The “Great Tribulation” Label is a Misnomer

Page 287r: John's Vision of Heaven, Revelation 4:1-11, 5:1-14

The “Great Tribulation” Label is a Misnomer

Misuse of the Label "Great Tribulation"
Daniel's 70th Week ≠ The Great Tribulation
The Souls Under the Altar

Misuse of the Label "Great Tribulation

The term “Great Tribulation” is a label of human construction that is frequently used to represent the time period beginning with the breaking of the 1st Seal (Revelation 6:1) and ending with Christ’s triumph over Satan at the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 19:11-21). This label probably originates from the Olivet Discourse and the multitude in white robes with Revelation 7:14:

Matthew 24:21: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. (KJV) [Emphasis added]

Revelation 7:14: And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (KJV) [Emphasis added]

Unfortunately, the label “Great Tribulation” is a misnomer – an unsuitable name for the designated time period. If we utilize the term “Great Tribulation” as a label for end time events, then we must restrict its use to the time period occurring between the breaking of the 1st Seal (Revelation 6:1) and the breaking of the 6th Seal – the Rapture of the Church (Revelation 6:12-17). This is the time period described within the Olivet Discourse from the coming of false messiahs (1st Sea) to the wars between nations (2nd Seal) to the famines and distress (3rd and 4th Seal) to coming of Christ in the clouds and the gathering of His elect – the Rapture:

Revelation 6:12-17: I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. (a) The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, (b)the whole moon turned blood red, and (c)the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. (d)The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

(e)Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the (f)face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (NIV)

Matthew 24:29-30: “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘(a)the sun will be darkened, and the (b)moon will not give its light; (c)the stars will fall from the sky, and (d)the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time the (f)sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and (e)all the nations of the earth will mourn. (f)They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (NIV)

Joel 2:30-31: (c)(d)I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. (a)The sun will be turned to darkness and (b) the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV) [Emphasis added]

Parallelism between Revelation, Matthew, and Joel:

(a) Sun turn to darkness
(b) Moon turn to blood
(c) Stars fall from the sky
(d) Heavenly bodies shaken
(e) All the nations will mourn
(f) Sight of Jesus Christ

Certainly, many of these signs – sun, moon, sky, and earthquakes – signify a disruption in the cosmic order and may be found in other unrelated passages (Isaiah 13:10, Acts 2:20-21); however, none match so completely and none are sandwiched between the martyred saints under the alter (Revelation 6:9-11) and the multitude of redeemed saints in heaven (Revelation 7:9-17).

The Olivet Discourse DOES NOT include a description of the second half of Daniel’s 70th Week nor does it include the outpouring of God’s wrath upon the earth’s inhabitants (Revelation 8:1-19:21). Using the term “Great Tribulation” to label the entire period between Revelation 6:1 and 19:21 misrepresents the period and confuses important issues.

The “End Times” deals with two separate and distinct entities – redeemed Christians of the Church and remnant Jews of Israel. Although there is some overlap, the Lord is concluding his dealings with an earthly Church and refocusing attention on the promises to Israel. The “End Times” is a period of transition between the old and the new… the Church Age is receding and the Kingdom Age is rising. In order to understand prophetic scripture, the reader must differentiate between the two.

Daniel's 70th Week ≠ The Great Tribulation

In most prophetic commentaries, the label “The Great Tribulation” is used as a synonym for Daniel’s 70th Week, the seven years between the Antichrist’s signing of the covenant with many (Daniel 9:27) and the Christ’s return to take physical possession of His earthly kingdom (Revelation 19:11-21). This is a misrepresentation of the two distinct time periods.

  1. The events depicted in Revelation 4:1-19:21 reflect a transition between the Church Age and the Millennial Age – Kingdom Age. During the Church Age, the primary focus of God’s covenant is on redemption of the Bride of Christ through the sacrifices of Jesus Christ. During the Kingdom Age, the primary focus of God’s covenant will be on the earthly reign of Israel’s Messiah – the Son of David.
  2. Transition periods between ages are typical as the focus of God changes. There were several years (estimates range from 80 to 100 years) from the time Noah was given the command to build the ark and the time the flood came. Israel wondered in the wilderness for forty years before they were permitted to cross into the Promised Land. A period of nearly forty years transpired between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the scattering of the Jews among the nations. Biblical trends suggest that we should also expect a transition from the current age to the next.
  3. One difficulty in understanding the events of this transition is distinguishing between the scriptures pertaining to the church, those pertaining to Israel, and those pertaining to both. Amillennialism asserts that there is no distinction because Israel and the Church merged spiritually following the downfall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. However, this is simply not the case – see “The Church & Israel” section of this study. Examination of the book of Revelation reveals Old Testament references and allusions as well as New Testament references and allusions:
  4. Revelation 5:5: Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals." (NIV)

    Revelation 5:6: Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders… (NIV)

    Revelation 5:5 alludes to the Jewish Messiah, and Revelation 5:6 alludes to the Christian Messiah. Because the Church was a mystery prior to Pentecost, the distinctions are less clear in Old Testament prophecies. Never-the-less, individuals studying end time prophecy must make an effort to distinguish between the Church and Israel else matters become very confusing.

  5. Daniel’s 70th Week (seven years) begins with the Antichrist making a covenant with the many (Daniel 9:27). The Great Tribulation, if we apply that label, begins with the breaking the 1st Seal of the scroll with seven seals. The Great tribulation ends with the Rapture of the Church during the 6th Seal and Daniel’s 70th Week does not end until Christ takes physical possession of the planet. The two events may overlap but they do not share starting or ending points:
    • Scripture clearly indicates that no one except than the Father knows when the events of the end time will begin. Therefore, Satan cannot empower the Antichrist until Jesus Christ breaks the 1st Seal (Revelation 6:1). It is at this time, and only at this time, that the Antichrist begins to rise in power and stature. Certainly, a person capable of fulfilling the role of Antichrist has been groomed by Satan during each generation; however, that individual could never begin to accumulate stature and power until the restraining force is removed (2 Thessalonians 2:7).
    • Once the 1st Seal is broken, then lawlessness becomes unrestrained leading to the various events described within the Olivet Discourse and Revelation 6:1-8: false messiahs, false prophets, war, famine, persecution, wickedness, etc. The term “Great Tribulation” would be an appropriate label for this time period.
    • It is during this time of tribulation that a false messiah acquires stature and power far greater than his competitors – the Antichrist. Eventually, the Antichrist acquires sufficient influence to effect a covenant with many nations (Daniel 9:27).
    • Daniel’s 70th Week begins at the signing of this covenant which takes place several months, if not years, after the breaking of the 1st Seal and the removal of the restraining force. In the middle of that week (three and one-half years later), the Antichrist breaks the covenant to “set up the abomination that causes desolation” (Daniel 9:27). At this point, God’s angels seal the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel whom go into hiding for three and one-half years.
    • The Rapture, the breaking of the 6th Seal, occurs sometime after the Antichrist commits “the abomination that causes desolation” (Matthew 24:15). At this point the “Great Tribulation” ends and the “Wrath of God” begins.

    Much of the Great Tribulation and Daniel’s 70th Week occur over the same time period; however, the two labels are not synonymous. The following chart illustrates how the Great Tribulation and Daniel’s 70th Week overlap but have differing starting and end points:

The Souls Under the Altar

Who are these souls under the altar in Revelation 6:9? As with all scenes within John’s Revelation, scholars disagree as to the meaning of the souls under the altar. Some assert that they are purely symbolic as the “soul” is mortal and will not be resurrected until the end of the Millennium. Others argue that they are the spirits of Christians killed by the Antichrist during the Great Tribulation. Still others claim they represent all of the souls slain for the Word of God, from Abel until the terminal generation. And, still others assert that they represent all redeemed Christians who have died since Christ’s crucifixion until the rapture of the Church.

Revelation 6:9 share the common element of martyrdom with Revelation 7:14, Revelation 17:6, and Revelation 20:4:

Revelation 6:9: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (NIV)

Revelation 7:14: And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (NIV)

Revelation 17:6: I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. (NIV)

Revelation 20:4: …And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

At first glance, it seems that these souls represent only individuals martyred as witnesses under the persecution of the Antichrist and his legions. However, in reality, the Apostle John is utilizing a common figurative language device referred to as a synecdoche – using a part of a thing to represent the whole thing. Examples of synecdoche include:

  • Using the term “England” to represent the entire United Kingdom.
  • Using the phrase “White House” to represent the entire government of the United States.
  • Using the label “ABCs” to represent the entire alphabet.
  • Using the term “bread” to represent an entire meal.
  • Using the phrase “hired hands” to represent workmen.

In John’s case, he uses terms associated with tribulation and martyrdom to represent the entire Church Age and body of redeemed Christians. Some scholars would assert that this claim requires a great departure from a plain, literal interpretation. I agree and, therefore, deem it appropriate to justify such a claim:

THE “GREAT TRIBULATION” LABELS THE ENTIRE CHURCH AGE
AND “MARTYRED SAINTS” REFERS TO ALL REDEEMED CHRISTIANS
.

SATAN HAS BEEN AT WAR WITH THE SAINTS SINCE CHRIST’S RESURRECTION: Revelation 12 provides an overview of the cosmic battle between the forces of evil, the dragon Satan, and the forces of good, Michael the archangel. Prior to Christ’s earthly ministry, Satan appeared before the throne of God in order to accuse mankind (Job 1:6, Job 2:1, Zechariah 3:1, Psalm 109:6, Revelation 12:10). However, Christ’s earthly ministry, His obedient human life, His sacrificial offerings, and His resurrection rendered Satan’s accusations irrelevant – Satan lost his place in heaven and was cast down to earth. See the “Revelation 12” section of this study.

This battle ultimately results in an enraged devil that made war with Jews and Christians for the past two millennia.

Revelation 12:17: Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus. (NIV)

Such expulsion, anger, and war results in significant tribulation for the saints:

1 Peter 5:8: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (NIV)

Revelation 2:10: Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (NIV)

Until Jesus Christ takes physical possession of this world, the saints remain refugees within a world ruled by Satan:

2 Corinthians 4:4: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. (KJV)

2 Corinthians 11:13-14: For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. (KJV)

Ephesians 2:2: Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience… (KJV)

Ephesians 6:12: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (KJV)

JOHN’S REVELATION REASSURES CHRISTIANS FACING TRIBULATION: An original, primary purpose of the book of Revelation was to reassure the early Church community that their tribulation was not in vain. William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, phrases this purpose eloquently:

In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil. It is full of help and comfort for persecuted and suffering Christians. To them is given the assurance that God sees their tears (7: 17; 21: 4); their prayers are influential in world affairs (8: 3, 4) and their death is precious in His sight…1

There is also a clear implication those who inflict such tribulation will be avenged:

Revelation 1:7: Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen. (KJV)

Within the salutation, John clearly indicates that he shares in the congregations’ sufferings:

Revelation 1:9: I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. (KJV)

Messages to four of the churches reflect tribulation within the congregations:

Revelation 2:3-4: I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. (KJV)

Revelation 2:9-10: I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. (KJV)

Revelation 2:13: I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. (KJV)

Revelation 3:9: Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. (KJV)

The need to remain steadfast against tribulation is repeated in all seven messages:

Revelation 2:7: …To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. (KJV)

Revelation 2:11: …He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death. (KJV)

Revelation 2:17: …To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. (KJV)

Revelation 2:25-26: …he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations. (KJV)

Revelation 3:5: He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (KJV)

Revelation 3:12: Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. (KJV)

Revelation 3:21: To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. (KJV)

It is not be difficult to imagine these early Christians seeing themselves among the crowds described in Revelation 6:9, 7:14, 17:6, and 20:4. Christians throughout the age received comfort knowing their suffering was not unique and Christ would be the ultimate victor.

TRIBULATION & MARTYRDOM IS A NORMAL COMPONENT OF CHRISTIAN LIFE: Although Christians living in developed countries generally enjoy religious freedom, such is not the case for those living in non-Christian nations:

The Christian Post, 2012: Christian and Hindu minorities in the region are reported to have suffered forced conversions, as well as having their homes repeatedly ransacked. Other accusations have highlighted that young girls from Hindu and Christian backgrounds have allegedly been forced into marriage by radical Muslims.2

The Catholic Standard and Times, 2008: The secular West has been looking the other way for a very long time. Even the average church-going Christian is not likely to know that 45.5 million of the estimated 70 million Christians who have died for Christ did so in the last century.3

From Stephens martyrdom in Acts 6:8-15 until today, the Christians walk is not always smooth and free of turbulence, suffering, and distress; rather, tribulation should be considered a normal component of Christian life:

Acts 14:22: Confirming the souls of the disciples, [and] exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. (KJV)

John 16:33: These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (KJV)

Romans 5:3: And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope. (KJV)

Within the epistles, the promises of God to punishment those inflicting tribulation parallel that requested by the saints within Revelation 6:10:

Revelation 6:10: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? (KJV)

2 Thessalonians 1:5-6: [Which is] a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer: Seeing [it is] a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you. (KJV)

2 Thessalonians 1:8: In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. (KJV)

Romans 12:19: Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but [rather] give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance [is] mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (KJV)

THE CONTEXT WITHIN REVELATION 20:4-6 IMPLIES THE PRESENCE OF ALL CHRISTIAN SAINTS: If the Rapture of the Church occurs prior to the Millennial Kingdom, and scripture indicates that it does, then the resurrected saints will be present throughout Christ’s Millennial Kingdom:

1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17: For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (NIV) [Emphasis added]

Although not specifically stated, Christ’s presence is directly implied within Revelation 20:4-6:

Revelation 20:5-6: … This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (NIV)

Specifically, the New Testament indicates that true Christians will reign with Christ:

1 Corinthians 6:2: Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? (NIV)

Revelation 2:26: To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations. (NIV)

Romans 8:16-17: The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  (NIV)

Therefore, although not specifically stated, the tribulation saints include all true Christians:

Revelation 20:4-5: I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. (NIV)

In conclusion, while many scholars believe the martyred saints mentioned within the book of Revelation were killed by the Antichrist, a full examination of the context of the book of Revelation and New Testament scripture reveals these martyred saints represent all true Christian saints throughout the age. While it is important to preserve the plain meaning of a passage when possible, it is also important to recognize the use of figurative language within biblical scripture. In this case, the Apostle Paul deploys synecdoche to enable the reader, especially those suffering from persecution, to personally identify with the text and Christ’s eventual victory at His Second Coming.


1William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation, Mobi edition: Baker Books:, July 2007, np.

2Stoyan Zaimov, “Christians Among Minorities Facing Increased Persecution in Pakistan, Say Indian Politicians,” The Christian Post, August 14, 2012. <http://global.christianpost.com/news/ > August 22, 2012.

3Susan Brinkmann, “The Greatest Story Never Told: Modern Christian Martyrdom,” The Catholic Standard and Times, December 5, 2008. < http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/2143770/posts> August 22, 2012.


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