The apocalypse, also known as the end of the world, has been the object of both serious theological discussions as well as less serious Hollywood movies.
The subject of the apocalypse is undoubtedly intriguing, and the topic is extensive. For the purpose of this paper, I will discuss the mysterious “seven seals” mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is one of the most unique books in the Bible. Containing detailed and frequently frightening imagery and prophecy, the Book of Revelation provides enormous data for Catholic eschatology. Eschatology is that aspect of theology concerned with the end times.
Drawing on both Greek and Latin, Revelation refers to a disclosing or unveiling. This unveiling details how the world will end at the second coming of Christ. Among the details are descriptions of seven seals. The seals secure a scroll or book. As each seal on the scroll is broken, an eschatological event is described.
To properly understand the seven seals, it is necessary to provide some context. Saint John, the author of Revelation, details events leading up to the end times. These events are known to John by way of visions from God. These events, referred to as the tribulations, are to unfold prior to the second coming of Christ.
In John’s prophecy, he writes of a scroll containing seven seals. No one is deemed worthy to open the scroll except for a “Lamb that seemed to have been slain.” The Lamb is Christ, who has been slain as the expiation for sins. (See Revelation 5:6). It is with the opening of the seals that the end times begin. It is worth noting that these seven seals may represent rather lengthy periods or epochs. A note about language. John refers to “living creatures” in several of his visions. These are likely angels.
A White Horse
When the first seal is broken, John writes, “And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer” (Revelation 6:2).
One interpretation of the seven seals is that they cover seven periods of time. Accepting this interpretation, then the white horse likely symbolizes Christ and the victory of Christianity over the pagan world. White is likely intended to be symbolic of victory and purity.
A Red Horse
The second seal depicted in John’s vision is a red horse. We read, “When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword” (Revelation 6:3-4).
Where the white horse symbolizes victory and purity, the red horse suggests war and bloodshed. The red horse is seen to represent the persecution of Christians and the Church. From Constantine to Nero, and Diocletian, the history of the Church is replete with periods of persecution. Whether the persecution the red horse represents has already occurred or if more is yet to come, can only be speculated.
The Black Horse
The third horse in John’s Revelation is an ominous black. Upon the breaking of the third seal, we read, “When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand” (Revelation 6:5-6).
While the color black likely signifies sorrow and deprivation, the scales (or balances) are more challenging to interpret. The balances are likely representative of scarcity. However, the scarcity can be in the form of a famine or a metaphysical privation; that is a kind of apostasy.
A Pale Horse
When the fourth seal is broken, a pale horse is revealed. This horse is death itself. John writes, “When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, ‘Come and see.’ So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.” (Revelation 6:7-8).
Whether this prophecy refers to events that befell the Roman Empire or whether the death brought by the pale horse is yet to come can only be speculated upon.
The fifth seal involves those martyred for the faith. “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” (Revelation 6:9-11).
Of significance is the white robe given to each of the martyrs. The robes likely signify the innocence of the martyrs as well as a promise that they will receive justice.
Upon the breaking of the sixth seal, Saint John writes of natural disasters. “I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of Heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it was rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave, and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and the rocks of the mountains” (Revelation 6:12-15).
Whether John is prophesizing about events related to the Roman Empire or whether these disasters have yet to occur is a matter of debate.
After depictions of wars, famines, and natural disasters, the silence depicted in the seventh seal seems anticlimactic. “When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1).
The silence mentioned by John may have an antecedent in the prophet Zephaniah, “Silence in the presence of the Lord God! For near is the day of the Lord.” (Zephaniah 1:7).
This silence is to be followed by the second coming of Christ.
The end of the world has long intrigued theologians and laypersons alike. Among the more mysterious prophecies concerning the end time are the seven seals depicted in the Book of Revelation. In this article, I have sought to examine each of the seven seals briefly.
Suffice it to say that while no one knows when the end will come, the events depicted in the Book of Revelation will continue to fascinate religious and non-religious people alike.