The scroll and its seven seals

Revelation chapter 6. The birth pangs of the kingdom of heaven in the 20th century, and the wrath of God in the 21st.

And I looked as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living beings say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse. Its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and intending to conquer.

Of the four gospel writers, only John does not record in his gospel what Jesus revealed about the end of the age in parables and his discourse on the Mount of Olives. The visions in Revelation 6-14 make good the omission. In their plainer language the synoptic gospels help interpret the imagery. The key passage occurs not long before Jesus’ death, when he was asked, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”

The question is in two parts: one concerning when the temple would be destroyed, and the other concerning how his followers would know when his return would be imminent. Jesus answers the first in Luke 21:20-24, a passage not found elsewhere: ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.’ In Matthew and Mark the answer is that persecution at the hands of the Jews will end in their being held accountable for all the innocent blood shed on earth since Creation (Matt 23:34-36), and that this, including, by implication, the destruction of the Temple (Matt 24:1-2), will all happen in their lifetimes. Probably this different answer is displaced, since in Luke it comes much earlier in the narrative (Luke 11:49-51). It is difficult to read any further sayings as an answer to the question. The superficially similar warning about a second ‘abomination of desolation’ in the temple precinct is one element of Jesus’ answer to the second part. It occurs only in Matthew and Mark (though compare Luke 17:31).

The second part was answered on the Mount of Olives – a significant location, because that is where, at the end of the age, Yahweh himself, the Lord God Almighty, will place his feet on the day he intervenes to rescue his people (Zech 14). The things that Jesus said would have to happen first correspond to the events described in Revelation 6, and are foretold in the same order:

Matthew 24,  Luke 21
Revelation 6
 Many will come in my name, saying I am the Christ  1st seal: A rider with a crown, bent on conquest
 Nation will rise against nation  2nd seal: People slay one another
 3rd seal: Staple foods except oil and wine unaffordable
 Famines, earthquakes, disease  4th seal: Killing, famine, disease, beasts
 Followers will be imprisoned and killed  5th seal: People killed for their witness to the gospel
 Signs in the heavens, ‘stars’ falling to the earth  6th seal: Signs in the heavens, ‘stars’ falling to the earth

The first seal is the most difficult to interpret. The rider is a look-alike of Christ riding on a white horse in Rev 19:11, at the end of the period encompassed by the seals. His weapon of war is a bow rather than the two-edged sword of the word of God (Heb 4:12, Eph 6:17, Rev 2:12, 19:15); he is a false Christ, for the true Christ has already conquered (5:4). But what historical figure corresponds to such a person, if indeed only one person is signified?

One possibility is that the vision refers to certain Popes. Examples go back further, but between 1796 and 1870, when the Papal States were subsumed into the new state of Italy, the papacy conducted no fewer than six military campaigns in an effort to increase its power. The story is told in The Pope’s Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican by David Alvarez (2011). According to Catholic doctrine, the Pope is the ‘visible head of the Church on earth, acting for and in the place of Christ’, with ‘full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church’. However, Jesus warned, “Many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and ‘The time is near’.” This suggests false teachers claiming to be incarnations of Christ, which goes further than what any Pope has claimed.

Jesus made no reference to military campaigning, so his warning is less specific than the vision here. He repeats the warning later in the discourse, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect”. Here the prophecy is most relevant to the Jews (Zech 13:3-5, Mark 13:21), who at the end will be expecting their Messiah. Jesus goes into such detail about the future to make clear what must happen first, before his return can be thought imminent. On the one hand he is warning against millenarianism, on the other, against complacency (in the parable about ten virgins). Millenarianism can itself generate false christs and prophets.

The closest match is with a figure in Chinese history, Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty. Hong dreamt that he visited Heaven, where he had a family distinct from his earthly family. The father, wearing a black dragon robe, lamented that men were worshiping demons rather than himself and presented Hong with a sword and golden seal with which to slay the demons; he would also get help from his celestial older-brother. Influenced by Christian pamphlets, Hong came to believe that he was the second Son of God and brother of Jesus, and began to preach about his vision. Over time he attracted a large following, especially among the peasants. He promised social equality and shared ownership of land, and was joined by two gifted military leaders, Yang Xiuqing and Xiao Chaogui, who would sometimes fall into trances and speak in the name of Jesus and the Father. In 1853 his army, led by Yang, captured Nanjing and renamed it Tianjing, ‘The City of Heaven,’ capital of a ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ that covered much of south China. The ensuing civil war was possibly the bloodiest in history, with the number of dead estimated at 10–20 million. In comparison, all other false Messiahs pale into insignificance, with the exception of Simon bar Kochba, leader of a Jewish revolt against the Romans in AD 132.

