Sunday, May 05, 2019

Persecution and Wrath

A great number of Christians believe the Church will go through the Great Tribulation.

Reasons for this vary. For some it’s all about heavenly trumpets: how many there are, and when they sound. For others, the teaching of the apostle Paul that the godly “shall suffer persecution” and the words of the Lord himself that “in the world you will have tribulation” tip the scales in favor of a Church that will suffer through the end times along with the world. Others compare the order of events in John’s Revelation visions with the future described by the Lord Jesus in the gospels, leading them to anticipate martyrdom like so many of our fellow believers throughout history. Still others believe the doctrine of the Rapture originated in the 16th century counter-reformation teaching of Papal Rome, and therefore consider it discredited.

All these are arguments from detail.

The Judge of All the Earth

Now, the details themselves are surely not meaningless, but I do not find that sort of reasoning really convinces me of anything. If you want to argue details, there are equally detailed counter-arguments offered by serious Bible scholars that address each of these points and many others.

No, I believe the church will not experience the wrath of God unleashed on the world for reasons that have nothing to do with details. They have to do with the character of God as revealed throughout the entirety of his dealings with men, and the scriptural distinction between the persecution of men and the wrath of God.

The patriarch Abraham famously said this to God as he was on the verge of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah:
“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
He was concerned about his relative Lot, who lived in Sodom. For all Lot’s failings, he was not like the Sodomites. The Bible calls Lot a righteous man. And when God judges, Abraham says, his own innate justice requires him to distinguish between those who please him and those who don’t.

Justice Demands Separate Judgments

Note that Abraham does not argue that God cannot or should not judge the righteous; judgment actually begins with the household of God. Lot will surely be called to account one day for his failures as a father, husband, and testimony to God.

Nor does Abraham argue that God never allows righteous men and women to die in his service, or even that God never puts his children to death. The latter is exceptional, but it definitely happens. The former is exceedingly common: “For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered,” writes the psalmist.

Abraham certainly does not argue that God should not judge the wicked; they absolutely deserve it.

What he is saying is that the character of God demands he judge the two groups separately. He must make a distinction between good and evil that anyone and everyone can see. Anything else would be unjust. God does not unleash his wrath on righteous and wicked alike so that nobody can tell the difference between them. He just doesn’t.

The Track Record

Now of course if this turns out to be simply Abraham’s opinion he is asserting so strongly, it would not mean much to us. Abraham was a great man, but only a man. However, I will argue that God’s track record throughout human history shows beyond question that Abraham was definitely on to something here. He was not pulling an argument out of thin air. He spoke as a prophet, he spoke the truth, and he understood something critically important about God that post-Trib Christian theologians have either forgotten or missed in their analysis.

Consider the judgment of the Genesis flood. The apostle Peter comments:
“[God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.”
When the wrath of God was unleashed on the world, he made sure to preserve righteous Noah and his family. In doing so, he demonstrated his approval of Noah and his disapproval of his guilty neighbors.

How to Rescue the Godly

Righteous Lot found that God dealt with him the same way. Peter again:
If by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”
These New Testament commentaries on the Genesis historical account make plain that God set Noah and Lot apart from the world deliberately. It was not sheer coincidence that two righteous guys and their families survived two separate outpourings of God’s wrath. God made a distinction, just as his own nature demands.

Israel in Egypt

One more, though I could go all day. “God’s people characteristically suffer persecution and tribulation,” say those who disbelieve in a Rapture. A prime example: “Israel in Egypt before the Exodus.”

Okay, let’s look at Israel before the exodus. God’s people indeed had a rough time in Egypt, but it was not God’s wrath that made it difficult for them; it was Egyptian slavery. Those are two separate sources of grief. In fact, when God began to visit plagues on Egypt, we find that he did the same thing he always does: he distinguished his own people from the people under judgment. Consider these verses:
“I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth. Thus I will put a division between my people and your people.”

“And the Lord set a time, saying, ‘Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.’ And the next day the Lord did this thing. All the livestock of the Egyptians died, but not one of the livestock of the people of Israel died. And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead.”

“The hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land of Egypt, both man and beast. And the hail struck down every plant of the field and broke every tree of the field. Only in the land of Goshen, where the people of Israel were, was there no hail.”
This is why I say distinguishing righteous from wicked in judgment is not just something God chooses to do on occasion, but something that arises out of his very nature. He must do it. He cannot do otherwise. The land of Goshen is set apart precisely so Egypt will know the true God is at work. Any old pseudo-deity or any old natural disaster can clobber everyone on an equal basis, but it is in Jehovah’s insistence on drawing unmistakable lines between those who are his and those who are not that he stands out from all other putative gods.

Again, I could go on, but I trust the pattern emerging here is obvious to everyone. Israel certainly did terrible things in their day, and God absolutely judged them for it. He is holy; he must judge sin. But even when they erred severely, God never judged his people along with the wicked nations in some kind of indistinguishable mass.

Tribulation vs. Great Tribulation

The Church will have plenty of tribulation in this world. Scripture makes that plain. There will be martyrs and murders and mayhem. In fact, throughout history, righteous men and women have been tortured, mocked, flogged, chained, stoned, sawn in two and killed with the sword for their faith, as the book of Hebrews tells us. Persecution and suffering at the hands of unbelievers are all in a day’s work for the people of God.

But what God’s people never have been are the indiscriminate objects of his wrath. The righteous may suffer alongside the wicked through all the ordinary daily evils of a fallen world, but the righteous have never been judged with the wicked. God doesn’t do that.

The Church will not go through the Great Tribulation because the Great Tribulation is God’s wrath unleashed on an unbelieving world. Note, please, that I am not arguing that it is the only manifestation of God’s wrath, or the final manifestation, but that the Great Tribulation is indisputably connected from its very beginning with God’s wrath against the world. It is not merely “persecution directed at believers” by the unbelieving world, as some contend.

The Great Tribulation is the Wrath of God

The Greek word thymos [“wrath”] means passion and indignation and is used repeatedly of the judgments of the Great Tribulation period. Consider three quick references:
“So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.”

“Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.”

“One of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever.”
The bowl judgments of the last verse include painful sores, the contamination of rivers and seas, heat, darkness, an earthquake and the unleashing of demonic spirits. These passages speak plainly of an unleashing of God’s wrath that has nothing to do with the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20. They take place within this world’s history, not at the end of it. And they are indisputably part of the Great Tribulation period.

Another word translated “wrath” in the New Testament is orgÄ“, which also means violent passion or indignation. This word too is used frequently of the judgments of God from the very beginning of the Great Tribulation period, not merely at the final judgment (see Revelation 6:16-17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15). Thus when we read in Thessalonians that Jesus “delivers us from the wrath [orgÄ“] to come”, it is certainly possible that Paul is referring specifically to the wrath of the great white throne judgment, which ends in the lake of fire, but it is equally possible (and in context, more likely) that he means the outpouring of God’s wrath in the judgments of the Great Tribulation. There is also no reason he could not be referring to all manifestations of God’s wrath in general. The very same word is used of both God’s intermediate and final judgments.

In Summary

If God were to pour out his wrath on the world and on his own indiscriminately and simultaneously during the Great Tribulation, he would be in violation of his own nature and acting inconsistently with a pattern of behavior he has maintained since the very beginning of his dealings with mankind. He would be failing to make the sort of distinction between the righteous and the wicked that he has always made in judgment.

Like Noah, Lot and Israel in Egypt, God will always distinguish between those who are his and those who are not. Count on it.

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