How often I've heard this sentiment expressed: "I hope Jesus doesn't come during my lifetime. I'd never make it through the time of trouble!"
Considering the various presentations regarding "the time of trouble" that precedes Jesus' second coming, it's no surprise that many people dread Christ's return. In fact, I vividly remember the potent impact that teachings about the time of trouble had on me as a child. After the lights were out and my brother and I were supposed to be asleep, we tried to outdo each other with tales of beastly torment such as high-tech torture machines, creative uses of acetylene torches, and pliers that could pluck one's fingernails one by one.
Those childish imaginings were frightening enough. But in some ways it can be even harder on an adult. After all, I now have much more to lose: a house, equity, retirement savings, a wife, two children. I find it hard to look forward to hiding in caves or getting my check book and ATM card shredded because I won't worship the beast. I know that the Bible compares last day upheavals to labor pains. But, given a choice, I think I'd rather opt for some sort of cosmic epidural birth without pangs.
The time of trouble in the Bible
The specific phrase, "the time of trouble," occurs only in Daniel, who predicts "a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time" (Dan. 12:1). Matthew 24, (with parallels in Luke 21 and Mark 13) refers to wars, earthquakes, famines, upheavals in nature, and other such crises accompanying the time of the end. Jesus tells the disciples that they will be delivered up to tribulation, hated and even killed for His sake (verse 9). He also speaks of a " 'desolating sacrilege' " (verse 15), an entity Bible commentators see as a persecuting antichrist. In language that parallels Daniel 12, Christ foretells " 'great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now'" (verse 21). These troubles are referred to as "birthpangs" (verse 8).
Some of the most vivid depictions of earth's final afflictions appear in John's apocalypse: graphic imagery of persecutions, of a fierce beast power who plots the death of those refusing to worship him, of bowl after bowl of divine wrath, and of bloody strife that will precede the great day of the Lord. As trumpets sound, winds are unleashed, plagues commence, the powers of evil marshal against the righteous and the cry goes up, "How long O Lord?"
Other Bible writers also refer to great trauma before the final restoration of all things. Jeremiah, like Matthew, uses the language of childbirth to describe the anguish of God's people before the final reconciliation. After describing a man in agonized labor Jeremiah exclaims, "How awful that day will be! None will be like it. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but he will be saved out of it."(Jer. 30:7, NIV) While the immediate context is of return from Babylonian exile, many Bible scholars see a wider reference to the struggle before the great gathering of the Messianic age and also the time of trouble that just precedes the second coming of Jesus.
Scriptural teachings about the time of trouble or tribulation follow a larger biblical pattern that emerges through out the portrayals of salvation history. The birth of a new or renewed order is always preceded by a period of trauma and chaos. This period of upheaval and chaos can be seen as both a divine judgment on those who reject God and as the liberation of God's faithful ones. Though the multitudes reject God, a faithful remnant who follow God at any cost, are ultimately saved.
The Creation story provides a language and themes that unfold in such chaos to cosmos transitions as the stories of the Flood, the journey of Abraham and the Exodus.
The final tribulation is seen to follow these motifs introduced earlier in scripture. General transitional motifs include the darkness of a world in rebellion, blowing winds, drying up of waters, deceptive temptation, pain of childbirth, plagues and divine judgment, the faithfulness of a remnant and the ultimate liberation of God's people, and the birth of a new heaven and earth.1
Why such trouble?
This repeated cycle throughout salvation history raises a logical question. Why not skip the trauma and go straight to deliverance?
I can venture an answer only by noting the nature of the deception known as sin. This cycle was set in motion by one who is described as " 'a liar and the father of lies' " (John 8:44). From the beginning, the rotten core of sin has been enshrouded in the seductive promise of a glittering deception. Sin rebellion against and autonomy from God is presented as a fulfilling, life-enhancing alternative. God is presented as a with holding, untrustworthy being who can hold His creatures in submission only by death threats (Gen. 3:1-5) or bribery (Job 1:1-12).
Throughout human history God has revealed Himself in response to the lie. He dramatically parts the Red Sea and leads Israel to safety. He establishes covenants, thundering from Mount Sinai, and sends water gushing from a rock while manna appears on the ground. He speaks through a succession of prophets. Then in His greatest act of self-revelation, He sends His own Son. Pierced hands outstretched on the cross dramatically demonstrate the depth and intensity of God's love and His desire to keep faith with His children. An empty tomb certifies His power over death and every human dilemma.
Seemingly, any of these demonstrations, especially the cross, would be enough to puncture the illusion of Satan's original lie. The existence of God, the character of God, the love of God and the true consequences of sin these and more are etched out power fully by God's working in history. But strangely, the lessons are all too often lost on the rebellious human race. True, the dazzling power of the sin illusion occasionally flickers and dims in the face of some particularly disturbing evil. But amnesia sets in quickly or people even use such displays of sin at work as evidence against God.
But there is something different about this final, tempestuous series of events. While earth's history has certainly been punctuated with episodes of horror, God has patiently blunted the full impact of sin's destructive power. But here finally at the end of the age, once and for all, God must lift the restraint and expose the true reality that is the dark underside of the cosmic rebellion.
While this lifting of restraint is an act of divine judgment and revelation, like all manifestations of "the wrath of God," there is a component of "letting alone" (Rom. 1:18, 24, 26, 28) so that the true principles of God's enemy and the natural outworking of the sin principle are revealed. "Satan will then plunge the inhabitants of the earth into one great, final trouble. As the angels of God cease to hold in check the fierce winds of human passion, all the elements of strife will be let loose."2
Before it is all over everybody alive will have made a decision about whom they will worship. Everybody is shouldered off the fence by these happenings. Multitudes offer allegiance to the beast creature while a remnant worship the Creator God. As the world polarizes, a stark clarity emerges. The seductive principles that have mesmerized most of the world are revealed as horrific, destructive lies. The trustworthiness of God is vindicated. And the cycle ceases. The fallen planet is ultimately restored. The old order passes away, never to return.
The Time of Trouble--A time of hope and assurance
The outcome of this time may be positive, but most still dread the thought of going through it. I would like to advance the revolutionary thought that it may, in fact, be the greatest time in history to be alive. And I say this not simply clinging to the thought, true as it is, of some future in which all that is wrong will finally be made right. It isn't just a matter, either, of taking heart in assurances that bread and water will be supplied (Isa. 33:16) or that the guardian angels will shield us from the looming threats that could snuff us out in an instant. The real glory of this time lies in the paradoxical truth that God's presence will become especially real and, dare I say it, especially joyful to us during these exacting days. Here are some reasons why I think this way.
First, it's worth noting the surprising and hopeful twist that pervades the biblical passages that foretell last day upheavals. In fact, none of them seem particularly preoccupied with trouble. Instead, the emphasis is on deliverance and triumph. While Daniel predicts a great time of trouble, in context the trouble itself, as he describes it, looks like a brief aside. Daniel's depictions burst with affirmations of hope and deliverance. The saints of the Most High are pictured not as beaten down with suffering but instead they are seen in their joyous, liberated state as shining "like the brightness of the firmament" (Dan. 12:3).
Jesus foretells a variety of birth pangs in the Olivet Discourse. But, He interrupts His own description of wars and world upheaval to say," 'see that you are not alarmed'" (Matt. 24:6). He also promises that" 'for the sake of the elect, those days will be shortened'" (verse 22). The most significant sign of His coming is not trouble but the preaching of the gospel to the whole world (verse 14). And the comparison to the days of Noah when people are caught up in pleasure and prosperity suggest the general tone of much of earth's closing history will be that of deceptive prosperity, not merely endless trouble.
Revelation, the book that presents the most horrific imagery of earth's final upheavals, bursts with songs of praise. The most significant imagery is not of beasts or plagues or bloodshed but of singing saints and a triumphant Lamb.
Second, I think that God's promises will come alive for us in a way most of us haven't even begun to imagine. A key passage exposing this theme is found in Romans 8. In the face of tribulation, distress, and persecution we are "more than conquerors through him who loved us" (verse 37), and that there is absolutely "nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (verse 39, NEB). We can take heart also in the assurance of Jesus " 'In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world' " (John 16:32).
