Will true believers be affected by the judgment of the vials and bowls during the Tribulation period or will the judgments only target the ungodly?
The seven golden vials are called the seven last plagues (Rev 15:1) because their outpouring climaxes the physical judgments falling on creation during the seven-year Tribulation period closed by the return of the Lord to earth to claim His throne. The question is whether believers in that age will be exempt from such judgments simply because they are believers.
The answer must be a simple NO! Scripture holds out no such assurance. As earth and those morally identified with its society come under divine judgment, believers living alongside them endure the same general conditions – war, famine, pestilence, and catastrophe. The society of earth is described by the phrase “them that dwell upon the earth” (Rev 3:10) better translated “earth dwellers.” Such are perfectly comfortable with the unrighteous, immoral and licentious rule of the satanic puppets wielding power on earth. The phrase is repeated a number of times in the Revelation as if to emphasize their character. They belong to earth. Believers stand out under such conditions, and draw the spiritual stamina required from trust in the God Who brought the gospel of the Kingdom (Matt 24:14) to them. As a result, they have the knowledge of this God as their shield in such trying times. These believers have the same divine support as believers today; the promises of Scripture, the power of the Spirit, and the presence of the Savior with them. In addition to the physical judgments sweeping over earth, it should also be remembered that these believers also have to face the bitter antagonism of the satanic rulers of that day (Rev 13:7) who are determined to wipe out all testimony for Christ. The situation of the four Hebrew boys facing a furnace under Babylonian conditions paints a prophetic picture of believers in the time of Tribulation.
The question implies an understanding of prophetic truth that may need some clarification. It is suggested that the following be examined with an open Bible.
Truth (1) – The Rapture occurs before the Tribulation. It must be assumed that the questioner knows that the Church will not pass through the Tribulation. The Church age will be closed and every believer from this dispensation of grace will be called to meet their Lord in the air at the Rapture (1Thes 4:13-18). The Rapture, in keeping with the timetable set out in the Seventy Weeks Prophecy of Daniel (Dan 9:25-27), opens a generation (Matt 24:34) that sees the signing of a seven-year peace covenant in Israel which ends with the return of the Lord to set up His Kingdom. This covenant, some years after the Rapture of the Church, marks the reinstallation of Israel in the divine timetable, the opening of Daniel’s seventieth week, and simultaneously the commencement of the Tribulation period that precedes Christ’s return to earth.
Truth (2) – The gospel is preached during the Tribulation. That there will be many believers on earth during the Tribulation period is evident in Scripture. Again, those who in that dark day of severe persecution in the Tribulation, evidence their faith in Christ by their identification with these “brethren” are called “sheep.” The innumerable company who are moving into the millennial kingdom are identified by the elder to the Apostle John as “These are they that have come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb” (Rev 7:9-17). These are living believers (there is nothing about martyrdom in the passage) who have come through the terrible days of the Tribulation and suffered much. They have suffered, not only from bitter persecution of men moved by Satan, but also from the general conditions of the Tribulation. Note the hunger, the thirst, the burning heat and the tears mentioned.
Truth (3) – The fullness of the Gentiles is seen in souls saved in the Tribulation. Scripture (Rom 11:25) makes clear that the Church is not the “fullness of the Gentiles,” or all Israel would be saved when the Church is raptured. This “fullness” is seen at the close of the Tribulation in the innumerable company mentioned (Rev 7:9-17). These are the Gentile fruit of the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matt 24:14) carried across earth by the 144,000 of Israel to announce that coming King. The gospel is the same gospel as we preach, except the emphasis falls on the coming King and Kingdom. To assume that any soul who has heard the gospel in this age will have a second chance in the Tribulation is to go far beyond Scripture. This could be a soul-destroying soporific for a sinner in this gospel age. Clearly these souls in Tribulation days are hearing the glorious message for the first time. Those who repent and believe find peace and joy in Christ.
Truth (4) – Faith does not provide exemption from the Tribulation judgments. God is dealing with a rebellious earth and pouring out judgment upon society to invite repentance (Rev 16:8-11). There is not a single promise guaranteeing believers exemption from the effects of those judgments upon the earth simply because they are believers. Admittedly there are occasions when God deals specifically with the rebels and warns the believers.
Examples of such discrimination are readily found: (a) Under the fifth trumpet (Rev 9:1-12) men fall victim to the painful sting of the locusts while “those with the seal of God in their foreheads” are exempt. These sealed men (Rev 7:1-8:14:1) are specially preserved for a purpose.
(b) Under the first vial judgment (Rev 16:2) “the noisome and grievous sore” affected only those who declared their allegiance to the beast by taking his mark.
(c) When God warns His saints to flee from Babylon lest they share in her physical destruction (Rev 18:4). Such learn to trust their God.
Believers in this gospel age live under somewhat similar conditions. We are privileged to live in an age when God is acting as Savior (1Tim 2:3) yet, because of sin, mankind is subject to danger, disaster, disease, and death. Because we are men we live under the same shadows and there is not a single promise given to us as believers that we are exempt from the ills that beset mankind simply because we are believers. Believers die in aircraft accidents, are swept away in tsunamis, are smitten with cancer, become disabled and die as men die. Yet, in these very circumstances, the believer learns to trust his God, to draw upon divine strength in the hour of need and leave all in the hand of the Father. The Son of God walked on earth with the same confidence (Heb 12:1-3).