Thursday, November 12, 2015

Dystopian prophecy

Rev 8-9 & 16 contain end-of-the world descriptions. How should we take that?

i) Is this supposed to refer to events pretty much as described? If so, what's the timeframe?

For instance, one might use that to support a futurist interpretation. Since that didn't happen in the past, it must lie in the future. 

Conversely, a liberal preterist would say it predicted the destruction of the Roman Empire, which was roughly conterminous with the known world. Therefore, it predicted the end of the world when the Roman Empire ended. But since that didn't happen, it's a false prophecy. Moreover, although the Roman Empire disintegrated, it didn't fall apart in the way Revelation envisions. So, once again, it's a false prophecy.

So there's some circularity to how we use that to date the outlook. 

ii) Another approach is to say it uses end-of-the-world symbolism to refer to something else. One potential problem with that approach is that unless you have reason to believe the Bible wouldn't predict the end of the world, or unless you have reason to believe the end of the world (as we know it) won't involve cataclysmic natural and humanitarian disasters, why would you assume this imagery stands for something else?

iii) You can also take the position that even though it refers to the end of the world, it uses surrealistic imagery. This is, after all, a vision. The images are dream-like or nightmarish. Things can happen in dreams and nightmares that are physically impossible in real life. That's my own inclination.

iv) There is, however, a final option. Assuming this is a long-range prophecy, then the referents have modern analogues. The reader should mentally substitute a modern equivalent. If, say, John depicts ancient military technology (e.g. archers, warhorses), and this actually looks forward to the distant future, then you update the technology. 

Mind you, that can be hazardous. Unless you know when it will happen, your modernization may soon be obsolete. A reader can only use the present as his frame of reference for modernizing the text. So that will be different for a 21C reader than a 19C reader. 

v) In terms of the sheer scale of damage, one interesting thing about Rev 8-9 & 16 is that it's unrealistic in light of 1-2C history, but becomes more realistic the further we move into the future. For instance:

The Justinian PlagueThe first recorded pandemic, the Justinian Plague, was named after the 6th century Byzantine emperor Justinian I. The Justinian Plague began in 541 AD and was followed by frequent outbreaks over the next two hundred years that eventually killed over 25 million people (Rosen, 2007) and affected much of the Mediterranean basin--virtually all of the known world at that time. 
"Black Death" or the Great PlagueThe second pandemic, widely known as the "Black Death" or the Great Plague, originated in China in 1334 and spread along the great trade routes to Constantinople and then to Europe, where it claimed an estimated 60% of the European population (Benedictow, 2008). Entire towns were wiped out. Some contemporary historians report that on occasion,there were not enough survivors remaining to bury the dead (Gross, 1995).
Imagine a contemporary of the Justinian Plague or the Black Death reading about natural disasters (in Revelation) that kill 1/3 of humanity. That would be a good ballpark figure. In his experience in time and place, that would be terrifyingly true.   
vi) Let's play along with (iv-v). On this interpretation, John describes destruction raining down from the sky, from angels and meteors and so forth, because that's the imagery he had available to him. But from a futuristic perspective, modern analogues might be bombers dropping napalm and Agent Orange. Or orbital weapons. Space-based lasers. If God were revealing the distant future to a 1C seer, isn't that how God would convey the idea of advanced military technology? 

Or take the 200 million-man army in 9:16-17, consisting of fire-breathing warhorses. Now I myself think the figure is hyperbolic. The point is to conjure the impression of an overwhelming invasion force. 

But suppose we think it's more realistic. A stock objection is that a 200 million-man army is infeasible. The logistics of moving and supplying that many square miles of infantry is impractical. A problem Robert Thomas overlooks. 

But suppose this refers to military robots? Miniature tanks armed with flamethrowers and rocket launchers? Isn't that a good modern analogue for fire-breathing warhorses? And it's more feasible. But if God was revealing that spectacle to a 1C seer, he might use images of mutant equine monsters instead. 

vii) Apropos (vi), consider the talking eagle in 8:13. Robert Thomas takes that literally. But that's problematic. Even allowing for supernaturalism, there's a dilemma:

If the eagle is near enough to be seen and heard by some observers, it's too close to be seen and heard by everyone. Conversely, if it's far away, then it's too far to be seen (much less heard) unless you have a telescope and know where to point it.

