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Environmental degradation and the plagues of Revelation

Stained glass window. Plagues of Revelation
The Lamb on Mount Zion and the Redeemed / East window of Yorkminster. Wikimedia Commons

In another article, I have described how the fall of man explains human incompetence in taking proper care of the environment. It represents an act of rebellion against God, the rightful Lord of the universe. This time, I’d like to look at the last book of the Bible. Many of the plagues of Revelation show some kind of environmental degradation working out. 

Most people today want to live in a clean environment. Most of us appreciate biodiversity. We have some systemic problems, though. We have learned to make things that have a bad environmental impact, but not how to control them or find better substitutes. Many of us talk green better than we live green.  

Alas, other people are more interested in pursuing criminal activities and wars. And these have a very detrimental environmental impact. 

When Jesus’ disciples asked him for signs of the last days, he said it would be like the days of Noah. And the days of Noah saw such wickedness that God sent the flood to destroy everyone. We don’t get a very detailed explanation, but we can figure that it featured all the violence, oppression, and sexual depravity we find in Sodom. 

A new era of violence opened with the dropping of the atomic bombs over Japanese cities at the end of the Second World War. I understand that the biblical description of the skies rolling up like a scroll describes the appearance of a nuclear explosion. The opening of the Atomic Age brought interest in the end times out of the church and into secular society. We see biblical plagues today.

The literary structure of Revelation

It’s easy to think of Revelation as taking place in some unknowable future time. Pity the poor people of that time who have to go through the plagues of Revelation. On this view, we can pretty much live our lives as if none of it directly applies to us. But what if it is a symbolic description of everything that happens between Jesus’ ascension and his return? What if, to some extent, we’re living through the plagues of Revelation and have been for two millennia?

Beginning in chapter 6, Revelation describes seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. At first glance, the plagues appear to represent a strict chronological order. First the seals, then the trumpets, then, after a four-chapter gap, the bowls. 

Time

Angel of Revelation / William Blake. Plagues of Revelation

Angel of Revelation / William Blake, ca 1804. Wikimedia Commons

But that sequence is an unavoidable literary necessity. Whatever we experience, much else is happening at the same time in other parts of the world. Modern fiction writers try, with very limited success, to suggest simultaneous actions. They have developed new techniques, unknown to the ancients, to do it. 

Writers must describe events in a particular order, and nothing requires them to make it chronological. In fact, the Bible frequently uses some order other than chronological.

When you look at the content of these 21 judgments, you’ll notice some conditions that began before Jesus’ first coming. John tells relates them among others that have only been possible in recent centuries and still more that the world has not yet seen.

Also, Revelation gives no indication of how long anything takes. Or whether some interval of time separates one event from another. Do not think that the plagues of Revelation occur in a set sequence or try to determine how long they last. Concern with such details only misses the point.

Symbolism

The weird symbolism uses plenty of conventional imagery from the Old Testament and apocalyptic literature written between the testaments. It’s not intended to be taken literally. 

But suppose John actually saw events unfolding and tried to describe them. He could not possibly understand societies other than his own or times in his future. So whatever does not conform to the conventional imagery familiar to his readers reflects his inability to understand what he’s seeing. 

And, of course, the scene keeps changing between heaven and earth. Who could ever literally explain what the immaterial world looks like?

The seven seals

Black horse of the apocalypse. Plagues of Revelation

Black Horse / Queen Mary Apocalypse, 1300-1325. Picryl

The plagues of Revelation begin with the Lamb of God opening a scroll Each time he opens one of the first four seals, a voice summons a horseman, who has a destructive mission on earth. These missions are military conquest, civil war, famine, and death. The fourth seal specifies death by sword, famine, plague, and wild beasts.  So it’s more than just the results of the first three. 

At what time in all of recorded history have these things not taken place somewhere?

At the fifth seal, the martyrs offer their prayers for vengeance. Although they’re told to wait, the sixth seal ushers in additional terrors:

  • earthquakes
  • blackened sun
  • blood-red moon
  • stars falling
  • sky rolled up like a scroll
  • people trying to hide from all of it

At the seventh seal, seven angels each receive a trumpet. Another angel flings the accumulated prayers of God’s people down on the earth with wrath. The environmental degradation of the Revelation plagues intensifies.

The seven trumpets

At the first trumpet, a third of the earth, a third of the trees, and all the green grass burn up.  When the second sounds, a third of the sea becomes blood. A third of all the fish die, and a third of all the ships are destroyed. At the third trumpet, Wormwood poisons a third of the rivers. Many people die. The fourth trumpet darkens a third of the sun, moon, and stars.

The last three trumpets wreak fearsome havoc on earth as the abyss is opened and imprisoned demons are released from the Euphrates River. Locusts here can’t mean natural locusts, though. They leave vegetation alone and inflict pain directly on humans–without killing them. Other plagues and wars kill plenty of people, though. The trumpet judgments end with a declaration of Jesus’ final victory and the opening of the heavenly temple.

Before John goes on to describe the bowl judgments, he talks about the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth. They require all people to accept a certain mark in order to be able to buy or sell anything. 

The seven bowls

The seven bowl plagues of Revelation

The Giving of the Seven Bowls of Wrath / Matthias Gerung, ca. 1530. Wikimedia Commons

The first bowl causes malignant sores to break out on those who bear the mark of the beast. Later bowls destroy everything in the sea and rivers. The sun scorches the earth. Even the mighty Euphrates River dries up.

All this environmental degradation causes the inhabitants of the earth great physical pain. But it doesn’t keep them from a massive civil war. 

When the seventh bowl is poured out on the air, a great cataclysm destroys everything. This judgment completes the plagues of Revelation.

Terrifying, but not the end of the story.

God makes a new heaven and earth. The redeemed live there, and God moves in with them. Unimaginable blessings follow the unimaginable catastrophes necessary to destroy evil permanently.

Environmental degradation that may match the plagues of Revelation

These plagues have both natural and supernatural causes. This post is only concerned with natural events. What follows is a selection of the ones that can be tied to human mismanagement of the environment. We can categorize biblical end times signs as signs in the heavens, signs in the waters, and signs on land. These latter include advanced in technology. Between conditions of long standing and newly invented ones, biblical plagues are happening today.

Plagues of the heavens

Smog. environmental degradation

Smog in Wuhan, Hubei, China. October 3, 2016.
Wikimedia Commons

Note how often Revelation describes partial darkness of the sun, moon, and stars. Two modern phenomena, smog and light pollution, affect the appearance of the sky.

Smog places a layer of opaque particulate matter between us and outer space. The heavenly bodies shine just as brightly as ever, but they can’t appear as bright from the Earth through polluted air.

At night, there are just as many stars as ever. But the major cites of the world turn on artificial lights at night. They don’t just shine down, where the light would benefit people. They shine upwards, too. A layer of wasted light, called sky glow, shines above our cities. Most stars can’t shine through it. About 80% of the world’s population can’t see the full glory of the night sky because of sky glow. And that’s only one aspect of light pollution.

Plagues of the water

Water pollution is nothing new. American cities in colonial times had to fight to keep paper mills from fouling drinking water. But new problems crop up all the time. 

Now we have “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAS). They’re used in such life-saving products as the foam that puts out fires. But now, they’ve gotten into drinking water. And they’re so durable that nothing breaks down these “forever chemicals.” 

People have them in their bloodstream. What are the long-term health effects? God only knows.  

The plagues of Revelation include water turning to blood. Coastal areas have long suffered from periodic algae blooms. Some are red in color. But lately, other bodies of water have turned red at least temporarily. 

For example, Lonar Lake in India suddenly turned red in June 2020. Scientists sent water to labs for testing. They have a couple of possible explanations, but no definitive answers. And whatever turned the lake red would not explain other reports of rivers turning red.

The coronavirus outbreak has caused new environmental degradation. Everyone throughout the world has to wear masks. Too many of them choose masks of disposable plastic. They also overuse plastic disposable gloves. These products might come in packaged in plastic bags, too. 

More people worldwide use these things than dispose of them properly. Who hasn’t seen parking lots and sidewalks littered with this new junk? They too quickly join the rest of the plastic trash that flows into our oceans. That’s at least millions of masks and gloves discarded every single day. 

If the pandemic lasts much longer, a time might come when masks outnumber jellyfish in the oceans. And the jellyfish population is starting to populate parts of the ocean it never did before as the waters become warmer. 

