Reading the Book of Revelation: Theological Reflections on the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Robert Menzies

Apocalyptic themes permeated early Pentecostal sermons and writings.  The unwavering conviction that Jesus’ return was near animated both the leaders and the foot-soldiers of the movement.[1] Nevertheless, the theology that informed this apocalyptic, “time-is-short” spirituality of our Pentecostal ancestors was not unique to them. A focus on end-time prophecy and eschatological themes characterized most, if not all, of the radical evangelicals of the late nineteenth century.[2] Whether it be revivalist ministers with Reformed leanings such as A. B. Simpson and D. L. Moody or Methodist leaders like Arno C. Gaebelein and W. E. Blackstone, a large number of the proto-evangelicals of the gilded age exhibited a strong interest in end-time chronology and apocalyptic interpretations of the Book of Revelation.[3] Sparks of eschatological fervor were fanned into flame by a series of conferences featuring Bible prophecy which convened between 1878 – 1918.[4] This evangelical subculture, permeated as it was with a sense of end-time expectancy, formed the crucible in which the Pentecostal movement was forged.  Although it might be argued that the early Pentecostals’ experience of dramatic “signs and wonders,” especially “speaking in tongues,” affirmed in a distinctive way their conviction that they were living in “the last days,” the framework for their eschatological outlook was already present when the “fire” of Pentecost fell at Azusa Street. The framework that supported Pentecostalism’s apocalyptic vision and which ultimately guided and defined it was dispensational theology.[5]

Yet the theological landscape that shaped the doctrinal formulations and thinking of Christians in the late 1800s and early 1900s has dramatically changed. An earlier generation of dispensationalists sought to contrast its literal hermeneutic with the spiritualizing approach of the modernists. John Walvoord exemplifies this perspective when he declares, “the modernist who spiritualizes the resurrection of Christ does so by almost the same techniques as are used by B. B. Warfield who finds heaven described in Revelation 20:1-10.”[6] This kind of argument fails to gain a hearing in the current context, where the challenge of modernism seems tired and antiquated.  The challenges that confront us today are more likely generated by post-modern readers.  The unwillingness to accept supernatural elements in Scripture has been largely displaced by an uncritical acceptance of virtually any reading.  The rub is that, according to the spirit of our age, none of these readings can be accepted as “truth” in a universal or authoritative sense. The pressing issues have changed and the new context illuminates the cracks in the dispensational edifice. All of this suggests that Pentecostals need a fresh vision of the future, a new approach to reading Revelation.  In the following brief essay, I would like to point to the path that I feel Pentecostals should take, one that will help us better understand the inspired message of the Book of Revelation and apply it more faithfully to our lives.

Evaluating Dispensational Theology

Dispensational theology is hard to define because it has taken a variety of forms since John Nelson Darby brought it to North America from Britain in 1862.[7] Some speak of Classical, Revised, and Progressive Dispensationalism.[8] Since a fundamental tenet of dispensational theology is the distinction between Israel and the Church in God’s redemptive plan, these perspectives might be categorized according to how extensive and rigid this distinction is delineated. The distinction becomes less pronounced and more flexible the further one moves along the continuum: Classical; Revised; and Progressive. Nevertheless, for our purposes it will suffice simply to note that the form of dispensational theology currently found in Assemblies of God circles tends to be very much like the revised dispensationalism espoused by John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie.[9]

Some argue that Pentecostal theology is best understood through the lens of the five-fold gospel.[10] In similar fashion, I maintain that dispensational theology can be best understood in terms of a five-fold interpretative approach. Dispensational theology is, at its core, a hermeneutic, a distinctive way of interpreting the Bible, and particularly the Book of Revelation. The five questions that follow illuminate a dispensational hermeneutic — that is, how dispensationalists approach the Book of Revelation and relate it to the rest of Scripture. The answers one gives to these questions will determine with clarity whether one is a dispensationalist on the one hand or a historic premillennialist or amillennialist on the other. It should be noted that historic premillennialists and amillennialists generally share a common or similar hermeneutic.  As George Ladd famously noted, the only difference between his perspective, historic premillennialism, and that of an amillennialist was his reading of Revelation 20.[11] So, the following questions – all of which pertain to how one should approach the Book of Revelation – help distinguish the dispensational perspective from that of historic premillennialists and amillennialists:[12]

  1. Interpreting Revelation: Literal or Symbolic?
  2. Chronology: Progression or Recapitulation?
  3. How shall we interpret Old Testament Prophecy?
  4. Israel and the Church: Continuity or Discontinuity?
  5. Revelation and New Testament Prophecy: Extensive or Intensive?

Although my monograph on this issue (currently in progress) treats all five of these questions, for our more limited purpose in this essay I will deal with only one: the question of Chronology in the Book of Revelation.

Chronology: Progression or Recapitulation?

In conjunction with a literal approach, dispensationalists also read the Book of Revelation, at least from Rev. 4:1 onwards, as if it were presenting a sequential, chronological description or picture of end-time events.  These events are said to take place after the rapture of the Church (the first phase of Jesus’ second coming), even though the rapture is not clearly described anywhere in Revelation, a point we will discuss in more detail below. According to dispensationalists, these events will take place during a seven-year period (with most of the action taking place during the final half of this period), also referred to as the Great Tribulation, just prior to the second phase of Jesus’ second coming, the revelation of Christ.  These events include: the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem;[13] the rise to power of the antichrist; a terrible series of calamities and plagues; the antichrist’s betrayal and persecution of the Jews; the powerful witness of two end-time prophets; the death and startling resurrection of these prophets; the antichrist’s gathering of a great army from all the nations; a cataclysmic battle, Armageddon, which culminates with the revelation and victory of Christ.

Just as a literal reading of Revelation has increasingly lost favor with most evangelical scholars, so also the notion that Revelation presents a linear, chronological progression of events has been rejected by a significant majority of contemporary scholars.  Again, three observations have swayed interpreters in this regard.  First, the sequence of seven seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments appears to demand significant overlap.  With the opening of the sixth seal we read of a great earthquake, the sun turns black, stars fall from the sky, and the mountains are leveled (Rev. 6:12-14).  However, in the next chapter we read that the four angels at the corners of the earth are told, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God” (Rev. 7:3).  If there is a literal movement forward in time, this warning appears to come a bit too late. And with the fourth trumpet how can a third of the stars be turned black (Rev. 8:12) when they have already been destroyed at the end of chapter six: “the stars in the sky fell to earth…the heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up” (Rev. 6:13-14)?

Additionally, each cycle of judgments appears to take us to the very end.  For example, note how after the seventh trumpet sounds, praise is directed to “the One who is and who was” (Rev. 11:17; cf. 16:5), but the anticipated “who is to come” (Rev. 1:4, 8) is omitted.  This, of course, suggests that what is being described is the end, the culmination of God’s redemptive plan.  This is explicitly stated with the declaration from heaven, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).  In similar fashion, after the seventh angel pours his bowl into the air, a loud voice from the throne declares, “It is done!” (Rev. 16:17).  A natural reading of the text suggests that each of the seven cycles of judgment takes us to the end.  Therefore, there must be significant chronological overlap or recapitulation in John’s presentation of these visions and images.

Secondly, other portions of John’s circular letter also seem to rehearse the great events of salvation history. This is especially evident in Revelation 12-14, which provides a symbolic rehearsal of the central events of the cosmic conflict between the people of God and their adversary, Satan. As Waddell so ably shows, “[Rev.] 12:1-15:4 provides a broader yet more detailed perspective of the revelation found in 11:1-3…cast in the language of a cosmic struggle.”[14] This is especially important because “[Rev.] 11:1-13 contains the prophecy in nuce.”[15]

Finally, John’s letter is addressed to Christians living in the Roman province of Asia toward the end of the first century. A dispensational approach, with its exclusive focus on events shortly before the end of the age, loses sight of John’s original context and readers.  Contemporary evangelical scholars seek to read the text with an ear more attuned to John’s original setting and purpose.  This in turn, I would argue, enables us to apply John’s message to our context in a manner that is both more faithful to the Spirit-inspired meaning and more relevant to our contemporary audience.

For example, I write this essay in the midst of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.  I do believe Revelation offers important perspective on the current Coronavirus crisis as well as similar events.  With the three series of seven-fold judgments in Revelation—the Seals, the Trumpets, and the Bowls (the last two cycles in particular parallel the plagues on Egypt that led to the Exodus)—John conveys an important message to the Church (and the world, but primarily to the Church). These series of judgments do not present a picture of events that will take place in chronological progression (as I have stated, they do not make sense if they are viewed in this way); rather, they each present a message for the Church about the period between the first and second comings of Christ.

The Seal judgments answer the question, “Who can stand?” (6:17).  The message here is that the trials and hardships that come to all the earth will impact Christians as well as non-Christians.  This truth is also reflected in the question of Rev. 6:10, the prayer of the persecuted Church, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”  So, as we read Chapter 6 we see that trials and suffering will come upon Christians as well as non-Christians.  However, as we continue reading, we learn that those who are in Christ will not experience these calamities as judgment or God’s wrath, for we have been sealed (which means we are protected spiritually, 7:1-8; a thought echoed in Rev. 11:1-2), for we are God’s people (indeed, God’s “army” sent out on a mission, Rev. 14:1-5), and we have a clear purpose and destiny (Rev. 7:9-17).  So, in Christ we can stand, even in the midst of calamities and plagues.

The Trumpets emphasize that end-time (that is, the period between the first and second comings of Christ, cf. Acts 2:17) is mission time. Here we find a description of calamities or judgments that will fall upon the unbelieving world. These judgments are not total—only one-third of the earth, the sea, the rivers, and the sky is impacted—because they represent God’s call for the world to repent and acknowledge him.  So, in the midst of these calamities, the Church has an important mission. The Church, in these “last days” is pictured as empowered by the Spirit and powerfully proclaiming the gospel (cf. The Two Witnesses of Rev. 11).[16] In this way, the Church, God’s Spirit-empowered prophetic people, is called to fulfill an important mission; and this mission is carried out in the midst of God’s gracious judgments. I say “gracious” because these judgments, partial as they are, are a call to repent and turn to him. This is precisely the purpose that we can see with the Coronavirus and other similar calamities: they call the world (and also complacent Christians) to repent and acknowledge the true God who has revealed himself in Christ. The Church, in the midst of these judgments, is called to bear bold witness for Christ.

Finally, the Bowl judgments represent the completion of God’s plan and his final judgment. Now, the judgments are total. There is no more opportunity for repentance for the hearts of the unbelieving world are hardened. Here again we see the sweep of history from the first coming of Christ to his second coming, but now in terms of its ultimate goal: the judgment of unrepentant wickedness (Rev. 16:1-19:3); and the victory and vindication of Jesus and his followers (19:4-22:6). Together, then, these series of judgments tell us:

(1) The Church will not be exempt from suffering in the last days; indeed, suffering and especially persecution should be expected; but we will not experience these calamities as God’s wrath. Far from it, for in Christ we are protected spiritually.

(2) We Christians have an important calling and mission to accomplish.  The Church in the “last days” is called to be a powerful Church, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, so that we can fulfill God’s call to faithfully worship Him alone and take the gospel to the ends of the world.

(3) Finally, the period of God’s gracious warning will end (Rev. 15-18) and God will consummate his plan with the return of Christ (Rev. 19-20).  Christ will be acknowledged as the Lord of all, his Church will be vindicated, and Christ will reign in a transformed world (Rev. 21-22).

So, hopefully unbelievers will experience the Coronavirus pandemic like the calamities of the Trumpet judgments, as a warning to the world to repent and turn to God.  The Church is not exempt, but we will not experience this virus as God’s wrath.  Spiritually, we are protected (like with the Seal judgments, Rev. 7). And, in the midst of this crisis, we have an important mission to pursue: we are called to worship the true God (and so we reject all forms of idolatry) and bear witness to the true Lord and King, Jesus Christ (Rev. 11).

This means that some, even though they may possibly die as a result of the virus, will turn to God in the mist of this plague.  These people experience the virus as a warning (like the Trumpet plagues) and respond appropriately. Sadly, some will experience the virus as the Bowl judgments: for them, whether they live or die as a result of the virus, it will be the final warning they receive, for their hearts are hardened and they refuse to repent.

As Christians, our task is to present Christ, for we do not know the hearts of men.  Even one who persecutes us may be an Apostle Paul in the making.[17] So, our role is to proclaim the gospel and reflect Christ’s peace and grace in the midst of this crisis.  God is the judge and He alone knows who will experience these calamities as those who are already in Christ (the Seals), as those who might heed his gracious warning (the Trumpets) and turn to God, or as those whose hearts are hardened and thus experience the calamity as a form of final judgment (the Bowls).[18]

In short, with the judgments associated with the Seals, the Trumpets, and the Bowls, John calls for Christians and non-Christians alike to look at our lives and the events of our world from the perspective of God’s truth, from the perspective of the divine throne in heaven, and not from a perspective framed by the deceitful lies of our world.  The Seal, Trumpet, and Bowl judgments do not describe distinct periods of time that follow, one after the other, but rather they represent different theological truths that characterize and help us make sense of the age in which we live, the period between Christ’s first and second comings.  This is why each series—Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls—takes us to the end and Christ’s final judgment and victory (see esp. Rev. 6:16-17; 8:1; 11:15-18; 16:17).  This also explains why each of these judgments—Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls—can be experienced at the same time by different people, depending on the response of their hearts to God. So, as I noted above, some will experience the Covid-19 crisis as Christians who have been sealed; some will experience it as the Trumpet judgments, a call to repent, and they will respond appropriately; and sadly some, those with hardened hearts unwilling to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ, will experience it as the Bowl judgments and final judgment.

This message and, indeed, the central truths of the Book of Revelation are missed, however, if we read John’s letter as a linear chronology of events in the short period that immediately precedes Christ’s return. Yet, this is a message that we desperately need to hear, particularly during these challenging times.  May the Lord enable us to hear and faithfully follow his word to us in the Book of Revelation, for “blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it…” (Rev. 1:3).

[1] Daniel Isgrigg, Imagining the Future: The Origin, Development, and Future of Assemblies of God Eschatology (forthcoming, 2020); and D. W. Faupel, The Everlasting Gospel (JPTSup 10; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

[2] Timothy P. Weber, “Dispensational and Historic Premillennialism as Popular Millennialist Movements” in Blomberg, Craig L. and Sung Work Chung, editors, A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to ‘Left Behind’ Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), Loc 542 and Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 251-52.

[3] A. B. Simpson, The Four-fold Gospel (1890), Loc 671-8225 and Weber, “Millennialist Movements,” Loc 524.

[4] Weber, “Millennialist Movements,” Loc 474.

[5] Wacker, Heaven Below, 251-52; Weber states, “…by the end of World War I, dispensationalism was nearly synonymous with fundamentalism and Pentecostalism” (“Millennialist Movements,” Loc 542).

[6] Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, Ohio: Dunham, 1959), 71, cited in Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in Robert Clouse, ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 1977), 19.

[7] Weber notes that Darby made “seven trips to North American between 1862 and 1877” (“Millennialist Movements,” Loc 446).

[8] Kevin Hartley, “Dispensationalism Defined”,, accessed June 2, 2020.

[9] Key proponents of the various perspectives are: classical dispensationalism (Darby, Scofield), revised dispensationalism (Walvoord, Ryrie), and progressive dispensationalism (Blaising, Saucy). The distinction between classical and revised dispensationalism explains how Raymond Gannon can say that Dr. Horton does not “embrace” dispensationalism (Foreword of Stanley M. Horton, Ultimate Victory: An exposition of the Book of Revelation [Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1991], Loc 277).  See also Gannon’s two other books ?.  While Horton is not a dispensationalist in the classical sense, he is a dispensationalist in the revised sense.

[10] John Christopher Thomas, “Pentecostal Theology in the Twenty-First Century,” Pneuma 20.1 (Spring 1998): 3–19.

[11] Ladd begins his response to Hoekema’s amillennial perspective by stating: “I am in agreement with practically all that Hoekema has written with the exception of his exegesis of Revelation 20” (“Historic Premillennialism,” 189); Ladd, Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), Loc 1451-1500.

[12] Ladd also notes the strong similarities between premillennialism and amillennialism in his book, The Blessed Hope (see Loc 1485).

[13] If this has not already happened.  In the dispensational scheme, the restoration of the Jews to their homeland, the re-establishment of the nation of Israel, and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, all must take place before most of the key events of the tribulation period can unfold.

[14] Waddell, Spirit of Revelation, 150.

[15] Waddell, Spirit of Revelation, 190. So also Bauckham, Theology, 83.

[16] Waddell, Spirit of Revelation, 132-196.

[17] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation: I Saw Heaven Opened (The Bible Speaks Today Series; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 108.

[18] Revelation clearly declares that all will stand before Christ at the final judgment (Rev. 14:9-10, 14-20; 16-18; 20:11-15).

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