Naturally, the rise of Antichrist will precipitate a state of things that results in hostility to the people of God. We've already seen how wars and devastations must continue until the world is divided into ten nations. Lactantius, alluding to these times, writes: "First, the kingdom will be enlarged, and the chief power, dispersed among many and divided, will be diminished. Then civil discords will be perpetually sown; nor will there be any rest from deadly wars, until ten kings arise at the same time, who will divide the world, not to govern, but to consume it. These, having increased their armies to an immense extent, and having deserted the cultivation of the fields, which is the beginning of overthrow and disaster, will lay waste and break in pieces and consume all things." (Divine Institutes, VII. xvi).
Thus will the world will be brought into bondage by the powers of wickedness, and evil will prevail among all classes of men. During or after this preliminary division of nations, Antichrist will arise and defeat three of the world-powers, after which he will be constituted the head of the entire confederacy--not to mention, he will be hailed as the Messiah. He will likely come forward as a humanitarian leader, professing his wish to inaugurate a new era of peace throughout the world. But his words will be only a pretext to gaining office.
Once he has wheedled his way into the government, and obtained the power he desires, he will wage a wicked persecution against mankind, but especially against the saints. It is he, in fact, who will cut off the two witnesses. Here it should be noted that both Lactantius and Commodian speak of two Antichrists, the first one being that prince who shall be denominated head of the ten-nation confederacy, and under whose rule laws will be changed, and the world's peoples subjected to continual harassment and vexation. Then, after he has reigned a short time, he shall be defeated by the true Antichrist, who shall demand divine honors. As the mechanics of this "dual-Antichrist" theory are somewhat obscure, being as they are fetched from epitomes and fragments, we are unable to give details. However, it would appear that this school of prophecy identifies these individuals as "the beast" and the "false prophet" of Rev. 13. But regardless of whether you believe in one Antichrist or two, you'll have to admit that fulfillment will come in the midst of catastrophic worldwide events. It will not be a very good time to be living upon the earth.
As implied in certain passages of John's Apocalypse, the battle-ground for many of these events will probably be the City of Jerusalem. And this is corroborated by our Lord's Olivet Discourse. However, lest any should think that other areas of the world will be unaffected, please think again. For as Antichrist will have power over all the nations, his machinery shall extend throughout the whole earth. John, writing to the church in Philadelphia, speaks of an "hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth" (Rev. 3: 10). This, of course, can only signify a worldwide tribulation, and the idea is opposed to any excessive localization of the prophecy.
Let us go back to Christ's Olivet Discourse and see if we can follow the course of this tribulation-period. I am aware that theories exist which place the Tribulation as a past event. However, these theories will not be discussed in the present course of articles. The language itself, which speaks of significant signs in the heavens (Matt. 24: 29 ff.) should tell us that the whole period of which are Lord is speaking, although it may have been foreshadowed by previous events, is to take place at the end of the world (aeon), when Christ comes to gather His saints and bear rule on the earth. It is entirely sufficient that we read these passages with a believing heart, knowing that they are addressed to the church of God.
We made mention in our last two articles of those "wars and rumors of wars" (Matt. 24: 6) which must occur prior to the rise of Antichrist. Attendant upon these wars will be an increase of persecution and betrayal, which bespeaks a great intolerance for Christianity in general. But during the whole of this time, the Gospel shall be preached unto all nations. "And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt. 24: 14). From these Scriptures, and from what we've already said, we learn that the days preluding the advent of Antichrist will be characterized by certain general tendencies: 1): By a 'falling away' or apostasy; 2): By numerous wars and upheavals; 3): By persecutions and betrayals; 4): By a fervent preaching of the pure Gospel. Not to mention, there will be "famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places" (Matt. 24: 7). But when the Gospel shall have been preached to all nations, then will the end come.
What will be the sign of the commencement of the Tribulation itself? Christ tells us: "When ye, therefore, shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand,) then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the house-top not come down to take any thing out of his house: neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor shall ever be" (Matt. 24: 15-21).
