TRIBULATION, THE GREAT (Heb. tsar, narrow, Gr. thlipsis, pressure). The Hebrew word for “tribulation” has a large variety of meanings in the OT, but it usually refers to trouble of a general sort (Ps.13.4). Likewise the Greek word refers to tribulation of a general sort (Matt.13.21; John.16.33). Sometimes this suffering is just the natural part of one’s life (Rom.12.12; Jas.1.27), while at other times it is looked on as a definite punishment or chastening from the Lord for misbehavior (Rom.2.9).

The Great Tribulation is a definite period of suffering sent from God on the earth to accomplish several purposes. According to premillennial eschatology, it precedes the millennial reign of Christ. Postmillennial theology places it at the end of the thousand-year reign of Christ. Amillennial theology places it just before the new heavens and the new earth are brought in. This period of suffering will be unlike any other period in the past or future (Dan.12.1; Matt.24.21 kjv; niv “distress”). See also Eschatology.

TRIBULATION (צַר, H7639, צָרָה, H7650, straits, distress, affliction; θλίβω, G2567, to press together, to oppress; θλι̂ψις, G2568, pressure, oppression, tribulation). Generally, tribulation in the Bible is affliction of one person by another. Clarity requires distinction of the source and object.

Judgmental tribulation.

God may afflict His people for their unfaithfulness. Should Israel sin like the nations it drove out of Canaan, it too would be driven out and scattered among the nations. To Israel God says, “When you are in tribulation, and all these things come upon you in the latter days, you will return to the Lord your God and obey his voice” (Deut 4:30). As the Exile took place, the author of Lamentations complained, “He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation” (Lam 3:5).

Testimonial tribulation.

The unbelieving world, on the other hand, may oppress God’s people on account of their faithful testimony. Anyone who has no root in himself immediately falls away (Matt 13:21). “In the world,” Jesus said, “you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). For His sake “we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” Nothing—including tribulation, distress, or persecution—can separate the true Christian from the love of God (Rom 8:35-39). So Christians are “patient in tribulation” (12:12). John on the island of Patmos shared “the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance” (Rev 1:9). After Paul had been stoned and left for dead at Lystra he returned exhorting the disciples “to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

The “great tribulation.”

Reminiscent of Daniel 12:2, Jesus predicted a “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt 24:21). It includes more intense persecution of God’s people by the anti-Christian forces. To the disciples on the Mount of Olives, Jesus said, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt 24:9). The period also includes acts of God in pouring out His righteous wrath on the ungodly. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Matt 24:29). Such manifestations of divine wrath are described in detail by John in Revelation 6-19. Out of “the great tribulation” comes a multitude seen before the throne of the Lamb (Rev 7:14).

On the identity of the people of God in the great tribulation and the time of the rapture theologians differ. Posttribulationists see the Church continuing on earth to the end of the tribulation when the rapture occurs. Midtribulationalists look for the Church to survive the first half of the tribulation when the rapture takes place. Pretribulationalists anticipate the rapture prior to the tribulation so that the people of God on earth are members of the restored Jewish nation.


E. B. Pollard, ISBE (1939) V, 3010, 3011; L. Duff-Forbes, BDT (1960), 530; H. Schlier, TDNT (1965) III, 139-148.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(tsar, tsar, "staid," "narrow," "pent up"; compare Nu 22:26):

1. In the Old Testament:

2. In the New Testament: