The Great Tribulation - Past or Future?

Matthew 24 begins with Jesus saying to his disciples about the temple buildings, "Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” Later, when they are sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask him two questions, "Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus' response is known as the Olivet Discourse, and is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 17 and 21. It is a detailed response, with over 30 signs to look out for. However, the fact that he was responding to two separate questions means there is an inherent ambiguity in his response. Which of the signs relate to the destruction of Jerusalem, as subsequently fulfilled in 70 AD, and which relate to his coming and the end of the age? This ambiguity is further amplified by the possibility of a yet-future invasion and fall of Jerusalem, which some passages seem to imply (e.g. Daniel 9:27, Ezekiel 38-39, Zechariah 14).

Included in this response, Jesus prophesied a time of great suffering. Matthew 24:21-22 says, "For then there will be great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now, or ever will happen. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short". This time is commonly referred to as the 'Great Tribulation', based on the word usage in the King James translation of the bible.

Should we understand this Great Tribulation to have been fulfilled, once and for all, in the events that culminated in the temple destruction of 70 AD? Or is it still to come in the events leading up to the second coming?

According to Jesus in Matthew 24:15, the Great Tribulation begins with a recognisable sign, "So when you see the abomination of desolation – spoken about by Daniel the prophet – standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains…" The Gospels according to Matthew and Mark both emphasise the importance of the reader understanding what is meant by the 'abomination of desolation'. But this sign contains a further ambiguity of its own. The abomination of desolation is prophesied in three places in the book of Daniel, namely 9:27, 11:31, and 12:11. Daniel was written in the 6th century BC, and Daniel 11:1-35 is a very detailed prophecy about events that were fulfilled in the centuries that followed. In particular, verses 21-35 prophesied the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruler of the Seleucid Empire 175 - 164 BC). Daniel 11:31 says, "His forces will rise up and profane the fortified sanctuary, stopping the daily sacrifice. In its place they will set up the abomination that causes desolation". This was fulfilled in 168 BC when Antiochus sacked Jerusalem, desecrated the temple, and stopped the daily sacrifices to Jehovah. Instead, he set up an image of Zeus next to the altar, and forced the Jews to sacrifice a pig to Zeus. So, of the three references in Daniel to the abomination of desolation, this one had already been fulfilled long before Jesus' first coming.

The fact that Jesus spoke of the abomination of desolation as a future event suggests he was referring to Daniel 9:27 and 12:11. But the fulfilment of Daniel 11:31 sets a precedent for what we might expect the future fulfilment to look like. Another way of saying this is that the fulfilment of Daniel 11:31 was a typological fulfilment. The abomination of desolation in 168 BC was a 'type', prefiguring its ultimate fulfilment in the end times. The ultimate fulfilment is known as the 'antitype'. It is also possible there was another 'type' of fulfilment in 70 AD.

Luke 21:20-21 gives a parallel account of the start of the Great Tribulation, "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains…." Does a comparison of this with Matthew 24:15 imply that Jerusalem being surrounded by armies (and the ensuing destruction of the temple) was equivalent to the abomination of desolation? Preterists would say that it does. There is no record of General Titus setting up an idol in the temple and forcing the Jews to sacrifice to it like Antiochus had done. But the Roman destruction of the temple did put a stop to the Jewish sacrifices. Consequently, preterists see no need for a further fulfilment of the abomination of desolation, or of a future Great Tribulation period. But in my opinion, if there was another abomination of desolation in 70 AD, it was merely another 'type', not the 'antitype'.

Daniel 12:11-13 says, "From the time that the daily sacrifice is removed and the abomination that causes desolation is set in place, there are 1,290 days. Blessed is the one who waits and attains to the 1,335 days. But you should go your way until the end. You will rest and then at the end of the days you will arise to receive what you have been allotted.” It is clear to me from its association with Daniel's resurrection in verses 12-13 that the abomination of desolation in verse 11 relates to the end of the age, not to the events of 168 BC, or of 70 AD.

That leaves us to consider the abomination of desolation in Daniel 9:27. This is the most complicated of the three references since it comes in the middle of Daniel's so-called '70th week', the meaning of which is hotly debated. In my section entitled 'The Time if Fulfilled', I have explained how the first 69 of Daniel's 70 'weeks' were fulfilled in the 483 years that started in 457 BC and ended in 27 AD when John the Baptist began to proclaim Messiah's arrival. In Daniel 9:25, the 69 weeks end with the arrival of the Messiah, which happened in 27 AD or thereabouts. Daniel 9:26 then describes an indeterminate period of time after this, during which Messiah is 'cut off' (i.e. killed) and the city (Jerusalem) and the sanctuary (the temple) are destroyed. Daniel 9:27 then says, "He will confirm a covenant with many for one week. But in the middle of that week he will bring sacrifices and offerings to a halt. On the wing of abominations will come one who destroys, until the decreed end is poured out on the one who destroys.” This is Daniel's '70th week'. Based on the precedent of the first '69 weeks', this 70th week represents a further 7 year period. It starts with a covenant being confirmed. At the midpoint (after three and a half years) sacrifices and offerings are brought to a halt, and an abomination is set up which endures until a decreed end is poured out upon the one who destroys.

