A Google search on the word “tribulation” yields front page results about the Tribulation (capital “T”) or even the Great Tribulation. Whether it’s talked about as ‘a tribulation’, ‘the Tribulation’, or even the ‘Great Tribulation’, it all revolves around what is known as eschatology or “end times” doctrine. This genre of Bible study draws heavily from the prophets’ writings and in particular, Revelation. Without speculating about what the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us, what is said about this Great Tribulation?

how Scripture answers "Is there a Great Tribulation in the Bible?"

The word tribulation occurs sixteen times in the English Standard Version (ESV), yet it is never used in a proper sense1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. The Bible never speaks of “Tribulation” or “Great Tribulation” in this way. It is always the same Hebrew or Greek word that simply means affliction or persecution that would occur ‘in the course of their lifetime’.

Two of the instances actually use the word to describe the trouble that would come upon the disobedient3,8, but in all the rest tribulation is promised upon all saints1,2,4,5,6,7,9,10,11 by virtue of their obedience5 to the gospel of Christ1,7.

The following is detail of each of these sixteen occurances of the word “tribulation” in the ESV. Two of the uses (highlighted below) are popular in their use to justify a capital “T” tribulation.

  • Three times in the Old Testament. Once significantly by Moses5 and two more times (
    1 Samuel 26:24
    &
    Lamentations 3:5
    ). All of these use tribulation simply in a general sense (e.g. persecution). Note: It’s never used in the book of Daniel or any of the books of OT prophecy.
  • Three times alongside “persecution” or “disress” in a sentence. One of those is by Jesus in Matthew7 (also in Mark). Two are by Paul in Romans8,9. All three make its use and meaning clear of a present and ongoing tribulation among the saints.
  • Two more times by Jesus10 and Paul11, each speaking in the same general nature of “tribulation” as persecution, distress, etc as a current, present condition.
  • Three times in Jesus’ Olivet discourse6 (also in Mark; notably, Luke’s account doesn’t use the word but instead describes a time “when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” 23:29ff). Matthew’s account6 is understandably a bit confusing to follow, but the “great tribulation” would occur during the lifetimes of those he was addressing.
  • Four times in John’s opening1 and letters to the churches2,3 in Revelation. The clear meaning is difficult times that were about to take place among the saints – in one case for obedience2 and the other for disobedience3. Further, it’s worth noting that the tribulation in store for Ephesus2 would last for “ten days.”
  • One time later in Revelation4 which looks very much like a triumphant scene of heaven of all the saints that persevered through the “great tribulation”. John had mentioned this present reality for Christians earlier1,2 in Revelation, Moses promised it for all during the “latter days”5 (the Christian/church age) and several others promise it6,7,9,10,11 as a reaction of the world to their obedience.

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1

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

I, John, your brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation, the kingdom, and the patient endurance – all in Jesus – was on Patmos because of the word of God and the witness of Jesus Christ. 

The book of Revelation is what John saw and was told to write down (1:1-2). Using “in the Spirit” as a structural marker, the book can be sectioned into four visions in particular:

  • Vision One (1:9-3:22) – Jesus speaking to the seven churches
  • Vision Two (4:1-16:21) – Seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath; “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls” introduces the last two (and therefore possibly connected):
    • Vision Three (17:1-21:8) – Babylon the Harlot
    • Vision Four (21:9-22:5) – Jerusalem the Bride
How does it apply here?

John addresses his first-century audience as fellow partakers in a common tribulation/persecution that was presently happening “on account of the word of God” (a danger exactly as Jesus taught in the parable of the sower7).

2

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
I know your troubles and poverty (but you actually are rich) and the false statements of those that say they are Jews but are in name only. They are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Satan is about to throw some of you in prison for ten days.  By this tribulation you will be tested, but be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.

A letter to the church at Smyrna from “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (vs 8) warning them specifically of coming persecution and reminding them of their richness of blessings in Christ.

How does it apply here?

In Jesus’ testimony to the church at Smyrna, he describes a “tribulation” to occur from “the devil” that involves them being put in prison for “ten days.” Jesus further encourages them to “be faithful unto death” for a “crown of life” — no mention of a Tribulation or Great Tribulation.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

There is no reason from Scripture to take these “ten days” literally. Instead, as is consistent with the use of “ten” and multiples thereof, it implies “complete” or “completed”. Additionally, it is a tribulation whose days are numbered (finite; will end) and, relative to their reign with Jesus for “a thousand years” (e.g. eternity) later in the book, it will be very, very short.

3

Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.
Beware! I [Jesus] will stike her [Jezebel] with sickness, and I will inflict a great tribulation upon anyone committing adultery with her unless they repent. I will also kill their children.  By this all the churches will know that I am the one that searches mind and heart, and will reward each according to their works.
A letter to the church at Thyatira (vs 18) from “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (1:13-16)
How does it apply here?

In Jesus’ testimony to the church at Thyatira, those committing adultery with “Jezebel” (vs 20) will suffer a “great tribulation”. This is most certainly in their lifetime – a present state of tribulation – that would affect them and their children (“unless they repent”).

4

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? I said to him, Sir, you know. And he said to me, These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Then one of the elders asked me about the ones clothed with white robes – who they were and where they came from?  I answered that he knew, and indeed, he answered, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

The book of Revelation is what John saw and was told to write down (1:1-2). Using “in the Spirit” as a structural marker, the book can be sectioned into four visions in particular:

  • Vision One (1:9-3:22) – Jesus speaking to the seven churches
  • Vision Two (4:1-16:21) – Seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath; “one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls” introduces the last two (and therefore possibly connected):
    • Vision Three (17:1-21:8) – Babylon the Harlot
    • Vision Four (21:9-22:5) – Jerusalem the Bride

In this portion of John’s vision, he sees God instructing (vs 3) four angels that had been given power to harm the earth.  They are made up of equal numbers (12,000) from each of the twelve tribes of Israel (vss 5-8) and appear to be the same “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (vss 9-10).  John sees the same 144,000 later on (

Revelation 14:1-3
).
How does it apply here?

Shows a scene of saints gathered before the throne of God having been cleansed by the blood of Christ and perserved through great trial and persecution.

5

When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the LORD your God and obey his voice. For the LORD your God is a merciful God. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them.
When you are persecuted and all of these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his commands.  For He is merciful and will not condemn you or forget the covenant He made with your fathers.

Moses is retelling the Law given to him by God on Mt Sinai.  This is to a new generation of people after the forty years of wandering in the wilderness and just before entering the Promised Land. 

How does it apply here?

Moses speaks of tribulation/persecution in a general sense that would take place in the “latter days.” What he describes here that will take place as a result of this “tribulation” is completely consistent with the many other “last days” / “latter days” / “in that day” statements made throughout the prophets’ writings. Furthermore, Scripture tells us the “last days” are the church age (1st century to today).

6

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.

At that time there will be a great tribulation, the likes of which has not been seen since the beginning or ever again.

This chapter documents a discussion between Jesus and his disciples.  Upon leaving the temple, Jesus comments on its destruction (vs 2).  Subsequently, they wanted to know about three things from Jesus: 1) the timing of the temple’s destruction, 2) the sign of His coming, and 3) the end of the age (vs 3).

Jesus begins His answer, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, I am the Christ, and they will lead many astray.” (vs 4-5) He continues foretelling terrible natural events (e.g. wars, famine, etc.) but also a spiritual “tribulation” (persecution) where many saints will “fall away” (vs 10).  Despite this, He warns again that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (vs 13) and the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world” after which “the end will come” (vs 14).

The preceding seems to be an overview before beginning to speak about a specific “great tribulation” (vs 21) that they would experience.  He refers to this as “the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel” (vs 15) and prays that their “flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath” (vs 20).

As is typical with prophecy, which this chapter is, sequencing is difficult as events and their timing (near-term/long-term) are very fluid. Remember, the disciples had asked about both the timing of the destruction of the temple and His return.  Jesus shares events (vss 15-28) that will take place in their generation (vs 34) regarding the destruction of the temple (in fact, taking place about forty years later in 70AD).  He then speaks about what will happen “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (vs 29), namely His return (vss 29-44), but it too is a mixed timeline.

Summary of sequence:

  • vss 4-14 – A broad review of events during the ‘end times’ (both near-term and long-term) when “lawlessness is increased”.
  • vss 15-28 – A near-term description of events that they would experience relating to the destruction of Jerusalem.  Something that in fact, would happen about forty years later (70AD).
  • vss 29-31 – A long-term description of the events of the second coming, the final judgment.
  • vss 32-34 – The near-term timing that He relates and explains with a parable about the fig tree for how they would identify the occurrence of “these things” (vs 33) and says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (vs 34).
  • vss 35-44 The long-term timing, transitioned by contrasting things that will and won’t pass away (vs 34-35) and with “But…” (vs 36). This timing “no one knows” – not even Himself (vs 36).
How does it apply here?

Jesus tells his disciples about troubling events and His return that would happen “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (vs 29). Based on the following context, Jesus places this “great tribulation” during their lifetime and His own second coming on a “day and hour no one knows”.

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

7

As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.
For the seed sown on the rocky ground, this is a metaphor for the one who hears the word and immediately obeys it with joy.  However, he has no root in himself.  So he endures for a time until – because of the word – tribulation or persecution arises and he falls away as a result.
Jesus is explaining the parable of the sower to his disciples.  He had just shared the parable with them (vs 3) and they asked him why he spoke in parables (vs 10) which he also answers.

The parable of the sower is also accounted by Mark (4:13-20) and Luke (8:11-15).

How does it apply here?

Jesus teaches that tribulation will cause those not well grounded in the word to fall away.

8

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
He [God] will judge all accordingly: eternal life for those that patiently do good and seek those things above, and wrath and fury for those that selfishly disobey God’s word. Anyone that practices evil will encounter tribulation and distress, but for anyone doing good glory, honor, and peace.  God judges all impartially since God doesn’t show favoritism.

Paul’s opening to his letter to Christians in Rome (primarily Gentiles) where he is spending time describing different types of unrighteous individuals and their eventual judgment by God for their deeds of unrighteousness.

How does it apply here?

Tribulation is a promised condition for any that reject Jesus by doing evil. Based on the context, the “tribulation” will be suffered in the final judgement of God for their deeds.

9

Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Who can condemn [us]?  Jesus is the one that died, and more than that was raised, who is now at the right hand of God advocating for us.  Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ including tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword.
Directly on the heels of Paul’s oft-quoted (out of context) statements in
vss 28-30
, Paul is drawing a conclusion about the Christian’s justification process before God.
How does it apply here?

Tribulation is listed among the many physical trials that may inhibit a Christian’s faith and trust in God.

10

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
I [Jesus] have taught you these things so that you will have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But don’t worry; I have overcome the world.

The upper room on the eve of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. He is with his disciples.

How does it apply here?

Jesus promises his disciples that the world will present tribulation for them.

11

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Rejoice in your hope, be patient through trials, be constant in prayer.

Paul is offering encouragement to the Christians in Rome. Other instructions in the surrounding verses include to love one another (vs 10), not be lazy (vs 11), be giving and show hospitality (vs 13) and to “bless those who persecute you” (vs 14).

How does it apply here?

Paul instructs to be “patient in tribulation” — inferring it will come and it will run its course.

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