(Co-host at Prophecy Watchers)
There are four main interpretive scenarios when it comes to describing the tribulation period and the wrath of God (Pre-trib, Mid-trib, Pre-wrath and Post-trib). It’s not the point of this article to review all of these. Those reviews can be found elsewhere (one place is pre-trib.org). We maintain at Prophecy Watchers that the Pre-tribulation rapture/rescue is the most consistent theological perspective. This view teaches that the rapture/rescue happens some time prior to the 7-year tribulation period. We also see this entire 7-year period as being synonymous with the wrath of God and “day of the Lord” as found in the Old and New Testaments. This article will show the biblical evidence for this position as well as the wrath of God beginning at the first seal that Jesus opens in Revelation 6:1.
Wrath of God Definitions
The New Testament affirms quite clearly that the believer is justified by the blood of Jesus and will be saved from the wrath of God through Him (Romans 5:9). Paul taught that the church is to wait for the Son from Heaven who rescues us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Later, in the context of the day of the Lord, Paul says that the church is not destined to wrath, but to obtain deliverance (salvation) through the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9). The question naturally arises, “which wrath are we going to be spared from?”
Examining the theology of the entire Bible reveals that there are at least six different types of wrath. God is holy, and His wrath against sin is justified (Isaiah 6:3; Rev 16:7; 19:2).
The first wrath we see was the personal wrath against disobedience that happened in the garden when God kicked out Adam and Eve (Gen 3:23-34). This wrath is often tempered by God’s mercy, but other times it gives out immediate justice (Acts 12:22-23; 5:1-11).
The second wrath is often described as cataclysmic wrath, such as what happened with the worldwide flood (Gen 6-8) or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19).
The third type of wrath is the type that Paul describes in Galatians 6:7. It is the wrath of the principle of sowing and reaping. When people sow to the flesh, they reap the wrathful consequences.
The fourth type of wrath is known as the wrath of abandonment. This is when people spurn the grace and mercy of God so stubbornly that He abandons them to their own sinfulness. He removes His restraining grace and mercy and simply leaves them to their own downward spiral. This is the wrath expressed by Paul in Romans 1:18-32.
The fifth type of wrath is what theologians call eschatological wrath or the wrath of the day of the Lord (1 Thess 5:9).
The final type of wrath is the eternal wrath of God which begins for unbelievers who die in the present age and end up in Hades (Heb 9:27; Luke 16:22-23). This wrath is fully and finally implemented after the great white throne judgment in Gehenna/lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
All true believers of all ages are exempt from eternal wrath (Romans 5:9; cf. Luke 16:22). At the same time, we see that the mystery of the new body of believers known as the church (Eph 2:15; 3:4-6) was given the special privilege of escaping not only eternal wrath but the eschatological wrath of the day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9; Rev 3:10). Only the church, which began at Pentecost in Acts 2, was given this promise. That is why people who get saved after the pre-trib rapture are subject to the eschatological day of the Lord wrath. Countless numbers will suffer the various effects of the tribulation (compare Rev 7:13-17 with famine- 6:5-6 and scorching heat of the sun of the fourth bowl judgment- 16:8). However, they will still avoid eternal wrath and are resurrected to enjoy and rule during the millennial period (Rev 20:4-6).
There are two main words in Greek used for wrath and anger. These are orge and thumos. When Paul writes that we are saved, rescued, and delivered from the wrath of God, he used orge (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). In the book of Revelation, orge appears six times (6:16, 17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19; 19:15), whereas thumos appears 10 times (12:12; 14:8, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 18:3; 19:15). These can often be used as synonyms but also together to emphasize the intensity of the anger (Rev 16:19; 19:15). Both words are used of God’s wrath/anger in Revelation (14:10, 19; 15:1).
I share this information to simply say that focusing only on each of these words is not definitive in making the case for the wrath of God to begin at Revelation 6:1. We must follow the evidence and not try to force the text to say what it does not.
In Revelation 6:15-17, we read, “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath (orge) of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath (orge) has come, and who can stand?’”
There are various interpretations as to the timing of the arrival of the wrath of God in these verses. The pre-trib interpretation sees the wrath of God (the entire 7-year tribulation as the day of the Lord) beginning with the opening of the 1st seal. This will be covered in more detail subsequently. The mid-tribulation position sees the wrath of God as only the 2nd half of the tribulation. The pre-wrath position sees the wrath of God as the last quarter of the tribulation. The post-tribulation position sees the believer as being preserved through the tribulation. In order to unravel the apparent confusion concerning the wrath of God, we must address the biblical teaching of the day of the Lord.
