Tribulation, great tribulation, and not-so-great tribulation.

Life is suffering. But sometimes there’s a little extra suffering going on.

TRIBULATION noun. Great suffering.
2. The cause of great suffering.
3. An End Times period of suffering around the time of Jesus’s second coming.
[Tribulational adjective.]

Tribulation is an old-timey word which, to many people and Evangelicals in particular, has to do with the End Times. That’s why writers find it useful. You wanna talk about suffering, and wanna make it sound as bad as suffering can be? You call it tribulation.

Thing is, when the word tribulation came up in the King James Version, it meant any and every kind of suffering. Not just the worst-case-ever kind of suffering. I mean, it was used to describe that, Mt 24.21 but it was used for all the other kinds. ’Cause suffering is part of the world we live in. Life is suffering.

But Jesus has conquered the world.

John 16.33 KJV
These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

So when we read of tribulation in the scriptures, it’s interchangeable with suffering. Don’t go reading great suffering into it… unless the context shows you oughta. ’Cause sometimes you oughta. And other times it’s just life.

Likewise, Christians shouldn’t be so surprised and outraged when life happens to have some suffering in it. Problem is, we do. American Christians especially are under the delusion that once we come to Jesus, our sufferings should be over. That any discomfort has one of the following causes:

  • The devil trying to rip us a new one like it did Job.
  • We sinned, or we’ve otherwise stepped outside of God’s perfect will, so God himself out to smite us.
  • We didn’t sin, but to preemptively keep us from sinning, God’s smiting us anyway, like he did Paul. 2Co 12.7
  • Somebody cursed us. So we need some form of supernatural deliverance; something to get the evil spirits to bug off.
  • The End has come. Or at least it’s a sign of the End, a warning of the End, a glimpse of End Times style judgment, or something related to all that.

Generally we go for one of many worst-case scenarios. We never consider the very real likelihood our suffering doesn’t mean anything. It has to mean something; everything means something; we’re just that important. (More like narcissistic.)

Nope. Reality doesn’t work like that. Christianity doesn’t either. Jesus never guaranteed a trouble-free existence in this age. On the contrary; read that John verse again. “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” There will be tribulation. Particularly for Jesus’s followers, who are gonna get pushback for following him properly. Pushback everywhere. Not even our homes are safe.

Matthew 10.34-36 KWL
34 “Don’t imagine I come to bring peace to the world.
I don’t come to bring peace but a machete:
35 I come to divide a person from his father,
a daughter from her mother, a bride from her mother-in-law:
36 A person’s enemies will be in their house.”

Face it: The road to God’s kingdom has a certain amount of tribulation to it. Ac 14.22 Every antichrist is gonna want to pick a fight with us. Every hardship is gonna be waved around as if it’s proof God’s not around or doesn’t care. Even fellow Christians are gonna test our commitment to Jesus when times get rough—because they insist times should never get rough.

At least not till just before the great tribulation.

The “great tribulation.”

According to Darbyists—and all the pagans who borrow Darbyist ideas to write their pop-culture versions of the End—there’s gonna be a profoundly awful period of human suffering right at the very end of history. Comes from this statement of Jesus’s:

Mark 13.19-20 KWL
19 “Those days will be tribulation like it’s never been.
From the first thing God created, to now, it’s never been this bad.
20 If the Lord didn’t cut off the days, no flesh would survive.
But he chose to cut off the days because of his chosen people.”

The KJV calls it affliction, but Darbyists go with “great tribulation.” They describe it as the seven-year period between the secret rapture, when all the Christians get magically whisked away to heaven before the really bad stuff happens, and Jesus’s second coming. While we’re gone, the Beast is gonna take power and make life on earth utterly awful, especially for Christians. Yeah, I know all the Christians were supposed to get raptured. But since the scriptures describe the Beast fighting and defeating saints, Rv 13.7 Darbyists figure some pagans who were “left behind” after the secret rapture must’ve repented and become Christian… and now have to live through great tribulation.

