Summary: Natural disasters may be natural, but they are also acts of God, and if they don't remind us of his power and alert us to his coming judgment they should.
The scroll with seven seals that Jesus was handed in chapter 5 is now open. The first four seals loosed the four horsemen of the apocalypse: war, violence, famine, and death. The fifth seal let the prayers of the saints loose upon the world. Who would have thought that the prayers of the saints - that’s us, folks, you and me and all those whom God has called to belong to him - would be part of the judgment of God, sandwiched in between death and destruction? Right after the prayers of the saints comes the opening of the sixth seal, featuring earthquakes, darkness at noon, falling stars, and terror on every side.
We’re tempted to look at John’s Revelation chronologically, to assume that all this is part of an as-yet-to-come set of end days which we can count and measure and predict. But I’m not convinced of that. Because the saints have been praying for justice and redemption since before the fall of Jerusalem. They’ve been praying for justice and redemption since they were captives in Egypt. Are we to take from this chapter that the prayers of the saints are not effective until the end times?
No, I think not.
Everything that happens in heaven is mirrored on earth in some way that we do not yet understand. But I suggest to you that all of these evils that were let loose by the first six seals have been part of life on earth since the fall, when Adam and Eve were booted out of the Garden and God let death loose in the land. Death is the fourth horseman. Has he not roamed abroad in the land before now? War is the first horseman. Has there ever been a time when war has been absent? As I said only a few weeks ago, war, famine, and disease are normal. They are ever-present ingredients in the human condition, and will be until the final redemption of the world.
What we are seeing in this throne room is the whole design of God’s plan from beginning to end, and the end was already known at the beginning. Our timing is not the same as God’s.
And so we come at last to the seventh seal. Of them all, this one is one we have most likely not yet seen worked out on earth. My literalist commentary points out that when the first angel blows his trumpet, “and there came hail and fire, mixed with blood, and they were hurled to the earth; and a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up” [v. 7] these echo the plagues of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. And so it may be
either a reference to those days, which was a time when God meted out both justice and redemption, or those long-ago days may be a preview of a second visitation of hail and fire and blood.
The second angel tells of “something like a great mountain, burning with fire [being] thrown into the sea.” [v. 8] The most popular explanation for this event seems to be a huge asteroid collision. U.S. News and World Report reported in 1995 that asteroids “are a cosmic accident waiting to happen: ... the solar system is encircled by a 90-billion-mile-wide disk-like cloud of at least 200 million mountainous chunks of dirt and ice, some of which occasionally come hurtling through the solar system as starry-eyed comets.”
And then the third angel’s prediction sounds, say the literalists, remarkably like nuclear destruction: a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.” [v. 10-11] The reference to “wormwood” hints at poison, and may refer to radiation poisoning.
The fourth angel speaks of the light of the sun being dimmed by a third. Some think this is a reference to a nuclear winter, others to the kind of weather changes that occur after a great volcanic eruption like Krakatoa. We've seen that kind of thing occur in recorded history, not to mention the climate change caused in prehistory by the meteorite strikes in Siberia and the Gulf of Mexico. But however
you interpret the details, everyone agrees that these aren’t the actual end of life as we know it. They only destroy part of the earth and its resources, and are intended to wake people up to the existence of God, the reality of his wrath, and their need for repentance.
But you know what? We don’t know exactly what is going to happen, or when. We don’t know if these predictions are of asteroids or nuclear bombs or global warming or God only knows what - and I don’t mean that lightly - as yet unimagined horrors. We won’t know until the end, and look back, and see the whole pattern whole. But what we do know is that these visions were given to us for a reason, and at least part of the reason is to help us to interpret what is going on in the world around us, and how to live faithfully in the midst of all the chaos and confusion.