HOW THE BOOK OF REVELATION EXPLAINS OUR CRISES
June 30, 2020
Article by Ben C. Dunson, Minister/Teacher of New Testament Studies
Two Part Article: Part II
Making Sense of Judgment
So, where does judgment fit into all of this? Does Revelation have anything to tell us about tribulations the world is currently experiencing? Yes, but perhaps not in the way we might expect. When many people ask the question “Is this disaster God’s judgment on the world?” what they really are asking is whether a specific disaster can be said to be a specific punishment from God for specific sins of a specific group of people. Despite how common it is for some to speak about judgment this way, the Bible gives us no grounds after the close of the canon of Scripture for being able to tie specific disasters closely to specific sins of specific peoples. This would require new revelation from the Lord that he has not given us.
But there is another common way of talking about the tribulations the world faces that (perhaps in reaction to this first way of speaking) swings the pendulum in the exact opposite direction. For a variety of reasons, many have adopted the lingo (if not the sentiments) of modern materialism. In this way of thinking, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, pandemics, and so on are nothing more than “natural disasters,” essentially random events that have little or nothing to do with God. That is not what we see in Revelation either.
The Seven Scrolls and Trumpets
In Revelation 5:1, we read about “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Revelation 5:2). No creature in all the earth is worthy, so John begins to weep (Revelation 5:3–4). Why is this so devasting to him? Clearly, what is written on the scroll is of the utmost importance. John’s sadness lasts only a moment before he is told to cease his weeping because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5).
What is written on the scroll? We learn the answer as each of the seven seals is opened (in Revelation 6:1–17 and 8:1–5). The first four have to do with judgments on the earth: persecution (Revelation 6:1–2), war (Revelation 6:3–4), economic disaster (Revelation 6:5–6), and death by sword, famine, and disease (Revelation 6:7–8). The fifth seal is an assurance to those who have suffered for Christ that they will be vindicated (Revelation 6:9–11), while the sixth seal portends the final judgment (Revelation 6:12–17), which arrives with the opening of the seventh seal (Revelation 8:1–5).
When do these judgments begin? We have every reason to believe that they are included within the things “that are to take place after this” of Revelation 1:19. This means that the tribulations of the first four seals, rather than occurring only immediately before Christ returns, are in fact the kinds of tribulations that the original audience of Revelation will soon face. In fact, John opened his letter by reminding his readers that he is a partner with them “in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9). Tribulation and hardship are to be expected throughout this age. The churches of Revelation 2–3 are already seen to be experiencing many such difficulties.
Readers of Revelation quickly notice how important the number seven is in the letter (seven is the biblical number of completion). Just as there are seven seals on the scroll, so we encounter seven trumpets in Revelation 8:6–9:21 and 11:15–19. A scroll is a biblical image of revelation; a trumpet is one of judgment (think Jericho). What kind of judgments do we come across with the seven trumpets?
The first four trumpets cover the entirety of the created order: earth (Revelation 8:6–7), oceans (Revelation 8:8–9), fresh water (Revelation 8:10–11), and the sky (Revelation 8:12–13). With each trumpet judgment, only a third of the designated realm is affected. These are not, in other words, pictures of total judgment, the kind we will see when Christ returns. These are limited judgments that will fall upon the earth throughout this age.
The fifth through seventh trumpets are called “woes” (Revelation 8:13) because they all are focused on the effects of judgment upon humanity (who will cry out, “Woe!” under the force of the judgments). The fifth trumpet judgment (Revelation 9:1–12) is one that afflicts only unbelievers (Revelation 9:4) and is therefore probably one of inner turmoil and despair (see Revelation 9:6). The sixth trumpet unleashes angels who kill “a third of mankind” (Revelation 9:15, 18), showing us again that these judgments are not comprehensive and final. The seventh trumpet brings with it the arrival of the kingdom of God in its fullness: “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). After this comes the final judgment (Revelation 11:19).
The Seven Bowls
In Revelation 16, we encounter a final sevenfold cycle, “the seven bowls of the wrath of God” (Revelation 16:1). The seven bowls are clearly patterned after the seven trumpets. The first four bowls exactly match the realms of the created order in the first four trumpets: earth (Revelation 16:2), oceans (Revelation 16:3), fresh water (Revelation 16:4–7), and sky (Revelation 16:8–9). The fifth bowl (Revelation 16:10–11), like the fifth trumpet, centers on the anguish of those who do not trust in Jesus. The sixth bowl (Revelation 16:12–16), matching the sixth trumpet, begins at the river Euphrates and is also focused on the destructiveness of war. The seventh bowl (Revelation 16:17–21) brings us to the final judgment.
Careful readers, once they notice the way that the seven bowls are patterned after the seven trumpets, also will notice striking differences. The similarities and differences reveal equally important things to the reader. The main similarity — that each judgment is in the same creational realm — shows us that the trumpets and seals convey the same basic truth: this world is a world under God’s judgment. The main dissimilarity, however, is equally important: with the seven bowls, we have left the realm of partial and limited judgments from the Lord, and have arrived at the final judgment.
As we saw, the seven trumpets affect only a limited portion of the world and its inhabitants. There is no such restriction when it comes to the seven bowls.
With the second bowl “every living thing died that was in the sea” (Revelation 16:3).
The third bowl turns all freshwater rivers and springs into blood (Revelation 16:4).
When the fourth bowl is poured out, the sun becomes supercharged with scorching heat (Revelation 16:8–9).
The fifth bowl plunges the whole world into darkness and leads unbelievers into deep anguish and misery, without the limitation seen in the fifth trumpet (Revelation 9:5: “for five months”).
The sixth bowl, like the sixth trumpet, brings war to the earth, but it does so as it assembles “the kings of the whole world . . . for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (Revelation 16:14). This is the battle of Armageddon, a battle that will end with the final triumph of Christ over all of his enemies on the last day (Revelation 19:11–21).
Finally, the seventh bowl, very clearly patterned after the seventh trumpet, is described in such a way that it can refer only to the full and final manifestation of the wrath of God: “A loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’” (Revelation 16:17). Babylon, representing all the enemies of God’s people, is made to drink “the cup of the wine of the fury of [God’s] wrath” to the full (Revelation 16:19). When the seventh bowl is poured out, the time of God’s patience is finished.
What About Our Current Troubles?
So, should we say that COVID-19, worldwide civic unrest, and the international economic troubles we are facing today are God’s judgment on the world? As we have seen, we have no grounds for saying yes to this question if we mean that we know that these crises are God’s judgment on one group of people for one specific sin. We simply don’t have access to God’s mind on this. But we have also seen that the answer is most definitely yes, that this is God’s judgment on the world in the way that Revelation explains judgments from God.
Revelation gives us the eyes to see that all of the wars, famines, diseases, hurricanes, earthquakes (and so on) that occur in the time between Christ’s advent and return come directly from the hand of God. The scroll with the plan of God for the ages (which includes many tribulations) is “in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Revelation 5:1). The trials that come with each of the seven trumpets fall upon the world after an angel takes a censer and fills it “with fire from the altar” and throws it down to the earth (Revelation 8:5). The angels who pour out the seven bowls come out of God’s temple and of course are pouring out God’s wrath (Revelation 16:1). These events are not random. They are not “natural disasters.” They are acts of God (a fact our homeowners insurance policies dimly still reflect).
This fact has a twofold significance for our world. For those who do not have saving faith in Jesus Christ, these trials are in fact judgments from the Lord, although they are limited during this time of God’s patience (seen particularly in the limited scope of the first five trumpets). They are a wake-up call to a lost world, and they are a foretaste of the greater and final judgment still to come (that is why the bowls are patterned after the limited trumpet judgments). Apart from the radically transformative power of the Holy Spirit, even Revelation tells us that these limited judgments do not by themselves produce repentance (see Revelation 9:21; 16:9). But by God’s grace they may be the very means the Spirit uses to open the eyes of the lost so that they might come to Christ and be saved.
For the believer, however, we see that even though we too must go through almost all of the exact same trials and tribulations as unbelievers, these sufferings cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. These trials come from the hand of God, who in the midst of them keeps his children near to himself. Without this knowledge, these trials would surely overwhelm us. But in knowing God’s purpose and his power to keep us, we can confidently face them all.
Revelation shows us that God has not abandoned us, but rather that the day of salvation draws nearer and nearer. We know that all of the troubles we must endure are part of the Lord’s perfect and loving plan for us, a plan that brings all of the glory to God (Revelation 4:11). And we know how all of this will end, when we will see Christ face to face and “he will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Come, Lord Jesus! (End of article)
For more resources on reading Revelation as I have outlined it above, I would recommend the following:
Beginning level: The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation, by Vern S. Poythress
Intermediate level: Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson
Advanced level: The Book of Revelation (New International Greek Testament Commentary) by G.K. Beale
Ben C. Dunson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He has taught New Testament at several institutions, including Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas), and is the author of Individual and Community in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas, TX, with his wife, Martha, and four boys.