Is the COVID-19 outbreak the Apocalypse now? Yes and no. Yes, in that virtually every event in the last 2,000 years is – the Apocalypse1 was to reveal what would happen from the time of Jesus until His return and that includes plagues and pandemics like COVID-19, and SARS (2003),2 and Swine Flu (2009-2010)3 and MERS (2012-2019),4 and our annual influenza epidemics which kill up to 650,000 every year.5
These are predicted in the opening of the fourth of the seven seals that John saw on a scroll:6
- When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.”
- I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth. 7
‘Pestilence’ is ‘a contagious or infectious epidemic disease that is virulent and devastating’.8
However, some have assumed and taught that the opening of this seal means that one day, an event will occur that will wipe out a quarter of the earth’s population,9 which would be a catastrophic two billion people today, but no, that’s not what it’s saying at all!
Context really matters. The Revelation is a Jewish book, written in 95-96 AD by a Jewish apostle, John, to 1st Century Jewish disciples and Gentiles taught by those Jewish disciples. It therefore uses symbols, metaphors, words and phrases from the Hebrew Bible which were familiar to its author and his original audience. Let’s therefore look at it in that light.
The Seven Seals
Seals were usually impressed with a signet to authenticate them, as seen in King Ahasuerus’s instruction to Mordecai:
- “Now you write to the Jews as you see fit, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for a decree which is written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked.”
- So the king’s scribes were called… and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded…
- He wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horses…10
Ahasuerus’s seal confirmed the scrolls expressed the king’s will in the matter. What then are we to make of the scroll John sees in the heavenly throne-room?
- I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals.
- And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?”
- And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it.
- Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it… 11
This scroll was sealed by God Himself, authenticated as revealing His will, but only One ‘in heaven or on the earth or under the earth’ was authorised to open it – Jesus:
- and one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals”…12
There are seven because, as on Creation’s seventh day, seven symbolises perfection and completion;13 the seven seals authenticate the scroll in Revelation as revealing the perfect and complete will of God in John’s day.14
The sixth and seventh seals reveal Judgement Day. At the sixth, John hears:
“…for the great day of [God’s] wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” 15
At the seventh:
When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour… 16
As Habakkuk wrote:
“The LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him”.17
We will all be there at the pleasure of the King, waiting for Him to speak.
The first five seals are therefore to authenticate the scroll revealing the will of God from the time of Jesus until the Last Day.
As for the timing of the seals, today we have basically four schools of interpretation:
(i) Preterists believe the seals refer to events around 70 AD when God judged Israel by allowing the Romans to raze Jerusalem and enslave the Jewish people. They are partly right, as will become clear.
(ii) Historicists, that they refer to eras over the last 2,000 years. They too are partly right.
(iii) Futurists, that they refer to events still mostly in the future. They too are partly right.
(iv) Idealists, that the seals refer not to events or eras but to overall trends. They are the closest in intent but wrong in application.
Idealists see the first seal as the gospel going forth; seals two to four represent the disintegration of human civilisation and the natural realm due to the rejecting of the gospel; the fifth seal reveals that believers will suffer until the sixth seal which is the Second Coming.
The idealists are the closest but the first five seals are not revealing new trends or the disintegration of human civilisation. Rather, they are revealing to 1st Century saints that nothing will be changing – “it’s business as usual for the world” until the sixth and seventh.
A Burning Question
Consider John’s original audience in 95-96 AD – what would they really want to know? “If Jesus has ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’, why are we still being persecuted and killed?” John even hears the martyrs asking this in heaven:
- … I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;
- and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 18
The divine answer is that many more are yet to be martyred,19 overcome,20 persecuted and exiled,21 sent into slavery and imprisoned.22 The disciples therefore just have to wait while God works out His purpose for the whole human race.
The opening of the seals reveals the express will of God, what is being allowed to happen on the earth, from when Jesus received ‘all authority in heaven and on the earth’ – He alone can open the seals – until He returns to change everything. While the kingdom was steadily growing day by day, individual by individual, it was yet to affect the principalities and powers, ‘the kingdom of the world’23 – the wonderful benefits of its outworking in today’s liberal democracy were far in the future for them (see Staying Free >>)
So what exactly was God’s will for John’s audience in the 1st Century?
The Four Horsemen
The first four seals reveal the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:
- Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.”
- I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
So the first seal reveals the first horseman waging war, ‘conquering’ (v. 2), and the second seal reveals the second horsemen ‘taking peace from the earth’:
- When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.”
- And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.
