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Copyright 2001, by Sam A. Smith

Published in The Biblical and Theological Reader

Available online at: http://btr.biblicalreader.com



The Tribulation is a Future Event


Sam A. Smith




Many books and articles have been published recently from the Preterist point of view. Preterists hold that the prophecies of the Tribulation have already been fulfilled in the past. To look at some of their writings one would think that this is a terribly complex issue. It is not. The case for futuris­tic fulfillment of Tribulation prophecy is easily made.


The Tribulation is a future event. Some covenant premillennialists agree with this. On the other hand, amillennialists, because of their spiritualization (non-literal interpretation) of Bible prophecy and their belief that we are currently living in the millennial period, almost universally deny that the Tribulation is in the future, preferring instead to identify it with past events, usually the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Roman persecution of Christians. A few covenant premillenni­alists even suggest that we may now be in the Tribulation (imminent posttribulationism). The question addressed here is this: “Is the Tribulation to be found in the past history of the Church or in the future, as the prelude to the literal earthly reign of Christ?”


There are three questions we will ask, the answers to which will help us decide whether the Tribulation is a past, present, or future event.


1)      Is there any evidence to suggest that we are currently in the millennial period?


2)      Has there been any set of world events in history that matches the description of the Tribulation given in the Bible?


3)      Are there any prerequisite conditions that must be met for the onset of the Tribulation period, and if so, have they been met since the close of the New Testament?


The Millennium is the key to the chronology of the Tribulation

The Scripture presents the Tribulation and the Millennium as two aspects of the same event–the Day of the LORD. For this reason, many passages treat these two periods as a unit (Isa. 1:24-2:4; 24:1-25:12; 34:1-35:10; Joel 2:1-32; Zech. 12:1-13:9 ). The Old Testament knows no other relationship than that the Tribulation is a prelude to the establishment of the visible earthly rule of God.


A study of the second coming of Christ also sheds light on the chronological relationship of the Tribulation to the Millennium. Some passages that deal with the second coming picture that event as the consummation of the Tribulation period and the beginning of the Millennium (Zech. 14:1-11; Rev. 19:11-20:6; see also Isa. 35:4-10; 61:2b-3; Joel 3:9-21; Zech. 2:6-13). Given this information, along with the purpose of the Tribulation period as a time for Israel to undergo a national conversion in preparation for Messiah’s return (Isa. 1:24-2:4; Zech. 13:7-9), it is apparent that the Tribulation immediately precedes the Millennium.


As to the age in which we are currently living, we see absolutely no evidence that we are in the millennial period–neither do the amillennialists. This is why they must “spiritualize” (allegorize) the millennial reign of Christ as occurring from heaven instead of on earth–as pictured in every millennial passage in which locational references are made. Every prophecy of the second coming in which a chronological relationship with either the Tribulation or the Millennium is given, places the second coming of Christ either immediately at the end of the Tribulation or immedi­ately prior to the beginning of the millennial kingdom (note especially Zech. 14:1-11, Matt. 24:29-31 and Rev. 19:11-20:6). Since we can be certain that the second coming has not occurred, we can be equally certain that the Millennium has not begun, nor has the Tribulation been concluded.


The prophesied events of the Tribulation have never been fulfilled

To determine whether the Tribulation events have been fulfilled in any prior age since the time of the New Testament, the reader need only compare the description of the Tribulation with history. Covenant theologians have already made this comparison and have found no match with history–that is why they suddenly apply a non-literal method of interpretation to Tribulation prophecies, despite the fact that they apply a literal method to most other prophecy (for example, the birth of Messiah). The bias of such a procedure in favor of a particular theological outcome is apparent. Only through the process of selectively spiritualized (non-literal) interpretation, with its gross distortions of the clear intent of Scripture, can one claim historical (or present) fulfillment of the Tribulation prophecies. We can confidently assert that the fulfillment of the Tribulation is not to be found in the past, nor are we living in the Tribulation at the present.


The prerequisites for the Tribulation have not been met

The final question is whether there are any prerequisites that must be satisfied before certain elements of the Tribulation can be fulfilled, and if so, have they been met? The answer is, “Yes”–there are prerequisites. Moreover, “No”–they have not been met. The following examples will illustrate this point.


