Today, the popular dispensational view of Christ’s Second Coming includes a period of time called the great tribulation. This is said to last seven years. It is preceded by the rapture of the church. After this tribulation which effects primarily Israel and the Jews and the end time world, the millennium begins with Jesus reigning on his throne from Jerusalem. This view is very popular today and is reflected in such publications as the Left Behind series. All evangelical Christians believe in the Second Coming of Christ. This is not in question. The question this article is concerned with is this popular view of the great tribulation. Is the popular view correct? What exactly does the Bible say? Is it possible to have a different view of this great tribulation than the popular view stated above and still be biblical?
The popular dispensational view pretty much leaves the church out of the great tribulation. It doesn’t involve the church at all. John F. Walvoord in his commentary on Revelation says that the church is out of the picture after chapter 3 of Revelation. All the tribulations that follow that chapter do not include the church. He writes, “It seems that the church as the Body of Christ is out of the picture, and saints who come to know the Lord in this period are described as saved Israelites or saved Gentiles, never by terms which are characteristic of the church, the Body of Christ. Saints mentioned from this point on do not lose their racial background as is commonly done in referring to the church where Jew and Gentile are one in Christ. At the beginning of chapter 4, then, the church may be considered as in heaven and not related to events which will take place on the earth in preparation for Christ’s return in power and glory.” (The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 103) According to Walvoord’s view, much of Revelation describes the Great Tribulation after chapter three and does not include the church.
Does the Bible talk about a Great Tribulation period? Christians have gone through much tribulation beginning with the early church and continuing even up to the present time. In the beginning were the Jewish persecutions and then the great Roman persecutions. Then there were the great persecutions leading up to and after the Reformation. There were many Christians who suffered persecution in the last century under the communist governments and also in Muslim countries. There is no doubt that the church has gone through much persecution and suffering. However, is this the Great Tribulation? There are passages that do point to times of great tribulation for the people of God and the world. We want to examine some of these passages just to see what they say and see if they fit into the popular view of the Great Tribulation or may fit some other view which
Daniel talks about a time of great tribulation in Daniel 12:1 where it says, “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered.” Today’s popular teaching would place this event at the Great Tribulation that they say will occur in the seven years before Christ returns to rule in the millennium. The deliverance mentioned could be interpreted as the rapture that occurs immediately before the tribulation begins. So, Daniel in this prophecy was looking far ahead to the end times just before the Second Coming.
However, this is not the only interpretation this passage could have. It seems that the tribulation Daniel refers to is the same tribulation that Jesus referred to in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. There Jesus refers to this tribulation in the following words: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again.” (Matthew 24:21); “Because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now – never to be equaled again.” (Mark 13:19); “For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” (Luke 21:22) It would seem that Jesus is referring to the same tribulation that Daniel is since He refers to Daniel in Matthew 24:15 in the context of the above verses. It is very likely then than Daniel’s tribulation period (Daniel 12:1) and the period of tribulation mentioned by Jesus in the above passages refers to the same period of time. The question then is when did that tribulation take place or when will it take place? The popular view is that it is still future and will follow the rapture of the church. However, this does not fit in with the Luke 21 passage very well since that passage is definitely referring to a period of time already passed. Let me quote Luke 21:20-24 which seems to be a clear prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans. That passage says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” If this passage describes the same period of time as the Matthew 24 and Mark 13 accounts, then it seems very likely that the great tribulation described in all three accounts happened in 70AD when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Roman armies. That tribulation has already passed and is not future. Of course, this differs with today’s popular interpretation which places the tribulation in the future after the rapture of the church. A careful study and comparison of all three accounts mentioned above in the New Testament could very well point to 70 AD as the great tribulation mentioned. That is not to say that there is nothing in the above passages that refers to the second coming of Christ. What I am saying is that those passages all focus on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD as the main prophecy.
In commenting on Daniel 12:1, Simon Kistemaker in his commentary on Revelation writes, “In the Old Testament a prophecy speaks of a future ‘time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then’ (Daniel 12:1). This prophecy was fulfilled in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, who defiled the temple in Jerusalem and brought about the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ in 167 BC. (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). What Daniel predicted was fully accomplished (I Macc. 9:27). Nonetheless, his prophecy also relates to other difficult times….Jesus quoted Daniel’s prophecy on ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ (Matthew 24:15) and applied it to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In that same context, referring to the flight of its inhabitants in winter or on the Sabbath, he said: ‘For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again’ (Matthew 24:21, and see parallel passages). Jesus’ prophecy came true forty years later when Jerusalem was taken, its people were killed or exiled, and its desolation became a byword…” (New Testament Commentary – Revelation, p. 256-258) Kistemaker implies that Daniel’s prophecy and Jesus’ prophecy could refer to the same tribulation in 70 AD.
Josephus in describing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, wrote, “That neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness than this was, from the beginning of the world.” (quoted in Matthew 24 Fulfilled, p. 81)
Daniel’s prophecy also says, “…But at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered.” The popular dispensational interpretation would say that this is talking about the rapture of the church before the great tribulation. Yet, this is not certain. If we take Daniel’s prophecy as referring to the tribulation that happened in 70 AD, then this deliverance could refer to the escape of the Christians from that destruction at that time. After all, Jesus had forewarned them and told them what to do. Jesus addresses his disciples in Matthew 24:15-20,25 saying, “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand - then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath….See, I have told you ahead of time.” The account recorded in Luke 21:20-22 is even more specific. There Jesus says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” In both of these passages, Jesus issues a clear warning to his disciples to flee Jerusalem when they see the abomination that causes desolation (Mt. 24) or when they see Jerusalem surrounded by armies (Luke 21). Most likely the Roman armies are “the abomination that cause desolation” in that they desecrate the temple and bring it and Jerusalem to desolation. So, the disciples were forewarned and knew to flee when they saw these things take place.
John L. Bray in his book Matthew 24 Fulfilled makes a good case for the Christians being delivered before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He writes, “It is a remarkable but historical fact that Cestius Gallus, the Roman general, for some unknown reason, retired when they first marched against the city, suspended the siege, ceased the attack and withdrew his armies for an interval of time after the Romans had occupied the temple, thus giving every believing Jew the opportunity to obey the Lord’s instruction to flee the city. Josephus the eyewitness, himself an unbeliever, chronicles this fact, and admitted his inability to account for the cessation of the fighting at this time, after a siege had begun. Can we account for it? We can. The Lord was fighting against Jerusalem – Zechariah 14:2: ‘For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city.’ The Lord was besieging that city. God was bringing these things to pass against the Jewish state and nation. Therefore, the opportunity was offered for the disciples to escape the siege, as Jesus had forewarned, and the disciples took it. So said Daniel; so said Jesus; so said Luke, so said Josephus. (p. 65 quoting Foy E. Wallace, Jr.)
Bray goes on to quote John Gill on Matthew 24:16, “It is remarked by several interpreters, and which Josephus takes notice of with surprise, that Cestius Gallus having advanced with his army to Jerusalem, and besieged it, on a sudden without any cause, raised the siege, and withdrew his army, when the city might have been easily taken; by which means a signal was made, and an opportunity given to the Christians, to make their escape: which they accordingly did, and went over to Jordan, as Eusebius says, to a place called Pella; so that when Titus came a few months after; there was not a Christian in the city.” (Bray, p. 65-66) The deliverance promised by Daniel for God’s people could very well refer to this deliverance of the Christians from Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The verse that immediately follows Daniel 12:1, which mentions the Great Tribulation or Great Distress, seems to point to the general resurrection at the end of the age. It describes a resurrection both to everlasting life and also to everlasting contempt. Jesus also refers to the resurrection in such terms in John 5:28-29 – “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” This seems to be just a statement of the general resurrection at the end of the age and doesn’t necessarily mean that this resurrection will be at the time of the deliverance of God’s people from the Great Tribulation. The dispensational scheme would put a resurrection of believers at the time of the rapture before the tribulation. So, Daniel 12:2 doesn’t fit there either since there is a resurrection of believers and unbelievers described. Edward J. Young proposes that the mention of this resurrection is to comfort those who may lose their life in that tribulation mentioned. He writes, “The correct solution appears to be found in the fact that the Scripture at this point is not speaking of a general resurrection, but rather is setting forth the thought that the salvation which is to occur at this time will not be limited to those who were alive but will extend also to those who had lost their lives. We may paraphrase: ‘At the time of this persecution many shall fall, but thy people, who are written in the book, shall be delivered. Likewise, from the numbers of those who are asleep in the grave many (i. e., those who died during the tribulation) shall arise. The words, of course, do not exclude the general resurrection, but rather imply it. Their emphasis, however, is upon the resurrection of those who died during the period of great distress.” (The Prophecy of Daniel, p. 256) This could very well be the case. However, it is probably better to just take it as a general statement pointing to the fact that there will be a resurrection at the end of the age. It points the way into the future and does not necessarily mean it is the deliverance mentioned in the previous verse. This verse seems to be saying the same as verse 13 of the same chapter which assures Daniel that he will arise at the last day – “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”
The Great Tribulation of Daniel 12:1 does not have to be the tribulation referred to in the modern popular dispensational interpretation of this passage. It is more likely referring to the tribulation in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans armies. To say that this verse refers to a seven year tribulation period preceded by the rapture and occurring in the future is reading something into the passage that is not there.
