Most Christians recognize just two groups of people in the present time or the end times: the saved and the damned now and later the raptured and "left behind." But Jesus and Bible prophecy do not describe it so narrowly. There will be not just two, but four groups we can fall into for most of the final seven years. Find out what these end time categories are, which one you’ll likely fall into (it’s not what you think), and what to do today to help you make it into the right group later.
Any reader who has tried to understand the Book of Revelation can relate to how lost the book can leave you feeling. Sometimes what you read unavoidably leads you to a very depressing conclusion.
Only 144,000 Saved From the End Times?
For example, I still remember how much my first impression of Revelation's 144,000 bothered me. The 144,000 are introduced right after the description of the 6th seal great global earthquake and the question of “who shall be able to stand?” through it (Rev 6:12-17). The 144,000 are then introduced and sealed by angels with protection (Rev 7:1-8) just before four more trumpets of trouble come. These take the form of various objects from space, like Star Wormwood, which either impact or in other ways violently disturb the earth (Rev 8:1-8:13). It is important to note that this entire series of catastrophes from 6th seal through the 4th trumpet are pretrib, coming before the Rapture or the Great Tribulation do.
At this point you probably see the problem I did. The 144,000 are the only ones mentioned as protected while these earthquakes, meteorites, asteroids, fires, and tsunamis smite the entire earth (Rev 6:12-8:13). Since there are maybe 2.5 billion Christians alive today, 144,000 seemed like a ridiculously small number of people to receive God's protection. How could only 144,000 of those “with the faith/testimony of Jesus” (Rev 12:17=14:12) be protected by God?
And, more to the heart of the matter, what chance do I (or you) have of making it into such a relatively obscure group?
This scenario was certainly hard to accept. I had to force myself to believe what it seemed to plainly say. In fact, I still have an email I wrote to a Christian friend at the time warning him of how important it was to study the Bible for himself as so few were going to make it when the end times come.
Other Groups - Four In All
What I was missing then that I discovered much later was another group encompassing righteous servants of God. This group was less prominent in Revelation and very cryptic. In all, I found four different groups or outcomes that people alive today can find themselves in when Jesus comes back. This was different than the popular Christian teaching that there is just those raptured and those “left behind.”
The four groups that I found are:
- The Marked
- The Martyred
- The Woman
- The 144,000
Let's look at the groups and the misconceptions about them. We'll begin with the clearest groups and finish with the hardest group of the 144,000—the last group I came to understand properly because understanding of the 144,000 depends on nailing the other groups first.
Group #1: The Marked
Revelation 13:16-17 (HCSB) — 16 And he requires everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark: the beast’s name or the number of his name.
The easiest group of all to understand is the one subjected to something that Christians dread: the Mark of the Beast. These are the people who take the Mark of the Beast at the start of the Great Tribulation. When the Antichrist takes power for the final 3½ years, he will turn the world into a completely controlled society. All will be required to worship the Beast and his image or statue (2Th 2:4; Rev 13:15) or be killed. People without the mark will be unable to buy or sell (Rev 13:16-17).
People in this group will have, for whatever reason, missed out on God's escape from the Great Tribulation. They end up “left behind” as the popular phrase goes. We will see later that everyone in the world received a fair warning that this was coming. The people in this group either did not believe it or did not have the faith to take action needed to avoid it. By the time the Antichrist comes on the scene, the delusion that he is God will be so strong that most will be convinced that he is the savior of the world and be willing to worship him and take his mark in exchange for food and safety (Mt 24:24).
Common misconception: Some Christians fear that they can be effectively added to this group accidentally or without their knowledge or permission (much like “friends” can do to us on Facebook). But if you read Revelation 13, a much different picture emerges. The mark is put out by the False Prophet as part of the required worship of the Beast and his image. When you have it, you can buy and sell. When you don't, you cannot. Therefore, it will not be something you do not know you have or do not know about in advance. In fact, there appears to be a plan to torture people who refuse to take it, something that would be wholly unnecessary if the mark could be slapped on people without their consent.