Where’d the Darbyists get this idea from? It’s a combination of two things.

First of all futurism, the belief every End Times event happens in the future. Can’t possibly have happened in the past… because once the bible was written, God turned off the miracles. And all the End Times bits of the bible are full of miracles, so they can’t possibly take place in the present day… nor in any of the days between the bible’s completion, and now. Everything therefore happens in our future. Starting with the secret rapture.

Now yeah, there are some Darbyists like Tim LaHaye, who figured some miraculous events might take place leading up to the secret rapture. That’s because LaHaye was continuationist: He didn’t believe God ever turned off the miracles. And yet he was still Darbyist. Why? Because LaHaye grew up Darbyist, and never thought to question the whole screwy system; he just assumed it was valid, because everybody else he knew acted as if it’s valid. Lots of continuationists are in that same defective boat. That’s why they’re all wet.

So because the time of great tribulation must occur in the future, Darbyists tend to downplay, if not be utterly clueless about, a period of great tribulation which entirely fulfilled Jesus’s prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem: When the Romans destroyed it in the year 70, fulfilling this statement of Jesus’s:

Mark 13.30 KWL
“Amen, I promise you: This generation might not pass away before all these things happen.”

It happened four decades after Jesus predicted Jerusalem and the temple’s destruction, within the lifetime of that generation of listeners. Mt 24.34, Lk 21.32 Flavius Josephus, who personally saw it, described it like so. (William Whiston’s translation.)

Now the number of those that were carried captive, during this whole war, was collected to be 97,000. As was the number of those that perished during the whole siege 1,100,000. The greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself. For they were come up from all the country to the Feast of Unleavened Bread; and were on a sudden shut up by an army; which at the very first occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them; and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.

And that this city could contain so many people in it, is manifest by that number of them, which was taken under Cestius. Who, being desirous of informing Nero of the power of the city, who otherwise was disposed to contemn that nation, intreated the high priests, if the thing were possible, to take the number of their whole multitude. So these high priests, upon the coming of that feast which is called the Passover, when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour till the 11th; but so that a company not less than 10, belong to every sacrifice: (for ’tis not lawful for them to feast singly by themselves). And many of us are 20 in a company. Now the number of sacrifices was 256,500; which, upon the allowance of no more than 10 that feast together, amounts to 2,700,200 persons that were pure and holy. For as to those that have the leprosy, or the gonorrhea; or women that have their monthly courses, or such as are otherwise polluted, it is not lawful for them to be partakers of this sacrifice. Nor indeed for any foreigners neither, who come hither to worship.

Now this vast multitude is indeed collected out of remote places. But the entire nation was now shut up by fate, as in prison; and the Roman army encompassed the city when it was crowded with inhabitants. Accordingly the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world. For, to speak only of what was publicly known, the Romans slew some of them; some they carried captives; and others they made a search for underground: and when they found where they were, they broke up the ground, and slew all they met with.

There were also found slain there above 2,000 persons; partly by their own hands, and partly by one another, but chiefly destroyed by the famine. But then, the ill savor of the dead bodies was most offensive to those that light upon them. Insomuch that some were obliged to get away immediately; while others were so greedy of gain, that they would go in among the dead bodies that lay on heaps, and tread upon them. For a great deal of treasure was found in these caverns; and the hope of gain made every way of getting it to be esteemed lawful.

Many also of those that had been put in prison by the tyrants were now brought out. For they did not leave off their barbarous cruelty at the very last. Yet did God avenge himself upon them both, in a manner agreeable to justice. […] And now the Romans set fire to the extreme parts of the city, and burnt them down, and entirely demolished its walls. Jewish War 6.9.3-4

Josephus’s line, “The multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world” sounds pretty much like Jesus’s, “From the first thing God created, to now, it’s never been this bad.” Humanity has done worse since—the Holocaust of World War 2 immediately comes to mind—but for ancient times, when there were maybe 200 million people in the whole world, the destruction of a million Jews is a profoundly significant disaster.

But to Darbyists, this wasn’t a catastrophe but an inconvenience. ’Cause the Romans destroyed the temple. So now none of their End Times prophecies which include the temple can take place. Somebody has to rebuild the temple first. They’re presuming somebody will; maybe the Beast will. Since there’s a rather important mosque currently occupying that site, how it’ll get built without triggering a major war is debatable. Some Darbyists try to squeeze that war into their End Times prognostications… all dismissing the fact those prophecies (the valid ones, anyway) were adequately fulfilled before the Romans destroyed the temple.

Why their predictions get so loopy.

I said the Darbyist idea comes from two things; the other thing is their excessive literalism.

The writers of the bible described End Times events with metaphors, and the visions God granted of the End were presented as apocalypses, visual representations of something he wants to show people… without giving details. He doesn’t wanna show us the entire future; just certain parts. So our visions represent the future, but aren’t literally the future. Revelation almost entirely consists of such visions.

Darbyists insist God was so showing us the literal future. They claim unless the scriptures specifically say one thing represents another—like the stars in Jesus’s hand representing angels, Rv 1.20 which they now presume is what every star in every prophecy and poem in the bible now means—we’re to interpret them literally. So when locust-looking critters come out of the Abyss, Rv 9.1-12 Tim LaHaye claims they’re literal demonic locust-looking critters. Which’ll literally go smite people, exactly as Revelation describes.

However, Hal Lindsey was entirely sure these locusts were helicopters. Because, he figured, John of Patmos didn’t know what on earth a helicopter was, so he described it as best he could, and that’s what we have in the bible. Whether a Darbyist believes these things are demon locusts or choppers largely depends on whether LaHaye or Lindsey got to them first.

See, there’s literal, and then there’s literal. If Darbyists simply can’t fathom it literally happening that way, they’ll fudge the literalness of their interpretations a bit. Or a lot. Fr’instance the Beast’s assistant, another beast referred to as a false prophet, has two horns like a lamb. Rv 13.11 Now, Darbyists believe both these beasts are gonna be human: The false prophet won’t literally have horns. ’Cause really, a man with lamb’s horns? They gotta be a metaphor for something else.

“There are some who call me… Tim.”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Although—I kid you not—there are some “prophecy scholars” who claim the false prophet will literally have horns. Possibly in a funny hat, like Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Possibly he’ll have some sort of rig on his head with built-in bullhorns, although a sheep’s horn looks nothing like a speaking horn.

See, various “prophecy scholars” like to play a game of “How literal can I get without going completely over the top?” and try to outdo one another with how literal their interpretations can get. And then accuse one another of not having enough faith to embrace a full-on insanely literal interpretation of an apocalypse: “They don’t trust the bible as much as I do.” The nuttier they sound, the more they’re winning.

Seven years of tribulation.

In Daniel’s apocalyptic visions of the End, God sent the angel Gabriel to explain them. Gabriel laid out a bit of a timeline for Daniel: Counting from Jerusalem’s rebuilding, there were only “70 sevens” till the end of time. Da 9.24 Most translations render this “70 weeks.”

  • Seven sevens after Jerusalem is rebuilt, Messiah shows up. Da 9.25
  • Then 62 sevens of trouble, at the end of which Messiah gets cut off, and an invading prince comes to make war. Da 9.26
  • That final seven of history: The prince runs roughshod over Jerusalem till someone puts a stop to him. Da 9.27

In Revelation, Jesus gave John similar visions. Because both Jesus and John had read Daniel, more than likely Jesus referred to Daniel’s visions from time to time. But Darbyists believe these aren’t merely references or visions: Both Daniel and Revelation were describing a literal future. That final week of history describes a literal seven. Seven years.

What evidence do they have for predicting a literal seven-year End Times tribulation? None.