We need to ask what is the purpose of the eagle? A talking eagle at the cosmic zenith point functions as an international broadcast system–or warning system. Using 1C conceptual resources, that's one way to convey the idea. But assuming this is futuristic prophecy, what if the talking eagle stands for a communications satellite? 

viii) Likewise, I mentioned the Bubonic plague. That had a vast death toll despite being a natural pathogen. A more recent example is Ebola in Africa. The last outbreak nearly lost containment. 

But in futuristic prophecy, we should make allowance for weaponized pathogens. Pathogens engineered to be more contagious (by contact or airborne), have a longer incubation period, and be resistant to antibiotics and antivirals. 

That could be produced by governments, but it could also be produced by well-funded, biotech savvy ecoterrorists who think the survival of the biosphere depends on wiping out the human race, or at the very least decimating the population. 

Chemical weapons would be another threat: say, to poison municipal fresh water supplies. Even with respect to what's naturally possible, the scale of damage envisioned in Revelation becomes increasingly realistic as we head into the future. 

I'm not saying that's the right way to interpret Revelation; but it's something to consider. Hold in reserve. 


  1. We all know that the locusts are really helicopters. Hal Lindsey figured that one out.

    I'm not sure we should even take the armies gathered against God and his people as military at all. Certainly the judgment on them doesn't have to be.

    1. Hal is wrong. The locusts are predator drones! :-)

    2. I agree with you that in Revelation, the warfare against God's people symbolizes the persecution of God's people throughout OT history and church history. It's not primarily about combat on the battlefield. However, persecution is frequently or typically violent.

  2. A lot of what I'll say could be wrong since I'm no expert, but for what it's worth, if anything:

    1. I suppose the most efficient way to quickly kill 1/3rd of all humanity would be via nuclear weapons. I could see that happening if a state like Russia, Iran, or North Korea launched their nukes and/or sponsored terrorists to do the same around the world. Western nations like the US, Israel, and so on would presumably launch their nukes in response. A national nuclear missile defense system probably wouldn't be able to intercept and stop all the nukes if each nuclear missile isn't a single warhead but instead contained dozens if not hundreds of mini nuclear warheads or decoys to confuse intercepting defense missiles. Or, of course, if the nukes are delivered via unconventional methods (e.g. ships docked in a harbor, cars driven into city centers). I think that could be a pretty realistic scenario. Perhaps even more so in a post-Cold War era.

    However, short of a large enough entity such as a nation sponsoring terrorist groups, nuclear weapons are probably too technically difficult for a small group of Muslim terrorists or eco-terrorists to build as well as to detonate. At best, I think, they could maybe build or more likely steal some "dirty bomb" nukes, which could level a small city, and spread radioactive debris around the area. But I suspect it'd probably be very hard for a small group or even a series of well-coordinated groups of terrorists around the world to reach killing 1/3rd of all humanity in a short amount of time even with the radioactive fallout.

    2. Chemical weapons are a bit more iffy to me. I think they have a narrower range of effectiveness. They'd be easier for even the average person to defend against too (e.g. gas masks, Hazmat suits, other PPEs). Not to mention for maximum effectiveness they'd likely have to be delivered by air over large populated areas (e.g. napalm). Most developed nations would probably find it very difficult to do that against other developed nations (perhaps with the exception of the US). Although a developed nation could do that against developing nations such as third world nations. Also, chemical weapons could be affected for good or ill by weather and climate (e.g. the agent's physical properties could be affected by heat or cold). Anyway, chemical weapons could be hit or miss, I think.

    3. I think biological weapons could be far more effective in killing 1/3rd of humanity in a short time than chemical weapons and perhaps even nuclear weapons - unless we're talking about a large scale or worldwide nuclear war. At a minimum, bioweapons are a huge wildcard. They could end up killing just a handful of people or killing hundreds of millions or billions. That's because bacteria, viruses, parasties, and other pathogens are living agents (ignoring the "neither living nor dead" debate over viruses). They're able to change and adapt to us as much as we're able to change and adapt to them. In theory, a mad scientist terrorist could hybridize various pathogens and make a highly virulent and lethal Frankenstein monster pathogen resistant to our best antibiotics, antivirals, or the like.

    4. Of course, the use of nuclear/radioactive, chemical, and biological weapons in combination would probably be the most effective way to quickly kill 1/3rd of all humans. Let alone if we combine these with suicide bombings, guerilla wars, and conventional wars with conventional weapons with bombs and bullets, cyberwarfare shutting down food and water supplies to cause mass starvations, etc.