Revelation 8-9. Fire is cast on the earth, then asteroids, and finally, from below, emerge hordes of demons. Although the gospel is proclaimed to all nations (ch. 7), most people refuse to repent and continue to worship darkness.
‘Yahweh is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him’ (Hab 2:19f, Zech 2:13). The opening of the final seal marks the end of the wrath. But it is also transitional to the start of a new series, the silence broken by ‘sounds’ and the blowing of a trumpet. The nations are soon to know that he is God.
A trumpet was blown when God summoned Israel to meet with him at Mount Sinai. It was not a man-made instrument blown by a man, but a sound from the air, heard above cracks of thunder, in the midst of lightning, thick cloud and erupting fire. Now the whole planet is at the foot of Mount Sinai, while unseen angels prepare destruction, just as they did when God put an end to idolatrous Jerusalem. Six angels passed through the city, beginning at the Temple, and killed whoever did not have a protecting mark on his forehead (Ezek 9). Then another angel, a seventh, took burning coals from between the cherubim under God’s throne and scattered them over Jerusalem (Ezek 10:2), indicating that it was about to be set on fire. The judgement, dated to 586 BC, was a real event, the ashes and arrowheads from which have been excavated. Something similar is now building up, only on a larger scale
The earthly Temple had two altars, made of acacia wood: one for sacrifice, located outside the sanctuary, and one for incense, located within (Ex 40:5). The former was overlaid with bronze, the latter with gold. References to ‘the’ altar (e.g. Matt 23:35) were to the altar for sacrifice, visible to all. A wood fire burned on it continually for burnt offerings. There was also a fire on the other altar, where the high priest burned incense every morning and evening, figuratively sending forth the fragrance of his presence. Once a year the high priest filled a censer with coals from the fire, spread a cloud of incense over the mercy seat and sprinkled it with the atoning blood of a goat. Since Jesus has purchased access to the sanctuary by his perfect, once-for-all propitiation for sin, there is only one altar in heaven. There we offer ourselves as living sacrifices in praise (Heb 13:15), thanksgiving (Ps 116:17) and good works (Rom 12:1, Heb 13:16). It is also where prayers are received, foremost the prayers of all the martyrs (Rev 6:9f), which are now answered.
The ‘celestial bodies’ (stoicheia) are asteroids that break apart and catch fire as they enter the atmosphere. Peter has in mind Isaiah 34:4.
Likewise the testimony of Jesus himself: “They were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building, but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all. So it will be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28f). “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). The image of casting fire on earth is the same as in John’s vision. The fire will be a kind of baptism (Luke 3:16), cleansing the earth in the same way as water cleansed the earth in the days of Noah (I Pet 3:21).
‘The destruction was complete. Walls and floors were blackened or reddened by fire, and every room was filled with fallen bricks, timbers, and household utensils; in most rooms the fallen debris was heavily burnt.’K.M. Kenyon, Excavations at Jericho, 3 (1981)
‘Earth’ (ge, Heb. erets) can mean the whole planet (as in Gen 1:1), the land distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10), a particular land (e.g. Judah, Zeph 1:2f), the surface of the land (Rev 5:13) or the people living on the earth or land (Hab 2:20). In the preamble (Rev 8:5) it denoted the whole planet; here it denotes the land, including the vegetation growing on it (Gen 1:11). ‘A third of the earth’ suggests an intensification of the disasters brought on ‘a fourth of the earth’ in 6:8. The first three trumpets affect, in turn, the land, the sea and the sources of fresh water; the fourth affects earth’s sources of light.
Though divinely willed, the disasters are naturally caused. God is invisible. Since men have not believed what is written about him, he manifests his anger by disturbing the visible realm. Hail and fire were the seventh of the plagues visited upon Egypt prior to the Exodus, when Pharaoh was oppressing God’s people and not allowing them to worship him. Hail denotes a shower of rock, or meteoroids (as in Jos 10:11). Distinct from the hail, fire is here thrown onto entire continents – clearly not lightning, for which there is a separate word. The only conceivable source is the Sun.