I would like to mention briefly two more passages that refer to a period of tribulation. Both of these are used to refer to the popular modern view of a seven year tribulation period after the rapture. However, is that really the meaning of these passages? The first passage is Revelation 7:14 – “…These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” When is this great tribulation? Those who hold to the popular dispensational view would say that this tribulation is the great one that will occur in the future after the rapture before Jesus returns to begin his millennial reign. These saints who go through that tribulation are the tribulation saints although they are not part of the church which has already been raptured out of the way. Is this the proper interpretation of this verse or could it be interpreted in a different way? There is nothing in verse 14 that says anything about the rapture or a seven year period of tribulation. It only says that this group which have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb have come out of the great tribulation.
This group is described in verse 9 in this way, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” They are an international group that cannot be numbered. They evidently are in heaven. They have white robes which according to verse 14 have been made white in the blood of the Lamb. This description follows the description of the 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel in verses 4-8. A popular interpretation of these verses is that they describe 144,000 Jewish evangelists who live during the great tribulation period and that the international group is another group who are converted during that same tribulation period as a result of the witness of the 144,000. Still this group that is converted is not a part of the church. So goes the dispensational interpretation.
Another interpretation, which in my opinion is better than the one just mentioned. would see the 144,000 as a symbolic picture of the whole church. The international group of verse 9 would be the same group as the 144,000 although describing in a different way the whole and complete church as it appears in heaven after the end of the age. This church has come out of a period of great tribulation. Dr. Simon Kistemaker comments on this group that comes out of the great tribulation in verse 14 – “The verb ‘have come’ is linked to the phrase ‘out of the great tribulation.’ Some conclude that this phrase refers to the end when believers will experience martyrdom just before Christ returns. The context, however, indicates that the phrase relates to the innumerable multitude from all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages (v. 9). Here is a picture of all the saints clothed in white apparel standing before the throne and the Lamb. The expression ‘the great tribulation’ includes all Christians who have experienced oppression and persecution everywhere throughout history. It is a universal and collective expression that encompasses all the saints throughout the ages. Everyone who has experienced the hatred and opposition of the evil one is included. The Scriptures teach that God’s people of all places and of all times have encountered, do encounter, and will encounter persecutions, dangers, and hardships until the end of the age. Old Testament saints suffered for the cause of their God (Hebrews 11:4-38). Christians in the early church suffered for the name of Christ; countless believers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sustained persecutions for their faith; and today more Christians lose their lives in persecutions than at any other time. All these saints have gone through the great tribulation. John presents a total picture of the celestial throng dressed in white robes.” (New Testament Commentary – Revelation – P. 257)
Without getting into an interpretation of the whole Book of Revelation, we could say that much of Revelation includes the history of the Church including the persecutions it will undergo in the early church from the Jews, the great Roman persecutions, and later persecutions from the False Prophet or false church. Chapter 7 seems to describe the sealing of the church before it goes through all these tribulations. The church will be protected and kept during these troublesome times that will come. There will also be judgments upon an unbelieving world during this time. Through all of this the church comes and in the end will be victorious. So, the great tribulation could describe this whole period of tribulation that the church will go through in history.
