Biblical Future Prophecy –Part 7: The Tribulation Described

[This is the seventh in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from the author’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]

In the previous article we discussed the biblical basis for believing that there will be a period of severe tribulation upon the earth just prior to Christ’s return. In this article  we will look at the character of that period of tribulation.

The Beginning of the Tribulation Events [Seals 1-4]

The most detailed account of the events of the tribulation is recorded in the book of Revelation. In John’s vision he saw the tribulation events unfold from the heavenly perspective, and it is from that perspective that he related his description. In his vision John saw the Father seated on his heavenly throne attended by myriads of the heavenly host, who were adoring, worshiping, and ascribing glory and honor to God (Rev. 4:1-11). As John stood in awe of the scene, he noticed a scroll in the right hand of God; the scroll was sealed with seven seals. A proclamation was heralded by a mighty angel, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” John wept because no one in Heaven, or on earth was found who was worthy to open the scroll; but then John saw in his vision a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing by the throne. The Lamb reached out and took the scroll from him who sat on the throne. Suddenly Heaven erupted in praise, adoration, and worship of the Lamb. As John continued to watch, the Lamb began to break the seals of the scroll (Rev. 5:1-14). Most of the events recorded in the book of Revelation are associated with the breaking of these seals. (The seals are not judgments, but seven periods, or movements within the tribulation, during which certain events will be divinely permitted to occur.) While the book of Revelation generally proceeds sequentially, there are some parenthetical and recursive sections that interrupt the chronological flow. It is possible, though not certain, that the day of the LORD begins with the opening of the seventh seal. Paul indicated in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 that the day of the LORD cannot begin until after the abomination in the temple, which occurs at the midpoint of the period (cf. Dan. 9:27).

Four of the seven seals will be broken in the first half of the tribulation. The first seal allows for the geopolitical events associated with the rise of the Antichrist’s kingdom (Rev. 6:1-2). The breaking of the second seal allows the outbreak of wars (Rev. 6:3-4). We are not told the identity of the nations involved, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that at least some of the conflict is related to the formation of the final empire under the authority of the Antichrist, though he is not revealed to the world in his true character until the middle of the period (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-9). Daniel indicates that “the little horn” (the Antichrist), will uproot three of the leaders of the ten-nation alliance. The third seal allows for famine (Rev. 6:5-6), and during the time of the fourth seal a quarter of the world’s population will perish as a result of wars, famine, and pestilences (Rev. 6:7-8).

The Invasion of Israel by the Antichrist

In Ezekiel 38-39, Ezekiel described a great invasion that will take place involving Gog of the Land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. The region referred to is located to the north and east of the Black Sea, now occupied largely by Islamic states that once formed part of the Soviet Union (and which might also include Russia), along with its allies (Persia [Iran], Ethiopia [including Sudan], Put [Libya], Gomer and Beth-Togarmah [the region of Asia Minor around modern Turkey]). These nations, possibly along with Egypt (Zech. 14:12-19), as well as several additional unnamed nations, will invade Israel and eventually experience their destruction as God intervenes to save his people. Ezekiel pictures this happening at a time when Israel will be living in peace and safety, but prior to their national conversion (39:22-29). This invasion is described in Joel 1-3, Ezekiel 38-39, Zechariah 12:2-14:8, and Revelation 19:11-21 (cf. 16:12-16); it will involve a gathering of armies in the land of Israel and a siege of Jerusalem and Judea beginning at the midpoint of the tribulation. This siege will continue until the final battle, the Battle of Armageddon, when the Antichrist and his armies will be defeated by Christ at his return.

Since the mid-1900s the “two-invasion theory” has been popular among premillennialists. According to this view the invasion described in Ezekiel 38-39 is not the invasion by the Antichrist at the midpoint of the tribulation, but a prior invasion, possibly in the first half of the tribulation period. However, there are very serious problems with this theory. First, there is no singular prophecy that clearly pictures two distinct invasions of Israel associated with the approach of the day of the LORD. Secondly, in all three of the major descriptions of an invasion of Israel during the tribulation (Joel 1-3; Ezek. 38-39; and Zech. 12:2-14:8), the deliverance of God is said to be accompanied by spiritual renewal on the part of Israel (Joel 2:18-32, esp. vv.27-29; 3:17; Ezek. 39:22; Zech. 12:10-13), including the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28-29; Ezek. 39:29; Zech. 12:10). This would seem to identify all three descriptions as the same invasion. Third, while the two-invasion theory requires the Ezekiel 38-39 invasion to be distinct, the prophecy specifically states that it is the same invasion prophesied by the former prophets (38:17). Thus, the case that Ezekiel 38-39 refers to a different invasion appears to be contradicted by the prophecy. Fourth, in Joel’s description he said: “There has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it to many generations” (Joel 2:2); this statement is clearly at odds with the two-invasion theory. Fifth, in all three of the major descriptions, the conclusion of this war results in the permanent restoration of Israel (Joel 2:18-27; 3:18-21; Ezek. 39:25-29; Zech. 14:8-21) and the establishment of the kingdom (Joel 2:18-3:21; Ezek. 39:21-29; Zech. 14:8-21). Sixth, the condition of the land of Israel at the time of the invasion by the Antichrist (“like the garden of Eden,” cf. Joel 2:3) could hardly be so if a prior invasion of such proportions as described in Ezekiel 38-39 (cf. 38:17-23; 39:9-16) had occurred at most, only a few years earlier. Seventh, the language of Revelation 19:17-18, which describes the final battle of Armageddon, is in substance virtually identical to Ezekiel 39:17-20 (cf. 39:4). Obviously if the description given in Ezekiel 39:17-20 is connected to Armageddon it could not refer to any invasion other than the one by the Antichrist at the midpoint of the tribulation period. In view of these observations it seems best to regard Ezekiel 38-39 as describing the invasion by the Antichrist. Consequently, the nations listed in Ezekiel 38-39 (along with Egypt, mentioned in Zechariah 14:12-19) comprise a partial list of the nations that will make up the kingdom of the Antichrist. Ezekiel further described this invasion as follows:

