The Sixth Seal

"And I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits 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?'" (Revelation 6:12-17).



Historical Overview

There is no greater controversy among the seven seals than that of the sixth seal. Opinions have been diverse and wide even among modern dispensational premillennialists. The destruction and devastation described is parallelled in the book of Joel 2:10, although some even dispute this.

The earliest of the church fathers took the approach that Revelation did not need expounding. The sixth seal was quoted with no attempt to define its meaning. The logical assumption is that they either could not understand it or believed it to be self explanatory. The latter is the better explanation for it was their practice to assume that such events were supernatural and would occur literally. Nevertheless, Victorinus strays from this and adopts a more symbolic interpretation. According to Victorinus the earthquake, falling stars, the shaken fig tree analogy, and the mountains moving under the quake all represented the persecution of believers in the last days. The darkened sun he argued was the "brightness of doctrine obscured by unbelievers." He then stated that the sky rolling up like a scroll was indicative of the church being taken away.

Despite Victorinus' theory, which would find popular following the many centuries to come, it was not immediately received. Lactantius maintained that the darkness, the color of the moon, and the "falling stars" all to be taken quite literally. The same view was echoed by Ephraem the Syrian and probably Adso of Montier.

With the rise of Joachimite historicism, however, the literal approach was abandoned and the views of Victorinus were embraced. The Joachimites accepted the Victorinus theory, but most did not fit the prophecy into history as is the standard practice of historicist. They believed that the sixth seal represented the sixth age which they were rapidly approaching. The "persecutions" spoken of were believed to be awaiting around the corner. Nonetheless, some Joachimites, like Nicholas of Lyra, refused to place the sixth seal in the future and maintained that it represented the victims of Diocletian's persecutions. His interpretation mimiced that of Victorinus and the Joachimites save that he saw the men crying out to rocks as presenting God's anger "against his church" and the falling stars were church leaders who fell by way of apostasy.

The Reformers were also split on their interpretation. John Bale utilized much of Nicholas of Lyra's symbology but carried the logic and time forward. The darkening of the sun was specifically heresy blotting out the true word of the Lord, rather than persecution. He also read the heresy of the medieval church into the sky rolling like a scroll, saying that it represented the word of God becoming hidden by an apostate church. Thus, he shifted the symbology subtly from persecution to the promulgation of heresy. This view was taken up by Joseph Mede who attributed the prophecy to Constantine's day. Isaac Newton placed the seal under the emperor Julian the apostate.

With Darby and the post-Reformation age the prophecy was again brought back into the future and the last days, but the symbology was not entirely abandoned. Darby saw the earthquake as symbolic for "an overthrowing of everything" and the sun being darkened he said represented the fading powers of the "supreme government." This point of view was later represented by Walter Scott. On the other side of the post-Reformation interpreters were those who returned the prophecy not only to the future, but also to its literal application. E. W. Bullinger, Sir Robert Anderson, Robert Govett, and Joseph Seiss all took the prophecy literally, applying falling stars to meteorites or similar phenomenon.

Modern evangelicals are equally divided. On the more literal side are William Newell, Arthur Bloomfield, Charles Ryrie, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and Robert Thomas. Those utilizing a more symbolic approach or mixture of the two include George Ladd, Norman Harrison, and H. A. Ironside.

The Arguments and Evaluation of the Great Earthquake

If we examine the different aspects of the prophecy individually it will prove a far easier task than taking them as a whole. It may also serve to prove that those who prefer an allegorical approach do so from intimidation of the sheer magnitude of the prophecy. Taken as a whole there is no doubt that the sixth seal describes the most terrible of judgments yet meted out, although worse will follow. The sheer scale of the judgment intimidates many an expositor, but viewed one aspect at a time, it should become apparent that the judgment is real in all its aspects. It is not a judgment on Christians, and cannot be taken to refer to persecution of believers, but rather it is a judgment on the world.