Group #2: The Martyred
Revelation 13:15 (HCSB) — He was permitted to give a spirit to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could both speak and cause whoever would not worship the image of the beast to be killed.
Once the Beast comes to power, people will have only two options: die or comply. The preferable option of escape will be gone once the mark is released. As I explained in a previous article, once you see the mark, it will be too late. You will have to either compromise your principles and take the mark despite you knowing it is wrong, or to face your death as a martyr.
Common misconception: It would seem like you have to be an unwise or disobedient servant of God to end up in the situation where you are killed by the Beast and should lose your reward for this. While it may be true that people who have to face the mark ignored multiple public warnings to arrive at that point (Rev 14:9), thankfully if we read on we find that God does not penalize us so dearly for that:
Revelation 20:4 (HCSB) — Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. ⌊I⌋ also ⌊saw⌋ the people, who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years
The choices and their consequences are pretty clear. If you take the mark you avoid the Beast's death penalty but you will go through the wrath of God when Jesus comes back (Rev 14:10-11). You also miss out on being the bride of Christ ruling in the Kingdom of God during the Millennium. Conversely, refusing the mark and accepting your death may be very hard to face and difficult to do, but it will mean you still make it into the Kingdom when you are resurrected 3½ years later.
Obviously, the best choice would be to flee to safety before the mark is even issued. That brings us to the next group, the one that I overlooked when I first considered the 144,000 the only ones saved.
Group #3: The Woman
The next group is of great interest because, just as we saw with the 144,000 earlier, it plainly receives protection from God during the end times events:
Revelation 12:13-17 (HCSB) — 13 When the dragon saw that he had been thrown to earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child [Jesus]. 14 The woman was given two wings of a great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent’s presence to her place in the wilderness, where she was fed for a time, times, and half a time [3½ years]. 15 From his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river flowing after the woman, to sweep her away in a torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the river that the dragon had spewed from his mouth.
Who is this mystery “woman” that God clearly protects from the Devil's attacks? She is is introduced and portrayed in Revelation 12 in a very convoluted way.
Revelation 12:1-5 (HCSB) — 1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony ⌊as she was about⌋ to give birth. 5 ...she gave birth to a Son—a male who is going to shepherd all nations with an iron scepter—and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.
The Woman starts out in the sky as a clear representation of the constellation Virgo, or the Virgin. The moon and twelve stars at her feet (and her birth of the obvious Messiah man-child) identify her as the righteous of Israel per Joseph's dream of his family (Gen 37:9-10=Rev 12:1). The other reason for this sky scene is because it may be depicting exactly what was in the sky when the Messiah was born.
With the birth of the Messiah, the Woman's true domain is revealed to be the earth; she's not only a literal sign of a woman in the sky. Moving from the birth of the Messiah to the end times (as indicated by Satan's casting down with great wrath), the Woman escapes to the wilderness, by way of two eagle's wings.
Common misconception: Many people when reading about the Woman for the first time come away with the impression that she represents only the modern descendants of Israel. This is understandable given the Woman is tied to Israel through symbolism. To be sure, this thinking is the reason I discounted the Woman as having anything to do with Gentiles and why I was forced to conclude that our only shot of having protection from Wormwood was to be among the 144,000.
However, there is a principle taught throughout the Bible saying that God is not a respecter of persons, or he shows no favoritism (Acts 10:34). He saves both Jew and Greek or Gentile (Rom 1:16). Jesus even healed the Syrophoenician woman after initially rejecting her with the excuse that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mk 7:15). Therefore, there is no problem with the Woman being full of references to Israel; it's normal. Most of the Bible is told through the perspective of Israel and other groups are mentioned often only as they come in contact with her.
