This is a follow-up to some of the discussion in my Something Old, Something New post. I posited that my position on the relationship between Israel and the Church does not lend to a pre-tribulation rapture. This brought up the common notion of the tribulation being the wrath of God poured out upon the earth. This, of course, is a main tenant of dispensational pre-tribulation theology (and the other day I even watched a rerun of Adrian Rogers preaching that tribulation is God’s wrath, talk about timing).
I grew up in a church that assumed dispensationalism, and matured in a church that defended it. In fact, one of my primary mentors in life is a strong believer in dispensationalism and pre-tribulation rapture. And once that is what I believed. I have nothing but love for these people in my life who hold such a position, but I believe they are wrong on this point. The following will explain why by seeking to answer, “What is the Great Tribulation?”
A Brief Word Study. The term “tribulation” is the Greek word thilpsis. This word—which in the ESV is also translated sufferings, afflictions, and burdens—occurs 45 times in 43 verses in the New Testament. Five times (Matthew 24:21, 29; Mark 13:19, 24, and Revelation 7:14) the word references the event we know as the “Great Tribulation.” Three times it is used generally of people who can be either Christians or non-Christians. Three times it is used towards non-Christians. And thirty-two times it is used in reference to one or more of God’s people and the sufferings they face in the world.
So across the scope of New Testament writers and writings, the vast majority of the uses of thilpsis is in reference to something that Christians face. Therefore as we seek to discover the meaning of the “Great Tribulation” we must keep in mind that the normal use of the word applies to the Christian life, unless context dictates otherwise.
Now in the book of Revelation, John uses it towards both Christians and non-Christians. Of his five uses 4 are directed towards Christians (1:9, 2:9-10, 7:14) and 1 towards non-Christians (2:22). Twice he uses the word “great” in connection to tribulation. In 7:14 (7:9-17 for context) an elder tells John that those dressed in white robes from every tribe, tongue, and nation are the ones who came out of the great tribulation. In 2:22 Jesus tells the church in Thyatira that he will throw Jezebel and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation unless they repent.
Now this last use seems to indicate perhaps the great tribulation is meant for unbelievers, but that is not necessarily so. In 7:14, talking about the saints who come out of it, the article appears before both “great” and “tribulation” thus referring to a specific, singular tribulation event. In 2:22, there is no article anywhere to be found within the phrase—so it could possibly speak of a general affliction. We must dig deeper to know for sure.
In summary: unless context notes otherwise the word for “tribulation” is generally used for something God’s people face, not something non-Christians face. And since we are no longer destined for wrath, 32 out of 43 verses speaking about tribulation must speak of something other than wrath (35/43 if you also include the 3 general uses that can be applied to Christians and non-Christians alike).
Matthew 24 (and Mark 13). In one way or another Matthew 24 uses the word tribulation 3 times. The first use is 24:9, where Jesus tells his disciples that as the world grows worse and enters into the beginning of birth pains, the peoples of the world will deliver them into tribulation, put them to death, and hate them.
As the end approaches even closer the Gospel is preached to all nations and the abomination of desolation shows up on the scene. Jesus tells those in Judea to flee, “for then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (24:17). Jesus then says the days of this tribulation will be cut short for the sake of the elect. And if anyone tries to say Jesus has returned and he’s in such-and-such a place, do not listen. Because “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (24:29) the heavens will be disrupted and the Son of Man will appear for all the earth to see as he “gather[s] his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
These other two uses of “tribulation” still do not define what it is exactly, but they clearly give us the timing of events. Whatever the Great Tribulation is, it occurs concurrent with the appearance and work of the anti-Christ. And it is after the tribulation that Jesus returns to gather his people to himself.
Revelation 11 & 13. Neither Revelation 11 nor 13 use the term “tribulation” in and of themselves, but I do believe they help us clarify what the Great Tribulation is, for both speak of the work of the anti-Christ (the beast that rises from the abyss).
In Revelation 11 we have the ministry of the two witnesses. Which given the reference to olive trees (Romans 11) and lampstands (Revelation 1:20), I believe the two witnesses reference the ministry of the church (there’s more reasons than this, but that’s not the point of this post!—just want to let you know where I’m coming from). At the end of the time of their ministry (after, I believe, the Gospel is preached to all nations—see above) the beast is allowed to make war on them and seemingly kill them. Though their death is really a short event as they are quickly resurrected and called into heaven.
Revelation 13, again speaks of the coming of this beast, and again speaks of the war it brings—except this time instead of the focus of the “two witnesses” it is “to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” A very similar picture (thus, I think these two chapters speak of the same event but from different vantage points—hence another reason for equating the witnesses with the church, or the “saints”).
In both chapters, when the anti-Christ comes he makes war on God’s people.
Given then the description of the anti-Christ coming and the warning to flee to the hills in Matthew 24 just before the mention of “great tribulation,” I firmly believe the Great Tribulation is the war of the anti-Christ against the church. Thus those who have white robes in Revelation 7 and have “come out of the great tribulation” are the saints killed in this war.
To add credence to this, I also want to interject Daniel 12:1-2. This speaks of a “time of trouble such has never been.” At that time, the angel tells Daniel, “Your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life…”
Very similar to Matthew 24—great distress, the deliverance of God’s people (tribulation cut short), and the resurrection (Jesus gather’s his people).
This is why I believe and teach that the Great Tribulation is not the wrath of God against non-believers, but the anti-Christ’s war against the church. And thus, by necessity, why the “rapture” must occur after the Great Tribulation.