Victorinus first presented the theory that this earthquake merely represented the persecution of believers. However, it should be apparent that the judgment is cast out upon the unbelieving world. The Bible is clear that "God has not destined us for wrath" (1 Thessalonians 5:9) and yet the sixth seal is expressedly said to represent the "the wrath of the Lamb" (vs. 17). It is inconceivable to attribute the prophecy to the persecution of the church or the rise of heresy, as if God metes out heresy. The judgment must properly be attributed to a judgment on the unbelieving world.

Darby recognized this flaw and attempted to shift the symbolic interpretation to the unbeliever. He claims that the earthquake is "an overthrow of everything." Walter Scott also saw the powers that be on earth, or governing authority in the alleged symbolism. He said that the earthquake characterized "social and political revolution" a view mimiced almost word for word by Henry Swete. Even H. A. Ironside take this view saying "it should be evident from the balance of the book that we are not to take this as a literal earthquake." Yet despite this statement he immediately procedes to admit that "our Lord's words in Matthew 24 show us that there will be such phenomena in various places, terrific in character as the end draws near." So Ironside admits that earthquakes can and will happen in the last days but that this cannot be a literal earthquake because of the "balance of the book." Such is a weak argument from an otherwise careful scholar. There seems nothing in the context to deny the fact that the earthquake is literal. In fact, many scholars believe that the earthquake spoken of here is the exact same one spoken of by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse, which Ironside admits is to be taken literally.

Although it is not by any means certain that this earthquake is the same as that of the Olivet Discourse (see Appendix D), the connection is a popular one. G. H. Lang, Sir Robert Anderson, and Robert Govett are among the more notable to make the association. The correlation of this prophecy to that of Joel 3:9-16 has also been made. However, Wathcman Nee rejects that this is the earthquake of Matthew 24, but believes that this is the earthquake spoken of in Joel 3:16. He reasons that the earthquake of Matthew 24 occurs during the Great Tribulation, but Joel's occurs before the latter half of Daniel's 70th week. Such an theory is better left to a discussion of chronology, but illustrates that the connection to Matthew is unsure. Jesus Himself refers to earthquakes in the plural, thus there is nothing to prove that these are the same earthquake. One thing that is sure, however, is that nothing in the text implies that this is not a literal earthquake.

The Arguments and Evaluation of the Sun and Moon

A more debatable topic is that of the prophecy of the sun and moon. Victorinus interpreted the darkening of the sun as the "brightness of doctrine obscured by unbelievers." Nicholas of Lyra argued that the sun represented the word of Christ and its darkening was the supression thereof. The moon's color of blood represented the blood of martyrs. This line of thought was carried on until the days of Darby and the return of chiliasm. That Christ might be depicted as the sun is not untenable, but imagery is suspect for several reasons. First, it has been demonstrated that the church is protected from the wrath of God (1 Thessalonians 5:9) and the sixth seal is expressedly said to represent the "the wrath of the Lamb" (vs. 17). This is a judgment of God. When the martyrs were depicted in the fifth seal, the martyrs were comforted. They die in the tribulation, but it is not the fifth seal which causes their deaths. The sixth seal causes the destruction which is described and God does not cause the death of believers. He might permit it, but never causes it. Consequently, the idea that God's judgment suppresses the gospel is inacceptable.

Furthermore, there is a clear and direct association between this passage and the following passages; Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, Joel 2:10 and 31, Joel 3:15-16, and Isaiah 13:10. Each of these verses speak of the devastation of the Day of the Lord and each mentions that "the sun will be darkened, and the moon will give its light." Even those who take an allegorical approach to Revelation often admit that the Olivet Disourse and the prophecies of Isaiah and Joel are to be taken literally. More importantly, none of these passages imply that the sun or moon are representative of the Messiah or his disciples. Consider Amos 5:20 and Zephaniah 1:15 , which also appear to parallel this passage, and, again, a cursory reading leaves no impression of the word of God suffering, but of wicked men. The context give no hint here of the symbolic appearance of God or the gospel within the image of the sun and moon.

