Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Photo by Jackson Hayes on Unsplash

This is part of a series on the nature of hell. See below for the rest of the series.

We use words in church life that are familiar to us in English, but some of these words actually come to us from the original Greek. When it’s time to “baptize” someone, we take our name for this practice from the Greek word baptizo. When we speak of a “deacon” in the church, this comes from the Greek word diakonos. While this is true of many of the words we use, it’s not the case when we talk about hell. There are three different words in the original languages that have often been translated as “hell,” and they don’t all mean the same thing. It’s helpful for us to know what these words are, and what they mean.

Sheol

In early English translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the Hebrew word Sheol was often translated as “hell.” But now in most current translations you won’t find the word hell at all in the Old Testament. Instead Sheol is usually translated as “the grave,” but it can also descriptively refer to “the pit” or “the depths.” Sheol was a vague concept. It referred to the state of being physically dead (hence “the grave”), but it’s unclear whether this was meant to be a location or even a conscious state. Whatever it was precisely, everyone went to Sheol after they died; the righteous and the unrighteous alike—it didn’t matter—everyone went to the grave in the Old Testament. This is all very interesting, but the Old Testament concept of Sheol doesn’t tell us anything about the fate of those who fail to place their faith in Christ before they die.

Hades

In the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament period and the birth of Christ (what we refer to as the “intertestamental period”), Jewish understanding of the grave was influenced by other cultures in ways that went beyond the Old Testament Scriptures. These influences on early Jewish culture came from Egyptian, Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife, and it became common for first century Jews to use the Greek word Hades in place of the Hebrew Sheol. Hades had much the same meaning as Sheol, it was the grave or the “place of the dead.” And, as with Sheol, Hades was the fate of everyone who died, righteous or unrighteous (although there was now often the idea of some kind of separation within Hades). 

Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Notice that neither of these words (Sheol or Hades) refer to what happens to the lost after judgment, or to where someone might spend eternity. So these words in Scripture (and these passages) don’t tell us anything about the eternal fate of the unsaved. These words refer only to the grave—the state of being dead—not to what we think of in Christian theology as hell.

Gehenna

We often hear the observation that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else in the Bible. Of course, as we saw above, Hades is more accurately translated “the grave” or “the place of the dead” rather than “hell,” so none of these verses should be considered as references to hell. Another word Jesus used that is often translated “hell” is Gehenna. What do we know about Gehenna?

The first thing we should be aware of is that Gehenna was, and still is, a literal place. It’s a valley just southwest of the old city of Jerusalem. The Greek word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew ge Hinnom. We see this place in the Old Testament as the “Valley of Hinnom” or sometimes the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” So what significance do we see in the Old Testament and in history for the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna? There were four events that Gehenna was known for, all having to do with fire:

  1. Gehenna was the valley outside Jerusalem where the people of Israel sacrificed their children, burning them in fire on altars to the pagan god Molech. (See 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:6.)
  1. These idolatrous altars were later defiled and broken up, and the valley, Gehenna, was cleansed with fire. (See 2 Kings 23:10-16.)
  1. God spoke through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah of a coming judgment of fire that would be carried out in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). (See Jeremiah 7:28-34; 19:1-15; 32:32-35.)
  1. In AD 70, Titus—responding to the Jewish rebellion—destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed all the inhabitants and burned their bodies in Gehenna.

The word Gehenna began taking on different connotations with some Jewish teachers prior to the ministry of Jesus. Some merged the fire associated with Gehenna with their developing concept of Hades, with the righteous going to Paradise and the unrighteous to Gehenna, a fiery place of torment. There was widespread disagreement among these Jewish teachers concerning the nature and duration of Gehenna. In fact, it seems they debated just about everything having to do with Gehenna (who would go there, how long they would be there, what would be the final outcome, etc.). 1

As I mentioned earlier, some Christians make the claim that Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. As we’ve seen, the places where he speaks of Hades would be about the grave, not hell. But it’s very true that Jesus used the word Gehenna more than anyone else in Scripture. The word is found 12 times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6), and all but one of these are in the words of Christ in the Gospels (and these only in the synoptic Gospels). So what did Jesus mean by Gehenna? Biblical scholars have different views. (I should note that many of these references are of parallel accounts in the Gospels, and that Jesus actually only spoke of Gehenna on 4 different occasions.)

Some think when Jesus used the word Gehenna he meant hell, much like these other Jewish teachers. Others aren’t so convinced. In the Old Testament ge Hinnom never refers to anything like hell. It’s always speaking of the literal Valley of Hinnom. Was Jesus following these contemporary Jewish teachers in their understanding of Gehenna, or was he using Gehenna in a way that would be consistent with Jeremiah and every other Old Testament reference? This question is especially meaningful when we consider that Jesus was always challenging their common assumptions and understandings regarding what were, to them, familiar concepts such as Messiah, kingdom, etc. Many scholars have concluded that when Jesus used the word Gehenna, he was following the understanding of Jeremiah, and applying this to the coming judgment of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, in AD 70.

There’s another aspect of this we need to consider. If this was their common word for “hell,” it’s curious that—other than one passing reference by James—Jesus is the only one in the New Testament who uses this word. Why is that? Paul never uses this word; Peter never uses this word; John never uses this word (even in his Gospel); the author of Hebrews doesn’t use this word. This word is only used by Jesus when ministering in a distinctly Jewish setting, and by James in a very early letter, also in a predominantly Jewish context (note James 1:1). Paul often uses other Jewish words and concepts in his letters—but not this one. It’s hard not to see this divergence as lending credence to the idea that Jesus is intentionally referring to the judgment of Jerusalem to come, which would be so vividly, literally and historically fulfilled in the actual Gehenna. This would follow the strong pattern of John the Baptist and Jesus warning of this very judgment: Matthew 3:10; 23:37-38; 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 3:9; 19:41-44; 21:5-6, 20-24. If Gehenna was the common word for hell, why didn’t Peter, John or Paul ever use it?

So, when we begin to look to what Scripture tells us about hell, we need to first recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t say anything explicitly about hell per se. (It does have a lot to say about judgment, of course, and we’ll look at this in a future post.) Many of the New Testament passages we may have thought speak of hell (the references to Hades) are actually speaking of death or the grave, not hell. And even the Gehenna passages are likely referring, not to hell, but to the judgment of Israel in AD 70. This still leaves many other passages that are relevant to our study of hell. For instance, the “lake of fire” is referenced in a 2-verse section in Revelation, and Jesus spoke of both “eternal fire” and “eternal punishment.” We’ll look at these verses in context very soon.

1. Bradley Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), “Chapter 3: The Gehenna Tradition(s)”

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

The question of hell

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Most evangelical Christians have believed in a never-ending hell. We’ve believed this because it’s what we’ve been taught from Scripture. But regardless of how much we trust what we’ve been taught about hell, when we think of people actually experiencing endless torment, with no possibility of relief, we wrestle with this as reality. Some Christians deal with this unpleasantness by just thinking about it as little as possible. One could even suggest that if someone hasn’t been deeply troubled by the concept of hell, they probably haven’t thought much about it. But, sooner or later, most of us struggle with making some sense emotionally and theologically of hell. And we’re not alone. John Stott once wrote of the idea of eternal, conscious hell:

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain. 1

J. I. Packer expressed his own struggle with hell: 

Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you! 2

C. S. Lewis wrote of hell: 

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. 3

Few Christians relish the thought of unsaved people being subjected to eternal conscious torment (or completely ceasing to exist), but we’re committed to biblical truth and willing to faithfully believe what the Scriptures teach us. Some have shown just how challenging this issue is, though. For instance, read what Denny Burk has to say about the never-ending punishment of hell:

This view of God’s judgment is not a cause for embarrassment for Christians, but will ultimately become a source of joy and praise for the saints as they witness the infinite goodness and justice of God. 4

Even many who believe in an eternal hell will recoil from this picture, but it challenges us to reflect on our own response to hell. After all, hell is a part of God’s plan, something that God himself made part of his ultimate solution for the problem of sin and rebellion. How could we be embarrassed by part of his plan? Are we more loving and merciful than God? But yet, how could we not struggle with the idea of eternal conscious torment? So we need to be very clear about what the Scriptures actually teach, to either be firmly convinced in our mind that this is the teaching of Scripture or to see that maybe this is not what the Bible teaches.

How should we approach this kind of study?

So, how do we approach studying this kind of issue? There are a few things I’d suggest:

First, begin with any necessary background. There’s some information we need to understand before trying to compare different views. So, in the next post, we’ll go over the different words used in Scripture for hell, and what they meant in their original context. After that, we’ll look at some of the history of how the earliest Christians understood hell.

