Martyrs, Cataclysms, and More

Bible Prophecy in Chronology series (post #9)

Seal #5 (Revelation 6:9-11): The Martyrs Under the Altar

When Jesus breaks the fifth seal on the seven-sealed scroll that serves as the title deed to the earth, the reader is introduced to martyrs under heaven’s altar who are crying out to God to avenge their deaths (Revelation 6:9-11). These martyrs cannot be martyrs from the church age because they are described as disembodied “souls.” If they were martyrs from the church age, their souls would have been reunited with their resurrected and glorified bodies at the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:14). So, who are these martyrs? There are two plausible interpretations.

Interpretation #1: They are the souls of all the martyrs from the Old Testament era. Abel was the Old Testament’s first martyr (Genesis 4:1-8) but he certainly wasn’t the only one. And since the Old Testament believers have no part in the Rapture, the Old Testament martyrs would be existing in heaven as disembodied souls at the time of Revelation 6:9-11. (Their bodies won’t be resurrected, glorified, and reunited with the souls that once inhabited them until Christ’s second coming: Daniel 12:1-2, Job 19:25.) Furthermore, the fact that the passage talks about an altar and blood reminds us of the imagery of the Old Testament blood sacrifices and how the sacrificial blood was poured beside the base of the altar in the tabernacle/temple (Exodus 29:12, Leviticus 4:7). Lastly, John doesn’t serve as an eyewitness to the deaths of these martyrs because their deaths apparently have already occurred sometime in the past. All John sees is the aftermath of what has previously happened.

Interpretation #2: These are the souls of all the martyrs who are slain in the early part of the tribulation period. With this interpretation, the order goes as follows:

  • the Rapture occurs
  • the 144,000 Jewish evangelists begin their ministry and immediately win multitudes to Christ
  • many of these new Christians are put to death as they take their stand for God and His word in the midst of the rise of the Antichrist (seal #1), the warfare (seal #2), the famine (seal #3), and the pestilence (seal #4)
  • the deaths of these martyrs become a part of the death toll of one-fourth of the world’s population (Revelation 6:8)

Even though both interpretations make sense, it’s the second one that is favored by virtually all modern commentators, and I myself think it’s the better option. As I see it, there are three good reasons for identifying these martyrs as martyrs from the early part of the tribulation period. Those reasons are:

  1. The martyrs want to know when God will judge and avenge their blood “on those who dwell (not dwelt) on the earth.” That wording makes it sound like their murderers are still alive on the earth at the time of the 5th seal.
  2. If the martyrs are the Old Testament martyrs, why do they wait until this particular time in the tribulation period to begin crying out for their murders to be avenged? Abel, for example, would have been waiting for approximately 6,000 years for God to avenge his murder. Shouldn’t he be able to hold out for another few years until the close of the tribulation period and the second coming of Christ?
  3. Rather than be granted immediate approval for their request, the martyrs each receive a white robe and are told their avenging must wait for more martyrs to fall. The matter of the white robe begs the question, “Wouldn’t all the martyrs from the Old Testament already have such a robe?”

Of course, there is no debate as to the identity of the future martyrs for which these first martyrs must wait. They can’t be anyone other than more people who get saved under the evangelizing of the 144,000 and get martyred for their faith sometime later. In Revelation 7:9-17, John sees a great multitude in heaven standing before God’s throne. Each individual from this multitude is clothed with a white robe and holds a palm branch in hand. John is told, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation…” (Revelation 7:14). And how will so many tribulation believers end up martyred? The answer is, the Antichrist. Later on in The Revelation, John writes, “Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or in their hands” (Revelation 20:4). These are the martyrs for which the martyrs from the fifth must wait.

Seal #6 (Revelation 6:12-17): Cataclysms Upon the Earth

Following the fifth seal, Jesus breaks the scroll’s sixth seal, and when He does the earth is hit with “a great earthquake.” Either simultaneous with this earthquake or in the aftermath of it, the sun becomes “black as sackcloth of hair” and the moon becomes “like blood.” Also, as if all this isn’t enough, stars begin to fall from the sky, the sky recedes like “a scroll when it is rolled up,” and every mountain and island is “moved out of its place.” You talk about terrifying, cataclysmic events! It’s all bad enough that the inhabitants of the earth, no matter of how rich and mighty they are, try to hide themselves “in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains.”

Entire books have been written to explain exactly how all of these astounding events could come to pass. For example, some have theorized that volcanic eruptions could turn the sun black and the moon blood red. Likewise, the “stars” falling from the sky could be either the rocks blown out by the volcanic eruptions or meteors/asteroids striking the earth.

Then again, some have presented the possibility that all this could be John doing his best to describe the effects of the dust, ash, and debris that is blown into the atmosphere during a nuclear detonation. For that matter, maybe the blast itself is what causes the great earthquake. Such a detonation could account for the receding of the sky as well. Studies have shown that a nuclear blast has a strange effect upon the sky in that it causes a temporary vacuum in the atmosphere until the air comes rushing back into the vacuum. Perhaps this could be described as the sky “receding.”

While I certainly find the nuclear detonation theory intriguing, I can’t fully embrace it because of the quote that is given from some of the eyewitnesses to these cataclysms. As these eyewitnesses seek shelter in the caves and rocks of the mountains, they say to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:16-17). I find it interesting that these people don’t attribute these cataclysms to the armies of the world or nuclear war. They don’t say, “Oh no, someone has dropped a bomb on us!” Instead, they immediately start talking about God and the wrath of Jesus. Evidently they have previously heard some preaching on Bible prophecy either before the Rapture or after it but refused to believe in Jesus as their Savior.

Seal #7 (Revelation 8:1-6): The Trumpet Judgments

As we come to Christ breaking the scroll’s last seal we are immediately confronted with something different. John writes, “When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). It’s the only time of silence mentioned in The Revelation. As for what brings about the need for this silence, we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s the fact that the scroll is now completely open and unrolled. Or, perhaps it’s the sheer awe and magnitude of what the seventh seal contains. If that’s the case, it’s an eerie silence before a colossal storm.

And what does that seal contain? It contains seven more judgments that will play themselves out in the first half of the tribulation period. These judgments are called the Trumpet Judgments because each one is introduced by a certain angel blowing a certain trumpet. As hard as it is to believe, these judgments will be even worse in intensity than the Seal Judgments.    

And that’s where we will pick up the story next time. Keep in mind that we are still in the first three-and-a-half years of the seven-year tribulation period. Even though we’ve already read about 25% of the world’s population dying off, things are about to get even worse as the midway point of the period approaches. Also keep in mind that it’s the Lord who is in charge of this whole operation. He is the one sending down these judgments. Revelation 6:16 uses the phrase “the wrath of the Lamb.” That’s not a Jesus with whom the world is familiar, is it? But it’s a role He will surely play sometime in the future, and that’s why it’s so important to know Him as Savior now.

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