Plagues on land

Earthquake-damaged house. environmental degradation
Earthquake-damaged house. Martin Luff via Flickr

Biblical plagues today on land include earthquakes and famine.

The world has always known earthquakes. Many of them result in tsunamis. But never before have so many people lived so close to the ocean. Some cities, Seattle, Washington, for example, grew large before anyone realized that they were built on major faults. The “big one” there and other places in the world will cause millions of deaths.

The past 50 years or so have seen dramatic progress in the quest to eradicate starvation. At the same time the world population has grown larger than ever before, the number of starving people has become smaller than it has been in more than a century. Credit the so-called “green revolution” of the 1970s with devising superior crops and farming techniques. 

But the pace of progress seems to have slowed. The numbers of people living in starvation hasn’t declined over the last few years. It appears, though, that wars and other violence, not inability to provide enough food, are keeping the starving population as high as it is. Wars figure prominently in the plagues of Revelation. 

Not only that, but National Public Radio had a story on locust swarms in Africa that called them “a plague of biblical scope.” Under certain conditions, locusts can become so numerous that they obscure sunlight and eat up to 80% of the crops planted in the afflicted areas. In a single day!

And need I say more about climate change? Many observers scream that we have only twelve years to prevent catastrophe and that world governments have to take draconian measures. I think they’re wrong in much of what they say, but compare their rhetoric with all the imagery of burning and drying of rivers in Revelation!

Threats from new technology

Google server room. environmental degradation
Google server room. Source unknown

Technology now exists to make both cash and credit cards obsolete. Have an electronic chip implanted in your hand. More than 4,000 people in Sweden have already chosen to do so. They pay for purchases simply by swiping their hand past a sensor. What’s more, they can use it in place of keycards to enter buildings. Oh, and measure anything an Apple Watch or Fitbit does.

This technology’s convenience comes at the cost of surrendering privacy. All this personal data goes out into cyberspace. No one actually controls it. Hackers and identity thieves will have a field day. 

But that’s not all. We have already had an “Internet of Things.” Phones, televisions, thermostats, and other appliances are already hooked up to the internet. 

Some environmentalists are looking forward to a “circular economy.” Manufacturers will have to take back everything they make, refurbish what they can, and recycle everything else. 

That will eliminate waste. But it will also call for a massive expansion of the Internet of Things. Manufacturers will need to know the location and condition of everything they make. They can’t do that without collecting everyone’s personal data. And exposing it to hackers and thieves.

Revelation 13:16-17 describes how the beast compels everyone to submit to a mark on their hand or forehead in order to be able to buy or sell anything. The invention of the bar code represented the first technology to make any such thing possible. Now, miniaturization has reduced it to a chip the size of a grain of rice.

Physically, it’s probably safe  enough in the body now. But imagine a world government mandating that billions of people accept one. Scaling it up quickly invites cutting corners. Cheap materials and hasty, unsanitary practices in installing them can easily account for the first bowl judgment. 

What can we do about all this?

Peaceable kingdom
Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch / Edward Hicks.
Wikimedia Commons

Most of every society wants to live with all the benefits of sustainability. In principle, we should be able to cooperate to attain it. I would be the last person to suggest that we shouldn’t take care of the planet we call home. We should look out for what’s best for each other. And in an unfallen world, we would.

But we are a race of rebels against the Lord of the Universe. Whether through negligence, ignorance, or evil intent, we have caused extensive environmental degradation. It only becomes more extensive as our technology and communications become more sophisticated. As a result, we are incapable of the level of goodwill and cooperation necessary to build a sustainable society. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

God, in the meantime, intends to set right everything we have done to destroy his creation. It requires all the plagues of Revelation to accomplish it. The world is in for rougher times than we have ever seen.

And that’s good news.

Once God destroys evil, he will make a new heaven and earth and provide unimaginable blessings for his people. All anyone needs to do to inherit these blessings is to decide to live for God and not against him. Otherwise . . . 

Shop related products:


The Bible and the Environment (Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World)

The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation

For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care

When the River Ran Gray / David M. Guion [Dan River coal ash spill, North Carolina, 2014]

Understanding Our Covenants with God: God’s Grace, Judgment, and Promise to Restore Human Perfection, from Adam to Moses to Jesus
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