Are Earthquakes A Sign The End is Near?
An objection to the truth of Covenant Eschatology has been lodged based on Revelation 16:18-20 where John recorded: “And there were noises and thunderings and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth. Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath. Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found.”
The Objector states: “Notice that the above earthquake is so big that the cities of the nations will fall–this DID NOT HAPPEN IN 70 AD. Notice that the Bible teaches that mountains will be leveled and islands “fled away” …. This seems to have to be the biggest earthquake that will ever hit the planet with humans on it.
Did it already happen?
Of course not.”
The Objector continues by listing some earthquakes that did occur in the first century, but discounts them as irrelevant, because, if (since, per the Objectors view) we take the language of Revelation literally, it is clear that an earthquake so large that it hit the entire globe has never happened.
The Objector concludes:
“Ancient histories written by Roman historians indicate that there were three earthquakes in the first century Roman world. Writing in A.D. 77, Pliny the Elder described a massive earthquake that destroyed a large section of Asia Minor (Turkey) in the year A.D. 17. It was so devastating that the Roman emperor suspended taxes for five years to enable the citizens to recover from the damage. Pliny says that this was “the greatest earthquake in human memory.” If the earthquake in A.D. 17 was described by a historian writing in A.D. 77 in this way, obviously there was no massive earthquake at the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70.
Josephus recorded that some priests considered the destruction of Jerusalem to be God’s judgment on the Jews. While this was devastating to the Jews in Jerusalem, it is historically disingenuous to think what happened then was the “great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be.” (EOQ)
There are several major problems with the Objectors claims.
The presupposition is that we must take the book of Revelation literally. And yet, we are told emphatically at the very beginning of the book that the message of the book was symbolic (Revelation 1:1-3). The Dispensational insistence that we ignore this is untenable.
As a corollary to this, we must honor the fact that Revelation is a book of Hebraic Apocalyptic language. The Western reader wants to think prosaically, while the Hebraic world was one of metaphor, of poetic imagery, of hyperbole. To insist that we ignore the very nature of Hebraic literature and impose a rigid, Western literalism on the text is simply wrong.
As N. T. Wright has noted, when examining this kind of language: “It is crass literalism, in view of the many prophetic passages in which this language denotes socio-political and military catastrophe, to insist that this time (in the teaching of Jesus, DKP), the words must refer to the physical collapse of the space-time world.” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1996), 361).
Likewise, Paul Minear, commenting on the “end of the world language of 2 Peter 3, makes this observation: “As one recalls Old Testament passages like these, (those cited in 2 Peter 3, DKP) one is forced to conclude that every constituent essential feature in the New Testament prophecies was an echo of these. No Christian prophet tried to explain the meaning of these references to solar disasters, a fact that suggests that the audience was expected to understand the language. Modern readers, therefore, must compare this idiom not with modern views of the cosmos, but with an ancient outlook within which an intelligible message was conveyed without undue difficulty.” (Paul Minear, New Testament Apocalyptic, (Nashville; Abingdon, 1981), 52 ).
It is truly a miscarriage of hermeneutic to impose a Western world view onto the ancient Hebraic writers.
Are Earthquakes to Increase in the Last Days as a Sign of the End
As a related note, it should be observed that most Dispensational writers claim that Jesus predicted that earthquakes would dramatically increase in the “last days.” Yet, there is not one word in the Olivet Discourse to support that claim. And, many writers have chronicled that the first century generation saw an incredible number of earthquakes (far more than the Objector acknowledges in his article, by the way). For an interesting and revealing examination of the claim that Jesus said earthquakes would increase, see the article: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/04/16/Earthquakes-on-the-Increase-Or-Warning-of-Judgment-to-come.aspx.
Gary DeMar, citing different sources, documents that in the first century, there were earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodocea, Hieropolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome and Judea, Pompeii.” (Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness, (Powder Springs, Ga; American Vision, 1999), 80f). It is interesting, and perhaps revealing, that the Objector is seemingly unaware of this evidence, or conveniently failed to mention it.
Other scholars have maintained that: “Perhaps no period in the world’s history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervened between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.” (Edward Hayes Plumptre, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (London, Cassell; 1897), 6:146).
