The Great Tribulation
What is it? When will it occur? What is its purpose?
I receive several phone calls each year from people — some of them ministers — asking me if I think we are in the Tribulation yet. I always respond by telling them that when the Tribulation begins, the people who are on earth will not have to call anyone to find out for sure whether or not it has begun. The Tribulation will be a living hell with a degree of violence that is unparalleled in all of history.
The Bible gives us a lot of information about this horrible period of seven years that is fast approaching. The entire book of Zephaniah is devoted to it. In addition to many other Old Testament passages, like Isaiah 24, fourteen chapters in the book of Revelation focus on it (Revelation 6-19). But despite all this information, there are many myths concerning the Great Tribulation that circulate among Christians. For example, many argue that the first half of this time period will be peaceful and that only the second half will be characterized by intense warfare. Other misconceptions relate to the Antichrist and the Church.
The Biblical Basis
Before we consider some of these myths and misconceptions, let’s familiarize ourselves with the concept of the Tribulation. Where does the idea come from, and what does it mean?
The first mention of the Tribulation in the Bible is found in Deuteronomy 4:27-30. Before the Children of Israel entered the Promised Land, Moses warned them that if they were unfaithful to God, they would be scattered among the nations. He then prophesied that “in the latter days” they would come under “distress,” and the result would be their “return to the Lord.”
Centuries later, Jeremiah used the same terminology when he referred to the Tribulation. He called it “the time of Jacob’s distress” (Jeremiah 30:7). In like manner, Daniel called it “the time of distress,” and he prophesied it would be the worst period of trouble in the history of the Jewish people (Daniel 12:1). Malachi stated it would be a time of refining for the Jews, as when silver is purified by fire (Malachi 3:1-4). And Zechariah used the same imagery when he prophesied that two-thirds of the Jewish people will perish during this time. Of the remnant remaining, he wrote, “I [the Lord] will bring the third part through the fire [and] refine them as silver is refined…” (Zechariah 13:8-9).
The Jews will not be the only ones to suffer during this period of unparalleled trouble. The Bible makes it clear that all the nations of the world will experience catastrophic calamities.
Isaiah says it will be “a day of reckoning” for all the nations of the world (Isaiah 2:10-17). Zephaniah says that “all the earth will be devoured in the fire of God’s jealousy” (Zephaniah 1:18). Here’s how the psalmist Asaph put it: “A cup is in the hand of the Lord, and the wine foams… surely, all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs” (Psalm 75:8).
The prophet Daniel defined the length of the Tribulation. He said God would accomplish all His purposes for the Jewish people during a period of 70 weeks of years (490 years). Sixty-nine of those weeks of years (483 years) would lead up to the death of the Messiah. The final week of years would occur at the end of the age, right before the return of the Messiah (Daniel 9:24-27). This concluding week of years (7 years) corresponds to the Tribulation for, as Daniel put it, it will mark the time when “the prince who is to come” will “make desolate” — a reference to the Antichrist.
The timing established by Daniel is confirmed in the book of Revelation where the Tribulation is divided into two periods of 3 1/2 years each (Revelation 11:3,7 and 13:5). The dividing point between the two halves of the Tribulation will occur when the Antichrist reveals himself by entering the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, stopping the sacrifices, and declaring himself to be god (Matthew 24:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; and Revelation 13:5-6).
The Starting Point
When will this terrible period begin? The Bible says in general terms that it will start after the Jews have been regathered and have been re-established in their homeland and in their sacred city of Jerusalem.
Specifically, the Bible says it will begin at a time when all the world comes together against Israel over the issue of who will control the city of Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:2-3). In short, we are on the very threshold of the Tribulation today as we witness the United Nations, the European Union, the Vatican, and the Arab nations demanding that the Jews surrender their sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The specific event that will mark the seven year count down of the Tribulation will be the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and her Arab enemies — a treaty that will allow the Jews to rebuild their Temple (Daniel 9:27).
The unparalleled horror of the Tribulation is spelled out in detail in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Isaiah wrote that it will be a day of “terror of the Lord” when “the pride of men will be abased” (Isaiah 2:10,17,19). Zephaniah proclaimed that it will be a “day of wrath,” “a day of trouble and distress,” and “a day of destruction and desolation” (Zephaniah 1:15). Men will stumble around like they are blind and “their blood will be poured out like dust” (Zephaniah 1:17).
This dreary picture is echoed in the New Testament. Jesus said it will be a time of tribulation “such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall” (Matthew 24:21). In fact, Jesus said it will be so terrible that if it were not stopped at the end of seven years, it would result in the destruction of all life (Matthew 24:22). The Apostle John states that the chaos will be so great that the leaders of the world will crawl into caves and cry out for the rocks of the mountains to fall upon them (Revelation 6:15-16).
With this biblical background, let’s turn our attention now to some of the misconceptions that exist regarding the Tribulation. Five of the major ones that I would identify are listed below:
- The Antichrist will rise to world power through cunning, flatter, and deception.
- The whole world will flock to the Antichrist in awe and adoration.
