The great tribulation, when it is spoken of in our culture, usually has the referent of Hollywood or the best-selling book series Left Behind. This book series argues what is called, premillenial dispensationalism (a form of ‘futurism’). In this system of theology, it is believed that in the future a rapture will occur, followed by a seven year tribulation period (and subsequently the destruction of the cosmos). It is believed that Jesus, in the Olivet Discourse described such a period of time. Although, Tim Lahaye (co-author of Left Behind) sees the Olivet Discourse as a yet-to-be fulfilled group of prophecies, he admits that Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple at the beginning of the conversation with the disciples:
History records that our Lord’s words [in Matthew 24:1-2] were fulfilled to the letter in A.D. 70. In that year the Roman army under the command of Titus destroyed the city of Jerusalem. Fires raged through the city and in the temple area itself. After the flames burned themselves out, the soldiers saw large amounts of gold had melted and flowed into the crevices of the blocks of the temple. In order to recover the precious metal, the Romans had to take the buildings apart, stone by stone. And so Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled literally; not one stone was left upon another. 
John MacArthur, another well known premillenialist, also agrees that Jesus’ statements were fulfilled in regards to the destruction under the invading Romans in the first century. Not only so, but he can agree that some of the persecution that Jesus spoke of during the discourse may have also taken place at that time in history, however, the “most important aspects of His prophecy were not fulfilled in the destruction in A.D. 70.” Events such as the second coming of Christ, that MacArthur and others believe are tied to this passage, did not come to pass in the first century and therefore must be assumed to be in the future. The great tribulation as described by Christ involves “cataclysm and suffering on a global and cosmic scale,” not merely persecution and destruction of the isolated Jerusalem.
I want to argue that apocalyptic language must be understood from the reference point of the first century rather than from a modern perspective. Cataclysmic statements like the following must not be read with a twenty-first century hearing:
“But in those days, following that distress,” ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 
The section of the Olivet Discourse above uses language that appears to modern readers as speaking of the end of the world. Futurists believe that someday the stars in the sky will literally fall, the moon will lose its glow, the sun will turn black, and that the heavens will shake; all of this will occur as a plain reading of the text indicates. An example of cosmic disturbances (based on Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse), as well as other future terror, is demonstrated in the novel, Left Behind:
“God’s people are in for dark days. Everybody is. I’ve been thinking and praying about what we’re supposed to do as a church between now and the Glorious Appearing.” Chloe wanted to know all about that, so Bruce showed her from the Bible why he believed Christ would appear in seven years, at the end of the Tribulation. “Most Christians will be martyred or die from war, famine, plagues, or earthquakes,” he said. 
The above dialogue between characters Bruce and Chloe demonstrate a futurist understanding of the coming turmoil based on the Olivet Discourse. MacArthur states: “Christ is predicting cosmic signs of some kind—signs so spectacular that no one on earth can possibly miss them.” If this is true, how does this bring hope for our world? If the world is going to go into cosmic chaos, what hope does it have? Will this not lead to a desire for escapism rather than justice for the present creation?
The idea that actual calamities such as those of a plain reading of the text would suggest, cannot be accepted for multiple reasons. First, consider that the language used is typical of that of Old Testament prophets when describing a national crisis. Many examples of this are found in Isaiah. One such example fits the language of the above passage well:
“The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.” 
In the context, this passage suggests an impending national crisis that will come as an act of God’s judgment within history. Many other examples of this can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, not least the prophets. To understand the language of the apocalyptic that is spoken by Jesus, it will be productive to analyze the way in which our society can often describe events. For instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall is something that most would agree was an ‘earth-shattering’ event. Now, suppose that someone read a news article with that language in it, they would not assume that an earthquake had caused the wall to fall down. They would understand the exaggerated metaphor. The same understanding may not be true of someone who two thousand years in the future, read the exact copy of that particular article. Such a person may be inclined to think that a literal earthquake destroyed the Berlin Wall, causing a new political situation to emerge. This is the way that we ought to understand the apocalyptic statements of the prophets, not least, Israel’s final prophet; Jesus of Nazareth. His statements in the Olivet Discourse are not about the end of the world, but a great political/ religious disaster that would emerge when the center of Judaism (the Temple/ Jerusalem) would be destroyed.
Gary Demar, End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Theology (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2001), xi-xxiv.
Tim Lahaye, and Jerry B. Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times?: Current Events Foretold in Scripture…And What They Mean (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1999), 31.
Holy Bible, New International Version, Mark 13:24-25. *Earthquakes are another cosmic action during this time of tribulation (see Matthew 24:7).
Tim Lahaye, and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale, 1995), 418 [emphasis added].
MacArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age, 122.
Scot McKnight, A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in a National Context (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 142.
Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, 43-44.
Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, 44.
Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, 9.