The justice of God in the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.11

[This essay was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-52.]

For the person seeking to gain a Christian theological perspective on justice, it is likely not self-evident that the Book of Revelation would be a crucial source.  For example, Jose Miranda’s well-known study, Marx and the Bible,[1] only tangentially refers to Revelation, and the biblical chapter in the United States Catholic bishops’ 1985 pastoral letter on the US economy does not refer even once to Revelation.

We can paraphrase Tertullian’s famous question: What has Patmos to do with Rome?  What do these obscure and seemingly fanciful visions have to do with justice in the real world? I will attempt to show that they have a great deal of relevance.

Does Revelation picture God and God’s justice in such a way as to make it illegitimate to apply Jesus’ teaching about God being the model of Christians’ loving their enemies to a rejection to a rejection of Christian involvement in warfare? Is the justice of God in Revelation punitive, angry, and vengeful in such a way that it becomes a warrant for acts of human “justice” such as just wars, capital punishment, a harsh and strictly punitive prison system, and a “big stick” foreign policy that seeks to punish “ungodly” and “unjust” enemies.

Is this really the view of God’s justice presented in Revelation?  My thesis is that it is not, that just as Jesus and Paul give us a picture of God’s justice that is different from the justice of “the nations,” so too does John.

Some important themes in Revelation.

The Book of Revelation is unique in the New Testament.  It is the only piece of apocalyptic literature to enter the New Testament canon.  As such, it places a special emphasis on eschatology and the idea of the last judgment.  Very definitely God’s justice here has to do with a view of the ultimate fate of humanity.  God’s justice is integrally tied up with the direction and final resolution of human history.

A related theme that is often seen to have apocalyptic overtones, that has significance for a view of God’s justice, and that receives special attention in Revelation is that of “wrath.”  One indication that wrath is a special theme in Revelation is that of the two Greek words translated by “wrath” in the New Testament, one (thymos) is used ten times in Revelation and never more than once in any other book, and the other (orge) is used twice as often in Revelation than in any other New Testament book except Romans.

The predominance of these themes of eschatology, judgment, and wrath indicate that Revelation contains much material that has to do with a view of God and ultimate reality.  There can be little doubt that one’s view of God greatly impinges upon one’s view of a socio-political concept such as “justice.” Revelation makes the connection explicit when it refers to God and God’s actions as “just.”

It is also relevant to note that, more so than any other book in the New Testament, Revelation alludes to the situation of the Christian vis-à-vis the Roman Empire.  Revelation appears to have emerged out of a situation of perceived powerlessness toward and intense dissatisfaction with the present socio-political status quo.

The book provides a picture of how the weak in society viewed the strong; or (perhaps) we could say of how the oppressed viewed the oppressors.  Such a picture has relevance.  On the one hand, how those on the outside view those on the inside greatly affects what the outsiders do should they themselves somehow become insiders.  On the other hand (and much more significant to John), the attitudes of the weak toward the strong greatly impinge upon the status of their souls.  By hating those who hate us, do we not end up becoming just like them?  What kind of justice do the disenfranchised seek?  Is it an eye-for-an-eye justice that only maintains the cycle of violence or is it something different?  Before seeking to support my thesis that Revelation gives a picture of a different kind of justice, I need to spend a little time discussing the social setting of the book and the significance of its apocalypticism.

The Social Setting.

The majority of modern scholars agree that Revelation was written sometime in the 90s, somewhere in Asia Minor, and by some man—otherwise unknown—named John.  It is clear from the book itself that it was John’s perception that the churches of Asia Minor were in a crisis situation and that the depth of their commitment was soon to be put to the test.

In her book, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse,[2] Adela Yarbro Collins has done some helpful reconstructing of what it was that might have contributed to John’s perceptions.  She points to four particular areas of conflict.

(a) Conflict with Jews. The split between Christians and Jews with the resultant exclusion of Christians from the synagogues and all that went with that was a relatively recent event.[3]  It seems obvious that John still thought of things in Jewish terms; the split had not yet led to a full “Gentilization” of Christianity.  The wounds were still fresh and tensions still alive.  These tensions were particularly reflected in the letters to the seven churches, especially the letter to Smyrna (2:8-11), which seems to be alluding to some Jews colluding with the government in persecuting the Christians.  Overall, however, Revelation is definitely not an anti-Jewish tract and this conflict is secondary to the others.  In fact, in these other areas, the Christians were clearly reflecting traditional Jewish tensions with the non-Jewish world.

(b) Mutual antipathy toward neighboring Gentiles.  The Gentiles did not particularly like the Christians, and vice versa.  This was also reflected in the seven letters.  Greco-Roman society tended to be suspicious of the church, not least due to the church’s rejection of much of what it saw as idolatrous and/or inhumane in current social practices.  This suspicion easily translated into antagonism and made things unsettled for most Christians.  In the face of this, those whom John railed against in various of the letters (i.e., the “Nicolaitans,” “Balaam,” and “Jezebel”) apparently called for accommodation.[4]

(c) Conflict over wealth.  Tensions existed between the rich and the poor.  During the decades prior to the writing of Revelation, brilliant economic progress had been made in Asia Minor, the scene of this book.  But the rewards went totally to the wealthy.  The rich got richer and the poor stayed poor.  The result was widespread social unrest due to growing awareness of this maldistribution.[5]  While not a revolutionary zealot, John saw total discontinuity between the present situation of great economic inequality and the promise of the kingdom of God’s justice.

(d) Precarious relations with Rome.  It does not seem likely that during the time John wrote Revelation Christians were undergoing intense persecution.  There is little solid evidence of persecution of Christians during the reign of the emperor Domitian late in the first century,[6] which is when Revelation was likely written.  But in no way was Rome friendly toward Christians.  For one thing, the cult of the emperor was growing and this was an anathema to monotheistic Christians, a reality that led to local persecutions and repression.  Also, Roman magistrates were the “enforcers” of many grievances which non-Christian Gentiles and, to some extent, Jews, had against Christians.  Thirdly, in general in the society of Asia Minor, if the poor made noises of resistance versus the wealthy, they were reminded of the high priority that Rome placed on social order.[7]  John’s banishment to Patmos, likely a kind of “penal colony” for political prisoners, reinforced in his mind the basic polarization between the church and Rome and the precarious legal position of Christians.[8]

The reality that stood in contrast with these various tensions and which heightened them into crisis proportions was the early Christian experience of the reality of the Kingdom of God.  A new set of expectations had arisen as a result of faith in Jesus as Messiah and of the belief that the Kingdom had been established, at least in part.  It was the tension between John’s vision of the kingdom and his environment that moved him to write Revelation,[9] and no doubt led him to experience and communicate it as an apocalypse, i.e., a direct revelation from God.

Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature

The very first word in Revelation identifies the book as an apokalypsie (=“revelation”).  It would be a mistake, however, to assume that John is using this word self-consciously to place his work in a clearly demarcated category of literature with well-established rules of composition and a unified theological perspective.  “Apocalyptic” is a term used by later readers to categorize a fluid, diverse group of works written by Jews and Christians mostly between 200 BCE and 200 CE and united primarily by certain broad similarities in style.

The term comes from the book of Revelation itself and is then applied to earlier works.  What Revelation and the other apocalypses have in common are: (1) a narrative framework, (2) a direct revelation which comes to a human recipient and discloses a transcendent reality, (3) the promise of eschatological salvation, and (4) the promise of a new or transformed world.[10]

A dynamic, mythological orientation characterizes apocalyptic literature much more than strict analytic logic.[11]  Apocalypses emerged out of settings of perceived crisis and had as their goal either strengthening the readers’ resolve to remain faithful to the truth in the face of conflicts or moving the readers to act to change the situation.

The power of apocalyptic was the power of the human imagination.  It contained a challenge to view the world in a way that was radically different from conventional wisdom.  Such imagination could serve to foster dissatisfaction with people’s present and to generate visions of what might be instead.[12]  It could buttress the claim that Christians’ true identity was to be derived not from the structures and institutions of the wider society, but from a vision of what God was doing on the cosmic level to effect deliverance and salvation.[13]

The book of Revelation emerged as the creative response to an experience of severe distress—both for John personally in his banishment to Patmos and of the church in Asia Minor in the face of ever more powerful calls to depart from the ways of the Lord.