We now look at one final passage concerning tribulation which is often pointed to as the great tribulation. Revelation 3:10 says, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” Those who hold to the dispensational scheme would say this verse refers to the seven year tribulation and that the church is raptured before that tribulation begins. John F. Walvoord writes, “In this passage the rapture of the church is in view. The coming of Christ to establish a kingdom on earth is a later event following the predicted time of tribulation which is unfolded in the book of Revelation itself.” ( The Revelation of Jesus Christ - p. 87-88) Henry Morris states the classic dispensational interpretation of this verse, “This ‘hour of temptation’ was yet to ‘come upon all the world,’ so this statement could not have referred to any events of the first century. Its purpose will be ‘to try them that dwell upon the earth.’ It is a time of judgment on unbelievers, not on believers. This testing will be ‘the great day of his wrath’, the seven-year period of tribulation at the end of the age. God has promised to deliver all true believers from this ‘hour of temptation’ (or testing), for ‘God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ’ (I Thes. 5:9). This passage clearly teaches the resurrection and rapture of true Christian believers must take place before the hour of temptations begins.” (New Defender’s Study Bible, p. 1993)
From the above interpretations, you would think that this verse clearly teaches a seven year tribulation preceded by the rapture. In fact, the verse does not mention either a seven year tribulation or a rapture. Those who interpret this verse in that way have to read those into the passage. This verse simply teaches that the Lord is going to reward the Philadelphia church for its faithfulness by keeping it from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world. To keep it from the hour of trial could also be translated ‘to keep it through the hour of trial.’ In either case, the interpretation applies first and foremost to the Philadelphia church in the early days of Christianity. It most likely refers to the great Roman persecutions that would come upon the church at that time. R. C. H. Lenski writes, “In the year 98 Trajan became emperor, and his policy against Christians was followed in the empire for over a century. Some emperors increased the severity of persecution. ‘Trial,’ ‘to try those dwelling on the earth’ is the proper term; for not the Christians were on trial but the entire empire, its clash with Christianity showing what its true nature really was. ‘The hour about to come’ is this period which is here foretold before it actually began. The great promise given to the church in Philadelphia is that in this hour it shall be kept untouched and unharmed by the impending dangers. This promise is a mark of the Lord’s signal favor toward this faithful church. The Lord has various forms of reward which he extends variously to individuals, to congregations, to church bodies. What he awards to this one church is not what he awards to all or to others. Yet every reward, whatever his favor may bestow, is to be appreciated by all of us as the gift of his grace and favor which is apportioned according to his wisdom.” (The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation, p. 146-147)
If one takes each of the seven churches to refer to a specific period in church history which some interpreters do, then the Philadelphian church would be later in church history possibly referring to the church at the time of the reformation and centuries afterward to the time of the modern missionary movement. There were certainly tribulations during that period and especially persecution of Christians. We cannot say with certainty that this is the meaning of the Philadelphian church but it could be. We do know that the primary understanding applies to the Philadelphian church in the first century and time following.
In looking at all of the above passages, we see that none of them specifically mention the rapture and a seven year tribulation period. Those who interpret these verses this way have to read that meaning into the passages. The above verses do refer to a period of tribulation and also to a deliverance for God’s people. The most likely candidate for the great tribulation is the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD which was referred to by Jesus and probably is the meaning of the passage in Daniel 12:1. The passages in Revelation refer to times of tribulation primarily for the church and for judgments on the world during history. The church has certainly gone through many periods of tribulation and will probably go through more in the future. Yet, the Lord has always delivered the church through these times.
Are we now awaiting the beginning of a seven year tribulation period and the rapture of the church before that? Some think so and read that into scripture passages such as the above. Yet, it is possible that that interpretation is wrong. The church may be here for a long time yet and there is still much work to be done and whole nations that need to be won to Christ. Should we not concentrate on the task that is before us to make disciples of all nations rather than waiting for some any moment rapture that will whisk us out of the way before a great tribulation comes on the Jews and the world. Surely there will be tribulations to come. Yet, Christ still reigns and will reign more still in the future. The Bible, especially in Romans 11, paints a bright picture ahead for the Jews including their conversion to Christ and ingathering into the church. That same chapter talks also of a fullness of the Gentiles which may very well mean worldwide revival and the ingathering of multitudes into the church. Should we not be looking and praying for such things to happen rather than holding on to a teaching that is not certain at all. Glorious times are yet ahead for the church. We must believe that. We must believe John Newton’s hymn which starts out with these words, “Glorious things of thee are spoken Zion City of our God…” The best is yet to come!
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1978) unless indicated otherwise.
Bray, John L. Matthew 24 Fulfilled, American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 1996..
Kistemaker, Simon J. New Testament Commentary – Revelation, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001.
Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of Saint John’s Revelation, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1943, 1963.
Morris, Henry M. The New Defenders Study Bible. World Publishing, Inc., Nashville, 1995, 2006.
Young, Edward J. The Prophecy of Daniel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1949.
Walvoord, John F. The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1966.