The Problem with a Literal 7-Year Persecution

by David Fincher, President of Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri

Another mainstream approach to interpreting biblical prophecy is to say that oppression is limited to seven years. The assumption of the Left Behind approach to prophecy is that God does not want His people to experience heavy-duty persecution, so the church is raptured out of the way before the earth faces the seven-year period of Great Tribulation. And that prevents those of us who are believers from experiencing such terrible oppression.

But the 21st century has made it clear that Great Tribulation is already being experienced by Christians all over the world. The stories shared from many countries where Christians are put to death for evangelizing others or even claiming Christ for themselves should be enough to prove that the church will have to experience oppression. 

This is clearly explained in Scripture as well. John 15:20 says, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” Jesus promised His disciples that following Him would bring them the chance of similar oppression. And in Revelation 7:14, the “great tribulation” is described like this, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It is possible to be victorious through the great tribulation, but it isn’t possible for everyone to avoid it, whatever it is.

The word used for tribulation is used several times in the New Testament. There will be tribulation for every soul of man who does evil (Romans 2:9). According to James 1:27, orphans and widows are in distress (“tribulation”). God comforts us in our tribulation so we can comfort others in their tribulation (2 Cor 1:4). Jesus promises that some will be carried to tribulation and may even die for their faith (Psalm 24:9). Paul experienced much tribulation, which his audience knew about and were discouraged by (Ephesians 3:13). John was being persecuted for his faith when he received the visions contained in revelation (Rev 1:9). Even in the book of Revelation, the church at Smyrna was already experiencing tribulation (Rev 2:10), and it was going to continue for a short time. Therefore, any interpretation that says the Great Tribulation is only for seven years after Christians have been taken away is choosing to ignore the way the word tribulation is used in the Bible.

The exact phrase “great tribulation” is used in Matthew 24:21, where Jesus says there would never be anything like it again. But then in that chapter, Jesus says that there is another time immediately after the great tribulation when the Lord will return (Matt 24:29). 

So what is the right approach to take towards biblical prophecy when it comes to the oppression or persecution of Christians? Oppression of Christians will always take place, and Christians are able to persevere in the midst of it. Paul regularly told the church that persecution was part of the life of faith. He was proud of the church at Thessalonica for their perseverance and faith in the midst of all the persecutions and afflictions which they endured (2 Thess 1:4). This was not evidence that they had been left behind to suffer. Instead, it was evidence that they were worthy of the Kingdom of God.

The recipients of Hebrews endured a great conflict of sufferings and were made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations (Hebrews 10:32-33). They were also suffering because of the fellowship they shared with others who suffered. In the body of Christ, we either suffer personally or by proxy through those who are suffering. What is not an option is to say, “I’m a Christian; therefore, God is going to protect me from the tough persecution of this world.”

During Paul’s first missionary journey, he was stoned and driven from town to town. In the towns of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, he visited those believers whom he had converted and shared a message to strengthen and encourage them: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Not only was tribulation something the church could count on, but there would also be many of them. And yet that was an encouragement because they were following in the footsteps of Jesus their Savior and Paul their preacher.  

When we look at Scripture, we must realize that it is not just possible, but perhaps likely that all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). It isn’t just limited to seven years in the future but will characterize the life of those who are in Christ.

--If you are just joining us in this series, below are links to each blog post so far:

Post #1 -- Introduction to a Series on the End Times

Post #2 -- Essential and Non-Essential Beliefs

Post #3 -- What I Believe about the Rapture

Post #4 -- The Rapture and the Second Coming (Video Post)

Post #5 -- The Problem with Looking for Signs

Post #6 -- The Problem with Literal Numbers