What is the Great Tribulation

By John Fulton

“Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”

(Revelation 7:13-14, NASB)

What is the Great Tribulation mentioned here? If you’re a Protestant from America after the Civil War, the answer is simple. The Great tribulation is the hellish, godless world that follows the removal of Christ’s followers. It is a time when the world goes through a period of intense testing by God and some, somehow, without aid of the Spirit or any Christian witness, come to know God and are saved. These are those who are clothed in white who joint those of God who were raptured out before the Great Tribulation began.

But is this really the Great Tribulation, or is the Great Tribulation something else? Does this narrative fit the context of chapters six and seven of Revelation or the book up to that point? Or is there a different answer? And if a different answer, can that answer bring hope to Christians today?

Chapter six of Revelation begins the breaking of the seals by the Lamb, the one who was slain and now lives and to whom authority to break the seals has been given.

With the first seal comes a white horse and to its rider is given a bow and a crown, and he went out conquering. Who is this character?

  • He has a crown—he has authority to rule.
  • He has a bow—an instrument of war.
  • He rides a white horse. Who rides white horses? If you look at all the paintings from history, kings and lords ride white horses.  

This rider is a ruler, given authority and headship over an army to wage war for the purpose of conquest.

Next comes a red horse. His rider is granted to take peace from the earth so that men would slay one another. He is given a great sword. Now, my Bible has added a helpful heading to tell me this rider refers to war. Yet, a rider with a bow just went out to conquer. Why is he not war, and why is the rider who follows this one and who is granted to kill with the sword not war? Or maybe they are all war, but why mention war three times?

To understand this rider, we must understand how Scripture uses the word “sword” and what his mission is. The purpose of war is to conquer. It is not to take away peace, although that is certainly a byproduct of war. Next, Scripture uses “sword” either to refer to a physical sword or to the tongue—what one says. In context, this rider, through their spoken words, is sowing division and divisiveness through the earth. People take sides and, through the sword of their words, peace is taken from the earth. As the rhetoric heats up, they even come to blows, killing each other. But the slaying does not have to result in physical death. Sharp words driven by a divisive heart cause an emotional, mental death in the target all on their own.

The third seal brings a black horse, and his rider has a pair of scales. A voice says,  “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine” (Revelation 6:6, NASB). Again, my Bible is helpful with an added subheading to tell me this is famine. But again, the next rider after this one is specifically given the power to kill with famine, so why have famine twice? Because this rider is not famine. The key is in “a quart of wheat for a denarius.” A denarius was a day’s wage, and a quart of wheat is enough for about one, maybe two loaves of bread. In other words, everyday basics have become expensive, and inflation is rampant. This rider may bring famine because no one can afford enough to eat, but the rider is not famine. It is run-away costs making the basics of life unaffordable.

Finally comes the ashen horse ridden by the only named rider, Death. He is given power to kill with the sword (armed conflict), famine, and pestilence (disease).

After the four seals are broken, we have a world in which:

  • a spirit of conquest is driving men to conquer each other;
  • a spirit of divisiveness is driving men to sow division by the power of their words leading to the slaying of some and the removal of peace from the earth;
  • inflation has driven basic goods to be very expensive;
  • and war, famine, and disease spreading around the world

Surely the man conquering is Putin, the divisiveness is the division we see in the world today, the pestilence is COVID, and the inflation mentioned is the inflation we are seeing today. Yes? Although this may all be true, like Jesus’ markers to the disciples regarding the end times (Matthew 24), these signs are useless for determining anything. Men have always waged war to conquer each other. The sowing of division and death are as old as time. Basic goods being out of reach has plagued places in the world since time immemorial as well. But for the sake of argument, if present circumstances are somehow unique then according to the logic of popular teaching in the church the Great Tribulation has started and the rapture is over and done with.

But wait, there are still some seals left.

The fifth seal reveals the souls already slain for following God. They are crying to God for Him to avenge their death. But He tells them to wait, for more are yet to experience the same fate as them. These, the common narrative goes, are the raptured saints and those who are saved through the Great Tribulation. But this makes no sense as an answer. Raptured saints will not be slain, their blood will not have been spilled for God. All we have here are those who died holding true to God, and specifically killed because and for holding true to God, asking God for retribution upon their murderers. Instead of God granting them retribution, they are told they must wait. For the witness of those holding true to God to the point of death is not yet done, more must yet die in the same way and for the same reason.