In the last decades we have come to understand how fire might be cast on the Earth. For reasons that remain unclear, the Sun’s atmosphere – its corona – is some two hundred times hotter than its surface: at least 1,000,000 degrees C. The corona is thus extremely energetic and continually gives off a wind of superhot plasma – charged particles, electrons and protons that blow through space at speeds up to 1000 km per second. Spurts of such material are called coronal mass ejections. The most violent produce shock-waves capable of disrupting electrical power grids and knocking out satellites, on which the smooth functioning of civilisation now depends. One such ejection, known as the ‘Carrington Event’, occurred in 1859, and caused telegraph systems to fail. Those of May 1921, March 1989 and July 2012 were of similar magnitude (Eastwood et al. 2017).
The aurora borealis – or in the southern hemisphere the aurora australis – is the effect of the solar wind interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. The emerald-dominated ‘rainbow’ around the throne in heaven, it is suggested, emblemises the effect of a coronal mass ejection. The sounds that John heard (v. 5) correspond to the eerie sounds that accompany the most intense manifestations of these lights, and the thunder and lightning will be the effect of the charged material penetrating the troposphere. Typically, aurorae take place much higher in the atmosphere. During the most energetic storms, they can be seen from pole to equator.
Revelation suggests at least two great mass ejections, one occurring at the first trumpet and the second occurring when the fourth bowl is poured on the Sun. Shock waves depress the magnetosphere and impair its ability to deflect the particles, so that their energy heats up the lower atmosphere and scorches the earth. The shock waves also dislodge the near-earth meteoroids that float in space. Hurricanes caused by the sudden heating whip up the sea, batter coastal cities and uproot trees. In the heat, rivers become strings of islands; marshes dry up (Isa 42:15, 50:2); lightning sparks wildfires. The trees and grass stand for vegetation generally, but particularly the seed-bearing kinds that provide food (Matt 13:26): rice, wheat, barley, oats and corn are all forms of grass. Thus famine will be an immediate consequence of the fires and readers should stock up. Vineyards too are parched (Isa 24:7).
The global warming brought about by our profligate consumerism – expressed, not least, in the destruction of the world’s forests – would wreak its own judgement, allowed to run its course. Nearly half the world’s rainforests have been lost since the 1960s, and at the present rate of destruction there will be none left in another sixty years. The solar mass ejections bring to a head, by another mechanism, what we have brought upon ourselves.
The coronavirus was so named because its spikes resembled the ejections of hot gas periodically seen on the corona. It also presages the day. Synthesised in the lab and engineered experimentally to maximise transmissibility, SARS-CoV-2 exposed the hollowness of a civilisation having nothing left to preserve. Mathematical modellers, psychologists and medical scientists whipped up mass panic, and in response, civilisation shut down. Unquestioning electorates gave up their freedoms. “You have saved our lives; we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” Although the vast majority of those infected recovered, who thought about the one who endowed man with his amazing immune system? Even churches shut their doors.
This first trumpet will make it clear to those with eyes to see that the last days have begun. They will urge the world to understand where we are in history and read John’s Apocalypse for themselves, but for the most part the world will not wish to hear. They will be hated because of their message.
An asteroid – larger than a meteoroid – crashes into the sea. sea. In the ages following the Cataclysm such impacts were not infrequent, the most famous being the impact at the end of the Cretaceous period which left a crater 190 km in diameter off the coast of Mexico. It is only recently (Alvarez 1997) that we have acquired the knowledge to understand what Revelation is describing, and acquired the ability to turn it into entertainment. But this will be for real.
As before, ‘blood’ refers either to the carnage or to the colour of a pollutant. The Red Sea is so called because blooms of algae occasionally colour the surface a reddish brown. The first plague to afflict Egypt (in the sense of ‘calamity’) was the turning of the Nile to blood. All its fish died, possibly because of anoxia brought on by a bloom of algae (Humphreys 2003, Trevisanato 2005).
Many terrestrial animals will have already died, but it is marine animals that are specifically mentioned. Like their terrestrial counterparts they have souls. A third of the 50,000 merchant ships on the ocean either sink or become unusable, so that the capacity to transport food, petroleum and other goods across the world is crippled. Many mariners lose their lives, to say nothing of the passengers on cruise ships, or the men that trawl the sea for fish, and countless smaller craft.
The star (aster) is another asteroid, disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers the earth with toxic powder. Rivers and lakes become undrinkable. Human beings die in large numbers, not to mention sheep and cattle. The effect on agriculture is also catastrophic.