[Ezek. 38:1-13] The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; prophesy against him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. I will turn you around, put hooks in your jaws and bring you out with your whole army—your horses, your horsemen fully armed, and a great horde with large and small shields, all of them brandishing their swords. Persia, Cush and Put will be with them, all with shields and helmets, also Gomer with all its troops, and Beth Togarmah from the far north with all its troops—the many nations with you. Get ready; be prepared, you and all the hordes gathered about you, and take command of them. After many days you will be called to arms. In future years you will invade a land that has recovered from war, whose people were gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate. They had been brought out from the nations, and now all of them live in safety. You and all your troops and the many nations with you will go up, advancing like a storm; you will be like a cloud covering the land. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: On that day thoughts will come into your mind and you will devise an evil scheme. You will say, “I will invade a land of unwalled villages; I will attack a peaceful and unsuspecting people—all of them living without walls and without gates and bars. I will plunder and loot and turn my hand against the resettled ruins and the people gathered from the nations, rich in livestock and goods, living at the center of the land.” Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish and all her villages will say to you, “Have you come to plunder? Have you gathered your hordes to loot, to carry off silver and gold, to take away livestock and goods and to seize much plunder?”’

Ezekiel also described the destruction of the invading army on the mountains of Israel.

[Ezek. 39:1-6] ”Son of man, prophesy against Gog and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. I will turn you around and drag you along. I will bring you from the far north and send you against the mountains of Israel. Then I will strike your bow from your left hand and make your arrows drop from your right hand. On the mountains of Israel you will fall, you and all your troops and the nations with you. I will give you as food to all kinds of carrion birds and to the wild animals. You will fall in the open field, for I have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will send fire on Magog and on those who live in safety in the coastlands, and they will know that I am the LORD.’”

The Spiritual Rebirth of Israel

Although there is to be a partial regathering of Israel to the land prior to the beginning of the tribulation period, which has already begun, and almost certainly additional migrations throughout the first part of the tribulation period, the Jewish people will be gathered to their homeland in unbelief of their Messiah, Jesus Christ. Ezekiel indicates this in the prophecy of the “dry bones” (Ezek. 37:1-14). In that prophecy God showed Ezekiel a field of dry bones representing Israel; then Ezekiel saw the bones come together and flesh cover them (representing the restoration of the nation), but there was no life in the bodies (signifying the lack of spiritual regeneration).

[Ezek. 37:7-14] So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

Zechariah further places this conversion at the point when God defends Israel from the nations that have invaded the land.

[Zech. 12:2-10] “I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. On that day I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness,” declares the LORD. “I will keep a watchful eye over the house of Judah, but I will blind all the horses of the nations. Then the leaders of Judah will say in their hearts, ‘The people of Jerusalem are strong, because the LORD Almighty is their God.’ On that day I will make the leaders of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume right and left all the surrounding peoples, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place. The LORD will save the dwellings of Judah first, so that the honor of the house of David and of Jerusalem’s inhabitants may not be greater than that of Judah. On that day the LORD will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them. On that day I will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem. And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”

The Second Half of the Seven-Year Period

The majority of events associated with the tribulation occur in the second half of the period. Not only is the frequency of events increased, but the intensity grows as the end approaches, just as in the labor of childbirth. The intensity appears to reflect the level of the world’s rebellion against God as the period progresses (cf. Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9,11,21).

Satan and His Host Thrown Down to the Earth

The book of Revelation records a conflict between Michael and his angels, and Satan and his angels, which appears to occur near the midpoint.

[Rev. 12:7-10] And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.”

As a result of this conflict, Satan and his host will be confined to the earth. “heaven,” in Revelation 12:7, denotes the physical heavens (note the use of the plural, “heavens,” in v.12). This event signals the beginning of a period of great joy in the heavens (the domain of certain angels, cf. v.12), but great distress upon the earth. As Satan sees that his time is short, he will persecute Jews and Christians with great fury (v.12). His wrath will be particularly focused on Israel (vv.13-17). Clearly from this point forward things on earth are going to go from bad to worse. Nevertheless, God’s wrath is yet to come; all that has occurred up to this point is tribulation caused by human and angelic rebellion against God.

