Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that the prophecies written in it are also from a divine source – God. However, many people only see the Bible as a historical text. My goal is to see what its author is claiming or trying to express to us – the readers – in light of the historical context and extra-biblical sources.
Before we proceed, we should first ask some basic questions about the book of Revelation.
When was it written?
Historians traditionally date the book of Revelation to the late first century AD, around 81-96 AD, during the time of emperor Domitian’s reign, while some date it earlier to before 70 AD. Discrepancies between the 2 dates centers around when the 2nd Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 AD, a significant and somber event for the Jewish community of the time. For the purposes of this article, the specific date itself doesn’t matter too much. Going forward I will be referring to “late 1st century AD” as the time period it was written.
Who is the author?
Traditionally, the book of Revelation is ascribed to the Apostle John. Some historians believe this may not specifically be John the Apostle but someone else going by the name of John. Again, for the sake of the purpose article, my focus isn’t on who wrote the book but rather what he wrote down and is claiming based on his 1st century viewpoint. In Revelation 1, John writes that he received a revelation of the things to come from an angel who received it from Jesus,
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw.” (Revelation 1:1-2)
The 2 Witnesses
I want to start of this article by first looking at this passage in Revelation 11 that talks about the 2 witnesses, serving as good background for those not as familiar before I proceed to examine what it’s talking about. I would recommend also reading the full chapter for a better understanding as I don’t include the full passage.
- “And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” (Revelation 11:3)
- “When they finish their testimony, the beast that ascends out of the bottomless pit will make war against them, overcome them, and kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. Then those from the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations will see their dead bodies three-and-a-half days, and not allow their dead bodies to be put into graves. And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them, make merry, and send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 11:7-10)
- “Now after the three-and-a-half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. And they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they ascended to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies saw them. In the same hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. In the earthquake seven thousand people were killed, and the rest were afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven.” (Revelation 11:11-13)
Dissecting the Text
Now that we have some background knowledge on this text, I will list out the main events in order also adding some detail.
- The 2 witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days
- Many Christians believe the 2 witnesses to either be Enoch and Elijah or Elijah and Moses. The 1,260 days spoken here is the first half of the 7 year tribulation.
- They will be dressed in “sackloth”
- This detail isn’t here for no reason. It’s meant to be used as a way to identify these witnesses.
- They will be killed AFTER they finish their ministry
- After the 3 1/2 years is up, their ministry is complete and they will be killed. This gives readers the ability to better pinpoint this time period.
- The “beast” that ascended out of the bottomless pit will kill them
- The “beast” is largely believed to be one of many terms used to reference the antichrist that will be reigning over the earth during the tribulation.
- Their bodies won’t be buried and will lie on the streets where Jesus was crucified
- Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem at a place called Golgotha, which means “place of the skull” in Aramaic. Although the exact location is disputed today, the location of said dispute mainly centers around Jerusalem, Israel and whether it was inside or outside city walls.
- After they’re killed “those from the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations “ will see their bodies for 3 1/2 days and “those who dwell on the earth” will send gifts to each other for 3 1/2 days
- We see here that John uses specific language to refer to the diversity of the people that will see their bodies, rejoice over it, and send gifts. We get a sense of not just diversity but that these people dwell on the earth as a whole. I don’t believe he was just talking about those living in Jerusalem otherwise, he would’ve stated so such as with the location of Jesus’ crucifixion noted as “the street of the great city” (Revelation 11:8). This should bring to mind the question then of how could this have been done in the 1st century within a span of 3 1/2 days?
- AFTER the 3 1/2 days, they will be raised to life
- The exact day count not only adds more specifics to the events of this prophecy but serves as a marker of sorts of what to be looking out for.
- AFTER they are raised to life, WITHIN the hour, an earthquake destroys a 1/10th of the city
- Again, John makes specific claims here. He doesn’t just state an earthquake happens when they’re raised but says within the hour and a 1/10th of the city is affected
- The earthquake kills 7,000 people to the number
- John writes an exact number of people that will die in this earthquake. This isn’t a general “an earthquake will happen in the future and kill people” type “prophecy”.
I’m doing my best to make a point listing the events out this way. Most opponents of Bible prophecy claim that “prophecy is so general it can be fulfilled by anyone”. As we see in Revelation 11:4-13, this is exactly the opposite. We have specific details as to the “characters” in this prophecy, what will transpire, the length of time they will transpire for, and the conditions that need to be met for all of this to be fulfilled. For a further look into this claim, click here.
Although this quick study is about the 2 witnesses, we can see that they’re involved in several prophetically significant events, but I want to divide this passage into 2 sections due to what I want to specifically touch upon; the killing of the witnesses and the great earthquake that follows.
The 2 witnesses killed
What I want to focus your attention on in this section is that the text tells us that when the 2 witnesses are killed, their bodies will be in the streets for 3 1/2 days and people around the world will be able to see their bodies during this time and they will be able to send gifts to each other during this time. Earlier we saw that this book was written in the late 1st century AD. So let’s pause and think about this for a second and again look at this as only a historical text. John, the ascribed writer of the book, in the 1st century AD, writes that in the future (a time not stated), 2 individuals will be killed and the world will gaze upon their bodies and send gifts to one another all in a mere 3 1/2 days!
This doesn’t and shouldn’t make sense to us. During this time period the common modes of transportation were by an animals such as a horse, travel via boats, or walking. It is physically impossible for what John wrote in Revelation 11 to take place in the 1st century AD within a matter of days. In this historical context people would first need to hear about this occurring so the message of these events and their deaths would first need to be communicated somehow. Afterwards, those who receive the message would need to physically be there in order to see the bodies. The 2 steps would each take several days on their own in a 1st century context.
This brings me to my next point; for us to examine this as prophecy, we need to be able to say that these events were written about before its occurrence or possible occurrence and that it came from a divine source, meaning the “author” couldn’t possibly have the knowledge of these events (it’s beyond human comprehension in terms of how it can be fulfilled, for example due to the technology of the time). I touch upon how we can “test” prophecy in my introductory article here.
Almost 2,000 years ago, there was no technology or fast mode of transportation to travel vast distances in days, but today, that’s different. We currently have the technology for this passage to come to fulfillment. We have cameras and videos to watch what’s going on all throughout the world as it happens and that technology is even at the palm of our hands now with smart phones. We can’t forget the gift aspect of this prophecy as well. During John’s time, to send gifts would again require horses or people on foot, however, today we have services such as amazon where you can buy something and get it delivered to you or to someone else that same day (usually this costs extra money but we know that it’s possible). Knowing these facts it should strike us as strange how John could coincidentally have knowledge of these specific details of what seems to be our current society even though he lived almost 2,000 years ago.
The Great earthquake
The next part of this prophecy I want to examine is concerning the earthquake that kills exactly 7,000 people. One question you may have is why did John choose this number specifically? Easy. John claims he was given this revelation from an angel who was sent by Jesus. He claims that what has been revealed to him and that he had communicated to us, is from a divine source that has the ability to see into the future. Otherwise, if John attempted to claim a earthquake in the distant future in a specific area of the world, killing an exact number of people, he’s doomed to failure.
Of course, the Bible however tells us why these details are given to us ahead of time, “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:29). This passage isn’t laid out with such great detail just to give us a story to read, it’s for the future salvation of those who will go through the tribulation but come to a saving knowledge of Christ through prophecies like this. Revelation 11:13 attests to this fact, “In the earthquake seven thousand people were killed, and the rest were afraid and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
This prophecy hasn’t occurred yet so what am I trying to say? Consider another piece to this prophetic puzzle; current events. In July 2018, Israel had several small earthquakes that raised an alarm for a possible “big one” and brought to question the preparedness of Israel for this event. 2 articles made an estimate as to the damage and loss that may come from a large earthquake.
The Times of Israel wrote,
“Col. Itzik Bar from the IDF’s Home Front Command, put expected casualties from a major quake at 7,000 dead and 200,000 homeless.” (After tremors, experts warn a huge quake is the greatest threat facing Israel).
Similarly, The Jerusalem Post wrote,
“The State Comptroller’s Office stated that according to information received by the government, the situation it needs to prepare for could result in an estimated 7,000 people killed, another 8,600 seriously injured, 37,000 lightly injured, 9,500 trapped in rubble and 170,000 left homeless.”(Israel is not ready for a major earthquake).
“Things Which Must Shortly Take Place”
As we went through the specifics of this prophecy, we saw that despite this being written almost 2,000 years ago, we can see evidence of the fulfillment of this through the advancements of society and 2 articles stating the exact location and number of people that will be killed as was written in Revelation 11:13. We also examined John’s claim that he received his information from a divine source and saw that it is not possible for a normal human being to provide specifics (location, actions, numbers, duration of time) and for it to come to pass or seemingly be lining up without the aid of something beyond human nature and comprehension. To the Christian, the complexity and specifics that makes up this prophecy along with the confirmation we get outside of the Bible shows us that this is more than a historically significant book but rather God’s word. To the skeptic that still believes this may be nothing more than coincidences Christians are reading too much in to, I leave you with several questions:
- If the book of Revelation, at the most, only holds historic/religious value but isn’t from a supernatural source as some claim, how was John able to write about an earthquake that specifically occurs in Israel, and kills 7,000 people to the number despite this being written almost 2,000 years ago? Also, keep in mind the 2 above articles that state an earthquake in Israel that will kill the same number of people.
- From the perspective of someone living in the late 1st century AD, how can people from a variety of nations, languages, tribes, etc look at the dead bodies of 2 men within 3 1/2 days keeping in mind that they will physically need to be there due to limitations in technology.
- Similar to the 2nd question, how can these people send gifts to one another in a period of 3 1/2 days given the technological advancements of the time?
- Is it a coincidence that not just one, but 2 articles both state 7,000 people are likely to be killed by this earthquake in Israel matching what’s written in Revelation 11:13?
At the end of the day, this prophecy is meant to lead and point people to Jesus and God’s free gift for humanity. If you’ve found it difficult to find an answer to the above questions and you’re not sure what it all means, I’d recommend taking a look at the Gospel, where it all starts and navigating to my apologetics page where I tackle subjects like these.
- Date of Revelation
- Revelation 11:7 – “The Beast
- Where was Jesus crucified?
- Travel, Transportation and Movement in the First Century
- For second time in a day, earthquake rocks Israel
- After tremors, experts warn a huge quake is the greatest threat facing Israel
- Israel is not ready for a major earthquake