The heavens are partly obscured by earth-enveloping clouds of dust, a foreshadowing of the now imminent Day of the Lord, ‘a day of clouds and thick darkness’ (Isa 60:2, Ezek 34:12, Joel 2:2, Amos 5:20, Zeph 1:15). Hebrew has various words for darkness (Isa 8:22-9:2); ‘thick darkness’ (one word in Hebrew) is particularly associated with the dwelling of God and with the final day of reckoning. At Mount Sinai God spoke to the people ‘out of the midst of fire, cloud and thick darkness’ (Ex 20:21, Deut 5:22). In David’s vision ‘he bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet’ (Ps 18:9). Thick darkness was the ninth, penultimate plague of the Exodus, brought about by the eruption of Thera/Santorini. The cause of the darkness this time is inferred to be the dust and vapour thrown into the air by another asteroid, again as happened at the end of the Cretaceous (Vellekoop et al. 2014). Deprived of the Sun’s heat, the earth cools. Murder, looting and rape follow.
The heavens – long a source of wonder, and never more so than in the age of the Hubble Space Telescope – become a source of terror. But the door is not yet closed. As with the thief on the cross, there is yet time to repent.
Each disaster is worse than the one before. Following the last two even birds are rare (Jer 4:25, Zeph 1:3). A carnivore flying above the devastation announces that three woes will precede the full force of God’s wrath. Man’s understanding of reality acknowledges only the natural, and interprets even consciousness, his sense of self and of being alive, as reducible to electricity. He will be made to understand that there exists a supernatural realm, below him if not above.
The ‘star’ here is an angel, long since cast out of heaven, and the spiritual equivalent of a falling asteroid (1:20, 12:9). The abyss (abyssos, lit. ‘bottomless’) is the infernal region called Tartarus (II Pet 2:4), named after the angel that rules it; in Hebrew the region and its ruler are called Abaddon (e.g. Job 31:12). Originally the abyss was a subterranean region of water, called the ‘great deep’. After the Cataclysm, around the end of the aeon called the Hadean, it was filled by the then molten material of the upper mantle, and deviant angels were chained there pending the day of judgement (Gen 6:4, Jude 6). Wherever the gospel transforms society, communication with the abyss is suppressed, but now it is opened up. An eruption of volcanic ash darkens the Sun, Sun, previously darkened for a time by the fourth angel. The locusts emerging from the ash-cloud recall the ninth plague before the Exodus, but these do not eat vegetation; they are invisible demons, with power to torment. Their victims do not acknowledge God and are not supernaturally protected.
The reality of the distinction between saved and unsaved becomes obvious. The 144,000 excepted, those who have the seal of God, his spiritual mark of ownership (II Cor 1:22), are not protected from physical disasters, but they are protected from the demons. The torments of the fifth and sixth trumpets give a foretaste of Gehenna after death, for Gehenna can hardly be less terrible than the torments now inflicted. Nonetheless those tormented will seek death rather than turn to God.
After the destruction of a third of the planet’s vegetation, a third of its marine life and a third of its freshwater life, a third of mankind is killed: a plague more horrific than the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn. At the start we are not told why all this has to be. Now we learn that it is to see whether anything can break the addiction to buying and owning things, and evaluating life in relation to them; whether anything can cause man to see that the good of his soul is not to be found in idols. Prophets explain what the plagues mean. “You knew that your pursuit of pleasure was destroying the planet, yet you carried on, regardless of generations yet unborn. So God is taking away what we human beings cared so little to keep. Do you not see that these plagues were prophesied?” Not all are killed, despite not having the seal of God on their foreheads. Those that remain are more hardened than ever. The word ‘repent’ occurs four times after the letters to the churches, twice here and twice in relation to the bowls of wrath (16:9-11), each time in the negative.
‘The’ demons refers to all demons, including those previously below ground and often unwittingly worshipped. ‘Drug-taking’ translates pharmakeia, the use or dispensing of drugs to induce hallucinations, especially in witchcraft. The taking of mind-altering narcotics frequently leads to demon possession. ‘Sorcery’ or ‘occultism’ would also be a viable translation (Mal 3:5 LXX), and in the modern context might include any technology that transported voices and images into the living room, entertaining and deceiving; for these all come from the ‘ruler of the authority of the air’ (Eph 2:2). The first commandment is to have no other gods before him who made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them. All forms of immorality (murder, fornication, theft, covetousness) proceed out of rejection of the true God, and ultimately to refuse to worship him is to worship other spirits. By this stage they have indeed taken over the world.