- The Jews will accept the Antichrist as their Messiah.
- There will be 3 1/2 years of peace followed by 3 1/2 years of war.
- The Antichrist will be the most brilliant and effective leader in world history.
The Antichrist’s Rise to Power
The idea that the Antichrist will rise to world power through shrewdness and skilled diplomacy is based on Daniel 8:23-25a. These verses say a king will arise who is “skilled in intrigue” and who “will succeed through the practice of deceit.”
But the same passage also says that he “will destroy to an extraordinary degree.” He will destroy both “mighty men and the people of the saints.” Many of these he will destroy “while they are at peace” (Daniel 8:24-25a).
These verses make it very clear that the Antichrist is going to use both diplomacy and military power to gain control of the world. The likeliest scenario is that he will initially rise to power in Europe through the use of shrewd diplomacy. But he will extend his power from his European base through war.
The World’s “Acceptance” of the Antichrist
I believe his conquering of the world through the use of military power is what is pictured in Revelation 6:1-8. This passage pictures the Antichrist going forth at the beginning of the Tribulation with a bow “to conquer.” A red horse representing war “takes peace from the earth.” The result is widespread suffering and the death of one-fourth of humanity by the sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts.
It is a misconception to believe the non-European world will flock to the Antichrist in awe and adoration. The world outside of Europe is not going to submit willingly to the control of the Antichrist, no matter how charismatic and dynamic he may be.
Keep in mind that the nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have fought for the past 200 years to rid themselves of European colonial rule. They are not going to passively submit themselves to a renewal of that rule. They will fight, and the result, as Revelation 6 so clearly indicates, will be a horrible world war of unprecedented magnitude.
Acceptance of the Antichrist by the Jews
The idea that the Jews will accept the Antichrist as their Messiah during the Tribulation is based upon a statement by Jesus that is recorded in John 5:43. Jesus said, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another shall come in his own name, you will receive him.”
But the relevant end time passages in Daniel and Revelation seem to make it clear that the acceptance of the Antichrist by the Jews will be as a political redeemer who miraculously works out a peace settlement what will guarantee their safety and will enable them to rebuild their Temple.
There is no indication that they ever accept the Antichrist as a spiritual redeemer — as their Messiah. In fact, when the Antichrist enters the Temple in the middle of the Tribulation and declares himself to be God, the Jews revolt against him (Revelation 12:13-17).
When the revolt occurs, the Antichrist becomes obsessed with annihilating the Jewish people. That is when the “great tribulation” spoken of my Jesus in Matthew 24 will begin.
The Tribulation Holocaust that will occur during the last 3 1/2 years of that terrible period will be far worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Two-thirds of the Jews will be killed (Zechariah 13:8-9). The Antichrist will be possessed by Satan (Daniel 8:24), and Satan is determined to annihilate the Jews.
Satan’s obsession with the Jews stems from the fact that he hates them with a passion. He hates them because they gave the world the Bible. He hates them because the Messiah came through them. He hates them because God loves them, and because God chose them to be a witness of what it means to have a relationship with Him. And Satan hates the Jews because God has promised over and over in His Word that at the end of the Tribulation, He is going to bring a great remnant to salvation through faith in their Messiah, Yeshua (Romans 9-11).
The First Half of the Tribulation
Another misconception relates to the nature of the first half of the Tribulation. Many believe that this period of 3 1/2 years is going to be a time of peace that will be followed by 3 1/2 years of war. Some feel so strongly about this that they use the word, Tribulation, to apply only to the second half of the seven year period.
This view is based primarily on a statement Jesus made that is recorded in Matthew 24. According to this passage, Jesus referred to the last half of Daniel’s 70th week of years as “the great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21). But it must be kept in mind that these words of Jesus were directed specifically to the Jewish people.
The second half of the Tribulation will truly be the “time of great tribulation” for the Jews. That’s because they will live in peace during the first half of the Tribulation under a covenant guaranteed by the Antichrist. During that time, the Antichrist will be focused on conquering the world. Once he has accomplished that goal — as he will (Revelation 13:7-8) — he will go to Jerusalem, enter the Temple, stop the sacrifices, and desecrate the Temple by erecting a statue of himself (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4).
The Jewish people will be outraged and will respond in a revolt. When they do this, the Antichrist will become obsessed with destroying them. That will be his primary goal during the second half of the Tribulation.
So, to summarize, the Jews will live in peace during the first half of the Tribulation, but not the Gentile nations of the world. The wars of the Antichrist will devastate the world. One-fourth of humanity will die in the initial war (Revelation 6:8). That’s 1.5 billion people in today’s terms. According to Revelation 8 and 9, when the war resumes, one-third of those left alive will die (another 1.5 billion).
The first half of the Tribulation is going to be anything but a time of peace. It will, instead, be a time of unimaginable carnage, for one-half of humanity will die in the first 3 1/2 years!
