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THEOLOGY > Future > End of the Age > Great Tribulation > Interpretations - Great Tribulation


Interpretations of the Great Tribulation can be grouped into three broad categories: past, present, and future, meaning that the Great Tribulation happened in the past, or it is happening in the present, or it will happen in the future.

Past – This position asserts that the statements of Jesus were fulfilled through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. Modern interpreters as well as some of the early church fathers have embraced this view. In his Ecclesiastical History Eusebius, the ancient church historian, wrote that the words of Jesus came to pass at the time of the Jewish revolt, and during that event Christians fled to the mountains of Pella.

This position relates the tribulation more to the nation of Israel than to the Christian Church; it argues that the emphasis is on the persecution of the Jews by the Romans rather than the persecution of the Church by the world system. And geographically the persecution was confined to the Middle East rather than being spread throughout the world.

In opposition to this equation of the Great Tribulation with events of the past, the question of the meaning of Matt. 24:29-30 and the words of Jesus: “immediately after the tribulation of those days . . . they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” come to the discussion. The Olivet Discourse seems unmistakably to place the Second Coming of Christ “immediately” after “the tribulation of those days.” But it has been 2000 years since the destruction of the Temple, and the Son of Man has not been seen.

Rather than the events of A.D. 67-70 being the total fulfillment of the statements of Jesus, it seems that those events merely anticipate or serve as an example of the greater persecution and destruction at the end-time which will involve all believers and be world-wide in scope. If this is the case, then the words of Jesus may apply in part to the destruction of the Temple, but in a fuller and more complete sense to the events at the end of the age.

Present – According to this interpretation the delineation in the Olivet Discourse describes the general flow of world history and has no eschatological significance. At the end of the age, at the end of history as described by the words of Christ, He will return bringing judgment and salvation. A variation of this position interprets the Olivet Discourse in a spiritual sense, with the passage teaching the ongoing conflict between good and evil; eventually Christ will return insuring the triumph of good over evil.

Future – From this perspective the Tribulation is future, at the end of history as we know it. It will be an unprecedented time of affliction and suffering—no time period has ever been like this future time. The words of Jesus are clear: “for then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be (Matt. 24:21). Forces of evil will be united against the followers of Christ in one final opposition, which will bring persecution and suffering, even martyrdom for those who remain loyal to Christ.

There are verses in Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse that seem to relate uniquely to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Exegetically it is difficult to determine which verses and events relate to the past event and which verses relate exclusively to the future. For this reason some take the approach that there is a two-fold application of the text: a past event which serves as an example of a fuller development in the future. So the text predicts both a lesser event that portents a greater event and the future event is anticipated by the lesser event.

For interpreters who embrace a future time for the Tribulation, two approaches seem to be prominent: one, the period is understood to be the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy (9:24-27) and involves the concept of the seventieth week of Daniel; two, the period is of brief but indeterminate duration; some who accept number two equate it mainly with the Biblical teaching regarding Gog and Magog (see: Ezek. 38-39; Rev. 20). And these two sub-themes can even be merged.

The Great Tribulation will terminate with the return of Christ who will destroy the forces of evil, bring final deliverance to His people, and initiating His earthly rule which will unfold into His eternal reign.

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