The mid 19th century was also the time when three philosophers published works that promoted atheistic alternatives to the truth about God. The first was Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, arguing in 1848 that the principal struggle facing man was not that between flesh and spirit, but a struggle between the industrial working class and the bourgeoisie who controlled their lives. The Communist Party would replace the Church, and history would climax with the coming of a classless society, not the kingdom of God. The second was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. He argued that the Genesis account of the origin of the world should be rejected; in the struggle for existence, beneficial chance mutations spread through species through a process of natural selection and in this way life evolved. The third was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, published in 1886, in which he argued that the ‘slave morality’ of Christianity needed to be replaced by a ‘master morality’, inspired by the will to power. God was dead.

As Marx put it, ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Since they rationalised the spirit of the age, their ideas did not remain confined to the philosophical elite, and universities, as they multiplied, did much to propagate them. Catastrophic social revolutions followed: the Russian Communist Revolution in 1917, the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s (with philosophical roots in both Darwin and Nietzsche), and the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living being say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slaughter one another, and he was given a great sword.


“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Since this was a sign that the end was approaching, it implies war on a much larger scale than the conflicts with which Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar, and specifically conflict between states, not civil war. The First and Second World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 are an obvious fulfilment. In the first, some 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died, to say nothing of the wounded or of deaths from disease and famine. In the second, 21–25 million soldiers and 50–55 million civilians died, including 19-28 million from disease and famine. Every town and city has its war memorial. They were instances of ‘total war’, affecting the whole of government, the whole of industry and the whole of society. Although Europe was the main field of conflict, other countries were also sucked in, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean, India, parts of Africa, parts of south-east Asia, the Middle East and Russia. Why would one not regard these wars as fulfilling the prediction? Perhaps because they now seem a long time ago, and in Europe at least we have since enjoyed a long time of peace and security. In retrospect they seem like a false alarm.

When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living being say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse. And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living beings, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

A denarius was typically a day’s wages and would buy around 16 quarts of wheat; barley was about half the price of wheat. Whether because prices had risen or earnings had fallen, basic foodstuffs had become unaffordable. In the context of the Apocalypse, famine is implied, on a catastrophic scale.

Although not unique to the 20th century, catastrophic famines do appear to have been more frequent in that period. Those after the First World War include the following (taken from Wikipedia):

 Year  Region  Deaths
 1921-1922  Russia  5 million
 1921-1922  Tatarstan  0.5–2 million
 1928-1930  China  3 million
 1932-1934  USSR, Ukraine  4.5–8 million
 1936  China  5 million

Over time we forget about such horrors, if we were ever aware of them.

The Great Depression began in the United States following the stockmarket crash of 29 October 1929, and soon spread to other countries. Between 1929 and 1933 worldwide gross domestic product fell by some 15%. By comparison, during the recession after the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 worldwide GDP fell by less than 1%. While prices fell during the depression, so did real income, and unemployment soared (Crafts & Fearon 2010). Drought in the Great Plains of the United States followed, reducing the land to a dust bowl.

In France – the principal wine producer and consumer at the time – prices were depressed by the United States’ prohibition of alcohol from 1919 to 1933. Perfect weather in 1933 produced the biggest grape crop in French agricultural history. Bumper harvests and increasing cultivation in countries beyond Europe also contributed to a glut. ‘Wine production,’ concluded an official in 1939, ‘is in the process of destroying itself by its own excesses’ (Roberto Paxton, French Peasant Fascism, 1997; Pinilla & Ayuda 2007). No information is readily available regarding olive oil.

