The Great Tribulation will be a time of intense persecution for the people of God. Nevertheless, we have Christ's promise that for the elect's sake, those days shall be shortened. But should anyone suppose that the events themselves will be unverifiable, we have Christ's implicit statements that the Tribulation will be accompanied by signs in the heavens. These phenomena will be paralleled by geological disturbances, insomuch that both the heavens and the earth shall seem to cry out against the wickedness of men. But all these things are harbingers of the Lord's glorious appearance, when evil will have an end. Looking at the parallel passages in Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13, we find a corroboration of these phenomena, all of which will take place prior to Christ's return.
(Matt. 24: 29-30) "Immediately after the tribulation of those days, shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."
(Mark 13: 24-26) "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of the heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory."
(Luke 21: 25-27) "And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud, with power and great glory."
Now, "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (2 Cor. 13: 1). In order that nothing be left in uncertainty, the three inspired authors record the sayings of Jesus concerning those events that shall transpire "immediately after the tribulation;" that is, after Antichrist has filled the measure of his iniquities, his allotted three-and-a-half years having expired. Christ had already taught His disciples that His coming would not be missed by the world. "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: 27). This, of course, precludes any notion of an "invisible" Second Coming. St. Chrysostom writes: "How then shineth the lightning? It needs not one to talk of it, it needs not a herald, but even to them that sit in houses, and to them in chambers it shows itself in an instant of time throughout the whole world. So shall that coming be, showing itself at once everywhere by reason of the shining forth of His glory." (Homilies on Matthew, lxxvi).
It stands to reason, then, that as Christ's appearance will be visible to the eye, the events that precede His appearance shall be visible in like manner. But there are some who deny this, avowing that the above passages must be understood in a figurative sense. Such persons do not believe that by the terms "sun" and "moon" the celestial bodies are meant, but that something else, political or ecclesiastical, is denoted. Obviously, such theories have their foundations in a Gnostic view of Scripture-interpretation. This would bring all the supernatural elements of Biblical teaching into agreement with the intellectual faculties alone. Thus, anything that appears miraculous is explained away as hyperbole, and the prophets themselves are alleged to be mere writers of "Oriental poetry."
However, if one should subscribe to these fallacies, he ought, in absence of early church testimony, to be able to point to evidence in the text itself. But if he is unable to do this, he responds that "passages must be interpreted by those which speak more plainly." In making this statement, however, he only manifests his ignorance of the passage in question. For why hunt for clarity, unless you confess obscurity in the passage you are examining? But such obscurity is purely subjective. For anyone reading these passages should know what Christ is speaking about. The visual factor of Christ's advent is announced in the clearest language: "Then they shall see." This is amply corroborated by Rev. 1: 7: "Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him."
It is enough, however, to clear away the discrepancies of any Gnostic interpretation by simply asking, whether or not the darkening of the sun during our Lord's crucifixion was a real event. "And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the vail of the temple was rent in the midst" (Luke 23: 44-45). If by "the sun" is meant the celestial body, then we have sure exegetical grounds for positing a like interpretation of the verses concerning our Lord's Second Coming. For it is shown that this solar eclipse has a doctrinal significance.
Tertullian, speaking of the observation of fasting and prayer until the ninth hour, writes: "And so that 'pressure' must be maintained up to that hour in which the orb--involved from the sixth hour in general darkness--performed for its dead Lord a sorrowful act of duty; so that we too may return to enjoyment when the universe regained its sunshine." (On Fasting, x). Therein he alludes to the exact meaning of the eclipse. As Christ created the heavens, so the heavens mourned at His death. As Christ is Lord of the heavens, so shall the heavens cower when He comes to execute judgment upon the earth. Although not all will accept this view, most will concede that this is the true significance of the "darkening of the sun and the moon." As for "the powers of the heavens being shaken," Christ may be referring to the quailing of those "principalities," those "powers," those "rulers of darkness of this world" (Eph. 6: 12) against which Christians must struggle. These powers were once spoiled by Christ (Col. 2: 15), albeit they remain in commission to the present day.
Why do they still function? We shall follow the school of Lactantius, and suggest that in all events the Lord leaves some elements of evil in the world to test and try His people. For virtue is exercised in the forbearance of evil and the pursuance of good. When God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden, he assigned man to exercise his virtue, inasmuch as fidelity to the Divine image includes the overcoming of temptations. If Adam had eschewed the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would have attained the right to partake of the tree of life. Yet, he chose the evil, and lost the good. That, I suppose, may be brought down to an individual level. For man has only two ways set before him in the world. He either chooses the evil, which truly never appears as evil, but is decked out with some elements of passing good; or he eschews the temptations of the forbidden tree, and strives for that alone which leads to eternal life. For the Tree of Life contains good unmixed, in its purest form, the only nourishment for the soul of man. "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matt. 4: 4).
Thus, there must be temptations and trials in this present world. And where the trials are taken away, virtue no longer has any field whereon to gain its victories. For virtue is made precious insofar as it is attained with difficulty. If it were made easy for all, it would be nothing commendable. For why must Christians struggle in the world, if not for eternal life? If eternal life were given us now, virtue would be overthrown; for virtue is exercised in the striving after good. But if the good is already held in hand, what more need to strive? Man endowed with eternal life here and now would cease living unto God, and would live unto himself: the very thing man is not permitted, as a subject and citizen of God's city, to do. But God has wisely placed the blessings of eternal life in the world to come; showing us that by despising the things of this temporal life we may attain a better life. Now, if a man fights with robbers and resists violence done to his body, wherefore does he fight? He fights that he may continue to live. But the body fights only those elements that can destroy it. After that they can do no more.