Further, bearing out this principle, we read in Joel that "and everyone who calls upon the name of Yahweh shall be saved for there will be an escape for those in Mount Zion" (Joel 2:32 HCSB). Joel's prophecy of the moon turning to blood is a parallel of the 6th seal blood moon event (Joel 2:31=Rev 6:12), caused when planet Wormwood begins to terrorize the earth. Since this threat comes before the Tribulation threat, obviously there would be no Woman left if she was not included in "everyone calling on God" who is protected in Israel. If God plans to protect all those who rely on God from Wormwood, then it makes no sense that he would not do the very same thing for them from the Antichrist threat that follows.
Therefore, we can be sure that if modern righteous Israelites will be brought to safety with miraculous “eagles wings,” then so will righteous Gentiles who have the faith to join with them.
Group #4: The 144,000
Finally we come to the group discussed first earlier: the 144,000.
Revelation 7:2-4 (HCSB) — 2 Then I saw another angel, who had the seal of the living God rise up from the east. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were empowered to harm the earth and the sea: 3 “Don’t harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we seal the slaves of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 sealed from every tribe of the Israelites:
After coming to understanding about the Woman, it now becomes possible to understand the reason for the special protection of the 144,000. Obviously, if their mission were to go to the protected place with the Woman during the end times, then they would not need this special protection. We can be sure they do not go there but stay in the reach of the Beast because of this passage:
Revelation 9:1-3 (HCSB) — 1 The fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth. The key to the shaft of the abyss was given to him. 2 He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft. 3 Then locusts came out of the smoke on to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads [i.e., anyone not the 144,000 (and by extension, the Woman, who is also protected another way)].
The locusts from the abyss are specifically prevented from touching the 144,000 because of their special seal. Obviously if they were all in the wilderness with the Woman, no special command would be needed.
Here's an additional verse that only later did I discover was about the 144,000:
Revelation 12:17 (HCSB) — So the dragon was furious with the woman and left to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and have the testimony about Jesus.
Those who the dragon makes war on are not just normal secular people left behind. These are righteous believers in Jesus just as the Woman also is. Of course, Satan will be unable to touch them, too.
I believe the mission of the 144,000 (along with Elijah) is to warn the world of what is coming (Wormwood and the Great Tribulation) and what to do to escape and to fulfill the prophecy of Jesus that the Gospel of the Kingdom would be preached in the whole world as a witness before the end comes (Mt 24:14). Since the entire world will be under the ruthless totalitarian oppression of the Beast for the last 3½ years before the end, any servants of God would need special protection like the 144,000 will have. In fact, right after the second mention of the 144,000 in Revelation (Rev 14:1-5), we have angels delivering three messages to be preached to the world, starting with the “everlasting Gospel” (Rev 14:6-12). Since God has always delivered his messages to righteous men to then deliver to the rest of the world, I expect the 144,000 will receive the messages from the angels and do just that.
Common misconception: Many take the 144,000 to be a symbolic number, rather than a literal number as I have. It is not hard to imagine why this is given the difficulties already discussed with making sense of the 144,000. If we think they are the only ones saved and we do not understand the Woman, then another way to resolve the dilemma would be to decide that the 144,000 is not to be taken literally. However, given the 144,000 are really just a special group tasked with being witnesses to the Beast's empire and not the only ones saved by far, there is no problem accepting it as a literal number.
On the other hand, there is one passage in Revelation about the 144,000 that is plainly not literal, unlike the majority of the rest of Revelation:
Rev 14:4 (HCSB) — These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.
Right away we have indications that this is allegorical. The Lamb they follow is obviously Christ, not a literal lamb. In modern use virginity can be applied to men, but traditionally and especially biblically only women can have the status of being virgins. (Men don't have hymens.) Plus, sex with women in general does not defile men so that they must completely refrain from it to not be defiled (the context is not immoral or premarital sex but all sex). Instead, the Bible calls sex very good, not a dirty or defiling thing. Obviously, a non-literal spiritual meaning is intended here as well. In the Bible, virginity (2Ki 19:21) is used metaphorically for righteousness while sexual adultery is compared to worshiping idols (Jer 2:20; Rev 2:20-22). Therefore, the meaning of virgin men following the lamb would be righteous individuals who follow the Word of God directly instead of religious systems with man made rules and regulations that depart from the word of God (which are the modern equivalent of man made idol worship that adultery is compared to).