Such insurmountable problems forced John Darby to take a new approach. He argued that the sun represented the governmental authority of the world. Yet despite his generally strong appeal to the Bible itself Darby nowhere cites a single passage of Scripture where the sun is taken as a symbol for secular or state authority. Walter Scott and H. A. Ironside also fail to mention any verses to justify this symbology. Walvoord points out another flaw in this system. Pointing to the words of the kings and peoples of the earth he says that "it is questionable whether changes in government and in human affairs would have brought such a striking transformation in the hearts of these wicked people."

Others who prefer symbolic or partially symbolic approaches also fail to provide a single illustration of this symbolic use in the Old or New Testament. George Ladd merely calls it "semi-poetic," but is forced to admit that it must describe some "real cosmic catastrophe."

So if the allegorical or symbolic approaches fail to satistfy the text, then what does the "literal" interpretation mean. Certainly the image of the sun being darkened need not create too much controversy. Critics who take a hyper-scientific approach, thereby denying that the sun can be darkened, are frivolous. If the sun's rays are blocked by something, then the sun's light is darkened. While politicians and Bible critics use language as a means to confuse, true language is a tool to communicate. The sun can, and has been in the past, darkened. In Luke 23:44-45 we are told that the sun was darkened when Jesus was on the cross (cf. Matt. 27:45 and Mark 15:33). Exodus 10:22 also recounts a darkening of the sun. There is nothing to deny that a literally blotting of the sun's rays in not intended here. Scientists Henry Morris accepts the literal application of this verse and believes that the terrible earthquake of this seal will cause "volcanic eruptions, spewing vast quanitites of dust and steam and gases into the upper atmosphere ... that will cause the sun to be darkened and the moon to appear blood-red."

Another theory of the sun and moon's alteration is put forth by Hal Lindsey who believes that both the earthquake and the darkening of the sun are set off by nuclear blasts. The fallout is said to cause the darkening of the sun and the apparent color change of the moon. Regardless of the cause, there seems little reason to take the darkening of the sun figuratively. Nothing in the text implies anything more than a literal falling of darkness upon the world, a view presented throughout both the Old and New Testament as the dawning of the Day of the Lord. Likewise, the illusion of the moon's turning to blood need not concern the reader either. If there is a "cosmic disturbance" then there is no reason to believe that such a catastrophe, whether from radioactive fallout or volcanic dust, may cause the moon to appear red as blood. This passage must also be taken at face value.

The Arguments and Evaluation of the Falling Stars

The symbolic approach to the falling stars echoes that of the sun and the moon. Throughout the medieval and Reformation age the allegorical view took prominence arguing that the stars were church leaders falling from power. If these are understood to be faithful believers then the view is fraught with the same difficulties as aforementioned. This is God's wrath, not man's. If these are taken as false church leaders or heretics, other problems are presented.

The first problem is the relationship of these stars to the rest of the passage. It is has been demonstrated already that the sun and moon cannot be taken as references to the church or to governmental authorities. If this is not so then neither can the stars represent church authority. Stars do occasionally take on a symbolic meaning but only if the sun and moon also take on that meaning. Since the sun and moon have never been demonstrated to depict secular or religious authority, the authority symbolism must also be rejected for the stars. Secondly, if the stars are portrayed as figurative for church authority then the cause and effect relationship to the rest of the prophecy is obscured. How do falling church leaders cause men to cry out to the rocks? How does the fall of false prophets cause men to hide in caves? Did the fall of Jim and Tammy Baker cause distress to the world or did not merely give them cause to laugh and ridicule "Christians?"