Next, we need to spend some time delving into the exegetical [drawing from the explicit reading of Scripture] case for our traditional view and for any other view. We’ll look at the foundational claims supporting the eternal conscious punishment view. We’ll also carefully, biblically examine the core question: Will some people be eternally lost? The eternal conscious torment view and the annihilation view both say, “Yes, some people will be eternally lost.” The universal reconciliation and restoration view says, “No, no one will be eternally lost. God will ultimately reconcile and restore all of his creation.” We’ll see which scriptural case is the strongest.

After making sure we understand relevant background information and have studied the key biblical passages, we’ll look at broader theological arguments. How does the character of God affect how we understand this issue? Which view best fits what Scripture teaches about the gospel of Christ? Which best fits into the whole span of the biblical story? How do we deal with scriptural themes such as judgment, love, forgiveness, justice, mercy, death, reconciliation, punishment, restoration and victory?

When I compare differing theological views, I’m not looking for merely the one that can marshal the most impressive list of Scripture passages and arguments.  Most views can be presented in a rhetorically effective way, especially if we consider one view by itself. No, what I’m looking for are proponents of one side who can do an even better job explaining the other side’s passages. I’m looking for the view that makes the best sense of all of Scripture, not just a narrow list of proof texts. When observing an exchange between a Calvinist and an Arminian, I want to see if the Arminian can give a better understanding of Romans 9, and if the Calvinist can give a better understanding of Romans 11, and which one can make the best sense of the flow of Romans and the rest of Scripture. So in considering differing views of hell, I want to see who can best explain all of the relevant passages and who can present the most biblically and theologically comprehensive and coherent view.

We want to make sure we’re not basing any belief on our emotional preferences. However, we also can’t divorce our emotions from a study that includes concepts such as the love of God, restoration of relationships, and the suffering of judgment. If we were to remove all the passages in Scripture that speak of emotion or intentionally affect our emotions, we’d be cutting out a huge chunk of the Bible! So we recognize this kind of issue will touch us emotionally, but we don’t make our emotions the court of final appeal.

How does this work? Let me give you one example. I hesitate to use this particular example because I don’t want to alienate any readers, but I think it’s helpful to show the approach I’m describing. So if you happen to disagree with me regarding the issue I’m about to use, please be patient with me, hear my heart and see past the issue itself to the point I’m trying to make.

Before I was able to serve vocationally in pastoral ministry, I worked for years in business management. I worked with female peers and worked for female supervisors. I’ve seen wonderful managers—men and women, and I’ve seen horrible managers—men and women. The effectiveness of any manager never had anything to do with their gender. So I was inclined to accept a more egalitarian view of gender roles in church ministry [with no distinction at all in church leadership roles for men and women]. Especially considering my views on church polity (church leadership by a team of coequal pastoral elders without one senior pastor), it would have been so easy to simply include women in our team of pastoral elders.

And so I’ve read all the major books and articles from the different views on this issue, being perfectly willing to be convinced of the egalitarian view. But I’m not just looking for a view that’s plausible, one that’s convincing enough. For me as a pastor, it not only has to be a view I can accept, it has to be a view I can teach consistently and faithfully from Scripture. And if it’s a view I’d like to believe, I’m even more careful to make sure I’m not simply seeing what I want to see. No, any view has to stand up to the scrutiny through which I know our people will put it when I teach it to them interactively! The more I studied the books and articles presenting the egalitarian view, the more convinced I became of the soundness of the complementarian view [men and women are equal but with different roles in church leadership].

Now, some will strongly agree with me, and others will just as strongly disagree with me. But the issue itself is not my point (and I’m always willing to reconsider any viewpoint). I’m also not holding myself up as some perfect standard of balance, implying that you can trust my conclusions. I’m only saying this is the way I try to process different claims of biblical truth—even to the point of rejecting views I’d like to embrace—and this is the kind of approach I think we all need to take in examining these kinds of issues.

If we’re not willing to consider an alternative viewpoint concerning a belief such as hell, then we’re dangerously close to assuming our own omniscience, that we already have all knowledge and perfectly understand all truth. Of course, that would make us God, and we know that’s not true! We like to say that we “just go by the Bible,” but we always study the Bible from the perspective of our traditions, our preconceptions, and often our lack of knowledge regarding the original context of what’s been written. Nobody “just goes by the Bible,” and it’s actually kind of arrogant for us to think that—in 2,000 years of church history—we’re the ones who automatically have the untainted, unobstructed view of what the Bible is actually saying. This doesn’t mean we can’t come to real, confident conclusions, but we need to make sure we’ve done our homework. That also means we’ve taken the time to truly understand alternative viewpoints before we disagree with them or dismiss them. Ultimately, we may not be convinced of a new view (new to us, that is); that’s fine. But we need to be wiling to change our views if that’s where a careful study of God’s Word leads us. I love the old saying:

If you never have to change your mind,
you’re probably not using it.

So, we’re willing to change our mind, but we’re first going to rigorously examine the differing views—including our own. We’re going to push up our sleeves and do our homework. Amen?

  1. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314-315.
  2. J. I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 117.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940), 94.
  4. Denny Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 19.

Related post:

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Exploring Hell series:

The question of hell

Hell in the Bible: Understanding the biblical words

Hell in the early church: What did early church leaders believe about hell?

Understanding the “eternal fire” of hell

Do other passages teach eternal conscious torment?

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? The Old Testament pattern

Is there a biblical case for universal salvation? New Testament passages

Considering the theological case for eternal conscious torment

Considering the theological case for universal salvation

Theological challenges to universal salvation

What about annihilationism?

Some closing thoughts on the nature of hell

Different evangelical views on the nature of hell

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

We recently posted the article below on our church website.

Updated May 19, 2022

There’s an old saying that the church should be “reformed and always reforming.” This means that we’re “reformed” in the sense of holding to the authority of God’s Word above all else, and we’re “always reforming” by not assuming any doctrine is true simply because it’s traditional for us. Instead, we seek to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) by searching the Scriptures to see what’s true. We want to be so committed to biblical truth that we’re willing to reexamine any particular teaching in light of Scripture to make sure it really is biblical.

The right for each believer to scripturally examine teachings and to determine for themselves the biblical soundness of any view is a sacred one given to us by God. Because of this, we strive to protect the freedom of people in our church—as much as possible—to hold sometimes differing views. Of course, we must be united in our commitment to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ for us to be a Jesus-following church. And there are certain issues about which we have to be reasonably on the same page to be able to function as a cohesive church (for example, issues such as speaking in tongues or baptizing infants). But we try hard to not unnecessarily encroach on the freedom and conscience of each Christian.

The Orchard is rooted in the evangelical free church tradition, one that’s historically been committed to a similar approach. For instance, evangelical free church associations often don’t have official positions on such issues as predestination, the security of the believer, spiritual gifts, baptism, the timing of the rapture, the age of the universe, etc. We leave these issues up to each church to work out for themselves. This “majoring in the majors instead of the minors” has long been part of the heritage of the evangelical free churches. Early in our history, this was referred to as the “significance of silence.” The idea is that we remain “silent” about these kinds of secondary issues in the sense of refraining from make any official pronouncements (but we continue to study and discuss together any issues concerning Scripture, theology and the life of the church).

Some beliefs can become so traditional that Christians end up unaware there even are other viewpoints. When Martin Luther and other reformers began challenging certain traditional beliefs, these beliefs had been the accepted teaching of the church for over 1,000 years. Most Christians at that time weren’t even aware there could be a biblical alternative. It’s not quite as dramatic, but many of us can remember when most of the people in our churches weren’t aware there’s any biblically viable view of the rapture other than the belief it would happen before the tribulation, seven years prior to the return of Christ. For example, this was true of the Evangelical Free Church of America (a free church denomination in the U.S.). In the early 1980s, the churches in the EFCA had to reexamine the issue of the rapture and decide whether they would allow Christians and churches in the denomination to hold differing views. (At that time, they didn’t allow any other view except the pretrib or “Left Behind” view.) Ultimately they decided they would allow people to hold differing views, and now a large number of people, including pastors and leaders, in their association hold views on the rapture of the church that differ from the “traditional” view of a pretrib rapture.

