Worse tribulation than they had ever known.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 January 2023

Mk 13.17-20, Mt 24.19-22, Lk 21.23-24.

Most American Evangelicals are conditioned to think Jesus’s Olivet Discourse is entirely about our future. Not his students’ near future; humanity’s future, specifically our own. It’s a combination of self-centeredness (“the bible’s speaking about me!”) and the fact there’s a whole lot of money to be made, and power to be gained, by keeping your people terrified of a scary future.

But it’s not. And if you don’t believe me, ’cause your churches have been really successful at convincing you otherwise, I recommend you read today’s Luke passage more than once. Really read it. Let it sink in.

Mark 13.17-20 KWL
17 “Woe to those who have babies in the womb,
and those who are nursing, in these days!
18 Pray lest it happen in the rainy season.
19 For these days will be tribulation.
Unlike what’s happened to what God creates,
from the first creature until now,
it may never yet be this bad.
20 If the Lord doesn’t shorten the days,
not all flesh will survive—
but because of the chosen whom he selected,
he will shorten the days.”
Matthew 24.19-22 KWL
19 “Woe to those who have babies in the womb,
and those who are nursing, in these days!
20 Pray lest your flight happen in the rainy season,
nor on Sabbath.
21 For then will be great tribulation.
Unlike what’s happened
from the beginning of the world until now,
it may never be this bad.
22 If these days aren’t shortened,
not all flesh will survive.
Because of the chosen,
these days will be shortened.”
Luke 21.23-24 KWL
23 “Woe to those who have babies in the womb,
and those who are nursing, in these days!
It’ll be great calamity in the land,
and wrath upon the people.
24 They will fall by the machete’s blade,
and be put into captivity in every nation.
Jerusalem will be trampled by gentiles
until the gentile era might be full.”

’Cause according to futurist End Times prognosticators, the Olivet Discourse is about a seven-year stretch of great tribulation which takes place just before Jesus’s second coming. It’s not about the Romans invading Israel in the year 70, destroying Jerusalem, killing 2 million Judeans, and scattering the rest of them all over the Roman Empire.

Even though Jesus is obviously talking about the events of the year 70.

Well… it’s obvious to people who know the history of the actual great tribulation. Not so obvious to American Evangelicals who know little to nothing about it—who know that’s how the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, but very little else. To them, this won’t be a great calamity in the land; it’ll be a great calamity all over the earth, like the English Standard Version implies.

Luke 21.23 ESV
“Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people.”

True, γῆς/yis can be translated “land” or “earth.” Or “dirt.” It means that kind of earth—the ground below us, not the planet. You want the planet, you’re more apt to use the word κόσμου/kósmu, “world”—although this can also mean all the people of the world, like when Jesus says God so loves the world. Jn 3.16 But you get the point. Translators who choose to turn yis into “earth” typically have an agenda—namely to make us think something’s global when it doesn’t have to be.

Or, bluntly, isn’t.

Worse than it’s ever been.

Most of the reason people presume Jesus is speaking of our future, is because Jesus describes this tribulation thisaway: “Unlike what’s happened from the beginning of the world until now, it may never be this bad.” Mt 24.21 KWL The times he’s speaking of, are as bad as things have ever been.

That, and various translators try to make it sound like Jesus is talking about the worst tribulation in all history. Not just from creation to the year 33; everything, from creation till the LORD finally destroys the world and erects New Earth. After all, that’s what the King James Version makes it sound like.

Matthew 24.21 KJV
For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

But “no, nor ever shall be” is a poor translation of the Textus Receptus’s οὐδ’ οὐ μὴ γένηται/ud’ u mi yénite, “not not not might happen.” Yep, that’s a triple negative—and a subjunctive verb; something which may or could or potentially happens. Jesus is only saying things might never get this bad again. The triple negative means it’s extremely unlikely.

But Jesus also doesn’t say it’ll never get this bad again. And all of us are quite aware—if not from history classes then from war movies—that the deadliest war in human history was World War 2, filled with atrocities on both sides. (If you’re thinking, “Wait, what? What atrocities did the Allies commit?” you’re forgetting the Soviets: You want some nightmare fuel, look up what they did to the Germans in revenge. But maybe you shouldn’t.) Human depravity is always capable of inventing the very worst ways to make others suffer, and sometimes people look at the awful behavior of the past and think, “Oh, I can top that.” And try. And do.

Those who figure Jesus is speaking of a tribulation worse than “ever shall be,” figure whatever he means, it’s gotta be worse than WW2. Thing is, in many ways the Roman-Jewish War was actually worse than WW2. The Romans killed 2 million Judeans during a time when there were maybe 4 million Jews on earth. Some historians estimate more, some less, but it’s not inaccurate to say that’s about half of ’em. But they didn’t gas the Judeans; they starved them to death under siege, burned them, speared them, and crucified them. They didn’t quietly, secretly try to wipe them out; they publicly wanted to terrify the world with what they did to their enemies, lest anyone else think they could defy Rome. The Romans meant it to be the worst suffering possible. Arguably they succeeded.

But people don’t know this history, or figure WW2 is definitely worse. The deaths of 35 to 85 million people is certainly more than 2 million. The suffering of German and Polish Jews is depicted in way more movies. And again, futurists insist the Olivet Discourse is really about us, and therefore our suffering under the Beast is gonna be the worst ever. Worse than first-century Judeans, worse than 20th-century Jews; worse than anything. We’d better get prepared for the worst, and fill our End Times bunkers with supplies and guns. Or we’d better see how long we can delay the worst, and vote for culture warriors who will vote for good nationalists. (Nevermind how Germany and Italy’s nationalist behavior started WW2. And Germany and Britain’s nationalist behavior started WW1. And England and France’s nationalist behavior started the Napoleonic Wars. Heck, most wars are triggered by people figuring their nation has every right to conquer and rule everyone else.)

Fear regularly distorts the interpretation of this passage, gets Christians to ignore the most obvious interpretation of Jesus’s words… and gets ’em to fixate on a coming war which will only happen if they vote for nationalists. Like they’re doing. Because they don’t learn from history.

So if history repeats itself—as it will when people foolishly try it again, expecting different results in their favor—it’ll be because of good old-fashioned human depravity. Not because Jesus is speaking of our day. He’s not.

Woe to new mothers; pray it’s not raining.

In all the synoptic gospels Jesus says οὐαὶ/, Hebrew אוֹי/oy, which is an expression of lament—which is why various bibles go with “Woe” (KJV), “Alas” (ESV), “How awful” (NIRV), “How dreadful” (NIV), “How sad” (Voice), or “How terrible” (GNT, ISV). He just finished telling his students that once they see an abomination taking place, run for the hills; don’t turn back.

And if you’re pregnant or have small children, it’s gonna particularly suck. Because you have to run for your life with them, and they’re only gonna slow you down.

Throughout Christian history, people have unfortunately used this statement of Jesus’s to justify not having kids. After all, if the End is coming, and the Beast’s minions are coming for us, kids are gonna get us exposed or caught. A baby will cry just as we’re hiding from the storm troopers. (No, not the Star Wars guys; those guys can’t shoot. Think of the World War 2 Sturmtruppen.) Then we’ll get caught and shot, or taken to the guillotine; nevermind the fact in every single one of these End Times scenarios, Jesus is gonna resurrect us when he comes back in a few years. Every Christian death will be temporary, not tragic.

Jesus likewise told ’em to pray the disaster wouldn’t befall them in χειμῶνος/heimónos, “foul weather,” which translators often render “winter,” but you never do know when foul weather might happen. Or on Sabbath, Mt 24.20 not because you can’t flee or defend yourself on Sabbath, but if you’ve lived your entire life under the Pharisee idea that you can’t do anything on Sabbath, that mental block might get in your way when you suddenly have to take action. (Plus on Sabbath there’d be more people in temple; therefore more people getting killed.)

The LORD, Jesus said, would make sure the days of this tribulation “will be shortened.” Mk 13.20, Mt 24.22 The Romans won’t spend years trying to wipe out every Judean in their empire; they’d grow satisfied with the destruction, stop, and go home. Futurists interpret this to mean the persecution of Christians during a future great tribulation will have a limit or endpoint. Namely when Jesus returns. But exactly why would the persecution of Christians need a limit? Let’s say the Beast successfully kills every Christian. Well, when Jesus returns, we’re all coming back with him, in his entourage; the Beast’s evil work will be entirely undone. If some Christians are gonna survive the great tribulation… why? What’s the point? (Yeah, futurists have all sorts of speculative reasons why their survival is absolutely necessary. It’s really not… and it’s not gonna happen like that anyway, so debating it is moot.)

But as it continues in Luke: The Romans would invade, stab many to death, and drag the rest into captivity in other nations. Now when you look at other End Times prognosticators’ timelines, you don’t see these events included. There’s nothing about future Christians getting dragged into captivity in other countries. Very little about Jerusalem getting trampled by gentiles; most of the time they imagine Jerusalem manages to hold out against the Beast during the battle of Armageddon. Some theorize there’ll be a second coming of Moses, and Israelis will evacuate Jerusalem and go hide out in Jordan with him, and God’ll defend them with heavenly force fields, and feed them manna. No I’m not kidding—but it’s a massive stretch to pull that idea from the bible, and the Luke passage doesn’t support it at all. Because nobody’s hiding out in Jordan; they’re “put into captivity in every nation.” Lk 21.24 The victims of tribulation are getting deported—and that’s what happened in the first century to the survivors of Jerusalem. Whereas End Times prognosticators keep insisting Jesus is gonna win the battle of Armageddon, so nobody goes into captivity—except the Beast, who gets thrown in hell.

Meh. Like I said, read the Luke passage till it sinks in.