Handling Challenges to Revelation 7:9-11
Q: Many believe that the martyrs in Revelation 7:9-11 are those who come to Christ after the Church is raptured ("tribulation saints". How can I counter this?
A: At first, it might seem like I'm not answering your question, but hang in there with me because, in the end, I think the issue here is much larger and more important than it might seem.
I wish there were an easy answer to this, but the answer is a bit more complicated because it requires no less than addressing the larger rapture debate itself. It is very clear that these are martyred saints in heaven, praising God for His sovereignty, and they are unequivocally identified as those who "come out of the great tribulation." Therefore, in order to determine whether they are those who come to Christ before or after the rapture one must determine when the great tribulation occurs. Does it occur before the rapture (as prewrath believes) or after (as pretrib believes)?
It is here that I think arguments like those of Cameron Fultz (Prophecy's Architecture) are very helpful. Cameron argues that we can divide the prophetic scriptures into three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary, depending on how clearly and directly they relate to the timing of the second coming and whether or not the scriptures are in a context that relates directly to the issue.
He argues that building an end-times doctrine is like constructing a building. You start with the most clear, direct scriptures that directly relate to the subject matter (columns and beams), then build on the secondary and tertiary elements like windows, doors, and cosmetic elements in their proper order. If your foundational construction is solid, then all of the secondary and tertiary elements should fit without disturbing the framework.
Not every scripture will bring the same level of clarity to the issue. In fact, some may be quite general or indirect in their reference to end-times events. In understanding any biblical doctrine, one must look at all of the supporting passages to find the standouts. Some scriptures are very explicit (clear and detailed), while others are more implicit (general and suggestive). Some deal directly with the topic, while others mention the subject only in passing or in support of another concept. Clearly, then, there are some passages to which we should assign more importance than others. Those of greater clarity we could call primary and the others secondary. Primary passages are what you need to study to develop the framework of a doctrine. (p. 19)
I love Cameron's book for several reasons. First, it's a terrific text for explaining prewrath exegesis. Many people follow these exegetical rules intuitively, but it's incredibly helpful to hear them spelled out. It also makes explaining this methodology a lot easier. Second, this methodology applies to many things beyond prophecy.