The Abomination (Desecration) in the Temple

The midpoint of the period is to be marked by the abomination in the temple, an event first mentioned in Daniel 9:27. Jesus warned that this event would mark the beginning of the time of severe persecution (Matt. 24:15-22). But what is “the abomination”? Interestingly, this major event marking the midpoint of the period is neither expanded upon by Christ, nor specifically mentioned by John in Revelation, though John does mention the worship of the Antichrist (Rev. 13:1-8), which is related. It was Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:2-4 who pulled back the curtain of mystery and gave a glimpse into the nature of this event. Paul indicated that the Antichrist (the Man of Lawlessness) will oppose every god or object of worship, even taking his seat in the temple of God in an attempt to manifest himself as being God.

Piecing together the accounts from Matthew 24:15­22 and Revelation 12:7-13:18, the sequence of events beginning at the midpoint of the tribulation appears to be as follows: Satan and his host will be confined to the earth (Rev. 12:7-12). The Antichrist will enter the temple, claiming to be God and demanding worship (Rev. 13:1-18 cf. 2 Thess. 2:3-4). Those with discernment will recognize the significance of this event and flee (Matt. 24:15-22). God will provide a place of safety for those who flee into the wilderness (Rev. 12:14). Satan will attempt to destroy those who flee, but divine intervention will prevent him from carrying this out (Rev. 12:15-16). Enraged at his inability to destroy those believers, the Antichrist will turn his wrath on those within his reach (Rev. 12:17).

The New World Economic and Religious Order

Once the true character of the coming world leader is revealed through his desecration of the temple, two things will quickly fall into place. First, in a well-orchestrated move, a satanically empowered false prophet, referred to in Revelation 13:11-15 as “a second beast,” will immediately begin to perform false signs and wonders in attestation to the deity of the Antichrist (Rev. 13:11-18). Secondly, Revelation 17 indicates that an apostate religious system already in place will be utilized to promote the worship of the Antichrist, at least until that system is no longer needed. In Revelation 13:11-15, John described the appearing of the false prophet.

[Rev. 13:11-15] Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men. Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.

The reference to the healing of the fatal wound of the first beast might refer to an attempt on the part of the Satanic trio (Satan, the Antichrist, and his false prophet) to mimic the resurrection, and thus claim messianic status for the Antichrist. As further inducement to worship the Antichrist, the false prophet will be empowered to implement a system by which every person must receive a mark on his or her forehead or right hand, possibly indicating acceptance of the religion of the Antichrist (Rev. 13:16-18). Possession of that mark or number will be required in order to buy or sell. The precise form of the mark or number (666) is not revealed.

[Rev. 13:16-18] He also forces everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If any one has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

Despite the fact that some will be thoroughly deceived into believing that the Antichrist is God, the very necessity for such a coercive policy certainly indicates that there will be significant resistance to the worship of the Antichrist. Nevertheless, it appears that many will choose to receive the mark.

The Ministry of God’s Two Prophets

At the midpoint of the tribulation God will raise up two prophets who will prophesy for most of the remainder of the period (Rev. 11:3-13). These two prophets will testify to the true God, and their enemies will be powerless to stop them (v.5). Not only will they prophesy, they will have power to call down various plagues on the earth (v.6), clearly demonstrating the powerlessness of the Antichrist to stop the coming judgment and the return of the Lord. At the close of their ministry, God will allow the Antichrist to kill these prophets. Their bodies will lie in public view for three and a half days, while the unsaved of the earth celebrate their deaths and the power of the Antichrist. However, that celebration will be cut short when the two prophets are raised from the dead and ascend into heaven in plain sight of their enemies (11:7-13).

The Martyrdom of Christians [Seal 5]

The fifth seal will be broken shortly after the midpoint of the tribulation and allows the Antichrist to overcome and martyr many of the saints (Rev. 6:9-10). This persecution was foreseen in Daniel, Matthew, and Revelation. Concerning this, the following was revealed to Daniel.

[Dan. 7:25] He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.

Jesus also made mention of the severity of this persecution when he said:

[Matt. 24:9] Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.

John adds little in the way of additional information on this subject, except that he places the martyrdom of the saints during the time of the fifth seal, and seems to indicate that the intense persecution will continue until the time that God’s wrath is poured out. Regarding the opening of the fifth seal, John said:

[Rev. 6:9-11] When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

Matthew 24:10 indicates that this persecution will lead to apostasy for many who once claimed to be Christians. During the time of this seal many who apostatize will deliver believers to be put to death (cf. v.9).

Cosmic Disturbance—the Final Warning [Seal 6]

The sixth seal allows for a great cosmic disturbance that will affect the earth (Rev. 6:12-17). As terrifying as this event will be, it seems that it is only a warning of what is yet to come with the breaking of the seventh seal. John gives the following description of this ominous event.

