Studies in Revelation—Lesson 20
by Reta Halteman Finger
Just as John’s apocalypse allows for interludes in the midst of his series of seals and trumpets, I’m going to insert my own interlude within this series of lessons about John’s book. The current astronomical and meteorological events of 2017 have overtaken the drama of John’s vision!
First there was the eclipse on August 21. For two minutes within a slender band across North America, the sun turned black and the sky grew dark, as in Revelation 6:12 or 8:12. Then Hurricane Harvey parked itself for days over southeast Texas, drowning Houston and the surrounding counties. An enormous and deadly 8.1 earthquake in southern Mexica followed, major aftershocks in its wake. In the meantime, Hurricane Irma—bigger than any previous hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean—gathered strength and poured its fury on Caribbean islands, finally drenching Florida and beyond. At the same time, the Associated Press reported 80 large fires raging out of control in nine Western states.
And today, as I write, a 7.1 earthquake has shaken Mexico City, toppling buildings and killing (so far) over 200 persons. Hurricane Maria, now a Category 4 storm, is pummeling some of the same Caribbean islands Irma did, then moving into Puerto Rico.
In an email, my sister comments on the return of the plagues of Egypt. My editor, Letha Scanzoni, sends me a cartoon by Tom Toles in the Washington Post. Engulfed in flames and surrounded by water filled with debris, the White House sports a flag announcing “Climate Change Denial.” From an overhead cloud, an angel comments to a white-bearded God: “We’ve sent wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, drought, tornadoes…we’re down to frogs and locusts, yet still the Pharaoh’s head is hard…”
Actually, John alludes to those Egyptian plagues in Revelation, as he describes darkened or disappearing skies in 6:12-16 or 8:12, or the hail and fire of 8:7, the poisoned water of 8:10-11, or the earthquakes of 6:12 and 11:13. And, yes, locusts in 9:3-11.
John writes about earthly chaos with the same dramatic effect as today’s meteorologists tracing Harvey’s or Irma’s paths over the Atlantic Ocean. His visions of people heading in panic for rocks and mountains in 6:15-16 match news photos of homes immersed to their roofs and people fleeing for their lives.
God’s judgment and natural disasters
Readers of this Bible study series on Revelation know that the contexts of John’s visions are rooted in his Hebrew scriptures or describe political or natural disasters from John’s current situation. But fundamentalist end-time Christians interpret the content of Revelation’s seals, trumpets, and bowls as future events that may even be happening now. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hail, fire, locusts, and other disasters are signs of divine judgment on sinful people. According to this interpretation, the faster they come, the closer we are to the end of this age when true Christians are raptured to heaven and those left behind suffer great tribulation.
The Christian Post website includes various articles and headlines by or about prominent evangelical or fundamentalist Christians theologizing about our recent spate of natural phenomena. Anne Graham Lotz (Billy Graham’s daughter) sees the recent solar eclipse as representing a time of “darkening” in America today and a call to repent. “I believe we are living at the end of human history, …my generation is the last,” she had said in a May 2016 interview when asked if there were “apocalyptic consequences to God’s pending judgement on America.” Is she now interpreting the hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires of August-September as evidence that judgment is indeed imminent?
Jason and David Benham, two pro-life activists and conservative Christian brothers from North Carolina, have suggested that the hurricanes striking the United States are a message from God to the people to return to traditional boundaries on gender and sexuality. On the other hand, an opinion piece by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post observes that Pat Robertson and James Dobson and others who usually rush to pronounce God’s judgment on victims of disasters have been more restrained this time. Is it because both Texas and Florida voted for Trump and an administration that denies climate change and rolls back policies intended to curb it?
Biblical interpretation and scientific observation
So many disagreements among Christians result from different assumptions about how to interpret the Bible. (See Lessons 1-7 in my series on Hermeneutics.) When we read God’s Word as literal words straight from the mouth of God for all times and places, we get many things wrong. In the ancient Middle East, it was natural for Israelites to connect natural disasters with God’s judgment for sin. Already in Genesis 6-9 we read about Noah’s flood as a punishment for some obscure “wickedness.” When terrible disasters strike without scientific explanation, people assume there must be a reason. (A major flood likely did occur in that area, since other Mediterranean peoples also have flood stories from this time period, citing different reasons for it.)
But today scientists can explain the laws of the physical universe in ways that would have been inaccessible to John of Patmos or any other biblical writer. Tectonic plates grinding together under the earth’s crust create earthquakes. Lava from earth’s hot core pushes upward to produce volcanoes. Earth’s rotation and many other factors create our changing weather. Solar and lunar eclipses can be predicted to the minute and second.
It is hard for many Christians to accept the fact that God neither plans nor prevents natural disasters.
Francis Collins, a brilliant scientist and geneticist, integrates his faith and science in his readable book, The Language of God. On the question of why God allows such natural disasters, Collins writes, “…[T]he universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured” (p. 45). Collins reminds us that if God did frequently intervene to alter these physical laws, chaos would result. Human life as we know it could not exist.
Instead, God may be trying to explain these recent extreme events to us through the scientists who study the laws that govern our planet. They have learned beyond any reasonable doubt that our planet is warming through the increase of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. This further warms the ocean water in the northern hemisphere. By late summer, hurricanes sweeping across the water are able to draw up more moisture, increase wind speed, and dump it on the land they encounter. One or two unusually violent storms are not definitive, but they add to the growing body of evidence; earth’s climate is changing because of human activity.
Among the headlines and articles at www.christianpost.com about the eclipse and current natural disasters, I did not find any that discussed climate change. Yet what can be more ominous than a warming world with ever greater weather extremes? Harvey, Irma, and Maria may themselves be the harbingers of God’s inevitable judgment on human behavior that refuses to take responsibility for the care of our planet.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- Why do you think so many conservative Christians seem to resist accepting the reality of climate change?
- Can you articulate your approach to interpreting biblical texts? What is the relationship between divine and human input? Between eternal truth and cultural relativity?
Collins, Francis. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006).
Smith, Samuel, “Anne Graham Lotz: God May Now Be Hiding from America.” The Christian Post, Sept. 10, 2017.
Zaimov, Stoyan, “Benham Brothers: Hurricanes Are God’s Message for America to Restore Boundaries on Gender Sexuality.” The Christian Post, Sept. 12, 2017
Milbank, Dana. “Did Lesbians Cause Hurricanes Irma and Harvey? God Knows.” Washington Post, September 8, 2017.
Zaimov, Stoyan, “Franklin Graham on Hurricanes, Fires, Earthquakes: World Needs to Prepare for Jesus Christ’s Return.” The Christian Post, Sept. 11, 2017.
Akpan, Nsikan. “Two Devastating Earthquakes Hit Mexico in as Many Weeks. Here’s why.” PBS NewsHour, September 19, 1017