What is the context in which they are holding true to God? It’s the context of the four first seals. Conquest, division, war, famine, and disease rule the world.

Or do they?

The sixth seal is broken, and the sun and moon go dark. Stars fall from the sky, a great earthquake rips the earth and men hide from God and the Lamb. When one reads this they should think of Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37 where the sun, moon, and stars bow down to him, and one should think of the moment when Jesus gave up his spirit Matthew 27 when the great earthquake shook the land and Satan and his angels were cast from Heaven to Earth. They are the sun and moon and stars here. And the men are those who do not adhere to God. They seek whatever means they can to avoid Him, for in their souls they know He is real, and they hate Him. They know His wrath is coming for them because they have persecuted and slain His faithful ones.

Chapter seven is the seventh seal, and it leads up to the Great Tribulation passage. It is too much to be described in detail here but can be summarized as such: God calls for a sabbath from all the destruction so that angels may go out and mark those who are His with the mark of God on their heads and hands so it may be known who will stand before Him.

So now we have the full context of the Great Tribulation.

  • The Lamb, Jesus, has conquered.
  • Through His death He now reigns in Heaven, and Satan, the devil, the dragon of old, has been cast out of Heaven.
  • Men who hate God do all they can to hide from Him and slay those who hold true to Him.
  • Men, driven by the spirit of conquest, conquer.
  • Men filled by the spirit of discord sow division and rob the earth of peace, leading some to slay each other.
  • In it all, basics become expensive, and war, famine, and disease sweep the land.

And here is the Great Tribulation. It falls upon those who believe in God and believe and have faith in the rising of the Lord Jesus and His ruling over all things. How can a good God allow such an evil world to exist? How, if Jesus reigns, can such an evil world exist? If God has sealed me, how can He allow such persecution and pain to fall upon me and others? That is the Great Tribulation of the soul: to follow, adhere to, and know that God is good and that He reigns in a world even He calls “the present evil age.”

Do you not see the story of Job? Satan roams the earth. God has marked Job as a sinner. No wait, not as a sinner, but as a RIGHTEOUS and UPRIGHT man. Job carries the mark of God on his forehead. Satan inspires bad men to conquer his possessions. Satan causes Job’s friends to sow discord and remove peace from Job. Satan brings pestilence upon Job, and Job suffers a great tribulation of his soul, often calling God to the carpet as being not right in what He does. God’s answer, in ways, is very simple. “All I do has a purpose, often one you can’t understand.” In it all, Job acknowledges the greatness and goodness of God and his own limitation to fathom all that God does. He holds true to God even though God authorized Satan to harm him. Yes, God gave Satan permission to bring upon Job tribulation. Yet Job survives his great tribulation and is richly rewarded.

God tells us to love those who hate us and persecute us. His blessings rain down upon the righteous and the unrighteous, the good and the evil. He tells us to do good not just to those who do good to us, but good to all. In our finite understanding, in our pain at being attacked or seeing evil thrive, we struggle. We tell God to smite them and just make the world all good, and we experience tribulations, and it indeed, is great.

We cannot reconcile His reigning and goodness, so we develop theologies that say He doesn’t yet reign. We don’t want to do what He asks or live in hard times for Him, so we imagine the fantasy of a rapture where He just whisks us away, a rapture that is never coming. Or we take upon ourselves the crusade to destroy those He won’t, because surely, He doesn’t want us to love them?

The Great Tribulation is not some future event after a rapture. Just as with God, it was, and is, and will be. Starting at least as far back as righteous Job and flowing through the prophets who argued with God, “I am the only one left who holds to you,” through to today. Those who cling to God in an evil world in which Satan is granted authority to bring tribulation experience the Great Tribulation. Indeed, even Jesus, when He sweated blood and asked the cup to pass (in essence to be raptured) experienced a great tribulation.

Yet, as with Job, as with Jesus, as with Elijah, and a countless cloud of witnesses, a great reward remains for those who hold through their great tribulation till the end. And to Him who can strengthen you to the end, even unto death, be glory and honor and praise, now and forevermore. Amen! Amen! Amen!

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*Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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