Why would this be so important to John’s 1st Century audience? Because they were living in the Pax Romana, or Roman peace, the golden age of Rome ushered in by Augustus Caesar in 27 BC. For hundreds of years before then, the Roman Republic had faced constant warfare, both within and without. Plutarch, the 1st Century historian, reported that they had appointed Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) as dictator for life…:
… in the hope that the government of a single person would give them time to breathe after so many civil wars and calamities.24
When Julius was assassinated by Brutus and his co-conspirators in 44 BC, Rome was plunged back into another civil war until his grand-nephew Octavian overcame all rivals and was granted the title Augustus Caesar in 27 B.C.:
To many, Augustus, for his achievements, was a god on earth; only a supra-human being could have brought stability out of chaos. Not surprisingly, therefore, Augustus found himself the object of acclamations of divinity.25
As I detail in my book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: The Rise of the Antichrists, this was the beginning of the antichrist regimes in Rome. Augustus allowed the populace in Pergamum to worship Dea Roma et Augustus i.e. Rome and himself – in the imagery of Revelation 13, the second beast (the spirit of antichrist) caused the people to worship both the first beast (at that time, the Roman Empire) and the living image of that beast (the emperor).26
It was during the Pax Romana, a two hundred year period of unprecedented peace, stability, and economic prosperity, the empire reached its greatest extent and a population of some 70 million people. It ended with the death of last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, in 180 AD.27
John’s intended audience in 95-96 AD were therefore living in the middle of this ‘peace’ and would have understood his vision as revealing that the Pax Romana would be ‘taken from the earth’. All subsequent audiences were to understand that any peace created by any conquering empire will only be short-term, just as Jesus taught:
- “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end.
- “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines…” 28
The Third & Fourth Horsemen
The third seal confirms the shortages of food that accompany war:
- When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand.
- And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”
To understand the fourth seal and horseman, we need to recall that John had earlier seen Jesus in all His majesty:
- When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,
- and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.
- “Therefore write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.” 29
When Jesus opens the fourth seal, John sees that although our resurrected, all-powerful Lord holds the keys of death and of Hades, He is not yet going to abolish them:
- When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.”
- I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.
In fact, the four horsemen are going to continue riding through the earth as if nothing had changed:
Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.30
It is easy to assume that the fourfold command, ‘Come’ (vv. 1, 3, 5, 7), means the horsemen are being introduced to the world, that each seal is the beginning of a new tribulation, but keep asking yourself, was ‘conquering’ (v. 2) new to them in the 1st Century? Or warfare (v. 4)? Or famine (v. 5-6)? Or ‘Death and Hades’ (v. 8)? Of course not. These tribulations were, for 1st Century disciples, ‘business as usual’.
The Fifth Seal
The fifth seal was also not a new event or future era:
- When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;
- and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 31
Jesus had warned the Twelve:
Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.32
These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.33
Soon after, they were all flogged for disobeying the Sanhedrin by teaching about Jesus34 with up to thirty-nine lashes.35. James was the first of the Twelve to be killed36 in about 43 AD; Peter was apparently crucified some twenty years later in Rome; Paul was beheaded37 about the same time, having earlier ‘received five times from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.. [and] three times beaten with rods… [and] once [he] was stoned’.38
After all, this was the time of the Roman circuses when Christians were routinely thrown to the lions so John’s audience were all too familiar with martyrdom. When John hears the martyrs impatient for vindication, he learns they will all have to wait until death and Hades are destroyed when the Lord returns to raise the dead. In the meantime, many more will be martyred.
To summarise, the first five seals reveal that Jesus being resurrected and receiving ‘all authority in heaven and on the earth’ has not meant the end of conquering armies, warfare, famine, and murderous persecution of His followers. These will continue until He returns to reign at the opening of the sixth and seventh seals.
In the Meantime…
What of their terrible effect in the meantime?
Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth. 39
These four means of death – sword, famine, pestilence, wild beasts – would have sounded familiar to any Jew in John’s 1st Century audience because, some five hundred years earlier, Ezekiel had prophesied similarly against Jerusalem.
For thus says the Lord GOD, “How much more when I send My four severe judgments against Jerusalem: sword, famine, wild beasts and plague to cut off man and beast from it!”40
So too had Jeremiah:
I will send the sword, the famine and the pestilence upon them until they are destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their forefathers.41
These judgements came about in 586 BC through the Babylonians invading Israel and taking their people into exile. In Revelation, these horsemen afflict the whole earth but why are ‘wild beasts’ included? Because in John’s day, the Romans delighted in the execution of criminals by wild animals – damnatio ad bestias – remember the lions.
