Sep 3, 2011

Earthquakes in Relation to Birth Pangs

Ron J. Bigalke Jr.By Ron J. Bigalke
Eternal Ministries


Some prophetic teachers make claims with regard to earth’s increasing number of earthquakes as a sign of the end times in fulfillment of Matthew 24:7. Yet, such claims do not accord with scientific data or proper interpretation of Christ’s words in the Olivet Discourse.

There are two views among premillennialists as to the timing of the fulfillment of the birth pangs prophesied in the Matthean eschatological discourse. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Walvoord wrote with regard to premillennialists who understand Matthew 24:4–14 “as a unit, describing the general characteristics of the age leading up to the end, while at the same time recognizing that the prediction of the difficulties, which will characterize the entire period between the first and second coming of Christ, are fulfilled in an intensified form as the age moves on to its conclusion.” In other words, they argue that 24:4–14 lists “general signs,” whereas 24:15–26 lists “specific signs.” The differentiation between “general” and “specific” signs would mean that the former “have been at least partially fulfilled in the present age and have characterized the period between the first and second coming of Christ.” [1] However, even within this view, some interpret 24:4–8 as general signs of the period between the first and second coming of Christ and 24:9–14 as events occurring in the first half of the tribulation. [2]

Certainly, the birth pangs in the Olivet Discourse (false messiahs, wars, famines, and earthquakes) have their precursors in the present age. [3] However, the relationship between Christ’s statements in the eschatological discourses and parallels in Revelation 6 indicates that these signs will not be fulfilled during the church age. The prophesied signs are unique to a period of which the world has never known. Since these signs are events that fit contextually within the tribulation period, they should not be cited as fulfilled (in any sense) in the current age. [4]

For example, it is common to reference famines and plagues as proof of prophetic fulfillment, but the truth is, these have been occurring throughout the course of human history for thousands of years. The worst famines in history happened in North China (1876–79) and India (1876–78). In North China alone, “deaths by hunger, violence, and subsequent disease are estimated at between 9 million and 13 million.” [5] The worst case of pestilence was in Europe and Asia from AD 500 to 650 (popularly termed the “Plague of Justinian”), which left three of every five inhabitants dead. The decline of the city of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire dates from the Plague of Justinian. Not until the ninth century did the Empire begin to recover. “Recurring epidemics of bubonic plague killed as many as 100 million people” in Europe and Asia. [6] From 1347 to 1351, the Black Death “affected every level of society, killing an estimated 75 million people, depopulating more than 200,000 villages, and reducing the European population by perhaps as much as one-quarter.” [7] None can deny the devastation of these select events, but there is no comparison to those of the future tribulation. No current frame of reference exists for the judgments and signs of the tribulation. If the events of 24:4–14 (or 24:4–8) are general signs of disasters as ancient as the human race — representing familiarly distressing scenes of conquest, war, famine, and death — then what will be different in the breaking of the first four seal judgments? Obviously, nothing would be different, and this is not the case from the biblical text. [8]

Another premillennial interpretation of Matthew 24:4–14 is that these prophesied events occur solely in the first half of the tribulation. Gaebelein wrote:

“The point which we wish to make is the following: If this is the correct interpretation, if Matthew xxiv:4–14 refers to the beginning of that coming end of the age and if Revelation vi refers to the same beginning of the end and that which follows the sixth chapter leads us on into the great tribulation, then there must be a perfect harmony between that part of the Olivet discourse contained in Matthew xxiv and the part of Revelation beginning with the sixth chapter. And such is indeed the case.” [9]
There are significant parallels between the synoptic eschatological discourses and the Book of Revelation. Of course, all premillennialists understand that the synoptic eschatological discourses are parallel in at least some aspects to the Book of Revelation. Therefore, it is logical (and more importantly, this is the revelation of Scripture) that Matthew 24:4–14 and the remaining portions of the Matthean discourse would focus attention upon the same period of time, that is, the seven-year tribulation.

Are Earthquakes Increasing in Fulfillment of Matthew 24:7?

Some prophetic teachers make claims with regard to earth’s increasing number of earthquakes as a sign of the end times in fulfillment of Matthew 24:7. Such claims do not accord with scientific data or proper interpretation of Christ’s words in the Olivet Discourse. According to the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), the number of earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher remains invariable. The increase in scientific instrumentation (seismographs with increased sensitivity) and global communication has allowed seismologists to identify large and small earthquakes at a much more rapid rate than in the past twenty years.

Seismographs have demonstrated no increase in the number of earthquakes in more recent years. Using records since the 1900s, the NEIC anticipates seventeen major earthquakes of a magnitude between 7.0–7.9 and one great earthquake of a magnitude 8.0 or higher on a yearly basis (e.g. the recent earthquake in Japan). [10]

The assertion that earthquakes are increasing in fulfillment of Matthew 24:7 misinterprets Scripture. The context of Matthew 24:7 demands that this sign is for believers in the tribulation, who anticipate the return of the Lord; it is incorrect to refer to this passage as describing events during the church age.

Clearly, several worldwide earthquakes will occur in the tribulation, such as the great earthquake accompanying the sixth seal in Revelation 6:12–17. Following this earthquake, “[T]he sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth…The sky was split apart like a scroll…and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” The sixth seal judgment will affect the heavens and the earth. Isaiah (2:10–22) prophesied its devastation as occurring in the day of reckoning, when God will arise to make the earth tremble.

The campaign of Armageddon will witness numerous earthquakes (Rev 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). Revelation 16:18–20 describes a great earthquake (i.e. the greatest earthquake since man came to be upon the earth). In Acts 1, Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives before witnesses, and it is there that He will return to deliver His people. The great earthquake will occur when Messiah returns to earth and sets His feet upon the Mount of Olives and splits it in two (Acts 1:9–12; Zech 14:1–11).

The biblical conclusions in this article do not invalidate biblical prophecies. Hahn explained,
“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 are correct, a pronounced increase — conclusively noticeable for all of mankind to recognize — will occur during the first half of the Tribulation period. This also corresponds to the understanding that the Tribulation period is in fact a period of time where God himself intervenes in the physical order of the earth. It is a time of God’s wrath.” [11]

[1] John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998) 183.
[2] “Although these verses are very similar to those recorded in Mark 13:9–13 and Luke 12:12–19, the differences show that Matthew is not dealing with the same thing. Luke clearly stated that the events he was describing came before the sign of the end of the age when nation shall rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom. However, in the Matthew account, the passage begins with the word then, pointing out that what Christ is describing now will come after the event of nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom. So while the words tend to be similar, these similarities do not prove sameness” (Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah [Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries Press, 1983] 440).
[3] For instance, it is commonly stated that the increasing number of earthquakes is a sign of the end times. Such claims are inconsistent with scientific data and biblical context. See Ron J. Bigalke Jr., “The Olivet Discourse: A Resolution of Time,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 9 (Spring 2003): 136–38. See also Steven A. Austin and Mark L. Strauss, “Are Earthquakes Signs of the End Times?: A Geological and Biblical Response to an Urban Legend,” Christian Research Journal 21 (1999): 30–39; and, Gordon Franz, “Earthquakes: On the Increase? Or Warnings of Judgment to Come?” (paper presented at the Eastern Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Myerstown, PA, 1999).
[4] World events are not insignificant but may “set the stage” for the prophetic fulfillment of tribulation events. See Thomas Ice, “Stage-Setting of the Last Days,” in Revelation Hoofbeats, ed. Ron J. Bigalke Jr. (Longwood, FL: Xulon, 2003) 283–300.
[5] James C. Cornell Jr., The Great International Disaster Book (New York: Pocket Books, 1979) 155.
[6] Ibid., 183.
[7] Ibid., 184.
[8] Sigve K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation (New York: Clark, 2006) 132.
[9] Arno C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of Matthew: An Exposition, 2 vols. (New York City: Our Hope, 1910) 2:182.
[10] U.S. Geological Survey, “Are Earthquakes Really on the Increase?” [article online] (accessed 1 April 2011) available from
[11] Wilfred J. Hahn, “Earthquakes: A False Sign?” Eternal Value Review 2 (April 2011): 5.