Natural Disasters: How Should We Interpret Them?
In the January issue I wrote a meditation on Revelation 8 in connection with the opening of the seventh seal, which was preceded by a half hour silence in heaven. This mysterious silence was in response to the seven judgments of God’s wrath that were about to be poured out upon the earth in such severity that the inhabitants of heaven stand silent and spellbound in amazement for about thirty minutes. We also saw how the prayers of the saints on earth are purified by Christ, who mixes them with the incense of His merits and sends them to the throne of God, where they find divine acceptance. The acceptance of the prayers of His saints is indicated by several natural phenomena: “there were voices, and thunderings and lightnings and an earthquake” (8:5). God has heard the cries of those suffering for the sake of the Gospel and will now proceed to bring fearful judgments on His and His people’s enemies. This is the meaning of the vision of the seven trumpets recorded in Revelation 8:6: “And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.”
The judgments of the trumpets may be divided into two groups: the first four deal with natural disasters destroying the environment and killing much animal and human life, while the last three affect man more mentally and psychologically as well as physically. In this editorial we will consider the first group.
The Destruction of One Third of Land, Sea and Sky
The first trumpet sounds and the result is a storm of hail and fire mixed with blood. The blood symbolizes the destructive character of these phenomena. One-third part of the earth, and of the trees and of the grass, including herbs, is burnt up.
The second angel trumpets and John sees what looks like a huge mountain that is ablaze being hurled into the sea. Some think here of a volcanic eruption, but this does not do justice to what it says. Volcanoes spew forth rocks and lava but volcanoes themselves are not flung into the sea. How we are to conceive of the actual event we cannot say. All we can say with certainty is that what John saw symbolized the terror of God’s judgment upon the sea.
We should interpret all disasters that take place on the sea in that light. This judgment is more severe than the first. One-third of the sea becomes blood; one-third of all the living creatures in the sea perish; one-third of the ships are destroyed and with them, of course, the passengers and crews. That one-third of the sea becomes blood reminds us of Exodus 7: 20, where we read that the Nile was turned into blood. The death of one-third of the fish also makes us think of that passage. In fact, these four judgments have many details in common with the plagues in Egypt.
The third angel blows his trumpet and John sees a blazing meteor fall from heaven, poisoning one-third of the rivers and fountains of waters. The name of this meteor or star is Wormwood, a symbolic term for bitterness. Somehow, the rivers have become poisoned so that the people cannot drink it and those who try it will die of the bitter water.
The fourth trumpet sounds and this time the plague falls upon the heavenly bodies. One-third of the sun, moon and stars are darkened. The result is that for one-third of the day and night all is dark. This is not scientifically possible, of course. If one-third of the heavenly bodies were darkened, their light would be diminished proportionally throughout the entire period of their shining. But we are dealing here with visions that, although they refer to actual physical events, are described in apocalyptic language.
Primary and Secondary Causes
What is the purpose of these first four trumpets and their accompanying plagues? I believe that God sends these natural disasters as a warning to the wicked that is always the purpose of earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes and other disasters that occur in the world. They are warnings from God. Science, of course, has a perfectly natural explanation for these phenomena and we need not reject this out of hand. As long as we realize that such explanations concern only secondary causes. Most people never go beyond such secondary, natural causes. They don’t see, or refuse to see, the primary cause: God.
It is God who casts the hail and fire upon the earth. Similarly, God casts that burning mountain and that great star into the sea and river respectively. Our modern news media don’t report catastrophes in such terms. Yet, it is remarkable that people still talk about “acts of God,” especially in connection with insurance policies, which often do not cover events such as earthquakes and tornadoes.
God’s Judgments are Tempered by Mercy
Scripture teaches that God’s purpose in sending judgments upon the earth is to bring sinful men to their senses. He gives them time and opportunity to repent. The Lord is so very patient! We see that here in the book of Revelation. God’s patience comes to expression in the fraction: one-third. So far, the plagues, awful as they are, are not yet universal in scope. They do not destroy everything on earth. Only one-third of earth, sea, rivers and celestial bodies are affected. It is still the smallest part. One-third is destroyed; two-thirds are still left intact. God’s judgments are not yet absolute and irreversible. The mercy and grace of God are still extended to a wicked race.
