In the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Jesus describes the hardships of the church in the “last days”:
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “. . . what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.
22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.
The timing of the events described in this passage is a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Some interpret this passage as describing events that have (at least mostly) already occurred, and other commentators see the “great distress” described there as still (at least largely) in the future, just preceding his return to earth to usher in his Kingdom. I’m inclined to a version of the latter view that life on Earth will be characterized by extreme suffering—worse than ever on this planet, in fact—just prior to Christ’s return. That is, things
will get really bad just before they get really good. Moreover, as I read this and other relevant biblical passages, Christians will not be exempt from the suffering (via some sort of “rapture’) but will experience awful tribulation and persecution in the final days.
If this is correct, then it raises an interesting question. Why has God ordained human history to end this way? Why write the narrative in such a way that the dawn of Christ’s eternal reign is preceded by extreme, perhaps unprecedented human—and especially Christian—suffering? One answer, with which I’m sympathetic, appeals to theological aesthetics. There is something beautiful in the passage from darkness to light. Even when we’re not making such an aesthetic judgment about this pattern in human life, we nonetheless often make the observation that “its always darkest just before the dawn.” The beauty of this pattern is evident in many contexts, from the triumph of an inventor after many failures to a sports team that rallies in the final minutes to prevail against adversity. And, in the case of Jesus’ preferred metaphor, childbirth is one of the most vivid illustrations of this. Perhaps no other human experience is marked by such excruciating pain followed by so much joy. And here lies a major aspect of the beauty of the experience. Similarly, one might say, the story of human history is more beautiful overall because the “birth pangs” of extreme human suffering will be swallowed up in the joy of Christ’s return and our “birth” into his blessed Kingdom.
All of this is right, I think, but there is another theological dimension here that I think is relevant, and this concerns the unity of Christ and his church. A recurrent biblical theme is that the church—understood as the collection of Christ’s faithful followers—is in some mystical sense the “body of Christ.” The Apostle Paul makes several references to this metaphor (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12-15; Col. 1:24). Now to take seriously our deep metaphysical union with Christ is, therefore, to take seriously the notion that we must suffer with him. As the Apostle Paul says, “if we share in his sufferings [then] we may also share in his glory” (Rom. 8:17). Thus, for the church to be fully redeemed, we must be fully united with Christ, and this entails sharing in his experience of suffering and death as well as resurrection. As Paul elsewhere says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). Peter echoes this theme as well when he says, “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).
This much is not particularly controversial biblically speaking, notwithstanding the contemporary American aversion to the biblical notion that Christians must suffer and that God actually ordains this for us (e.g., 1 Peter 1:5-7; James 1:2-4, etc.). But what if the parallel goes even farther than the pattern of the church’s suffering on Earth followed by resurrection into eternal glory? Perhaps even the narrative structure of the “life” of the Christian church parallels that of Jesus’ earthly life. As we know, Jesus’ hardest days were toward the end of his time on earth. No doubt, he faced all sorts of trials throughout his entire life, but his betrayal, unjust trial and condemnation, brutal pre-crucifixion torture and mockery, culminating in a hideous protracted crucifixion were surely the worst experiences of his life. And all of this was followed by the triumphant joy of his resurrection. So if we assume a parallel narrative structure between the life of Christ and the life of his “body” that is his church, then we should actually expect that worldwide Christian suffering will grow increasingly extreme in the last days prior to the second coming of Christ.
Thus, on this view, the tribulation of the church in the last days constitutes a sort of historical recapitulation of the life of Christ on earth—Jesus’s “passion week” writ large in the form of his suffering corporate body, the church. Just as Christ was unjustly persecuted during his last days on earth, his bride—the worldwide Christian community—is persecuted during the last days of her 2000-year “lifetime.” And like her Savior, the church suffers horribly only to be overjoyed upon her resurrection. Hallelujah.