When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living being say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the beasts of the earth.
Again, famine on a catastrophic scale is implied, here explicitly associated with war and other scourges. Those after the Second World War include the following (taken from Wikipedia):

 Year  Region  Deaths
 1947  Soviet Union  1–1.5 million
 1959-1961  China  15–43 million
 1967-1970  Biafra
 1968-1972  Sahel  1 million
 1974  Bangladesh  Up to 1.5 million
 1984-1985  Ethiopia  400,000
 1991-1992  Somalia  300,000
 1996  North Korea  600,000
 1998-2000  Ethiopia
 1998-2004  Congo  3.8 million
 2005-2006  Niger

Since 1961 most of the famines have occurred in the ‘fourth of the earth’ that is Africa. Some were associated with war and disease, some with destruction of crops by locusts (included in ‘beasts’?). Famines continue to this day, but international and non-governmental agencies have generally become better at delivering relief.

‘Pestilence’ in the Greek is thanatos, the normal word for ‘death’, as in the previous sentence. English has an analogous use of the word in ‘Black Death’, referring to bubonic plague.

So there are four horses. They evoke the vision given to the prophet Zechariah of four chariots emerging from between two bronze mountains. The first was drawn by red horses, the second by black horses, the third by white horses and the fourth by grizzled horses, heading out to the four winds of heaven. Only two directions (relative to Judah) are specified: the chariot with black horses went to the north country, namely Babylonia, followed by the white, and the chariot with dappled ones went to the south country, Egypt. Their function was to patrol the land and report back. All the countries were at rest, and now – with the return of the Jewish exiles – God’s spirit in the north country was at rest.

Do then the four horsemen of the Apocalypse have some geographical bearing? As shown in the table below, the correspondence with the horses in Zechariah, while not exact, is perhaps strong enough to suggest that do. The black horse is associated with the north, though not exclusively. The pale horse is associated with the south. The unspecified directions of the white and red horses are confirmed to be east and west respectively.

 White horse China East False Christ, war 1851-1864
 Red horse Europe West First World War 1914-1918
Europe, USA, Russia, Japan Mainly west Second World War 1939-1945
 Black horse USSR North Famines 1921-1933
China East Famines 1928-1936
USA West Economic depression, famine 1929-1940
Russia, Ukraine North Famine 1947
China East Famine 1959-61
 Pale horse Africa South Famine, war, disease 1967 –

Note that the first two horses both herald war, and the second two both herald famine. They are distinguished as much by where they go as by what they portend. The last rider, Death, and Hades following him are expressly said to have authority over ‘a fourth of the earth’. Hence the order in which the second, third and fourth horses appear may not be of great consequence. The point is that the whole earth is disturbed. The most catastrophic disease in the 20th century was Spanish Flu, which in the three years 1918-1920 killed 50–100 million people worldwide. HIV/AIDS, starting in the Congo in 1960, has claimed more than 30 million lives worldwide. Earthquakes are also included among ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’, but are not expressly associated with the first four seals. Whether they have been more frequent in the last 150 years is impossible to say.

In general, God reserves judgement until the end of a person’s natural life and the end of the age. We are all under sentence of death. Life is given so that we seek and find him, and of our own volition choose good rather than evil. The many acts of temporal judgement on entire cities and nations in the Old Testament – Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), Egypt (Ex 12, 14), the Canaanites (Gen 15:16, Lev 18:25), Israel (II Ki 17) and the neighbours of Israel (Ezek 25-32) – came after wickedness had run its course; society was so corrupt that there was nothing good left in it. They were all illustrations of the final judgement, warning us not to treat God’s mercy and forbearance lightly. In the meantime wars, famines, epidemics and earthquakes happen; they are symptoms of a generally disordered world, and we should be reluctant to characterise any such disaster as a sign of God’s displeasure.

At the end of the age, temporal and eternal judgement both impend (Rev11:18, 14:7) and, just as before the judgement on pharaonic Egypt, judgement is preceded by a series of warnings. In 2016 the late Mark Pilon commented:
The dramatic loss of Christian faith in Europe is historically unprecedented. While some countries are slightly better off than others, the continent as a whole can no longer be described as a Christian civilization. The causes of this loss of faith are numerous – and somewhat mysterious. The consequences are self-destructive and perilous. …
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this radical collapse of Christianity is the fact that it increased rather than reversed or slowed down after two major world wars, especially the Second World War, which devastated most European countries. You might have expected just the opposite effect of that most horrific of wars; that having seen and experienced the devastating consequences of the godless ideology that thrust all of Europe into conflict, the tendency would’ve been to turn back to God as the basis of civilization. Yet just the opposite has taken place.

The kind of Christianity taught in the churches when most people went to church was insufficient to enable them to cope with the horror of these wars. Doubts concerning the fundamental truths of Creation, the existence of Satan, the historicity of the biblical narrative and the ability of God to both determine and foretell the future had initially been resisted, as witness the opposition to the 1860 issue of Essays and Reviews, published one year after The Origin of Species, but by the end of the 19th century they were commonplace, in the Church herself as well as in society. The Church could not understand what was going on when philosophers and scientists posed the age-old question, “Did God really say…?” She did not wish to acknowledge that there even was a distinction between Church and society. Whenever a consensus emerged that what she had routinely commended, on the authority of God’s Word, was in fact wrong, she gave ground, on the authority of those who were in fact her enemies. She wanted peace with society, and to that end continually absorbed its doctrines. Thus when people asked, “How can there be a God in the light of such misery?” the Church had almost nothing to say, not even after the second world war, a war which was even more obviously the consequence of an atheistic, God-hostile understanding of reality than the first.

The wars, the famines, the epidemics were not judgements, any more than the Black Death in the Middle Ages was. They were signs.

Yet more extreme expressions of evil and disorder are to come, presenting even greater challenges to shallow theology. Faith in the goodness of a compassionate God must transcend the horror.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those slaughtered for the word of God and for the witness that they bore. And they cried out with a loud voice, “Master, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who inhabit the earth?” And each was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be fulfilled who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

In contrast to the previous seals, the opening of the fifth seal refers not to a new development but to persecution that has already been going on. The martyrs are described as souls because they have not yet risen. (But to emphasise the obvious, the vision is a dramatisation; in reality – I Thes 4:13 – those who die in Christ sleep, they have no existence as disembodied souls, still less are they confined under an altar.) The altar, not previously seen in the vision, is where the servants of God lay their offerings. What we offer is ourselves, living sacrifices, willing if necessary to die. The ‘brothers’ of those who have borne witness are the Jews (13:10, 17:6).

The Spirit says, ‘Bless those who persecute you. Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” ’ When the prophet Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, lay dying, stoned in the court of Jerusalem’s Temple, he said, “May Yahweh see and avenge!” (II Chron 24:22). When Stephen was stoned to death, he cried, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” But God has said that he will repay. Persecution reaches such a pitch that the patience of the martyrs is exhausted. So it is from the altar that voices cry out, “How long before you judge?”, that a voice instructs the sixth angel with a trumpet to release the plagues that will kill a third of mankind (9:15), and that an angel commands that those who hate God be thrown into the winepress of his wrath. For the Lamb will avenge the blood of those killed because of him (16:5f, 19:2). Voices from the altar affirm the truth and justice of his judgements (16:7).

The Centre for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that since the birth of the Church over 70 million Christians have been martyred. Over half of these were killed in the 20th century under fascist and communist regimes. Since the 1980s the greatest persecutor has been militant Islam. Christians are killed not so often at the hands of the State – though the death penalty is frequently prescribed for conversion to Christianity – as at the hands of a brother or a father who thinks that killing an apostate is a matter of honour (Luke 12:53), or an incensed mob, or suicide bombers at a church service (John 16:2), or in civil war. Contrasting with the courage of the martyrs is the attitude of leaders who, seeing what can happen to those who criticise Islam, choose to appease it, lest criticism cause offence. Everywhere worship of the true God is being closed down – in Europe and the United States voluntarily, as congregations decline, in the rest of the world by force, as the pharaohs of this world illegalise churches.

This is where we are at the present time. We are not at the climax of this hatred, for these wars and natural disasters – the first world war was more than a hundred years ago – are but ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. And then many will fall away, and it will be each other they deliver up and hate. Many false prophets will arise and deceive many. And because lawlessness is increased, the love of the many will grow cold. But if you endure to the end, you will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.”
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”

Such is the nature of sin, good news can seem like bad news, and warnings of impending wrath are as hard to hear as they are to deliver.