Another belief about which Christians have historically held differing views is the nature of hell. This is another issue where many of us are surprised to learn that other biblical views even exist! Even for pastors, it can be illuminating to learn that 1st century Jews (during Jesus’ life on earth) didn’t hold just one default view on the nature of hell, but had multiple, differing views. We can also be surprised to learn that for the first 600 years of the history of the church, pastors and leaders held differing views regarding hell, that this wasn’t a point of great debate or controversy, and that it’s very unlikely that our traditional understanding of hell was the dominant view during this time. Throughout the history of the church there have been leaders and groups of Christians who held different views than the current traditional view. And now the question of the nature of hell has again become a topic of discussion the last two decades, and increasingly so the last few years. Just what are these differing views that believing Christians have held over the centuries? Here’s a very brief description of each view:

Eternal Conscious Torment (or Punishment)
This is the belief that’s probably most familiar to all of us. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for eternity without hope of any release or end to their torment.

Annihilationism (or Conditionalism)
This is the belief that when the Bible describes the wages of our sin as “death,” it means death in the sense of actually ceasing to exist. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will go to hell, where they will suffer for a certain amount of time but will be ultimately consumed, they will finally die and will cease to exist.

Universal Reconciliation and Restoration
This is the belief that God not only loves each person and desires that each person be saved, but that he will ultimately accomplish his desire by bringing each individual person to salvation through faith in Christ, completely triumphing over hell and death. It’s the teaching that those who have not placed their faith in Christ will experience the judgment of hell, but that hell is both loving and redemptive, that it accomplishes God’s purpose of bringing even the most recalcitrant sinner to the point of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and thus God will completely restore his creation.

Two of these views may be completely new to many, and even sound very strange. Notice that each view includes the reality of hell and judgment. Each view also insists on faith in Jesus Christ as absolutely essential for salvation. None of the views contradict any core, essential teaching of historical, biblical Christianity, and proponents of each view build their case drawing directly from Scripture. Where they differ is in how they understand, in light of Scripture, the purpose and final outcome of hell. As we previously noted, leading Christian pastors and leaders of the first 600 years of the church held these differing views on this issue without any major controversy. The early creeds produced by the church didn’t address the nature of hell at all. Throughout church history there have been pastors and teachers who held these views concerning hell. And there are solid, reputable evangelical pastors and scholars today who hold these same views. 

After much prayer and multiple studies and discussions, our church has decided that—while we may not all completely agree regarding this issue—all of our people, including our pastors and leaders, should have the freedom to hold and teach from Scripture these differing views on the nature of hell. As always, we pray that the way we address this issue would result in God being glorified, that the church would be edified and strengthened, and that we would be faithful witnesses of God’s truth and love to the world around us.

I plan to write more on this subject, but if you’d like to check out books that compare these differing views on hell, you could begin here:

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

Four Views on Hell, second edition by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

Perspectives on Election: 5 Views by Chad Owen Brand, Jack Cottrell, Clark Pinnock, Robert Reymond, Thomas Talbott, and Bruce Ware

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The number of the beast

Many years ago, I had a friend who was in a band. (Didn’t we all?) One of the songs he wrote was titled 665—The Neighbor of the Beast. If you were at all familiar with bands like Iron Maiden, you’ll appreciate the humor of this parody. Of course, if you peruse the titles of songs from many Christian albums, especially from the early Jesus music of the 70s, you’ll find surprisingly similar subject matter. What caused all of this fascination? The “number of the beast” comes from Revelation 13:17-18, which refers to:

. . . the name of the beast or the number representing his name. Wisdom is needed here. Let the one with understanding solve the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666.

Now, there are a number of questions concerning this passage:

What is the number?
The traditional reading is 666, but some early manuscripts record the number as 616. And there is still some question among scholars as to which reading is correct. If 616 is actually the number in the original manuscripts, there are a lot of highly speculative books and materials that will need to be withdrawn from publication!

What is the number supposed to mean?
According to the passage above, this number represents the name of the beast or Antichrist. How does it do that? In the first century, each of the letters in the Greek alphabet (as well as other alphabets) had a numeric value. It was common to total up the value of the letters in a person’s name. For instance, Jesus’ name in Greek apparently totals 888. This is the number of his name. The number 666 (or 616) is the combined numeric value of the letters in the Antichrist’s name.

So, what’s his name?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work backwards. It’s not like a code; we can’t work back from the numbers to determine a specific name. Many potential names have been suggested over the years, from Nero to Ronald Wilson Reagan (get it? 6 letters in each name) to www (as in world-wide web). Each of these claims has problems, by the way. It’s interesting that some scholars prefer the number 616 because it works better with Nero’s name in Latin. Even if this number did point specifically to Nero, it’s very possible he was intended to be a type (or model) of the Antichrist to come. One thing we’re not told to do is somehow use this number to figure out ahead of time who the Antichrist will be.

The mark of the beast

The earlier part of the passage above tells us:

He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.

Revelation 13:16-17

Again, we should break this down to a few observations:

This is a twisted attempt to mimic the seal God places on his people.
Remember passages such as Revelation 7:2-3:

And I saw another angel coming up from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. And he shouted to those four angels, who had been given power to harm land and sea, “Wait! Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have placed the seal of God on the foreheads of his servants.”

Once again, we see Satan trying desperately to be like God.

How literal is this description?
Most of us have been drawn into discussions about a coming cashless society and whether this might prove to be the mark of the beast. But we need to slow down a bit. Remember when we study Revelation we need to assume each description is symbolic unless something in the text indicates it’s literal. (For more on this, see earlier posts here and here.) Does God literally place a seal on the physical foreheads of his servants? Or does this symbolize a spiritual identification of us as God’s, as if we are spiritually “branded” by God as his?

Is the mark of the beast a literal mark on a person’s physical hand or forehead? Or does it spiritually identify a person as belonging to the Antichrist (and therefore Satan)? And what about this issue of buying and selling? If this is symbolism, what does it symbolize? Is it possible this description is both literal and spiritual? These are not easy questions, and it would take an entire post (or more) to work through all of the possible interpretations. For now, we need to realize we won’t clearly understand what each element in Revelation means—at least not before these things occur. Yes, the ever-increasing push toward a cashless society is compelling and provocative. But we need to be careful not to assume too quickly what constitutes fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The mark of the beast will accompany the worship of the Antichrist.
We will know the mark of the beast when we see it. We’ll have no doubt what it is because it will be an integral aspect of the worship of the Antichrist. Let’s zoom out again in our passage and see a bit more of the context:

And he [the second beast or false prophet] required all the earth and its people to worship the first beast [the Antichrist], whose fatal wound had been healed. He did astounding miracles, even making fire flash down to earth from the sky while everyone was watching. And with all the miracles he was allowed to perform on behalf of the first beast, he deceived all the people who belong to this world. He ordered the people to make a great statue of the first beast, who was fatally wounded and then came back to life. He was then permitted to give life to this statue so that it could speak. Then the statue of the beast commanded that anyone refusing to worship it must die. He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.

Revelation 13:12-17

Anyone who takes this “mark” will understand they are identifying themselves as belonging to the Antichrist.

A note on the false prophet

Again, expanding our scope in Revelation 13, we see in verse 11 a description of this “second beast”:

He had two horns like those of a lamb, but he spoke with the voice of a dragon.

Who is the Lamb? In Revelation chapters 5-6 we see the Lamb is Christ himself. So this false prophet will appear to be like the lamb, or like Christ. He may even be a recognized religious figure. But his words will expose him as following the schemes of the devil.

What is Babylon in Revelation 17-18?

In chapter 17, we’re introduced to a woman who represents a city that represents a world power. (Confused yet?) In the next chapter, we see the ultimate fate of this woman/city/world power. It’s utterly devastated and destroyed. What or who is this describing?

The great prostitute.
Our first clue is the way she’s initially described:

“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.”

Revelation 17:1-2

In biblical prophecy, adultery speaks of unfaithfulness to God. But this woman isn’t just unfaithful to God; she has prostituted or sold herself in order to gain something for her unfaithfulness.

The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality.

Revelation 17:4

So her unfaithfulness has made her very wealthy and powerful, and given her an indulgent, decadent lifestyle. And not only has she given herself over to this obscene adultery against God, she’s drawn the rest of the world into this perversion.

The mother of all prostitutes.
The description continues:

A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus.

                                                                    Revelation 17:5-6

In another place (1 John 4:2-3), John explains there is a spirit of antichrist that has always been present. This doesn’t mean there is no personal Antichrist who will rise up in the last days, only that he will embody a spirit or mentality that has always been around. In the same way, Babylon is the “mother” of all who share in this heart of spiritual prostitution and adultery against God.

Babylon was the site of the first organized, societal rebellion against God (Genesis 11:1-9). Many scholars trace the origins of paganism to ancient Babylon. (Much occult tradition echoes this.) This false, adulterous religion seduced the people to turn from faithfulness to the one, true God and give themselves over to adulterous worship of the sun and moon, and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This ungodly perversion was carried into all cultures, and so Babylon truly is the mother of all spiritual prostitution and obscenity.

Associated with the Antichrist and his government.
In Revelation 17:15, we learn this prostitute rules over masses of people of every nation and language. But she doesn’t represent government itself. We’re told repeatedly in chapter 18 that the kings of the world commit adultery with the prostitute (and they mourn for her when she is destroyed). And in 17:3, we read:

There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it.

We’ve seen this beast with its ten horns (i.e. kings or powers) before. So the women or prostitute isn’t the final one-world government, but she’s associated in some way with it. Is the woman driving the beast where she wants it go, or is he taking her where he wants? She does rule over masses of people. Possibly because of her power over these people, “The scarlet beast and his ten horns all hate the prostitute [Revelation 17:16].” So, they are associated, probably even cooperating, but the Antichrist hates the prostitute.

Who is the prostitute?
Here’s where we need to be careful and see the forest for the trees. Some think the prostitute will literally be a rebuilt Babylon. But Babylon here seems to symbolize the origin of this heart of spiritual adultery. 17:9 speaks of “seven hills where the woman rules,” and 17:18 says “this woman you saw in your vision represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” This seems to point to Rome. And, interestingly enough, Rome was sometimes called by the nickname Babylon.

But why was Rome called Babylon? Because she had followed in Babylon’s perverse ways of spiritual prostitution and persecution of God’s people to secure her wealth and power. The “spirit” of Rome was merely the current manifestation of this “spirit” of Babylon, this heart and mentality of unfaithfulness against God, embracing of his enemies, and hatred of his people. The political government of Rome worked together and cooperated with Roman paganism and false religion. The two served to consolidate each other’s power over the masses and helped each other become increasingly wealthy.

Many Bible teachers believe this prostitute, Babylon, represents all false religions and faiths (including corrupted forms of Christianity). Religion, as opposed to genuine faith in Christ, has prostituted itself and committed adultery with those who hold the power and wealth of the world. It has “deceived the nations with your sorceries” and slaughtered those who remain faithful to the true God (Revelation 18:23-24). But one day all this false religious perversion and obscenity will come crashing down.

Doomed to destruction.
Chapter 18 vividly describes the downfall of this seemingly great power. Her fall will be so sudden and so devastating it will shock the world and cause those who partnered in her adulteries to mourn for her. Apparently, God will allow the Antichrist to have a hand in the destruction of this long-standing false religious system (17:16-17). Remember he will “exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [2 Thessalonians 2:4].” It seems poetic justice for God to use a false christ to destroy the false religions of the world that put their faith in this satanic figure rather than the one true God. Of course, any success the Antichrist enjoys will be extremely short-lived.

It’s appropriate for us to close this section with the warning God gives to his people regarding this seductive adultery of false religion, this spirit of the age:

Come away from her, my people.
Do not take part in her sins,
or you will be punished with her.

Revelation 18:4

After Christ puts an end to this deception and perversion, he will establish his kingdom on earth. Ultimately, we see the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth (Revelation 21-22). Where Babylon represented spiritual prostitution against God, the new Jerusalem symbolizes the intimate union with God he has always planned for us: heaven on earth; God living among his people.

We end this series by remembering the most important truths concerning the return of Christ, on which we all agree:

Jesus is returning.

We must be ready.

Maranatha!

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends [see above]

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

“. . . Hope you guess my name.”  **
I can recall, as a child, listening to adults seriously considering whether Henry Kissinger might be the Antichrist. (Some will be amused by that, others shocked.) In some circles, ‘guessing the Antichrist’ seemed almost like an evangelical pastime. In the past few years, I’ve heard people wonder out loud whether either George W. Bush or Barack Obama might be the Antichrist (depending on their politics). It’s probably too much to ask for us not to speculate regarding who may or may not be this malevolent, prophetic figure. But just what exactly is this Antichrist about whom everyone is so curious?

Many non-Christians are also intrigued by this mysterious character. This interest is likely due to The Omen and similar films and books, references in punk and heavy metal lyrics, and just general interest in prophecy and the end of the world. Unfortunately, this has created a lot of misinformation about this key, last days figure, and even Christians sometimes fail to distinguish the biblical from the merely sensational. What do we know from Scripture about this guy?

A leader rising from obscurity
The Antichrist will rise suddenly from the masses. He will most likely be involved in the leadership of an international coalition that in some way incorporates elements of the ancient Roman Empire. This connection with Rome could be geographical, but will likely be a “revival” of its cultural, legal and political heritage. This coalition will be (or is symbolized by) a confederacy of ten powers (Daniel 2:26-48, 7:15-28; Revelation 13:1-2). At some point in the Antichrist’s rise to power, three of these powers are subdued in some way (Daniel 7:24).

Europe (and all of the Western World) still carries in its cultural DNA the enduring influences of the Roman Empire. At times, some leaders and nations have attempted to be intentional standard-bearers and preservers of the Roman legacy. Examples of this would include the Holy Roman Empire (of which my history prof was fond of saying it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) and even Germany’s Third Reich. Because of this historical connection of Europe with Rome—and because of the prophecies of a 10-nation coalition—the establishment of the European Common Market, and then expansion to 10 nations (gasp!), drew the attention of a lot of Christians.  Of course, this coalition continued to expand and develop into the current European Union, which has far more than 10 member states.

This doesn’t mean Europe is no longer of interest concerning these prophecies, but it does provide us with a valuable lesson. We shouldn’t be too quick to declare what current development does and does not fulfill specific end times prophecies. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of speculation now and then, but we must hold our speculations loosely. And we must never confuse our educated guesses with the clear teaching of Scripture.

Appearing as a great man of peace
Before this leader shows himself to be in opposition to Christ, he will present himself in place of Christ. Some believe it’s foretold in Scripture that he will arrange a treaty with Israel (and presumably her neighbors) that will allow the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 9:27). Is it a coincidence the very nations spoken of so prominently in end times prophecies are consistently at the heart of geopolitical conflict today? Imagine if a world leader was able to broker a seemingly real and lasting peace in the Middle East. Wouldn’t he be hailed as a hero . . . or more?

We’re told that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and it should come as no surprise his chosen servant will do the same thing. Rather than be viewed as a usurper of power who has evil intentions, this leader will be hailed as a great deliverer from war and oppression. Anyone who can remember the euphoric devotion felt by some toward Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or Barack Obama in 2008 can get a taste of the adoration people will have for this man. He’ll seem like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi all rolled up into one (with maybe a touch of Elvis or Michael Jackson). He’ll be the most charismatic person anyone has ever seen.

Bringing the world together
Today we deal with division among world religions, which often serves to exacerbate cultural conflicts. It’s fascinating though that most of the world religions are each anticipating a great, final deliverer. Many Jews still look for the Messiah. Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims are awaiting the Mahdi or 12th Imam. The Mahdi is to come before the Day of Judgment to redeem the world from oppression and injustice. Those who embrace him will be shown to be true Muslims.

Many different schools of Buddhism are waiting for the bodhisattva Maitreya, a final Buddha who will come, manifest perfect enlightenment and teach the world the true Dharma or teaching. All denominations of Christianity (along with loosely associated faiths such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism) are anticipating the return of Jesus. Even many occult groups and “New Age” teachers are expecting some kind of Messianic figure with a “Christ-consciousness” to lead us into a new age of enlightenment.

When this incredible, captivating man of peace and enlightenment comes on the world scene, he’s going to be hailed as a savior. He’ll inspire complete loyalty, even devotion. He’ll be seen as the answer to the world’s problems—political, social and spiritual—the great Christ-figure for whom everyone has been waiting. It will seem there’s finally a way to bring all the different world cultures and religions together in a common harmony and devotion. For those who have been saying all religions are different paths to the same truth, this great leader will be the ultimate confirmation. People will be saying, “If there was ever a Christ, it’s this man!” For many—who have refused to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ—there will be no defense against this overpowering delusion.

Declaring himself to be God
At the midway point of this 7-year period, the Antichrist enters the temple of God and declares himself to be God. This is what the Bible refers to as “the abomination of desolation.” (Scholars disagree as to whether this will occur in a literally reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem or if this symbolizes something else, possibly having to do with the church, which is now the temple of God.)

For that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed—the one who brings destruction. He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 (compare with Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27)

Notice this man doesn’t just declare himself to be above the God of the Bible. “He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [emphasis added].” This means he sets himself above Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Krishna, whatever. For some, this will be enough to shock them out of their reverie. For others, it will only ensnare them even more into this satanic lie.

