The tribulation is a future seven-year period when God will finish His discipline of Israel and finalize His judgment of the unbelieving world. The church, comprised of all who have trusted in the person and work of the Lord Jesus, will not be present during the tribulation (Got Questions Ministries takes a pretribulational approach to eschatology). The church will be removed from the earth in an event called the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; 1 Corinthians 15:51–53). In this way, the church is saved from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
Throughout Scripture, the tribulation is associated with the day of the Lord, that time during which God personally intervenes in history to accomplish His plan (see Isaiah 2:12; 13:6–9; Joel 1:15; 2:1–31; 3:14; 1 Thessalonians 5:2). It is referred to as “tribulation . . . in the latter days” (Deuteronomy 4:30, ESV); the great tribulation, which refers to the more intense second half of the seven-year period (Matthew 24:21); “a time of distress” (Daniel 12:1); and “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7, NKJV). And we have this description of the tribulation that attends the day of the Lord:
“That day will be a day of wrath— a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness— a day of trumpet and battle cry” (Zephaniah 1:15–16).
The tribulation will be marked by various divine judgments, celestial disturbances, natural disasters, and terrible plagues (see Revelation 6—16). In His mercy, God sets a limit on the duration of the tribulation. As Jesus said, “Those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again. If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive” (Mark 13:19–20).
Daniel 9:24–27 reveals the purpose and time of the tribulation. This passage speaks of 70 weeks that have been declared against “your people.” Daniel’s people are the Jews, the nation of Israel, and Daniel 9:24 speaks of a period of time in which God’s purpose is “to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.” God declares that “seventy sevens” will fulfill all these things. The “sevens” are groups of years, so 70 sevens is 490 years. (Some translations refer to 70 “weeks” of years.)
In Daniel 9:25 and 26, the Messiah will be cut off after “seven sevens and sixty-two sevens” (69 total sevens), beginning with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem. In other words, 69 sevens (483 years) after the decree to rebuild is issued, the Messiah will die. Biblical historians confirm that 483 years passed from the time of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem to the time when Jesus was crucified. Most Christian scholars, regardless of their view of eschatology, have the above understanding of Daniel’s 70 sevens.
God said that 70 weeks had been determined (490 years), but, with the death of the Messiah, we only have 69 weeks accounted for (483 years). This leaves one seven-year period to be fulfilled “to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy” (Daniel 9:24). This final seven-year period is what we call the tribulation—the time when God finishes judging Israel and brings them back to Himself.
Daniel 9:27 gives a few highlights of the final week, the seven-year tribulation period: “[A ruler] will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.” Jesus refers to this passage in Matthew 24:15. The ruler who confirms the covenant and then sets up the abomination is called “the beast” in Revelation 13. According to Daniel 9:27, the beast’s covenant will be for seven years, but in the middle of this week (3 ½ years into the tribulation), the beast will break the covenant, putting a stop to the Jewish sacrifices. Revelation 13 explains that the beast will place an image of himself in the temple and require the world to worship him. Revelation 13:5 says that this will go on for 42 months, which is 3 ½ years (the second half of the tribulation). So, we see a covenant lasting to the middle of the “week” (Daniel 9:27) and the beast who made the covenant demanding worship for 42 months (Revelation 13:5). Therefore, the total length of time is 84 months or seven years.
We also have a reference to the last half of the tribulation in Daniel 7:25. There, the ruler will oppress God’s people for “a time, times, and half a time” (time=1 year; times=2 years; half a time=½ year; total of 3 ½ years). This time of oppression against the Jews is also described in Revelation 13:5–7 and is part of the “great tribulation,” the last half of the seven-year tribulation when the beast, or the Antichrist, will be in power.
A further reference to the timing of events in the tribulation is found in Revelation 11:2–3, which speaks of 1,260 days and 42 months (both equaling 3 ½ years, using the “prophetic year” of 360 days). Also, Daniel 12:11–12 speaks of 1,290 days and 1,335 days from the midpoint of the tribulation. The additional days in Daniel 12 may include time after the tribulation for the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31–46) and time for the setting up of Christ’s millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:4–6).
In summary, the tribulation is the seven-year period in the end times in which humanity’s decadence and depravity will reach its fullness, with God judging accordingly. Also during that time, Israel will repent of their sin and receive Jesus as their Messiah, setting up a time of great blessing and restoration (Zephaniah 2:9–20; Isaiah 12; 35).
More in depth…
The Tribulation is a future time period when the Lord will accomplish at least two aspects of His plan: 1) He will complete His discipline of the nation Israel (Daniel 9:24), and 2) He will judge the unbelieving, godless inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 6 – 18). The length of the Tribulation is seven years. This is determined by an understanding of the seventy weeks of Daniel (Daniel 9:24-27; also see the article on the Tribulation). The Great Tribulation is the last half of the Tribulation period, three and one-half years in length. It is distinguished from the Tribulation period because the Beast, or Antichrist, will be revealed, and the wrath of God will greatly intensify during this time. Thus, it is important at this point to emphasize that the Tribulation and the Great Tribulation are not synonymous terms. Within eschatology (the study of future things), the Tribulation refers to the full seven-year period while the “Great Tribulation” refers to the second half of the Tribulation.
It is Christ Himself who used the phrase “Great Tribulation” with reference to the last half of the Tribulation. In Matthew 24:21, Jesus says, “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall.” In this verse Jesus is referring to the event of Matthew 24:15, which describes the revealing of the abomination of desolation, the man also known as the Antichrist. Also, Jesus in Matthew 24:29-30 states, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days . . . the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.” In this passage, Jesus defines the Great Tribulation (v.21) as beginning with the revealing of the abomination of desolation (v.15) and ending with Christ’s second coming (v.30).
Other passages that refer to the Great Tribulation are Daniel 12:1b, which says, “And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time.” It seems that Jesus was quoting this verse when He spoke the words recorded in Matthew 24:21. Also referring to the Great Tribulation is Jeremiah 30:7, “Alas! for that day is great, There is none like it; And it is the time of Jacob’s distress, But he will be saved from it.” The phrase “Jacob’s distress” refers to the nation of Israel, which will experience persecution and natural disasters such as have never before been seen.
Considering the information Christ gave us in Matthew 24:15-30, it is easy to conclude that the beginning of the Great Tribulation has much to do with the abomination of desolation, an action of the Antichrist. In Daniel 9:26-27, we find that this man will make a “covenant” (a peace pact) with the world for seven years (one “week”; again, see the article on the Tribulation). Halfway through the seven-year period—”in the middle of the week”—we are told this man will break the covenant he made, stopping sacrifice and grain offering, which specifically refers to his actions in the rebuilt temple of the future. Revelation 13:1-10 gives even more detail concerning the Beast’s actions, and just as important, it also verifies the length of time he will be in power. Revelation 13:5 says he will be in power for 42 months, which is three and one-half years, the length of the Great Tribulation.
Revelation offers us the most information about the Great Tribulation. From Revelation 13 when the Beast is revealed until Christ returns in Revelation 19, we are given a picture of God’s wrath on the earth because of unbelief and rebellion (Revelation 16-18). It is also a picture of how God disciplines and at the same time protects His people Israel (Revelation 14:1-5) until He keeps His promise to Israel by establishing an earthly kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6).