One of the key elements of the Darby-Lindsey-LaHaye end times scheme is a 7 year "Tribulation." Dispensationalists then divide up between those who think there will be a "rapture" or seizure of believers up to the sky to meet Jesus in the air before the Tribulation (pre-trib rapture), half way through the Tribulation (mid-trib rapture), or at the end of the Tribulation (post-trib) rapture.
The idea of a rapture comes from the Latin wording of 1 Thessalonians 4:17--we will be "caught up" to meet the Lord in the air along with the dead who rise. To this extent, the idea of a rapture is biblical enough. Christ will return, his second coming (Heb. 9:28); the dead will rise; and those believers who are alive at that time will ascend to meet Christ in the air.
Now for Paul, this assembly in the sky does not seem to be to go off to heaven (which of course, is the same word, "sky"). Paul seems to see believers coming back down to participate in the final judgment, which in his thinking begins at Christ's "parousia," his arrival back to the earth. Believers will judge the world, including angels (1 Cor. 6:2-3). So believers are meeting Christ like a delegation would go out to escort an ambassador into town.
But Paul knows nothing of a seven year tribulation.
Revelation speaks of "the great tribulation," but it doesn't assign any number of years to it. A figure of 3 1/2 years appears several places in the middle of Revelation, but they all, in my opinion, refer to the same symbolic period:
1. The nations will trample the holy city for forty-two months (Rev. 11:2).
2. Two witnesses will prophesy for 1260 days (Rev. 11:3).
3. The woman that birthed the child who would rule the nations flees to the wilderness for 1260 days (Rev. 12:6).
4. The woman flies to a place to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time (Rev. 12:14).
5. The beast from the sea is allowed to blaspheme God and make war on the saints for "forty-two months" (Rev. 13:5).
So to get to 7 years, dispensationalists (shorthand here for the Darby-Lindsey-LaHaye end times scheme) have to add two of these 3 1/2's together. The "mid-trib" rapture option comes straight from this section too, since the persecution of the church (the woman) is then understood to be for half of the seven year period.
But these are all the same, most likely symbolic 3 1/2 year period of persecution. Taking it as a calendar period goes against the nature of apocalyptic imagery, which if anything, is not meant to be taken literally any more than the idea that the beast will really have ten horns and seven heads.
My best guess is that, at least in its first meaning, all these images symbolized the oppression of the early church in the late first century by the Roman imperial regime. Whether we will find resonances between these images and the time immediately before Christ's return is something we will know when it happens. The temple of 11:1 might very well be the temple destroyed in AD70. After all, this part of Revelation locates "now" during the reign of Vespasian (17:10), during whose reign the temple was "trampled on" and destroyed.
So where did the idea of a 7 year tribulation come from if it doesn't come from the New Testament? It comes from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Daniel 9:27 refers to a ruler who will destroy Jerusalem and the temple for a "week." For half the week he will cause the sacrifice and offering to stop in the temple.
Here we hit pay dirt for the dispensationalist interpretation. The dispensationalist interpretation runs all the New Testament passages relating to the man of lawlessness, the beast, and so forth through this roundhouse ingeniously, weaving together meanings with this passage in Daniel as the template. We have come here last because we wanted to listen to the other passages in their own contexts without forcing this foreign context on them.
As we look at Daniel 9, we remember that apocalyptic literature, from the most optimistic standpoint, seems to blur things together. Mark 13 starts off talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and ends up talking about Christ's second coming. So we would not say that there are not elements of this passage that could relate to some future time.
But when we ask about the first meaning of Daniel 9, we probably need to connect 9:27, which talks about an "abomination that causes desolation" with Daniel 11:31 which speaks of a ruler from the north who will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up an abomination that causes desolation. Mark 13 and Matthew 24 apply this imagery of desolation to the destruction of the temple in AD70. But Daniel 11 reads like a history book of the events leading up to the desecration of the temple by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes in 167BC, so much so in fact that the overwhelming majority of non-evangelical scholars believe that Daniel was actually written in the early second century BC.
In this light, we should probably see the first meaning of Daniel 9:27 in relation to the troubled period from 167-164BC during which an anointed one, here the high priest Onias III, was cut off, removed from office by Antiochus, and the daily sacrifice interrupted for three years. This is the time of the Maccabean revolt. The feast of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the temple in 164BC, brought about by the efforts of Judas Maccabeus.
Now there are some tensions between these texts in Daniel and the events of the Maccabean crisis. One might say that prophecies are blurred here, as in Mark 13. Maybe so. But if so, then we shouldn't expect this passage to map very precisely to any end times events any more than they mapped precisely to their primary fulfillment in the second century BC. Certainly to see the seventh week as a literal seven year period is highly dubious.
I might add as an interesting aside that there is an Apocalypse of Weeks that dates to the period just before the Maccabean crisis. It is found in 1 Enoch 93, 91 (the order of the text is messed up). It divides history up into 10 weeks.
The final post tomorrow, d.v.