At that very moment there was a violent earthquake; a tenth of the city was destroyed, and seven thousand people were killed. (Rev 11:13)
Dates, times, and numbers are plentiful in the book of Revelation and there is an almost overwhelming temptation to “decode” all of these into a literal framework. Are the 144,000 saints of Revelation 7 a literal or symbolic group of individuals? In the trumpet phase of Revelation 8, one-third of everything seems to be destroyed. Is that a literal or symbolic fraction? The locusts of Revelation 9 are given power to torture people for five months. Revelation 11 describes forty-two months and 1,260 days (or are they years?). Two witnesses are killed, resurrected and then a violent earthquake destroys one-tenth of a city and seven thousand people die. In Revelation 12, a huge red dragon arises that has a specified number of heads and horns and is associated with the number 666.
These numbers are often plugged into a rigid framework which some believe provides a schedule of future events and the identification of specific nations and even individuals. With one eye on the daily news, some have confidently believed Revelation to describe Russia, America, Iran, Israel and terrorist organizations. When I was in college, I knew some people who were convinced that Ronald Wilson Reagan would usher in the kingdom of the beast given that there were six letters in his first, middle and last names (666). Others have found the events of 9/11 in Revelation and believe that the book predicts that Iran will bomb Israel and that Russia will invade the Middle East. It is interesting to consider, however, that in the 1800’s it was commonly believed that Turkey (not Iran or Russia) was a major figure in the book of Revelation. But since Turkey doesn’t seem to fit very well in today’s political climate, the nations have been updated. If our world lasts another 150 years, there is no doubt that some will adjust their interpretation to reflect whatever nation might be powerful or threatening at that time in history.
As a reaction against this, some have tried to avoid the numbers entirely. But does this swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction? The key to understanding the book of Revelation is to view it primarily as a revelation of who God is. Bauckham writes that “Revelation is overwhelming concerned with the truth of God” (1). At the center of the throne, we are surprised to discover that God is most accurately portrayed as a slaughtered Lamb. But God is not the only actor on stage in this story. The villain in Revelation’s drama is Satan who is symbolized by an animal that is as far removed from the description of a slaughtered Lamb as possible – a ferocious and devouring beast. We are a part of the story as well, but primarily as we align ourselves either with the beast or the slaughtered Lamb and then become a part of their story. Revelation is constructed through extensive use of the Old Testament and the life and death of Jesus. Bauckham writes:
“The theology of Revelation is highly theocentric. This, along with its distinctive doctrine of God, is its greatest contribution to New Testament theology. Our study of it must begin with God and will both constantly and finally return to God… [John] has forged his own distinctive forms of God-language, not, of course, de novo, but by creative use of the resources of Jewish and Jewish Christian tradition. His book is the product of a highly reflective consciousness of God. Any account of its theology must give priority, as it does, to its distinctive ways of speaking of the divine.” (2)
Revelation describes a contested throne and asks the question, “Who will we choose to worship, the Lamb or the beast?” The beast deceives “the whole world” (Rev 12:9, 20:8), except the few. It isn’t that those who worship the beast are irreligious. In fact, they believe that they are worshiping God, just as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed that they were worshiping the true God. Jesus shocked those very religious people by telling them, “You are of your father, the devil” (John 8:44). The Pharisees’ central mistake was that they did not know what God was like. They certainly did not believe that He was anything like Jesus. Revelation brings us back to these central questions, “What is God like?” and “Are we worshiping a God who is just like Jesus in character?” The primary issue involved in worship of either the Lamb or the beast is our picture of who God is: “True knowledge of who God is is inseparable from worship of God” (3).
For the early Christians, the book of Revelation was read out loud in church and in one sitting. We lose much of the intended experience of this book when we slowly dissect each verse and every horn. There is a place for that approach, but only after we have read and re-read the entire book (and the entire bible for that matter) and internalized its central message.
