The Bible promises a seven-year period of Tribulation on Earth, but the final judgment moment for unbelievers waits for another 1,000 years. So why does God bother with bringing Tribulation on earth? What does it accomplish?
The seven year Tribulation is an important period in God's plan for the earth. We learn of the seven year period of Tribulation and God's purposes in bringing it primarily from the Old Testament prophets, particularly Daniel:
Dan. 9:24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place.
Dan. 9:25 “So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
Dan. 9:26 “Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.
Dan. 9:27 “And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”
In Daniel 9, we learn three important details regarding the coming time of Tribulation. First, we learn that this period of time last one "week" (or literally "seven" in Hebrew). By the context of the historical events described in Daniel 9, it becomes clear that Daniel means a seven-year period of time.
Daniel says a total of seventy "sevens" (i.e., 490 years) have been decreed by God. Based on the timing of events Daniel provides in vs.25-26, we can see that 69 of of the 70 sevens have already transpired, leaving just one seven year period remaining. That remaining seven year period is the period of Tribulation, which has yet to happen.
Secondly, Daniel tells us God designated this period of 490 years for Daniel's "people." In other words, this is a period for Israel. Israel refers to the nation descended from Abraham and bound to the Old Covenant. By these terms, the Church is not "Daniel's people," so the Church is specifically excluded from the events of this 490 year period. This period began in 605 BC before the church was formed, and it was suspended when the Messiah was "cut off." Therefore, the church has never experienced any part of the 490-year period designated for Israel...nor will it ever!
Thirdly, we learn the purposes God has for Israel during this period. In v.24 Daniel says the 490 years were decreed for six reasons:
1. To finish the transgression - to bring Israel's disobedience to the Old Covenant to an end
2. To make an end of sin - to put an end to all sin in the people of Israel (i.e., to glorify Israel)
3. To make atonement for iniquity - to exact a price for Israel's sins under the terms of the Old Covenant
4. To bring in everlasting righteousness - to usher in the Millennial Kingdom on earth
5. To seal up vision and prophecy - to bring to an end all revelation by granting a full knowledge of God
6. To anoint the most holy place - to set up the Millennial Kingdom temple where Christ will reside
Notice that all these purposes and outcomes are focused exclusively on preparing Israel to enter the Kingdom following Tribulation at Christ's Second Coming. This is further confirmation that this period of great distress on the Earth is focused entirely on Israel and not on the church. The extreme nature of the events during Tribulation impact the whole earth, but the intended target is Israel.
We find even more confirmation of this conclusion in Jeremiah's description of the Tribulation, when he labels it a "time of Jacob's (i.e., Israel's) distress:"
Jer. 30:7 ‘Alas! for that day is great,
There is none like it;
And it is the time of Jacob’s distress,
But he will be saved from it.
Tribulation is called a time of Israel's distress, and yet Jacob (i.e., the nation of Israel) will be saved from it. Therefore, the chief purpose of Tribulation is to bring Israel back to the Lord, as Ezekiel teaches:
Ezek. 20:36 “As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you,” declares the Lord GOD.
Ezek. 20:37 “I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant;
Ezek. 20:38 and I will purge from you the rebels and those who transgress against Me; I will bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they will not enter the land of Israel. Thus you will know that I am the LORD.
The Lord promises to bring Israel through a time of judgment and inspection (i.e., passing under the rod) so that He may purge Israel's sin and rebellion thereby bringing them back into the bond of the covenant. The covenant mentioned in this verse is the Old Covenant delivered through Moses.
By the terms of that covenant, Israel must experience 490 years of God's judgment for failing to keep the covenent terms. Tribulation is the final act of that judgment, and it will result in bringing Israel back to the Lord. (You can learn much more about how God accomplishes this miraculous work by taking our Revelation course.)
Having learned the true purpose of Tribulation, we can see why the Church does not experience this period of history when it arrives. Since this period is appointed for Israel, the Church will be removed prior to the beginning of the final seven years of God's judgment. This is why Paul says the Lord will return to remove the church prior to the beginning of the Tribulation:
1Th. 1:10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
You can read more about the nature and timing of the rapture of the Church in our Revelation study and by reading Explaining the Rapture.