Thomas Ross of Mukwonago Baptist Church in Mukwonago, Wisconsin has written a critique of the prewrath position.
One particular point that Ross asserts is the following:
Furthermore, the fact that God’s wrath “is come” in Revelation 6:17 is an aorist indicative indicates that past time is the strong basic predisposition, so that the fundamental tendency for interpretation is to assume that the wrath began at some time before that point; that the aorist can occasionally have a futuristic sense does not justify the assumption that it does so here. Certainly one cannot soundly build a doctrine of future wrath at the time of the seventh seal based upon an aorist spoken by masses of unconverted people who do not know or want to know God’s will and ways.
Ross is under the mistaken view that claims the aorist tense-form carries past tense. That is an imposition of English grammar upon the Greek language. Greek linguists have critiqued that view for almost fifty years. Temporal reference comes from the context, not from appealing to the Greek tense-form.
Many other pretrib teachers commit this same grammatical error, especially with respect to Rev 6: 17. Pretribulationism has interpreted this to mean the wrath of God has already started in the past reaching back to the first seal. This interpretation is erroneous for several reasons.
First, contextually, the first four seals are phases of Antichrist’s campaign. There is nothing in those seals suggesting the church is exempt. If someone does not agree these are phases of Antichrist’s campaign, they must at least admit the church has experienced similar events since its origin: false christs, wars, famine, and death. The burden of proof is on the person who thinks the first four seals contain the day of the Lord’s wrath.
Next, the fifth seal is explicitly martyrdom of Christians. Pretribulationists would agree that Christians are exempt from God’s eschatological wrath (1 Thess 5:9). But when they claim that the fifth seal is God’s wrath they are contradicting the biblical truth that believers are exempt from his wrath. Moreover, we learned the fifth seal martyrs recognize God’s wrath is still future, for they are seen crying out to God asking him to pour out his wrath. They are told it will happen very soon.
Next, the prophet Joel is explicit prophesying the celestial disturbances will occur “before” the day of the Lord: “The sunlight will be turned to darkness and the moon to the color of blood, before the day of the LORD comes– that great and terrible day!” (Joel 2:31).
Next, there is a comparison between the seals and the Olivet Discourse. This illustrates a consistent sequence of events leading up to the sixth seal: beginning of birth pangs, great tribulation, celestial disturbances. Accordingly, in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, he teaches everything that happens before the celestial disturbances relates to the world’s depravity and Antichrist’s great tribulation.
Next, germane to our immediate context is the argument that the day of the Lord’s wrath is not “past tense” referring to a time before the sixth seal. The very reaction from the wicked is the most telling evidence the wrath is about to begin. Notice they are responding to the portents by hiding themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They have not been hiding all this time from God during the first six seals. Instead, they recognize, at this time, God’s Day has now arrived—consequently, they seek to escape his judgments. The last expression in verse 17 is “who is able to withstand it?” This makes no sense if God’s wrath has been unfolding throughout the seals—for why are they withstanding his wrath! This is most fitting if we understand it to mean his wrath is looming. The progressive nature of the seals is quite discernible: the first four seals are expressions of humanity/Antichrist, the fifth seal of martyrdom is the result of death, the sixth seal announces God’s looming wrath, and the seventh seal will formally execute his wrath.
Finally, the grammatical consideration does not bode well for those who interpret God’s wrath beginning before the seventh seal. In the statement, “the great day of their wrath has come,” the verb “has come” (ēlthen) is in the Greek verb tense-form called the “aorist.” English grammar does not possess an aorist tense-form in its verbal system, which is why many English speakers are unfamiliar with it. Bible translators, nevertheless, have to render it into a chosen English tense-form such as the past, present, or even future, depending on the context.
The aorist is arguably the most abused element in Greek grammar. Here are three grammatical elements that properly describe the aorist tense-form:
(1) It is the least significant Greek tense-form of them all. Many pastors in their sermons have placed undue emphasis on this tense-form when they assert, “this verb is in the Greek aorist tense.” This happens because the aorist is not used in the English verbal system. So it sounds mysterious to many English-speaking minds, which is why they place undue significance to it.
(2) The aorist is often referred to as a “past tense” in Greek, but this is not accurate. It does not possess an inherent “past tense” temporal meaning, for it can also refer to present or future. It is context that determines time, not the tense-form. This is why calling it “tense” can confuse English speakers because we equate tense with time. This is not the case in Greek. Consequently, it is a mistake to appeal to the aorist tense-form to determine the temporal reference of a verb. Temporal reference must be made on the basis of the immediate context, and then discern whether broader theological passages can illuminate the meaning of the text.