[Rev. 6:12-17] I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Astronomy has greatly illuminated our understanding of the nature of what will take place during the time of the sixth seal. There can be little doubt from the description that what John saw in his vision was the collision of an object from space with our planet; possibly this object will be an asteroid or comet, or fragments of such. The details given, though set in phenomenological speech as they appeared to John in his vision, correspond closely with modern scientific observations (e.g., the Shoemaker-Levy Comet impact on Jupiter in July, 1994). Note the details: 1) a large shock wave (“a great earthquake”); 2) obstruction of the atmosphere (“the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red”); 3) debris falling through the atmosphere in a meteoric display (“the stars in the sky fell to earth”); 4) a blast-hole in the atmosphere arching upward from the impact site (“the sky receded like a scroll, rolling up”); 5) effects of a great shockwave (“every mountain and island was removed from its place”). These are precisely the same details, and even the same sequence as events hypothesized by astrophysicists were the earth to be hit by a sufficiently large object from space. Prior to the impact of fragments from the Shoemaker-Levy Comet on Jupiter in July of 1994, some scientists doubted whether the impacts would result in thermonuclear-like explosions. However, once the Shoemaker-Levy fragments hit Jupiter all doubt was erased. Even some of the smallest of the these twenty-one fragments exploded with the impact of a huge nuclear arsenal. Even one of the smallest fragments hitting our planet would have done catastrophic damage and killed untold numbers of people. Is it merely a coincidence that we have so recently been given a front-row seat to witness such an event? It is a terrible thought; nonetheless, the scriptures clearly indicate that there are objects right now speeding toward a divinely appointed encounter with planet earth.

That the event described in the sixth seal is astrophysical in nature is further supported by two additional observations: 1) The response of those dwelling on the earth will be to hide in caves and the rocks of the mountains (v.16); such would not be the expected response were this simply a geophysical event, such as an earthquake. Also, the fact that the unredeemed of earth will be able to predict and anticipate this event is consistent with an astrophysical phenomenon. 2) This incident immediately precedes the first four trumpet judgments (Rev. 8:7-13), which are all clearly described as astrophysical events. Perhaps the sixth seal is earth’s final warning before devastating divine wrath is poured out upon the earth during the seventh seal. It is this event more than any other that will signal that the great day of God’s wrath is imminent (cf. Rev. 6:16-17). The Antichrist will watch in impotence at what is about to happen.

The 144,000 Jewish Men Sealed

Although the distress of the first six seals will be difficult, it will pale in comparison to the divine judgment that will come afterward. It will be well into the second half of the period when God seals 144,000 Jewish male virgins (Rev. 7:1-8 cf. 14:4); this sealing apparently protects these servants of God from certain aspects of the judgments to follow (v.3 cf. 9:4), and signifies their election to a unique body of believers (Rev. 14:1-5). Beyond these simple statements we do not know the full significance of this group. The 144,000 reappear in Revelation 14:1-4 where they are pictured on Mount Zion with Christ, apparently after the tribulation is over, singing a song only they could learn.

The Day of God’s Wrath (the Day of the LORD) [Seal 7]

While it is not possible to be dogmatic on this point, it seems likely that the day of the LORD begins with the opening of the seventh seal (Rev. 8:1-6); consider the following: Of the three major passages from which it is possible to discern any tribulation chronology (Daniel 9:27; Matthew 24:3-31; and Revelation 6-19), the only passages that specifically designate elements of the tribulation as divine wrath are Revelation 6:16-17 (spoken after the events of the sixth seal) and 15:1-16:21 (in regard to the seven bowls of wrath). Revelation 6:16-17 says:

[Rev. 6:16-17] …and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has [is come]; and who is able to stand. [Clarification in brackets]

John’s statement in Revelation 6:16-17 is made after the terrifying astrophysical event that occurs during the time of the sixth seal. Whether it is spoken in an actual or anticipatory sense is not known. However, it seems likely that the sixth seal is the final warning of the wrath to come. The two witnesses will have been prophesying the coming day of the LORD for some time before this event happens. When the impact occurs during the time of the sixth seal, it will convey an unmistakable message: Time has run out. Even those who reject Christ will be fully aware of the fact that divine judgment is now imminent. While it is tempting to include the sixth seal as part of the day of the LORD simply because of the nature of the event and the fact that it is so similar to the first four trumpets, which are clearly divine wrath, from a purely literary standpoint it is clear that the intended break in the flow of events falls between the sixth and seventh seals, not between the fifth and sixth seals.

There also seems to be a profound qualitative shift in the nature of the events beginning with the seventh seal. Consider the following. In Revelation 7:1-8, John recorded information revealed to him concerning the sealing of the Jewish servants of God. Why are the 144,000 sealed at this point (Rev. 7:3), between the sixth and seventh seals, if the sealing is a protection from at least some of the effects of divine wrath? When John finally comes to the breaking of the seventh seal (Rev. 8:1ff.), our attention is immediately arrested in the first verse, for there John records something of great significance that is said in relation to no other seal; he wrote: “And when He broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” What sound is continually heard in Heaven other than the praise of God? Was there ever silence in Heaven before? We do not know; the Bible does not tell us. But one thing we do know is this signals that something momentous is about to happen. As John continues with his description we see seven angels standing before the throne of God, and each is given a trumpet; we also see another angel holding a golden censer with much incense, and added to it are the prayers of the saints from under the golden altar that is before God. This altar was mentioned earlier in the book; it is the altar referred to in 6:9, from which the saints who were slain during the tribulation made their petition for vengeance (wrath) upon those who slew them (the world system under the influence of the Antichrist). The imagery is clear: God is now ready to judge the world through the undiluted outpouring of his wrath. The implication is unmistakable, what has happened so far is that God has allowed evil people, with the help of demons, latitude to manifest their evil natures as never before in history. They have made war, caused destruction and death, and killed the saints. God now intends to judge them by an unprecedented outpouring of divine wrath. It is also worth noting that the activities recorded as occurring during the time of the first six seals are intense forms of ordinary events; that is to say, they are the kinds of things common in human history. But many of the elements of the seventh seal seem altogether of a different nature. These unique features seem to distinguish the seventh seal from all that has gone before. To the above we need to add a couple of additional observations. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-9, Paul indicated that the day of the LORD cannot begin until sometime in the second half of the tribulation period; he said:

[2Thess. 2:1-9] Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the LORD has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come, until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceived those who are perishing. They perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

Paul stated that the day of the LORD would not begin until after the Antichrist is revealed and “the rebellion” (NASB, “the apostasy”) takes place. Paul clearly intended for his audience to understand that the apostasy he had in mind was the apostasy that will occur in connection with the revealing of the lawless one (i.e., the Antichrist) in the temple (v.4). Note that both the apostasy and the revealing are closely related elements within the same sentence (vv.3-4). Since the revealing of the Antichrist in the temple occurs at the midpoint of the period, and the subsequent persecution and apostasy occurs shortly afterward, this would place the beginning of the day of the LORD sometime in the second half of the tribulation period.

How do we know that the apostasy to which Paul referred occurs in connection with the abomination in the temple? There are two reasons: 1) The structure of Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 (which is one sentence) clearly indicates such a relationship. 2) It appears that Paul had Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in mind when he penned 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12, for Jesus was the first to mention this particular apostasy (Matt. 24:10), which occurs after the persecution that follows on the heels of the abomination in the temple. [Note that Matthew 24:4-31 has a recursive structure in that verses 4-8 describe the first half of the tribulation, and verses 9-14 describe the second half, with verse 15 starting back at the midpoint and continuing forward to the second coming (v.30). As can be seen, this results in overlap between verses 9-14 and verses 15-28. Thus some of the events in verses 9-14 occur after the abomination in verse 15. Once we understand this structure, we can see that the apostasy Jesus mentioned in verse 10, actually occurs as a result of the persecution mentioned in verses 15-22.] How do we know that Paul had this in mind as he penned his letter? First, from the way Paul mentions “the” apostasy in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 it is apparent that he was referring to a particular well-known future apostasy, i.e., “the” apostasy with which the Thessalonians were already familiar. Second, while the gospels might not have been written at the time of this letter, undoubtedly early accounts of Jesus’ teaching had circulated in Paul’s home church at Syrian Antioch, and he would not have been unfamiliar with such important doctrinal material. (Note Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:1-2 to the effect that the apostles had from the earliest days communicated the Lord’s commandment concerning the last days—likely a reference to the cumulative commands embodied in the Olivet Discourse.) That Paul had Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in mind is virtually certain from the fact that in this very passage he mentions five points that appear nowhere else in the Bible other than Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. In his description of the second half of the tribulation, Jesus mentioned: apostasy (Matt. 24:10), lawlessness (v.12), the abomination in the temple (v.15), spiritual deception involving false signs and wonders (vv.23-24), and his second coming (v.30). Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 referred to: “the” apostasy (v.3), lawlessness (vv.4, 7), the abomination in the temple (v.4), spiritual deception involving false signs and wonders (vv.9-10), and Jesus’ second coming (v.8). Reiterating the point: If, as appears almost certain, Paul referred to the apostasy that will occur in connection with the abomination in the temple, his statement in this passage means that the day of the LORD will not begin until sometime in the second half of the period.

One argument often used to classify the entire tribulation as divine wrath is that the seals seem to span the entire tribulation period. However, we must bear in mind that the seals are not judgments, but movements within the period. For example, the martyrdom of believers that occurs during the time of the fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) argues that the seals are not judgments; after all, if the fifth seal involves the persecution and martyrdom of the saints, how can it be characterized as the judgment of God? Not only that, but the slain saints appear in Heaven beseeching God for justice in avenging their unjust deaths (Rev. 6:9-11), and God promises that their petition will be granted (Rev. 8:1-6, esp. v.3, cf. 6:9-10). Clearly the seals do not represent judgments, but periods during which certain events occur, some of which are divine judgment. Thus, the argument that the entire tribulation is divine judgment because the seals are all divine wrath is built upon an incorrect assumption regarding the nature of the seals. When we recognize that the day of the LORD cannot begin until sometime after the middle of the period, and we note the significant change in character of the events occurring during the seventh seal, there is reason to suspect that the day of the LORD, and the wrath of God associated with it, begins with the breaking of the seventh seal.

The seventh seal encompasses a series of seven judgments referred to as the trumpet judgments, and the seventh trumpet unfolds into another series of seven judgments, referred to as bowls of wrath. Both the frequency and intensity of these judgments will increase as the end of the period approaches. So severe is this time of judgment that Jesus said if it were allowed to continue longer than the time appointed, no one would be left alive; however, for the sake of God’s elect, he will not allow that to happen (Matt. 24:22). God’s preservation of his elect is both merciful and a necessary part of the divine program, since it is those survivors who will enter the millennium in their natural, untransformed bodies to repopulate the earth during the millennium (Isa. 65:17-25).

The First Six Trumpet Judgments

The trumpets comprise a seven-fold judgment. The first four judgments are astrophysical events unleashing enormous destruction upon the earth. The first trumpet pictures something similar to hail burning as it falls from the sky. Its mixture with blood indicates the terrible result. John gives the following description:

[Rev. 8:7] The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.

