Many Christians confuse tribulation and wrath, especially those who have been taught dispensationalism and the pre-trib rapture. While there is general agreement that the Book of Revelation spans seven years, pre-trib proponents believe the entire seven years to be a period of tribulation/wrath, without any distinction between the two. Knowing the difference between tribulation and wrath is key to understanding the events of Revelation.
Defining Terms: Tribulation and Wrath
Before discussing tribulation versus wrath as it pertains to end times, it’s important to first define terms. While it’s important to seek God’s definitions through His word, we’ll first take a look at common usage as per Merriam-Webster, which defines these terms as follows:
- tribulation distress or suffering resulting from oppression or persecution
- wrath 1. strong vengeful anger or indignation (anger aroused by something unjust, unworthy, or mean); 2. retributory punishment for an offense or a crime; divine chastisement
In these definitions, no specific reason is necessary for the oppression or persecution that causes tribulation, whereas wrath is motivated by justice. In other words, a person experiencing tribulation doesn’t do anything to deserve being oppressed or persecuted, but a person on the receiving end of wrath has first committed a transgression that warrants punishment.
In the end times, the definitions of tribulation and wrath don’t suddenly change. Tribulation doesn’t become wrath, somehow merging into it. Rather, as we’ll see in the below Bible verses, tribulation is oppression and persecution that emanates from the wickedness of men’s hearts and spans the first three and a half years when the seven seals are opened; wrath is God’s divine justice and spans the second three and a half years when the trumpets are sounded and the vials poured out upon the earth.
Defining Terms: Elect
A key teaching of dispensationalism is that the physical Jews are God’s elect. This teaching is foundational to the pre-trib rapture stance that also claims a seven-year tribulation. Thus, it’s important also to define the term elect in order to fully understand the rapture and end times. Again, let’s first consult Merriam-Webster for a common usage definition:
- elect (noun) 1. one chosen or set apart (as by divine favor); 2. (plural) a select or exclusive group of people
Holding this definition in mind, we now need to look at verses in the Bible that pertain to the elect in order to understand the term more fully. Given this is a whole discussion in itself, we’ll look at just a few clear verses which show clearly that all those who believe in Christ are the elect of God.
In Paul’s epistle to the Colossians he is writing to saved Christians, referring to them directly as the elect:
Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; (Colossians 3:12)
Reading Isaiah, we see that elect = Israel:
For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. (Isaiah 45:4)
It is clear, however, that physical Israel ≠ the children of promise:
For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. (Romans 9:6-8)
In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul makes it clear that the children of the promise are those in Christ:
And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:29)
Further, Paul clarifies the true meaning of the word Jew:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Romans 2:28-29)
Thus, we can see that neither physical Israel nor physical Jews are considered the elect of God, the inheritors of the promise. Rather, the Bible teaches that the elect are those who have called upon Jesus Christ for their salvation, that is, all those who believe in Him as the Son of God.
A Brief Overview of Tribulation and Wrath
Tribulation begins when Satan and his angels are cast out of heaven after losing the battle with Michael and his angels. In his anger, Satan tries to destroy all of humanity, the inhabiters of the earth.
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Revelation 12:7-9)
Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. (Revelation 12:12-13)
During this time, Satan works through his many deceived and corrupted minions to cause chaos on earth — wars, famine, disease, earthquakes and a great deal of death — causing worldwide suffering, or tribulation.
Close to the mid-point of the seven years, the Antichrist comes to full power; and Satan, working through the Antichrist, focuses his ire on Christians, the saints, in an attempt to kill all of God’s children who have the testimony of Jesus Christ. This is the period referred to as great tribulation. The day of the Lord occurs just after the mid-point of the seven-year period, signifying the end of tribulation and great tribulation, and the beginning of wrath.
Thus, the whole world will go through three and a half years of tribulation and saved Christians will endure a period of great tribulation prior to the day of the Lord. At this point the sun and moon are darkened, Jesus comes in the clouds and the elect are gathered from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. This is what we call the rapture. Although the word rapture is not in the Bible, it stems etymologically from the Medieval Latin word raptura, which means seized or caught up and is equivalent to the Greek word ἁρπάζω (harpazō) which is used in the Bible.
The seventh seal is then opened and, after silence in heaven for about the space of half an hour (Revelation 8:1), God begins to pour out his wrath on the unbelievers for the remaining three and a half years.
To understand the flow of events during tribulation and great tribulation, as well as the timing of the rapture, we must look carefully at Revelation 6 and 7, Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, and 2 Thessalonians 2.
