Clearly, natural disasters were the cause of the largest catastrophes, not to mention the largest underwriting losses for insurers. However, sadly as noted, earthquakes were the cause of the most deaths.
Certainly, earthquakes have been front page news in recent years. Looking back, among the most widely reported in recent years were the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered the tsunami wave devastating the coastline of Indonesia, Thailand and other Asian countries, killing 230,000 people; and, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti resulting in approximately 220,000 deaths. This year (2011), other headline earthquakes have occurred. Among them, New Zealand (6.3 on the Richter Scale, February 11) and the catastrophic 9.0-scale quake in Japan on March 11.
Are the incidence and severity of earthquakes increasing? It’s a pivotal question for several reasons, not the least of which is that Bible prophecy makes frequent references to earthquakes. In the book of Revelation alone, the word “earthquake” (seismos in Greek) comes up seven times. As such, can recent earthquakes be seen as fulfillment of Bible prophecy? To answer those questions, we will need to turn to the Bible. A number of other last-day disasters are also prophesied, including famines, pestilences, and hailstorms, among others. We will have to consider the advent of these phenomena as well in answering the question of when earthquakes are prophesied to increase.
As we will see, if we rightly balance all of Scripture, the Bible gives clear guidance on these questions. We find wonderfully confirming symmetry and alignment between Old and New Testament prophecies. Moreover, as we will conclude, the Lord’s return (the Rapture) is right at the door and could occur at any time.
Earthquakes and Natural Disasters Prophesied
Indeed, the Bible in no uncertain terms indicates that great natural disasters, famines, and other types of disruptions will occur in the very last days. Their scale and impact will be greater than ever before in history. But when, exactly, will these occur? Can some of these phenomena already be identified today? In answering this question, we will primarily focus on earthquakes, partly for reasons of space, but mostly because they play such a prominent role in the Bible and prophecy.
The entirety of Creation is often shown to display its fear and reverence for the Lord in the form of “quaking” in a number of Scriptures (Psalms 75:3, 96:9, 99:1, 114:7, Exodus 15:14 to name a few). Moreover, the Bible mentions historical earthquakes (i.e. the great earthquake during the time of King Uzziah, which is mentioned by both Amos and Zechariah). Most sobering, however, are the earthquakes that are prophesied to occur in the endtimes. Not only are they a frequent subject of prophecy, but Jesus Christ himself also confirmed that there would be “earthquakes in diverse places” before the end comes.
Where do we find the key information on endtime natural disasters in the New Testament … particularly earthquakes? For the most part, primarily in two places: in the prophecies of Christ (the Olivet Discourse, found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) and the Book of Revelation.
However, readers may find it surprising to learn that the earthquakes of the Olivet Discourse are not the ones mentioned in Revelation. Not only are they different, but they also occur in separate stages of the last days.
When the disciples asked Christ, “When shall these things be?” He said the following:
"And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24: 6-8).
All three accounts of the Olivet Discourse confirm that the “earthquakes in various places” occur during the period called the “beginning of sorrows.” Crucial to note at this point is that these earthquakes do not occur at the “end” of sorrows, nor before the sorrows. They clearly occur during the “beginning of sorrows.”
According to this writer’s understanding, this time of “sorrows” refers to the first half (42 months) of the 7-year tribulation period. The time of “Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7) and the “day of Lord” (a term often mentioned by the Old Testament prophets, though this latter term can refer to other periods as well … i.e. the entire Tribulation, the last half of the Tribulation period, the final day that Christ overthrows Satan and the rulers of earth) refer to the second period of 42 months, often called the Great Tribulation. When Christ says that “the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7 and Luke 21:9), in this writer’s opinion, He is referring to the entire 7-year Tribulation period. In other words, the Tribulation period has not started yet.
We note then that Christ clearly partitions his prophecies into three separate time periods: 1. that which is before the “end” comes (“the end is not yet”); 2. the beginning of the end, which is referred to as the “beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:8, Mark 13:8); and 3. the time that comes thereafter (events described from Matthew 24:9 onwards).
As such, we must conclude that the earthquakes that Christ says will occur in “diverse places” occur in the first 42 months of the Tribulation period. However, before we settle on this conclusion, we have yet more evidence to examine. Next, we must address this question: just when do the earthquakes mentioned in the book of Revelation occur?
The Earthquakes of Revelation
The book of Revelation tells us of at least 5 earthquakes that occur during the Tribulation period.
The first one mentioned occurs at the time of the 6th seal (Revelation 6). It is a massive, worldwide earthquake that signifies the start of God’s wrath (and, in this writer’s opinion, likely the start of the Great Tribulation). The entire world recognizes this fact, stating that “the great day of His wrath is come” (Revelation 6:17). Fearsome apocalyptic phenomena occur at that time, which are clearly seen to be “acts of God.”
"And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:12-16).
Several Old Testament prophets also prophesy of this time.
"So man will be brought low and mankind humbled—do not forgive them. Go into the rocks, hide in the ground from dread of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty! (Isaiah 2:9-10, NIV). And they shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth. In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats; To go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty, when he ariseth to shake terribly the earth" (Isaiah 2:19-21)
Hosea also sees this time: “[…] Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’” (Hosea 10:8). Luke confirms this vision—“they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” (Luke 23:30). Joel says: “The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining” (Joel 2:10). (See also Job 9:6, Hebrews 12:26-27 and Isaiah 13:13.)
Ezekiel also speaks in alignment with the words spoken through other prophets by the Holy Spirit:
"...that my fury shall come up in my face. For in my jealousy and in the fire of my wrath have I spoken, Surely in that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; So that the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the field, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth, shall shake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the steep places shall fall, and every wall shall fall to the ground" (Ezekiel 38:18-20).
"The next earthquake occurs at the onset of the 7th seal. A single earthquake occurs at this time, along with other events, including thunder and lightning. “And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake” (Revelation 8:5).
"The third earthquake of Revelation occurs at the time of the second woe, the 6th trumpet. This is a local one.“And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven” (Revelation 11:13).
After the 7th trumpet is blown by the 7th angel, a fourth earthquake is mentioned. Again, a single earthquake occurs along with other phenomena. “And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail” (Revelation 11:19).
In the final Part II of this article series, we will complete our review of prophesied earthquakes and other apocalyptic phenomena. One more earthquake, the greatest of all history, remains to be reviewed. We will also conclusively answer the question: are earthquakes already increasing today?
Points to Ponder – Part I
To no surprise, the commercial world is fixated with the possibility of the costs of disasters and other risks. The World Economic Forum (WEF) (an organization sponsored by some 1,000-plus multinational corporations) every year publishes a world risk report. Its latest risk assessment (Global Risks 2011, Sixth Edition) considers the “perceived impact” (their term for potential losses) due to infectious diseases, earthquakes, volcanic disruptions and food security at a total of $500 billion. These outcomes are considered “likely” to occur over the next ten years. Two additional natural phenomena (of a total of some 40 factors reviewed) fall into the natural disaster category—flooding, and storms and cyclones. Their probability is considered to be even higher—namely, “very likely”—accounting for another $500 billion in “perceived impact.” As such, according to the WEF, natural disasters could have a monetary impact of some $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Would the Bible agree? We continue in Part II.
In Part I of this series on prophesied natural disasters, focusing upon earthquakes, we had reviewed the “earthquakes in diverse places” mentioned by Christ. We also examined the first four of the five apocalyptic seismic events mentioned in the book of Revelation. Crucially, we had concluded that the earthquakes mentioned by Christ are not the same as the ones mentioned in Revelation. We continue our review of the apocalyptic earthquakes.
The fifth and greatest earthquake of all time occurs at the time of the seventh bowl (or vial) judgment. It most certainly is a global earthquake, said to affect the “islands.” It again is accompanied by “voices, thunderings, lightnings,” and again hail (this time, precipitation the weight of a talent, which is the equivalent of 25.5 kilograms or 56 pounds).
And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done. And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath. And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. And there fell upon men a great hail out of heaven, every stone about the weight of a talent: and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great (Revelation 16:17-21).
This final and most catastrophic earthquake of all history is also the frequent topic of Old Testament prophets. It coincides with the final judgment, taking place at the time of Armageddon (possibly also the quashing of Gog) and the smashing of all the capital cities of the nations, including Babylon the Great. It is just prior to the restoration of Israel. A number of prophets speak of this time. Says Joel:
Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon shall be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their shining. The LORD also shall roar out of Zion, and utter his voice from Jerusalem; and the heavens and the earth shall shake: but the LORD will be the hope of his people, and the strength of the children of Israel (Joel 3:14-16).
Haggai also is given a vision of this time:
And I will overthrow the throne of kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen; and I will overthrow the chariots, and those that ride in them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother. In that day, saith the LORD of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the LORD, and will make thee as a signet: for I have chosen thee, saith the LORD of hosts (Haggai 2:22-23).
This last earthquake of judgment, positioned at the very end and at the time of Armageddon, is also confirmed by Isaiah in several Scriptures:
Therefore the LORD’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, he whistles for those at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily! (Isaiah 5:25-26, NIV). Also, […] The floodgates of the heavens are opened, the foundations of the earth shake. The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is thoroughly shaken. The earth reels like a drunkard, it sways like a hut in the wind; so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion that it falls—never to rise again (Isaiah 24:18-20).
We have hardly exhausted the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets, not to mention connecting them to the judgment of Babylon the Great. See also these Scriptures: Isaiah 29:6-7 and Haggai 2:6-8, Ezekiel 26:15, 31:16, Zechariah 2:7-9.
Having briefly reviewed the five earthquakes of the Tribulation period mentioned in Revelation, we note that they are not the earthquakes that Christ told us would happen. The first and fifth earthquakes—bracketing the other three—in this writer’s opinion, represent both the start and end of the Great Tribulation period (the second period of 42 months), framing the time of God’s wrath in the form of supernatural events.
As a matter of interest, this perspective on the timing of Revelation’s earthquakes aligns with the opinion of a number of scholars, who view the events of the “beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24) in parallel with the first five “seal” judgments of Revelation. As such, the sixth and seventh seals would then occur in the second half of the Tribulation.
Prophecy Keys to Earthquakes
It goes without saying that there remains much debate between scholars that endorse the pre-tribulational view, as to the times of the various judgments mentioned in Revelation (seals, trumpets and bowls). We can hardly contribute to this debate. However, in the matter of earthquakes, here are some of the “keys” that must be considered.
1. In the book of Revelation, there is no mention of earthquakes before the time of the sixth seal. All five earthquakes mentioned occur from that point forward.
2. All earthquakes mentioned in Revelation are of “divine” or “heavenly” origin. None are natural phenomena such as are occurring today or as may be the “earthquakes in diverse places” that Christ indicated. All are divinely enacted, either through Christ or angels.
3. All prophesied earthquakes in the Old Testament are specific to the “day of the Lord” … in other words, those that are caused by divine judgment, and clearly referring to the time of God’s wrath. (Possibly there is one exception, this being the point where Christ’s feet alight upon the mount of Olives, splitting the mountain in Zechariah 14:4.)
4. All the earthquakes prophesied in the Old Testament as part of the time of wrath are all specific events, most of them global in scope. They are truly apocalyptic and not part of a generic group of earthquakes that occur in “diverse places” on the earth.
Next, we should note the differences between the earthquakes that were prophesied by Christ (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and the specific ones mentioned in the Old Testament, Revelation and the other New Testament writers.
1. The earthquakes prophesied by Christ are non-specific to location and number, in that there are multiple earthquakes in various places. By contrast, all five earthquakes mentioned in the book of Revelation are singular and specific events.
2. The earthquakes mentioned by Christ occur during the period that is called the “beginning of sorrows.” The three accounts of this prophecy in Matthew, Mark and Luke are all in agreement on this point. The earthquakes mentioned in Revelation, on the other hand, all occur at the time of the sixth seal and thereafter. That period is not the “beginning of sorrows,” but rather much later, likely (as in this writer’s opinion) the Great Tribulation period (the second half of the Tribulation period).
3. Several of the prophecies involving earthquakes in Revelation, correspond to earthquakes prophesied in the Old Testament and elsewhere in the New Testament; whereas the “earthquakes in diverse places,” associated with “nations rising against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms,” along with pestilences and famines, do not.
Are Earthquakes Increasing Today?
Finally, let’s consider this most intriguing question: has the incidence of earthquakes been increasing in recent years and decades? To be scientifically valid—not going beyond what can be validly ascertained from statistics—the answer is “probably not.” This conclusion may be shocking to some. Indeed, this writer has received numerous aggravated responses to this conclusion in the past.
Apparently, some Christians hold great comfort in the notion that earthquakes are already increasing in severity and frequency today. To them, this is seen as a sign that the Lord’s return is near. However, the plain truth is that anyone using proper statistical methods (and, it should be added, adhering to what the Bible actually says) cannot conclusively state that earthquakes have increased in recent times. Seismologists (who are experts in this topic, and other Bible students) have come to the same conclusion.
Consider this quote from the website of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “In 1931, there were about 350 [seismograph] stations operating in the world; today, there are more than 8,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by electronic mail, internet and satellite.”
As such, statistics gathering and reporting has served to increase the earthquake counts as well as the perception of their incidence. In reality, occurrences have not risen, just the reporting of earthquakes of smaller size. Earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 (on the Richter scale) or greater—the ones that historically were noticeably cataclysmic, and most likely to be reported—have remained fairly constant. In fact, one earthquake per year exceeding 9.0 on the Richter scale (as was the strength of the recent seismic occurrence in Japan) is considered normal. There are other independently corroborated studies that have come to the same conclusion.
For those who are inclined to disregard statistical validity and to interpret seismic data in a fashion more agreeable to their preferred opinions on the matter of earthquakes, they will discover that similar problems will arise with the other phenomena that Christ said would occur “during the beginning of sorrows.”
We recall that along with earthquakes, there would also occur famines, pestilences, and that nations would rise against nations and kingdoms against kingdoms (Matthew 24:7). Of course, over history, the world has always been subject to wars, famines and pestilences. Should we therefore interpret Christ’s statements to indicate that these phenomena during the “beginning of sorrows” will be much the same as usual? Such an interpretation would not be reasonable either. If so, there would be no need for Christ to give us these indicators to identify a period of heightening sorrows.
Then, can wars, pestilences and famines be said to be increasing in severity and frequency today? The evidence would suggest no … at least, not yet. In the case of wars, they can be shown to be decreasing in recent decades. For example, a recent report of the World Development Indicators (World Bank, 2011) concludes the following:
Interstate war has declined dramatically since the two world wars of the first half of the 20th century. Major civil conflicts (those with more than 1,000 battle deaths a year) increased during the postcolonial and Cold War era, peaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1991–92, when there were 21 active major civil wars, the number has steadily fallen to less than 10 each year since 2002.
Other research organizations have expressed similar opinions. In the case of pestilences and famines, we can well point to reasons why these may sharply increase in the future. However, the reality is that their incidence around the world has decreased sharply over the past century or so.
At this point in history, both for reasons of limited data and statistical validity, a rise in the frequency and severity of earthquakes cannot be proven conclusively. Confirming this view that the time of “earthquakes in diverse places” is not yet, is the fact that none of the other tandem phenomena of famine, pestilences and wars can be shown as having increased.
Should this really be seen as a disappointment? Is prophecy therefore invalidated? May that never be the case. For one, as we have shown, this conclusion does not overturn Scripture. Our study to this point would argue that the earthquakes that Christ mentions occur during the first half of the Tribulation period … not before, nor after. Moreover, Christ’s return and the Rapture are not delayed by this conclusion. Why? Because the Rapture is “signless” and has always been imminent.
Points to Ponder – Part II
The Lord’s return is not delayed at all by the fact that earthquakes are not yet increasing today. We must conclude that much greater earthquake activity lies ahead for the world. If our interpretation of Matthew 24 and the corresponding accounts of Revelation is correct, a pronounced increase—conclusively noticeable for all of mankind to recognize—will occur during the first half of the Tribulation period. We can conclude that there will be many all around the world. Moreover, these seismic events are not specifically mentioned in the book of Revelation, nor are they part of the “divinely” triggered earthquakes that are instruments of Gods’ wrath in the second half of the Tribulation period.
As disastrous and powerful as the recent Japanese earthquake may have been, it will pale in comparison to the worst yet to come. Not only is the heightened earthquake activity mentioned by Christ yet in the future, but also the biggest earthquakes of all time have yet to occur. With respect to the last one, John the Revelator tells us this: “[…] No earthquake like it has ever occurred since man has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake” (Revelation 16:18).
Most wonderfully for Israel and the remaining Christians at the end of the Tribulation period, is the advent of one more earthquake. This is a local one, occurring on the Mount of Olives.
And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south (Zechariah 14:4).
This occurs at the time that Israel’s Messiah finally returns. As his feet touch the Mount of Olives, the hill splits in two. Water flows out of the temple mount, and the new Millennial period begins (Revelation 22:1).