Jeremy asks (July 29, 2006), “In the amillennial system, where does the tribulation fit in? Are we living in it now, or will it be a distinct time before the return of Christ?"
This is an important question for several reasons. First, when most people think of the great tribulation, they are thinking of the dispensational idea that at (or about) the time of the Rapture, the world enters a seven-year period of tribulation in which the Antichrist comes to power after the unexpected removal of all believers. The Antichrist then makes a seven-year peace treaty with Israel, only to turn upon Israel after three and a half years, plunging the world into a geo-political crisis which ends with the battle of Armageddon. Dispensationalists believe this is a time of horrific cruelty and that only way to be saved during this period is to refuse to take the mark of the beast, and not worship the beast or his image. The main problem with this interpretation is that it is nowhere found in Scripture.
A second reason why this question is important has to do with the rise of various forms of preterism (full-preterism, which is considered a heresy; and so-called “partial” preterism, which is not) which contend that Christ returned in A.D. 70 to execute judgment upon apostate Israel, the city of Jerusalem, and the Jewish temple and its sacrificial system. Those who hold to the various forms of preterism believe that this great tribulation spoken of by Jesus (Matthew 24:21) has come and gone with the events associated with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans.
In light of the tendency to relegate a time of "great" tribulation to the distant past or imminent future, it is important to survey the biblical teaching in this regard. As we will see, this time of “great tribulation” cannot be tied exclusively to the events of A.D. 70, or to the very end. God’s people may face such tribulation throughout the entire time from Christ’s redemptive tribulation on the cross, until the end of the age.
Virtually all scholars agree that the basis for the three references in the New Testament to a “great tribulation” (Matthew 24:21; Revelation 2:22; 7:14) is Daniel 12:1, which reads: “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”
In Daniel’s prophecy not only is this period of suffering tied to the time of the end (i.e., the mention of the general resurrection in vv.2-3), but the basis for the tribulation God’s people face is their covenant loyalty to God in the face of external persecution (by the state) and false teaching (from within) which causes the apostasy of many within the covenant community (cf. Daniel 11:30-39; 44; 12:10).
The same idea is found in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. Three of the churches mentioned (Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea) are suffering greatly, and two other churches are thoroughly compromised in their witness to Christ (Pergamum and Thyatira). In the light of struggles these churches are experiences, in Revelation 2:22, we read “behold, I will throw her [the woman Jezebel] onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works.” Here, “great tribulation” is meted out upon those in the church of Thyatira who delight in this woman's false teaching. This, the text explains, is a time of "great tribulation" for unbelievers (apostates).
In Revelation 7:14, one of the elders tells John that “these [John sees] are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This refers to the faithful remnant across time who endured the persecution of the world and who have been put to death. Having been given white robes, every tear is wiped from their eyes as they serve in the heavenly temple. They hunger and thirst no more!
In both passages in Revelation then, the idea of a “great tribulation” refers to events occurring at various points between Christ’s own tribulation on the cross and the end of the age. As Beale puts it, “the great tribulation has begun with Jesus’ own sufferings and shed blood, and all who follow him must likewise suffer through it.” Beale goes on to say this is the point of passages such as Revelation 1:9 (where John states he is already a participant in tribulation because he follows Christ); Colossians 1:24; and 1 Peter 4:1-7, 12-13 (cf. G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 433-435).
While Jesus speaks of “great tribulation” in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple--the events of A.D 70 (Matthew 24:21)--in Revelation, John speaks of such periods of “great tribulation” as re-occurring throughout the course of this age, perhaps even intensifying at time of the end.
So, with that in mind, we are now in a position to answer Jeremy’s questions.
1). "Where does the tribulation fit?"
We may face tribulation at any point throughout the course of the interadvental age. In the providence of God, we may even face a time of “great tribulation.”
2). "Are we living in it now?"
Yes and no. While we live in an age where unbelievers and government authorities will attempt to persecute us or deceive us, it is surely not right for me (in answering this question) to compare my current situation (indeed, my life-long situation), with a Christian who lives in Darfur, or in China, or in a Muslim nation. Some of God’s people will face unspeakable rage and hatred throughout this period. Some will be martyred, and many will live in depravation. Others will be spared and prosper greatly. The reason as to why one suffers and another does not, is to be found not in the worthiness of the individual Christian, but in the mysterious providence of God.
3). "Will it be a distinct time before the return of Christ?"
Not in the sense taught by dispensationalists who believe in a seven year tribulation which is tied to the fulfillment of Daniel 9:24-27. I believe this to be a messianic prophecy already fulfilled in Christ. But will there be increasing tribulation (both in intensity and frequency) before the time of the end? I would say that is a real possibility, and that Scripture warns us that we may be called to suffer during a time of "great tribulation", while at the same time encouraging us with God's promise of all-sufficient grace under the most difficult of circumstances.