When Will the Great Tribulation Take Place? (Revelation 6:1-8:5)


In Revelation 6.1–8.5, John turns our attention from heaven to earth, from the Lamb to the seven seals that he alone is worthy to open. The turn is abrupt and unpleasant, for the earthly scene John portrays is the polar opposite of the heavenly scene he has just revealed. Instead of the unending worship of heaven, we see unceasing warfare on earth, as successively greater disasters—manmade, natural, and divine—befall the planet upon the opening of each seal. This is “the great tribulation” (7.14; cf. 2.22, Matt. 24.21) whose intensity forces the question: “And who can stand?” (6.17).

Obviously, we would like to know when this great tribulation takes place.

Many American Protestants believe that it lies in the future, just after Jesus Christ secretly returns to earth to rapture believers to heaven. Those left behind endure the depredations of the Antichrist and False Prophet for seven years. During that period, many convert, including Jews who acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. At the end of the seven years, Christ publicly returns, subdues the devil, and inaugurates a one-thousand-year reign of peace. This is the end-times scenario popularized by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series, Left Behind.

It is not the only scenario, however. As we survey church history, in fact, we find four basic schools of interpretation of the meaning of the seven seals.

The first is the preterist school of interpretation. For preterists, according to Steve Gregg, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the judgment of God upon Jerusalem (A.D. 66–70); 144,000 Judean Christians escape to Pella [in modern-day Jordan].”[i] Thus, in the preterist interpretation, the events of Revelation 6.1–8.5 are basically past.

The second school of interpretation is the futurist one. Obviously, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and others like them are students of this school. It should be noted, however, that not all futurists subscribe to the rapture of the church. A basic issue that divides futurists is whether Christians who converted prior to the great tribulation will be spared its violence entirely (by means of the rapture) or given sufficient strength to endure it utterly (through the sealing of the Holy Spirit).

Idealism, or spiritualism, is a third school of interpretation. Whereas preterists interpret the seals as describing past events and futurists as events yet to come, idealists interpret them in terms of the ongoing present. “The scroll and its unsealing represent God’s dealings with mankind, seen in cycles of war, martyrdom, and judgment recurring repeatedly throughout history.”[ii]

Historicism is the fourth school of interpretation. Although not common today, it is “the historic Protestant interpretation” of Revelation and sees the book as “a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of the apostle to the end of the world.”[iii] For historicists, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the beginning of the fall of the Roman empire.”[iv] The seven trumpets (8.6–11.19) and seven bowls (15.1–16.21) unfold the remaining events of end-times history.

We return to our initial question: When will the great tribulation take place? Church history provides at least four answers: it is past, future, present, and unfolding. But which should we believe? I am not sure we must come to a definitive conclusion one way or another. Rather, it seems to me that John reveals these events to inspire the appropriate response in us. “How shall we then live?”—rather than “When will this take place?”—is the most important question for us to ask.

 

[i] Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 83.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid, 2.

[iv] Ibid, 83.

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8 thoughts on “When Will the Great Tribulation Take Place? (Revelation 6:1-8:5)

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  1. “How shall we then live?” Ah, now there is the appropriate response. So much good living opportunity wasted on speculation.

    1. The Assemblies of God has stated clearly the eschatological beliefs we hold as a Fellowship. The Statement of Fundamental commits us to dispensational, pretribulational, premillennialism. Should there be a misinterpretation of it the bylaws spell out clearly under eschatalogical errors and doctrines disapproved.

      Those who held to our historic beliefs “lived” in such a way that they built a missions enterprise that numbers 67 million souls and growing globally. Of course, we could always change that….

  2. WHEN WILL THE GREAT TRIBULATION TAKE PLACE?
    There is a BIG problem! In my many years of ministry I have found that a large percentage of Christians don’t have a clue of what happened to the Jews and their nation, temple and religion between 66-70 A.D. It is also true that most pastors and Sunday school teachers never heard of these historic events. This is a sad commentary given the fact that this violent tribulation answers virtually all the warnings of a great impending calamity as prophesied by many OT prophets and by Jesus, Paul, James, Peter and the author of Revelations. Thus most Christians are totally ignorant concerning this historic Roman overthrow of the Jewish nation/religion that actually came to pass within 40 years of Christ’s resurrection.

    Therefore, when dispensational eschatological believers read apocalyptic warnings of impending judgments in the Old and New Testaments, they tend to add a few thousand years to them and claim these things are yet to happen, just around the corner, i.e., pending in the 21st century. They also automatically conclude that whenever the word “saved” is mentioned in the NT that it means “saved from hell in the afterlife.” But the Greek word “sozo” has many shades of meaning (e.g., “safe”). Keep in mind that Jesus and virtually all the NT writers constantly reminded their audiences of an impending judgment of God upon both the Jewish and Gentile world of those days (see Mt 24; Mk 13; Lk 3:3-17; Lk 21; Acts 2:40-41; Rom 13:8-14; 1st & 2nd Peter and, not least, Revelations). These warnings had absolutely nothing to do with a so-called secret Rapture or the endtimes of the world, but, rather, they signaled the end of that particular age with all its Jewish religious accoutrements. All of those warnings were accompanied by a challenge to prepare for the worst by a renewed commitment to God. Some responded and were ‘safe’ when it all came down; others (most?) ignored the warnings and, thus, suffered its terrible fallout: one million Jews slaughtered, fifty thousand Jews carried captive into the provinces of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem with its temple destroyed. It pays to listen to the voice of the Spirit leading us through this life with all its challenges. Yes, many times after enduring a crisis of life we have said, “I don’t know what I would have done without the Lord’s help and guidance.” ~ Ivan A. Rogers

    1. Why should I assume that the first four seals describe 70 AD when the fifth and sixth seals, especially the judgment against “the kings of the earth,” don’t describe it?

    2. Also, even if one assumes a preterits interpretation of the seals as accurate historically, that doesn’t mean the application of this passage in the present day is wrong.

  3. THE ‘SECOND DEATH’
    The ‘first resurrection’ as mentioned in Revelation 20:6 is apocalyptic-style writing and, therefore, would have been understood accordingly by perceptive Jews at the time it was written by John (67-70 AD). As you know, the book of Revelation is loaded with metaphorical (cryptic) images that were not meant to be taken literally, e.g., seven stars, tree of life, hidden manna, white stone, dragon with seven heads, 144,000, Mystery Babylon, lake of fire, thousand years, New Jerusalem, etc.

    All the judgments mentioned in the Revelation relate to the same impending judgments previously mentioned by prophets like John the Baptist, Jesus, and others (see Mal 4:1-6; Lk 3:9; Mt 24; Mk 13; Lk 21; Acts 2:40-41, 2 Pet 3:10-13, etc.) In that light, consider the first death as the historic Assyrian Captivity of the nation of Israel, and the scripturally-mentioned “second death” as the impending Roman Captivity of the nation of Israel. NOTE: The historians say that ALL Christians (having been warned) escaped to the mountains and, thus, escaped the “second death” of the nation. ~ Ivan A. Rogers (I am NOT a preterist).

    1. Ivan, if you believe that the prophecies of revelation worst filled by 70 A.D., then by definition you are a preterist. And you didn’t answer my question. I asked how the wrath of the lamb against the Gentile kings mentioned at the end of chapter 6 fit into your schema.

      1. George said, “Ivan, if you believe that the prophecies of revelation worst filled by 70 A.D., then by definition you are a preterist. And you didn’t answer my question. I asked how the wrath of the lamb against the Gentile kings mentioned at the end of chapter 6 fit into your schema.”

        1. I do not believe that ALL the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled by 70 A.D., but only those relating to Israel as predicted by the prophets including Jesus. Here is a previous statement from one of my previous posts to you that might help clear up my position: “Keep in mind that Jesus and virtually all the NT writers constantly reminded their audiences of an impending judgment of God upon BOTH the Jewish and Gentile world of those days (see Mt 24; Mk 13; ; Lk 21; Acts 2:40-41; Rom 13:8-14; 1st & 2nd Peter and, not least, Revelations). These warnings had absolutely nothing to do with a so-called secret Rapture or the endtimes of the world, but, rather, they signaled the end of that particular age with all its Jewish religious accoutrements.”

        2. A careful reading of the many prophetic warnings of a great immanent judgment will demonstrate that many nations of the Mediterranean Rim (especially Israel) would suffer a divine visitation of wrath unless they repented. For examples: Mal 4:5-6; Mt 24 (Gentile nations included, vss. 7 & 8); Acts 2:40-41 (“Jews from every nation”); Rom 13:11-14; 1 Thess 5:1-11; 2 Peter 2 & 3; Rev 2:14-16 Pergamum; Rev 2:20-27 Thyatira; Rev 3:10-11 (“upon the whole world”)Philadelphia; Rev 6:3-17 Seals; Rev 8:1-13 Trumpets; Rev 16:1-21 Bowls. Note: According to Josephus, virtually the known world of the Roman empire was in turmoil and insurrection in the years leading up to 70 A.D., Israel included. Jesus saw the coming results and warned his audience of the soon-coming tribulation. The Gentile kings mentioned in Revelation 6 would also be caught up in that great “time of trouble.

        3. Although the Jewish nation, priesthood, temple and Jerusalem were destroyed in 70 A.D., the judgment of the Gentile nations continues until, at last, the words of the angel to the shepherds finally becomes a reality: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will among men.”

        4. Finally, trust me; I am not a preterist. As you know, all Calvinists believe Christ to be the Savior, but that doesn’t mean, by definition, that they must then be Arminians, does it?

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