The abomination that makes desolate cannot take place unless the Temple is standing (cf. Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:15 and 2 Thess. 2:3-4). The reason is that the nature of this act requires that it be performed in the Temple. There are two ways to demonstrate that this precondition to the fulfill­ment of the Tribulation could not have been met in the past.


1.   The Book of Revelation, as nearly as we can date, was written between A.D. 81 and 96, some twenty years after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. From the perspective of Revelation, the abomination of desolation was yet to be fulfilled (Rev. 13:5-10). This means that the reconstruction of the Temple is a prerequisite to the fulfill­ment of this prophecy. Since the Temple has not been rebuilt since its destruction in A.D. 70, it is not possible that the Tribulation could be entirely past, as some claim. It is a common approach by those seeking to find historical fulfillment to the Tribulation prophe­cies (Preterists) to circumvent this argument by attempting to prove that Revelation was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. They claim that if a pre-A.D. 70 date for the composition of Revelation can be sustained, it would allow for the Roman destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 to be the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy of the abomination that makes desolate. Such reasoning is flawed on several points. First of all, virtually all New Testament scholars place the date of the composition of Revelation sometime after A.D. 70. Second, the compositional date aside, if the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 was the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy, why didn’t Christ return 1290 days after the destruction of the Temple to establish his kingdom on earth as prophesied in Dan. 12:11? (See note below on the length of the Tribulation period) Additionally, all of the global and catastrophic judgments of the Tribulation must be “reinterpreted” (i.e., “spiritualized”) to fit with this model.


2.   That the A.D. 70 destruction of the Temple cannot be the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy (of the abomination that makes desolate) can be deduced from the prophecy itself (Dan. 9:24-27). This prophecy pictures the Tribulation period (v. 27) beginning sometime after the prophesied destruction of the Temple (v. 26, this would be the A.D. 70 destruction). We need to be very clear on this point: Daniel’s prophecy states clearly that the Tribula­tion cannot begin until sometime after the A.D. 70 destruction of the Temple. This completely removes the A.D. 70 destruction of the Temple from consideration as a Tribulation event. This prophecy requires that the Temple be rebuilt after its destruction in A.D. 70, in order for the abomination spoken of in verse 27 to take place. The Temple has not been rebuilt since its destruction by the Romans; hence, no set of events from A.D. 70 to the present meets the conditions specified for the Tribulation.


[It is interesting that some interpreters, in an effort to avoid this problem, find the fulfill­ment of the abomination in the intertestamental period when Antiochus IV (Epiphanes)–eighth ruler of the Selucid dynasty–desecrated the Temple in 167 B.C. This interpretation directly contradicts Christ’s statement in Matt. 24:15, to the effect that the abomination spoken of by Daniel was yet future and entirely removes it from the context of the Tribula­tion period; thus again contradicting Daniel (Dan. 9:27), Christ (Matt 24:15-31), Paul (2 Thess. 2:3-4), and John (Rev. 13:1-10)–all of whom place this event within the Tribulation period.]


Another prerequisite to the fulfillment of the Tribulation prophecies is that Israel must be in existence as a nation. Daniel 9:24-27 pictures the Tribulation as beginning when the Prince to Come makes a covenant with Israel. Additionally, the nation of Israel is at the center of many Tribulation prophecies (Jer. 30:4-7; Dan. 9:27; Joel 2:1-11; 3:1-16; Zeph. 1:2-3:11; Matt 24:4-31; Rev.7:1-8; 11:1-2). One of the descriptions applied to the Tribulation period in the Old Testament is “a time of trouble for Jacob” (Jer. 30:7). Since Israel as a national entity ceased to exist in A.D. 70, and did not come back into existence until 1948, it is impossible that any events between A.D. 70 and 1948 could qualify as the fulfillment of the Tribulation prophecies


Given the above, it should be apparent that any attempt to find a historical fulfillment for the Tribulation prophecies simply is not consistent with biblical facts. The Tribulation is not to be found in the past but in the future.




Addendum: Notes on the length of the Tribulation period


There is only one book of the Bible from which the length of the Tribulation can be derived, and that is the Book of Daniel. Not only does Daniel reveal the length of the period, but he also reveals its two major divisions and gives specific events which occur at the beginning, middle, and end of the period. Because of this, the Book of Daniel is rightly viewed as the “key” to the study of the Tribulation.