The Quality of the Antichrist’s Leadership
The erroneous concept that the Antichrist will be the world’s most brilliant and glorious leader is based on Revelation 13:7 where it says he will gain authority over “every tribe, people, tongue and nation” on planet earth — something no other person has ever done.
But the evidence of prophecy points to the fact that his reign will be anything but brilliant and glorious.
For example, his conquest of the world will devastate the earth. It will be like Napoleon’s “victory” in Russia — he will win the battle and lose the war. The Antichrist will end up with a world that is devastated and polluted beyond imagination. Furthermore, the world’s subservience to him and worship of him will be based to a large degree on force, deception, and terror — not just genuine admiration.
Also, his obsession with the Jews will undermine his kingdom and ultimately lead to its destruction. Daniel 11:40-45 indicates that when his attention is diverted to the destruction of the Jews, a worldwide revolt will break out against his kingdom. Nations will send armies against him from the North, East and South.
The Antichrist may prove to be a successful military conqueror, but he will be a miserable leader whose world wide empire will last only 3 1/2 years — and during that time, it will be constantly ravaged by internal revolt.
A Misconception Concerning the Church
Another popular misconception about the Tribulation is that the Church will go through it and suffer mightily at the hands of the Antichrist. This concept is based upon verses like Revelation 13:7 which says that the Antichrist will “make war with the saints.”
But I believe the saints referred to here are those who are saved during the Tribulation. There is going to be a great harvest of souls during the Tribulation. Some will be saved in response to the Rapture. Others will respond to the preaching of the Two Witnesses in Jerusalem (Revelation 11). The response of others will be stimulated by the Tribulation judgments which will motivate many to repent. Still others will respond to the special angel who will be sent by God near the end of the Tribulation to proclaim the Gospel to every living creature (Revelation 14:6-7). Many will be saved, but most of these will be martyred for their faith (Revelation 7:9-17).
There is no purpose for the Church during the Tribulation. This will be a time of God’s judgment upon the unbelieving Gentiles and Jews who have rejected God’s grace, love and mercy expressed in Jesus.
Some argue that the Church must go through the Tribulation to be purged or cleansed. But the true Church has already been purified by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 John 1:7; and Romans 8:1). The Tribulation is not a Protestant purgatory.
The symbolic imagery of the New Testament focuses on the Church as being the Bride of Christ. Is the Bridegroom going to beat up His Bride for seven years before He comes for her? I think not. The Bible says that Jesus is coming to deliver His Bride from the wrath that is to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Also, Revelation 19:8 and 14 pictures Jesus returning with His Church at the end of the Tribulation, indicating the Redeemed will be taken out of this world before the Tribulation begins.
Revelation focuses on the Church in its first three chapters. Beginning with chapter 4, there is no more mention of the Church during the entire period of the Tribulation. The Church is not referred to again until Revelation 22:16.
What’s it all about? Why is there going to be such carnage? How could a God of grace, mercy and love allow such an outbreak of unbridled terror and bloodshed?
One reason is to satisfy the justice of God. Yes, God is characterized by grace, mercy and love, but He is also a God of perfect justice, righteousness, and holiness. There fore, He must deal with sin. His justice demands it. Even His love compels it. How could a God of true love simply overlook the actions of a murderer or a pedophile?
The prophet Nahum understood the true nature of God. He wrote that “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him” (Nahum 1:7). That is the love and mercy of God. But the same prophet wrote (Nahum 1:2-3):
“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord;
The Lord is avenging and wrathful.
The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries,
And He reserves wrath for His enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”
Truly, the Lord is “slow to anger.” He allows the iniquities of Mankind to accumulate over long periods of time because He doesn’t wish that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). His desire, instead, is that all should come to repentance. But there is always a day of reckoning, just as there was in the days of Noah, and such a day has been set for this age. Paul referred to it in his sermon in Athens when he said, “He [God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31).
A second reason for the Tribulation is to bring people to salvation. Amazingly, even when God pours out His wrath, His fundamental purpose is not to destroy but to save. Isaiah 26:9 explains it this way: “When the earth experiences Your judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
The brutal fact is that God often has to hit us over the head with a two-by-four in order to get our attention and motivate us to repentance. The equally brutal fact is that most people respond to such discipline by either cursing God or continuing to ignore Him (Revelation 9:20-21). But some people always respond in humility and are saved. As Billy Graham has put it: “The same sun that melts the butter, hardens the clay.”
When God’s wrath is poured out during the Tribulation, some hearts will be melted, but most will be hardened, illustrating once again that nothing is as “deceitful” and “desperately sick” as the heart of Man (Jeremiah 17:9).
Man is frivolous about sin. God is serious. The Tribulation will be a graphic expression of how serious God is about Mankind’s rebellion against Him.
The signs of the times are shouting that we are standing on the threshold of the Tribulation. The message of the Holy Spirit is “Come out of Babylon” (Revelation 18:4). That message means for us to separate ourselves from the love of this world and prepare ourselves for eternity. For believers, it means a commitment to holiness. For unbelievers it means a commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior before He returns as God’s avenger.
The time remaining is short. The time for action is now.