Revelation 8-9. Fire is cast on the earth, then asteroids. From below emerge hordes of demons. Although the gospel has been declared, most people refuse to repent and continue to worship darkness.
‘Hour’, a pregnant word in Revelation, refers to the ‘hour of trial that is coming on the whole world’ (3:10), the ‘hour of his judgement’ (14:7). Chronologically what should follow is the advent of Christ, so that the opening of the seventh seal marks the completion of the wrath described with the sixth seal. However, this is not described until chapter 19. The hour is split, and a new series introduced which details the great tribulation between the fifth and sixth seals, the silence broken by sounds and thunder.
The whole planet stands before its Maker while unseen angels prepare destruction, just as they did when he put an end to idol-worshipping Jerusalem. In Ezekiel’s vision 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 took burning coals from between the cherubim and scattered them over the city. This was six years before its destruction. The angels dramatised the fact that the ultimate agent of destruction was God, not the army whose arrowheads archaeologists have recently been unearthing from the ashes. Something similar is now building up, only on a larger scale.
The earthly Temple had two altars: one for sacrifice, located outside the building, and one for incense, located within (Ex 40:5). They were made of acacia wood, the former 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 inner altar, where the high priest burned incense morning and evening, figuratively sending forth the fragrance of the presence of God. Once a year, on the day of atonement, he filled a censer with coals from the fire, spread a cloud of incense over the mercy seat and sprinkled it with goat’s blood. Since the sacrifice of Christ’s own blood, there is only one altar in heaven, the altar of gold. 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 the martyrs.
The celestial bodies (stoicheia) are asteroids that break apart and catch fire as they enter the atmosphere. Peter has in mind Isaiah 34:4, echoed again in Revelation 6:13f.
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)
The trumpet that sounded when God summoned Israel to meet with him at Mount Sinai was not a man-made instrument blown by a man. It sounded from above, amidst cracks of thunder, lightning, thick cloud and erupting fire. Whether the sound this time will be audible is not stated; possibly it will.
‘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 in 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 to all seven trumpets it signifies the whole planet; here in verse 7 the focus is on the land, especially its trees and its grass (chortos, as in Gen 1:11 LXX). ‘A third of the earth’ suggests an intensification of the disasters brought on a fourth of the earth in 6:8; some of the trees perish, but the grass everywhere is consumed. The first four trumpets affect in turn the land, the sea, the sources of fresh water and the atmosphere: the entire biosphere.
A proximate natural cause does not exclude an ultimate supernatural cause. Though willed by God, the disasters are natural phenomena. Since men have not believed what is written about him, the invisible power on the throne manifests his anger by touching what is visible. Hail and fire were the seventh of the plagues (in the sense of ‘calamity’ – plege literally means “stroke” or “blow”) visited upon Egypt before the Exodus. Hail denotes a shower of rock and, where the context mentions fire but rules out rocks ejected from a volcano, suggests blazing meteoroids (as in Jos 10:11). However, the fire here is thrown onto entire continents: clearly not lightning, for which there is a separate word. The only source of fire external to the planet is the Sun.
In recent decades we have come to understand how fire might be cast on the Earth. For reasons still not understood, 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 sending forth 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 electric power grids and disabling satellites, the things on which the 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, along with its counterpart in the southern hemisphere, is the effect of the solar wind interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere. During the most energetic storms, aurorae – like emerald-dominated rainbows – can be seen from pole to equator, accompanied by eerie sounds (Amery 2021). The thunder and lightning are the effect of the charged particles penetrating much lower than they normally would. That the solar wind could trigger earthquakes was once thought implausible but now has statistical and theoretical support (Chen et al. 2020, Marchitelli et al. 2020), a remarkable validation of the biblical vision.
Revelation suggests at least two great mass ejections, one occurring at the first trumpet, and one 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 asteroids and meteoroids that float in space near the earth. Hurricanes caused by the sudden heating whip up the sea, batter coastal cities and uproot trees. In the heat, lightning sparks wildfires, power cables melt, roads buckle, rivers become strings of islands (Isa 42:15). The trees and grass stand for vegetation generally, but particularly the seed-bearing kinds that provide food; botanically speaking, rice, wheat (chortos in Matt 13:26), barley, oats and corn are all species of grass. So famine will be one consequence of the fires (7:16) and drought another (Joel 1:17-20). Having been forewarned, readers should stock up.
Some of the global warming experienced in recent decades may be due to an increase in solar radiation; most of the rest is due to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Connolly et al. 2021) brought about by our profligate consumerism. Half the world’s rainforests as at 1960 have been destroyed, and at the current rate of destruction there will be none left in another sixty years. In June 2021 temperatures in Canada broke their previous record by 4–11° C, peaking at the village of Lytton at just under 50°; the following day Lytton caught fire. Were it allowed to run its course, the warming would wreak its own judgement. The solar mass ejections bring to a head by another mechanism what we have brought upon ourselves.
The coronavirus was so named (in 1968) because its spikes resembled the ejections of hot gas periodically seen on the Sun’s corona. It too presages the day. SARS-CoV-2 came as a bolt out of the blue, but the virus was a natural one modified in the lab so as to maximise transmissibility; man’s God-like ability to re-configure the genetic code was exercised for evil rather than good. As it spread around the world, mathematical modellers, psychologists, medical scientists, journalists, politicians worked together to stoke mass panic, and in response, civilisation shut down, gave its power and authority to ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph 2:2) – surely the reality behind today’s radio, television and internet. Believing the threat to be apocalyptic, electorates surrendered everything, even authority over their bodies. “You have saved our lives; we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” Masks were like spiritual veils, vaccination – injection of the genetic instructions for making the spike protein – like receiving the mark. Although the vast majority of those infected recovered, hardly anyone thought about the one who endowed man with his amazing immune system. Even churches shut their doors.