Day of the Lord
The phrase “day of the Lord” appears five times in the NT (Acts 2:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Peter 3:10). Only the latter 3 are in a specifically eschatological context. This is important because if we can see the way in which the NT uses this phrase eschatologically, it will help us understand the unfolding of the wrath of God in the book of Revelation.
Notice Paul’s usage of the day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4, “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.”
The context is clearly the descriptions and relationship of the day of the Lord between believers and unbelievers. When we skip down to verses 9-11, Paul writes, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
For Paul, he equates wrath, to which we are not destined, to the day of the Lord that brings destruction upon them (unbelievers in v.3). Peter uses similar imagery of the day of the Lord coming like a thief and associated with destructive elements (2 Peter 3:10). Paul’s other specifically eschatological use describes the day of the Lord as not being able to come until the apostasy happens first and the man of sin revealed (2 Thess 2:3). This specific passage will be addressed in an upcoming article.
For our sakes here, we recognize that Paul associates the wrath we escape with the day of the Lord. It is a time period that comes upon unbelievers suddenly like a thief. They are proclaiming peace and safety but experience destruction. The phrase “day of the Lord” in the NT is certainly associated with its origination in the OT. According to chapter 8 of Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s, Footsteps of the Messiah, there are 21 different names or designations in the OT and 9 in the NT for the concept of the “day of the Lord.” In the OT, some of them include: “Time of Jacob’s Trouble” (Jer 30:7), “Day of Vengeance” (Isaiah 34:8; 35:4; 61:2), Day of “wrath, distress, wasteness, desolation, darkness, gloom, clouds” (Zephaniah 1;15).
One of the most thorough descriptions which correlates well with the outworking of God’s wrath in the book of Revelation through the various cosmic and earthly disturbances is Isaiah 13:6-13, which reads,
“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt. They will be dismayed: pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.
“I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant, and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. I will make people more rare than fine gold, and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger.”
Timing of the Day of the Lord
In the December 2021 magazine, I wrote a lengthy article showing that Jesus taught, prior to the Olivet Discourse, that the “days of the Son of Man” would be according to the pattern of the “days of Noah” and the “days of Lot” (Luke 17:26-30). This article, “Proof of rescue/rapture” can be found on our website under “articles” in the top menu bar. In that passage, Jesus taught that both groups of unbelievers associated with Noah and Lot were living life casually and were unaware (cf. Matt 24:39) when sudden destruction came upon them. Further, there would be a rescue of the believers prior to the period of judgment arriving.
This is very consistent with Paul’s imagery we saw earlier that the “day of the Lord” would come at a time when unbelievers were saying “peace and safety.” Let’s keep these two passages in the back of our mind as we address other evidences for establishing the timing of the day of the Lord.
The Old Testament was clear that the day of the Lord would be a time period of judgment that God would send on the earth. We learn from Jesus that it would occur at the end of the age prior to His return (Matthew 24; Luke 21: Mark 13). Paul and Jesus affirm that it would come upon an unsuspecting world. There are various time indicators in the various eschatological passages which would be helpful to summarize at this point.
We learn from the book of Revelation that there are two periods of 42 months (11:2; 13:5). Also, the two witnesses prophesy for the 1st half of the 7-year period or 1,260 days (Rev 11:3) while the woman flees from the pursuit of the dragon for the 2nd half of the tribulation (or 1260 days- Rev 12:6). The woman (who is Israel) is protected during the second half of the tribulation from the dragon for a “time, times, and half a time” (Rev 12:14). This phraseology equals 3.5 years, 42 months, or 1,260 days.
The book of Daniel uses this wording to teach that antichrist will be given complete world dominion, even over the saints/believers (Dan 7:25). We learn from the NT that this period will be the second half of the tribulation (or 42 months- Rev 13:5). Moreover, Daniel uses the “time, times, and half a time” phrase to describe the second half of the time of distress (12:1-tribulation period) which will end once the power of the holy people (Jews during tribulation) are shattered (12:7). This again is consistent in describing the last half of the tribulation period as being one of intense persecution of the Jewish people in order to get them to a place of repentance and reception of Jesus as their Messiah (Matt 23:37-39; Zech 13:8-9; 12:10; Rom 11:25-26).
Don’t you love the consistency? If we do the homework, God’s time frame of a 7-year tribulation period is revealed. Lastly, Daniel describes a final week (7 years; this could also be rendered as 2,520 days or two 1,260-day portions, 84 months or two 42-month portions) that would be used by God to bring to culmination His plan for the Holy city and the people of Israel before the millennial period (Dan 9:24-27).
The Wrath of God and the Sixth Seal
The first place that the word wrath appears in Revelation is in 6:16-17 after the sixth seal is opened by Jesus. The world has just experienced the judgments of the first five seals, and after the sixth seal is opened, the unbelievers of the earth recognize that the wrath of God “has come.” The question that is often asked is, “has it already come in the first six seals or will it arrive at the opening of the 7th seal?”