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of heaven fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its unripe fruit when shaken by a gale. The heaven disappeared like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place. And the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the mighty, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of his wrath has come, and who can stand?”

‘The great tribulation’ (7:14) is both intensified persecution of the Church and natural disasters coming down from heaven. The events heralded by the seven trumpets in chapters 8 and 9 are omitted, so that we come immediately to the point where the door of salvation is closed (Gen 7:16, Luke 13:25, Matt 24:31). The opening of the seventh seal brings only a period of silence.

The opening of the sixth seal betokens a series of events. (1) An earthquake, coinciding with the darkening of the sun and reddening of the moon, (2) a shower of celestial bodies falling to the earth, followed by darkness, (3) another earthquake, so violent that it flattens mountains, and (4) a recognition that God’s wrath will now be visited on the earth.

The first event recalls the 3 hours of darkness, followed by an earthquake, at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Along with the second event, it takes place just before the resurrection of the dead in Christ. “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt 24:29-31)

In our generation, we understand what it means for ‘stars’ to fall from heaven. In 2005 the United States Congress mandated NASA to detect and track 90% of potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids down to a diameter of 140 metres. So far, more than 2000 near-Earth asteroids have been detected. In 2018 funds were announced for the construction of two southern-hemisphere observatories to search the 30% of space remaining to be surveyed.

Prophecy, however, speaks not of the humanly predictable approach of one stray asteroid, but of a ‘strong wind’ suddenly dislodging many. ‘The powers of the heavens will be shaken’ is an allusion to the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 34:4 (Gk: ‘All the powers of the heavens will melt’, Heb: ‘All the host of heaven will rot away’), which speaks of heavenly bodies falling to earth. A strong wind in outer space could only be a sudden intensification of the solar wind that continually streams from the Sun, a coronal mass ejection of ionised superhot gas, such as the one that erupted from the far side of the Sun on 19 July 2012. Had that side been facing the Earth, the resultant shock wave would have disrupted power grids and knocked out satellites.

“We have been lucky that we have not been hit by a really big event,” says Juha-Pekka Luntama, head of the European Space Agency’s space-weather team. “We will be hit eventually, the question is, when?”

These things were foreseen long ago by the prophets Isaiah and Joel, not as chance events but as the judgement of God. No longer sealed, their words were preserved to the present day so that we, on whom the end of the ages has come, might take heed.

Isaiah spoke of the end in various places:
In that day men will cast away
the idols of their silver and their gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
to the moles and to the bats,
and will enter the caverns of the rocks
and the clefts of the cliffs,
from fear of the Lord and from the glory of his majesty
when he rises to make the earth tremble. … (2:20f)

The windows of heaven are opened,
and the foundations of the earth tremble.
The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is split apart,
the earth is violently shaken.
The earth staggers like a drunkard,
it sways like a hut.
Its transgression lies heavy upon it,
and it falls and does not rise again.
Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed. … (24:18-23)

Draw near to hear, you nations,
and give heed, you peoples!
Let the earth hear, and all that fills it,
the world, and all that comes from it.
For the Lord is enraged against all the nations
and furious against all their host.
He has devoted them to destruction;
he has given them over to slaughter.
Their slain are cast out
and the stench of their corpses rise;
the mountains will dissolve with their blood.
All the host of heaven will rot away
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host will fall,
as leaves fall from the vine
and figs from the fig tree. … (34:1-4)

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley will be lifted up
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground will become level
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed
and all flesh see it together. (40:1-3)
When this passage is read out at Christmas, do we take it in that the mountains will be flattened? Joel speaks of the end in these terms:
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and columns of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the great and terrible day of the Lord. …

Multitudes, multitudes,
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
in the valley of decision.
The sun and the moon are darkened
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The Lord roars from Zion
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.

The culmination of God’s wrath, according to John, is a ‘great earthquake such as there has never been since man was on the earth. … And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found.’ So Isaiah: “I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of host in the day of his fierce anger” (13:13). So too the prophet Haggai, “Yet once, in a little, I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land.” Even the heavens will be shaken, as they were when the windows of heaven were opened once before, at the time of the Flood-Cataclysm.

These are not metaphors. Nor will they be events that one observes on a screen in the comfort of one’s living room.

The opening of the seventh seal brings only a period of silence.