This essay was supposed to be brief. After all, it was only dealing with one simple point: How can Armageddon be part of the great tribulation when Mt. 24:29 clearly says it comes after the tribulation has ended? Nevertheless, as I developed the line of reasoning, new aspects to the matter began to unfold.
Therefore, I think it would be beneficial to give you, the reader, an upfront synopsis of the subject and leave it to you as to whether you wish to delve deeper.
Our official teaching
The great tribulation is a multiphase event, starting with the attack on Babylon the Great, followed by an interim time period of unknown length, followed by signs in the heavens, and finally, Armageddon. (w10 7/15 p. 3 par. 4; w08 5/15 p. 16 par. 19)
Arguments for a New Understanding
- No direct Bible proof linking Armageddon to the great tribulation.
- Mt. 24:29 shows Armageddon can’t be part of the great tribulation.
- Mt. 24:33 shows that the great tribulation is part of the sign that Armageddon is about to start.
- Rev. 7:14 refers to those judged favourably (sheep and goats) before Armageddon not after.
- 2 Thess. 1:4-9 doesn’t refer to Armageddon, but to the attack on Babylon the Great.
- Tribulation doesn’t mean destruction.
- The first century great tribulation refers to events surrounding 66 C.E. not 70 C.E.
At Matthew 24:21 Jesus made an astonishing statement about a future time of tribulation. He called for a great tribulation, qualifying it with the words, “such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.” Our current understanding is that this prophecy has a two-fold fulfillment. We understand that a minor fulfillment occurred in the first century when the Romans laid siege and subsequently destroyed the city of Jerusalem. The major fulfillment is a future two-phase event: phase one being the worldwide destruction of false religion and phase two, Armageddon. (The indefinite time period separating the two events is part of the great tribulation, but since it doesn’t cause any suffering, we focus only on the start and end; hence, two phase.)
Please note that there is solid scriptural evidence supporting the understanding that the destruction of Babylon the Great is the modern-day equivalent to the destruction of Jerusalem. (It has to do with parallels involving the ‘disgusting thing that causes desolation’ and can be researched using the WTLib program.) However, there is nothing in the Bible that directly links Armageddon with the great tribulation—quite the contrary, in fact.
I’m sure if you said the above to the average JW, he’d look at you like you’d lost your mind. “Of course,” he’d say, “Armagddon is the great tribulation. Will there ever be a greater tribulation than Armageddon?”
As a result of research and correspondence, that reasoning appears to be the only backing there is for our understanding of Armageddon as part of the great tribulation.
Fair enough. Deductive reasoning can take us a long way, but it must be rejected, no matter how appealing the logic may be, whenever it contradicts what is plainly stated in the Bible. We cannot simply ignore Bible passages if they fail to harmonize with our theory.
With that in mind, consider Matthew 24:29-31 29, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will beat themselves in lamentation, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send forth his angels with a great trumpet sound, and they will gather his chosen ones together from the four winds, from one extremity of the heavens to their other extremity.
Sun being darkened! Sign of the Son of man appearing! Chosen ones being gathered! Do not these events precede Armageddon? And do they not come after the great tribulation has ended? (Mt. 24:29)
So how could Armageddon be part of a tribulation and yet come after it has ended? You will find no answer to this question in our publications. In fact, the question is never asked.
The trouble is that Armageddon, being arguably the greatest destruction of human history, surely appears to fulfill Jesus words about the tribulation never having occurred before and never occurring again. Of course, worldwide destruction in the form of the globe-altering flood of Noah’s day did occur in the past and a future worldwide destruction will befall the wicked—possibly outnumbering the faithful—after the thousand years have ended. (Rev. 20:7-10)
Maybe the problem is that we are equating tribulation with destruction.
What is ‘Tribulation’?