A cheap imitation
We need to remember that Satan doesn’t just want to oppose and defeat God; he wants to be God. He wants to rule over all and be worshiped and adored. He has no creative power within himself, so all he can do is copy and twist and pervert who God is and what God does. To be like God, Satan will devise his own version of the Trinity. He will put himself in the place of the Father. The Antichrist is not an actual incarnation of Satan (Satan can’t really emulate God), but he will serve in place of his “son.” And Revelation describes a False Prophet who will fill the role of the (un)Holy Spirit and direct the people to worship the Antichrist (Revelation 13:11-15).

Not only will Satan manufacture this unholy trinity, but he’ll apparently attempt to reproduce the resurrection. Revelation 13:3 describes the Antichrist suffering a fatal wound that is subsequently healed. This miraculous sign will be so publicized it will become a catalyst for greater devotion and worship of the Antichrist and even of Satan himself.

Openly opposing God and killing God’s people
After the Antichrist declares himself to be God, his mask of humble peace-seeking will be discarded and he will become increasingly arrogant, power-hungry and blasphemous. The other people who have resisted God and refused to embrace the truth will look on with glee as this satanic leader exerts more and more control. Because he will be viewed as a savior who is bringing all peoples and faiths together, anyone who resists his vision will be seen as stubbornly obstructing world peace and harmony. To those people whose consciences are turned upside down, it will seem right to hunt down and dispose of these hateful enemies of humanity. Thus will begin the worst period of persecution the world has ever witnessed.

I also asked about the ten horns on the fourth beast’s head and the little horn that came up afterward and destroyed three of the other horns. This horn had seemed greater than the others, and it had human eyes and a mouth that was boasting arrogantly. As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them . . .

“Its ten horns are ten kings who will rule that empire. Then another king will arise, different from the other ten, who will subdue three of them. He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. He will try to change their sacred festivals and laws, and they will be placed under his control for a time, times, and half a time.”

Daniel 7:20-25

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. . . . For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones.

Matthew 24:9, 21-22

This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them.

2 Thessalonians 2:9-10

Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for 42 months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling—that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. . . . This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful.

Revelation 13:5-10

Doomed to failure
Just as with the plagues of Egypt, it will become more and more obvious the plagues poured out during the tribulation are from the hand of God. Instead of causing the Antichrist and his followers to repent, this knowledge will drive them to be even more blatant in their hostility and rebellion against God. Ultimately this will lead to open, attempted war with God—what we know as Armageddon—which will be swiftly and thoroughly crushed.

As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them, until the Ancient One—the Most High—came and judged in favor of his people. Then the time arrived for the holy people to take over the kingdom. . . .

“He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. . . . But then the court will pass judgment, and all his power will be taken away and completely destroyed. Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will last forever, and all rulers will serve and obey him.”

Daniel 7:21-27

Then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but the Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:8

And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.

Revelation 16:16

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. . . .

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:10

But what about the mark of the beast? What is that? And what exactly is Babylon supposed to represent in Revelation? I’m going to wrap up this series next week by looking at some of these remaining questions.

**  [This song (Sympathy for the Devil) is not specifically about the Antichrist. But it does describe how Satan has been behind horrible acts of evil in history, and that certainly applies in this case.]

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist) [see above]

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

The past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the return of Christ, particularly examining the views on the millennium and rapture that have sometimes divided Christians. In the next three weeks, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at some of the other end times elements that often pique our curiosity.


The tribulation

Especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation, we see emphasized a period of 7 years, which we usually refer to as “the tribulation.” This tribulational period immediately precedes Jesus’ return to earth.

If you’ve read many books or materials from pretrib teachers, you’ve probably seen very precise interpretations of what the vivid elements in the book of Revelation are supposed to describe. But, as we saw in our previous study Revelation: The story comes full circle, it’s a mistake to assume that the descriptions in Revelation should be taken literally, and it’s typically pretrib teachers who interpret Revelation in an overly literal manner. This explains why the people who try to date the return of Christ or tell us how the latest altercation in Iran or Iraq fits precisely into end times prophecy (and then have to later retract their claims!) are invariably pretrib teachers. Now, the best pretrib teachers don’t indulge in this kind of speculation, but—unfortunately—there are many more of their fellow pretribbers who over-compensate for these teachers’ restraint.

Apocalyptic = symbolism
As we saw in our previous study on Revelation, this book is an apocalyptic form of literature, which means we should expect it to be highly symbolic. And it doesn’t take us long to see this is just what we find in Revelation. We have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, and dragons that aren’t literal dragons, and stars that aren’t literal stars, and a seven-headed, ten-horned beast rising up out of the sea. Usually in our study of Scripture we assume the text is literal unless something indicates otherwise, but in Revelation we must assume these descriptions symbolize something else unless we see something in the text that convinces us we must take it literally.

This apocalyptic, symbolic nature of Revelation is the reason why most posttrib teachers are hesitant to take literally such things as the 144,000 (search out the immediate problem with the list of tribes in Rev. 7:4-8), the description of the bizarre locusts in Rev. 9:3-11, or even the two witnesses in Rev. 11:1-14. Of course I realize this isn’t nearly as fun as thinking we can figure out ahead of time exactly how each of these events will take place and what they’ll look like! And because of this caution we don’t have a flood of posttrib books the way we do pretrib materials. But I would argue this is a much more biblically sound and balanced approach, and it avoids the embarrassing, outlandish claims we’ve all too often witnessed.

What will happen during the tribulation?
It’s not uncommon for people (even non-Christians) to think of this 7-year tribulational period as a virtual hell on earth. But as we learned in the post on Revelation, this isn’t the case. Actually the first part of this time will be relatively peaceful for many, and the only possible indication we’re in this final period will be uniquely new developments in the Middle East. (More on this next week.)

There are a few things that we know will occur during the last part of this tribulation before Christ returns:

Great persecution will take place against both Jews and followers of Christ.

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.

Matthew 24:9

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. . . . And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.

Revelation 12:13-17

This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently, obeying his commands and maintaining their faith in Jesus.

Revelation 14:12

Large numbers of people who have claimed to be followers of Christ will turn away from the true faith.

And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:10-13

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons.

1 Timothy 4:1

All of the world will be reached with the gospel.

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:14

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

God will pour out plagues on the earth.
Just as with the plagues God poured out on Egypt, at first these plagues will be mostly disruptions and inconveniences. But near the end of the tribulation, these plagues will begin to build in intensity as a woman experiencing the pains of childbirth. The stage is then set for the final, crashing crescendo of the return of Christ that occurs after the tribulation.

The first plagues are described as testing the inhabitants of the world. What Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God” against those who are openly rebelling against him only occurs at the very end. As we saw a few weeks ago (Removed or protected?), these plagues from God will not touch or harm those people who belong to him. As with the judgment of Egypt, because we place our faith in the sacrificial Lamb (Jesus), God will protect and pass over us.

We also find other details about the tribulation in biblical prophecy, with some passages referring to a rebellion against God led by someone most of us have heard of: the “Antichrist.” Who is this guy? What can we know about him? We’ll explore this next week.

Related post:

Revelation: The story comes full circle

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation) [see above]

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The posttrib rapture

Like many other evangelical Christians, I grew up in churches that taught a pretrib rapture. Some of us were vaguely aware there were other views, but everyone I knew held to and taught that the rapture would take place before the tribulation. The myriad books and tape sets about the end times all taught a pretrib rapture. After a few years of spiritual wandering I returned to my faith in Christ and to life in the church—a pretrib church. My initial ministry training was in this kind of setting, and so were my earliest teaching experiences. I confidently taught the pretrib rapture as the correct, biblical view.

But then I began to notice two troubling developments. The first was in my difficulty with teaching certain passages from a pretrib perspective. I felt more and more as if I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Too often I was taught to limit particular biblical instructions as being for the Jews only, when the text didn’t seem to indicate this at all. I felt the pressure to somehow explain why passages that didn’t seem to be speaking of the rapture really were, and passages that seemed to be speaking of the final return of Christ really weren’t. I wanted to trust all the pretrib books and tape sets, but I was having trouble seeing their claims clearly taught in Scripture.

About this time I was learning to access more advanced biblical commentaries, and I made an interesting observation. It was difficult to find current, scholarly commentaries from a pretrib point of view—and I’m talking about conservative, evangelical commentaries. There were plenty of amillennial commentaries and works from scholars who held a historic premillennial view (i.e. posttrib), but up-to-date pretrib commentaries had somehow become scarce. I discovered that most of my favorite scholars held a posttrib view of the rapture, and historic premillennialism appeared to be the standard view among premil scholars now, not the pretrib view.

How had this happened? Unbeknownst to most ordinary Christians who were reading the latest pretrib bestseller, a quiet exodus from the pretrib viewpoint was taking place. Beginning with highly-respected, New Testament theologian George E. Ladd in the 1950s, more and more premil scholars moved from a pretrib to a posttrib understanding of the return of Christ. And as the seminary and Bible college profs have gone, so have gone the pastors. Pretrib pastors are in the minority in evangelical churches now, and the minority is continuing to shrink. I was part of a denomination that insisted on the pretrib rapture, so I was shocked to discover how many well-respected pastors and leaders no longer held a pretrib view.

Thus began a time of intensive and exhaustive analysis of the differing views and the relevant biblical texts. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog series that I, too, became convinced that the posttrib view was the more biblically sound one. Why?

The Scriptures never describe the rapture and the final return of Christ to earth as separate events taking place at different times.
We’ve looked at this already in our examination of the pretrib rapture, but this is an incredibly significant insight. One begins to suspect that if a Christian didn’t have any of the many pretrib books, tape sets or prophecy experts—but just relied on the clear teaching of Scripture—they would never come up with a separate rapture event seven years (or three-and-a-half years) before the return of Christ. And history confirms this because no one taught such a view throughout the history of the church until the 19th century. The burden of proof was shifting over to the pretrib view. If I was going to be teaching it, I needed to know why.

The foundational principles I was told supported a pretrib rapture weren’t actually supported by Scripture.
We’ve spent three weeks examining these principles (see the links below), and they are simply not borne out by a careful study of the biblical passages. This left me with no substantive reason for holding onto a pretrib view. And the scriptural patterns I did see, such as God’s protection of his people through the flood and through the plagues of Egypt, tended to support a posttrib understanding more than the pretrib view.

The posttrib view made much better sense of all the scriptural passages.
When I went back through all the prophecies regarding Christ’s second coming—now looking at them from a posttrib perspective—I had a dramatically different result. Scriptures that before were awkward and problematic now flowed together effortlessly. It was as if they had suddenly come into focus. I was fitting square pegs into square holes. Everything fit. I saw that the posttrib view is the natural reading of these biblical passages.

For instance, Matthew 24 is a familiar chapter describing events leading up to the return of Christ. It speaks of wars and rumors of wars; famines and earthquakes that are the beginnings of birth pains; great persecution, great apostasy, and also great evangelism; the abomination of desolation; false messiahs and false prophets performing great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even God’s own people. After seeing how this will all take place, we read this (beginning in verse 29, from the HCSB):

Immediately after the tribulation of those days:

The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not shed its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the celestial powers will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.

When teaching this chapter from a pretrib understanding, one struggles with the fact that the text certainly seems to be describing the rapture occurring after the tribulation. Pretrib teachers routinely have to explain why this passage doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But if we set aside a pretrib presupposition, we can simply allow the text to speak for itself. (It’s also revealing that, in a private conversation with his disciples [v. 3], Jesus describes the abomination of desolation that takes place in the middle of the tribulation, and expects that it will be seen by his followers [“when you see . . .” v. 15].)

Here’s another passage that comes into much more clear focus when we take off our pretrib glasses:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him: We ask you, brothers, not to be easily upset in mind or troubled, either by a spirit or by a message or by a letter as if from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits in God’s sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-4

This passage is talking about the ‘Day of the Lord.’ The Thessalonians were apparently worried this day had already taken place. Paul is encouraging them this day won’t occur until after a great apostasy or rebellion takes place, and not until after the Antichrist shows his true colors. And what happens on this Day of the Lord? “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” Notice the passage never distinguishes these as happening at different times, but combines them as part of the same event. This is the natural reading of the text, and any other understanding has to be imposed on it.

Even the most familiar rapture passage makes more sense when read from a posttrib perspective:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

This is quite a description. The Lord is descending with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God. This doesn’t exactly sound subtle! It doesn’t sound like merely a secret return for his people and then a quick return to heaven. It sounds like the final, cataclysmic return of Christ to earth. If we weren’t forcing this square peg into a round, pretrib hole, that’s the natural reading of the passage. And notice that we’re meeting him, he’s not meeting us. The nuance of the wording implies that he is continuing in his descent, that we are meeting him and accompanying him to earth, he’s not meeting us and accompanying us to heaven. And as we discovered previously, they were accustomed at that time to just such a welcome for returning, victorious kings. They would go out and meet the king, and then accompany him into the city.

With passage after passage, the posttrib understanding is like a square peg fitting naturally into a square hole, and the pretrib perspective is something that has to be forced into the text. Because there is nothing in Scripture that would cause us to distinguish the rapture from the return of Christ, the posttrib view takes the natural reading of the Bible and accepts the rapture as part of the same event.

What does it matter?
Some don’t hold to any particular view on the timing of the rapture. They have a pan-trib (or pan-mil) view: it will all pan out in the end. That’s probably better than being overly dogmatic and fighting over our rapture positions. But I do have a pastoral concern for believers who just assume the pretrib view.

If a Christian believes in a posttrib rapture and God actually raptures his people before the tribulation, this saint is just in for a great surprise. But if believers are expecting to be raptured out of here before the tribulation . . . and they’re not . . . this could be devastating to their faith. This is especially true if they’re not familiar with the historic premillennial (i.e. posttrib) view.

So if you’re reading this series, you believe in a pretrib rapture, and you’re not persuaded by these posts that the posttrib view is the more biblical one—that’s fine. Just please be aware there is another view that many pastors and scholars feel is more faithful to the scriptural witness. And if you start to see some of these end times prophecies being fulfilled and you’re still here(!), realize it doesn’t mean the Bible was wrong. It just means the pretrib teachers were wrong. If that’s the case, and these things are beginning to happen around you, just do what Jesus told us to do:

. . . stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near!

Luke 21:28

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture [see above]

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The last few weeks we’ve been examining the three main arguments used to teach a pretrib rapture, and we’ve found them to be unsupported by Scripture. But there are other claims one frequently hears in defense of a pretrib rapture. These ideas aren’t as foundational as the three we’ve already looked at but, since they’re so common, it’s good for us to examine them as well. Here are some of the additional claims I’ve heard the most:

“The church isn’t mentioned in most of the book of Revelation.”
In Revelation 1, we read John’s introduction to this book and his description of his initial vision and encounter of the resurrected Lord. In chapters 2 and 3, we have the letters to the 7 churches. But after this—Revelation chapters 4-22—we find no place where the word “church” is used. We often hear it claimed this is because the church is already gone. John doesn’t refer to the church because the church isn’t here. Is this a good interpretation of Scripture?

We do find many references in these chapters to God’s servants (who have his seal placed on them), the saints or God’s holy people, those who maintain their testimony of Jesus, “my people,” those who share in the first resurrection, etc. But we’re told that these all refer to either the people of Israel or to people who place their faith in Christ during the tribulation—not to “the church.” This seems like special pleading to me. It’s a convenient “fact” that can be used to protect this claim, but I’ve never heard any solid reason why these terms don’t refer to the church. We’re just supposed to accept that whoever these servants/saints/followers of Jesus are, they’re not part of the church.

But there are bigger problems for this argument. It actually claims too much. The section of Revelation from chapter 4 to chapter 22 includes visions of what will take place on the earth and what will take place in heaven. If—just because the word ‘church’ isn’t used—the church is absent from the earth, then it must be absent from heaven too! Not only that, but the last few chapters tell of the return of Christ, the resurrection, the millennium, and the new heaven and new earth—all with no mention of “the church.” Apparently the church is absent for all of this. Or maybe we’re relying too much on one single word used to describe God’s people when the Bible uses many. (We also should be aware that whenever John uses the word church in his other writings, he’s always referring to local congregations, not the universal body of all believers.)

This argument doesn’t prove to be very effective, but it does open up the pretrib view to a critique:

What about the “tribulation saints”? Why aren’t they protected from God’s wrath?

According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the wrath of God is not intended for those who are in Christ. This protection from God’s wrath is specifically tied to our salvation (also in Romans 3:25 and 5:9). Pretrib teachers agree that some will place their faith in Christ during the tribulation. So why aren’t they saved from God’s wrath? I see only three possibilities:

  1. These people experience a different salvation from all other believers in Christ. (I don’t know anyone who wants to accept this option.)
  2. These people are raptured as soon as they place their faith in Christ. (But then who are the martyrs who give their lives for Christ during the tribulation?)
  3. God passes over them during the tribulation, protecting and preserving them from his wrath. (Revelation actually bears this out. Of course, if this is how God faithfully protects them, why can’t he protect us through the tribulation in the same way?)