The devastation will be catastrophic. Falling debris will burn a third of the earth. The second trumpet depicts an object falling to the earth that John could only liken to a huge mountain ablaze. He said,

[Rev. 8:8-9] The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

The impact of this object will destroy a third of the ocean life and ships. It is of such destructive proportions as to be rivaled only by the biblical flood. The third angel sounded his trumpet, and something in appearance like a star, burning as a torch, fell from heaven. John described it as follows:

[Rev. 8:10-11] The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water—the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.

Of course John was speaking phenomenologically, describing the event as it appeared to him. He described an object that looked like a star. The result of the impact of this object was that a third of the fresh water was contaminated, and many people died as a result. The fourth trumpet is another astrophysical judgment. We know only that some event will affect the visibility of the sun, moon, and stars, for a third of the day and a third of the night. This event is probably the phenomena described in Isaiah 13:9-10, where Isaiah prophesied:

[Isa. 13:9-10] Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and he will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not shed its light.

Isaiah provided a summary of this entire sequence of judgments when he said:

[Isa. 24:19-23] The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is thoroughly shaken. The earth reels like a drunkard, it sways like a hut in the wind; so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion that it falls—never to rise again. In that day the LORD will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below. They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon; they will be shut up in prison and be punished after many days. The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed; for the LORD almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders, gloriously.

Undoubtedly these four judgments will comprise the greatest catastrophe the earth has seen since the flood destroyed almost all life on this planet.

John’s attention was next turned to the voice of an angel (referred to symbolically as “an eagle”), who was flying and proclaiming, “Woe! Woe! Woe! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels” (Rev. 8:13). It is difficult to imagine anything more severe than what has already taken place, but that is what the angel proclaims. These last three trumpets are sometimes referred to as “the woe judgments” because of the way they are introduced. They are terrible beyond imagination. As the fifth angel sounded his trumpet, John saw an angel (referred to as a “star,” literally, “a bright one”) who had fallen from heaven (Rev. 9:1-12). While the identity of the angel is not stated, it seems likely that it is a reference to Satan, having previously been cast out of heaven (Rev. 12:7-10). John does not say the angel fell to the earth at this point in the period; merely that he had already fallen. (The confinement of Satan to the earth occurs near the midpoint of the tribulation.)

[Rev. 9:1-12] The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were not given power to kill them, but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes a man. During those days men will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them. The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails and stings like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon. The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.

The angel who had previously fallen to the earth was given the key to the Abyss, where certain demons are imprisoned (cf. Lk. 8:31, Rev. 20:1-3, and Jude 5-7). When the angel opened the Abyss, the sun and the sky were darkened by the smoke that arose, smoke like that of a gigantic furnace. Out of the smoke that had risen came something that looked like locusts descending out of the cloud upon the earth (v.3). These creatures were given the power to afflict men for five months. That these creatures are demons, or controlled by demons, is supported by two observations: 1) they come from the Abyss, an abode of demons; and, 2) their leader, called “Abaddon” in Hebrew, or “Apollyon” in Greek, is referred to as “the angel of the Abyss” (v.11). Although they do not have the power to kill, their “sting” is like the sting of a scorpion (v.5). During the five months of this plague, men will be tormented so severely that they will long for death; however, the sting from these creatures is not lethal, it simply leaves its victim in lingering agony (v.6). Only those 144,000 who have the seal of God will be exempt from this terrifying ordeal (v.4). Perhaps these creatures will not approach those having the seal of God; this might explain, at least partially, the success of the 144,000; perhaps people will view these servants of God as affording them some measure of protection from this plague.

The sixth trumpet, which is the second “woe judgment,” signals the release of four angels that have been prepared for this time (Rev. 9:13-19). These fallen angels will be responsible for the deaths of one-third of the world’s population by provoking a massive war. This passage depicts an army of immense size and destructive force. It is likely that the huge number of combatants (translated “two hundred million” in the English —Gr. dismuriades muriadon, meaning, “myriads of myriad{s}”) is figurative, meaning a vast or innumerable host. In any case, from the description this certainly ranks as one of the most destructive wars in history. John stated that fire, smoke, and brimstone proceeded from the mouths of the horses upon which the army rode. Again, we see a phenomenological description of this future war for which John had no appropriate vocabulary. He also remarked on the response of unsaved humanity to these judgments.

[Rev. 9:20-23] The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders their magical arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.

The Seventh Trumpet—the Bowl Judgments

Finally, the seventh trumpet was blown; this is the third “woe” judgment. John described the opening scene of this judgment in Revelation 11:15-19.

[Rev. 11:15-19] The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great—and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.