Again, the figurative approach is insufficient to explain the passage. What then is the major obstacle to the literal view? George Ladd suggest that "in light of our modern knowledge of astronomy can we conceive of the stars falling upon the earth?" Seiss courtesously replies to such reasoning that "they are thinking only of the great and unknown bodies which shine in the vast fields of immensity. It remains to be proven, however, that the apostle had his eye upon stars of that character. Those heavenly orbs, of which astronomy tells, are not the only objects to which, in common language, the word stars literally applies." Indeed, the ancient Greek language makes no attempt to differentiate between solar stars and other astronomical objects. The Greek word ajstevre" (astares) properly refers to any object from outer space, or even the sky. Thayer's Greek Lexicon list "comet" as one possible meaning, although it could also refer to meteorites or countless other objects. To attempt to apply modern 21st century scientific English to ancient 1st century Greek is an insult to the intelligence. Even to this very day the common language speaks of "falling stars" and "shooting stars." Again, lawyers uses language as a means to deceive, but the apostle is here using language to expound the truth. The stars spoken of here may be any astronomical object, or possibly even something of human origin which has fallen back into the atmosphere. They are "falling stars."

If this is so, then what? Many expositors, perhaps wisely so, make no attempt to specifically identify the objects. Most believe that they are meteorites. A few have suggested that they may be nuclear devices or similar man made objects. Of those who believe that a meteor shower in envisioned, the natural meaning of the Greek is appealed to. Joseph Seiss, Arthur Bloomfield, Charles Ryrie, Tim LaHaye, Henry Morris and Robert Govett favor this view, pointing out that meteorites are commonly called "falling stars." Seiss says, "even science itself still popularly speaks of 'falling stars,' when it means simply meteoric phenomena." Robert Thomas also includes the probability of comets among these stars. Henry Morris believes that the impact from asteroids, or a meteor shower, may be the actual "trigger" for the earthquake mentioned at the beginning of the verse.

At least one literalists deviates from this view. Hal Lindsey believes that "fractional orbital" nuclear bombs may be depicted here. He argues that "when these missles streak through the air they'll look like meteors showering the atmosphere." Although often ridiculed for his sometimes wild speculation, there is nothing in the context to deny such a possibility. Hence, whether the verse speaks of meteories of some sort, or perhaps even man-made weapons, the earth will experience a showing of astronomical objects that will cause great devastation. The comparison to "a fig tree cast[ing] its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind" further illustrates the severity of the shower which cannot be interpreted lightly.

The Arguments and Evaluation of the Sky Split Like a Scroll

The most difficult passage to interpret is that which reads, "the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up." Those who reject literalism have been quick to seize upon this saying, "since we know that the blue vault of the sky is really an optical illusion, how can we imagine the heavens being rolled up like a scroll?" However, while "difficulties do lie on the literal side only. Greater difficulties beseige the figurative interpretation." Such difficulies are obvious in regard to the belief that the sky being rolled up like a scroll represents the word of God being been hidden by the apostates. Nicholas of Lyra's theory that the rolled up scroll implies that Christians are "hiding" from persecution also lacks merit. Some the problems with this type of allegory have already been addressed. Likewise, the newer figurative theories also lack merit. Ironside believes that "the heavens, symbolizing the ecclesiastical powers of every description, will depart as a scroll when it is rolled up." Walter Scott argued similarly that the removal of the sky like a scroll indicates that anarchy has begun but nowhere can such an analogy be drawn from Scripture, nor Jewish tradition, nor the "apocalyptic" literature of later authors. It is purely speculative.

So what then of the "literal" interpretation? Asks George Ladd, "since we know that the blue vault of the sky is really an optical illusion, how can we imagine the heavens being rolled up like a scroll?" Ladd invisions a mixing of symbolic and literal meanings but cannot himself come to a conclusion. Norman Harrison also argued that "in the Revelation narrative the literal and symbolic are largely interwoven" but Robert Thomas reminds us that "the suggestion of mixing symbolic and literal is fraught with hermenuetical difficulties." Consistency is the best answer. There is no doubt that John was seeing exactly what Isaiah saw when he wrote that "the sky will be rolled up like a scroll" (34:4). Like Revelation, there is no justification for taking Isaiah's words here as figurative language. Isaiah describes God's wrath upon the world and recounts many of the same events that John has envisioned. Isaiah declares that "the LORD'S indignation is against all the nations, and His wrath against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to slaughter. So their slain will be thrown out, And their corpses will give off their stench, and the mountains will be drenched with their blood. And all the host of heaven will wear away, and the sky will be rolled up like a scroll." (Isaiah 34:2-4) Here Isaiah is describing God's wrath against the nations, even as John is describing the wrath of God in the last days against the unbelieving world.