The First Seal: The Antichrist Goes Forth to Conquer
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. (Revelation 6:1-2)
The first seal shows the Antichrist beginning his mission to gain power, although it will be almost three and a half years before he secures total power. Satan’s nature is that he’s a great deceiver and counterfeiter, and the white horse of the Antichrist is a mimicking of Jesus coming on a white horse to the battle of Armageddon at the end of the seven years.
The Second Seal: Wars and Rumors of Wars
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword. (Revelation 6:3-4)
The second seal shows the wars that will break out across the world as Satan attempts to destroy all of humanity. Matthew 24:6 reads: “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” Reading both Mark 13 and Luke 21 we see they each contain parallel verses. Mark 13:7 reads: “And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet.” And Luke 21:9 reads: “But when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by.”
These contrived New World Order wars — such as the current ongoing war of terror — are both a pretext and a prerequisite to the Antichrist heralding “Peace and safety” (1 Thessalonians 5:3) when he ascends to power just prior to the mid-point of the seven-year period.
The Third Seal: Famine and Starvation
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine. (Revelation 6:5-6)
The third seal shows that food prices will rise astronomically since we know from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:2) that a penny at the time of Jesus was equivalent to a day’s wage. This means that we will have to work a full day to be able to buy a single measure of wheat or three measures of barley, an amount of food that’s insufficient to nourish an individual, never mind a family. These exorbitant food prices will lead to great famine throughout the world. This is another attempt by Satan to destroy all of humanity. Cross-reference Matthew 24:7-8: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.” Mark 13:8 echoes this: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows.”
The Fourth Seal: Death in One Quarter of the Earth
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:7-8)
The fourth seal shows great death as the wars and famines take their toll on the earth and people, both being severely weakened and without the natural defenses to resist disease and pestilence (fatal epidemic disease). Again, Matthew 24:7-8: “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.”
The Fifth Seal: Martyrs Appear in Heaven
And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled. (Revelation 6:9-11)
The fifth seal shows the souls of those who have been slain for the word of God — Christians who have been killed for the testimony of Christ. It also shows that, before their blood will be avenged by God’s wrath, even more Christians — their fellowservants and brethren — should be killed as they themselves were. Back to Matthew 24:9-10: “Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.” This follows on directly from the wars, famine, pestilence and earthquakes that bring death to many (seals two, three and four). This is all part of tribulation and not wrath since Satan, working first through man and later the Antichrist, is behind the wars, the famine and pestilence, the death, and the killing of Christians. Thus, Satan is responsible for bringing tribulation upon mankind, and particularly Christians. Whereas it’s God who shall pour out His wrath upon unbelievers.
The abomination of desolation and great tribulation
Reading further in Matthew 24, verses 15-22, we see confirmation that great tribulation comes only after the Antichrist has come to power.
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened. (Matthew 24:15-22)
Verse 21 shows great tribulation, with verse 22 stating explicitly that for the elect’s sake those days are shortened. The saints, the saved, are clearly present during tribulation and great tribulation, otherwise, there would be no need to shorten those days for the sake of the elect.
The Sixth Seal: Sun and Moon Darkened, the Rapture and the Day of the Lord
The opening of the sixth seal is what the saved are looking forward to. All Christians who have survived tribulation and great tribulation can rejoice knowing that their redemption is at hand. For all unbelievers, the sixth seal heralds the great and terrible day of the Lord when he begins to pour out his wrath upon the earth. The sun and moon being darkened is the key to understanding the timing of the rapture and the day of the Lord.
And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? (Revelation 6:12-17)
At this point, we can cross-reference Revelation 6:12-17 with Matthew 24:29-31, Mark 13:26-27 and Luke 25:28 to learn more about the day of the Lord.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31)
Matthew 24:29 is a hugely important verse when it comes to understanding Revelation as it begins with the words: immediately AFTER the tribulation. Next, we see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And after this we see the elect being gathered from the four winds.
Tribulation affects everyone on earth. Great tribulation affects only Christians who are beheaded for the cause of Christ. The sixth seal is both the rapture and the day of the Lord which follows the shortening of the days of great tribulation for the elect’s sake. Mark 13 and Luke 21 also shows these events.
And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven. (Mark 13:26-27)
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. (Luke 21:25-28)
More evidence for the rapture and the day of the Lord being the same
To further situate the rapture and the day of the Lord in the chronology of events, we need to look at 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 clearly shows the rapture and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 explains two things that must happen prior to the day of the Lord — a falling away from God’s word and the revealing of the Antichrist.