Bauckham beautifully describes Revelation as a dramatic performance that is designed to bring us into the action, much like an epic-movie series such as “Star Wars” or “The Lord of the Rings”:
“John’s vision creates a single symbolic universe in which its readers may live for the time it takes to read (or hear) the book…The power, the profusion and the consistency of the symbols have a literary-theological purpose. They create a symbolic world which readers can enter so fully that it affects them and changes their perception of the world. Most ‘readers’ were originally, of course, hearers. Revelation was designed for oral enactment in Christian worship services. Its effect would therefore be somewhat comparable to a dramatic performance, in which the audience enters the world of the drama for its duration and can have the perception of the world outside the drama powerfully shifted by their experience of the world of the drama” (4).
“Revelation has suffered from interpretation which takes its images too literally. Even the most sophisticated interpreters all too easily slip into treating the images as codes which need only to be decoded to yield literal predictions. But this fails to take the images seriously as images. John depicts the future in images in order to be able to do both more and less than a literal prediction could. Less, because Revelation does not offer a literal outline of the course of future events – as though prophecy were merely history written in advance. But more, because what it does provide is insight into the nature of God’s purpose for the future, and does so in a way that shapes the readers’ attitudes to the future and invites their active participation in the divine purpose.” (5)
In this article, we will consider Bauckham’s interpretation of the earthquake described in Revelation 11:13 as a general approach to all of the numbers, dates and times. To understand this earthquake, we need to back up and consider the role of the two witnesses of Revelation 11. According to Bauckham, these two witnesses symbolize the church and its faithful witness to world about Jesus Christ. “The story is more like a parable, which dramatizes the nature and the result of the church’s witness…the story dramatizes what will be happening all the time while Christians bear faithful witness [about Jesus] to the world” (6).
The two witnesses are referred to as “the two olive trees and the two lamps that stand before the Lord of the earth” (Rev 11:4). Both Zechariah’s vision of the two olive trees and the fact that Revelation describes the seven churches as representing the seven lampstands (Rev 1:12,20) support the interpretation that the two witnesses represent the faithful church. They are also fashioned after the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Moses. Like Elijah, they “have authority to shut up the sky so that there will be no rain during the time they proclaim God’s message” (Rev. 11:6). And like Moses, “They have authority also over the springs of water, to turn them into blood; they have authority also to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they wish” (Rev. 11:6). Like the prophets Elijah and Moses “…who both confronted the world of pagan idolatry they set the precedent for the church’s prophetic witness to the world” (7).
These two prophets are also like Jesus in that they are killed and then resurrected. “The principle precedent for the death of the two witnesses is that of Jesus. The parallel continues with their resurrection and ascension after three and a half days (11:11-12): John has converted the three days of the Gospel story into the conventional apocalyptic number three and a half. So it is the witness of Jesus himself that the witnesses continue, and their death is a participation in the blood of the Lamb. It is also clear from the universalistic language of 11:9-10 that it is a witness to all nations” (8).
They die in ‘the great city’ or Sodom (11:8) but elsewhere in Revelation, ‘the great city’ refers to “…any and every city in which the church bears its prophetic witness to the nations” (9). The result of their witness to Jesus Christ is spectacular and brings us to some important numbers:
“Then the two prophets heard a loud voice say to them from heaven, ‘Come up here!’ As their enemies watched, they went up into heaven in a cloud. At that very moment there was a violent earthquake; a tenth of the city was destroyed, and seven thousand people were killed. The rest of the people were terrified and praised the greatness of the God of heaven” (Rev 11:12-13 GNB).
