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Insight #20 — Which Tribulation? (in-depth study)

September 30, 1999.

Will the Tribulation begin less than ten years from now? Such popular questions pose a problem. The problem is not simply that someone may receive wrong answers. The problem is that the questions themselves are wrong! “The Tribulation”? Which tribulation?


Today’s popular belief is that “the Tribulation” is a period of seven years just around the corner. It is foreseen as the worst period of suffering the world has ever known. It is widely thought that the church will not suffer through the tribulation because the “rapture” will occur first.

The common claim is that large portions of Bible prophecy will be fulfilled in the supposed coming tribulation. “They” equate this period with the final week of Daniel’s 70-weeks prophecy. It is further claimed that Matthew 24, Mark 13 and 2 Thessalonians 2 will all be fulfilled in that coming brief period. “They” further claim that all the events in the book of Revelation from chapters 6 to 18 will be fulfilled in this tiny seven-year period.

The question which few people ever ask is “which tribulation?” Careful Bible study reveals that there is no such thing as one solitary tribulation.


Paul and Barnabas made it plain to the new Christians in what is called Turkey today. “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “Must.” “Many.” Do not be mislead into thinking that tribulation cannot touch Christians. The Gospel message is not one of a bed of ease. Tribulation is not one set period of time in the future. Tribulation is a repeated reality for followers of Christ.

“Tribulation” in the singular is found 21 times in the New Testament. The plural is found seven additional times. In 2 Thessalonians 1:4 Paul speaks of “all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure.” “All your… tribulations.”

Thus it is obvious that the Bible teaches more than one tribulation. The present day practice of speaking as if there were just one tribulation, grossly twists and perverts the true Bible doctrine of tribulation. It closes peoples’ minds to the Bible truth about tribulation.

“Yes,” someone says, “but when we speak of ‘the tribulation’ we have in mind ‘the great tribulation.’ ” Actually, “great tribulation” is a topic in and of itself, deserving lengthy treatment. (In a future “Insight…” I plan to discuss just that.) But ahead of time, here is a key point: the New Testament speaks of three “great tribulations.”


Premillennialists are divided into three camps regarding the timing of the “rapture.” There are pre-tribulationists, mid-tribulationists, and post-tribulationists. The pre-tribulationists are by far the largest and most popular group. They are pre-millennial because they believe Jesus comes before a literal millennium. They are pre-tribulationist because they believe the “rapture” will occur before “the tribulation.” Since this is the most popular view, it is the view being discussed here.

Notice what Hal Lindsey says: “Dr. Gundry [a post-tribulationist] repeatedly says that pre-Tribulationism is based largely on arguments from inference and silence. This is in some measure true. But here is the big point: All of the views have to be developed to some degree on arguments from inference and silence. The truth of the matter is that neither a post-, mid-, or pre-Tribulationist can point to any single verse that clearly says the Rapture will occur before, in the middle of, or after the Tribulation” (“The Rapture,” pages 36,37).


On what “inferences” do “they” arrive at the conclusion that “the rapture” will take place before “the tribulation”? One common “inference” mentioned by various teachers goes something like this: ” ‘The tribulation’ is a time of ‘wrath.’ God promised to deliver Christians from ‘wrath.’ Therefore, Christians will be taken out of the world before ‘the tribulation.’ ” Two of the main texts used as “proof ” are 1 Thessalonians: 1:10 and 5:9. “To wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, [even] Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come… For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The unproved assumption in this popular argument is that when these texts speak of “wrath” they refer to a future seven-year tribulation. The argument assumes what is to be proved. Wrath is mentioned in many different contexts throughout the Bible. It is impossible to assume that any particular mention of wrath refers to a supposed future seven-year-tribulation period.

What wrath are saints protected from? Certainly not all wrath. Moses experienced the wrath of Pharaoh (Hebrews 11:27). Jesus experienced the wrath of the Nazarenes (Luke 4:28,29). Early Christians experienced the wrath of the Ephesian pagans. (Acts 19:28). The book of Revelation speaks of true believers suffering the wrath of Satan (12:12; 14:8; and 18:3). Clearly the followers of God are not protected from all wrath.

On the other hand, the majority of the 47 times “wrath” is mentioned in the New Testament, it does have reference to the wrath of God.

The question remains: When Scripture speaks of Christians being protected from future wrath, what wrath is it talking about? Rather than a mere seven years of wrath, could it not be protection from eternal wrath? Several texts clearly point out God’s eternal wrath upon the lost–in contrast to eternal life for the redeemed.

Look at John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Did you notice? The wrath of God is placed in contrast to eternal life. This is therefore a clear parallel to such texts as Matthew 25:46: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

In like manner Romans 2:1-11 makes a contrast between those who will receive “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish,” and those who will receive “eternal life.” Two groups: one lost, one saved; one to perish, one to live; one to suffer eternally the wrath of God and the other to enjoy eternal life.

Considering such verses, we can never assume that a verse about “wrath” is talking about a supposed future-seven-year period. It is much more likely that such passages are talking about eternal wrath, also called “the second death,” “the lake of fire,” and just plain “hell.” This is the wrath from which Jesus saves us by His death on the cross.


There is another frequently mentioned “inference” by which the pre-tribulationists arrive at the conclusion that “the rapture” will take place before “the tribulation.” “They” assume that Revelation chapters 6 through 18 is talking about a future-seven-year tribulation. Then they argue that the church is not present in all these chapters.

As an example, notice what John Walvoord says “The word ‘church,’ prominent in chapters 2-3, does not reoccur until 22:16 though the bride mentioned in 19:7, no doubt, is a reference to the church. The total absence of any reference to the church or any synonym of the church in chapters 4-18 is highly significant” (“Every Prophecy of the Bible,” page 544). Significant of what?

Please notice two things. “Absence” is “absence” only when it fits their theory. “Church” is also “absent” from chapter 19, but Mr. Walvoord believes that “the bride” “no doubt” is the church. In 19:7 suddenly he accepts a synonym for “church.” So, by his own argument, silence in regard to a particular term has no significance.

On the other hand, if “bride” is an acceptable synonym for “church” (and it is), even more so is “saints” an acceptable synonym. The New Testament barely mentions the idea of the church being the bride of Christ. However, in Acts and the epistles, the members of the church are called “saints” about 45 times! In Revelation, the “saints” are found 10 times in chapters 6 to 18. Surely, with these 10 references, “the church” is indeed found in Revelation 6 to 18.


Revelation 7:9-14 says that great multitudes will be saved during great tribulation. Of that, there is no question. The question is if this particular tribulation is yet in our future after a “rapture.” It must also be kept in mind that no interpretation of prophecy is acceptable that contradicts the clear doctrine of the New Testament.

According to the pre-tribulationist interpretation of the book of Revelation, there are two classes of saints: “church saints” and “tribulation saints.” “Church saints” are saved from “wrath”; “tribulation saints” are not, nor are they part of the Lord’s church. “Tribulation saints” thus become a new body of believers whereas Scripture proclaims “one body” (Ephesians 4:4).

Besides that, the truth is that “church saints” do suffer tribulation. The truth is that “tribulation saints” do not suffer Gods’ eternal wrath. Biblically speaking, “church saints” are “tribulation saints.”


Pre-tribulationists fail to distinguish between the words “wrath” and “tribulation.” As we have seen, the word “wrath” in the New Testament most often refers to the wrath of God. In contrast, “tribulation” in the New Testament most often refers to what Christians suffer. Specifically, twenty out of twenty-seven times “tribulation” refers to persecution, afflictions and suffering experienced by the church of our Lord. It is a great mistake, therefore, to treat “wrath” as an equivalent of “tribulation.” Whatever the Scripture may teach about Christians being protected from the “wrath to come,” it has nothing whatsoever to do with Christians being protected from “tribulation.”

Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:4: “so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure.” Revelation 2:9 tells of the tribulation of the church in Smyrna: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich).”

Far from teaching that God will not allow Christians to pass through tribulation, the Word teaches that tribulation can even be beneficial spiritually. “And not only [that], but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3,4). Tribulation develops Christian character if we are willing for it to have that result. Romans 12:12 commands us to be “patient in tribulation.” Tribulation helps us to grow in Christ.


Jesus not only walked in the path of suffering, He promised the same to us. “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). “In the world you will have tribulation.” Jesus said it and that settles it.

Jesus’ parable of the sower can be considered a prophecy of what will happen as the Gospel is preached. Consider the seed sown in the stony ground. “Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble” (Mark 4:17). Thus, Christians should not be surprised when fellow Christians fall away due to tribulation. At the same time we ourselves are warned, so that we do not fall away in like manner. Superficial Christians look for a bed of ease. They expect the Christian life to be a continual emotional “high.” When hard times come because of serving God, they quit. Mature Christians, however, learn to handle tribulation with the help of the Savior who led the way in all his sufferings.


The apostle John, as he wrote the book of Revelation some 25 years after the destruction of Jerusalem, was sent into exile by Emperor Domitian. How did he view his situation? “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:9). Notice! John said he was “in the tribulation” and also in the “kingdom.” As far as the apostle John was concerned, neither the tribulation nor the kingdom was 2000 years off into the future. He was already in the kingdom. He was already in the tribulation. Those introductory remarks of John certainly have a great bearing on the proper interpretation of the entire book of Revelation.


Time fails to discuss all the texts of the New Testament that speak of tribulation, much less to discuss all the texts that use synonyms of tribulation. The dictionary defines tribulation as “distress or suffering resulting from oppression or persecution.” And to these four words (distress, suffering, oppression and persecution) can be added four more: trial, affliction, trouble, and bearing the cross. These eight terms are all closely related to each other and to tribulation. All of them must be taken into account to gain an adequate understanding of the Bible teaching on tribulation. Notice how Paul groups many kindred terms together in 2 Corinthians 6:4,5: “But in all [things] we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults.”

Paul in 2 Timothy 3:12 wrote: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” That tells us that if a person does not know through personal experience what it means to “suffer persecution,” then that person must not know what it means to “live godly in Christ Jesus.” Strong words? But they are words of the Holy Spirit. All this talk of escaping tribulation is totally contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Scripture.

Then there are the powerfully beautiful words in Roman 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? [Shall] tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37). “More than conquerors” in tribulation. We today, the church, are the tribulation saints. We do not promise people that they can accept Jesus and be raptured out of tribulation. Rather, we promise people that they can be more than conquerors in the very midst of tribulation.

In Insight #55 there is an in-depth study of the three “great tribulations” mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 24:21; Revelation 2:22; 7:14). Even those three are not the only periods of great tribulation. It is perhaps because we have it so soft in the United States today that believers can easily swallow the idea that Christians will not suffer tribulation. Such an attitude can be maintained only by glossing over the horrendous tribulations that Christians have endured in the past twenty centuries. For the moment, passing over the three that are specifically called “great” in the N. T., take a quick glimpse at other great tribulations.


When the church of Rome held absolute power in Europe during the Dark Ages, the infamous Inquisition held sway. All “heretics” were at risk, a “heretic” being anyone who disagreed with Rome. As one tiny example, Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” (in chapter 5) offers the following gruesome picture in Madrid in 1682.

“At the first time of torturing, six executioners entered, stripped him naked to his drawers, and laid him upon his back on a kind of stand, elevated a few feet from the floor. The operation commenced by putting an iron collar round his neck, and a ring to each foot, which fastened him to the stand. His limbs being thus stretched out, they wound two ropes round each thigh; which ropes being passed under the scaffold, through holes made for that purpose, were all drawn tight at the same instant of time, by four of the men, on a given signal.

“It is easy to conceive that the pains which immediately succeeded were intolerable; the ropes, which were of a small size, cut through the prisoner’s flesh to the bone, making the blood to gush out at eight different places thus bound at a time. As the prisoner persisted in not making any confession of what the inquisitors required, the ropes were drawn in this manner four times successively.

“The manner of inflicting the second torture was as follows: they forced his arms backwards so that the palms of his hands were turned outward behind him; when, by means of a rope that fastened them together at the wrist’s, and which was turned by an engine, they drew them by degrees nearer each other, in such a manner that the back of each hand touched, and stood exactly parallel to each other. In consequence of this violent contortion, both his shoulders became dislocated, and a considerable quantity of blood issued from his mouth.” Read enough? No tribulation for the church?

The Inquisition was especially awful in Spain. In the “Summary” of Chapter 5, Foxe says: “Yet, even in Spain, thus gleaned of all heresy, the Inquisition could still swell its lists of murders to thirty-two thousand! The numbers burned in effigy, or condemned to penance, punishments generally equivalent to exile, confiscation and taint of blood, to all ruin but the mere loss of worthless life, amounted to three hundred and nine thousand. But the crowds who perished in dungeons of torture, of confinement and of broken hearts, the millions of dependent lives made utterly helpless, or hurried to the grave by the death of the victims, are beyond all register.” Tribulation for the church in this world.


But all such persecution is past history, right? Wrong. As recent as August 1997, “The Reader’s Digest” carried a lead article entitled “The Global War on Christians.” The author begins with three specific examples: in China a woman murdered; in Pakistan a man shot, and in Bangladesh a man beaten till his leg was broken. “Their crime? They are Christians. Never before have so many Christians been persecuted for their beliefs.” Mention is made of “torture, enslavement, rape, imprisonment, forcible separation of children from parents.” The two main enemies of believers today are Muslim militants and communist oppressors. But communism collapsed when the Berlin Wall fell, no? Try posing that question to believers in China today.

Tribulation varies with time and place. There are believers in Christ who are suffering great tribulation today, even unto death. Even in “free” United States, incidents appear to be on the increase where individuals get into trouble with the authorities for speaking out in the name of Christ. Also, do not forget that Christian tribulation may be as “simple” as being laughed at. Or, one may lose a job for refusing to lie. Whatever form it takes, God has warned us that persecution and tribulation are part of the Christian walk.

According to the Word of God, tribulation cannot be limited to a seven-year period. According to the Word of God, the church cannot escape tribulation. To teach that tribulation is something in the future after the “rapture,” does not help Christians to understand the true nature of life in Christ. Not till the end of the world and the arrival of the New Jerusalem will saints be free from trials, anguish, tribulation and wrath. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jesus).

(Clarification: Word counts in this article are based on the New King James Version. Other versions may vary.)

(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)