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4)
The Bible is very clear about end times chronology. Seals one through six denote the tribulation and span three and a half years. During this period there will be wars, famine, pestilence, death, the abomination of desolation, great tribulation, Christian martyrs, the sun and moon being darkened, and the day of the Lord. Thus, while it is true that “of that day and hour knoweth no man” (Matthew 24:36) and also that “the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2), Christians who have a good grasp of the chronology of end times events won’t be taken by surprise. We might not know the exact day and hour, but we can know and recognize those events that lead up to that moment — that is, the times and seasons which Paul refers to in Thessalonians before stating that for Christians, the children of light, the day of the Lord will not overtake us as a thief.
But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4)
Sealing of the 144,000
Continuing on to Revelation 7, the first half shows the 144,000 Old Testament saints from the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. These saints are being sealed to protect them during their time on earth while God’s wrath is being poured out. Given that God’s children have just left the earth, the 144,000 are being sent to the earth at this time to preach the gospel to the unsaved during the three and a half years of wrath.
The second half of Revelation 7 picks up the narrative of what happens to Christians after the rapture.
After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9-14)
Revelation 7:9 shows a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues standing before the throne. Revelation 7:13 shows this multitude has just arrived with the question “whence came they?” Revelation 7:14 shows an angel explaining that this multitude came out of great tribulation. For a multitude to appear in heaven having just come out of great tribulation the obvious conclusion is that the multitude are Christians and that Christians are, indeed, present on earth during both tribulation and great tribulation.
The Seventh Seal: God’s Wrath
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. (Revelation 8:1-2)
And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound. (Revelation 8:6)
When we come to Revelation 8 we see seven angels being given seven trumpets which they prepare to sound, each one sounding their trumpet as God pours out his wrath over the next three and a half years. The events that occur during wrath are of a completely different magnitude to those that take place during tribulation, since everything that happens during tribulation and great tribulation is the result of Satan’s anger as he works, initially, through man and, latterly, through the Antichrist. However, those things that occur during wrath are beyond the scope of that which Satan has the power to effect.
The Seven Trumpets and Seven Vials
When each of the seven trumpets are juxtaposed with each of the seven vials, there’s a clear connection between the two:
- First trumpet and vial: Hail and fire rain down from heaven (Revelation 8:7) and men are afflicted with grievous sores (Revelation 16:2).
- Second trumpet and vial: A mountain is cast into the sea (Revelation 8:8) and the sea is turned to blood (Revelation 16:3).
- Third trumpet and vial: A burning star falls upon the rivers (Revelation 8:9) and the rivers are turned to blood (Revelation 16:4).
- Fourth trumpet and vial: The sun, moon and stars are smitten (severely damaged) (Revelation 8:12) and men are scorched with great heat (Revelation 16:8-9).
- Fifth trumpet and vial: Smoke and locusts emerge from the bottomless pit (Revelation 9:1-2) and darkness falls upon the earth (Revelation 16:10).
- Sixth trumpet and vial: The four angels are loosed from the Euphrates and with their army of horsemen slay a third of men (Revelation 9:13-15) and the river Euphrates dries up (Revelation 16:12).
- Seventh trumpet and vial: The kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of the Lord (Revelation 11:15) and is heralded by lightnings, voices, thunderings, an earthquake and great hail (Revelation 11:19); and the seventh angel declares “It is done” (Revelation 16:17), which is heralded by voices, thunders, lightnings, a great earthquake (Revelation 16:18) and a great hail (Revelation 16:21).
Armageddon and The Millennial Reign of Jesus Christ
This period of three and a half years ends with the battle at Armageddon, which is followed by Jesus casting both the false prophet and the Antichrist into the lake of fire, while binding Satan in the bottomless pit for one thousand years, the duration of the millennial reign of Jesus Christ on earth. Great voices are then heard in heaven, saying: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15).
At the end of Christ’s millennial reign, Satan is loosed for a little season (Revelation 20:3), in order to deceive the nations once more, gathering them together for the battle of Gog and Magog. Satan is then cast into the lake of fire where the beast (the Antichrist) and the false prophet have been for one thousand years. After this, we see the judgment of the dead, with all those whose names are not found in the book of life being cast into the lake of fire, where Satan, the Antichrist and the false prophet are.
And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:10-15)
The only way we can be sure our names are found written in the book of life is to be born again (John 3:3-6 and 1 Peter 1:23). If you need to know how to be saved or are not sure of your salvation, please read our Salvation page. You’re also welcome to reach out to us via email with any questions you might have and we’ll do our best to help. And please do share this post with others, especially those you know who are not yet saved. Thank you.
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