (Revelation 16:2).
“If you are right and I’m wrong,” I often say to those who believe God’s church will escape the great tribulation in the rapture, “then we both have nothing to worry about, for I’ll be raptured too. But if I’m right and you’re wrong, I hope you won’t fall away when you are unexpectedly confronted by the mark of the beast.”
Where the idea came from
Personally, I’m not expecting to vanish in any great escape seven years before the end. Such a doctrine is really a key pillar of a system of interpretation called “dispensationalism,” which originated with a man named John Nelson Darby in the 1830s. For 1800 years prior to the 1830s, nobody in Christian circles had ever heard the idea that a secret rapture would occur seven years before the second coming of Christ, whisking true believers out of the world prior to the Tribulation.
In a July 1, 2002, Time magazine article entitled “The End: How It Got That Way,” reporters David Van Biema and Amanda Bower insightfully wrote, “His [John Nelson Darby’s] most striking innovation was the timing of a concept called the Rapture, drawn from the Apostle Paul’s prediction that believers would fly up to meet Christ in heaven. Most theologians understood it as part of the Resurrection at time’s very end. Darby repositioned it at the Apocalypse’s very beginning, a small shift with large implications. It spared true believers the Tribulation, leaving the horror to nonbelievers and the doctrinally misled.”
Did you catch that? Van Biema and Bower are correct. In the 1800s, the rapture idea was nothing more than a “striking innovation” developed by John Nelson Darby that ultimately “spared true believers the Tribulation.” In the last 30 years or so, this innovation has gone mainstream though novels and movies like Left Behind and others; yet the fact is that it’s just not biblical.
In His apocalyptic sermon about the many signs to precede His glorious return, Jesus declared, “ ‘But he who endures to the end shall be saved’ ” (Matthew 24:13; emphasis added). Based on this counsel, I fully expect to be on earth—if I live to see it—when the mark of the beast hits. In His parting words to His disciples immediately prior to His ascension, Jesus promised, “ ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age’ ” (Matthew 28:20; emphasis added).
That settles it for me. God’s people will be here to the end.
God will be with us
Yes, according to the Bible, God’s church is destined to pass through earth’s final tribulation, but if we maintain our faith in Jesus, He will see us through. Will it be easy? No. Should we prepare ourselves spiritually? Yes. Should we be afraid? Definitely not, for Jesus has not only promised to be with us “always,” but His Word declares, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7; emphasis added).
I’m reminded of the story of a little girl who once asked her daddy if she could sleep in his bed because she was afraid of the dark. “Sure, honey,” the father replied, so she climbed right in. Yet even though she was lying right next to her daddy in the dark, she was still afraid. “Daddy,” the child whispered, “is your face turned toward me?”
The reply was instant: “Yes dear, you don’t need to be afraid. Now go to sleep.”
Yes, God’s church will pass through earth’s final crisis. But if our hearts are fully on the Lord’s side, when we call on Him in our distress, our heavenly Father’s reply will be instant: “Don’t be afraid. My face is turned toward you. My Son is coming soon!” (see Revelation 21:20).