The mid-tribulation position considers the second half of the tribulation the wrath of God and therefore sees it not including the first six seals. The pre-wrath position sees the last quarter of Daniel’s 70th week as the wrath of God and the wrath beginning at seal seven. The post-trib position doesn’t really care if the wrath of God is 1 year or all 7 years. They do not believe that the church is spared from the eschatological wrath of God. They believe that the church is preserved through the wrath of God. This is hard to reconcile when we see that Revelation 13:7 says quite clearly that antichrist was given “authority to make war with the saints and to overcome them.” They often have a different definition of being preserved than others.
We see quite clearly that the 144,000 are preserved throughout the entire tribulation by escaping death. We see them being sealed in Rev 7:4 and appearing with the Lamb after the tribulation is over (Rev 14:1). It seems quite reasonable to think that truly being preserved through the tribulation would be to escape death. We know this is not the case for the rest of the saints as there are countless martyrs (Rev 6:9-10; 7:14-17; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2). The post-trib view of preservation is tenuous.
Here are the reasons why the wrath of God should be seen as beginning with Jesus opening the first seal. These are not in any particular order of importance, and the evidence is meant to be understood as cumulative. (Make sure and read Gary’s excellent article in this issue as he provides insightful background to the role of the Lamb and the legal indictments of the scroll in Revelation 5.)
- The outline of the book of Revelation given by Jesus in 1:19 is important to understand the sequencing of the rest of the book. Jesus tells John, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” This is a threefold division of the book.
Chapter 1 are the things that John saw when he saw the risen Jesus. Chapters 2 and 3 are the things which are referring to the seven churches. Revelation 4:1 uses the same Greek phrase meta tauta (“after these things”) which Jesus says in 1:19. Chapter 4:1 begins to reveal those eschatological events which are after the “church age,” which ends at the rapture. Chapter 4 and 5 involve a throne room scene in which the Lamb is recognized as worthy to open the seven-seal scroll and begin the process of judging the earth in preparation for the Lamb’s rule over the entire earth.
Jesus had already mentioned the idea of the “great tribulation” (Rev 2:22) and “the hour of trial that shall come upon the whole earth to test those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 3:10). Clearly, a new sequence of events and chronology begins in 6:1 with the opening of the seals by Jesus. Revelation 6:1 through chapter 18 reveals the various judgments resulting from Jesus opening the scroll.
- The church specifically is promised exemption from eschatological wrath as we saw earlier (1 Thess 1:10; 5:9). This makes perfect sense if the wrath of God begins in Rev 6:1. In chapters four and five, we are introduced to this mysterious group of people known as the 24 elders. When one compares previous OT throne room scenes (Isaiah 6:1-7; Daniel 7:9-14), there is no group of elders present. This provides evidence that in the throne room scene of Rev 4-5, this new group is the raptured church that has been removed from the earth in preparation for the wrath of God to begin in 6:1.
There are many reasons to see this group as the raptured church, but space does not allow it here. Further, it is not coincidence that the church is mentioned 19 times in the first 3 chapters of Revelation and is 100% absent from the wrath of God chapters (6-18).
- It is often argued that the first 5 seals are not the wrath of God because they are not explicitly called “wrath.” All one has to do is to see that there are many other judgments in the book of Revelation that are not explicitly called wrath either. This is a weak argument and fails to consider the entire breadth of biblical theology describing the nature of the day of the Lord, which was highlighted earlier.
- Some Bible teachers who deny that the first 5 seals are the wrath of God make the claim that this is the wrath of man or the wrath of antichrist (Satan). This cannot hold true for three reasons.
The first is that Jesus is clearly the initiator of opening all the seals. Most of these same people affirm that the 6th or 7th seal is the wrath of God. The consistent approach is to recognize that the Lamb is involved explicitly in opening every seal.
The second response is specific to the charge that the first five seals are the wrath of humanity and do not involve heavenly agency. This is not accurate either. Jesus is clearly involved, but Jesus also enlists the agency of the four living creatures in summoning the four horsemen. Also, one of the living creatures was assigned by God to give the seven angels the final bowls of the wrath of God (Rev 15:7). This is consistent that the living creatures are associated with dispersing the wrath of God.
Even if the two previous reasons were not stated in the text, we have a third reason. To say this is only the wrath of man and not God fails to recognize the way that God has distributed His wrath in previous times. God says in Isaiah 10:5-6, “Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.” God calls the nation of Assyria instruments of His wrath against His own people. We know that Assyria was used by God to remove the rebellious kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (see also Jeremiah 51:20).