(3) The aorist can be found in different kinds of actions: e.g., inceptive (action at its beginning point), punctiliar (once-for-all, instantaneous), iterative (action at intervals), perfective (brought to completion), gnomic (recurring natural events), proleptic (pointing to a future realization), to name a few. The context—not the tense-form—determines what kind of action it possesses. Other than Revelation 6:17, there are more instances in the book of Revelation where the aorist ēlthen may be used for ingressive or impending action, for example, see Revelation 14:7, 15; 19:7. Nevertheless, the immediate context is the determiner of meaning.
The theological, contextual, and grammatical features support the aorist verb “has come” (ēlthen) in our sixth seal passage depicting the impending day of the Lord’s wrath. General linguists, Greek philologists, and New Testament grammarians have been wrestling with new theories to understand the Greek verbal system from the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the latter half of the twentieth century. Some have been more successful than others. K. L. McKay was instrumental for challenging New Testament scholars in the latter half of the twentieth century to refine their understanding of the Greek verb system. At the end of the 1980’s two scholars working concurrently and unaware of each other’s research published seminal volumes on the verbal system: Buist Fanning and Stanley Porter, respectively, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, Studies in Biblical Greek 1 (New York: Peter Lang, 1989). The latter building on McKay’s system but grounded with much more linguistic theoretical rigor.
This verbal aspect theory emphasizes the distinction between form and function, semantics and pragmatics, spatial quality and temporal reference, aspect (i.e., author’s subjective portrayal of the action) and Aktionsart (i.e., objective “kind of action”). Traditionally, grammarians confused the latter elements with the former. For example, it was (and still is among many New Testament interpreters) thought the verb tense grammaticalized (encoded) time. As mentioned above, it was assumed, for example, the aorist tense was a “past” tense. However, verbal aspect theory has argued convincingly that time is not an inherent (semantic) value of the verb-tense—only context can give us clues to the temporal reference.
Further, the aorist was thought to have encoded punctiliar Aktionsart (“kind of action”)—happening at a point in time. Instances that did not fit that function were thought of as “exceptions.” Verbal aspect theory rejects the aorist encodes these values. The aorist is undefined; that is, the author chooses this tense-form simply to state the action as a whole or summary. The aorist could be punctiliar, but the verb tense-form itself cannot tell us that; only the lexeme and context can reveal this. Again, the aorist is not a “past” tense, even though it is found in past tense contexts most of the time, because the aspect of the verb is attracted to these contexts—what linguists call a pragmatic implicature. Aspect is that value of the verb system an author chooses to portray or represent an action. Porter defines aspect as “a morphologically-based semantic category which grammaticalizes the author/speaker’s reasoned subjective choice of conception of a process.” (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, xi.).
Porter recognizes three aspects in the Greek system: Perfective (Aorist), Imperfective (Present, Imperfect), and Stative (Perfect, Pluperfect). The perfective aspect views the action externally and is only concerned to view the action as a whole or as a simple event (not to be confused with punctiliar). The imperfective aspect views the action internally being concerned with portraying the action as it is unfolding or in progress. The stative aspect views the action as a state of affairs. These three aspects are not describing the kind of action (Aktionsart), which is determined by the combination of lexis and context.
Differences between traditional and verbal aspect are as follows:
Traditional view: Present tense is seen as a continuous action in present time. Aorist tense is punctiliar or undefined and in past time. Perfect tense viewed as a past action with results carried over to the author’s present time.
Verbal Aspect: Present tense is seen as unfolding or in progress without reference to temporality. Aorist tense is a complete whole or summary or simple event without reference to temporality. Perfect tense is a state of affairs without temporality.
For introductory reading on the Greek verbal system see: Constantine R. Campbell, Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008); Stanley Porter and D. A. Carson, eds. Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics: Open Questions in Current Research (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993); and Robert E. Picirilli, “The Meaning of the Tenses in New Testament Greek: Where are We?” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48/3 (September 2005): 533–55. Fundamentals of New Testament Greek by Stanley E. Porter, Jeffrey T. Reed, and Matthew Brook O’Donnell. Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook by Rodney J. Decker. Idioms of the Greek New Testament by Stanley E. Porter. Intermediate Greek Grammar: Syntax for Students of the New Testament by David L. Matthewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig.