As a child, I was taught that the end time were approaching, that all true Christians would one day be raptured, transported straight to heaven, and that this would be followed by a Tribulation in which God would judge the earth. The tribulation would be a time of horror, a time of disaster and death. I learned the outline of the Tribulation, and about the judgments God would pour out on humans during its seven year length. I believed wholeheartedly that God’s judgement was coming, and that it would be terrible.
In this post, I’m going to do several things. It’s a bit long, I apologize. I’m going to start with the history of Tribulation theology, or, in other words, the development of the idea of the Tribulation. I’m going to then give a brief outline of the Tribulation, its beginning, middle, and end. I’ll follow that with a look at the seals, trumpets, and bowls, quoting directly from Revelation. By using bold headings, though, I’ve made it easy to skim.
I’ll finish by bringing in the millennial kingdom, Satan’s final rebellion, and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, as described in Revelation, and then offer a conclusion with some of my own musings about the Tribulation.
History of Tribulation Theology
In the nineteenth century, “textual criticism” of the Bible was born as theologians began questioning the veracity of various Biblical passages, rethinking the authorship of the books of the Bible, and even questioning the historical accuracy of Jesus’ miracles or the virgin birth. Fundamentalism emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to these new theological trends. The idea was to get back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, which included the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, the belief that Jesus’ death was an atonement for sin, Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and the historical reality of Jesus’ miracles.
Fundamentalists took the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture as their highest tenet and rejected the textual criticism approach. In response to it, they viewed the Bible in highly literal terms, much more so than Christians had ever viewed it, and set about interpreting both Old Testament prophecy and the book of Revelation in huge “prophecy conferences” attended by hundreds or even thousands of fundamentalist pastors and theologians. It was during this period that Premillenialism was born and it was these pastors and theologians who hashed out the details of the coming Tribulation. (Belief in a Tribulation is restricted to Premillenialists, remember.)
The Tribulation, then, is based on a literal reading of Old Testament prophecy and the book of Revelation. These texts are highly confusing and highly figurative, often reading like their author was on an acid trip. Nevertheless, these pastors and theologians were able to hammer out a basic sequence of events, as I will explain below. This basic sequence was enshrined in Tim LaHaye’s popular Left Behind books.
A Brief Outline of the Tribulation
Because I was raised with the Pretribulationist rapture teaching, that is the one I will be using here. It seems to be the most common. Some Premillenialists, though, believe that the rapture will occur in the middle of the Tribulation, and some believe that the rapture will occur at the very end, though these don’t generally use the term “rapture.”
The Tribulation is supposed to be seven years long, and it is divided into two parts that are each three and a half years long. At the beginning is the rapture and the emergence of the Antichrist, at the middle the Antichrist declares himself God in the rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem and is indwelt by Satan, and at the end is the battle of Armageddon followed by the establishment of the millennial kingdom on earth ruled by Jesus himself.
At the beginning of the Tribulation, all (true) Christians will be raptured up to heaven and the Antichrist will emerge to broker a peace treaty with Israel at a moment when it is being attacked by its enemies. The Antichrist will then set about building a one world government and a one world economic system. He will require that every person receive a mark of some sort on the hand or on the forehead in order to participate in economic transactions. He will be very popular and very charismatic, and the people will rally to him as their savior in the midst of difficult times.
In the middle of the Tribulation, the Antichrist will declare himself to be God, and set himself up on a throne in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. At this point he will be personally indwelt by Satan. He will continue to build his one world government and one world economic system, but will also demand to be worshiped. Any who refuse to worship the Antichrist will be rounded up and killed. The Antichrist’s one world government will bring peace and prosperity, especially in the midst of calamity, but dissent will not be tolerated.
At the end of the Tribulation, Jesus will come down from heaven with an army and be victorious in the battle of Armageddon, defeating the united forces of the Antichrist completely. At this point he will set up his millennial kingdom on earth, and after his thousand year reign Satan will lead one last rebellion, and then be thrown into hell for good. At this point the final judgement of all mankind will occur, followed by the destruction of the old heaven and earth and the creation of a new heaven and earth.
