Among those signs of the times which distinguish the period of history between Christ’s first and second coming is the tribulation which will befall the faithful people of God. This tribulation is one of the signs of opposition to Christ and the coming of His kingdom.
In a previous article we considered the subject of tribulation in a general and comprehensive manner. In this article, however, we have to look at the subject of tribulation once more, this time in terms of what is often called “the great tribulation.” Does the Bible teach that the tribulation which characterizes the present age will issue in a circumstance of intensified tribulation, a great tribulation, prior to the return of Christ? Is there anything more that believers should expect than a general and intermittent kind of distress or trouble during the entirety of the period prior to Christ’s coming?
The subject of the great tribulation has been especially prominent among Christian believers who are dispensational premillennialists. In its classic or original form, dispensationalism taught that the return of Christ would occur in two stages, the first often called the “parousia,” and the second often called the “revelation” of Christ. In this view Christ would first come “for His saints” at the time of the secret “rapture” of believers, and only subsequently would He come “with His saints” to reign upon the earth for a period of one thousand years, the millennium. Since in dispensationalism the rapture of believers would precede the period of “great tribulation” (usually thought to be for a period of seven years), this position is often known as the “pre-tribulational rapture” position.1 However, among dispensationalists a distinct minority have taught that the rapture would occur in the middle of the period of great tribulation; this position is known as “mid-tribulational” pre-millennialism. Non-dispensational pre-millennialists teach that Christ will return only after this period of great tribulation. Hence, this position is known as “post-tribulational” pre-millennialism.2
I do not mention these various views within pre-millennialism to confuse the issue. Rather, they illustrate the bearing the issue of great tribulation has upon the various millennial views that we have yet to consider. These views cannot be wholly ignored at this point, since any position which concludes that believers will experience that great tribulation is incompatible with the traditional view of dispensationalism.3 The understanding that I will defend could be compatible with some forms of pre-millennialism, but not with the classic view of dispensationalism.
THE “GREAT TRIBULATION” IN MATTHEW 24
The most important passage which speaks of the great tribulation is Matthew 24, a passage we have already had occasion to consider (compare Mark 13:19). In this passage, as part of Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ questions about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the sign of His coming and the “end of the age,” Jesus speaks of a coming period of “great tribulation” that will precede His return in glory at the end of the age.
Due to the importance of this passage and its specific description of this great tribulation, it will be useful to quote it at some length.
Therefore when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION which was spoken through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! But pray that your flight may not be in winter, or on a Sabbath; for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short (vv. 15–22). In this passage Christ clearly teaches that one of the signs that will precede the destruction of the temple is a period, not only of general tribulation, but also of intensified tribulation. He also clearly associates this period of great tribulation with the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple, a fulfillment that did indeed occur at the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. It is impossible to deny that the events described did take place at that time.
As we have noted before, the primary and immediate reference in these verses is to those events that took place in the period of the generation to whom Jesus first spoke these words. The question remains, however, whether they might not also have reference to yet another and subsequent “great tribulation” that will occur prior to the end of the age.
Here it is not necessary for us to travel the same pathway as we have before, particularly in our last article, when we considered several reasons for applying the signs of the times in Matthew 24 to the entirety of the period between Christ’s first and second coming. In my judgment, it is impossible to restrict the application of these verses to the events preceding and accompanying the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This passage, like many other biblical prophecies, displays the characteristics of prophetic foreshortening and biblical typology. Though there is clearly a fulfillment of the prophecy in 70 A.D. that fulfillment may well be understood as a kind of initial fulfillment which typifies circumstances that will subsequently recur and anticipate the return of Christ at the end of the age. What transpired in 70 A.D. therefore, was a type of that further and final “great tribulation” that will precede Christ’s coming and the consummation of history at the last judgment.
Admittedly, this understanding of the passage has some difficulties, but these are not as insurmountable as the understanding which insists that it refers exclusively to events that occurred in the past (from our present vantage point) and has no bearing upon events in the present or future that will precede Christ’s return.4 The language employed in this passage also refers to those events that will take place before Christ’s coming at the end of the age. Just as the prophecy of Daniel regarding the desecration of the temple had an earlier and initial fulfillment in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (before the first coming of Christ), and then a subsequent and further fulfillment at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, so we may understand our Lord’s prophecy in Matthew 34 to encompass the further and final fulfillment (of which these earlier fulfillments were typical) at the end of the age.5 In this understanding, the tribulation that characterizes the circumstance of the faithful church in the interim period between Christ’s first and second advent will reach its most intensified expression in the period preceding Christ’s coming.