They are Increasing in Number and Size
Yet we should not overlook the fact that there is progression in God’s judgments. If we compare the effect of the first four trumpets with that of the first four seals it will be seen at once that there is an increase in the degree of destruction. The fourth horse and its rider traverse the earth and kill one-fourth part of mankind. Here it is more: one-third.
One-fourth represents the normal death rate in the world. Throughout this dispensation there have been hailstorms and other natural disasters and these have always taken their toll among men; but usually not more than one-fourth has been affected. Every year about one quarter of the earth’s vegetation of seas, fish and animal life are destroyed. Crops are ruined by droughts; diseases kill off great numbers of humans and animals. But now, with the trumpet judgments, the rate increases to one-third and soon, when the vials will be poured out, there will be an increase again. Then the judgment will be universal and total.
Do we not see this progression in our time? True, we have had many earthquakes in the past and other natural disasters as well. But according to scientists we are getting more and more of them. Statistics from the World Almanac show that between 1800 and 1896 there were only six major earthquakes in the world. But in each decade from 1897 to 1946 there were either two or three and in the decade from 1947 to 1956 there were seven. From 1957 to 1966 there were seventeen and we all know there have been many more earthquakes since then so that we hardly blink when we hear of a “minor” one that only kills a few such as recently in Turkey. Think of the tsunami in South East Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, and most recently in Japan. Great numbers of people have perished as a result of these calamities and the same can be said about famines and other natural disasters during the last decades.
The Twofold Effect of Divine Judgments
“One-third” therefore, symbolizes the increasingly severe judgments of God upon the earth. We can fully expect this rate to go up in years to come. Perhaps very gradually or very suddenly, we cannot tell. But either way things do not look good; at least, not for the world. And the world knows it. Never have people been more pessimistic than in our time.
Scientists are seriously concerned about the state of affairs on planet earth. Much is being written about the environment, about climate change, pollution, the rapid depletion of natural resources, the ozone layer in the atmosphere, unusual flooding, receding of the polar icecap, famines, etc.
For the Church, however, things look good, very good. When you see all these things taking place, Jesus said, “look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28).
How seldom do we look at the signs of the times this way! How often we react to what is happening the same way as the world does. And we forget that when God sends these judgments upon the earth He is doing this in direct answer to the prayers of His saints. Yes, the hard times we are beginning to experience are sent in answer to your prayers, Christian friends!
Wait a minute, you say; I never ask for earthquakes or famines or tornadoes or hurricanes! No, I guess not. But you do pray for the Lord Jesus to come soon, do you not? You pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom, right? Well, the Lord Jesus can only come back and His Kingdom can only be established fully after all these calamities have taken place. Paul says the fashion of this world (or the world in its present form) passes away (1 Cor. 7:31). The world as it is now, he is saying, will not last, but will make way for another, better world. There will be a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13). Shall we then hope for better times for this world? Shall we then put our faith in our political leaders, whether it is the President of the United States (the present one or the one who is trying to replace him in November) or the Prime Minister of Canada?
What we Should Pray for
The only biblical reason why a Christian should pray for prosperous and peaceful times is that the Church might be able to do her work. “Pray for kings,” Paul writes to Timothy, “and for all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness” (1 Tim. 2:2). Nowhere are we given biblical sanction to pray for good times so we may have an easy life for its own sake. How we need to have our outlook moulded by the Word of God!
Many of us who profess to be Christians are not too different from unbelievers when it comes to our hopes and aspirations for the future. If this is true, we are in great danger. If our hearts are in the world and wrapped up in earthly concerns we will be swept along with the world when God’s judgments will come in all their fury.
Therefore, if anyone reading this is still living apart from Christ, you need to pray that the Lord will open your eyes for this very real possibility. Flee to the only Refuge, Jesus Christ. Ask for the covering of His precious blood and seek the help of His Spirit so you may glorify God in your life! Remember that in the Lord’s Prayer, our Saviour teaches us to pray first that God’s Name be hallowed or sanctified, that His Kingdom may come and His will be done, and only then we are to pray for our own needs and concerns.
Trust God’s Promises
Voices, thunder, lightning and earthquakes still come down from the throne in answer to the prayers of those who love God and put Him first. These natural phenomena show that God rules and that He cares. Therefore, don’t be afraid when you see the old certainties of our world crumbling, when everything around you seems to be disintegrating so that nothing is stable any more: spiritual values, morals, customs, law and order, the economy, and even the weather.
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today, and forever.” “Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Heb. 13:8; Rev. 22:20).