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.
‘Hour’, a key word in Revelation, refers to the ‘hour of his judgement’ (14:7), the ‘hour of trial that is coming on the whole world’ (3:10). Chronologically what should follow the sixth seal is the advent of Christ, which is not described until chapter 19. The ‘hour’ is split. Separated from the previous seals by chapter 7, the opening of the seventh seal marks both the end of the tribulation and the transition to a new series, the silence broken by ‘sounds’ and the blowing of a trumpet.
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 above, amidst cracks of thunder, lightning, thick cloud and erupting fire. Now the whole planet stands at the foot of the mountain while unseen angels prepare destruction, just as they did when God 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 under God’s throne and scattered them over the city(Ezek 10:2). This was six years before its destruction. The angels dramatised the fact that the ultimate agent of destruction was God, not the army that left their arrowheads among the ashes. 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 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 Jesus has purchased access to the sanctuary by his once-for-all propitiation for sin, 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 (Rev 6:9f).
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 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 the trumpet series (Rev 8:5) it signifies the whole planet; here in verse 7 the focus is on the land, including the vegetation growing on it (as in 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, respectively, the land, the sea and the sources of fresh water; the fourth affects earth’s sources of light.
Though willed by God, the disasters have a natural cause. Since men have not believed what is written about him, he manifests his anger by touching the visible world. Hail and fire were the seventh of the plagues (in the sense of ‘calamity’) visited upon Egypt before the Exodus. Hail denotes a shower of rock and, where the context excludes rocks ejected from a volcano, suggests – in association with fire – 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 the last decades we have come to understand how fire might be cast on the Earth. For reasons that are 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 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, the things on which the smooth functioning of civilisation has come to depend. 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 magnetic field. The emerald-dominated ‘rainbow’ around the throne emblemises the effect of a coronal mass ejection. The sounds issuing from the throne (4:5) correspond to the eerie sounds that accompany the most intense manifestations of these lights. The thunder and lightning are the effect of the charged material penetrating the troposphere. Typically, aurorae take place much higher in the atmosphere, and during the most energetic storms can be seen from pole to equator.
Revelation suggests at least two great mass ejections, one occurring at the first trumpet and the second 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 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, 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 in anticipation readers should stock up. Vineyards too will be parched (Isa 24:7).
Were it allowed to run its course, 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. 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 Sun’s corona. It too presages the day. Synthesised in the lab and engineered experimentally to maximise transmissibility, SARS-CoV-2 demonstrated man’s God-like ability to re-design the genetic code, but for evil rather than good. As it spread around the world, mathematical modellers, psychologists, medical scientists, journalists, politicians worked together to whip up 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 television, radio and internet. Believing the threat to be apocalyptic, electorates surrendered everything, even authority over their own bodies. “You have saved our lives; we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” Masks were like spiritual veils, vaccination 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 the world to understand where we are in history and read the Apocalypse for themselves, but for the most part the world will not wish to hear. God’s people will be hated because of their message.
An asteroid – larger than a meteoroid – crashes into the 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 first plague to afflict Egypt 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) but more probably – since the water in jars was also affected – by ash from the eruption of Thera/Santorini (Trevisanato 2005).
Many animals will have already died on land, but John specifically mentions marine animals. Like their terrestrial counterparts they have souls. A third of the 50,000 merchant ships on the ocean either sink or become unusable. 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), an asteroid or comet, disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers the earth with toxin, e.g. some form of cyanide, since this is a common constituent of comets. Wormwood is proverbial for bitterness (Jer 9:15) and the name here prophetic (along the lines of Jer 20:3); we should not expect it to be the astronomical name. Rivers and lakes become undrinkable. Human beings die in large numbers, not to mention sheep and cattle.
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, 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, again brought on by the eruption of Thera. The cause this time is probably 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 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 disaster 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 (lit. ‘bottomless’) is the infernal region called Tartarus, after the god that rules it; in Hebrew the region and its ruler are called Abaddon (e.g. Job 31:12), as the text goes on to confirm. The fallen star is presumably that same angel, now given permission to unlock the abyss.
Originally the abyss was a subterranean region of water, called the ‘great deep’ (abyssos in LXX Gen 1:2 and 7:11). 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. An eruption of volcanic ash darkens the sky, previously dimmed by the fourth angel. The locusts emerging from the ash-cloud recall the eighth 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 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 after death, for Gehenna will certainly not be less terrible than the torments now inflicted. Nonetheless those tormented will seek death rather than turn to God.
Abaddon in Hebrew means ‘Destruction’, translated into Greek as Apollyon, ‘Destroyer’, the equivalent of Tartarus. Only here does Scripture reveal that the place is ruled by an angel. The demons torment others before they themselves are tormented (Matt 8:29).
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 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 (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 or abortions. 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.