What on earth is going on?

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people slay each other. To him was given a large sword. (Rev 6.1–4)

I first read the Book of Revelation as a teenager in a Baptist Church Bible study group. We were fascinated by the vision of Jesus in chapter 1, challenged by the messages to the Christians in the seven cities in 2 and 3, and awed by the vision of the worship of God in 4 and 5. But when it came to chapter 6, we suddenly felt God was leading us to study something else! Most Christians feel the same anxiety, though a smaller group read with relish what they see as God’s plan to get his own back by unleashing retributive violence in the End Times. Fear and glee are both mistaken reading strategies.

John’s image of the four horseman comes from the prophet Zechariah, where these are sent by God. But in Revelation, God’s sovereignty is permissive, rather than directive; one of God’s living creatures from the throne calls forth the horses, not God himself. God no more creates and inflicts chaos, violence and death than lighting a candle creates the darkness of its shadows. Yet John is clear that even these terrible things are not beyond God’s sovereignty; the discordant notes of war, famine and death are held within the steady rhythm of Jesus opening the seven seals to disclose God’s will for the world.

These vivid images of chaos and destruction have gripped the imagination of readers down all the generations, and have continued to shape contemporary culture. In seeking to understand this text, we need to look not for things to which the images refer, as if this was a coded version of future history, but the things which (as metaphors) the images evoke, both from the canon of Scripture and the context of John’s world.

For John’s first readers, these verses describe a world they know and live in—a world marked by periodic famine and shortage, one of chronic disease and early death (especially in the often overcrowded cities of the empire), a world in which earthquakes bring sudden destruction and devastation. John is not yet disclosing to them an unknown future, but revealing the reality about the present. The imperial myth of peace and prosperity is exposed as just that—a myth—and this is true for all human empires in every age. There is only one who is sovereign—the one by whose permission the horsemen are released to allow humanity to reap what it has sown—and this one is not the emperor. And it is he alone, not the emperor, who can offer answers to the crisis that faces humanity—he alone who can usher in the true age of peace and prosperity.

(This a slightly longer version of the ‘Word for the Week’ published last Monday by LICC, the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. If you want to receive the next two installments of this series straight into your inbox, you can sign up to LICC’s mailing list here)

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16 thoughts on “What on earth is going on?”

    • Ron, that is a bizarre comment.

      For one, I make it clear that we didn’t actually read this part of Revelation. For another, the approach of the group was church historical, a reading I was never persuaded by.

      For a third, I was at the time Roman Catholic.

      So do come back with some engagement, and leave behind the ad hominems. Thanks!

      • Dear Ian,

        I apologise for misreading your article on this matter. However, I do find that your parsimonious outlook towards Inclusion of ALL people in the Gospel outreach to the world a little ‘Sola Scriptura’ in its essence. Contrarily, this morning, I read on a Jesuit website – during its 3-minute retreat – the following observation, which, I think, clearly defines the Good News the Church should be sharing with our world today, reflecting on Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

        ” Inspired by the grace of God, Paul was compelled to reach out to the Gentiles to include them in his ministry of preaching the Gospel. This caused controversy among the Jewish Christians, who believed that Gentile converts must first be circumcised. Paul knew then what we know today: God is the God of all people. No exceptions. No humanly imposed qualifications. Everyone is saved by Jesus in ways known only to God.”

        Circumcision was associated with ritual purity. We have our ritual puritans still in the Church today.

        • Thanks for engaging more positively Ron. Can I check out two things in your or their reading of Paul.

          1. ‘Everyone is saved by Jesus in ways known only to God.’. Is this suggesting that Paul was a universalist? Really? How do you square that with his insistence in Romans 10 that it is our testimony of Jesus which leads to salvation?

          2. I am not aware of anyone I know suggesting that certain people are beyond the gospel by virtue of who they are. Have you read someone in blog comments here suggesting so?

          Paul’s sense of inclusion was indeed radical: all and every kind of person was invited to the free gift of justification and sanctification in Jesus. Are you suggesting that Paul didn’t have a specific and high view of ethics and holiness? If so, how do you account for his language in, for example, the contrast in Gal 5.19–23?

          • Ian, in answer to your questions here:

            1. Their (Jesuit) reading, with which I agree, allows that even Paul was astounded by what he perceived to be God’s openness to what God’s Son, Jesus, had achieved on behalf of ALL humanity – salvation. I agree with the writer that this is known ‘only to Go’ and God’s business.

            1. I guess, further (though) that people need to be encouraged by the Church to enter into this inheritance which God has already provided in Christ.

            2. Not directly.I am making a supposition based on conservative Evangelical premises which you seem to advocate.

            3. Yes, I agree that Paul’s sense of inclusion was indeed, radical – a Gospel imperative.

          • Well, I would agree that Paul is constantly surprised by the breadth and inclusion of God’s grace—after all, it reached even him, the ‘chief of sinners.

            But of course throughout his letters the inclusivity of this offer gives an urgency to his preaching and encouragement in discipleship. He wants people to see that Jesus is Lord—not so that they will fully enter into something which they already have, but so that they will inherit something they don’t yet have—’they will be saved.’ In Romans 10.14 onwards, Paul’s concern for proclamation is precisely that, without proclamation and response, people will not be saved. How else do you think it is possible to read this?

            I am fascinated by your second point. Because you have heard some people, whom you call ‘conservative evangelical’, say what you understand is ‘some people cannot be saved’ and you have decided that I am like them, then you are happy to accuse me of excluding people from salvation.

            Can you see any problems with that logic?

  1. Fr Ron, the genetic fallacy? U and nonU revisited?

    John 1.46 Nothing good out of Nazareth. The fallacy was already spotted 2000 years ago.

  2. Thanks Ian, I’m appreciating your contributions in LICC’s emails.

    Given your interpretation of the horsemen and their disasters as God’s permissive rather than directive will, what do you make of vv 16-7?

    “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

    Do you think his wrath is always permissive rather than directive i.e. always a giving over rather than an active punishment? Do you take the active descriptions in the Bible always as metaphors?

  3. Very surface and what I believe to be very lacking synopsis. Not judging your faith or standing with God, brother, but no thanks for your theology which makes me even warier of your eschatology. This does not take into account Daniel, Isaiah, and many other Second Coming prophetic writings, not to mention the entire book of Revelation and 2 Thes. 2. God bless and keep you.


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