Despite verse 26, Historicists deny there is any implied break between the 69th and 70th weeks, and consider the 70th week to have been fulfilled between 27 and 34 AD. They understand the covenant to refer to the promised 'New Covenant' (Jeremiah 31:31) and that in verse 27, Jesus is the 'he' who confirms it. They then argue that it was Jesus' death on the Cross in 30 AD (supposedly) that put an end to the Jewish sacrifices, or rather to the need for them. And they argue that during the second half of Daniel's 70th week, i.e. 30-34 AD, the disciples proclaimed the Gospel to the Jews only, Stephen was martyred, Jewish persecution broke out against the Church, and finally God opened the doors for the Gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles. To Historicists, the 70th week of Daniel 9:27 has nothing to do with the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24:21. There are several problems with the historicist view:
1) it overlooks the interval between the 69th and 70th weeks, as implied by verse 26, during which the Messiah is cut off, and the city and temple are destroyed.
2) it places Christ's crucifixion in 30 AD, at the midpoint between 27 and 34 AD. However, Jesus was crucified on Preparation Day before Passover (John 19:14) which was 14 Nissan in the Hebrew Calendar. We also know that it was a Friday (Luke 23:54, John 19:31). Tacitus, the Roman historian, records that Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. Looking at which day of the week 14 Nissan fell on (using reveals the following results:
26 AD - Friday
27 AD - Wednesday
28 AD - Monday
29 AD - Saturday
30 AD - Wednesday
31 AD - Monday
32 AD - Monday
33 AD - Friday
34 AD - Monday
35 AD - Monday
36 AD - Friday
This pinpoints Christ's crucifixion to 14 Nissan 3793, which was 3 April 33 AD in the Roman (Julian) Calendar. So if Daniel's 70th week was from 27 to 34 AD as per the historicist view, the crucifixion did not occur in the middle of it, but rather near the end of it.
3) The time of 'great suffering unlike anything that has happened from the beginning of the world until now', as referred to by Jesus in Matthew 24:21 is clearly the same as that prophesied in Daniel 12:1, 'There will be a time of distress unlike any other from the nation's beginning up to that time'.

In Daniel 9:27, the abomination of desolation happens at the mid-point of the final seven years at the end of the age, when a coming prince agrees to a seven-year treaty but then breaks it.

Was this a fulfilment of the abomination of desolation? Maybe so. But even if it was, it still does not fit the end time context portrayed in Daniel 9 and Daniel 12. If the abomination of desolation had a typological fulfilment in 168 BC, it could have another in 70 AD, and still another ultimate fulfilment in the future.

The Early Church expected the Great Tribulation to come at the end of this present age, during the time of the end time Antichrist. They viewed persecutions, past and present, to be the Church's training for its ultimate test during the persecutions of the end time Antichrist. This was not only the expectation during the Anti-Nicene period when the Church mainly held to a Premillennial end time view. It remained the case after the Church had abandoned Premillennialism in favour of Amillennialism. Saint Augustine wrote, "When I think over events like these it seems to me that no limit can be set to the number of persecutions which the Church is bound to suffer for her training. On the other hand, it is no less rash to assert that there are to be other persecutions by kings, apart from that final persecution about which no Christian has any doubt…That last persecution, to be sure, which will be inflicted by Antichrist, will be extinguished by Jesus himself, present in person. For the Scripture says that 'he will kill him with the breath of his mouth and annihilate him by the splendour of his coming'." (City of God, Bk. XVIII, Chs. 52-53, pp. 837-838).

Writing in the 5th century AD, Augustine's words imply it was universally accepted by the Church of his day that the final persecution under Antichrist was still future and would be brought to an end by the second coming. It is therefore reasonable to infer that the 5th Century Church held a futurist interpretation of the Great Tribulation and of the Book of Revelation.

In the early days of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Protestants began to associate the Antichrist with the Papacy, and the Great Prostitute of Revelation 17 with the Roman Catholic Church. This popularised the historicist interpretation of end time prophecy. According to historicism, Revelation prophetically portrays world events and persecutions that have affected the Church throughout the present Church age.

During the subsequent counter-reformation period, the Catholic Church sought to deflect this Protestant historicist view. Two Spanish Jesuits rose to the challenge. Luis de Alcasar (1554-1613) of Seville proposed a preterist view. 'Preterist' comes from a grammatical word referring to the past. Preterists teach that most end time prophecies, including those in Daniel, in Revelation, and in the Olivet Discourse, have been fulfilled in the distant past, especially in the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Another Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Ribera (1537-1591) of Salamanca, proposed an opposite solution to the problem of historicism. He affirmed the futurist interpretation of end time prophecy, according to which the end time Antichrist was yet to appear and had nothing to do with the Pope.

Since then, each view has evolved further. Today, most preterists are partial-preterists. They assume that most end time prophecies in Daniel, Revelation and the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled in the past, but that the second coming of Christ is still future. Full-preterists believe that the second coming was mystically fulfilled in 70 AD by Jesus coming in judgment against unbelieving Israel, with the Romans acting as the agents of his judgment.

Today, historicism is the main view of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It is not a widely-held view among Evangelicals, but is sometimes intertwined with Postmillennialism.

In the 19th Century, futurism evolved a Dispensationalist branch, and this is currently the most popular view among American Evangelicals. According to Dispensationalism, the Great Tribulation is still future, but the Church will be raptured out of the way before it starts. This is entirely opposite to the futuristic expectations of the early Church, which expected the Great Tribulation to be the Church's hour of greatest testing. Personally, this is what I assume.