Wrestling With Revelation
Bible prophecy has once again been commanding my attention lately, as it has often all my life. I’ve read dozens of books, hundreds of online articles, and even considered reports of dreams and visions, as well as trying to follow some pretty complicated calculations and learning more about the Jewish feasts. As you know, more recently I looked into what some call the “pre-wrath” view, though at least one other definition is actually post-trib with the Bowl judgments following. The view I’ve been examining more recently seems to be a sort of hybrid of pre-trib, preterist, and pre-wrath, where they claim that the first half of the Seventy Weeks prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 has already happened. Thus they hold to what amounts to a mid-trib position, since the Rapture happens before the second half, which contains all the judgments.
But rather than try to pick apart all the variations, I wanted to take a very detailed look primarily at the Seal judgments, because they will reveal problems with virtually every theory out there. Much of the disagreement, in my opinion, stems from careless disregard for not only context (which must include the entire Bible and not just parts), but also from ignorance or misunderstanding of the principles of grammar, reading comprehension, and logic. For convenience, I will abbreviate the “tribulation” or “oppression” as TRIB (period of seven years aka Daniel’s 70th week), the Great Tribulation/Oppression as G-TRIB (the last half of the 70th week), and the Testaments as OT and NT. I will use the word “church” because it’s short and familiar, albeit far from ideal (I prefer The Body of Christ, or The Congregation).
The DetailsIn the chapters leading up to the seals, we are introduced to various entities. One group, called the 24 elders, wears crowns and white clothing (4:4). They also hold censers of prayers, and most importantly, they say to the Lamb, “You bought us for God by means of your blood” (5:9). No angels or other entities but Israel and the church could say this, and the fact that they number 24 strongly suggests that they represent both groups (or more specifically, the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles, who will also be represented in the foundation and walls of the New Jerusalem). Now to the seals themselves.
Rev. 6:1-2 - “bow” (toxon, τοξον) is a means of shooting arrows, not any kind of ornamental ribbon or even a halo. The Septuagint does not render this word as anything but a weapon of war (see Zechariah 9), except for the rainbow after the Flood. Note also that this bow is held in the rider’s hand, not worn like a sash. Similarly, the crown (stephanos, στεφανος) on the rider’s head is not the diadem of royalty but the wreath of the winner of a contest. The white color of the horse often represents purity throughout Revelation, but it also symbolized indifference or peace to the Greeks of the time. Considering all of this as well as the fact that it is the Lamb opening the seals, rather than riding the horse, it seems clear that this seal’s horse and rider do not represent Christ and the church, which was never told to conquer the world but only to evangelize it. Otherwise we’d have to say that the church has been without power or weapons.
Rev. 6:3-4 - The “fiery” (purros, πυρρος) horse, if red, symbolized death to the Greeks; if literally made of fire, it would symbolize that which consumes and destroys. From the statements there about the large sword and people slaughtering each other, it seems clear that this seal denotes all-out war. The fact that this follows immediately after the white horse lends further weight to the interpretation that this has nothing to do with Christ or the church, such that we can interpret the white horse and rider as denoting a conquest that is not open war, such as political intrigue, espionage, and organized crime. Also note that these horses and riders are the ones instigating the judgments, not suffering them; thus they cannot represent the suffering of Christ or the church.
Rev. 6:5-6 - The black horse can symbolize mourning, but given the statement about scarcity of necessities it more likely represents economic disaster. If the first horse represented a weakening of society, and the second the open destruction of infrastructure, this interpretation of economic ruin seems to follow logically.
Rev. 6:7-8 - The fourth horse is literally green (chloros, χλωρος), and in ancient Greece it symbolized fear. But it is ridden by Death and Hades, again the natural results of the preceding seals. Note that these are given power to kill one-fourth (not one-third as in a later judgment) of the world’s population by not only war but also its typical aftermath.
Rev. 6:9-11 - Of the many deaths that have occurred by this point, some of course are due to the general disasters but others are due to having been executed for their testimony about the Word of God. The fifth seal shows the martyrs under or at the base of the altar, probably to symbolize that they were a special kind of sacrifice or offering, since their blood was literally poured out to God. Notice that they ask God to avenge their blood, and that the people who killed them are still alive on the earth. These are recent victims, since the murderers still living would not be liable for all the martyrs of history. Also note that they are told to wait patiently for more to be martyred, indicating that this point in the judgments cannot be the end. Later we will be told of others who are martyred specifically by beheading.
Rev. 6:12-14 - Now the judgments turn against the earth itself, and they are familiar statements from other parts of scripture. An earthquake is mentioned when Israel approached the mountain to meet with God during the Exodus, there was an earthquake when Jesus rose from the dead, there was another one when Paul and Silas were freed from prison, and more will be seen in other judgments in Revelation. So connecting this particular earthquake with other prophecies or events must be done with extreme caution, and probably not given any more meaning than that it is commonly associated with prophetic fulfillment. Jesus even said in Mt. 24 that earthquakes are included in the general category of “the beginning of birth pangs” when “the end is still to come”.
A similar word of caution is in order for the other phenomena here: black sun, blood moon, falling stars, and the sky being rolled up like a scroll. Yet, again in Mt. 24, Jesus mentioned these four kinds of disasters as being “after the distress of those days”, followed by “the sign of the Son of Man in heaven” which causes everyone on earth to mourn. If you read through all of Mt. 24 you will see that Jesus goes from birth pangs to “the abomination of desolation” to these signs to gathering “the elect from the four winds”. (And note there that the “elect” are not gathered from the earth but from “the heavens”.) Since the seals begin rather than end the judgments, we might conclude that similar signs at both ends serve as “bookends”.
Does the sudden appearance in heaven of the huge crowd (7:9) indicate that they just arrived in heaven, meaning they were just “raptured”? We can note that in these seal judgments nothing is said about Jerusalem or Israel, and this group is identified as non-Jewish. Yet we must remember that the church is composed of both Jew and Gentile; in fact, such distinctions are not even made in the church (Gal. 3:28). We must also note that though the four horses and riders also “suddenly” appeared, no one thinks that they had just arrived; likewise for other entities to come. So we cannot say when this huge crowd arrived in heaven, and we cannot identify them as the church but only as non-Jewish believers (Jewish Christians would also have been raptured but are not included in this group). We can also connect them to the statements of Paul (Rom. 11:25) and James (Acts 15:14) about “the full number of Gentiles” who were to “come in” before God would “return and rebuild David’s fallen tent”.
In addition, these people were in a process of coming out of the G-TRIB; the Greek word rendered “coming” (erchomenoi, ερχομενοι) is a present participle.1 Though there are many contextual considerations to make in determining the temporal meaning (excellent resource), a strong case can be made for the continuing sense of the word. That is, the group was still being added to, not already completed, as also was the case for the martyred souls under the altar. All these things considered, then, there seems to be no firm or undeniable argument that the Rapture must happen at the sixth seal. On the other hand, we also cannot say with certainty that the Rapture happened before the sixth seal since it is only at that point when “the wrath of God” is acknowledged (6:15-17), and it is that wrath which the church is not to go through (1 Thes. 1:10, 5:9).
Therefore, it seems likely that the sixth seal is the outside limit for the Rapture, in which case all the remaining judgments happen afterwards.2 As for the inside limit wherein the Rapture precedes the first seal, there is no reason why it can’t, even if the wrath of God doesn’t technically begin until the sixth seal. Also, it can be argued that it is not just the sixth that beings the wrath, but all the seals as a group, especially since they are direct judgments from God. And if it is asserted that Jesus’ 3-1/2 year ministry comprised the first half of Daniel’s 70th week, the seals did not happen at all during that time so they would have to be part of the second half. That is, all three sets of 7 judgments would have to be crammed into the space of 3-1/2 years, which seems practically impossible considering all that must take place, and especially considering that not all the end-time prophecies are contained in Daniel and Revelation alone.
So exactly who are these people who “suddenly” appear “after these things”? From the grammatical, contextual, and logical clues we’ve studied, they are apparently not martyrs, are all Gentiles, and at the time of the seals are not a closed or completed group. One noted characteristic of all three sets of judgments (as well as the OT) is the separation of Jew and Gentile, such that this Gentile-only group would fit the post-church era. So it seems to me that the only conclusion left to draw is that they are being “raptured” during the judgments. This in no way impacts the pre-trib Rapture of the church, which as we’ve seen is not differentiated by Jew and Gentile. And since there have been other “rapture” instances before the existence of the church (Enoch and Elijah, and note that they are individuals rather than groups), there is no reason to insist that this cannot happen afterwards. Given that the crowd appears after a massive global earthquake, perhaps they were taken out at that time. Yet again, the group was not completed then.
Now we should note that they are said to come out of the G-TRIB specifically, meaning the second half by nearly unanimous agreement, in spite of the fact that they appear during the sixth seal. Yet it is only after this that the 144,000 Jews are sealed (presumably to be protected from judgments to come), and they appear on Mt. Zion with the Lamb in ch. 14 just before the bowl judgments which almost everyone agrees are at least part of the G-TRIB. But surely the nearly seven-chapter gap between the sealing of the 144,000 and the beginning of the bowl judgments is significant.
At this point we face a chronological dilemma: there is a clear sense of sequence (first, second, after this, etc.), yet the points at which various things occur or entities appear seems conflicting. Even if we cram all three sets of judgments into the final 3-1/2 years, which would be required to put the huge crowd in both the seal judgments and the G-TRIB, we still have to account for such things as the 3-1/2 year ministry of the “two witnesses” (ch. 11) that ends at the sixth trumpet--- which precedes the bowls! Now we would have to push the bowls out past the G-TRIB, which few would agree to since it is the one thing almost everyone says defines that time. So not even putting all the judgments in the G-TRIB solves the problem. In addition, there is no need for these witnesses while the Body of Christ is in the world, since that is our mission for this era (Acts 1:8). This means that the two witnesses will not appear till we’re gone, and thus the only way to solve the problem is to assume a gap between the Rapture and the TRIB. Yet if this is so--- and it must be if the witnesses finish before the bowl judgments begin--- then we’re conflicting with the “sixth seal Rapture” theory.