Bauckham’s understanding of the “tenth of the city” and the “seven thousand” rightfully looks first for the Old Testament source:
“In the judgments announced by the Old Testament prophets a tenth part (Isa 6:13, Amos 5:3) or seven thousand people (1 Kings 19:18) are the faithful remnant who are spared when the judgment wipes out the majority.” (10)
What is remarkable then in the use of the “tenth” and “seven thousand” in Revelation is that it seems to represent exactly the opposite of the meaning in the Old Testament. For example, after Elijah’s earthly ministry, he essentially said to God, “I think that I’m the last one left that is loyal to you, God. My ministry has been a failure” (1 Kings 19:14). God’s response was to say that there are still 7,000 left who are loyal. In Revelation, however, the effectiveness of the new “Elijah” (the faithful church) is dramatically reversed in that now only 7,000 (or one-tenth) are judged while the remaining are still subject to conversion as they “praised the greatness of the God of heaven” (Rev 11:13). Bauckham concludes:
“Only a tenth suffers the judgment, and the ‘remnant’ who are spared are the nine-tenths. Not the faithful minority, but the faithless majority are spared, so that they may come to repentance and faith. Thanks to the witness of the witnesses, the judgment is actually salvific. In this way, John indicates the novelty of the witness of the two witnesses over and against the Old Testament prophets whom he has used as the precedents. This is especially the case in that the reference to the seven thousand alludes to the effect of Elijah’s ministry. Elijah was to bring about the judgment of all except the faithful seven thousand, who were spared. The two witnesses [in contrast to this] will bring about the conversion of all except the seven thousand, who are judged. Of course, the contrast is made in symbolic terms, and so it would be inappropriate to wonder why the seven thousand could not also have been converted. To be the witnesses who bring the nations to faith in the one true God is the novel role of God’s eschatological people, revealed by the scroll that only the Lamb has been able to open. If we ask how the prophetic witness of the church is able to have this effect, which that of the Old Testament prophets did not, the answer is no doubt that it derives its power from the victory of the Lamb himself. His witness had the power of a witness maintained even to the point of death and then vindicated as true witness by his resurrection. The witness of his followers participates in this power when they too are faithful witnesses even to death. The symbolic narrative of 11:11-12 means not that the nations have to see the literal resurrection of the Christian martyrs before they are convinced of this truth of their witness, but that they have to perceive the martyrs’ participation in Christ’s triumph over death” (11, emphasis mine).
“Whereas modern terminology calls martyrdom ‘passive resistance’, John’s military imagery makes it just as active as any physical warfare. While rejecting the apocalyptic militancy that called for literal holy war…John’s message is not, ‘Do not resist!’ It is, “Resist! – but by witness and martyrdom, not by violence…In this light, we can see why Revelation portrays the future as though all faithful Christians will be martyred. The message of the book is that if Christians are faithful to their calling to bear witness to the truth against the claims of the beast, they will provoke a conflict with the beast so critical as to be a struggle to the death…The beast will tolerate no dissent from his self-deification. Witness to the truth is inconsistent with any compromise with his lies…there can be no compromise between the truth of God and the idolatrous lie of the beast…It is not a literal prediction that every faithful Christian will in fact be put to death. But it does require that every faithful Christian must be prepared to die” (12).
One approach to the earthquake, the death of the one-tenth or seven thousand in Revelation 11:13 is to search for a specific date and time of a literal earthquake (past or present) that will kill one-tenth or seven thousand in a city. But even if we were able to decipher such a date, how helpful would that be to the Christian life? What this story does tell us with remarkably vivid imagery is that when the followers of Christ unite to live out the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, the results are spectacular. The great prophet Elijah called down a literal fire from heaven yet in the end there were only seven thousand that had not bowed their knee to Baal. As Christians we have a much greater and more effective fire to light – a fire that Jesus described this way, “I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49 GNB).
If the book of Revelation provided us merely with a pre-planned schedule of events of when things are to occur, we would be encouraged to sit back and just observe as the future is played out as history. Rather, the book of Revelation tells us how to become a part of the story and encourages us with the promise that we can join with Christ in the work of changing the hearts and minds of the entire world. In Bauckham’s words, “what it does provide is insight into the nature of God’s purpose for the future, and does so in a way that shapes the readers’ attitudes to the future and invites their active participation in the divine purpose” (13).
– Written by Dr. Brad Cole
- Richard Bauckham, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation” 1993, pg 160
- Ibid., pg 22, 23
- Ibid., pg. 24
- Ibid., pg. 10
- Ibid., pg. 93
- Ibid., pg. 84, 85
- Ibid., pg. 85
- Ibid., pg. 86
- Ibid., pg. 86
- Ibid., pg. 85
- Ibid., pg. 87
- Ibid., pg. 92, 93
- Ibid., pg. 93