Revelation 6: The 5th seal, Theodicy 101

In Revelation Articles by cwfeldmann

“Even Satan can disguise himself to look like an angel of light!” (2 Corinthians 11:14) and last time we considered the reality that Satan, “the prince of this world” (John 12:31) has been allowed to establish his kingdom on earth. As we said, for the deceiver to be unmasked, he must be allowed to bring his foolish plans to their natural result and that is what we see as the four seals are opened. With the second seal we see that “Its rider was given the power to take peace away from the earth and to make people slaughter one another. So he was given a large sword.” (Revelation 6:4) The third seal reveals worsening human suffering and by the time we arrive at the fourth seal, Satan’s kingdom which initially seemed more appealing than God’s kingdom to a large angelic population, is revealed to be a failure and a fraud: “Its rider was named Death, and Hades followed close behind. They were given authority over one fourth of the earth, to kill by means of war, famine, disease, and wild animals.” (Revelation 6:8) War, disease, famine and death were the results of Satan’s rebellion against God. While God’s character was vindicated in the Person of Jesus Christ, the history of planet earth also reveals Satan’s violent kingdom as a sham – a complete and utter failure. In other words, not only did God need to vindicate his trustworthy character, but Satan also needed to be exposed.

The problem is that people don’t turn on the news and say, “What a terrible decision it was for Adam and Eve to hand over the keys to planet earth to Satan!” At least, I have never heard people phrase it that way. Rather, people subtly imply that it is God’s fault. These are the questions typically asked in the face of human suffering:

“Where are you God? Why do you seem to be silent?”

“How can an all-powerful and all-loving God allow this to happen to me?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“How come my prayers for help seem to go unanswered?”

“Where was God on 9/11?”

“If there is a God he has a lot of explaining to do for allowing innocent children to starve to death or to be sexually abused.”

These are the questions that provide the single greatest challenge to believing that there is a God of truth, goodness and love. In fact, from a certain perspective the story even of the great men and women of faith in the bible does not encourage us that becoming a follower of God is a positive thing from a “worldly” perspective. God did not protect Abel from Cain’s blow. Look at the trials that Job went through even though God declared him to be “a perfect and upright man”. Elisha, who performed so many miracles for others, received no healing from God when he was sick. Isaiah was sawed in half in a hollow log and Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt. Ezekiel’s wife died and God did not allow him to mourn. John the Baptist, “the greatest prophet that ever lived”, was beheaded and Jesus did not come to his rescue. Paul was whipped, imprisoned, left for dead and ultimately killed. Peter was crucified upside down. James was killed and John was imprisoned on the island of Patmos. This storyline is not very encouraging from a certain perspective!

The first four seals highlight the destructive reign of Satan: war, famine, persecution, and death. In this context and right on cue, the fifth seal asks the logical question of basic theodicy (why God doesn’t prevent evil):

“When the lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had given about him. They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Holy and true Master, how long before you judge and take revenge on those living on earth who shed our blood?’” (Revelation 6:9-10)

“How long before you step in and avenge our murders?” according to The Message translation.

Asking questions like this of God does not seem to disqualify a person as a loyal member of his kingdom and God’s response does not suggest that he is offended:

“Each of the souls was given a white robe. They were told to rest a little longer until all their coworkers, the other Christians, would be killed as they had been killed.” (Revelation 6:11)

There is abundant biblical evidence that we may ask blunt questions like this of God. In fact, this seems to be a quality that is associated with being a friend of God. For example, the book of Job is filled with Job’s complaints to God that his situation is unfair. When Abraham didn’t understand God’s plan, he boldly asked, “Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25).

David and Jeremiah frequently asked for vengeance on their enemies and complained that God didn’t seem to be doing as much as he could with his unlimited power. Here is just a sampling:

“I wish that you would kill wicked people, O God, and that bloodthirsty people would leave me alone.” (Psalms 139:19)

“When I think of God, I sigh; when I meditate, I feel discouraged…Then I said, ‘What hurts me most is this— that God is no longer powerful.’” (Psalms 77:3, 10)

“Drag these evil people away like sheep to be butchered; guard them until it is time for them to be slaughtered. How long will our land be dry, and the grass in every field be withered? Animals and birds are dying because of the wickedness of our people, people who say, ‘God doesn’t see what we are doing.’” (Jeremiah 12:3-4)

And finally, Habakkuk is an excellent parallel to the fifth seal:

“O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise…. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:2,3,13)

God’s friends in the fifth seal ask the logical question. “God, with your unlimited power, why don’t you intervene in the world? How can you allow this to go on? How can you allow such atrocities? Where are you?”

God’s answer is to tell them to “rest a little longer” or “sit back and wait.” Quite frankly, God response doesn’t seem to offer much encouragement to his friends in the future. The bloodshed will apparently go on “until all their coworkers, the other Christians, would be killed as they had been killed” (Revelation 6:11).

God’s response to Habakkuk’s complaint was very similar:

“Then the LORD said to me, ‘Write My answer plainly on tablets, so that a runner can carry the correct message to others…If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed. ‘Look at the proud! They trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked. But the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.’” (Habakkuk 2:1-4)

“Trust me Habakkuk. It might get worse before it gets better, but trust me.”

In Romans, Paul picks up Habakkuk’s theodicy challenge and shows us HOW Jesus is the answer (see the Bible study on Romans), but is the challenge to God that is asked in the fifth seal answered in the sixth or seventh seals? Yes it is, but the answer God provided was so surprising and unanticipated that God’s friends were literally left speechless. Next time we will consider God’s amazing response.

– Written by Dr. Brad Cole