Why, then, must the soul resist evil? What is the reason why a man must fight against evil, pride, greed, lust and all forms of unrighteousness? Surely, that the soul, too, may continue to live: for overcoming the enemies of the soul will ensure its future existence. And the life of the soul is confirmed in the age to come, and not now. Moreover, they who have obeyed God in this present evil world will also enjoy life in the body, being restored in the First Resurrection, when they shall enjoy communion with Christ, and bear rule with Him upon the earth which was the scene of so many trials and hardships. By how much more, then, does good prevail over wickedness! But the field of virtue is trial. And trial demands that there be enemies against which we must battle. The warfare is now, the rewards are in the age to come. Hence there is a reason why our Lord left these principalities and powers in office, as a means of strengthening His elect.
But when Jesus Christ comes back to reign these spiritual enemies shall doubtless be defeated, and locked up in the bottomless pit with Satan himself. Now there are unclean spirits in the world. But in the world to come, they shall be locked up in the deep. Luke gives us strong evidence of this truth when he records the Gadarene devils as imploring that they be not commanded "to go out into the deep." (Luke 8: 31). Matthew records the same devils as crying, "Art thou come hither to destroy us before the time?" (Matt. 8: 29). These Scriptures imply that there is a time coming when all unclean spirits will be sent into the abyss with their leader, Satan. And this can only occur when Antichrist is destroyed and the world reclaimed to God, at the personal advent of Jesus Christ.
Hence those passages in which celestial phenomena are predicted should not be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically, but in their plainest and most natural sense. For they give us clear indications of the signs which shall precede the Lord's coming. These will be a source of consolation to God's people, but of menace to the adversary. Not to mention the great unrest among those forces of spiritual wickedness which ride the air, think of the despair which will overtake the earthly enemies of God. For the "day of the Lord" will not be pleasant to those who despise Jesus Christ.
Hearken to Isaiah: "Howl ye: for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty. Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man's heart shall melt; and they shall be afraid; pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth: they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames. Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and He shall destroy the sinners out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible" (Isaiah 13: 6-11).
Nevertheless, despite the certain fulfillment of these prophecies, the wicked will make one final stand. When they see the day approaching, they will act very quickly. Let us remember by whom the world will be ruled and governed at that time. As all nations will be under the dominion of Antichrist, the military forces of the world will be at his beck and call. Prompted by Satan, these evil world-rulers (Antichrist and his false prophet) will dispatch ambassadors to every nation on earth (Rev. 16: 13-14), commanding them to mobilize their forces to the City of Jerusalem. For the signs in the heavens shall tell them that Christ is coming back. At this point they shall attempt to do everything they can to prevent His coming. With the utmost weapons of mass destruction technology has yet devised, the armed forces shall gather into Jerusalem for the Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16: 16; 19: 19). But their hope shall perish, they shall be utterly defeated at the coming of Jesus Christ with all His saints.
(Rev. 19: 11) "And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse: and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns; and He had a name written, that no man knew, but He Himself. And He was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and His name is called the Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations: and He shall rule them with a rod of iron: and He treadeth the wine-press of the wrath of Almighty God. And He hath on His vesture and on His thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
At this time, the nations who oppose the Lord's coming will be beaten in pieces by the mighty power of the Word of God. All their weapons of mass destruction will avail them nothing. There shall be "voices, and thunders, and lightnings" and a "great earthquake" (Rev. 16: 18), and when the Lord stands upon the Mount of Olives, the city will be divided into three parts (Rev. 16: 19; cf. Zech. 14: 4), and Babylon shall come into remembrance before God (Rev. 16: 19). Concerning this Babylon, Isaiah also prophesied its destruction in a parallel passage: "And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah" (Isaiah 13: 19).
Admittedly, we are not sure whether "Mystery Babylon" is meant to designate an actual city upon the earth, or the entire assembly of wicked men in general. Preferring the latter view, we bring to mind the words of St. Augustine: "Thus it has come to pass, that though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind." (City of God, XIV. i).
Thus, Babylon stands for the earthly city as a whole, whose interests are in direct opposition to the heavenly city-- that is, the church. And this city can be traced as far back as the times of Cain (Gen. 4: 17), however its first major manifestation in world history occurred after the Noachian dispersion (Gen. 11: 1-9). Since then it has existed in a more or less permanent form, just as God's city has always existed in the world alongside it. Both cities, considered as spiritual assemblies, are invisible to the naked eye. But they are real nonetheless. However, as the earthly city now displaces the City of God, so when Jesus Christ comes to reign, establishing the New Jerusalem in glory, the earthly city will be totally displaced and abolished. Then shall Antichrist, the King of Babylon (Isaiah 14: 4), be taken alive with his false prophet and cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 19: 20; cf. Isaiah 14: 15).
Now, as the Lord's coming is implicitly declared to be like lightning, all shall see Him in that day. Great cataclysms and upheavals will rock the world. It will almost seem that the world itself is coming to an end. And, in fact, many areas of the world will probably be renovated completely. There will be a "new heaven and new earth." Our favorite prophet speaks again: "The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth that are upon the earth. And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered together in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days they shall be visited. Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of hosts shall reign in Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before His ancients gloriously" (Isaiah 24: 19-23).
To be continued...