The language is clear. It is about the destruction of the wicked in the end times, but what exactly did John and Isaiah see? What did they mean when they said "the sky will be rolled up like a scroll"? The word "like" is the key. The Bible does not say that the sky did roll up like a scroll but that it was "like a scroll when it is rolled up." It is language of comparison, not allegory. Thomas says that it gives the "impression" of "the universe coming apart." It is literal inasmuch as the sky will appear to roll up like a scroll, but how?

There has been much speculation on what the apostle John could have been describing. Clearly his language is one comparison, as he was unsure of exactly what he was seeing. Robert Govett suggest a natural phenomenon arising from the same cause as that which caused the darkening of the sun. He says that John may be seeing the stars from the east being "swept from their places, the sky there becoming blank, and the unpeopling of the sky continuing, till it reaches the west." Henry Morris lends some credibility to this saying, "the clouds of dust will gradually spread across the sky, making it appear that the sky is being 'rolled up,'" but he notes that "the use of the graphic term 'departed,' seems to indicate something more spectacular even than this." He contends that "the other possibility is that the earth's crust, highly unstable ever since the great Flood, will be so disturbed by the impacting of asteroids ... that great segments of [the geological plates] will actually begin to slip and slide ... those who reside in regions above such shifting crustal plates will observe the heavens appearing to move in the opposite direction, and it will seem as if they are being 'rolled up.'"

Charles Ryrie takes an even more literal approach believing that heaven itself opens to give a brief "glimpse" to the world. Hal Lindsey, in keeping with his nuclear holocaust theory, reminds the reader that when an atomic explosion occurs, "the atmosphere rolls back on itself." This is technically true, and remains one of the strong points of his argument, although it is unsure if any of these things are exactly what John saw. Still, some have argued that this is a parallel passage to Peter's reference to the destruction of the heavens in 2 Peter 3:10. In that passage Peter says that "the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat." However, a close examination of the text makes it clear that Peter is talking about the end of the Millennium when Christ will create a New Heaven and a New Earth (cf. 2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1, Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22).

The best answer to believe that John saw something which looked like the sky was rolling up, but not to attempt to read too much more into it. Whether it be a cobolt bomb, as Lindsey suggest, or a shifting of continental plates, the revealing of heaven, or merely an "optical illusion," will be known until that day has come and passed. We are merely to know that will happen exactly as God foretells us and understand it when it comes.

The Arguments and Evaluation of the Mountains and Islands

The last issue is that which reads, "every mountain and island were moved out of their places" (vs. 14). Again, many cannot see this as literal and argue that the mountains represent goodness being removed or else graspe for some other symbolism. Henry Swete merely suggest that this is to be compared to Jesus' statement about faith that can move mountains but in no way attempts to explain its meaning within the context of the passage. Darby merely says that the verses "are not to be taken literally" but nowhere explains their exact meaning. Scott believes that the moved mountains describe an economic collapse, but, again, does not provide any evidence of such a symbolic usage anywhere else in the Bible nor in any other Jewish literature.

Once again, figurative language is taken as an easy out for the difficult passages but if no meaning is found for the figures and symbols then it is pointless to call them symbols. God does not use symbols unless those symbols can be clearly understood. Ambiguous allegory was not used in the Bible. Nowhere can one honestly and justifiably prove that the Bible used such ambiguity. Even when Jesus spoke in parables (a kind of allegory) he often explained to His disciples the exact and true meaning of the parable (cf. Matthew 13:22-23, 15:15, 24:32; Mark 4:3-20, 4:34, 7:18-23, 12:12, 13:28; and Luke 8:4-15). Jesus was never ambiguous. Says Mark 4:33-34, "with many such parables He was speaking the word to them as they were able to hear it; and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples." Thus Jesus explained the parables because their was a true and correct meaning to the parables. They were not merely Rorschack inkblot tests, but had true meanings. Consequently, if those who accept figurative language for these passages cannot explain their meaning, we ought reject their speculative interpretations outright.

Once again, we are left with a literal meaning. Why is the idea of moving mountains and islands so strange? Is it that they are assuming the mountain must move at least 2000 feet per minute? Are they assuming that the island must move from one coastline to another? Do not the science textbooks themsevles admit that mountains do move, and grow, albeit at an indiscernibly slow rate? In fact, catastrophes of a far less nature than those described here have been known to move mountains and islands.

Robert Govett notes that the effects of the sixth seal "are natural enough" for "similar effects have occasionally followed such convulsions of nature." Indeed they have. Joseph Seiss recounts an event in his lifetime when a mammoth earthquake (and far greater ones have been recorded since) caused "islands [to be] moved in their places, mountains shaken, vast districts of shore engulfed in the sea, thousands and thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of millions of treasures destroyed." At least one scientists accepts this prophecy in its most literal meaning. Henry Morris attributes the moving of mountains to his shifting plate theory cited previously.

Once again, the literal view is the best. It suits the context fully, being the natural result of the catastrophes previously described and is not in any reasonable way untenable or unrealistic. Critics have suggested that the literal view must mean that the mountains and islands move tens of thousands of meters, but the text does not say that, and neither do advocates of the literal interpretation.


It has been demonstrated that the sixth seal can in no reasonable way bee seen as figurative for persecution of believers. This is expressedly stated to be the "wrath of the Lamb" (vs. 17). Since believers are not the subjects of God's wrath there can be no possible way to attribute the images here to Christians, be they Jews or Gentiles. The only other figurative approach offered has been unable to show a single passage where similar imagery is used in either the Bible, Jewish literature, or any other ancient literature. Moreover, the idea that the sixth seal is speaking of the fall of governments on earth cannot justify the scope and nature of the prophecy. What could cause the kings of the world to cry out to the rocks, begging for death? As Walvoord reminds us, "it is questionable whether changes in government and in human affairs would have brought such a striking transformation in the hearts of these wicked people." Such imagery cannot be justified.

Only the literal interpretation can adequate address the prophecy and its ramifications. A literal meteor shower, or similar catastrophe, creates a massive earthquake, the blotting out of the sun, and "fantastic changes on the physical earth." So terrifying are these catastrophes that;

"The kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits 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?'" (Revelation 6:15-17).

There are several factors to consider in this. Why did they flee to the mountains? Was it because they feared staying in the cities or was it because the cities were destroyed and in flames? Was the catastrophe man-made or caused by the direct intervention of God from heaven? Regardless of which is true, the people of the earth express two sentiments. First, they asks the rocks to fall on them, which is by all rights a death wish. They appear to desire death, but is seems to escape them. Such is the terror that appears on the earth in these last days. No allegorical explanation of the sixth seal can account for such terror, only the literal reality of a massive catastrophe. Second, the victims here do not question the existence of God. They do not doubt that Christ is the Lamb of God. They do not deny that they are being punished, but neither to they repent. They cry out that the great day of the Father and Son's wrath has come, but they do not offer repentance. Men is not ignorant of God, he is rebellious against God. In these last days man will either repent or harden his heart against the Lord. Even as all men by the time they die have so hardened their hearts or repented, the wrath of God in the last days will hasten that decision. No longer will man sit around for a lifetime delaying his inevitable choice. He must make his choice or be lost forever. This is what the passage literally tells us.

Note : Endnotes were removed for space but can be found in my book, Controversies in the Book of Revelation.

Copyright = David Criswell = 2004 = All rights reserved

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