What is the “Great Tribulation”?

Last week I wrote about the fifth trumpet found in Revelation 9:1-11 and while discussing when we should anticipate these events to take place said: “…there is nothing in the text that refers to a specific seven year period prior to Christ’s return that these events take place during.”

I thought now may be the right time to chase down some of these thoughts. When Evangelicals today think about the book of Revelation “The Great Tribulation” is one of the first things that come to their mind. This is largely due to the popular influence of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkin’s fictional Left Behind series, which tells a dramatic story using a particular perspective on how end-times events play out (a perspective known as “dispensationalism“). This perspective was founded in the 19th century, but rose to popularity in the 20th century, particularly in America and quickly spread in evangelical churches through the teachings of popular preachers like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, and John MacArthur, the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible, and through Christian books, movies, and even video games.

Dispensationalism generally teaches that before Christ’s second coming there will be a seven-year-period known as the “Great Tribulation” (“tribulation” just means “suffering, affliction,”). Within dispensationalism most agree there will be a “secret rapture” that takes place before the seven years begin (sparing all Christians from experiencing the tribulation), though some think Jesus will only appear after the tribulation (meaning Christians would endure the seven years). But both agree that there will be a seven year period of incredible suffering and persecution (what most of the book of Revelation describes) which will culminate in Jesus’ visible return and the establishment of His millennial reign here on earth (cf. Rev 20). 

However, the book of Revelation never mentions a secret rapture nor a seven year period that encapsulates the “tribulations” dispensationalists describe. So where do these teachings come from?

They rely on an interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse (see Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), the book of 1 and 2 Thessalonians (esp. 1 Thess 4), and Daniel 9. While evidence for a secret rapture is very slim, the teaching of these texts (and the general teachings of Revelation) do seem to indicate that the “last days” will be marked by an increase in suffering, persecution, and “tribulations.” However, the Bible also clearly teaches that we have been in the “last days” ever since Jesus resurrected from the dead (cf. Heb 1:1-2; 9:26; 1 Pet 1:20; 4:7; Acts 2:17). For a further explanation of this, and the unique role the destruction of the temple in 70 AD plays in understanding Jesus’ teaching, see my sermon on Mark 13. So, one could understand the sufferings that marks the “last days” to simply be a description of what marks the church’s experience since the resurrection.

John Walvoord, a prominent dispensationalist, however explains that dispensationalism maintains the “distinction between the great tribulation and tribulation in general which precedes it.” Thus, dispensationalists believe that the sufferings taking place during the great tribulation to stand apart from the general suffering that has marked the church prior to this final seven year period (note: most dispensationalists believe that starting in chapter 6, the book of Revelation devotes the majority of its pages to describing the “great tribulation”).The question, however, is whether or not the Bible teaches that there is such a thing as the great tribulation.

The period of seven years appears to be taken from an interpretation of Daniel 9 and the “seventy weeks” of 9:24-27, with dispensationalists understanding the final “week” to be the seven years of tribulation. While the “sixty nine weeks” are a time table (just under 500 years) that countdown from the writing of Daniel to the arrival of Jesus, dispensationalists believe there is a large gap of time between the 69th and 70th “week”, with the 70th week representing the seven year period of the great tribulation. Space won’t permit to get into the details, but for an academically rigorous response to this interpretation, read this. For a more accessible resource, read this interview. Suffice to say, there does not appear to be compelling biblical evidence for understanding the final “seven” here to represent a seven year period that occurs immediately prior to the second coming of Christ.

As I have repeatedly mentioned in these encouragements, we should understand the majority of what is written in the book of Revelation to not necessarily be describing only a brief period of time (seven years prior to the second coming), but rather to be describing what marks the Church’s experience since Christ rose from the dead. While certain aspects of the trials Revelation details appear to be distinct (for example, the 5th and 6th trumpets), the majority describe what the past two thousand years of history has been like. This doesn’t exclude an understanding to expect an increase in the tribulations as Christ’s second coming draws closer–as I’ve argued before, the increasing severity in the three cycles of judgment in Revelation could mean an expectation that tribulations should increase as time marches on. 

At the very beginning of Revelation John explains to those he is writing to that he is a partner with them both in “the tribulation,” (Rev 1:9). John is, at the time of his writing, enduring the tribulation. Tribulations and sufferings are a hallmark of all Christian experience, in fact, “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted,” (2 Tim 3:12). Thus, as we are reading Revelation’s harrowing details and evocative images of judgment, we shouldn’t imagine these are taking place in a wooden, literalistic manner far off in the future, but are rather images of spiritual realities that are taking place right here, right now. G.K. Beale writes, “The great tribulation” has begun with Jesus’ own sufferings and shed blood, and all who follow him must likewise suffer through it,” (NIGTC: Revelation).

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