The Rapture is When?

A Critique of The Rapture Question Answered Plain and Simple
by Robert Van Kampen

by Darrel Cline

The General Significance of the Seven Seals

In chapter seven of Van Kampen's book, he seeks to establish his particular "prophetic construct" by showing that God's wrath cannot be poured out until all the conditions of the seven seals have been met. He says, "...the wrath of God will not begin until all seven seals on the heavenly scroll have been broken and the scroll can be opened" (page 136). I have a significant problem with this construction of the significance of the seals. He does not do a good job in this book explaining his view of the seals, but there is more information in his other book, The Sign. In that book he makes several claims. First, he claims that the scroll contains the "wrath of God". Second, he claims that the seven seals are lined up across the top edge of the scroll so that all seven must be broken before the scroll can be unrolled. His explanation is that the seals are legal requirements that must be met before the contents of the scroll can be unveiled and applied to the history of man. So, for him, the events that transpire prior to the breaking of the seventh seal are not "wrath" from God, but merely historical events that have to "come into play" before the wrath can be unleashed. This, of course, makes it easy for him to emphasize the sixth seal as the indicator of the initiation of the "wrath" because there is, in that seal's events, a clear statement that the people of the earth are fearful of the "wrath of Him Who sits upon the throne". Why is it that it is not the seventh seal that brings this up? One would think that if the scroll contained a record of the wrath of God, it would be the last seal that actually announced this, rather than the next to the last.

On page 139 of The Rapture Question Answered, Van Kampen says, "After it has been established that Christ, the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah, is the only One worthy to break the seals and open the scroll...Christ breaks the first seal..."

However, though he claims that the issue of Christ's worthiness to break the seals is bound up in the fact that Christ is the Father's appointed Judge because Christ overcame the temptation of Satan at His first coming (pages 137-138), there is no rationale for this claim in his particular construction of the nature of the seals. It is indisputable that every time Christ breaks a seal, something is pictured that is awesome in terms of disaster for those who live upon the earth. Yet, Van Kampen's claim is that the seals do not represent any expression of God's wrath. Therefore, there is no point to the claim that Christ, or anyone else for that matter, needed to be qualified to break the seals. If the events which occur as each seal is broken are not divine "wrath", there is no particular reason why anyone needed special qualifications to break them. From Van Kampen's perspective of the scroll as only containing divine wrath, he can argue that only Christ as God's appointed Judge can open the scroll, but how does he argue that only Christ can break the seals?

What is my point? To answer, let us consider an interesting point of fact: in every reference to Christ's relationship to this scroll the word order is that He is worthy "to open the book and to loose its seals". In other words, it does not say He is worthy "to loose the seals and to open the book". Let's consider another fact: in Revelation 5:9, Christ is acclaimed "worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof..." Here the word "open" is used rather than "loose". Another fact: the word translated "loose" typically means to "release". The picture is that the seals contain certain contents that are "bound" by the seal, and those contents are "released" when the seals are "loosed". And one further fact: in Revelation 10:3-4, John hears seven thunders utter their voices. Then, as he is about to write (as he was instructed to do in Revelation 1:19), he is told to "seal up" the contents of the utterances of the seven thunders. The significance of this is derived from the implications about seals given as long ago as Daniel's prophecies in Daniel 12:4. At that time Daniel was told to "seal up" the book until the time of the end. The implication is this: a prophetic utterance made by God cannot come to pass if it is sealed -- unless the seal is "released". The conclusion we draw from this in Revelation 10 is that the seven thunders had uttered seven more events of catastrophic judgment and, before John could write them down, they were "sealed" -- i.e., they were not to be enacted. [By the way, this sealing up of the utterances of the seven thunders is as probable an explanation for Jesus' statement about the events of the Great Tribulation being "shortened" (Matthew 24:22) as is Van Kampen's theory that Jesus' parousia is the way that the persecution of believers is brought to an end ("amputated").]

What should we deduce from these facts? First, that the loosing of the seals is a releasing of divinely ordained events into human history. Second, that "opening the book" and "loosing its seals" is in that order -- i.e., that the book is opened as the seals are loosed. Van Kampen claims that he has never seen a book sealed in any other way than across the leading edge of the scroll, but that does not mean that the book has not been sealed on the edges so that the scroll unrolls as the seals are loosed. His experience is not the standard for the proper interpretation of the words. Third, the seals actually contain events that are foreordained by the prophetic word. This means that it is God who is governing history, He is not merely "permitting" it (page 140).

So, what is the overall significance of the seals? They keep the scroll's contents from being released upon the earth. As the seals are opened, the events begin to unfold in history just as the scroll begins to unroll. This makes the contents of the material between each seal a part of the record of the scroll. Van Kampen's claim that the scroll only contains the "wrath of God" as a latter seventieth week phenomenon is a bias that is more a requirement of his theoretical construct than of the text. If, in fact, the seals cannot be released except by someone who is "worthy", and the rationale for that restriction is that the worthy one must not be guilty of any sin and be God's appointed Judge, the fact that the loosing of the seals progressively unveils the contents of the scroll explains why Jesus was the only One found worthy to open the scroll and open the seals. This scenario at least gives some rationale for the order of the words, "to open the scroll and to loose the seals", and it makes a stronger case for Christ's unique worthiness since there is judgment in the record of the scroll between the seals as well as in the material that is unveiled when the last seal is loosed and the scroll is completely unrolled. This view is enhanced by the fact that the scroll was also written on the back (Revelation 5:1). Personally, I think the scroll was turned over at the end of chapter ten because in that chapter there is also a scroll that is open and the messenger tells John that he must "prophesy again" -- i.e., "go back over the era with a new set of prophetic utterances to illuminate the period more completely." Of course, Van Kampen would not agree with this because he believes the book of Revelation is chronologically sequential in spite of the fact that it cannot possibly be in view of Revelation 12:1-5.

The Seals Interpreted

At this point, Van Kampen launches into his understanding of the seals as precursor events to the expression of the wrath of God. However, as he has already said, he is going to "let" Matthew 24 interpret the seals for us, so we already know that his interpretation of Matthew 24 is going to override any content in the materials of Revelation 6:1-8:1 that contradicts his particular construct of end time events. This is where we run into the superficial correspondence between his understanding of Matthew 24 and Revelation 6. So let's see if the superficial similarities can stand investigation.

Matthew's details and order are as follows:

  1. many false christs bringing much deception (24:5);
  2. multiple wars and rumors of wars (24:6) with nations rising against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms (24:7a);
  3. famines (24:7);
  4. pestilences (24:7); and
  5. earthquakes in various places (24:7).

These are lumped together by Matthew 24:8 as the "beginning of sorrows" (the word here is typical for the pains of childbirth).

[An aside here: Paul said, in 2 Thessalonians 5:3, that this was the onset of the Day of the Lord. He said it would be preceded by people saying "peace and safety" (not a likely statement in the presence of "wars and rumors of wars"; not a likely statement in the presence of famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, either) and then, like a thief in the night, the Day of the Lord, like the pain of child birth, would strike with the "beginning of sorrows" gradually increasing until the trip-hammer blows of final birth came on with a vengeance.]

Then, after the onset of the "beginning of the birth pains", Matthew 24 continues with the persecution of believers in Jesus (24:9), which would be followed by the "offense" of many and the following betrayal and hatred of believers (24:10). Then there is the arrival of many false prophets (24:11) and more deception. This will lead to the cooling of the love of many (probably not "love for God", but normal human affection that would normally not permit one to betray and hate friends and family members). Then, the progress of Jesus' "gospel of the kingdom" will reach to the entire world. Then "the end".

Now, let's look at the various seals...

Some Preliminaries to Understanding The First Seal

Van Kampen opts for the rather popular interpretation of the first seal as the arising of Antichrist (page 140). His rationale for this is "letting the words of Christ [in Matthew 24] interpret the revelation of Christ [in the Revelation]" (page 140). But should he do this? He calls it comparing Scripture with Scripture, but remember this axiom: there can be no comparison of Scripture with Scripture unless there is first an understanding of each Scripture in its own context -- otherwise, we have nothing to compare. What's the advantage of comparing two or three or four Scriptures with each other if we do not understand them first in their own setting? Piling ignorance upon ignorance is the result of comparing one enigmatic statement with another enigmatic statement.

What should be involved in the interpretation of the seals? First, it hurts nothing at all to understand Jesus' words in Matthew 24; but it is a gross error to immediately apply their teaching to any new setting without first understanding the new setting. Second, there are several issues involved in understanding the seals. These issues are introduced by the text of Revelation. In the first place, the seals are broken up into two major groups by their contents. The first group are all "horses and riders" (the first four seals); and the second group are the remaining three seals, which have no linkage as obvious as the four horses of the first four seals. In the next place, in respect to the first group of seals, each of the horses and their riders is presented by one of the living creatures which surround the throne of God in Revelation 4:6-8. Then, there is the issue of "color", for each of the horses is identified by color. Then, there is the description of the rider and whatever impact he represents to the earth. Now, until each of these contextual factors is explained within the context of the Revelation, we cannot compare this text to Matthew 24. After we have come to grasp the meaning of these contextual "clues to meaning", we are free to go to Matthew 24, subject it to the same level of scrutiny, and then compare our results in order to develop a good grasp of what the Bible teaches by adding line upon line and precept upon precept.

So, why does Van Kampen identify the rider on the white horse as the Antichrist? He has already told us: Jesus' words in Matthew 24 indicate that the first thing we should be anticipating is the arrival of "many false Christs who will deceive many". The fly in the ointment here is that Van Kampen does not accept the rider on the white horse as a "real parallel" to Matthew 24 because the text of Revelation 6:2 has too many variants. According to his own words, Van Kampen identifies this rider as a "single male individual" who is given a crown of rulership. This, he says, is "going far beyond being just another false Christ" (page 140). In other words, contrary to Van Kampen's claim, Jesus' words in Matthew 24:5 can not be taken as the explanation for this rider because the description of this rider "goes far beyond" Jesus' Matthean words. This is what I call a superficial similarity. If the first seal had presented multiple riders on white horses without crowns or bows, we would have some basis for "many false christs". But that is not what we have. Rather, we have Van Kampen's own words that this rider "goes far beyond" Jesus' words. So, given the fact that Jesus' Matthean words barely give a superficial parallelism in that Van Kampen has the prophecy of many false christs coalescing into the final false christ, why does he conclude that the rider on the white horse is the Antichrist? Probably because it suits his desire to write Christ out of the picture this early in the game because his scenario requires that Christ not be present at this time in any kind of "parousia" presence.

So, how do we tell if Van Kampen's stab in the dark is really true? Well, we could look at the other details of the text. For instance, what is the relationship of each of the living creatures to their respective horse and rider? What is the significance of the color of the horse? What does the crown represent? What does the bow represent? What does the campaign of conquering mean? It is only by answering these questions that we can get a feel for the true meaning of the text.

So, let's look for some answers.

Let's start with the correlation of the four living creatures with the four horses and their riders. The text (Revelation 6:1) tells us that, at the "opening" (not "loosing" or "breaking") of "one of the seals", "one" of the four living creatures said to John, "Come and see". This might be a bit confusing as to which "one" was the proper referent except that the subsequent seals and living creatures are identified as "the second" and "the third" and "the fourth". Now, when we look back in the context to Revelation 4:7, we find that the "first" living creature had the appearance of a lion, the "second" was like a calf, the "third" possessed a face like that of a man, and the "fourth" was like a flying eagle. This gives us a basis for a correlation between the living creatures and the horses and their riders. The lion-like living creature is linked to the rider on the white horse; the calf-like living creature is linked to the rider on the red horse; the human-like living creature is linked to the rider on the black horse; and the eagle-like living creature is linked to the rider on the pale horse. How do we understand the linkage between the particular living creature and his particular horse and rider?

Let's see if we can answer this question by making a few observations about the horses and their riders. First, the third and fourth riders are not "real persons"; rather, they are concepts. The third rider, apparently, represents "famine". This is not a person. It is a concept. And the fourth rider is pointedly identified as "Death" with "Hell" following him. These are not real persons either; they are, rather, real concepts. So, with the text relatively clear that the third and fourth "riders" are not "persons", on what basis do we assign individual "personhood" to the riders on the first two horses?

Our next observation is that the fourth horseman kills a fourth of the earth's population with "sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the wild beasts of the earth." Interestingly, the "sword" makes us think of the second horseman, the "hunger" makes us think of the third horseman, and the "death" makes us think of the fourth horseman. Thus, the fourth horseman seems to be a representation of some kind of coalescing of the second, third, and fourth riders. Nothing here about the bow of the first horseman.

So, with these observations in mind, what correlation can we see between the lion and the bowman with a crown, between the calf and the swordsman who stimulates the people on the earth to kill each other, between the human face and the famine rider, and between the eagle and the death rider?

There is a hint in the fourth pair: the eagle and Death. The word translated "eagle" often means "vulture" in the sense that eating the carrion of death is the functional idea in the word. As such, the eagle is the "eater of the impact of death". In our normal mode of thought, the picture is rather gruesome because we think of road-kill and carrion birds who eat it up. However, there is the equally gruesome picture of the cross destroying death built into the Gospel we claim to believe. Jesus is actually identified as the flying eagle symbolism in the Gospel of John in which He is identified as the Resurrection and the Life Who conquers death by dying. In a rather graphic word picture, Jesus is the Eagle who consumes Death so that its impact is seen no more. My point is that this fourth "matched pair" shows us that the relationship between the living being and the rider he identifies himself with seems to be a relationship of contrast: the flying eagle is the opposite of death. It is also probable that it is a relationship of resolution: the eagle resolves the problem of death. In other words, the fourth pair gives us a hint that each living creature has attached himself to his particular rider and horse because that rider and horse symbolize a problem for which the characteristic of the living creature is a resolution.

With that hint in mind, the lion-creature seems to be associated with the rider on the white horse as a kind of resolution to the issues involved in "conquering", the calf-creature is associated with the rider on the red horse as a kind of resolution to the issue of "war-making", the human-creature is associated with the rider on the black horse as a kind of resolution to the issue of "famine", and the eagle-creature is associated with Death and Hell as a kind of resolution to massive death (death to a fourth of the earth's population).

It might be helpful here to at least make you aware that the biblical "glory of God" is presented twice by Ezekiel (chapters one and ten) along the same lines as these four living creatures. The lion represents the enforcer of righteousness; the calf represents the power of servanthood; the man represents the consuming focus of God (so crucial is this focus that the Son of God gave up His life in order to preserve men); and the eagle represents the victorious dominion God exercises over death.

What conclusions can we draw from this? No legitimate ones ... yet. We have only just begun to investigate the contextual clues to meaning.

So, what's next? The next thing on our plate is the fact that each of the first four seals release a "horse and rider" upon the earth. What does this mean? Generally, horses, in Scripture, represent powerful weapons of war. In other words, there is something in all four of the first four seals that make an association with warfare on the planet. What shall we conclude about that? Nothing ... yet. Just mark it down as an observation.

Then? Then comes "color". Each of the horses is identified in terms of color. So, what's in a color? Consider: the "white" of the first horse is used 16 times in 14 verses in the Revelation. Without exception (unless this verse represents a unique exception), the "white" is a reference to "acceptability before a holy God". Even those who identify the rider on the white horse as Antichrist, have to admit that the characteristics are those of Christ or else there is no "Christ" in the "Antichrist" as a deceptive, alternative "christ".

Then, consider the "red". The only other time this color shows up in the Revelation, it is the color of the Dragon (Revelation 12:3).

Then, the "black". The only other use of this color is in this very chapter (6:12) when the sun "became black as sackcloth of hair".

Then, the "pale". The only other uses of this color are 8:7 and 9:4 and they both have in common the fact that they are describing the color of living plants (green).

What does this suggest? Nothing ... yet. Just another set of observations that need to be put into the "mix" so our interpretation of the text has some validity.

What's next? The descriptions of the riders. The first rider has a "bow" and he is given a "crown". He goes forth with his bow and crown to conquer and is reasonably successful as a conqueror. The second rider is given a "great sword" and he has the power to take peace from the earth so that men kill each other. The third rider has a pair of scales in his hand and a voice announces the precious prices of wheat, barley, oil, and wine. The fourth rider is called "Death" and he has an associate called "Hell" and they kill one fourth of the earth's population by various means.

So now we have the key textual indicators of meaning. They are:

  1. the associated living creature who introduces them;
  2. the fact that the first four seals are all horses/horsemen;
  3. the colors; and
  4. the characterization/activities.

That brings us to the ability to apply these issues to our understanding of the text, which we will do in the next segment of our study.

Previous ChapterReturn to Contents PageNext Chapter

Back to Pastor's Study

25525