ADDITIONAL BIBLICAL REFERENCES
Any interpretation of Matthew 24’s reference to a “great tribulation” that restricts it to an event in the past seems to conflict with several additional biblical references that suggest a period of intensified tribulation prior to Christ’s coming at the end of the age. Even were it possible to confine the reference to a “great tribulation” in Matthew 24 to the year 70 A.D., these passages indicate that a circumstance of intensified opposition to Christ and His gospel will mark off the period of history immediately prior to Christ’s second coming.
In the book of Revelation, for example, there are several references to a circumstance of great tribulation that will characterize the experience of the church in history before Christ’s return. In Revelation 2:22, in the letter to the “angel of the church in Thyatira,” Christ warns that He will “cast her [the woman Jezebel] upon a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds” (emphasis mine). Though some interpreters have sought to restrict this warning to the church in the first century, it would seem more appropriate to regard it as a solemn warning to the church during the entire age prior to Christ’s return. However direct and specific this warning may have been to the church of Thyatira in the first century, it remains one of Christ’s warnings to the seven churches which typify the entirety of the church in her situation prior to the end of the age. Similarly, in Revelation 7:9–17 the apostle John describes his vision of that “great multitude, which no one could count…clothed with white robes” (v.9). In the description of this multitude, we are told that this great multitude is comprised of those “who are coming out of the great tribulation” (v. 14, emphasis mine). This passage, like that in Revelation 2:22, would seem to use the language of “great tribulation” to describe an on-going experience of the saints in this present age. If such language can be employed to describe what is common to the period between Christ’s first and second coming, it seems appropriate that it also be applicable to the period just prior to Christ’s return.
Furthermore, though the express terminology of “great tribulation” is not used in Revelation 20, it is instructive to observe that this passage also speaks of Satan’s “little season” at the end of the millennium, the period of one thousand years during which Satan is bound so as not to be able to deceive the nations. It seems most likely that this “little season” corresponds with that period of intensified opposition to the gospel and the cause of Christ that will characterize the close of the age prior to Christ’s return.
Another similar and important passage is 2 Thessalonians 1:1–15 which describes the coming of the “man of lawlessness” prior to the coming of Christ. In this passage, which follows one in which Christ’s revelation from heaven will bring rest to the beleaguered and persecuted believers (2 Thess. 1), it is evident that the coming of the “man of lawlessness” will be accompanied by persecution of and apostasy within the church. Interestingly, the language in this passage used to describe the coming of the “man of lawlessness” bears a striking resemblance to the references in Daniel 9 and Matthew 24 to the “abomination of desolation.” One of the features of this “man of lawlessness” will be his effort to exalt himself “above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being god” (v.4). Though this is not the place to consider such additional signs of the times as apostasy or the coming of the anti-Christ, it appears likely that in these and other passages there are a constellation of signs—the Great Tribulation, the Great Apostasy, the Anti-Christ—that mark out the period of history immediately prior to the close of the age. They suggest a pattern in which those signs of the times which bespeak opposition to Christ come to a culminating and intensified expression as the end draws near.
When we introduced this study of the Bible’s teaching about the future, we emphasized the need for caution and circumspection in drawing hard-and-fast conclusions about some aspects of this teaching. The need for appropriate caution is especially evident when we consider the Bible’s teaching about the signs of the times. Thus, it is with a measure of tentativeness that I propose the following concluding observations about the “great tribulation.”
First, the “great tribulation” that will likely characterize history shortly before the close of the present age is but an intensified and culminating expression of that tribulation that marks the whole period between Christ’s first and second coming. For this reason, it is even possible, as we have seen, to speak of a “great tribulation” that is an on-going experience of the saints in this present age. However, as history draws to its close under the reign and rule of Christ, it appears, according to biblical teaching, to be the case that Satan’s opposition to Christ will come to acute and final expression in a short season of greater and more acute tribulation.