Thus, the Lord tells us that the Tribulation will be heralded by the "abomination of desolation." This evidently refers to Antichrist himself. Referring to Daniel's prophecy of the Seventy Weeks (Dan. 9: 24-27), Hippolytus writes: "For when the threescore and two weeks are fulfilled, and Christ is come, and the Gospel is preached in every place, the times being then accomplished, there will remain only one week, the last, in which Elias will appear, and Enoch, and in the midst of it the abomination of desolation will be manifested, viz., Antichrist, announcing desolation to the world. And when he comes, the sacrifice and oblation will be removed, which are now offered to God in every place by the nations." (Fragments from Commentaries; Daniel, II. xxii). Of course, we can probably learn the true nature of Antichrist's sacrilege by going back to the times of Antiochus Epiphanes, to whose abominations Daniel's prophecy seems to have a principal reference. For as Antiochus persecuted the Jews and defiled their sanctuary, so shall Antichrist persecute the church in a like manner.
And as Christ relates, the "abomination of desolation" will precipitate the events of the Great Tribulation. But lest we should seem to dip our pen too much in earthquake and thunder, let us have a few words of comfort. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem during the fourth century, writes: "For this cause the Lord knowing the greatness of the adversary grants indulgence to the godly, saying, Then let them which be in Judea flee to the mountains. But if any man is conscious that he is very stout-hearted, to encounter Satan, let him stand (for I do not despair of the Church's nerves), and let him say, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ and the rest? But, let those of us who are fearful provide for our own safety; and those who are of good courage, stand fast. But thanks be to God who hath confined the greatness of that Tribulation to a few days; for He says, But for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened; and Antichrist shall reign for three years and a half only." (Catechetical Lectures, XV. xvi). There is thus an appointed time for the prevalence of wickedness, after which it shall be vanquished and overthrown.
At this juncture, the hopes of the godly shall run high. And it appears from Christ's words that wicked and impious men will spread false knowledge of the Lord's coming in all places. "Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christ, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore, if they shall say unto you, Behold, He is in the desert; go not forth: behold, He is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be" (Matt. 24: 23-27).
Here the Lord gives us a solemn warning to beware of any Gnostic/ subjective interpretations of His coming. For during this period false teachers will be zealously active in lulling to sleep the Christian conscience, and fooling unwary disciples. They will promise that "everything is under control;" and that "Christ is reigning on earth now." Notwithstanding the oppressions and robberies, the accusations and persecutions, the devastations and conflagrations, they will succeed even in luring away many to their views, and in almost deceiving the very elect. But Christ tells us not to listen to such heretics; for His coming will be visible and glorious. And thus Christ gives encouragement and counsel to all believers who shall live to see those times.
Thus, in a somewhat imperfect fashion, owing to the fact that "we see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13: 12), we have given a brief sketch of the Great Tribulation. And we must here pause to thank heaven that we have not yet arrived at such a pass. And we pray the Lord that He will continue to keep His church safe from the persecutions of anti-Christian powers. However that may be, we know that "through much tribulation" alone may we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14: 22). Let it be enough for us that we abstain from evil, and "resist unto blood, striving against sin" (Hebrews 12: 4).
Fighting against the old man is tribulation enough. And those who keep His word and do not deny His name, may be given that "open door" to escape from real Tribulation (Rev. 3: 8). Notwithstanding, even if we be accounted worthy to suffer for Jesus Christ's name, we must remember the persecutions endured by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Daniel 3: 13 ff.). Their being cast into the fiery oven by Nebuchadnezzar was a type of the Tribulation which shall be waged by Antichrist. As Christ was with them in the furnace (Dan. 3: 25), so we know that they who endure persecutions for Jesus Christ's sake will have His presence, and be ensured the safety of their souls. "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24: 13).
But why must there be a future Tribulation? Anyone who seriously considers the topic from a Christian perspective will see the necessity of some such event taking place. In order for good to prevail, there must first be a displacement of evil. In order for Christ to reign, there must first be a subjugation of all hostile powers. When Satan sees that his time is short, he will re-double his persecutions. And the warfare he will wage during the last half-week of the present age shall end with his binding in the bottomless pit, that he may no longer be permitted to deceive mankind. Then will Daniel's prophecy of Christ's kingdom (Dan. 7: 14, 22, 27) be fulfilled.
Although we admit that it is not pleasant to consider the possibilities of Tribulation and persecution, we must concede that it shall issue in a more glorious dispensation than the world has ever seen. However you regard these events, whether reluctantly, or with acknowledgement of the greater hope, know that Satan's hourglass is getting low; his time is running out. As we await his period of defeat, let us keep our candles burning brightly as worthy stewards of the grace of God, ever crying, Maranatha! The Lord cometh!
To be continued...