A few words on 'prophecy'
I would like to start with a short reflection on 'prophecy', because in this lecture, and in the next, we will be examining the third and largest part of the Apocalypse, the part in which St. John recorded 'what must take place' in the future (Rev 1,19; 4,1).
However, there is more than a little confusion nowadays about what prophecy is. Some biblical scholars say that prophecy has nothing to do with the future, despite the fact that the ordinary definition of prophecy is 'the prediction of the future by means of divine inspiration'.
Although the gift of prophecy may include a profound perception of the present - which can be called 'discernment', and of the past - which can be called 'wisdom', it should not be doubted that in the New Testament, as in the Old, the principal task of a prophet is that of correcting the actual behaviour of people, or of a person, in the light of a perception of the future revealed by God, We accept therefore the ordinary definition of 'prophecy', as found in the dictionary.
Perhaps the confusion about the meaning of prophecy arises from the fact that the coming of Jesus brought about a change in the role of prophecy - not of prophecy in general, but of the prophecy of the Old Testament in particular. These prophecies are no longer considered by the Church as predictions of future events, but as a witness to the work of salvation already initiated by the coming of Christ. Jesus Christ himself indicated this change when he said: "The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is straining themselves to enter" (Luke 16,16; cf. Matt 11,3).
We should not therefore consult the prophecies of the Old Testament for information about the future, even though many of the things prophesied about the fulfilment of God's promises have not yet been completely fulfilled. Rather, we should turn to the prophecies of the Old Testament for their witness to the Messiah who has already come in order to bring the promises of God to fulfilment, and therefore to establish precisely what must take place in the future.
In the following passage we read that, before his crucifixion, Jesus Christ promised to provide for his Church a new and definitive source of information regarding the future: "I have yet many things lo say to you, but you can not bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he mil not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16,12-14).
We should ask ourselves, then, in what way the Spirit of Truth has announced the things that are to come? Of all the prophecies in the New Testament, the Apocalypse is unique because, as we read in the Prologue, it was given with the specific intention of informing the servants of God on what must take place in the future (Rev 1,1; 22,6). We suggest, therefore, that it is by means of the Apocalypse that the Spirit of Truth fulfils its task of announcing 'the things that are to come'. In a definitive way, the Apocalypse not only reveals how Jesus Christ completely fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament, up to and beyond his coming in Glory at the end of time, but it also replaces them as the principal source of information about the future. In the following lectures we will try to demonstrate how the prophecy of the Apocalypse is not only consistent with all the other prophecies of the New Testament, but also how it illuminates, clarifies and completes them.
The third part - the 'baseline prophetic narrative'
Let us go on, then, to the prophetic part of the Apocalypse, which begins when St. John was taken up into heaven to be shown 'what must take place' in the future (Rev 4,1), and finishes with his vision of the realization of the Holy City on earth (22,5).
Since the prophetic visions are not written exactly in the order in which the events happen, we must first find a way of putting them in order. For this purpose, it is significant that the text has a precise structure. The visions are structured in three consecutive series: the breaking of a series of seven Seals leads to the blowing of a series of seven Trumpets, which terminates with the outpouring of a series of seven libation Bowls. Furthermore, we note that the conclusion of this sequence of events is nothing less than the fulfilment of the entire Mystery, or project, of God at the end of time. The sequence defined in this way forms the backbone of the third part of the text, and we call it the 'baseline prophetic narrative'.
We should note, however, that there are substantial interruptions in the sequence of events defined in this way. In the next lecture we aim to speak about these interruptions, showing how they relate to one another and to the 'baseline prophetic narrative', but now we would like to follow the 'baseline prophetic narrative' step by step with the aim of identifying where we are today in the sequence of events which is prophesied here.
In chapters 4 and 5, St. John describes a vision of the throne of God which began when he was raised 'in spirit' and saw an open door in heaven (4,1-2). Entering the door, he found himself before the throne.
