Revelation chapter 6. The birth pangs of the kingdom of heaven in the 20th century, and the wrath of God in the 21st.
Of the four gospel writers, only John does not record in his gospel what Jesus said 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, and in their plainer language the synoptic gospels help interpret the imagery. The key passage occurs not long before his death, when he is 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 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 will place his feet on the day he intervenes to rescue his people (Zech 14). Jesus warns, “Many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and ‘The time is near’ ” – false teachers claiming to be either the first or the second incarnation of Christ. There will also be wars. So it has turned out. Jews claiming to be the Messiah have appeared sporadically throughout history, most catastrophically Simon bar Kochba, leader of a revolt against the Romans in AD 132. Wars have also been recurrent. Followers of the true Messiah are not to be deceived or alarmed. These are not even the beginning of the ‘birth pangs’.
|Nation will rise against nation||1st seal: A rider with a crown, bent on conquest|
|… and kingdom against kingdom||2nd seal: People slay one another|
|Famines||3rd seal: Staple foods except oil and wine unaffordable|
|… and earthquakes, and 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. Like Christ in Rev 19:11 at the end of the period encompassed by the seals, the rider is on a white horse; but he wears a stephanos, a victor’s laurel crown or wreath, rather than many diademata, and his weapon is a bow rather than the sword of the word of God (Heb 4:12, Eph 6:17, Rev 2:12). Apart from the bow there is nothing obviously portentous in his manifestation. Some interpret him as an Antichrist figure, but since the other horsemen symbolise disasters, he is unlikely to be a person. Rather, he symbolises an episode of military conquest, and since wars are not always fought with conquest in mind, of empire-building.
In itself, empire-building is not an unusual phenomenon. How far is one to go back? The Russian Empire arose in the 18th century, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, the Mongol Empire, stretching from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. A succession of caliphates ruled the Middle East all the way from the 7th to the early 20th century.
If we accept that the opening of the first seal is no later than the church at Laodicea, then the conquests referred to here are most probably those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historians call the subjugation of North and South America, India, Siberia and Indonesia the first wave of European colonisation. The second was the drive by Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium to conquer almost the entire continent of Africa. In addition, the Russian Empire pressed into central Asia. These countries were all in competition, but rather than fight each other, they sought to increase their military, commercial and industrial might by taking over as many countries as possible outside Europe. Within Europe they protected themselves by a network of alliances. Eventually, the tensions became too great. Austria-Hungary, provoked by the assassination of its heir to the throne, attacked Serbia, and its ally, Germany, attacked Serbia’s ally, France. Within weeks most of Europe, including Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, was at war.
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” This being a sign that the end is approaching, the conflicts imply war on a much larger scale than those with which Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar. 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, fought on land, on the sea, under the sea and even in the air. 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? But they now seem far in the past, and in Europe we have since enjoyed a long time of peace and security. In retrospect they seem like a false alarm.
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 rise or earnings fall, basic foodstuffs become unaffordable. In the context of the Apocalypse, famine is implied on a catastrophic scale.
|1932-1934||USSR, Ukraine||4.5–8 million|
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 resulted in 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, a crop that is also primarily European.
|1947||Soviet Union||1–1.5 million|
|1974||Bangladesh||Up to 1.5 million|
‘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 (not all of them) – 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 whose directions are specified in Zechariah is perhaps strong enough to suggest that they do. The black horse is associated with the north, though not exclusively. The pale horse is associated with the south, and is expressly said to have authority over ‘a fourth of the earth’. The unspecified white and red horses are associated chiefly with the west.
|White horse||Europe||West||Imperial conquest||1875-1914|
|Red horse||Europe||West||First World War||1914-1918|
|Europe, USA, Russia, China, Japan||Mainly west||Second World War||1939-1945|
|USA||West||Economic depression, famine||1929-1940|
|Pale horse||Africa||South||Famine, war, disease||1967 –|
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 nothing good remained 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.
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 did not enable them to cope with the horror of these wars. Initially doubts concerning the fundamental truths of Creation, the existence of Satan, the historicity of the biblical narrative and the ability of God to foretell the future had 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 the Bible, 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. When finally people asked, “How can there be a God in the light of such misery?” the Church had little to say, not even after the Second World War, a calamity even more obviously the consequence of an atheistic, God-hostile understanding of reality than the First World War.
The colonial wars, the world wars, the civil wars, the famines and the epidemics were not judgements. They were signs. In a sense God willed them, for the horsemen come at the command of the cherubim. But the immediate causes are terrestrial and natural.
Yet more extreme expressions of evil and disorder are to come. Faith in the goodness of a compassionate God will be tested but must transcend the horror.
In contrast to the previous seals, the opening of the fifth seal refers not to a new development but to persecution that is ongoing, and not brought on by any command. The martyrs are described as souls because they have not yet risen. (But 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 noticed, is where the servants of God lay their offerings. What we offer is ourselves, living sacrifices, willing if necessary to die. The ‘brothers’ of the martyred Christians 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 requite.” ’ When 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.” 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. God has said that he will repay. He 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. Believers 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), at the hands of 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 see what can happen to those who criticise Islam and 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.
Because of man’s alienation from God, good news can seem like bad news, and warnings of impending wrath are as hard to hear as they are to deliver. They provoke only more hostility.
Later in his discourse on the Mount of Olives Jesus warns, “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”. Although similar to the warning at the beginning of the discourse, these words concern Jews and Christians at the end of the age. False prophets and signs will add to the deception, the tribulation will be intense, and the elect will be desperate for news that the Messiah is coming.
‘The great tribulation’ (7:14) is both intensified persecution of the Church and natural disasters coming down from heaven. The events heralded by the 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 sixth seal betokens a series of events. (1) An earthquake (seismos), 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 wrath will now be visited on the earth.
The failure of sunlight 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 just. “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.” (Matt 24:29-31) ‘Stars’ here denote asteroids, non-luminous bodies visible only with a telescope, not the stars of the Galaxy. The latter will cease to be visible (Isa 13:10) and will disappear progressively, like a scroll being rolled up (Isa 34:4), or as if sackcloth, the garb of lamentation, were drawn over them (Isa 50:3).
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 observatories to survey the space above the southern hemisphere.
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, an 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, not as chance events but as the judgement of God. No longer sealed, their words have been preserved so that we, on whom the end of the ages has come, may take heed.
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. God’s wrath culminates, according to John, with the stars of heaven falling to the earth as the fig tree sheds its unripe fruit when shaken by a gale, and with a ‘great earthquake such as has never been since man was on the earth’.
These are not metaphors. Nor will they be events that one observes on a screen in the comfort of one’s living room.