The prophecy of Daniel’s seventy “weeks”

The prophecy of the seventy “weeks” (Dan. 9:24-27) was conveyed to Daniel by the angel Gabriel (9:21) in response to Daniel’s prayer for understanding concerning some previous revelations which troubled him. In this passage (9:24-27) Daniel quotes Gabriel as saying:


“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy. Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be cut off and have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven,’ but in the middle of that ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And one who causes desolation will place abominations on a wing of the Temple until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”


While this prophecy may seem cryptic at first look, we must bear in mind that Gabriel was communicating to Daniel details of events that would not be fulfilled for hundreds of years and other events that would not be fulfilled for thousands of years. It will help if we identify the various elements of the prophecy. The phrase “your people” refers to Israel, and the “holy city” is Jeru­salem (note: Gabriel is speaking to Daniel–a Jew). The statement, “to put an end to wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy,” would seem to be a reference to a historical progression up to the inception of the millennial kingdom. The “Anointed One” refers to Messiah [Heb. Meshiah], the Prince of God, who will come to rule (cf. Isa. 9:6-7). The Anointed One being “cut off” is a reference to Messiah’s death. The destruction of the city and the sanctuary is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple after Messiah’s death. The “ruler who will come” is a reference to Satan’s Prince who will rule during the Tribulation period (cf. Matt. 24:15-22; 2 Thess. 2:3-4; Rev. 13:1­9). The “covenant” is a treaty made between Israel and Satan’s Prince. The last (or seventieth) “seven” (v. 27) represents the Tribulation period. “Desolations” refers to destruction during the Tribulation period. The “abomination on a wing of the Temple” or as alternately rendered, “one who will come on the wings of abomination,” is a reference to Satan’s Prince seating himself in the Temple and claiming to be God (cf. Matt. 24:15; 2 Thess 2:3-4; Rev. 13:1-9). The “end that is decreed” being poured out is a reference to the destruction of this pretentious leader at the arrival of Christ, who will crush this rebellious Prince’s kingdom and establish his own (cf. Dan. 2:44-45; 7:1-27; Rev. 19:19-20).


Having identified the key elements of the prophecy, we are now ready to deal with the chronol­ogy. The references to units of “seven” in the prophecy (vv. 24,25,27) are actually references to units of seven years (one “seven” equals seven years). We know this because Gabriel said there would be 69 units of seven (7 “sevens” + 62 “sevens”) from the time of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah comes (not necessarily his birth, possibly his presentation as Messiah) and is “cut off.” This is precisely the time from the decree of Artaxerxes on March 5, 444 B.C. to the Triumphal Entry on March 30, A.D. 33–just three days before the crucifixion of Christ. (Nehemiah 2:1 places the decree at Nisan 444 B.C., but does not specify a day. The date of March 5 [Nissan 1] assumes the first day of the month is intended. (For our purpose, the dates need only be precise to the nearest year.) If the first sixty-nine units of “seven” in this prophecy are units of seven years, it stands to reason that the seventieth “seven” is also a unit of seven years. This being the case, we are able to conclude that the seventieth “seven” (KJV “week”) of this prophecy, which represents the Tribulation period, is approximately seven years long. Note also the complete absence of any reference to the Church-age which occurs between the sixty-ninth and seventieth “weeks.”


Confirmation of the length of the period

It is possible to confirm from within the book of Daniel the length of the Tribulation as approxi­mately seven years. Daniel 7:25 refers to the fact that the saints living in the Tribulation period will be given over to Satan’s Prince (for persecution and martyrdom, cf. Rev. 13:5-7) for a period designated as “a time, times and half a time.” This expression is equivalent to three and one half (a time = 1, times [Heb. dual] = 2, and half a time = ½), the unit of time is not specified. We know by comparison with Daniel 9:27 (cf. Matt 24:15-22) that the time of severe persecution and martyrdom of believers breaks out in the middle of the period, in association with the abomina­tion which makes desolate, and extends to the end of the period. So, from the middle of the period to the end is three and one half “somethings.” The fact that this represents three and one half years (approximately) is confirmed in Daniel 12:11 when Daniel is told that the number of days from the abomination that causes desolation to the end of the period is 1290 days (1335 days apparently marks the beginning of the Millennium). Given the 360 day year that is used in Daniel, this gives the length for the second half of the Tribulation as 3.58 years. The precise length of the first half of the period is nowhere stated. If the term “middle” (Dan. 9:27) is precise, then the overall length of the period would have to be slightly longer than seven years (about seven years and two months). On the other hand the term “middle” may be only an approximate designation, which would allow for the period to be seven years, plus or minus a slight variance.


Another confirmation of the length of the period comes from Revelation 13:5-7. Here the authority of Satan’s Prince to overcome the saints and to compel the inhabitants of the earth to worship him is said to extend for forty-two months (v. 5). It is clear from a comparison of Daniel 9:27 and Matt. 24:15-22 with Revelation 13:5 that this activity commences shortly after the middle of the Tribulation period. This would mean the second half of the Tribulation is approximately forty-two months, or three and one half years, in duration. This agrees with Daniel 7:25. From the seventy “weeks” prophecy in Daniel, we are able to determine that the approximate length of the Tribula­tion period is seven years; and as we have seen, this figure can be confirmed from both Daniel and Revelation.


Major time divisions within the Tribulation

Not only does the prophecy of the seventy “weeks” in Daniel provide us with the data needed to determine the length of the Tribulation, it also contains the most important “key” to the internal chronology of the period. That key is the reference to the fact that the abomination that makes desolate occurs in the middle of the period. Since several important prophecies reference this event or are linked in some way to prophecies which do, without this piece of information it would be virtually impossible to construct a useful chronology of the period.


Because the abomination that makes desolate occurs at the midpoint of the period, and because it marks a turning point in the character of the period, the study of the Tribulation is easily arranged according to this subdivision of two approximately equal halves. This is, in fact, what Christ did in Matthew 24:4-31, where verses 4-8 describe the first half of the period and verses 9-14 describe the second half, with a recursive section (vv. 15-31) starting back in the middle with the abomination and giving a more detailed description of the second half of the period. While there is no special designation given in the Bible for the first half of the period, the second half is uniquely described as a time of “great tribulation” (Matt. 24:21 AV). It is also referred to according to the time designation as, “a time, times and half a time” (Dan. 7:25; 12:7; Rev. 12:14).


A special problem arises with respect to the precise length of the second half of the Tribulation period. While Daniel 9:11 indicates the length to be 1290 days, other passages appear to indicate a length of 1260 days (Rev. 11:2-3; 12:6,14; 13:5). One solution proposes that the 1260 days extend from the midpoint of the period to the second coming, and that the 1290 days of Daniel 12:11 extend from the midpoint to some unspecified event 30 days after the second coming–possibly the cleansing of the Temple. Accordingly, this view holds that the interlude between the second coming and the beginning of the millennial kingdom is 75 days. [1335 days minus 1260 days–Daniel 12:12 seems to indicate that the Millennium begins on the 1335th day from the abomination.] However, there are two problems with this view. 1) It leaves the 1290 day figure given in Daniel 12:11 with no definite terminal event. This seems strange since the figure was clearly intended to predict the terminal point of the period. 2) In every case where the 1260 day figure is used (including references to forty-two months and three and one-half years), the beginning point of the 1260day period is not precisely located at the midpoint of the Tribulation (when the abomination occurs), but shortly afterward. For example, Revelation 12:6 indicates that some Jews will be protected in the wilderness for 1260 days, these are undoubtedly people who will flee at the time of the abomination (cf. Matt. 24:15-21). However, they are not in the wilderness when the abomination occurs, they must get there, in very large numbers. Also, the Prince’s inability to stop this flight may indicate that his reign in the region, also stated to be 1260 days, has not effectively commenced, though it certainly follows very quickly. In light of these difficulties, it may be best to regard the length of the second half of the Tribulation to be 1290 days, as indicated in Daniel 12:11, with the 1260 day period of intense persecution and divine protection for those who flee to the wilderness beginning 30 days after the midpoint of the period. This scenario would allow 30 days from the abomination for the Prince to come to his full power. Thus, according to this view, the second coming occurs on the 1290th day from the midpoint with a 45 day interlude between the second coming and the beginning of the Millennium (1335 days minus 1290 days).


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