Also, the 1st Century disciples would have understood this as Jesus not yet removing the Adamic curse from the earth. Although Adam was given dominion over the earth, the animal kingdom has always fought back, from the brute force of bulls and apex predators such as the big cats and bears on the land and saltwater crocodiles and sharks in water to the poison of snakes, scorpions and spiders and this is to continue until He returns:
Then he showed me… On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him. 42
The Good News
Firstly, if ‘a fourth of the earth’ are to be killed by the four horsemen, this means three quarters will not be killed by them. Rather than die in wars, famine, pestilence, or because of wild animals, most of us will instead die of old age and more usual causes than these violent forms of death.
Even then, the old joke that ‘none of us are getting out of here alive!’ turns out to be wrong. All believers who are living when Jesus returns will, instead of dying, be radically transformed:.
- Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep [i.e. die], but we will all be changed,
- in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
- For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
- But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory.
- “O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” 43
Even going to a funeral is good for us, as our wisest man Solomon noted 3,000 years ago:
It is better to go to a house of mourning
Than to go to a house of feasting,
Because that is the end of every man,
And the living takes it to heart.44
The only really bad news in facing COVID-19 is for anyone who doesn’t yet have their sins forgiven because, after death, they will have to face the due penalty for every sin. This where the gospel (Old English godspel, from god, GOOD, spel, NEWS) really is good news – Jesus promises that all who ask His forgiveness will receive it:
…the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out… For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.45
Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887.
Augustus Caesar: By Unknown author, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=388210By anonymous, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Marcus Aurelius: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954
Christian Martyrs: By Konstantin Flavitsky – http://www.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=11222, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=586378
By Jean-Léon Gérôme – artrenewal.org, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2975109
- Although today apocalyptic is taken to mean ‘relating to or predicting the end of the world’ or ‘widespread destruction or the collapse of civilization’, ‘Apocalypse’ is simply the KJV transliteration of the Greek word apokalupto, lit. revelation.
- ’Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the SARS global outbreak of 2003 was contained… According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died.’ (https://www.cdc.gov/sars/about/fs-sars.html, 28 Mar, 2020).
- ‘From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases… and 12,469 deaths in the United States due to the (H1N1)pdm09 virus… 151,700-575,400 people worldwide died… (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/2009-h1n1-pandemic.html, 28 Mar, 2020.
- ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Since 2012 until 31 October 2019, the total number of laboratory-confirmed MERS-CoV infection cases reported globally to WHO is 2484, with 857 associated deaths.(https://www.who.int/csr/don/05-december-2019-mers-saudi-arabia/en/, 28 Mar, 2020).
- https://web.archive.org/web/20191217001215/https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/influenza-(seasonal), 28 Mar, 2020.
- In those days, letters and documents were not placed in envelopes but rolled up as scrolls which were sealed with a blob of wax or clay.
- Rev 6:7-8, emphasis added
- https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pestilence, 28 Mar, 2020.
- For example, John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp. 131-132
- Esther 8:8-10, emphasis added.
- Rev 5:1-4, emphasis added
- Rev 5:5
- Gen 1:31, 2:2-3
- Rev 5:1-2
- Rev 6:17
- Rev 8:1
- Hab 2:20
- Rev 6:9-10
- Rev 6:11
- Rev 13:7
- Rev 1:9
- Rev 13:9-10
- Rev 11:15
- Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch (50-120 A.D).
- David Colin Arthur Shotter, Augustus Caesar, New York; Routledge, 2nd edition, 2005, p. 72.
- This phenomenon of emperor-worship multiplied in the 20th Century, resurging in Stalin’s USSR, Mussolini’s Italy, Hirohito’s Japan, Hitler’s Germany, Kim Il Sung’s Korea, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, Ceausescu’s Romania, and Hoxha’s Albania, along with Muhammad’s Islamic empire.
- He was succeeded by his son Commodus whose disastrous reign was portrayed in the movie, Gladiator.
- Matt 24-6-8, emphasis added
- Rev 1:17-19, emphasis added
- Rev 6:1-8
- Rev 6:9-10
- Matt 24:9, emphasis added
- John 16:33
- Acts 5:40
- Deut 25:3
- Acts 12:2
- As a Roman citizen, he couldn’t be crucified – this punishment was reserved for non-citizens like Jesus and Peter.
- 2 Cor 11:24-25
- Rev 6:8
- Ezek 14:21, emphasis added
- Jer 24:10, emphasis added
- Rev 22:1-3, emphasis added
- 1 Cor 15:51-55
- Eccles 7:2
- John 6:37 & 40