Throughout the seven year period of the Tribulation, in addition to the political and economic outline here, God will order various judgments upon the earth. These take the figurative form of seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. These judgments will include everything from earthquakes to plagues to burning hail. In other words, life during the Tribulation will suck. A lot.
Another theme of the Tribulation involves the Jews. The idea is that the current “church dispensation” is sort of a parenthesis in God dealing with his chosen people, the Jews. During the Tribulation, the Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) will still be allowed to accept Christ as their savior and achieve salvation, but the focus will be on the salvation of the Jewish people. For this reason, a significant amount of the activity in the Tribulation will focus on the nation of Israel, and even the temple itself, which as I said will be rebuilt.
If you’re already confused, that’s okay. I almost quit reading this like twenty times. It’s seriously complicated stuff. If you’d like to see a simple chart, there’s one here. There’s a more complicated chart here as well. For other really complicated charts, see here or here. For a fairly simple and accessible chart in three parts, click here, here, and here.
The Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls
While some of the dating comes from Daniel, and some of the signs of the times leading up to the Tribulation come from the gospels, most of the actual things that happen during the Tribulation, including the judgments of the seals, trumpets, and bowls, come from Revelation. I’m going to go through all seven seals, trumpets, and bowls, quoting from Revelation as I do so. Since I’m only doing these judgments, I will only be quoting select portions of Revelation. Bear in mind the (very) brief outline I already provided. The seals and trumpets occur during the first half of the tribulation, the bowls during the second half.
While the book itself does not specifically name its author as such, the church has traditionally held that Revelation was written by John the Apostle. The book is the story of his vision of heaven while he was living in exile on an island, in which he sees the events that will occur during the end times revealed before his eyes and narrates this in turn. However, Revelation has long been considered a bit sketchy, and was only admitted into the Biblical canon by one vote. During the Reformation, some reformers wanted to remove the book entirely, claiming that it was not divinely inspired. Nevertheless, it remains.
Much of what I’m leaving out here involves a figurative description of the political and economic events involving the Antichrist which I already described, and lots of portrayals of martyrs and, especially, converted Jews, along with the angels of course, praising Jesus in heaven and declaring his judgments to be Just.
The Seven Seals
The First Seal: The Rise of the Antichrist to Power
Revelation 6: 1 I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
The Second Seal: Global War
3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
The Third Seal: Global Famine
5 When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6 Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
The Fourth Seal: One Fourth of the World Population Dies
7 When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”8 I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The Fifth Seal: Worldwide Martyrdom of New Christians
9 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. 10 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?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
Note: The idea is that, after the rapture of all Christians, new people will convert to Christianity, realizing that they had been “left behind” and that the Biblical prophesies were true. These converts might be numerous, especially among people who were before nominally Christians but never “truly” accepted Christ as their savior.
The Sixth Seal: Worldwide Earthquake
12 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, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 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! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
The Seventh Seal: Silence in Heaven
Revelation 8: 1 When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
The Seven Trumpets
2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 6 Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
The First Trumpet: Fire and Hail
7 The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on 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 Second Trumpet: A Third of the Sea Turned to Blood
8 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, 9 a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
The Third Trumpet: A Third of the Rivers Fowled
10 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— 11 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.
The Fourth Trumpet: A Third of the Sun, Moon, and Stars Darkened
12 The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night
13 As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”
The Fifth Trumpet: Scorpion Beasts Torment Mankind
Revelation 9: 1 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. 2 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.3 And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. 4 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. 5 They were not allowed 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. 6 During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.
7 The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. 8 Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. 9 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. 10 They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. 11 They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer).
The Sixth Trumpet: A Third of Mankind Killed by Monstrous Horses
13 The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the four horns of the golden altar that is before God. 14 It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” 15 And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. 16 The number of the mounted troops was twice ten thousand times ten thousand. I heard their number.
17 The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. 18 A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths. 19 The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.
20 The rest of mankind who 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. 21 Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.
The Seventh Trumpet: Announcement of Coming Judgments
Revelation 11: 15 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 Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”
16 And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 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. 18 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 people who revere your name, both great and small—and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
19 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 severe hailstorm.
The Seven Bowls
Revelation 15: 1 I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.
Revelation 16: 1 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 Bowl: Festering Sores
2 The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
The Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood
3 The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died.
The Third Bowl: The Rivers Turn to Blood
4 The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. 5 Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say: “You are just in these judgments, O Holy One, you who are and who were; 6 for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.” 7 And I heard the altar respond: “Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”
The Fourth Bowl: The Sun Scorches with Fire
8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 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 Bowl: The Earth is Covered with Darkness
10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony 11 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 Bowl: The Euphrates Dries and the Antichrist Prepares for Armegeddon
12 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. 13 Then I saw three impure 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. 14 They are demonic spirits that perform 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. 15 “Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.” 16 Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
The Seventh Bowl: Huge Earthquakes and Terrible Hail
17 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!” 18 Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. 19 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. 20 Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. 21 From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.
The Battle of Armageddon
19: 11 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 wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is 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. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
17 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, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”
19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. 20 But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. 21 The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
Revelation 20: 1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
The Final Rebellion and the Final Judgement
7 When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. 9 They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10 And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
A New Heaven and a New Earth
Revelation 21: 1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
It should be remembered that Bibles often do not only offer text. Instead, they often also offer commentary and explanation. It is through this explanation, especially in popular Bibles like the Scofield Reference Bible, that these ideas about the Tribulation are spread, as well as through sermons and Sunday school classes for adults. These ideas are also passed through books, such as Hal Lindsay’s popular Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series.
One thing that struck me in writing this post is the absolute horrors that are supposed to be meted out on the earth during the Tribulation. In many ways, Revelation reads very similarly to Dante’s Inferno. God punishes humans with disease, famine, and even scorpions and monstrous horses. It’s like it’s out of someone’s morbid fantasy.
Here, for example, is one passage I skipped since it came between the others and seemed perhaps to be referring to the coming battle of Armegeddon:
Revelation 14: 17 Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. 18 Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” 19 The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. 20 They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia.
It’s also interesting to note that whatever God does, there’s a significant number of people who refuse to repent. I have to wonder, after all these plagues and signs, all of which line up with the predictions of Revelation when taken literally, wouldn’t humans be pretty aware of what was going on? Now obviously this is all fiction, but I would almost wonder whether, if this actually occurred, at least some humans might conclude that God was a wrathful monster not worth serving. I almost feel like someone could write a fiction in which the Battle of Armageddon is actually the united forces of mankind rallying to fight off an abusive, evil, dictatorial God.
The way this all is justified, of course, is that God may be loving but he is also just. Throughout the book of Revelation, the angels and martyrs continuously declare God to be just in his judgement of earth and of humankind. Furthermore, it is argued that God punishes only to chasten – in other words, he is continually waiting for humans to repent, ready to welcome them into heaven. The punishments are a way to drive people to repentance. I think part of what is going on here is that our definitions of justice and the appropriate place of punishment have changed since the time when Revelation was written, a time that was much more harsh and difficult. What may have looked just and kind then does not now, because, well, culture changes and so do cultural codes of ethics.
You can also see here why the Pretribulation Rapture position is so popular. It’s very appealing for those who believe that these horrors really are literally coming to believe that they will leave the earth before the horrors begin. The Rapture is put together from a few verses elsewhere in the Bible, and is not found in Revelation.
If this whole thing has only confused you more, go back and read the brief summary I started with, and then mentally add lots of plagues and earthquakes and hail and famine and death. That really about sums it up!
In my next segment, I’ll be talking about how Dispensational Premillennialists watch for the “signs of the times” and interpret current events within a Biblical lens – and about the problems this causes.
Also in this series: