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General Biblical Meaning

"Tribulation" is the general term in the Bible to denote the suffering of God's people. In the OT the words sara and sar ("straits" or "distress") pertain variously to intense inner turmoil (Pss. 25:17; 120:1; Job 7:11), the pain of childbirth (Jer. 4:31; 49:24), anguish (Job 15:24; Jer. 6:24), and punishment (I Sam. 2:32; Jer. 30:7). The Greek thlipsis from thlibo ("to press" or "to hem in") often serves to translate sara in the LXX, and refers generally to the oppression and affliction of the people of Israel or the righteous (Deut. 4:30; Ps. 37:39), while in the NT thlipsis is usually translated "tribulation" or "affliction."

Varieties of Tribulation

In the NT tribulation is the experience of all believers and includes persecution (I Thess. 1:6), imprisonment (Acts 20:23), derision (Heb. 10:33), poverty (II Cor. 8:13), sickness (Rev. 2:22), and inner distress and sorrow (Phil. 1:17; II Cor. 2:4). Frequently tribulation is connected with deliverance, which implies that it is a necessary experience through which God glorifies himself in bringing his people to rest and salvation.

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Tribulation in the Purpose of God

Tribulation may be a means by which God disciplines his people for their unfaithfulness (Deut. 4:30). More often, especially in the NT, tribulation occurs in the form of persecution of believers because of their faithfulness (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rev. 1:9).

The sufferings of Christ provide the model for the believer's experience (I Pet. 2:21-25), and in some sense they participate thus in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). Tribulations are viewed by Scripture as entirely within the will of God, serving to promote moral purity and godly character (Rom. 5:3-4). As such, they must be endured with faith in the goodness and justice of God (see James 1:2-4, where "trials" or "temptations" labels what appears to be the same experience), thus serving as a test of the believer's faith and leading to greater stability and maturity.

Jesus promised tribulation as the inevitable consequence of his followers' presence in the evil kosmos (John 16:33), something they could expect as a way of life. The Apostle Paul echoes this viewpoint when he warns that godly believers will certainly suffer persecution (II Tim. 3:12-13). Jesus nevertheless encouraged his followers through his overcoming of the world to seek their victory through the application of his victory.

The Great Tribulation

The Teaching of Jesus

The precise expression, "great tribulation" (Matt. 24:21; Rev. 2:22; 7:14, Gr. thlipsis megale), serves to identify the eschatological form of tribulation. These words are Jesus' caption for a worldwide, unprecedented time of trouble that will usher in the parousia, Jesus' return to earth in great glory (see parallels Mark 13:19, "tribulation," and Luke 21:23, "great distress"; also Rev. 3:10, "hour of trial").

This period of time will be initiated by the "abomination of desolation" (Matt. 24:15) predicted in Dan. 9:27, a desecration of the "holy place" by one whom many scholars believe is the same as the "man of lawlessness" of II Thess. 2:3, 4. Jesus gives specific instructions to inhabitants of Judea for their escape and warns that the intensity of its calamities would almost decimate all life (Matt. 24:15-22).

Views of the Great Tribulation

Though some modern interpreters, along with many ancient commentators and early fathers, are inclined to regard Jesus' predictions as totally fulfilled during the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the words of Matt. 24:29, "But immediately after the tribulation of those days," seem to connect them with the parousia. Jesus' words in verse 21 are probably an allusion to Dan. 12:1 because of the reference there to unparalleled trouble (LXX, thlipsis). The Daniel passage strengthens the case for the eschatological view of the great tribulation, because it places this period prior to the resurrection of Daniel's people.

Since Jesus made this prophecy, major wars, catastrophes, and cosmic phenomena have stimulated belief in the presence of the great tribulation. Such a tendency is typified by Hesychius of Jerusalem in some correspondence with Augustine. Augustine disagreed, preferring to interpret such things instead as characteristics of history as a whole with no particular eschatological significance. In modern times some premillennialists have speculated on the trend of current events as possible precursors of the great tribulation, some even attempting to identify the antichrist with such candidates as Kaiser Wilhelm II and Mussolini.

Adherents of the major millennial views place the great tribulation at different points in relation to the millennium. Both postmillennialists and amillennialists regard it as a brief, indefinite period of time at the end of the millennium, usually identifying it with the revolt of Gog and Magog of Rev. 20:8-9. Postmillennialists view history as moving toward the Christianization of the world by the church and a future millennium of undetermined length on earth culminating in the great tribulation and final return of Christ. In contrast, amillennialists consider the millennium to be a purely spiritual reality from the first advent to the second, a period lasting already two thousand years and to culminate in the great tribulation, a somewhat less optimistic view of history and the progress of the gospel witness.

To premillennialists the millennium is a future, literal thousand years on earth, and the great tribulation a chaotic period toward which history is even now moving, a decline, i.e., to be terminated by the return of Christ before the millennium. One group, which describes itself as "historic" premillennialists, understands the great tribulation to be a brief but undetermined period of trouble. Another group, dispensational premillennialists, connects it with the seventieth week of Dan. 9:27, a period of seven years whose latter half pertains strictly to the great tribulation.

Within the premillennial movement another issue, the time of the rapture of the church, has given rise to three views. Pretribulationists (rapture prior to the seventieth week) and midtribulationists (rapture at the middle of the seventieth week) perceive the great tribulation as characterized by the wrath of God upon an unbelieving world from which the church is necessarily exempt.

Posttribulationists believe that the great tribulation is merely an intensification of the kind of tribulation the church has suffered throughout history, through which the church logically must pass. A more recent, novel view in the posttribulation camp seeks to maintain the imminence of the rapture despite the fact that notable tribulational events would necessarily intervene. In order to do so, the events of the great tribulation would be "potential" but uncertain in their fulfillment. Jesus could come at any moment, and one could look back into recent history to see events that fulfilled the great tribulation.

W H Baker
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R. Anderson, The Coming Prince; L. Boettner, The Millennium; M. J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology; R. N. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation; S. N. Gundry, "Hermeneutics or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of Eschatology," JETS 20:45-55; A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future; J. E. Hartley, TWOT, II, 778-79; R. Schippers, NIDNTT, II, 807-9; H. Schlier, TDNT, III, 140-48; T. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming; D. Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917; J. Walvoord, The Rapture Question.


Advanced Information

Tribulation is trouble or affiction of any kind (Deut. 4:30; Matt. 13:21; 2 Cor. 7:4). In Rom. 2:9 "tribulation and anguish" are the penal sufferings that shall overtake the wicked. In Matt. 24:21, 29, the word denotes the calamities that were to attend the destruction of Jerusalem.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Also, see:
Second Coming of Christ
Dispensation Dispensationalism
Millenarianism Views of the Millennium
Last Judgment
Rapture of the Church

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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