Additionally, the entire book of Habakkuk is in response to the fact that God had revealed He would use Nebuchadnezzar and the wicked kingdom of Babylon to administer His justice against the rebellious kingdom of Judah in 605/587 BC. This judgment by God is not less judgment because God used human agents to accomplish His will. Even more, we see this idea in the book of Revelation itself.
Revelation 17:16-17 reads, “And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” Lastly, it was God’s will to crush Jesus (Isaiah 53:10), but He predestined it to happen through human agents (Acts 4:27-28; John 19;10-11; cf. Daniel 4:25; 5:21; John 3:27).
- There are some who argue that the OT prophesies that cosmic astronomical disturbances would occur prior to the day of the Lord (Joel 2:30-31). Therefore, for them, this is proof that since the sixth seal has major cosmic disturbances, it shows that the wrath of God (“day of the Lord”) begins after the sixth seal. This sounds persuasive but is incomplete and assumes that this is the only instance of cosmic disturbance. It is true that Joel 2:30-31 does prophesy cosmic disturbances before the day of the Lord. At the same time, the OT prophesies that there will be cosmic disturbances inside the day of the Lord, which is also clearly evident in the book of Revelation after the sixth seal (Isaiah 13:9-10; Joel 3:14-15; Rev 8:10-11; 8:12).
Further, Jesus said that after the day of the Lord tribulation is over, there would be further cosmic disturbances as He returns to earth (Matt 24:29). The complete biblical evidence shows that there are many instances of cosmic astronomical disturbance; therefore, this is not persuasive in trying to prove that the wrath of God begins after the sixth seal is opened based solely on Joel 2:30-31.
- Much discussion is focused around the phrase, “the wrath of the Lamb has come,” in 6:17. Is this referring to something that is “about to arrive” (after the sixth seal) or to what has already come in the past (seals 1-6)? The Greek verb here is elthen (aorist indicative) and comes from the root erchomai. This is important because we should not fail to see that the word “has come” is clearly associated with the repetition of the word “come” in seals 1-4 from the mouth of the living creatures.
There are many Greek words that John could have used here to say “come.” He used other Greek words for “come” in this same book (Rev 19:17; 17:1; cf. Matt 11:28; 25:34), but it is worthwhile to simply notice that he chose the imperative form of the word erchomai by using erchou. This word erchou only appears here with the four living creatures and 3 times in Rev 22:17, 20. Seven total. No surprise. This is not proof positive but lends credence to the fact that the wrath of God which “has come” in 6:17 is associated with the calling of this wrath to “come” by the four living creatures.
- More should be said about the phrase “has come” in 6:17. Bible teachers will argue back and forth about the grammatical significance of this verb (aorist indicative). It can’t be 100% decisive either way, but the evidence strongly favors the idea that the wrath, which “has come” (Greek elthen), is in the past and involved the first six seals. I am not trying to be overly technical, but there are some who appreciate the grammatical details. Consulting almost any Greek grammar will show that the aorist indicative specifically (and aorist participles) usually denotes past time. Other moods of the aorist do not indicate the timing of the verb.
This same form appears also in 5:7; 7:13; 8:3; 11:18; 14:7, 15; 17:1, 10; 18:10; 19:7; 21:9. All these either have a past or immediate present aspect to them. There are rare instances that this form can be used of a future (possibly in 19:7), but this is infrequent. The overwhelming grammatical evidence is to see that John is quoting the human kings as recognizing that the wrath of God included all the judgments of the first 6 seals.
- Finally, we learned earlier from Jesus and Paul that when the day of the Lord wrath (sudden destruction) begins, it will come upon an unsuspecting world that is living under relatively normal conditions (Luke 17:26-36; Matt 24:36-39; 1 Thess 5:2-3). If the day of the Lord commences after the 6th seal, how can this be reconciled with the fact that the first 6 seals have brought extensive war, famine, death, pestilence, and cosmic astronomical and worldwide topographical disturbances (Rev 6:1-16; Luke 21:10-11)? These are clearly not normal living conditions.
In fact, the various peoples of the earth recognize that the past events are part of the wrath of God. They are very aware and seek to hide themselves from the wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:17). Sudden destruction has already begun with potentially ¼ of the world being killed through sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts (Rev 6:8). Even the fifth seal opened by Jesus is part of the wrath of the Lamb. The judgment of the Lamb is not on the martyrs themselves but in the response that is given to them. They are told that their request for vengeance (wrath of the Lamb) would occur over a period of time, but they needed to be patient as it unfolds.
The cumulative evidence presented in this article is that the wrath of God lasts the entire 7-year period of the tribulation. We would be wise to heed Paul’s advice. “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess. 5:6).