To those with eyes to see, the first trumpet will make it clear that the hour of trial has begun. They will urge people to understand where we are in history and read the Apocalypse for themselves, but the saints will be hated because of their message. Now justifiably terrified, the State will impose measures even more extreme than those imposed in reaction to the virus. The gospel will be outlawed as needlessly adding to the terror.
The first plague to afflict Egypt was the turning of the Nile to blood. A bloom of red algae caused by the fall-out of nutrient-rich ash from a volcanic eruption – that of Thera/Santorini, or from the Harrat Rahat area east of the Red Sea – consumed the dissolved oxygen in the water, so that all fish died and the water was poisoned (Humphreys 2003, Trevisanato 2005). The Egyptians had to dig for water.
As with the world’s forests, industrial high-tech trawlers have been turning vast areas into ecological wilderness, to say nothing of the pollution from plastic and the cruelty of fish farms. This time the burning mountain is an asteroid, and it does not merely fall, it is actively thrown. Many animals will have already died on land, but John expressly mentions marine animals. Like their terrestrial counterparts they are living souls, more than just highly organised molecules. A third of the 50,000 merchant ships on the ocean either sink or become unusable, to say nothing of cruise ships and smaller craft, and undersea cables. The capacity to transport food, petroleum and other goods across the world is crippled. Many mariners lose their lives. Coastal cities, towns and villages are overwhelmed by tsunamis.
In the ages following the Cataclysm asteroid 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. Only recently have we acquired sufficient geological knowledge to understand what Revelation is describing (Alvarez 1997), and the technological ability to turn it into mass entertainment. But this disaster is for real.
The star (aster), an asteroid or comet, disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers the earth with toxin, possibly some form of cyanide since this is a common constituent of comets. Wormwood is proverbial for bitterness (Jer 9:15 RSV) and the name here prophetic (along the lines of Jer 20:3); it will not be the astronomical name, if it has one. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs become undrinkable. Men and animals die in large numbers.
The specific mention of the sun, moon and stars rather than simply the heaven evokes the fourth day of Creation and thereby underlines the magnitude of what is happening. Partly obscured by earth-enveloping clouds of dust, the heavens foreshadow the coming Day of the Lord, ‘a day of clouds and thick darkness’ (Isa 60:2, Joel 2:2, Amos 5:20, Zeph 1:15). Hebrew has various words for darkness (Isa 8:22-9:2). ‘Thick darkness’ (one word) 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’ (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 penultimate plague of the Exodus, again presumably the effect of an ash cloud. Here, since the first four disasters are all triggered by the solar wind, the cause is probably the dust and vapour thrown up by another dislodged asteroid, this time hitting the land. 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 closed. There is still time to repent.
Each disaster is worse than the one before. Following the last, even birds are rare (Jer 4:25, Zeph 1:3), though eagles will be among the birds feeding on the flesh of God’s enemies when they are defeated (Matt 24:28). One of them flying above the devastation – or perhaps it is an angel? – announces that three woes are yet to precede the full force of his 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, but he will be made to understand that there exists a supernatural realm, below him if not above.
Stars in the visible world (8:12) correspond to angels in the invisible; also to the host of the redeemed, who will be like angels when they are glorified (Gen 15:5, Job 38:7, Dan 12:3, Luke 20:36, Rev 1:20). The star here is an angel long since cast out of heaven. The abyss (lit. “bottomless”) is the infernal region called Tartarus, in Hebrew Abaddon (Job 31:12). It connects with the surface world through a volcanic shaft (as indicated by the furnace simile, cf. Exod 19:18). Volcanic ash renews the darkness of the fourth trumpet.
Originally the abyss was a subterranean region of water, called the great deep (Gen 1:2 and 7:11, LXX abussos). After the Cataclysm, around the end of the aeon called the Hadean, it was filled by the newly molten material of the upper mantle, and deviant angels were confined 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. The locusts emerging from the smoke recall the eighth plague before the Exodus, noxious examples of the insects created on the fifth day of Creation, but these do not eat vegetation (grown back since the first trumpet); they are invisible demons, with power to torment.
The reality of the distinction between saved and unsaved becomes apparent. Those who have the Holy Spirit, God’s seal of ownership (II Cor 1:22), are not protected from physical disasters but are protected from the demons. The torments of the fifth and sixth trumpets give a foretaste of Gehenna (Matt 13:42), which will certainly not be less terrible than the torments about to be inflicted. Nonetheless those tormented will seek death rather than turn to God, and call on the name of his son to drive away the demons.
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, on top of the throng, too great to number, that dies from hunger and thirst (7:9). 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, his stewards, cared so little to keep. Do you not see that these calamities 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, each time in the negative.
‘The’ demons refers to all demons, including those previously below ground and those unwittingly worshipped as gods, whether in Africa, Asia or the atheistic West. ‘Drug-taking’ translates pharmakeia, in the ancient world the use or dispensing of drugs to induce hallucinations or abortions. The taking of mind-altering narcotics frequently leads to demon possession. ‘Sorcery’ or ‘occultism’ would also be a viable translation, and in the modern context might include any technology that transports voices and images into the living room, entertaining and deceiving; for these too come from the prince of the authority of the air. 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) are symptoms of alienation from 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.