Revelation 8-9. Fire is cast on the earth from above. Asteroids accentuate the divine anger. While some hear the gospel (ch. 7), many refuse to repent and continue to worship idols and demons.
The silence, the opening of the final seal, marks the completion of the wrath of God. ‘Yahweh is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him’ (Hab 2:19f, Zech 2:13). The nations worship idols, but they are about to know that he is God. The silence also marks a pause in the vision, broken by the start of a new series: 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 call from heaven, mingling with thunder, lightning and the very voice of God. Now the whole planet is at the foot of Mount Sinai, while unseen angels prepare destruction. There was a similar moment when God poured his wrath on Jerusalem in 586 BC: a real moment in history, the ashes and arrowheads from which have been unearthed. Ezekiel saw how six of his angels passed through the city and killed whoever did not have a protecting mark on their foreheads (Ezek 9:2). Then another angel, a seventh, took burning coals from between the cherubim under God’s throne and scattered them over Jerusalem (Ezek 10:2), enacting Nebuchadrezzar’s setting the city on fire. Something similar is building up, only on a larger scale
The earthly Temple had two altars, both made of acacia wood: one for sacrifice and, within the Holy of Holies, another for incense (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, since only the high priest was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary. A wood fire burned on it continually for burnt offerings, their effect temporary. The other altar functioned only once a year, on the day of atonement, when the high priest filled a censer with coals from the fire, covered the mercy seat with a cloud of incense and sprinkled it with blood. By offering the perfect propitiation for sin, Jesus purchased access into the presence of almighty God, so that we might serve him as priests. In heaven there is only one altar. 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 among them 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). Revelation gives the details. 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). 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. Hail and fire were the seventh of ten plagues that visited 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 (as in Jos 10:11). Psalm 18 speaks of hail and coals of fire, that is, blazing meteoroids. Distinct from 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, mostly electrons and protons that blow through space at speeds up to 1000 km/s. The interaction of this wind with the Earth’s magnetic field is what produces the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern, causing the sky to look like an emerald rainbow (hence Rev 4:3). Spurts of such material are called coronal mass ejections, the most violent of which can produce shock-waves capable of knocking out satellites and power stations. One such ejection occurred in 1859, known as the ‘Carrington Event’. The occurrence of an ejection still more violent is considered inevitable sooner or later. The ‘sounds’ that accompany the thunder and lightning are of the same nature as the eerie sounds accompanying intense manifestations of the northern lights.
Revelation suggests at least two great mass ejections, one occurring at the first trumpet and the second occurring when the sixth seal is opened. Shock waves hitting the sunward side of the planet depress the magnetosphere, impairing its ability to deflect the particles, so that their energy heats up the atmosphere and scorches the earth – an effect that the current weakening of the magnetosphere, at a rate of 5% per decade, will only exacerbate. Hurricanes caused by the sudden heating whip up the sea, batter coastal cities and uproot trees. The shock waves also dislodge the near-earth meteoroids that float in space. ‘Blood’ seems to refer to the colour of the hailstones (some asteroids are red) rather than to the deaths caused. In the heat, rivers become strings of islands; marshes dry up (Isa 42:15, 50:2). 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 all being forms of grass. Famine will be an immediate consequence of the fires. 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 – anticipates the 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. They also provide a solution to the build-up of CO2, since ultraviolet radiation reduces the gas to less harmful carbon monoxide, which oxidises to carbon dioxide and ozone.
This first catastrophe will make it clear to those who are awake that the last days have begun. They will tell the world, but for the most part the world will not wish to hear. “Though the labour of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”
An asteroid – larger than a meteoroid – crashes into the sea, with effects depending on water depth. In the ages following the Cataclysm such impacts were not uncommon, famously the impact at the end of the Cretaceous that left a crater 190 km in diameter off the coast of Mexico. It is only recently (Alvarez 1997) that we have had the knowledge to understand what Revelation is describing. The entertaining stuff of apocalyptic movies becomes reality.
As before, ‘blood’ refers either to the colour of a pollutant or to the carnage irrespective of colour. The Red Sea is so called because it is prone to blooms of algae, turning the sea a reddish-brown. The first plague (in the sense of ‘calamity’) to afflict Egypt was the turning of the river Nile to blood. All its fish died, possibly because of anoxia brought on by a bloom of algae (Humphreys 2003, Trevisanato 2005).
Many animals will have already died on land, but it is marine animals that are specifically mentioned. Like their terrestrial counterparts they have souls. A third of the mariners manning the 50,000 merchant ships on the ocean also lose their lives, to say nothing of the 500,000 passengers on cruise ships, or the men that trawl the sea for fish and countless smaller craft. The capacity to transport food, petroleum and other goods across the world is crippled.
The star (aster) is again an asteroid. It disintegrates on entering the atmosphere and showers the earth with toxic ash. Rivers and lakes become undrinkable. Human beings are expressly said to die in large numbers.
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 probably the dust and vapour generated by another asteroid impact. Now deprived of the Sun’s heat, the earth cools. Murder, looting, rape feed on the lawlessness.
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. There is still time to repent.
Each disaster is worse than the one before. Three woes precede the full force of God’s wrath. Man’s godless understanding of reality acknowledges only the natural, and interprets even consciousness, his sense of self and of being alive, as reducible to electricity. Now he is 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). Wherever the gospel transforms society, communication with the abyss is suppressed, but now it is opened up. Originally the abyss was a subterranean region of water, called the ‘great deep’. After the Cataclysm, at 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). A Tambora-like eruption of volcanic ash darkens the Sun a second time. 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. Those exempted are the 144,000, although the text does not say that only they are exempted.
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 took so little care to look after. 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 seem more hardened and unrepentant than ever.
‘The’ demons refers to those unleashed with the fifth and sixth trumpets, previously below ground, unseen, and unwittingly worshipped. ‘Drug-taking’ translates pharmakeia, the use or dispensing of drugs to induce hallucinations, especially in witchcraft; ‘sorcery’ or ‘occultism’ is also a viable translation (Deut 18:10 LXX). The taking of mind-altering narcotics frequently leads to demon possession. 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.