The term ‘tribulation’ appears 39 times in the Christian Scriptures and is linked almost without exception to the Christian congregation. It means distress, affliction, or suffering. The Hebrew term refers to the act of ‘pressing in upon’, that is, to stress something. It is interesting that the English word is derived from Latin tribulare for press, oppress, and afflict and is itself derived from tribulum, a board with sharp points on the underside, used in threshing. So the root word is derived from an instrument used to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is an interesting aspect from the Christian point of view.
While tribulation means a time of stress, oppression or suffering, that broad view is not sufficient to encompass its use in the Christian Scriptures. We must consider that it is used almost exclusively to denote a time of testing or trail as a consequence of suffering or oppression. For the Christian, tribulation is a good thing. (2 Cor. 4:17; James 1:2-4) It is how Jehovah separates the spiritual wheat from the worthless chaff.
With that in mind, let’s do a verbal exercise. Complete the following sentences:
1) The nations of the Earth are ___________________ at Armageddon.
2) Jehovah uses Armageddon to ___________________ the wicked.
3) No wicked will survive Armageddon because the _______________ will be complete.
If you asked any brother or sister in your hall to do this exercise, how many would have tried to work the word tribulation into the blank? My guess is not a one. You would get destruction, annihilation, or some similar term. Tribulation just doesn’t fit. The wicked aren’t being tested or tried at Armageddon; they’re being done away with. The separation of the wheat and chaff, wheat and weeds, sheep and goats all takes place before Armageddon even starts. (w95 10/15 p.22 par. 25-27)
Looking for Consistency
Now let us make sure that our new line of reasoning is consistent with the rest of scripture on the subject. For if it is not, we will have to be willing to abandon it in favor of another understanding, or at least admit that we just don’t know the answer yet.
Part of the Sign
Jesus said that when we see all these things know that he is near at the doors. (Mt. 24:32) He is near at the doors when he is about to sally forth and wage war on the nations and save his people. The great tribulation is part of ‘all these things’ mentioned from Mt. 24:3 thru 31 and therefore is part of the sign that indicates he is near at the doors and about to launch Armageddon. Making Armageddon part of the great tribulation makes it part of the sign that it is near. How can Armageddon sign itself? It makes no sense.
The Great Crowd Comes Out of the Great Tribulation
Do we have to wait until the destruction of Armageddon is over to know who the great crowd is, or will be know after the great tribulation has ended but before Armageddon begins? Noah and family were separated before the flood even started. The first century Christians survived because they left the city 3 ½ years before it was destroyed.
Now consider our day: Jehovah and Jesus sit on their judgment thrones prior to Armageddon to judge the nations. That’s when the separating of the sheep and goats occurs. (w95 10/15 p.22 par. 25-27) The goats go off into everlasting cutting-off and the sheep to everlasting life. No sheep will be lost at Armageddon and no goat will survive because Jehovah doesn’t make mistakes in judgment. In a court case, two men may stand trail for a capital offence. One may be acquitted, while the other is condemned. The execution may even be carried out immediately, but you don’t have to wait until the execution is over to see who was exonerated. You know before the execution even starts who will survive and who will die, because that was determined as a result of the ‘trial’ (tribulation).
Harmonizing 2 Thessalonians
Only one passage in Scripture seems to lend support to the “Armageddon is the great tribulation” line of reasoning.
(2 Thessalonians 1:4-9) 4 As a result we ourselves take pride in YOU among the congregations of God because of YOUR endurance and faith in all YOUR persecutions and the tribulations that YOU are bearing. 5 This is a proof of the righteous judgment of God, leading to YOUR being counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which YOU are indeed suffering. 6 This takes into account that it is righteous on God’s part to repay tribulation to those who make tribulation for YOU, 7 but, to YOU who suffer tribulation, relief along with us at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels 8 in a flaming fire, as he brings vengeance upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news about our Lord Jesus. 9 These very ones will undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction from before the Lord and from the glory of his strength,
This passage is one of the few that seems to apply a time of tribulation to non-Christians. We apply this to the world who make tribulation on us. However, we first must note that the ‘everlasting destruction’ spoken of in vs. 9 follows the ‘tribulation’ of vs. 6. So the tribulation can still be considered a separate event—the tribulation of the opposers precedes their destruction.