“The tribulation is called the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble’ indicating its focus on Israel.”
Jeremiah 30:7, from the traditional King James Version, reads:

Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it:
it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble;
but he shall be saved out of it.

There are many other passages, in the Old and New Testaments, that stress what this period of time will mean for the people of Israel. It will be a time of unprecedented distress for them, but it will result in their salvation. But remember we’ve already shown that God works in the life of Israel and the church during the same periods of time. Most posttrib believers don’t have any problem with the idea that the tribulation has special significance for the people of Israel, only with the claim that this period of time is intended exclusively for them. Actually, even pretrib teachers accept that the tribulation will be a time of trouble that comes upon the whole earth and a time of unprecedented evangelism throughout the earth. If this is so, then it has meaning for more than just Israel.

“No one will know the day or the hour when Christ returns. If the rapture occurs at the end of the tribulation, we’ll know when to expect it.”
According to what most premillennial Christians believe, there will be a seven year period preceding Jesus’ return to earth. At the midpoint of these seven years, the Antichrist will enter the temple of God and declare himself to be God. (If this is all new to you, don’t worry. We’ll explore these ideas in a future study.) So the claim here is that if we know this happens 3-1/2 years into the tribulation, then all we’d have to do is count off another 3-1/2 years and . . . the rapture!

Of course, it’s not quite so easy. Are we to use a modern calendar or a Jewish calendar in counting off these 3-1/2 years? Scholars disagree. The posttrib view isn’t that the rapture happens at the end of the tribulation, but after the tribulation. How much after? We can’t be sure. Most importantly, Jesus himself told us:

In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones.

Matthew 24:22

If this time of trouble is shortened, then there’s no way to know the day or the hour of his return. And don’t forget what we studied last week. The followers of Christ who are alive at that time are supposed to see the signs of his return (Matthew 24:32-33), and we won’t be surprised by his coming even though he’s coming like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:4).

“The posttrib rapture idea is the ‘yo-yo theory.’ We go up and then turn around and come right back down!”
Since I was a kid, I’ve heard the posttrib view denigrated this way. But posttrib Christians don’t believe we’ll just ‘go up and then turn around and come right back down’ anymore than they believe the bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13 went out and then just turned around and came back inside. No, in both cases the idea is that we’re going to meet him. As Jesus descends, we join him and accompany him in his triumphal return to earth. (Of course, one could accuse the pretrib theory of making Jesus the yo-yo. He comes down, turns around and goes right back.)

“How can a posttrib rapture be a blessed hope?”
The term “blessed hope” has become a common one in discussions of the end times. It comes from the traditional reading of Titus 2:13 (quoted here from the NASB):

. . . as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ . . .

The idea here is that a rapture that only occurs after a seven-year period of tribulation is hardly a ‘blessed hope.’ But this is a particularly modern and Western way of looking at tribulation. We conveniently forget that much of the New Testament was written to people who were already experiencing tribulation. And we forget that much of the church today is experiencing persecution and tribulation.

Do we really want to tell fellow believers who are suffering that the long-awaited end of their suffering is not a blessed hope? Doesn’t suffering only make them long all the more for Jesus to appear and put everything right? And do we really think we’re somehow better than these other Christians? too good to suffer for our faith? If not, wouldn’t our suffering cause this hope to be even more blessed to us?

Notice, in the scriptural passage, it’s not the rapture that’s our blessed hope, it’s the appearance of Christ. And Jesus himself told his followers:

So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!

Luke 21:28

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the posttrib rapture view.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims [see above]

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

The last few weeks we’ve been talking about the rapture. After a brief introduction, we began by focusing on this question: Does the Bible teach that the rapture is a distinct event, separate from the final return of Christ to earth? We can consolidate all the views into two groups, depending on how they would answer this question. If we determine the answer is no, then the posttrib view is the biblical one. Those who hold to all the other views (pretrib, midtrib, pre-wrath, etc.) would answer this question yes. Because the pretrib teachers were the first to suggest the rapture is a distinct event happening years before the return of Jesus—and because all other views except the posttrib view are variations of the pretrib view—we’ve been examining the pretrib view first.

We’ve found that no scriptural passage clearly teaches the rapture as a separate event before the return of Christ. The pretrib rapture view is based on other biblical claims that are said to make the pretrib rapture necessary. A few weeks ago, we examined the claim that God always works exclusively with either Israel or the church, never both at the same time. We found this idea to be unscriptural. Last week, we explored the most common supporting claim of the pretrib view, the truth that believers in Christ are not subject to the pouring out of God’s wrath. But the biblical pattern shows that God doesn’t remove his people before testing and judging a rebellious people; he protects and passes over them during the judgment. We found no scriptural reason to assume God would remove his people from the earth before testing and judging a rebellious world.

This week, we’re going to look at the second most commonly used argument in favor of a pretrib rapture: the claim that the rapture is imminent. When pretrib teachers use the word ‘imminent,’ they mean it in the sense the rapture can happen at any time, there is nothing that must occur prior to the rapture. Their argument is that if the rapture happens after the tribulation, then there are things that must take place before the rapture can occur. But (they claim) the Bible presents the rapture as something that can happen at any time, thus there can be nothing that has to occur first. So the rapture must take place before the tribulation. The question we have to look at then this week is:

Does the Bible teach that the rapture can happen at any time?

What scriptural passages is this view based on? [When discussing this topic, it’s helpful to see the precise wording in these passages so, unless otherwise indicated, I’m quoting here from the NET, a more formal translation than the NLT.]

Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Matthew 24:42-44

. . . then the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee . . .

Matthew 24:50

Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Matthew 25:13

(We could also list parallel passages from Mark and Luke, but they say essentially the same thing.)

Now, if we look carefully at these verses, we see a familiar problem for the pretrib view. These passages are wonderful reminders that we don’t know exactly when Jesus is returning and so we must stay alert—but they don’t say anything about what will or will not happen before he returns. We simply can’t use these Scriptures to teach that the return of Christ for his people must be an “any-time” event and that nothing has to happen first. These verses don’t tell us that. Just because we don’t know precisely when something is going to happen doesn’t mean there are no other events leading up to this happening. In fact, in the same instructions to his disciples we quote from above, Jesus said this (after describing what would happen at the time of the end):

Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door.

Matthew 24:32-33

Jesus himself described the signs that would indicate his return was getting near, and these are signs his followers will see. This means Jesus won’t return for his people until after these signs occur.

Many pretrib supporters refer to 1 Thessalonians 5:2 that says “the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night,” and that sudden destruction will come upon those not expecting it. But they forget the same chapter tells us:

But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief.

1 Thessalonians 5:4, NLT

In the same way, some quote James 5:7-9 that tells us to be patient and take courage because the coming of the Lord is near, and the Judge is standing at the door. Of course, this passage also describes the kind of patience we are to have:

Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains.

This doesn’t seem to be saying that nothing has to happen before the return of Christ any more than it’s saying that nothing has to happen before a harvest comes. Some also refer to passages that instruct us to “wait for” or “look for” the return of Christ or even “eagerly anticipate” it. But these also don’t mean the rapture is an any-time event or that nothing must take place before it occurs. These passages are all beautiful and encouraging, but they don’t justify the assumptions of the pretrib teachers.

More timing problems
Jesus taught that his people would see signs leading up to his return, as we read in the passage above. The signs to which he referred include such events as the ‘abomination of desolation’ (when the Antichrist enters the Temple and declares himself to be God) and the terrible, awesome signs in the heavens that occur immediately before Christ descends to earth. Apparently, Jesus was not expecting his people to be removed from earth before these things happen.

But Jesus also prophesied other things that were still to take place before he returned for his people: Peter would live to an old age and then be led to his death (John 21:18-19), Jerusalem would be destroyed (e.g. Matthew 24:1-2), the gospel would be proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and throughout the world (Acts 1:8; Matthew 24:14), Paul would proclaim the gospel in Rome (Acts 23:11, 27:24). All of these things had to occur before Christ returned for his people.

As the axiom goes, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” Whatever these words of Jesus (or Paul, or James) meant to the people to whom they originally spoke or wrote, that’s what they mean to us today as well. The statements about not knowing when he would return and for his people to be ready couldn’t mean that his return for them was imminent because there were still events that had to take place before Jesus’ return. Jesus wasn’t teaching his return could occur at any time and that there were no events that must happen first. And if these instructions didn’t teach an imminent rapture to them, then they don’t to us either.

There is no place in Scripture where we’re told that Christ’s return for his people can occur at any time and that no other events need to happen first.

We’ve examined the three foundational claims that are supposed to teach a pretrib rapture, and we’ve found they can’t be supported biblically. Next week, we’ll look at the rest of the assorted arguments used to suggest a pretrib rapture. (If you have an argument in favor of a pretrib rapture and you’d like me to include it, please let me know.)

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent? [see above]

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

When the conversation turns to different views of the rapture, some people frankly admit, “I just don’t want to be here for all that terrible stuff!” Now, some of this stems from a perception the tribulation will be seven years of one horror after another. Actually, the Bible seems to indicate that the most dramatic judgments and signs will occur at the very end—some even occurring after the tribulation. It’s as if, in the final moments, all of history builds to a screaming crescendo. We’ll look at this more closely in a future post.

Still, even with this improved perspective, it’s only natural to want to escape anything referred to as “the Great Tribulation.” If a lot of teachers and books and tape series are telling us we won’t be here for this scary period of time, it’s easy to just say, “Amen!” and breathe a little easier. But is this really what Scripture teaches? The second supporting claim on our list (see Rapture 101 for the whole list) tends to be the one people use the most when presenting a pretrib rapture. So we need to take a good look at the strengths and weaknesses of this argument.

What exactly is this claim by pretrib proponents? It’s based on something the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:9-11):

For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.

The statement we need to take special note of is the first one: “For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us [emphasis added].” All believers, including pretrib and posttrib believers, can affirm this claim—and give thanks for it! But the pretrib teachers build on this reassuring truth. They argue that, since the tribulation is the time when God pours out his wrath on a rebellious world, if God doesn’t intend to pour out his wrath on us . . . we must not be here!

There’s a certain logic to this. If we had clear passages in the Bible showing a separate rapture event before the final return of Christ, this passage could fit comfortably with such an idea. But, as we’ve seen, there’s just no passage that presents the rapture and the return of Christ as separate events. And notice the passage above doesn’t specify how we will escape the wrath of God, only that he won’t pour out his anger on us. It’s true that removing us from the earth could accomplish this, but so could preserving us through this time of tribulation. There’s nothing in this one text to cause us to lean one way or the other. But what do we see in the rest of Scripture?

Does God remove his people before he tests and judges others or does he preserve them through the judgment? Which pattern do we see in Scripture?

The flood
The first great judgment we see in the Bible is the flood. This a helpful place to begin because many pretrib teachers have compared the rapture to the ark. Just as—because of their faith in God’s message—Noah and his family entered the ark and escaped the wrath of God’s flood, so those who have placed their faith in Christ will escape the coming time of God’s wrath by being raptured.

But there’s a problem with this comparison. Where did God pour out his judgment during the flood? On the earth. And where was Noah and his family? On the earth. Did God remove them from the earth before he poured out his righteous anger on a rebellious world? No, he did not. He preserved them through the judgment. They were present on the earth for the entire flood event, but they were supernaturally protected by God. Though they were right in the midst of the flood during this pouring out of God’s wrath, his wrath was not poured out on them. God sheltered them from his judgment.

The plagues of Egypt
For centuries, Bible students have noticed a strong parallel between the plagues God poured out on Egypt and the plagues God will pour out on earth in the last days, as described in the book of Revelation. In both accounts people tragically resist the extreme lengths to which God goes for them. He offers them chance after chance to stop rebelling against his will and accept him as God. The plagues are increasingly direct, interrupting their lives and arresting their attention, yet some refuse to open their eyes and acknowledge the truth.

So what happened with God’s chosen people while he was pouring out his judgment on Egypt? Were they removed first to the promised land? No, they remained in Egypt through the entire span of ten plagues, and only then were they removed from Egypt. Did they experience God’s wrath right along with the Egyptians? No, they didn’t. We notice some crucial details included in the Exodus account:

Then the LORD told Moses, “Get up early in the morning and stand in Pharaoh’s way as he goes down to the river. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so they can worship me. If you refuse, I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, your people, and all the houses. The Egyptian homes will be filled with flies, and the ground will be covered with them. But this time I will spare the region of Goshen, where my people live. No flies will be found there. Then you will know that I am the LORD and that I am present even in the heart of your land. I will make a clear distinction between my people and your people.'”

Exodus 8:21-23

“If you continue to hold [my people] and refuse to let them go, the hand of the LORD will strike all your livestock—your horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats—with a deadly plague. But the LORD will again make a distinction between the livestock of the Israelites and that of the Egyptians. Not a single one of Israel’s animals will die!

. . . And the LORD did just as he had said. The next morning all of the livestock of the Egyptians died, but the Israelites didn’t lose a single animal.

Exodus 9:2-6

The LORD sent a tremendous hailstorm against all the land of Egypt. Never in all the history of Egypt had there been a storm like that, with such devastating hail and continuous lighting. It left all of Egypt in ruins. The hail struck down everything in the open field—people, animals, and plants alike. Even the trees were destroyed. The only place without hail was the region of Goshen, where the people of Israel lived.

Exodus 9:23-26

. . . a deep darkness covered the entire land of Egypt for three days. During all that time the people could not see each other, and no one moved. But there was light as usual where the people of Israel lived.

Exodus 10:22-23

And, of course, we can’t forget the final plague, when God took the lives of every firstborn male in Egypt. These were his words to his own people:

On that night I will pass through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn son and firstborn male animal in the land of Egypt. I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, for I am the LORD! But the blood on your doorposts will serve as a sign, marking the houses where you are staying. When I see the blood, I will pass over you. This plague of death will not touch you when I strike the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:12-13

So every year when the people of Israel observe the Passover, they are commemorating the truth that God chooses his people to save them, not to pour out his wrath on them. But he did this for them by preserving them through the judgment, not by removing them from where the judgment was taking place.

The plagues in Revelation
When we compare the plagues described in the book of Revelation, what do we see? Do we find God removing his people before the judgment, or protecting them during the judgment? Let’s see if we notice any parallels:

And I saw another angel coming up from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. And he shouted to those four angels, who had been given power to harm land and sea, “Wait! Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have placed the seal of God on the foreheads of his servants.

Revelation 7:2-3

Then locusts came from the smoke and descended on the earth, and they were given power to sting like scorpions. They were told not to harm the grass or plants or trees, but only the people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Revelation 9:3-4

Then a third angel followed them, shouting, “Anyone who worships the beast and his statue or who accepts his mark on the forehead or on the hand must drink the wine of God’s anger.

Revelation 14:9-10

So the first angel left the Temple and poured out his bowl on the earth, and horrible, malignant sores broke out on everyone who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped his statue.

Revelation 16:2

Then I heard another voice calling from heaven,
Come away from [Babylon], my people.
Do not take part in her sins,
or you will be punished with her.

Revelation 18:4

Do we see the same pattern in Revelation as in Exodus? Does God remove his people from the earth before judgment or does he protect them during the judgment?

But what about Revelation 3:10?
Some point to Revelation 3:10 as a passage that teaches a pretrib rapture:

Because you have obeyed my command to persevere, I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world.

We immediately see a problem with using this verse to teach a pretrib rapture. Just as with 1 Thessalonians 5:9 above, this passage tells us that God will protect us from this great time of testing, but it doesn’t tell us how he’ll do this. Will he remove us from the earth, or protect us during the time of testing? We can’t know from this one verse, and we’ve seen that the pattern of Scripture doesn’t support the idea of God removing his people from earth before this testing.

In fact, there’s only one other place where the Bible uses this same Greek wording (“protect from”), and that’s in John 17:15 where Jesus prays for his apostles:

I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one.

Here we see this protection or ‘keeping safe’ is not accomplished by removing the apostles from the world, but by protecting them while they’re right in the midst of the danger. We really have no reason to assume that Revelation 3:10 means anything other than this same kind of protection. There is nothing in Scripture leading us to think God will remove us from the earth before this period of testing. But we can be sure he’ll protect us from the judgment he will pour out on those who continue to defy him. (The one remaining claim is that the rapture must be imminent, it must be able to happen at any time. We’ll examine this belief next week.)

Understanding this biblical pattern helps us to see some Scriptures in a different light, such as Isaiah 26:20-21:

Go home, my people,
and lock your doors!
Hide yourselves for a little while
until the LORD’s anger has passed.
Look! The LORD is coming from heaven
to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will no longer hide those who have been killed.
They will be brought out for all to see.

This also helps us understand why Jesus said:

So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!

Luke 21:28

Once again, God will pass over his people as he brings testing and judgment to a rebellious world. And once again, after this time of testing is completed, he will deliver his people from their bondage.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected? [see above]

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends