Is it possible that the Great Tribulation spoken of in the Bible has already started?
That may depend on who you are.
For most evangelicals, and some other Christian factions who believe in a pre-tribulation rapture of the church, the answer would seem to be clear: No way. After all, every student of Bible prophecy knows that the Great Tribulation starts when the Antichrist stops the Jewish sacrifices at the Temple (which has yet to be built due to the presence of the Al-Aqsa mosque), and lasts until Jesus comes back (again) seven years later, to rule on Earth for a thousand years.
Besides, they would say, the Christians won’t be here anyway. That’s what the rapture is for— to take the good people of God out of here before the really bad stuff happens. Right?
“There are some who, because of their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, teach that the church will go through the Tribulation.”
“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep [in death], but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”
The confusion comes with the phrase “the last trumpet”. The only Bible passage that describes a series of trumpets is in Revelation, where seven trumpets announce seven judgments that come upon the earth.
Those in confusion interpret that the rapture will happen after the seventh trumpet sounds, since it’s the last trumpet in a series of trumpets. This interpretation is in error.” (pp. 89-90)
Interpretations aside—and we know that there are many— let’s look to motivation. Why do so many believe that Christians won’t experience the Great Tribulation? Mr. Hagee articulates the raw human motivation behind this popular theology a few paragraphs later:
“…Those that are taken up in the rapture will escape the wrath of the Antichrist… I ask those of you who are of sound mind, do you want to escape these horrors that John the Revelator so graphically described? I do! I really do! I am going to escape, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump!” (Four Blood Moons: Something Is About To Change, pp. 91, 93)(emphasis added)
Mr. Hagee, like so many millions of other American Christians, may well escape the “horrors that John the Revelator so graphically described.”
Some of our brothers and sisters, however, are apparently not so lucky.
Though we are told that even in the times of the apostles many antichrists had already come, the rise of “the” Antichrist in the end-times will be accompanied by a distinctive sign: the worldwide persecution/ genocide of Christians.
“The beast was permitted to go to war against the saints and conquer them. He was given ruling authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation, and all those who live on the earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written since the foundation of the world in the book of life belonging to the Lamb who was killed.” Revelation 13:7-8 (NET)
This beast, commonly believed to be the “man of perdition” himself, is empowered by the spirit of the dragon (Satan). Clearly, at least some unfortunate Christians will indeed experience the “wrath of the Antichrist”— this scripture says specifically that the Antichrist will be “permitted to go to war against the saints and conquer them.”
What will that look like in real life? The next two verses tell us: captivity, and death by the sword.
“If anyone has an ear, he had better listen! If anyone is meant for captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed by the sword, then by the sword he must be killed. This requires steadfast endurance and faith from the saints.” Revelation 13:9-10 (NET)
More specifically, we’re told that those Christians alive during the Great Tribulation will endure a unique challenge: death by beheading.
“… I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” Revelation 20:4 (NET)
Who Are These Tribulation Christians?
Many Christians raised on Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” movies (formerly with Growing Pains’ own Kirk Cameron, and more recently Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage) have a quick answer to the question, “Who are these Christians being killed and captured by the Antichrist, and beheaded for their testimony?”
Obviously, they must be the disobedient souls who “missed” the rapture— the ones who are left behind. Because they fail to say the sinner’s prayer before the Tribulation starts, they (unlike us) do have to suffer the wrath of the Antichrist.
Houston, we have a problem. Something unpredictable has occurred, and it’s throwing our trite homilies into a tailspin.
Christians are being beheaded en masse… right now.
Just last week, we woke up to the latest in a string of gruesome videos: 16 more Syrians and another American beheaded by ISIS. As we have discussed, this Islamic terrorist group is positioned to fulfill several key apocalyptic prophecies. It is definitely fulfilling at least one: the beheading of Christians in the end-times.
The tactics of ISIS are strikingly similar to those of the Antichrist in Rev. 13 in that it will kill anyone who does not bow to its demands, and it is especially determined to hunt down God’s people.
So now who do we say these beheaded Christians are? How can they fit into our eschatology? Rev. 6 tells us that there is a set number of martyrs to be killed before Jesus returns.
“Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been.” Revelation 6:9-11 (NET)
Can we say that these contemporary beheaded Christian martyrs don’t count? That they won’t be included in that “full number”… just because they’re a little early according to our theology?
And whatever happened to escaping the wrath of the Antichrist in the rapture?
Like the drying up of the river Euphrates (prophesied to happen when the sixth bowl of wrath is poured out), the beheading of Christians is a portent: one of the vivid, literal signs of the end-times. And unlike some of the spiritual, subjective events in Revelation, this is one that can be seen with the naked eye.
And it has been. Worldwide. Image after bloody image of severed heads and bodies of Christian men, women, and children in Iraq and Syria are bombarding our screens, lassoing our eyes and invading our hearts and minds. Not one. Not two. But image after image after endless image. The undeniable horror is happening now— and according to the theology of millions, it’s happening too early.
So the question is, what happens to our theology now? For those Christians who have faced the wrath of ISIS, the answer is clear.
Theology doesn’t mean a hill of beans when it’s your neck on the line.
In that moment, doctrine doesn’t matter. Tradition doesn’t matter. All that matters is how you answer the question:
“Hold to the testimony of Jesus…or deny the one who gave His life for you in order to save your own?”
Who cares whether the theologians will look on your death as pre-trib or post-trib? When you’re the one feeling the cold blade of jihad against your throat, will you not know that the great tribulation has come to you?
Who cares if some Christian author or preacher says so-and-so is the Antichrist – when you are the one looking into the face of an ISIS executioner, you won’t have to wonder if you’ve seen the face of the evil one. You’ll know.
Which brings us to the real question about the rapture.
You may be right… but are you ready?
Being Right vs. Being Ready
Ironically, with all the effort spent debating the exact timing of Christ’s return, Jesus and the apostles gave a clear instruction not to focus on such details. Instead, we are told to know the signs of the last generation, to expect Christ’s return at any moment, and to make sure that our hearts stand ready.
“Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Matthew 24:42-44 (NET) “Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night… So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober.” 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2,6 (NET)
As Christians, it’s time to ask ourselves: is Jesus really interested in amassing an army of know-it-all eschatologists who are more right than others in their doctrine? Is He building a kingdom of people who take pride in their scholarly prowess? Is there really going to be an exclusive “I-told-you-so” party in heaven for the elite who got their timeline right?
Or could it be that Jesus is interested in cultivating one thing: hearts that are loyal to His kingdom— people who would rather face death than deny their testimony of the Son of God.
Jesus himself answers that question in Luke chapter 12:
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him… I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:4-5, 8-9 (NIV))
If Jesus is going to peer straight into our hearts— bypassing our words and masks, silencing our self-justifications— and judge our loyalty to His kingdom, then perhaps the horrors of ISIS will serve as a merciful wake-up call. Watching our brothers and sisters literally lose their heads is forcing us to face the reality that even we may not be exempt from tribulation— that suffering for Christ may be part of our equation after all.
And this leads us back to that really hard question, swept under the rug by our theology for so long.
“If I am faced with the demand to deny Jesus or die— what will my answer be?”
But there is good news. If indeed we find our hearts are not ready, we still have a few minutes left to get right with God. After all, we’re still here. And we couldn’t have possibly missed the rapture…could we?