What About the Two Witnesses?
By the way, I count the Two Witnesses (Rev 11) as being in the same group as the 144,000, rather than considering them a fifth group. The Two Witnesses are very similar to the 144,000 in how they have portable standalone protection that allows them to be out in the Beast's kingdom serving as a witness against him. The main difference would be a minor one in that unlike the 144,000, they have a fixed post at Jerusalem.
Another difference is that they are preselected to become martyrs at the end of their testimony, 3½ days before the conclusion of the Great Tribulation on the Feast of Trumpets. Although this sounds like an unattractive end to their witness, for them it will be an honor to be accounted worthy to witness in this way (Act 5:41). Perhaps for this reason also they will have the additional honor of being the first two among the dead in Christ to be resurrected (Rev 11:12).
What To Do Today For End Time Safety
At this point you probably agree that the best hope for most of us is to be part of the Woman. The question then is, how do we make sure we do not miss this group and end up as one of the martyred, or God forbid, the marked?
Years ago, at this point I would have stressed the importance of studying the Bible to be prepared for what is coming including building your discernment to not be deceived in the end. Certainly the warnings in Bible prophecy were not put there to be ignored but to be understood. Are they not there to be followed by God's servants when the time comes?
In recent years, however, I've reconsidered that Bible purpose paradigm. I've come to realize that the Bible or understanding of it cannot possibly be a prerequisite for end time survival. Here's why: First of all, not everyone has a Bible or believes it to be the Word of God containing end time instructions. Further, as we have already touched on, end time Bible prophecy is extremely hard to understand. What's worse, it is never easy to be sure you are right about your understanding or to confirm its correctness.
So why learn and discuss prophecy if it is so problematic? I believe that the study of prophecy (like the study of the rest of the Bible) still lends wisdom and understanding that can help you in your life today and also in the end times. It is beneficial to know ahead of time what is coming so you can prepare mentally and psychologically. But it's simply not necessary, nor can it be, or so many people who doubt the Bible or simply struggle to understand are already lost before the end times come.
These days I have come to see that the important thing for end times survival is not how much of the Bible we understand or how much physical preparation we do, but rather how much we practice two simple things: faith and love.
It's going to take faith to obey God and leave our homes for the faraway safe place of the Woman. It probably will not even look like it's a good idea to go or a good place to go to at the time, much like the Promised Land looked at first to most of the twelve spies (due to the giants there). If we live by trust that God is there and wanting to reward us for seeking him (Heb 11:6) then that faith muscle will be built up and ready for the leap of faith needed to escape Wormwood and the Mark of the Beast.
Practicing the love of our neighbors as ourselves today is another way to have better success in the end times, although in a slightly different way. Loving your neighbor fulfills the law or commandments of God (Mt 7:12; 22:40; Ro 13:8,10; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8), pleasing God just as faith pleases him (Heb 11:6). The elegant part about this is that we do not need a Bible to know that to act with integrity and treat others with love (rather than indifference or judgment) must please the God who made us all; it is logical since we are all children of a God who made us. To act this way wins favor with everyone (Acts 2:47), Bible reader or not; the secular and religious agree on the ethic of reciprocity or Golden Rule, as each calls it, respectively. How this helps us in the end is revealed in the Bible: God will make sure we get help in a time of trouble if we're loving his children or “little ones,” as Jesus called the weak (Ps 37:39; 41:1).
When the end times comes and interrupts us from our normal habit of walking in faith towards God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, whatever deficiencies we have in knowledge, discernment or strength will be compensated for by God. He will make up the difference because we focused on the weightier matters. An emphasis on faith and love rather than doctrine or knowledge is the best way to get God's help to end up in the right group in the end times (and not to mention blessings and peace for today as well).