The description of this mystical experience recalls certain features of the ancient Temple at Jerusalem. To enter the Sanctuary of that Temple it was necessary to go up some steps; the entrance door was opened at dawn, at the beginning of the morning service, when the lamb chosen to be the holocaust for the morning service was slain.
Returning to the Apocalypse we propose that St. John was raised 'in spirit' because he was about to enter the heavenly Sanctuary, the door was open because the heavenly liturgy had already begun with the slaying of the Lamb, and when St. John entered he saw the throne before him because there is no veil inside the heavenly Sanctuary as there was in the Sanctuary of the former Temple. A sign of the absence of a division within the heavenly Sanctuary is the breaking of the veil at the death of Jesus on the cross, as stated in the Gospel (Mk 15,38).
In the Old Testament the vision of the throne was experienced and described by various prophets down the centuries, and is an essential element in the prophetic vocation of Isaiah and Ezekiel. In a similar way, the prophetic mission of the author of the Apocalypse begins with the vision of the throne of God inside the heavenly Sanctuary.
Basing ourselves on St. John's description, let us try to visualize the arrangement of the various elements around and in front of the throne, as it radiates the Splendour of the One who is sitting there. Keeping watch around the throne, there are 4 living creatures (also called 'cherubim' in the Old Testament) and around them, 24 elders are seated on their thrones. Spreading out in front of the throne like a pavement, there is a sea as clear as glass, and on the surface of this sea, near the throne, there are 7 flames of fire (which we identified previously with the archangels or 'seraphim') and the golden altar of incense. There are myriads of angels around the throne and a great act of adoration is in progress.
At a certain point in this heavenly liturgy, the Lamb that was slain appears beside the throne, and takes a sealed scroll from the One that is sitting there. When he takes the scroll, a new song of praise erupts in the Sanctuary which spreads throughout all the creatures of heaven and earth, and begins like this: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain and with your blood you bought people for God from every tribe and tongue and race and nation, and made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they shall reign on the earth" (Rev 5,9-10).
There is no difficulty in identifying the Lamb with Jesus Christ, whose blood was spilt on the earth (Jn 19,33) in order to redeem people (Rev 5,9) and expiate their sins (1,5); his appearance there beside the throne corresponds to his Ascension to the right hand of God after his Resurrection.
For the deeper meaning of this part of the vision, we must return to the liturgy of the former Temple at Jerusalem, which according to the Letter to the Hebrews was 'a copy and shadow of the celestial reality' (Heb 8,5). The most sacred part of the ancient Temple, the Holy of Holies, contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was considered to be the footstool of the throne of God, because above it the Lord spoke face to face with Moses. In this part of the Temple no one except the high priest was allowed to enter, and even the high priest was only allowed to enter once a year, on the Day of Atonement, in order to expiate the place with the blood of the expiatory sacrifices.
Returning to the Apocalypse, we note that the appearance of the Lamb before the throne in heaven corresponds to the entrance of the high priest in the most sacred part of the ancient Temple, on the Day of Atonement, with the blood of the victims. The Lamb fulfils not only the function of the high priest but also that of the victims which were sacrificed for the expiation of the holy places and the sins of the people. The letter to the Hebrews has already introduced us to this theme: "But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things to come, through the greater and more perfect Tent (not made with hands...) he entered once and for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb 9,11-12).
In the liturgy described in the Apocalypse, the purification of the heavenly Sanctuary by means of the blood of the Lamb is represented by the expulsion of Satan and his angels from heaven, so that there was no place for them any more beside God (Rev 12,7-12).
At the end of the specific rite of expiation on the annual Day of Atonement, the high priest took the scroll of the Law and read some passages to the people who had gathered in the Temple. In the Apocalypse, the Lamb performs an analogous action when he takes possession of the sealed scroll, soon after appearing beside the throne (5,7). The fact that the he takes the scroll at this point signifies that the act of expiation has been fulfilled; the sacrifice of the Lamb is unique and eternal and there will not be another sacrifice for sin and for the reconciliation of men with God.
However, the sealed scroll which the Lamb takes is not identical to the scroll of the Law, even though it also has writing on both sides. Perhaps the scroll of the Law was modelled on this one. Further on in the text (13,8; 21,27) we discover that the scroll given to the Lamb is in fact the scroll of Life which is opened and read at the final Judgement (20,12).
We suppose therefore that the breaking of the seals of this scroll occupy nearly all the time between the Ascension of Christ into heaven and the final Judgement; it represents the time given to men to reconcile themselves with God and be converted to his will revealed in Christ. The fact that it is a fairly long time is explained in the following passage from the second Letter of St. Peter: "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think it is to be slow, but is forbearing towards you, not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (1 Pet 3,9).
In chapters 6 to 8 of the Apocalypse we see what happens when the Lamb begins to break the seals of the scroll. At the breaking of each of the first four seals, a horseman mounted on a vividly coloured horse appears in obedience to the command of one of the four living creatures, and is prepared for a particular mission on earth (6,1-8). The fact that the horsemen are placed under the command of the four living creatures whose task is to guard the throne of God in heaven, implies that the four horsemen have a similar task on earth, namely that of guarding the sovereignty of God among men.
This role, in fact, is evident in the case of the white horse, since it represents the victorious force of the Kingdom of God communicated to men by the preaching of the Gospel. The white horse is that force in creation which urges men to recognize the sovereignty of God. All the other horses, however, seem to have missions which are totally contrary to the wellbeing of mankind. The red horse takes peace away from men, so provoking violence and murder; the black horse causes an increase in the prices of essential foods, so causing social injustice, misery and oppression; the pale green horse causes the death of many people by means of war, famine, disease and wild animals. We ask ourselves how these coloured horses can be occupied in some way in guarding the sovereignty of God among men?
The negative effects of all these coloured horses recall the prophetic warnings, often quoted in the Old Testament, of what would happen if Israel ignored the commandments of God (Lev 26,14-15; Deut 28,15-69; Jer 29,17-19; Ezek 5,12-17). Following in the steps of the white horse, the coloured horses represent, therefore, the consequences of denying the sovereignty of
God and refusing to be conquered by the Love of God in Christ. Turning upside down everything that is not orientated towards God, the coloured horses urge men to seek the Kingdom of God and be converted, and in this way they act indirectly in guarding the sovereignty of God on earth. It should be noted that when the Kingdom of God is not accepted, the order of creation becomes so inverted and distorted that the very forces of creation turn out to be distructive for men.
When the Lamb breaks the fifth seal, St. John saw the martyrs in heaven and heard them asking God how much longer before his judgement would fall on the earth. They were told to wait a little while longer (Rev 6,10). We know then, that the breaking of this seal takes place only 'a little while' before the Judgement of God on the earth at the end of time. It is implied therefore that the breaking of the first four seals, and the mission of the four horsemen, occupies almost the whole of history from the Ascension of Christ up to 'a little while' before the end of time.
According to the usual translation of this passage, the martyrs were told to wait a little while longer "until the number of their fellow-servants and their brothers should be complete, those about lo be killed just as themselves" (Rev 6,11). However, this translation is not correct: it seems as though there is a fixed number of martyrs who have to be killed before the end can come. We do not believe that the time of the end is determined in this way, and we know that the word 'number' is not found in the original Greek text of this passage. We know furthermore that the martyrs who are referred to in this passage, form an immense multitude decribed in chapter 7 (7,9-17) which does not have a fixed number since nobody is able to count them all. To maintain that this multitude of martyrs has a fixed number creates confusion between them and the numbered group of 144,000 'sealed' men who do not have to pass through martyrdom.
The literal translation of this passage is this: "they were told to rest for a short time more, until also their fellow-servants and brothers had been filled, those about to be killed just as themselves" (Rev 6,11). The verb 'to fill' in this context recalls the hebrew words mille'yad, which refer to the ritual proceedure for the consecration of priests. It is enough to say that those who are going to be killed, will be 'filled' with the beatific vision of the throne and will rank as priests in the heavenly Sanctuary.
This information is important because it warns us of a persecution which the faithful must undergo before the end comes, and which is called in the text 'the great tribulation' (7,14). The martyrs who will be killed in this tribulation form an innumerable and joyful crowd in heaven which is described various times in the subsequent visions, in a way which recalls the chorus of Levitical ministers who accompanied the liturgy in the former Temple.
The breaking of the sixth seal leads to a vision of great upheaval: Rev 6,12-17. This is a vision of the phenomena which immediately precede the Day of the Lord at the end of time, and it recalls, in a special way, the following part of the prophecy of Joel: "And I will work wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood, fire and columns of smoke; the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Day of the Lord, great and terrible" (Joel 3,3-4).
The upheavals described in the Apocalypse are the changes which take place in heaven and on earth in preparation for 'the new heaven and the new earth', an expression which refers to the renewed state of creation after the Day of the Lord. However, in this vision the changes take place so suddenly and so severely that the men hide underground and despair of being able to survive such a catastrophe; in fact, it seems to be the vision of an end which does not leave any survivors.
Instead, the end will not be so sudden and so severe, and there will be survivors. The prophecy of Joel continues: "Then everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved, because on Mount Sion and in Jerusalem there will be salvation, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors will be those whom the Lord calls" (Joel 3,5).
In the Apocalypse, therefore, we read that the four winds of the earth are held back in order that the 144,000 men may be sealed, those who in the Old Testament are called 'the remnant of Israel'. Furthermore, in the following visions we see that even though the upheavals proceeding the Day of the Lord have not been cancelled, they occur in such a way as to give men a last chance to repent and be converted to God.
After the breaking of the seventh seal, there is a silence in heaven for half-an-hour. In the ancient prophetic writings, this silence signified the imminent manifestation of the Lord (Zeph 1,7; Zech 2,17; Hab 2,20) and it seems to have the same significance in the present context, where it accompanies the offering of incense on the golden altar before the throne. The incense comes from the golden bowls in the hands of the 24 elders, and it represents the prayers of the saints of every age (Rev 5,8). When the incense is offered at this time, these prayers rise to the throne of God along with the prayers of all the faithful (8,3-4), in order to be heard by God before the start of the upheavals which lead up to his manifestation, on the Day of the Lord.
The offering of incense reminds us that we are involved in a vast and continuous liturgy similar to the one that was performed in the former Temple in Jerusalem, in which the offering of incense was always held to be a time of prayer for all the people of Israel (Luke 1,10; Ps 141,1-2; Judith 9,1).
After the offering of incense, fire from the golden altar in heaven is thrown to the earth. In the first place, the fire from heaven represents the Holy Spirit of God and has a purifying effect above all. In second place, this act corresponds to the placing of the offerings on the altar of holocausts in the liturgy of the former Temple. The total consumption of these offerings in the fire of the altar was called their 'presentation before God'.
In the Apocalypse the situation is similar but inverted. Instead of throwing the offerings on to the fire of the altar, the fire is thrown on to the offerings to purify them and prepare them to be presented before God. This action could in fact be called a 'new Pentecost'. The time of the Lord's manifestation draws near, and as for the presentation of the offerings in the liturgy of the ancient Temple, it is announced by the blowing of trumpets.
The seven angels who stand before God - the archangels who we have already identified with the angels of the churches - are given seven trumpets to blow, and every time one of the angels blows, extraordinary things happen on earth. The sounds of the first four trumpets herald events which cause considerable damage to the environment in which we live (Rev 8,1-12): a third of the trees and a third of the earth with its vegetation are burned up; a third of the ships sink, a third of the sea becomes contaminated and a third of the creatures in the sea die; a third of the fresh water becomes poisonous; the polluted air obscures a third of the light coming from the celestial bodies.
The sounds of the fifth and the sixth trumpets herald the effects of inventions which torment (9,1-12) and kill (9,13-19) men, but despite all this the men do not detach themselves from the things they make, and neither do they repent from their wickedness (9,20-21). In fact, the great majority of them refuse this last chance to repent.
With the sound of the seventh and last trumpet, we arrive at the completion of the Kingdom of God, announced in the following way: "The kingdom of the world has become our Lord's and his Christ's and he will reign of ever and ever" (Rev 11,15).
This exclamation is of great interest because it not only announces but also explains the so-called 'end of the world'. It is not the end of life on this planet as so many presume, but the end of the kingdom of the world; from that moment onwards, this kingdom is taken up and transformed by the Kingdom of God, so that God will be all in all (1 Cor 15,28). After this, there will be no other god such as 'Mammon' is now, and no other kingdom such as the way of life built up on the possession of riches.
Following this announcement of the completion of the Kingdom of God, the 24 elders respond in a way that confirms they are celebrating the complete fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time: "We thank you Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken up your great power and have come to reign. The nations were angry and your anger has come, also tile time for the dead to bejudged, and to give the reward to your servants the prophets and to the saints and to them that fear your name, to the small and to the great, and to destroy those who are destroying the earth" (Rev 11,16-18).
The thanksgiving of the elders also tells us precisely what the fulfilment of God's plan involves: first the Lord appears in Glory and with great power, then follow the manifestation of his anger, the judgement of the dead and the giving of the reward to his servants. At the end of their expression of thanks, the 24 elders add a surprising warning, all the more so because it is always omitted from this passage when it is used liturgically: they warn us that, at the same time, those who are destroying the earth will be destroyed. Amongst other things, this warning assures us that the Lord does not wish the earth to be destroyed.
The text continues with the description of the events mentioned by the 24 elders: "And the Sanctuary of God in heaven was opened, and the Ark of his Covenant was seen in his Sanctuary, and there were lightnings and noises and thunders, an earthquake and a great hail" (Rev 11,19). Given that the ark of the covenant was considered to be the lowest part of the throne of God (the footstool for his feet: 1 Chr 28,2; Ps 99,5; 132,7; Lam 2,l; Ezek 43,7), its revelation at this point indicates the direct vision of the throne on which the Lord Jesus is sitting (Rev 3,21; 7,17) and therefore represents the Parousia or second coming of the Lord, that is to say his coming in Glory and with power at the end of time.
However, at this point the description is interrupted by other visions, which we will talk about in the third lecture, and the vision of the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary is not taken up again until chapter 15, where it says: "And after this I looked, and the Sanctuary of the Tent of Witness in heaven was opened, and out of the Sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues. ...And one of the four living creatures had given to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the passion of God, the One living for ever and ever" (Rev 15,5-7).
In this context the vision of the Ark has another impact, related to the fact that the Ark contained the tablets of the Law and acted as a witness against those who had transgressed the Law and rebelled against God (Deut 31,24-27). In an analogous way the manifestation of the Ark at the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary witnesses against the inhabitants of the earth who continue to rebel against God, and is quickly followed by the hour of God's judgement (Rev 14,7), described elsewhere as "the hour of trial which is about to fall on the whole world, to put the inhabitants of the earth to the test" (Rev 3,10). In this hour, that is to say in a very short period of time, the seven bowls full of the wine of God's anger are poured out on to the earth.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the disastrous effect on the environment, the greatest danger of the resulting plagues is that of blaspheming God and so falling into the eternal sin (cf. Matt 12,32). Unfortunately those men who continue in their rebellion against God, end up blaspheming him during this hour of testing. The text affirms it three times:"the people were scorched with a great heat and they blashemed the Name of God, the One who has power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory" (Rev 16,9);These plagues, called also "the wine of the passion of God, mixed undiluted in the cup of his anger" (14,10), correspond to the libation of wine that was poured out at the base of the altar at the conclusion of the liturgy in the former Temple, in the same place, in fact, that the blood of the sacrifice was poured out at the beginning of the liturgy. In the context of the heavenly liturgy described in the Apocalypse, this coincidence indicates that, at the end of time, all those who have not wanted to accept the blood of the Lamb for the remission of their sins, will receive the wine of God's anger. Next time we will be seeing how those who are redeemed are protected from this test.
"and they bit their tongues with the pain, and they blasphemed the God of heaven for their pains and for their sores, and they did not repent of their deeds" (16,10-11);
"and the people blasphemed God for the plague of hail, because this plague is exceedingly great" (16,21).
It is not necessary to examine in detail the environmental effects of these plagues; it is enough to note that they cause more or less the same kind of damage as the disasters which follow the trumpet blasts, but in a much greater degree. It is more important to recall that the Lord has these plagues in his power (16,9) and so we should not expect their effects to be either permanent or irreversible. We suppose that the Lord will remove the effects of these plagues when they have achieved their purpose, which is to prepare for the Battle of the Great Day in which all the agents of the devil will be defeated and eliminated.
In the text, the definitive defeat of the devil is described in two parts: the first part follows the Parousia of the Lord and his manifestation at the Battle of Harmagedon (16,16; 19,17-21), and the second part - the rebellion of Gog and Magog (20,7-10) - precedes the resurrection of the dead at the final Judgement. Between these two phases in the defeat of the devil, an interval of a thousand years is described in which Christ reigns with his saints in a condition called the 'first resurrection'. As it is written it seems as if there will be an intermediate reign of a thousand years (the famous 'Millennium') between the 'Parousia' or second coming of Christ and the final Judgement, a proposition which does not agree with other prophecies of the New Testament, nor with the constant tradition of the Church.
The most convincing proof that there will not be such an interval is to be found in the text of the Apocalypse itself, in the passage which we have just examined, in which the Parousia of the Lord and the completion of the Kingdom of God are announced following the sound of the seventh and last trumpet (11,15-18). The fact that the time to judge the dead is celebrated simultaneously confirms that there will be no interval between the Parousia and the final Judgement.
Furthermore, there are indications in the text that the millennial reign of Christ with his saints takes place following his Passion and Resurrection, and includes people from every tribe and language, race and nation who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and made a kingdom and priests for God (1,6; 5,10; 20,6). The millennial reign of Christ therefore refers to the Church whilst she is waiting for the Parousia; why, then, is this interval described in the text as if it were after the Parousia?
We suggest two reasons for this displacement: the first is that, despite being in the world, the kingdom of Christ is not of this world (Jn 18,36), and is therefore most appropriately described after the kingdom of this world has ended at the Parousia of the Lord. The second reason is because, according to the words of Psalm 90: "a thousand years in your sight (Lord) are like a day that has just passed, like a watch in the night" (Ps 90,4). That is to say that, in the light of the coming of the Lord in Glory at his Parousia, his thousand-year reign will be revealed as 'a day that has just passed' to all those who, for whatever reason, had not already accepted it (cf. Rev 1,7). It is implied, then, that the Lord will appear in Glory before all men enter his kingdom, a fact which is confirmed in the Catechism in the following way: "The Kingdom will not therefore reach its fulfilment through the historical triumph of the Church, at the end of an ascending process, but through the victory of God over the final unleashing of evil..." (C.C.C. 677).
Seeing that the description of the millennial reign of Christ in the Apocalypse therefore refers to a retrospective vision, we come to realize that the two parts of the description of the defeat of the evil are in fact two successive phases of the same Battle, which ends with the final Judgement and is called the Battle of the Great Day of God Almighty.
We finish, then, with the vision of the realization of all that God has prepared for the future of mankind, as a reward for his servants. First, however, we must turn back to the event which indicates the Parousia of the Lord - the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary (Rev 11,19; 15,5).
In the ancient Temple there was a curtain at the entrance of the Sanctuary (1 Macc 4,51) and this was opened at the start of the great feasts, so that the pilgrims gathered in the inner court could see inside the Sanctuary. By analogy, the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary described in the Apocalypse indicates the start of a great feast: "Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding-feast of the Lamb" (Rev 19,9).
The complete fulfilment of the Mystery of God is therefore described as a great feast to celebrate the wedding of the Lamb, whose bride is the multitude of those who have participated in the divine project, those whose names are written in the book of Life. But the bride of the Lamb is also described as the City where these people will live in the full Presence of God, at the heart of the 'new heaven and the new earth': "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea is no more. And I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: Behold, the dwelling of God is with mankind, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, and he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death; neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain will there be any more, because the former things have passed away" (Rev 21,1-4).
In one of his pastoral letters, the former Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Martini, says: "The Christian hope is at risk from being reduced in two ways: either to longings of a purely celestial kind, for the other life, or (...) to completely earthly expectations (the Kingdom of God is already here in its fulness!) as in some proposals of political theology. Inpractice, it is difficult to avoid one or other of these two extremes, because we are limited and it is difficult/or us to comprehend the entire human horizon in one go. We have to adjust our thoughts and our language continually in order to grasp the unity which combines earthly hopes - of which the Bible often speaks - with those which are invisible and definitive, and give flavour to all the rest" (Pastoral Letter: 'Sto alla porta', 1992-1994, n. 18, our translation).
I wanted to read you this observation for two reasons: firstly because it precisely describes the two forms of misunderstanding that we have come across with respect to 'the new heaven and the new earth'; secondly because I would like to indicate how the final vision of the Apocalypse can help us to do what the Cardinal proposes, namely 'to adjust our thoughts and our language in order to grasp the unity which combines earthly hopes with those which are invisible and definitive...'.
Let us begin with the view that the Kingdom of God is already fully present, and that we are now living in the state of perfection which is called 'the new heaven and the new earth'. We have only just noted, however, that life in 'the new heaven and the new earth' is characterized by the absence of every form of suffering and distress. So a brief look around at the suffering in the present state of the world, should make us sure that we have not yet arrived at the full realization of the Kingdom of God. The new Jerusalem has not yet been established on earth, but its 'descent' from heaven remains our firm hope for the future.
The second misunderstanding is more serious because it nourishes an irresponsible attitude towards the environmental conditions in which we live. It is the view that at the consummation of all things life will exist in a purely spiritual or heavenly form, and that life on earth does not have a future because this planet will be totally destroyed in the upheavals at the end of time.
It is possible that this misunderstanding originates from an ancient Alexandrian version of a particular passage in the second Letter of St. Peter; this version is still used as the source of some important modern translations and reads as follows: "But the Day of the Lord will come as a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up" (2 Pet 3,10).
There is no need to point out the affinity between this statement and the dualistic heresies, nor to explain how it contradicts the Gospel (eg: "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth", Matt 5,5), because the text of the New Testament which is derived from the most reliable manuscripts (the 'critical' Text) offers a much more coherent version ".. and the earth and the works that are upon it will be uncovered", which is consistent with the fact that the final Judgement takes place at the same time (2 Pet 3,7).
Furthermore, in the same Letter of St. Peter, the future transformation of the present world is compared to the destruction of the prediluvial world by the flood (2 Pet 3,6-7). We know, however, that the flood did not destroy the planet, but simply transformed it into the present heaven and earth. It is therefore implied that the transforming fire which is referred to in this passage, is not aimed at destroying the planet, but at purifying it in a similar way as did the water of the flood; with this function, it seems reasonable to identify this fire with the Holy Spirit.
We have already mentioned some passages of the Apocalypse which indicate that God does not wish the planet 'earth' to be destroyed; the confirmation that this planet shall not be destroyed at the end of time lies in the fact there are some features of the present life in the description of 'the new heaven and the new earth'. There will be 'nations' which will need to be healed by the leaves of the Trees of Life (Rev 22,2) so that they can then walk in the light of the new Jerusalem (21,24). There will also be 'rulers of the earth' who will bring here the glory and the honour of these nations (21,24-26).
When in the text it is stated that the Holy City will not need the light of the sun or of the moon because her lamp is the Lamb and her light is the Glory of God (21,23; 22,5), we should not understand this to mean that there will be neither sun nor moon in 'the new heaven and the new earth', but that there will be a light which is even more essential for Life.
Life in 'the new heaven and the new earth' differs from the present way of life mainly as a result of the absence of every negative aspect: after the final Judgement there will not be any sea, synonymous with the waters and the abyss in the Apocalypse (21,1); there will be no more death, nor underworld (20,14; 21,4), nor the devil and his followers (20,10; 19,20; 14,9-11), nor Babylon (19,2-3), nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain (21,4), nor darkness (22,5) nor any curse (22,3).
In conclusion, the new reality which is called 'the new heaven and the new earth' does not by any means imply the annihilation of life on this planet, but rather its total transformation at the final Judgement, following the confrontation of every soul that has ever lived on the earth with the One sitting on the throne (20,11). The consequence of this union between the Creator and his creatures is a new Creation (21,5), new because every trace of the old way of life is obliterated. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says: "Behold, I am about to create a new heaven and a new earth: the things of the past shall not be remembered, they will never again come to mind" (ls 65,17).
At the beginning, I said that the aim of following the 'baseline prophetic narrative' was to discover where we are now in the sequence of events prophesied in this part of the Apocalypse, starting from the Ascension of Christ and finishing with the fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time. Whilst the interpretation that we have presented up to this point has been based on the objective findings of our comparison with the liturgy of the former Temple, now our work necessarily becomes more subjective because it involves the interpretation of the signs of the times in which we are living. Let us continue, then, in this final phase of interpretation, realizing that opinions may differ according to how these signs are interpreted.
We know that the first four seals have been broken, by the fact that the effects of the four horsemen are clearly evident: the Gospel has gone out into all the world (the white horse); violence and murder are widespread (the red horse); social injustice, misery and oppression have reached an intolerable level (the black horse); many people die because of wars, hunger and disease (the pale green horse). Since the breaking of the fifth seal does not have visible effects on the earth, it is not easy to determine whether or not it has yet occurred. Only the breaking of the next seal indicates that it has, in fact, been broken.
The vision of the catastrophe that follows the breaking of the sixth seal is very curious because, as we have said, it is the vision of an end which appears to leave no survivors. However, in the following visions we saw that this catastrophe, although not cancelled, takes place in such a way as to ensure that there will be those who survive and those who are saved. This curious situation recalls a fearsome aspect of our recent history - the nuclear holocaust. Even if everyone could have hidden in underground shelters, or bunkers, it was not probable that anyone could have survived the consequences of a nuclear war, the so-called 'nuclear winter'. With the sun darkened, the moon having the colour of blood, and all human life exiled underground, who could have survived? Thanks to God the end will not be so sudden or severe because we have been given a little more time to reconcile ourselves with God (cf. The Message of Pope John Paul II to the United Nations Assembly, 5 October 1995, n. 16).
We come then to the breaking of the seventh seal, and to the blowing of the seven trumpets. Already in our environment we can see damage of the same kind as that announced by the first four trumpets: the damage to the earth and the vegetation caused by acid rain and erosion (the first trumpet); the damage to the sea and its creatures caused by oil pollution (the second trumpet); the damage to the rivers caused by industrial accidents and waste (the third trumpet); the damage to the atmosphere caused by gaseous emissions and atmospheric pollution (the fourth trumpet). Nevertheless, even though we can see damage of the same kind as that which is described in the Apocalypse, we can not see yet all the effects which are described, nor the full degree of damage which has been prophesied (a third of the elements affected).
For this reason we can be sure that the first four trumpets have not yet been sounded, and can therefore conclude that we are presently between the breaking of the seventh seal and the sound of the first trumpet - a time of silence in heaven and of prayer for all the faithful.