Some of the Psalms, originally vital expressions of faith in the face of experiences such as David's flight from Saul, may become even more luminous in the face of earth's final tribulations. Psalm 27:5, for example, affirms that "he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble." Assurance is also found in Psalm 32 "You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance" (verse 7,NIV).Psalm 59:16 (NIV) portrays God as "my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble." Psalm 138:7 (NIV) expresses a similar thought: "Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me." Psalm 91 depicts God as " 'my refuge and my fortress'" (verse 2, NIV). The psalmist promises that God "will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge" (verse 4, NIV).
Third, I believe that we will experience, a unprecedented sense of purpose and vitality during this time. Ask any body to describe the moments of life when they felt most alive and a clear pat tern emerges. We talk about the times of challenge, the times of adversity, the times when we have been stretched to the limit. Veterans gather to share their war stories. Athletes tell of the harrowing ski run or the agonizing race. Regardless of the arena, the pattern is the same. We celebrate the crucible, not the easy chair.
And when we aren't in the crucible we seem to seek meaning by making crises out of trivia. A thoughtless driver who cuts us off, a bad hair day, a domestic tiff, a difference with somebody at work, a dinnertime interruption by a rude telemarketer, or a dead battery on the car can seem life-dominating.
But the day comes when suddenly, in the face of earth's final upheaval, the host of annoyances recede into nothingness. Life comes into focus. Every other issue is swallowed up by the big issue, the one truly important issue the matter of ultimate allegiance. Who is worthy of our worship? Is Jesus truly Lord or not? Is He Lord of our lives? As during this awful time we experience His Lordship in new and powerful ways, as the "latter rain" of the Holy Spirit drenches us, and a host of distractions fall away, I believe there will be a life and vitality we have never known before.
Fourth, we will experience pro found personal transformation during this time. Seventh-day Adventists have referred to the final, personal struggle of God's people before they are liberated as "the time of Jacob's trouble." This is a reference to an inner struggle, not with the beast and the external powers of evil, but with and within ourselves. The purpose of this time goes beyond the unmasking of Babylonian evil "out there" and confronts us with the ways in which it has taken root in side our own hearts.
Jacob's night of struggle is a fitting metaphor because in the heavy blackness of night he suddenly feels the hand of a stranger upon him. In fear and desperation he struggles to the point of absolute exhaustion. For a hopeful moment, he gets a new surge of energy. The stranger cries for freedom before the rising sun.The stranger touches his thigh. Jacob collapses in excruciating pain. When, in the light of dawn, he comes limping out to meet Esau, he might give the appearance of having been diminished by his night of struggle. But he is not diminished he is transformed. The new name bestowed upon him is a fitting recognition of this. Thus, when comparing Jacob's time of trouble to the time through which, in the end, those loyal to Christ must walk, it has been described as "the best answer to their petitions"3 for cleansing and transformation.
Finally, we must never lose sight of the fact that all these tribulations are but a great prologue to something stupendous. They are but a prelude to a future of joy beyond our wildest imagination. Although we have seen happy mothers with their babies on the other side of childbirth, we haven't seen Christians on the far side of the time of trouble. But John gives us a glimpse of those who gather on the sea of glass singing the song of Moses and the Lamb. The Re deemed, in triumphant chorus overflow with praise toward the worthy Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5).
The song of triumph
And that song of triumph can be gin well in advance of our actual arrival in heaven. In the words of theologian Walter Wink: "The celebration of the divine victory does not take place at the end of the book of Revelation, after the struggle is over. Rather, it breaks out all along the way.... We have here no sober pilgrims grimly ascending the mount of tears, but singers enjoying the struggle because it confirms their freedom. Even in the midst of conflict, suffering, or imprisonment, suddenly a hymn pierces the gloom, the heavenly hosts thunder in a mighty chorus, and our hearts grow lighter."4
As trouble approaches, let the song begin.
Unless otherwise noted, scriptural quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.
1. For a discussion of the language and cycles of salvation history see Jon Paulien, What the Bible Says About End-Time, (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1994).
2. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 614.
3. Ibid., 631.
4. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1992), 321.