Are the seven Seals of the book of Revelation unfolding today?

Are the seven Seals of the book of Revelation unfolding today? March 24, 2020

Amidst the fervor of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting chaos that many societies are experiencing, there are always some who are using this as an opportunity to cry out that the end of the world is coming!

According to some, and I am relieved that it has only been a few, Covid-19 is proof that the plagues of the book of Revelation, in particular the seven Seals of Revelation 6:1-8:1, are happening and the imminent return of Jesus is at hand.

 

Are the Seals happening today? If so, are they an indication of the imminent return of Jesus? Is Covid-19 the work of God?

The answers to the above questions are “yes”, “no,” and “no”; but, as you might expect, these are not a simple “yes,” “no,” and “no.”

Let me begin with the question as to whether or not the seven Seals of the book of Revelation are happening today. The answer here is “yes.”

I am pretty certain, however, that what I mean by “yes” is not likely what most of you are thinking.

 

I suspect that many of you are thinking that the seven Seals of Rev 6:1-8:1 are specific “judgments” of God and that they take place in some last three and one-half or seven-year period of time immediately prior to the return of Jesus.

Well, I, along with most scholars of the book of Revelation, find no basis for viewing the seven Seals as judgments (even here the word “judgment” must be nuanced), nor do I find a basis for reading the book of Revelation as though it depicts events as occurring in some last seven-year period of time.

 

As for the last point: I would contend, and many, if not most, scholars of the book of Revelation agree, that the book of Revelation relates “events,” or truths, dealing matters that began with the death of Christ and leading up to the final consummation (the descent of the New Jerusalem).

This is evident for a variety of reasons: including the fact that the Lion (Jesus) is worthy to break the seven Seals because He was slain! (Rev 5:5-9).

This means that the breaking of the seven Seals is not waiting for some future point in time when Christ will begin breaking the seals. He has already broken the seals. He has opened the scroll because He was already slain.

 

Furthermore, the first four Seals (Rev 6:1-8) appear to describe events that are characteristic of every age. They simply indicate that there will continue to be among other things: war, bloodshed, famine, and death.

(Note the description of the Seals parallels Jesus’ words to His disciples in Matthew 24; Mark 13; and Luke 21. In these passages, Jesus was not giving the disciples any specific indications as to when the end—or the destruction of Jerusalem—would come but that “those things must take place; but that is not yet the end” [Mark 13:7]).

 

The first four seals, then, provide no indication of time, nor are they particular judgments. They merely indicate that life will continue as it has.

 

This leads us to the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11), which is clearly not a judgment on humanity at all. Instead, the people of God are portrayed as those who have been slain and are crying out from under the altar and asking, “how long?” (Rev 6:9).

If the first four seals provide no specific indication of time, then this question is only natural. The question of “how long?” on the part of the people of God also suggests that the sufferings associated with the first four Seals affect the people of God as well.

 

Now it is important to note, and this is crucial, that the answer to the people of God’s question in the fifth seal is not, “well, only a couple more years; I need to inflict more wrath and suffering on everyone in order to punish them, and maybe a few will repent, then I’ll bring the end”—which is what many Christians tend to believe (even if they don’t think of it in such stark terms).

Instead, God’s answer to the people of God (aka the “martyrs”) is that He is delaying the end until “the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev 6:11).

 

Does this mean that God is delaying the end until more Christians have been killed?

Well, yes! And, as we venture further into the storyline of the book of Revelation, we will learn that it is because the very means through the nations are redeemed is the faithful, loving, sacrificial witness of God’s people!

In other words, one might say that God is delaying the end until the nations are redeemed (a notion that certainly corresponds to the rest of Scripture [e.g., Acts 3:19-21; 2 Peter 3:9]).

 

This, in fact, is one of the major storylines of the book of Revelation. God desires the nations to be redeemed: which is precisely what we find at the end of the story: “the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . And they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it (Rev 21:24, 26).

 

This means that the nations are redeemed the same way everyone else is. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). So, also, we are called to lay down our lives for others. The nations are redeemed through the sacrificial witness of God’s people.

 

The seven Seals, then, are not relaying God’s wrath upon the world. They are indicating that God’s will is being set forth. The scroll has already been opened by the Lamb who was slain.

As the scroll is being opened (note: the seven Seals are not the contents of the scroll. After all, the scroll cannot be read until it is completely opened), we learn that things will proceed as normal for a time: including, war, bloodshed, famine, and death.

 

This will include hardships and martyrdom for the people of God.

As one commentator says, “When the church is faithful to its calling and bears testimony concerning the truth, tribulation is bound to follow.”[1]

 

As for our opening three questions: Are the seven Seals happening today?

The answer to our first question is “yes.” The seven Seals (or technically the first four Seals) have been unfolding since the coming of Christ (the Lamb that was slain)—though they are not to be viewed as God’s wrath on the world.

They simply depict the world as continuing on as normal. In fact, the negative consequences of war, bloodshed, famine, and death affect the people of God also.

 

What about the return of Jesus?

The New Testament simply gives us no indication as to when Christ will return.[2] It is important to note that throughout the NT the people of God (the Church) are not to be concerned with when Christ is going to return, but with being faithful until He returns.

And being faithful until He returns means making Him known!

 

We do know that the end will not come until the number of God’s people who are going to suffer for the kingdom is completed.

That number, apparently, corresponds to the redemption of the nations—something we learn only as we proceed through the story.

 

Finally, is Covid-19 the work of God?

The answer here is “no.” Covid-19 is what happens when humanity chooses to run the world instead of Christ. War, bloodshed, famine, and death (the four Seals) are the consequences within the created order of humanity running the show.

This is why, when the kingdom of God comes in fullness in Revelation 21 a voice from the throne says, “. . . there will no longer be any death” (Rev 21:4).

The effects of the four seals have ended!

 

This does not mean, of course, that one cannot attribute causation to God. The biblical voices do so all the time. God is ultimately sovereign over all things.

But I don’t think that this is the way the question today is being posed.

I suspect that when we are asking the question: is Covid-19 the work of God? we mean: “is this something that God is doing as a direct punishment upon humanity?” When framed this way, I would respond with an emphatic “no.” God loves humanity.

He desires all humanity to be redeemed. He is, however, allowing the effects of humanity’s kingdoms to run their course.

This is the whole point of the story.

 

One final point.

Tragically, when Christians trumpet a view of the Bible, and the book of Revelation in particular, that suggests that it is about God’s wrath on the wicked, it repels people from the Gospel.

This, alone, should be reason enough to reject as aberrant the view of a wrathful God who is directly inflicting suffering on humanity as a consequence of their actions.

 

[1] Hendriksen, More than Conquerors, 81.

[2] I have a chapter on the return of Christ in my book: Understanding the New Testament and the End Times.


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