How are people saved or born again during the tribulation? That is, for some, a serious dispensationalist problem. Where many end up is having to define a new method of salvation for the tribulation period — martyrdom. But that seems to run afoul of sound theology. Has the Lord now determined that the works of allegiance and martyrdom are adequate for redemption? I think not.
Allegiance is one way that conversion to Christianity happens. It happened to the Philippian jailer as he acknowledged Jesus as Lord. At the same time allegiance is not redemptive. We know that not all who say “Lord, Lord” are His (Mt. 7:21). Redemption has always come to the individual through the cry of faith founded on the work of Christ (past for us, future for Abraham). That grace has been consistent and the Tribulation period should not be seen as anything other than a point on the continuum of history.
That leaves us with two hermeneutical considerations. First what does II Thessalonians 2:7 mean? “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.” The assumption is that the Spirit is removed from the world and, because the Spirit indwells believers, then believers must also be removed from this eschatological judgment.
Yet we know that there will be 144,000 faithful left with a mission. There will be more, and have been, to account for martyrdom. In other words there are believers on the earth, even by traditional dispensational standards, during this time of eschatological judgment. (The historic premill today gets around this with its end-of-trib rapture.) Still the level of martyrdom remains no matter which framework of rapture timing is used.
I find an important considerations here. First, while the Spirit lives in the hearts of the faithful, the functions of the Spirit are not limited to the faithful. The Spirit is at work in the world outside of the church. That seems clear from this and many other passages. A change to one of the Spirit’s functions, conviction of sin (one might here call it that sense of moral duty), does not necessitate the removal of believers from the world. And in fact it does not if, by all premillennial standards, there is redemption during the tribulation period.
This leads us to a second hermeneutical consideration. We understand that where the people of God go, the Spirit goes. When Ezekiel watches as the Spirit, the glory of God, left the temple there was something both figurative and and immediate in his description. God’s Spirit was not at work any more as the people had become unfaithful. He also observed the Spirit moving to the east. What is to the east of Israel? Babylon is to the east. God’s Spirit, though abandoning the work in one area was likewise preparing His people for something in the future. Jeremiah tells us that (29:11, 33:3). He did not abandon and has never abandoned His people (Romans 11:1). It is not just the glory of God departing but also His people going into exile to which Ezekiel refers.
This accounts for the mass martyrdom of Revelation. The world’s believers will suffer under global governments intent on their destruction. Today it is the co-belligerency of a Marxist ideology and Islam. In a couple of generations, should the Lord delay, it may be something else. Still the suffering of believers on a global scale will happen.
Jesus said that the gates of hell would not triumph over the church. Too often that is taken as a triumphalist banner which reflects 19th century postmillennial optimism. Through missions we can conquer the world for Christ. The optimism is good. I have a great confidence in God’s ability to change the world. At the same time I lack a lot of confidence in the church to fulfill its calling. Pastors want nice retirement packages and reasonable salaries. Churches insist on paying people for their service. Building get bigger and bigger. Sermons, while exegetically sound, frequently lack challenge and conviction. (One need not take an offensive revivalist tone in order to confront and challenge.)
That the church will not be defeated by the evil one does not mean that there will not be suffering for the church. The early church saw it. Today’s church sees it, most notably at the hands of ISIS and Boko Haram. But we seem to have made the mistake of thinking the success of a nation’s military in creating security (like the US and other similar nations) means that somehow the church has succeeded in her mission and is secure. Any security we sense today is a gift of God’s grace and not so much a result of the work of the church in triumphing over the world.
— edited to correct the overgeneraliztion of the initial remarks regarding dispensational problems with the method of salvation