Note: This essay was written in rebuttal to William McGrath’s essay on Revelation titled “The Sevens in the Book of Revelation.” Mr. McGrath’s essay appeared in the booklet “Bible Numerology,” which he edited. If Mr. McGrath’s essay is available (I couldn’t find a link to it on the Internet, unfortunately), it would be good to read it first to understand exactly what I am arguing against in my essay. If not, then hopefully my essay will be clear enough.
William McGrath, in the book Bible Numerology, wrote a chapter titled “The Sevens in the Book of Revelation.” He talks about the use of the number “7” in the Bible, especially in Revelation, and he gives his view of the book. He supports the idealist viewpoint, which sees Revelation as only a series of cyclical visions, allegorically protraying the battle between good and evil throughout the Church Age, and the final triumph of Christ. He does not believe the visions prophesy any specific events, either historical or future. Since I am at odds with almost all of his statements about Revelation and how it is to be interpreted, and since he specifically challenges the futurist viewpoint, which views most of Revelation as a prophecy about future events, I’ve decided to write a rebuttal of his arguments.
I will go through his chapter argument-by-argument, rather than paragraph-by-paragraph, since he repeats some of his arguments and adds on to them later. This allows me to respond to each argument by itself, while a paragraph-by-paragraph approach would bring me back to the same or similar arguments again after responding to them in an earlier paragraph.
McGrath first notes the frequent use of the number 7 in the Bible. It is used quite often, not only in prophecy, but also in historical narratives, rituals, and teaching devices. Seven is the “perfect number” of the Bible. Therefore, it is not surprising that the number 7 is used so often. Mr. McGrath says that it is used 54 times in the Book of Revelation alone. Here we come to his first argument: That the frequent use of seven, which indicates perfection, shows that Revelation is an allegorical or spiritual protrayal of the struggle between good and evil during the church age. (This argument is implied on his part rather than explicitly stated). However, there is a good explanation for the use of seven, according to the futurist viewpoint. God chose to reveal the future to John, using sevens often during the prophecy. Since seven is the Bible’s perfect number, it is natural that He would do so. Furthermore, God often uses sevens in His dealings with mankind. McGrath himself shows that this is true, in the first three paragraphs of his chapter. Surely McGrath does not doubt that historical accounts using the number 7 are literally true (for example, seven years of plenty and seven years of famine)? Therefore, it is to be expected that if there is a future Great Tribulation in which God will pour out His wrath, it will be 7 years long and will have other elements of 7 (for example, 3 cycles of 7 judgments).
McGrath calls the futurist view “nonsense.” He also tries to refute premillennialism (the belief that Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years after his Second Coming according to Revelation 20) by quoting Revelation 1:5-7 and I Corinthians 15:21-26. Revelation 1:5 says, “And from Jesus Christ who is…the prince of the kings of the earth.” I believe that this refers to Christ’s authority, which He already has in a sense, but He is not yet exercising it. (If He were, the world situation would be radically different from what it is today). But Mr. McGrath says, “This…teaches that Christ is already reigning from His Father’s throne, over the confused affairs of earth, overruling and working out His purposes, putting down kings and raising up kings.” At this point, he confuses Christ’s Lordship with God’s sovereignty. If Christ was currently ruling the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:15), the affairs of earth would not be confused! If verses such as the one mentioned above, and others such as Zechariah 14:9 which prophesy His rule over the nations, mean only what McGrath thinks that they mean, then they are meaningless, for that would be no different than anything that was not already in effect with the sovereignty of the Triune God since the beginning of Creation. Note the vision in Daniel 2, where four world empires are destroyed by a stone cut out without hands, and the stone, representing God’s kingdom, replaces them and grows to dominate the earth. The picture is of a kingdom that has smashed world nations to bits and is dominating the world. Some would say that the stone is a picture of the church today. But today, nations are still rising and falling. The church still faces persecution in many areas of the world. If words mean anything, this kingdom of God is yet future. If words mean anything, and we can trust the words of Scripture, then Christ will rule the earth in peace and righteousness.
Keep in mind that while Christ is at the right hand of the throne of the Father, this is not the same as David’s throne. He is not yet on David’s throne. He will rule from David’s throne in Jerusalem during the Millenial Reign. In Isaiah 9:6-7, the Messiah’s rule from the throne of David is connected to the government being “upon his shoulder”, and to “the increase of his government and peace…to order it and establish it with judgment and justice”. It is hard to imagine that the wicked governments of the world are “on His shoulder” at this time; instead, Satan is currently the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). The Bible seems to indicate that Christ’s position at His Father’s throne is a place of waiting. Acts 3:19-21 says, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord. And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things.” This seems to show that Christ is in a period of waiting in heaven until the second coming. Rev. 3:21 says, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. ” So we see that Christ is waiting at his Father’s side, apparently not having sat down on his throne yet, but currently being seated on his Father’s throne – note the clear distinction between the two. Matt. 25:31 says, “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory.” So it appears that he will sit on his throne AFTER the second coming.
Revelation 1:7 says, referring to the Second Coming, “And every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him.” McGrath claims that “this takes for granted a general resurrection of all men including dead sinners,” but such an interpretation is not necessary. Instead, the proper understanding, seeing that a resurrection is not mentioned, is that all will see Him, whether in heaven or hell, or on the earth, when He returns – including those who pierced Him.
McGrath also quotes from I Corinthians 15:21-26, amazingly claiming that these verses support amillennialism. Verses 22 and 23 state, “But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward they that are Christ’s at His coming. Then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God…” Mr. McGrath says, “So we believe with the early church in the Blessed Hope – when He comes, THEN COMETH THE END…” Unfortunately, he is badly mistaken. The Greek word for “then,” eita, means “after that”; Strong’s concordance says that it is a particle of succession or logical enumeration. Far from meaning “at that time,” it instead shows that the end is not at Christ’s return, but afterwards – later. It is the third order in Paul’s sequence (see verse 21). The first is Christ’s resurrection, then those that are Christ’s at His coming. Then finally, the wicked dead at the end, “when He shall have put down (ESV “after destroying”) all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign, till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
One of McGrath’s major arguments is that Revelation is a series of 7 visions. Each vision, he says, is a vision of 7 things. He divides Revelation like this: 7 churches (chapters 1-3), 7 seals (chapters 4-7), 7 trumpets (chapters 8-11), God’s 7 enemies (chapters 12-14), 7 vials of wrath (chapters 15-16), 7 enemies defeated (chapters 17:1-20:6), and 7 glories of heaven (chapters 20:7-22:21). He also says, “The Day of Judgment appears seven times,” and gives seven passages, one from each of his divisions. He says, “Either the world is judged and destroyed seven times or the seven visions of … Revelation each portray the same event-cycles.”
Dividing Revelation into 7 portions may be convenient for study, but it is not accurate to base interpretations on such a division, because such a division does not exist. There are only 4 cycles of seven in Revelation: 7 churches, 7 seals, 7 trumpets, and 7 vials or bowls. The last three are cycles of judgments, while the seven churches are a group of churches that John administered, which were chosen because their traits are symbolic of the Church throughout history. I agree with McGrath’s statement that “each of these 7 can symbolize a certain condition of any church throughout church history.” Thus, the churches represent the church during the Church Age.
I have seen two other divisions of Revelation into seven visions, besides McGrath’s. None of the three are the same; there are different names given to some of the divisions, as well as some different starting and ending points proposed. McGrath sees chapters 12-14 as portraying 7 enemies of God, while another saw the same chapters as portraying 7 signs or wonders. I wonder what McGrath does with the woman and child of chapter 12, and the 144,000 and the three angels of chapter 14. They certainly are not enemies! These inconsistencies merely show that Revelation is not divided into seven visions, nor was it intended to be.
McGrath says that the first portrayal of the Day of Judgment is in Revelation 1:7. But an unbiased examination of Revelation 1 leaves the impression that chapter 1 is an introduction to the rest of the book. Nevertheless, McGrath includes chapter 1 with the messages to the 7 churches in chapters 2 and 3, in the first of the 7 divisions that he sees in the book. Why? Because without chapter 1, he would lack the portrayal of the Day of Judgment that he says is in each of the 7 portions. So the inclusion is necessary to McGrath’s point of view; however, it seems forced by nothing other than his own presuppositions.
The next portrayal of the Day of Judgment, according to McGrath, is the sixth seal – Rev. 6:12-17. John saw a great earthquake, the sun became as black as sackcloth, the stars fell, and the sky vanished like a scroll being rolled up. Everyone hid themselves in rocks and caves and asked the mountains to hide them from the face of Him that was on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.
A natural, unbiased reading of the beginning of chapter 8, however, shows that the seventh seal leads into the seven trumpets. So the seven trumpets will occur after the seven seals! They do not occur at the same time as McGrath suggests. So what is the sixth seal, then? It may be a literal earthquake during the Tribulation; or it may be a symbolic portrayal of political turmoil, in terms borrowed from the literal happenings around the time of the Glorious Appearing.
The next (alleged) portrayal of the Day of Judgment is in chapter 1l:13-19. Verse 13 describes an earthquake, which may be the same as the one in Revelation 16, but I think it’s more likely that it’s a completely different earthquake, not worldwide, but confined to the vicinity of Jerusalem.
Chapter 14: 14-20 speaks of the battle of Armageddon (also mentioned in 16:14,16 and 19:17-21).
Chapter 16: 18-21 is of a literal earthquake at the end of the Tribulation.
Chapter 19: 11-21 speaks of Christ’s return to the earth and His judgment of the wicked armies, who came to destroy Israel, at Armageddon. There is nothing mentioned of a destruction of the world.
All of these so-called portrayals of the Day of Judgment can be explained adequately by the futurist viewpoint. There is nothing that demands that each of them is portraying the Day of Judgment and destruction of the world.
There are other reasons why Revelation cannot be divided into seven parts. For example, there is a break in the presentation, or a parenthesis, between the sixth seal and the seventh seal, in chapter 7. There is also a parenthesis between the sixth and the seventh trumpets (ch. 10:1-11:13). In these parentheses, further explanation of events are given, that cannot be covered by a single seal or trumpet. For example, the ministry of the two witnesses (chapter 11) covers 1260 days. This spans the time period of the seals and the trumpets. So a parenthesis was needed to tell John about the two witnesses.
I believe that Revelation is arranged roughly in chronological order. The seals, trumpets, and vials are in chronological order. In the first parenthesis (chapter 7), the servants of God are sealed during the first half (3 1/2 years) of the Tribulation. The scene then jumps to the Millenium, where the great multitude from every nation, that has come out of the Great Tribulation, is comforted. In the second parenthesis (ch. 10:1-11:13), Christ’s control in the judgments is asserted, and the prophecy of the two witnesses is given. Chapters 12 and 13 give some events of the second half of the Tribulation. Chapter 14 gives a preview of the end of the Tribulation. The seven vial judgments are prophesied next; those will occur in the second half of the Tribulation. Chapters 17-19 speak of the great whore, “Babylon,” the judgment on her, and Christ’s return with the armies of heaven, including the Church, His Bride. The Millenial Reign and Final Judgment are given in chapter 20, and the new heavens and new earth are described in chapters 21-22.
So while the book is not in strict chronological order, there is an order that can be discerned.
I believe that, instead of making our own division of Revelation into seven parts, we should divide it the way it divides itself, in chapter 1 verse 19. This verse is the key to interpreting Revelation. “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.” Chapter 4, verse 1 says in part, “Come up hither, and I will show you the things which must be hereafter. Thus, Revelation divides itself. “The things which thou hast seen” is the vision on the isle of Patmos in chapter 1. “The things which are” refers to the seven churches, representing the churches throughout the Church Age, in chapters 2-3. “The things which shall be hereafter” refers to the vision of the end times in chapters 4-22.
McGrath calls futurism “nonsense” and “confusing,” but verse 19 makes one wonder whether the real confusion lies with his idealist viewpoint. It shows clearly that chapter 1 is set apart from chapters 2 and 3, which in turn are set apart from chapters 4-22, disproving McGrath’s statement that the “seven visions…each portray the same event-cycles.” It also indicates that Revelation prophesies specific events that will actually happen, rather than merely a spiritual allegory.
McGrath suggests that the early church was not premillennial and futurist, and quotes the Apostles’ Creed.
- He ascended into heaven,
- And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
- From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I have several objections to his statement. First, the Apostles’ doctrine must be proved from Scripture, not the Apostles’ Creed. Second, the Creed does not contradict premillennialism, as premillennialists believe that Christ will judge the living and the dead at His coming. However, He will not judge the wicked dead at that time. The judgment of the wicked will occur after the Second Resurrection at the close of the thousand-year reign. Also, think of two mountains. From a distance, they may appear to be close together, but in fact they may be some distance apart. This may be how the first and second resurrection are viewed at times, including in the Apostles’ Creed.
Against McGrath’s statement that the early church was not premillenial stands the testimony of the Epistle of Barnabas (written around A.D. 100-120), the Apocalypse of Peter (110-140), Papias (60-130), the Shepherd of Hermas (100-140), Justin Martyr (110-167), Melito (died c. 180), Apollinaris (2nd century), Irenaeus (120-202), Tertullian (160-220), Hippolytus (170-236), Cyprian (195-258), Novatian (200-258), Nepos (3rd century), Victorinus (240-330), and Lactantius (260-330), among others. Impressively, Papias was a disciple of John, and Irenaeus was a disciple of Papias. The only opposition to premillennialism in the early church came from a school in Alexandria. Origen (185-254) was the first to clearly teach amillennialism. His follower Dionysius also taught amillennialism. But they were a distinct minority.
I believe I have sufficiently demonstrated that McGrath’s view of Revelation does not hold up to close scrutiny, and that futuristic premillennialism is a good alternative.