On this note, perhaps it is relevant to cite Josephus’ description of some of the events of the War: “For there broke out a prodigious storm in the night, with the utmost violence, and very strong winds, with the largest showers of rain, with continued lightnings, terrible thunderings, and amazing concussions and bellowings of the earth, that was in an earthquake. These things were a manifest indication that some destruction was coming upon men, when the system of the world was put into this disorder; and any one would guess that these wonders foreshadowed some grand calamities that were coming” (Wars of the Jews, 4:4:5). Clearly, from the Jewish perspective, the earthquake during the siege had tremendous religious, covenantal meaning.
The Objector, who believes Israel and Jerusalem are delivered from the Great Tribulation at the Second Coming of Christ, fails to consider the situation that is described in Revelation 16. Let me make a few crucial observations.
A. The judgment at the earthquake- in fact, I would aver that the focus of the earthquake, is the city Babylon. This is critical since Babylon in Revelation is none other than Old Covenant Jerusalem.
Dispensationalists often posit Babylon as literal Babylon in Iraq. This view was extremely popular prior to the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein was supposedly the “reincarnation” of Nebuchadnezzar. Thomas Ice cited Charles Dyer with approval, “What are the specific signposts that can serve as indicators of God’s end time program for the world? The third sure signpost is the rebuilding of Babylon?” Ice then says, “Is Babylon being built in our day? Yes it is!” The rise of ancient Babylon in our day constitutes another sign of the times that sets the stage.” (Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy, Prophecy Watch, (Eugene, Or.; Harvest House, 1998), 71). I should note that in other works, Ice identified Babylon as corrupt Christianity (Thomas Ice, Fast Facts on Bible Prophecy, (Eugene, Or; Harvest House, 42). So, on the one hand, Ice posits Babylon as literal Babylon in Iraq but on the other hand, Babylon is apostate Christianity!
Of course, with the overthrow of Hussein and the end of his efforts the Dispensational claims about literal Babylon in Iraq have for the most part died down and been dispelled.
Who was Babylon? It was the city “where the Lord was slain” (Revelation 11:8). Many Dispensationalists say “the great city” in Revelation 11 is in fact Jerusalem, that will be attacked in the coming Tribulation period, and that Babylon was another city. That is untenable. Revelation 16 falsifies that idea.
Revelation 16 says that at the earthquake, the great city would be “remembered” before God. It is critical to understand that the word “remembered” is a covenantal word. The word translated remembered is used some 37 times in the OT. Only six times does it not indicate remembrance within a covenantal context. The word can be used to remember the covenant in a positive way for blessing, or negative, for cursing.
This means that whoever Babylon was, she had to be in a covenant relationship with God, but, as a result of her sin (killing the prophets (16:6), and the apostles and prophets of Jesus (18:20-24), God was about to bring horrific covenantal judgment on her. It is significant that the judgments portrayed to come against “Babylon” in Revelation are right out of Torah (Leviticus 26 / Deuteronomy 28-30 and Deuteronomy 32, which is called the Song of Moses). Significantly, the Song is about Israel’s last days, when Israel herself would become like Sodom (32:20-32).
It should go without saying, but, to reinforce the point, it cannot be argued that literal Babylon in Iraq was ever in a covenant relationship with God. She also never killed a single Old Covenant prophet, and she most assuredly did not kill Jesus’ apostles and prophets. Only Old Covenant Jerusalem “fits the bill” in this regard.
A related point here. Babylon is called the harlot and the mother of harlots in Revelation 17-18. The Great Earthquake is God’s covenantal wrath on her for her harlotry. What is so often missed is that the word “harlot” in scripture has a powerful and undeniable covenantal connotation.
Sebastian Smolarz illustrates the point in graphic fashion by showing that in 86 of the 91 occurrences of the word harlot in the OT, the reference is to either a literal wife that committed adultery (violating the marriage covenant), or, Israel as the wife of YHVH that violated the marriage covenant (Sebastian Smolarz, Covenant and the Metaphor of Divine Marriage in Biblical Thought, (Eugene, Or.; Wipf and Stock, 2011), 8).
He makes the point in regard to John’s use of this imagery in Revelation: “If John had OT prophetic development in mind, for a city to be called a ‘harlot’ would require her to have had an earlier covenant relationship with God. This would surely not be the case with Rome, but it certainly was the case with Jerusalem” (2011, 238f).
A great deal more could be added on this but, suffice it to say that if Babylon of Revelation was Old Covenant Jerusalem, the entire Dispensational paradigm– including the Objection about the Great Earthquake as a sign of the end, falls to the ground, since Old Covenant Jerusalem ceased to exist in AD 70!
B. As just suggested the judgment of Babylon – including the great earthquake – in Revelation 16 would come on Babylon for her internecine guilt of killing the prophets and Jesus’ apostles and prophets. That judgment is the Great Day of the Lord for the avenging of the martyrs. When we consider the concrete Biblical teaching on the avenging of the martyrs, we are forced to the conclusion that only one city was guilty of what Revelation says Babylon had done- that was Old Covenant Jerusalem.
Jesus identified Jerusalem as the city guilty of killing the OT prophets, they would kill him, and they would (and did) kill his apostles and prophets (Matthew 21 / Matthew 23 / Luke 11:49f).
Paul likewise said it was Old Covenant Jerusalem that killed the OT prophets, they had killed Jesus, and they were persecuting Jesus’ apostles and prophets (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
In Revelation Babylon had killed the OT prophets (16:6), it is where the Lord was slain (11:8) and she was killing Jesus’ apostles and prophets (18:20-14).
Jesus, Paul and John explicitly stated that the judgment of the persecuting city was to be in the first century generation– not 2000 years and counting later. Thus, unless we can clearly demonstrate that another “ Babylon” can be guilty of the things that are laid at her feet- the things that Jesus and Paul limited to Old Covenant Jerusalem, then we must realize that the prophecy of the Great Earthquake in Revelation belongs to the first century judgment of Old Covenant Jerusalem.
C. The Objector claims that the Great Tribulation, linked with the Great Earthquake and judgment of the Great City, simply could not have been linked with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. I cannot develop that here, but in my book Blast From the Past: The Truth About Armageddon I give definitive, powerful proof that the Great Tribulation was in fact directly connected to the first century judgment of Old Covenant Jerusalem. But very quickly, note that while the Objector says the Tribulation does not fit the judgment on Jerusalem, the text of Matthew 24 says differently.
Jesus said that the Abomination of Desolation would be set up in “the holy place.” This can only be referent to Israel, the city or the Temple. The key point is that the setting up of the Abomination- in Israel- would cause the Great Tribulation.
D. Finally, the Objector clearly ignores or denies the temporal parameters established by the Apocalypse. The Father Himself gave the message of the imminence of the fulfillment of the Vision (Revelation 1:1-3). Repeatedly in the book we are told that the fulfillment was at hand, it was near, and it was coming soon. See for instance Revelation 22 where we find no less than six powerful declarations that fulfillment was at hand. How much more emphatically could the Spirit, sent from the Father, have communicated objective imminence? For the Dispensational paradigm- and the Objection – to have any merit, it is necessary to completely ignore or deny these temporal parameters, and that is hardly proper exegesis.
So, there is an array of evidence that gives us valid reason to reject the Objection.
It ignores the symbolic nature of Revelation.
It ignores the nature of Hebraic Apocalyptic.
It ignores the historical reality of a massive number of earthquakes that occurred in the first century.
It wrongly identifies Babylon of Revelation- the focus of the judgment of the earthquake- as modern day Babylon in Iraq, or apostate Christianity. These identifications violate the actual text of Revelation. Literal Babylon- nor apostate Christianity- never did what Babylon of Revelation did.
It ignores the strongly covenantal nature of the language describing the impending judgment of Babylon, that demanded that whoever Babylon was-or is- she had to have been in a marriage covenant relationship with the Lord. But, due to her violation of that (marriage) covenant God brought the penalty provisions of that covenant against her. This can only mean that Babylon was Old Covenant Jerusalem and that the penalties of Torah (Leviticus 26 / Deuteronomy 28-30 / Deuteronomy 32) were being applied to the harlot city. Since the Law of Moses, the source of those Covenantal judgments- has been removed, this means that Revelation stands fulfilled!
It ignores the emphatic, explicit, repeated declarations that the fulfillment of the Apocalypse was near when John wrote. See my book Who Is This Babylon? for an extensive discussion of the dating and application of Revelation to the first century judgment of Jerusalem. Itr also has a discussion of whether earthquakes are a sign of the end.
For these and other reasons, the Objection is Over-Ruled!