To quote the previous article “The Advents”: “Rather than being a singular event, the first advent was an entire era, consisting of a series of events in which the Holy Spirit prepared the world for its Savior, who had come. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the second advent will be a similar inter-related series of events.” In our preaching, we often lump all that is promised about the end times into one single “when Jesus comes” event. The New Testament authors did that as well. But that does not mean that everything prophesied will happen at once. One can place the prophecies into three distinct categories, based on the timing of their fulfillment: those actually taking place before the second coming, those that occur immediately at the second coming and those that happen some time after the second coming.
Before the Second Coming
Firstly, a number of events that people tend to equate with the second coming do not have to happen at that time. It takes discernment to sort through all the traditions that interpreters have pieced together and lumped with the second advent. Some church traditions are so tied to those interpretations that they even make them a test or standard for fellowship. Advent Christians do not do so. Many of us see at least three events which are typically paired with the return of Christ as having been fulfilled in the past, or presently being fulfilled.
The Bible describes a great deal of trouble for the nation of Israel. Jesus predicted that they “will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” Since the re-emergence of Israel as a separate nation in 1948, some interpreters have suggested that this time of Israel’s tribulation will begin at some point after Jesus returns. Traditionally, however, interpreters have seen the establishment of Israel as a sign that we are nearing the end of the times of the Gentiles, not its beginning. There is no exegetical need for Jerusalem and the temple to be rebuilt and destroyed again.
Jesus’ predictions of a 40-year period of trouble and warfare for Jerusalem were completely fulfilled in the period between his Olivet discourse and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. He predicted nine specific characteristics of that tribulation period:
- Jerusalem surrounded by armies
- Immediate flight from Jerusalem
- Unequaled distress for those in Jerusalem
- An abomination that desolates temple
- Jews will fall by the sword
- Jews will be taken as prisoners
- Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles
- The days will be shortened
- Fulfilled before this generation (40 years) ends
All of these characteristics were found in that 40-year period. Prediction fulfilled. It does the church and the world no good to reintroduce those predictions and seek to integrate them into a last-days scheme. That kind of exegesis only leads to confusion and tarnishes the reputation of the church.
The “Great Tribulation”
Jesus also predicted a period of worldwide tribulation. The specific attributes of that tribulation are as follows:
- false messiahs
- wars, rumors of wars, revolutions
- international strife
- famines, earthquakes, pestilences
- fearful events, great signs from heaven
- apostasy and schism
- persecution, false prophets
- increased wickedness
- love grows cold, family betrayal
- gospel preached to all nations
Jesus is describing this entire age in which the church has the opportunity to preach the gospel and seek to bring the world to Christ. Yet, many insist that these are signs of the end-times, and seek to place them in the future – perhaps in the time immediately preceding Christ’s second coming. None of these characteristics are new to this age. All of them are characteristic of this entire era from the time of Christ’s first advent to the present. But some traditions teach that this worldwide tribulation is unique to a seven-year period immediately after Christ’s rapture of the saints.
What the Bible reveals about this great tribulation era:
- Christians encouraged to be patient since they will endure it until the Lord comes (James 5:1-2).
- It will occur during a long age in which several signs will be repeated as birth pangs (Matthew 24:4-14 and parallels).
- During this age, Christians are warned to stay alert for the second coming (Matthew 25:1-13).
- During this age, Christians are warned to stay committed to kingdom work (Matthew 25:14-30).
- During this age, Christians are warned to be authentic, not just to do things that look real (Matthew 25:31-46).
- During this age, most people (as in Noah’s time) will reject the gospel message and not seek salvation (Luke 17:26-30).
These statements do not agree with the assumption that the great tribulation is limited to a short period of time after Christ’s return. They are consistent with the teaching that we are currently enduring this great tribulation period, and that Christ’s return will end it.
The apostle Paul predicted a time of rebellion to occur within the church during this great tribulation age between Christ’s first and second advents. Many traditions have emerged regarding a global antichrist that do not jive with what Paul said in that text. He is purported to be a political figure, yet Paul says he leads an apostasy – the word apostasia being the Greek for rebellion here. That term suggests a spiritual leader in the visible church. Paul says he will be destroyed by Christ’s second coming, but many teach that antichrist will not even appear until after Christ comes and raptures the church away. That would make an apostasy impossible, and it would make Christ pave the way for the Antichrist instead of destroy him.
What the Bible teaches is that an apostate Church will emerge in history between Paul’s time and Christ’s second coming. This apostate Church will introduce demonically inspired pagan teachings and rituals and forbid marriage and institute dietary restrictions. It will be led by imposters who oppose the truth and introduce myths into its official teachings. It’s leaders will be guilty of such hypocrisy and corruption that the whole of Christianity will be blasphemed.
There is plenty of historical evidence that apostate churches and movements have emerged within the last 2,000 years. There are also numerous attempts to reform the churches that suggest that at many times those who have professed faith have wandered away from that professed faith. It does not make sense theologically to cast all that evidence aside and insist that another great apostasy must occur, and after the church is taken away. For that reason, it makes sense to place the apostasy among this list of things that have already taken place, and not in the list of events to occur during or after the second coming.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)