Are the plagues in Revelation literal?


While much is figurative in Revelation, are the plagues that John sees in his visions literal? Did those things actually happen at some point?


A better question is why select the plagues to be literal in a book filled with symbolism and figurative language? What indications are there that these should be treated differently from the rest of the book?

The seven bowls of wrath are similar to the breaking of the seven seals and the sounding of the seven trumpets, but the intensity and magnitude are far greater. Where the others were partial judgment, the bowls of wrath are complete and final judgments. They also roughly parallel the ten plagues set on Egypt, when God punished the Egyptian nation to free His people from bondage.

The first bowl is poured on the earth, where the land beast (emperor worship) came from. It only fell on those who were committed to the empire and its worship. As a result, the people broke out in malignant sores. Remember this is not literal, but symbolic. The inner rottenness of their sins is exposed for all to see.

The second bowl is poured out on the sea, where the sea beast (the empire) came from. The sea represents the troubled mass of humanity that gave birth to the empire. As a result, the sea turned to blood and everything living died. Humanity has become dead spiritually, leaving further corruption behind. Life is in the blood ( Leviticus 17:11), but the life has gone out of people, leaving the dead behind.

The third bowl is poured into the rivers and springs and they turn to blood. An angel in charge of the waters declares the action to be righteous or fitting retribution. The altar itself, where the blood of the martyrs was (Revelation 6:9-11), agrees. The empire spilled the blood of God’s people, and thus, the empire was forced to drink the blood of its citizens. They reaped what they had sown (Galatians 6:7-9; Obadiah 15-16).

With the fourth bowl, God uses the sun to scorch the earth. God’s wrath against idolatry is seen as a burning fire (Psalms 97:3,7). The astrologers will suffer at the hands of their supposed god (Isaiah 47:13-14). No one is spared (Isaiah 9:19). Oddly, instead of quaking in fear of God’s wrath, men cursed the God who was punishing them. Their response is much like Pharaoh's in the face of the ten plagues.

The fifth bowl is directed at the seat of the empire – the throne of the beast and the empire. Their rulers became darkened, that is God snuffed out their wisdom (Isaiah 24:21-23; 29:13-14). It is much like the corruption of the Gentiles (Romans 1:21). Great pain is inflicted on the blasphemous tongues of these rulers (Revelation 13:5), but they continue to blaspheme God despite the difficulties of speaking through the pain.

With the sixth bowl, preparation is made for invading armies from the east by drying up the Euphrates River. The major enemies of Israel came from the other side of the Euphrates (Assyria and Babylon) when God overthrew Israel and Judah for their sins. Thus, in preparation for the overthrow of Rome, God makes it easier for the enemies of Rome to access the empire.

The last bowl is poured into the air. The air is the abode of Satan (Ephesians 2:2). With it being poured out, judgment is declared to be complete. The result is that the empire is divided into three parts. This is similar to how Jerusalem’s destruction was described (Ezekiel 5:2-3). Three is the number for complete. It was a complete and thorough destruction. The empire is put into complete chaos. There is no place for refuge for the islands and mountains are gone. Similar to the fall of Tyre (Ezekiel 26:17-18). Hail falls, but it is no ordinary hail. These stones weigh about 100 pounds each. Hail has been used by God before in divine judgment, but never on this order of magnitude before. But notice that this is not the final judgment because the survivors are still blaspheming God. Despite all the devastation, men still refuse to turn to God.

Thus, the seven bowls are a vivid description of God's overthrow of the Roman Empire. Did this happen in history? Yes. Did men learn from the events? No.

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