Another question is whether by using the phrase “those who make tribulation for YOU” Paul is here referring to a) all the people on Earth? B) just the worldly governments? or c) religious elements whether inside or outside of the Christian congregation? An examination of the context through the Christian Scriptures where tribulation is used indicates that the primary cause for the tribulation of Christians stems from either false religious elements or apostasy. In this context, Jehovah’s bring tribulation upon those who have made tribulation for us would indicate a time of testing that would focus on religion, not the whole world.
An Ancient Example to Guide Us
Let’s re-examine the first century fulfillment in the light of our adjusted understanding. First, that tribulation had never occurred before nor would occur again. It would also be so severe that were Jehovah not to cut short its days in some way, not even the chosen ones would survive. The uniqueness was, of course, subjective. Otherwise, there could be only one and there would be no place for a modern-day fulfillment.
The result of the first century fulfillment was the complete destruction of the Jewish system of things. It was also the most severe test the Jewish Christians would ever face, reaching right up to the governing body. Imagine what a test that would have been. Imagine a sister with an unbelieving husband and children. She would have to leave him and likely the children as well. Believing children, whether adult or not, would have to abandon unbelieving parents. Businessmen would have to walk away from profitable businesses taking a full, unrecoverable loss. Home and landowners would be required to abandon a family inheritance held for centuries without a moment’s hesitation. And more! They would have to maintain that faithful course throughout the next 3 ½ years without faltering. The test wasn’t only to dedicated Christians either. Like Lot’s sons-in-law, anyone with an understanding of the events could have gone along and been saved. Whether they would have had the necessary faith is another matter, of course.
So the time of testing by trial (tribulation) befell all of Jehovah’s people, both faithful Christians as well as Jehovah’s people of Israel. (The nation was rejected by this point, but individuals could still be saved.) Did the tribulation extend to include 70 C.E.? There is no argument that the Jews trapped in Jerusalem suffered prior to being destroyed. However, if we conclude that the tribulation began in 66 C.E. and ended in 70 C.E. we must explain how the phrase ‘cut short’ works. Does ‘cut short’ imply an interruption, or an abrupt end to something?
It is noteworthy that Jesus describes elements of the tribulation that associate it with the events of 66 C.E., not those that occurred over three years later. For example, he said ‘to keep praying that their flight might not occur in wintertime’. By 70 C.E. their flight was history.
The trial (tribulation) occurred in 66 C.E. The innocent were acquitted and by faith, walked away free. The guilty were condemned and their execution occurred just 3 ½ years later.
Where does all this leave us? Our modern-day fulfillment will likewise be a time of severe testing. Surviving that test and maintaining integrity will result in a judgment for life. Like those in first century Jerusalem, anyone will have to opportunity to take the escape provided when Jehovah cuts short the modern-day tribulation. At this point, we can only engage in wild speculation, so I won’t. However, drawing from ancient accounts, each time of destruction was preceded by a time of tribulation for God’s people. A test of some type by which they could prove their faith. Passing that test meant surviving the destruction that would follow. Jehovah never used his destructive powers as a test. In fact, in every past instances, his people were somewhere else when the destruction actually began. (Consider: Noah, Hezekiah before Sennacherib:, Jehoshaphat at 2 Chronicles 20, Lot in Sodom, the Christians in Jerusalem.)
Many worry if they will survive Armageddon. I’m not even sure if we will see it. None of the foregoing saw the destruction of their day. Maybe Jehovah in anger is more that frail humans can bear to see. In any case, the trial isn’t surviving Armageddon, but surviving the great tribulation. If we survive that, our survival of Armageddon will be a fait accompli.