’Cause let’s do math. Jerusalem was rebuilt in 515BC. Jesus’s life on earth, from birth to rapture, was 7BC to 33CE. So from Jerusalem’s reconstruction to Jesus’s life, we get between 521 and 547 years. Each unit of Gabriel’s “seven sevens” can literally represent between 10.62 and 11.16 years. For convenience we’ll round it to 11. (Do I sound ridiculously literal? Yes I do. But Darbyists are worse.)

Now that we’ve solved for x, let’s see about the next 62 sevens of history: If each unit is 11 years, that means that time-period is 4,774 years long. And the “seven” of the great tribulation?—that’ll be 77 years long. Jesus isn’t returning till the end of it, which’ll be around the year 4850.

That ain’t good news.

I’ve already gone way farther than Darbyists will, because any interpretation of the End which pushes the End that far into the future, is unacceptable to them. They’re quite fond of saying the rapture can happen any second. And it can. They’ll fight one another over all the last-second stuff which should probably happen first, but generally they agree the End can start at any time. So every once in a while one of ’em will start doing the math, realize the math really doesn’t get ’em where they want to go, and dismiss the math. They’ll stick to seven literal years of tribulation though.

Okay, if literalness is the wrong way to interpret the vision, what’s the right way? Simple: Gabriel wasn’t describing a timeline. Just a sequence. First Jerusalem gets rebuilt, Messiah comes, then much later the End comes. In chaos. How much chaos? Dunno; but every time “the day of the LORD” takes place there’s chaos, ’cause plenty of people don’t want the day of the LORD to happen, and are gonna object loudly. It’ll come just the same.

A “seven” doesn’t represent a time period, but an idea. Namely the time it took God to create heavens and earth, then rest. Throughout the bible, seven represents the time it takes to get something well and truly and perfectly done. Stuff gets finished within a seven, just like God finished creating in a week.

So the seven sevens till Messiah: The Hebrew language repeats itself for emphasis, and seven sevens means something’s really finished. It represents the fullness of time when, once it arrived, God sent his Son. Ga 4.4 Not the literal five centuries before Jesus, and you don’t divide those years by 49 to figure out how long a “cosmic day” is. (Then ditch those cosmic days when it comes to the last of the sevens.)

Seven years of tribulation is entirely based on convenience. Darbyists don’t wanna suffer for 77 years. (Who would?) They want it to be relatively, reasonably short. Enough time to cram their prophecies into, since they won’t permit any of them to be fulfilled in the 20 centuries of Christian history. Seven literal years works for them.

The Beast gets to run amok for the last 3½ years of it, ’cause Revelation says it was given power to do its thing for “42 months” before Jesus overthrows it. Rv 15.5 Nope, the 42 months aren’t “cosmic months” where every month represents a literal year (even though it’d fit the 77-year tribulation scheme a little too well). Gabriel notwithstanding, Darbyists insist they’re literal months.

Well. You see the vast inconsistency throughout Darbyist interpretation schemes. I hope it convinces you to ignore all their other prognostications. They’re not at all reliable.

Will there be End Times chaos? Sure. Will it be a period of unimaginable suffering, worse than it’s ever been? Probably not. All the suffering Revelation describes can be matched to all sorts of events in the past. We’ve had plagues which killed as many, sometimes more, than we see in the apocalypses. Persecutions which killed loads of Christians. Beasts aplenty.

What happens when we demand it be seven literal years? We figure Jesus will return precisely at the end of the great tribulation, which means we’ve set a date for his return. This is exactly what happens in the last of the Left Behind novels, Glorious Appearing: Every Christian in the book, who’ve been following the Darbyist timeline all this time, anxiously expected Jesus to return seven years to the day after the secret rapture. And he did!

Well, in the novel. In real life, Jesus himself said nobody, not even he, is gonna know the specific day. Mk 13.32 He’s not obligated to follow our timelines. For they aren’t his timelines. He never gave us one.