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.
[iii] Ibid, 2.
[iv] Ibid, 83.