After an excursus in 13:1-15:4, John picked up again at the last trumpet judgment and the final seven bowl judgments. In Revelation 15:5-16:21 he said:

[Rev. 15:5-16:21] After this I looked and in heaven the temple, that is, the tabernacle of Testimony, was opened. Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests. Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed. Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.” The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died. The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say: “You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” And I heard the altar respond: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.” The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty. “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.” Then they gathered the kings together to the angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since man has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones of about a hundred pounds each fell upon men. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

Bowl Judgments 1-5

The seventh trumpet is a seven-fold judgment consisting of the seven bowls of divine wrath. The first bowl causes malignant sores to break out on those who have received the mark of the Antichrist or worshiped his image (16:1-2). The second bowl struck the sea such that the water was fouled, becoming like blood, and all the sea creatures died (v.3). The third bowl affected the fresh waters in the same way (vv.4-7). The fourth bowl resulted in men being scorched by the heat of the sun (vv.8-­9, cf. Isa. 24:6). Yet even after these severe judgments John records that men would not repent, but blasphemed God, whom they recognized as controlling these plagues. Perhaps this awareness will be due to the ministry of the two prophets of God. The fifth bowl caused darkness to fall over the kingdom of the Antichrist (vv.10-11). By this point the cumulative effects of these plagues were almost unbearable. John recorded that men gnawed their tongues in great pain, but still they would not repent.

Bowl judgment 6

The sixth bowl prepares the way for the military campaign that will lead up to Armageddon (Rev. 16:12-16). This is presented under the figure of the drying up of the Euphrates River. Satan, the Antichrist, and his false prophet will call forth demonic spirits (vv.13-14); these spirits will gather the nations of the world together for the period’s final conflict, “the great day of God, the Almighty.”

[Rev. 16:12-14] The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.

In order to understand the events leading up to this final conflict we must recall the nature of the Antichrist’s kingdom. It is an alliance of nations, a confederation that will begin to fall apart toward the end of the period (Dan 11:40-45). The fragile nature of this alliance can be seen from its description in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:1-45) where it is pictured as composed of iron and clay, which do not adhere. Daniel interpreted the meaning of this when he said:

[Dan. 2:41-43] Just as you saw that the feet and toes were partly of baked clay and partly of iron, so this will be a divided kingdom; yet it will have some of the strength of iron in it, even as you saw iron mixed with clay. As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.

Daniel 2:41-43 implies the breakup of the Antichrist’s kingdom, and 11:40-45 gives details of the ensuing conflict that will occur toward the end of the tribulation period. (Note that Daniel 11:29-45 pertains to the future activities of the Antichrist, whereas 11:1-28 pertains to events that have been fulfilled historically.)

[Dan. 11:40-45] At the time of the end the king of the South will engage him in battle, and the king of the North will storm out against him with chariots and cavalry and a great fleet of ships. He will invade many countries and sweep through them like a flood. He will also invade the beautiful land. Many countries will fall, but Edom, Moab and the leaders of Ammon will be delivered from his hand. He will extend his power over many countries; Egypt will not escape. He will gain control of the treasures of gold and silver and all the riches of Egypt, with the Libyans and Nubians in submission. But reports from the east and the north will alarm him, and he will set out in a great rage to destroy and annihilate many. He will pitch his royal tents at the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he will come to his end, and no one will help him.

This is perhaps the same event pictured in Joel, where the prophet said,

[Joel 3:9-14] Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, “I am strong!” Come quickly all you nations from every side, and assemble there. “Bring down your warriors, O LORD! Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side. Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow—so great is their wickedness!” Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.

When these passages (Daniel 11:40-45 and Joel 3:9-14) are compared with Matthew 24:4-31 and Revelation 16-19, the scene seems to unfold in the following way: 1) The Antichrist will invade Israel and capture a portion of Jerusalem including the temple, at the midpoint of the tribulation. (According to Zechariah 12:2 this will happen in connection with a siege of both Jerusalem and Judea.) 2) Sometime in the second half of the period spiritual powers will incite a broader war (Rev. 16:12-16). 3) Nations opposed to the Antichrist will challenge him in battle (Dan. 11:40). 4) The Antichrist will experience remarkable success (Dan. 11:42-43). 5) He will set up his headquarters between the seas (Dan. 11:45; i.e., between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee) in the vicinity of the plain at the base of Meggido (Gr. Armageddon, cf. Rev. 16:16). This will set the stage for the final confrontation between the Antichrist and Christ at his second coming.

Bowl judgment 7

It is uncertain whether the destruction that occurs next under the seventh bowl is the product of the military conflict already in progress, or some additional factor. In any case, the seventh bowl brings large-scale destruction to the earth of the sort that might be expected from a nuclear war, or possibly another cosmic impact. John records the following description:

[Rev. 16:17-21] The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since man has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones of about a hundred pounds each fell upon men. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

The various elements associated with this final judgment are: 1) flashes of light like lightning, 2) tremendous noises like thunder, 3) a shaking of the ground more powerful than any earthquake the earth has yet experienced, 4) the destruction of the cities of the nations, 5) great geologic disturbance, 6) heavy debris falling from the sky over a large area of the earth; its surface will be left in ruins, yet men still will not repent (v.21).

The Destruction of the World Religious System

Christ described the tribulation period as a time of religious apostasy (Matt 24:4-5,11,23-26). Revelation 17:1­18 gives a symbolic representation of the apostate religious system that will be in place during the period until it is destroyed by the Antichrist.

[Rev. 17:1-18] One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries. Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction. The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast. They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers.” Then the angel said to me, “The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages. The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled. The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

Several observations are to be made from this passage that give insight into the nature of the false religious system. 1) It is referred to symbolically as “the harlot” (v.1), denoting spiritual unfaithfulness. 2) This system will be in league with the world’s leaders (v.2), promoting their own apostasy and immorality. 3) It will be aligned with the Antichrist (v.3), apparently lending him a measure of credibility, even religiosity. 4) This apostate religion will manifest great affluence, as indicated by the clothing and adornment of the harlot (v.4). 5) It is this system that will be responsible for much of the persecution and martyrdom of the saints during the tribulation (v.6). 6) It appears to be connected in some way to Rome. Note the seven hills (v.9) and the connection with the city that rules over the kings of the earth. The Antichrist will tolerate, and use this apostate religious system only as long as it serves his purpose, and then destroy it (v.16).

The Destruction of the Gentile World Order

That the world economic and political order in place during this period should be referred to as “Babylon the Great” is not surprising, and its destruction toward the end of the tribulation marks the close of the period of Gentile supremacy that began with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (Rev. 18:1-24). Both Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:1-45) and Daniel’s vision (Dan. 7:1-28) picture Babylon as the first of the world empires spanning “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24). It is this inverted system, with Israel, God’s elect nation, at the bottom of the economic, political, and religious hierarchy, that will be corrected when God destroys Gentile dominance over Israel forever. This is what Isaiah prophesied when he said:

[Isa. 62:8-12] The LORD has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: “Never again will I give your grain as food for your enemies, and never again will foreigners drink the new wine for which you have toiled; but those who harvest it will eat it and praise the LORD, and those who gather the grapes will drink it in the courts of my sanctuary.” Pass through, pass through the gates! Prepare the way for the people. Build up, build up the highway! Remove the stones. Raise a banner for the nations. The LORD has made proclamation to the ends of the earth: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘See, your Savior comes! See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.’” They will be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, The City No Longer Deserted.

The Second Coming of Christ

With the completion of the last bowl judgment and the assembling of the armies of the Antichrist near Megiddo, the stage will be set for the final scene. Although the plain of Megiddo (known as the valley of Jezreel) is large, it is likely not large enough to comprise the entire theater for a military campaign of the size described; more likely it is a strategic point in the conflict. Having temporarily defeated his opponents (Dan. 11:40-43), the Antichrist will turn his attention to Israel. It is in the midst of this desperate circumstance that Christ will descend to the earth to rescue his people. The particulars concerning the second coming are revealed in a number of passages (cf. Zech. 14:1-8; Matt. 24:29-31; Rev. 19:11-21), but it is John’s account in Revelation that yields the sharpest detail.

[Rev. 19:11-20:3] I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one but he himself knows. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written: “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.” And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and mighty men, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, small and great.” Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and had worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.

When the specifics of the second coming are pieced together the following picture emerges:

1) The sign of Christ will appear in the sky (Matt. 24:29). Although we have no idea what this sign might be, it will clearly communicate to people living at the time that the return of Christ is imminent; perhaps the two prophets of God will identify this sign so that it will be apparent to the world. 2) People all over the world will see Christ returning (Matt 24:30). Unlike the rapture of the Church, which will occur almost instantaneously, the second coming will be observable. 3) This sight will provoke a bitter lament from Christ’s enemies as they see the object of their most profuse hatred approaching in unspeakable splendor and power (Matt. 24:30). 4) Christ will descend upon the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:4). 5) He will then go forth to personally engage the armies of the Antichrist (Zech. 14:1-3). 6) The Antichrist and his prophet will be taken and thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 19:19-20). 7) The forces that oppose Christ will be slain by the words of his mouth (Rev. 19:21, cf. 2 Thess. 2:8; Zech. 14:12; Isa. 11:4); the carnage will be unparalleled (Rev. 14:19-20). 8) The redeemed and the unredeemed will be gathered into groups by the angels (Matt. 24:31, cf. 13:40,49-50). 9) Satan will be bound and confined to the Abyss (cf. Rev. 20:1-3), presumably along with his host of fallen angels.

Though the tribulation will draw to a close at the second coming, some things remain to be done before the millennium begins. Of those remaining alive at the end of the period, some will be redeemed, others not. Since only the redeemed will enter the kingdom there must be a means of screening out the unredeemed; such is the purpose of the judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46. All of the world’s population that survive, already having been sorted by the angels, will appear before Christ (Matt. 25:31-46); the redeemed will be admitted into the kingdom and the rest will be sent into Hades to await their final judgment at the great white throne following the millennium (Rev. 20:11-15). The judgment after the tribulation will occur during the seventy-five day interlude between the close of the tribulation and the beginning of the millennium (Rev. 20:11-15 cf. Dan. 12:11-12; see also pp. 156-158).

Final Thoughts About the Tribulation

There is much that is not known about the tribulation period. For instance, some prophecies seem to indicate that the dominion of the Antichrist will be global (Rev. 13:17), while others indicate it to be more regional (i.e., composed of ten nations, cf. Dan. 2 and 7). Also, in view of the symbolic nature of some of the prophetic language, it is sometimes difficult to know where the boundaries exits between literal and figurative expression. We may assume that the precise meaning of some of the biblical information will only become apparent as the time draws near. Also, while a knowledge of the tribulation is important, it should not overshadow the truth concerning the kingdom of God. As terrible as it will be, the tribulation is but a moment compared to the eternal blessings that follow; and as will be seen when we come to the study of the rapture, God has not appointed the Church to suffer his wrath (1Thess. 1:9-10).

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(Adapted in 2017 from What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged], illustrated. Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.)