Second, the period of great tribulation is not one from which the church will be preserved through some kind of pre-tribulational “rapture,” as has commonly been taught in dispensationalism. In none of the passages we have considered, is it taught that believers will be snatched away prior to the great tribulation. Rather, the consistent emphasis seems to be the call to patient endurance in the expectation of Christ’s certain return and triumph. That return and triumph will bring “rest” to the beleaguered church at the end of the age (compare 2 Thess. 1).6
Third, the Bible’s teaching about the prospect of a great tribulation shortly before the return of Christ ought not to be understood to allow any “prediction” of the time of Christ’s return. For example, some might conclude from what we have said about this great tribulation that it is presently impossible that Christ should return. They might argue that, since the church is not experiencing universally (in every place and situation) this kind of acute trial or distress, we must not be living in a period that is proximate to the second coming of Christ. Similarly, they might argue that, when such a circumstance of tribulation becomes manifest, it will then be possible to say with a certainty, “now is the time of Christ’s coming.” Against this kind of temptation to predict or pinpoint when and whether Christ can come again, we need to recall what we said earlier about no one knowing the day or the hour, the time, of Christ’s return. No one should be so confident of their understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the great tribulation that they conclude that Christ could not return in the near future. Such a conclusion would be tantamount to knowing something about the day or hour of Christ’s coming, namely, that the present time is not and cannot be that day or hour!
And fourth, the Bible’s teaching about the church’s tribulation in this present age and in the period shortly before Christ’s return is insufficiently clear to permit us any confident conclusions about the precise nature and course of a great tribulation that might be yet to come. We simply do not know whether this tribulation will suddenly befall the faithful church or whether it will gradually intensify as the end of the age draws near. Neither do we know whether such a great tribulation will come upon the whole church in every place at the same time or in the same way. Much remains unclear and uncertain in these respects. Consequently, no one may be too sure or dogmatic about these things.
Only one thing is absolutely certain, so far as the biblical view of Christ’s coming is concerned “whatever the present trial and distress, whatever the future intensity of opposition to Christ’s gospel and cause, Christ must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). Tribulation, even great tribulation, cannot and will not separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35–39).
1. Though this is not the place to consider the biblical basis offered for dispensational ism, the two passages most prominent in their argument for a pre-tribulational rapture of believers occurring before a seven year period of tribulation are 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 and Daniel 9:20–27. The first of these passages is said to teach a “secret rapture” of believers who return with Christ to heaven during the seven-year period of tribulation. The second of these passages is said to describe 70 weeks during which the Lord’s purposes with ethnic Israel will be realized, the seventieth week being the seven-year period of tribulation during which the Lord will resume His dealings with Israel (the period between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks being that interim period of the church in which the Lord deals with the Gentile nations through the gospel). Wewill consider dispensationalism in a later article in this series.
2. See Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), pp. 115–181, for a discussion of the differences between “pre-,” “mid-,” and “post-tribulational” views of Christ’s return.
3. It should be noted, however, that the classic pre-millennial view of the future typically taught that the church,and all believers, would suffer this period of great tribulation before Christ returned to establish the millennial kingdom. The preponderance of Christian interpreters throughout history, accordingly, whether pre-millennialists, a-millennialists or post-millennialists, have taught that Christ will return only after the great tribulation, not before.
4. It is noteworthy, for example, that Jesus speaks of the “elect” in Matthew 24:22, a group that can only with difficulty be limited to those delivered at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
5. Antiochus Epiphanes was one of the kings of the Scleudid dynasty (founded in Syria by Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander, which ruled Syria in whole or part from about 321 to 65 B.C.). It is generally acknowledged that his destruction and desecration of the temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C. was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 9:24–27, to which Christ also makes reference in Matthew 24, when he prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
6. Though there is a variety of opinion among post-millennialists, some of them would restrict the reference in Matthew 24 and elsewhere to a “great tribulation” to the events relating to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In this view, there is a tendency to reject the idea that the faithful church will experience an intensified tribulation as the return of Christ approaches. However, even these post-millennialists have to reckon with the teaching of Revelation 20th at the millennium before Christ’s return will conclude with Satan’s “little season” in which he will presumably be permitted to deceive the nations and turn them against Christ.
Dr. Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook, teaches doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.