How do you know that all elect believers will not experience death prior to being "taken up" in the rapture?
There is no doubt that many believers will perish during the Great Tribulation period. The souls of those slain, shown to be under the altar following the opening of the Fifth Seal (Revelation 6:9), will be included in that group.
However, it appears that the main resurrection of this specific group of martyrs is shown in Revelation 20:4, which will be after Jesus returns to tread the winepress of God's wrath (19:11-15) and after Satan has been tossed into the Abyss (20:1-3). These martyrs will have maintained their testimony for Jesus and the word of God and will have died in honor. Perhaps this is why they will have a notable and prominent resurrection, apart from when other believers are resurrected and/or raptured.
I believe that the great multitude of believers in heaven in Revelation 7:9 will be those raptured out of the Great Tribulation in the main Rapture event: the Pre-wrath Rapture. I am convinced that this will be soon after the opening of the Sixth Seal (6:12). After describing the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21), Jesus indicated that those days (of great tribulation) would be cut short for the sake of the elect believers; otherwise, none would survive (24:22). This is why the great multitude seen by John will be coming out of the Great Tribulation (Revelation 7:14). For those who are alive at the time, that difficult time of difficulty and duress will be interrupted by the Pre-wrath Rapture.
It will be the events of the Sixth Seal (Matthew 24:29; Revelation 6:12,13) that will signal the imminent Pre-wrath Rapture event (Matthew 24:30,31), thus cutting short the Great Tribulation for elect believers. Those who are caught up will be exempt from having to endure God's wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 5:9,10). This wrath will be forthcoming after the Sixth Seal is opened (Revelation 6:16,17) and will become manifest after the opening of the Seventh Seal, after which the seven trumpet judgments will commence (8:1,2,6).
Paul indicated that not all of us (believers) would "sleep" (die) and that those who were alive would be "changed" (glorified) after the dead believers had been resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:51,52). He reiterated this when he said that, first, those believers who are dead at the coming of the Lord would be raised (resurrected), and then the ones who are alive at that time would be caught up with them into the clouds to be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Revelation 13:1-18 speaks of the threats imposed upon the world by the first and second "beasts" and the image of the first beast. In 13:15, it seems to indicate that anyone who does not worship the image of the beast will be killed, which at face value would seem to include everyone who worships the true God and Jesus the Messiah. Yet, what I interpret this to mean is that a decree will go out requiring everyone to worship the image, with a threat of death if they do not. If one thinks about it, though, completely enforcing this decree in all cases, especially worldwide, would be virtually impossible for any regime.
In ancient Babylon, it was decreed that anyone who did not fall down and worship the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up would die by being thrown into a blazing furnace (Daniel 3:4-6). But the Jews Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship the image (3:12). They knew that God could rescue them from the blazing furnace, which indeed He did (3:17,26-28). Yet there is no indication of how many other Jews in Babylon, if any, were tossed into a fiery furnace. Presumably, it would have been impossible to carry out this decree on a grand scale, due to the lack of manpower to do it.
Interestingly, the image set up by King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1) was 60 cubits high. It also was 6 cubits wide and, presumably, 6 cubits deep. I draw a parallel between this image and the future number of the beast, 666 (Revelation 13:18). As such, I see a correlation between those who did not worship the image in ancient Babylon and those, in the future, who will not worship the image in Babylon the Great (17:5).
Thus, I do not feel that all believers who enter the Great Tribulation period will be killed. Rather, I feel that God somehow will protect and sustain many, possibly most, true believers who enter this period. In many cases, His protection and sustenance probably will be supernatural. They will remain alive until the main Rapture event, which I am convinced will occur soon after the opening of the Sixth Seal.
Many Protestant denominations mistakenly hold to the Pre-tribulation view of the rapture. I absolutely agree that this misconception promotes a false hope. Potentially, it will be very detrimental to those believers who will be here when unexpected and intense persecution begins to take place. I feel that many of these disillusioned people will fall into a state of apostasy, causing them to be willing to accept the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:16-18). (See What could cause the apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2:3?)
The main, Pre-wrath Rapture event will take place just prior to the "day"/year of God's vengeance (Isaiah 34:8, 61:2, 63:4); thus, I feel it will be about a year before Jesus' second advent to earth. Many who are left behind will be saved after the time of the main rapture event. These will be caught up in a Post-tribulation rapture at the time that Jesus makes His descent to earth to destroy all the enemies of Israel (in the winepress of God's wrath) and to set up His Kingdom.
I feel that, prophetically, the information about the seven churches in Revelation 2 & 3 will apply to segments of Christianity at the end of the age, especially to those enduring the Great Tribulation period (see repentance, endurance, and overcoming). The advice and/or admonitions to any one group, as well as the fate of that group, will not necessarily apply to all of Christianity.
For instance, some in the group of Thyatira were told to hold on to what they have until Jesus comes (Revelation 2:25). If they will be holding onto their faith until He comes, then presumably they will be alive when He returns for them.
Another example is the Philadelphian group. There are no faults listed for these believers, while there are for the other groups. It was noted that they had kept His word, not denied His name, and kept His command to endure patiently; as a result, they will be kept from the hour of temptation or trial that will come upon the rest of the world (Revelation 3:10).
Whatever that "hour" of time specifically will beówhether the Great Tribulation period or the day of vengeance period or something elseóis a matter of speculation. Presumably, though, these Philadelphians will be removed, alive, so that they will not have to endure it, or at the very least they will be protected and kept alive through it.
As for the Sardis group, you noted the warning to them to be watchful and to strengthen what is ready to die. They were told to "wake up" and strengthen whatever of their deeds or works that remain, presumably the good ones. Faith without accompanying deeds and works is dead (James 2:14,17,24,26). So it is their deeds and works, not the believers themselves, that are seen to be dying and needing to be strengthened (Revelation 3:2). Without associated actions, their faith would be in question.
Furthermore, they were told that if they did not "wake up," the coming of Jesus would be like a "thief" to them (Revelation 3:3). I believe the "coming" in question is His appearance in the clouds, following the opening of the Sixth Seal, which will herald the onset of the day of the Lord's wrath. This parallels what Paul said about how the day of the Lord would come as a "thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2), but not for those who are not in darkness, who are alert and self-controlled, and who are living their faith (5:4-8).
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