It is within the context of his intense desire that things be set right that John wrote about these visions of God doing just that.  I want to focus now on John’s description of this work of God’s that is envisioned in Revelation as a reflection of God’s “justice.” I will do this by first looking at the four texts that specifically refer to God’s justice and then by looking more broadly at the book and discussing why these actions are called “just.”

God’s Justice and the Song of the Lamb: 15:1-8

This passage serves as a sort of preface to the series of seven bowl-plagues that make up chapter 16.  The bowl plagues are the third and last series of seven-fold plagues.  The first two are the seal plagues in chapter six and the trumpet-plagues in chapters eight and nine.  15:1 refers to the bowl-plagues as the final, ultimate pouring out of God’s wrath.

A careful look at these three plague series and a deciphering of the imagery suggests that what is being pictured is a vision of human reality as it always has been.  Wars, famine, rebellion, disease, tremendous social upheaval and the like are characteristic of all eras of human history.

What John reported on were pictures of reality, pictures of what has happened and will continue to happen.  These things, by and large, are evil.  What John saw in the Lamb opening the seals (6:1) and thereby setting the plagues in motion, however, was an affirmation that God uses even these evil things to bring about God’s purposes.  Biblical examples of this type of phenomenon include Assyria’s destruction of Israel in the Old Testament and the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament.  It was evil that caused these things, but God used them ultimately to further God’s intentions.

Jesus did not merely defeat the powers of evil, he made them agents of his own victory.  That is why John asserted in 5:5 that Jesus won the right to open the scroll, and why the scroll, once opened, let loose upon the earth a series of disasters.  John was not asking us to believe that war, famine, and disease are the deliberate creation of Christ or that, except in an indirect way, they are what God wills for people.  They are the result of human sin.  The point is that, just where sin and its effects are most in evidence, the kingship of the crucified is to be seen, turning human wickedness to the service of God’s purpose.[14]

This reality was not seen to be self-evident to all people.  John was writing to Christians, and it is implicit that it would take faith to recognize that God was at work in the plagues; things which would seem to the one who had not faith to be the ordinary course of human history.  This point is supported by 9:20 and 16:9, where people are portrayed as continuing to worship idols and to curse God, failing to see the “wrath” as God’s wrath and as being God’s process of cleansing creation of evil.[15]

The plagues in the seal series (chapter six), the four horsemen of international war, civil war, famine, and pestilence; earthquake; blackening of the sun; etc., correspond to contemporary realities of John’s time.  The Roman defeat by the Parthians in 62 CE and the year of civil war following the suicide of Nero in 68 perhaps lie behind the first two riders.  The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE terrified the Roman world and was taken as a warning of imminent divine judgment.  The year after, the city of Rome suffered a devastating fire and then the worst plague in its history.  In 92 there was a severe grain famine in Asia.[16]

In the fourth seal plague (6:7-8), the fact that death and Hades are the agents shows that these plagues are evil.  They are not obedient angels of God even though they are ultimately used by God.  When the wrath is spent and the New Jerusalem comes down, death and Hades are destroyed (20:14).

A key point in 15:1-8 (and, really, throughout the book) is the juxtaposition of plague language with worship language, victory language, and salvation language.  John sees the plagues coming; he also sees the worship of the “conquerors” who sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb, and who affirm of God that God’s deeds are great and wonderful, just (dikaiai) and true; and that all nations will come and worship God because God’s just deeds (dikaiomata sou) have been revealed.

A clear allusion is made here to Exodus 15 (the account of the crossing of the Red Sea).  Those who have “conquered” the beast are direct heirs of the children of Israel in that their faith enabled them to be liberated from the dominance of the contemporary powers of evil.  The fact that they are singing the “song of the Lamb” indicates that their triumph was won by no other weapons than the cross of Christ and the faithful testimony of his followers to that way.[17]

The “song” in verses three and four contains phrases from various Old Testament passages (Deut. 32:2; Pss. 86:8f., 111:2; Jer. 10:6f., 16:9) which taken together have the effect of emphasizing God’s greatness as breaking through heathen blindness and “all nations” coming to God’s worship.  They do this because God’s “just deeds have been revealed.” The promised result of God’s just deeds here is that “all nations shall come and worship before God” (v. 4).  These are the same “nations” said to be ruled by the “beast” in 13:7 and raging at God’s judgments in 11:18.  The effect of God’s justice is not to destroy them but to convert them.

The smoke that fills the temple in verses five through eight both reveals and hides the glory, the awe, and the mystery that surround God (cf. Exod. 19:16-18; 40:34-38: 1 Kings 8:11; Isa. 6:4).  Only when the seven plagues had been poured out was it possible again to enter the temple.  God’s judgments remain a mystery until they have been executed.[18]  The implication follows that to a certain extent the ways in which the plagues serve God’s ultimate salvific purposes seem to be unfathomable for human beings.

The clear implications of this passage in its context next to chapter 16 is that the plagues and outpouring of God’s wrath are somehow part of God’s justice.  The references to the song of Moses and the Lamb serve to tie the plagues in with the exodus and the Christ-event.  What this means is that the ultimate effect and central manifestation of God’s “just deeds” are salvific; i.e., the celebration of the “conquerors” and the worship of the nations.  The “conquerors” celebrate because they have, by their conquering of the Beast, contributed to the nations’ coming to worship God, not the nations being destroyed.

Giving the Oppressors Their Due: 16:4-7

This passage is the third of the seven terrible bowl-plagues.  God is called “just” twice here, first by the “angel of the waters,” the one pouring out the bowl which turns the rivers and springs of water into blood; and then by the “altar,” which apparently is a reference back to 6:9-11, where John saw under the altar the souls of the martyrs who are crying out for God to avenge their blood.

The specific references to “justice” here have to do with God’s judgment on those who “have shed the blood of God’s saints and prophets” (v. 6).  This judgment is said to take the form of God giving the blood-shedders blood to drink through the agency of the angel who turned drinking water into blood.  This seems like a clear case of simple eye-for-an-eye retributive justice.  But I believe that there is more to it than that.

The plagues are clearly stated to be instruments of God’s “wrath” (cf. 16:1).  We saw earlier that the plagues are John’s attempt to show that God is at work in the midst of the evils and catastrophes endemic in human history.  It is not that God is the direct cause of these but rather that God uses what the powers of evil cause for God’s own ultimate purposes of destroying those evil powers and fully establishing the New Jerusalem.

The “wrath” in Revelation, while attributed to God, is the impersonal working out, within history, of the process of evil being allowed to destroy itself.  Revelation contains numerous references and allusions to the “cup of wrath” (14:10, 19-20; 15:7; 18:6).  The “cup of wrath” in the Old Testament is never used of what is to happen at the end of history.  It always refers to certain specific events in history, either in the past or in the near future.  Most of John’s references to the wrath refer to the fall of Babylon, by which he meant the fall of the Roman Empire.  This, he believed, was to be an event in future history, and not the last event either; nor was it to be an event brought about by direct divine action, but rather by the action of people in history, the kings from the East in fact (cf. 17:16).  To this event, he applies the language of divine wrath.  In so doing he is entirely in line with the Old Testament view of God’s wrath, but he is not treating the wrath as purely eschatological.  On the contrary, it is fundamentally the working out in history of the consequences of human sin.[19]

God’s wrath here means that people reap what they sow, that evil rebounds on itself and is self-destructive. This process is seen to serve God’s purposes in two ways, first by hopefully moving some people, at least, to repentance due to their experience of the destructive consequences of their rejection of God, and second—according to John’s visions—by ultimately culminating in the destruction of the evil powers and the establishment of the New Jerusalem on earth.

Anthony T. Hanson is the modern scholar most responsible for this argument.  Later commentators who have, by-and-large, followed him include G.B. Caird[20] and J.P.M. Sweet.[21]  Representative of recent writers who hold to an interpretation of “wrath” in Revelation as being more personal and retributive are Robert Mounce and Adela Yarbro Collins, though they are at opposite poles concerning the normativeness of this view for modern-day Christians.

Mounce takes the visions in Revelation to be essentially the literal truth of what will happen in the future and to be normative reflections of God’s character.  God’s wrath as reflected in the plagues is the response of God’s holiness to persistent and impenitent human wickedness.[22]  The image of Christ as Lamb in Revelation is an apocalyptic picture of a conquering and vengeful Messiah similar to the traditional Jewish concept much more than an image of a suffering savior.[23]  What we read of in chapter 16 are the determining actions of God in righteous retribution, literally and physically hurting the wicked.[24]  The picture in 16:19 is of God’s righteous anger no longer being restrained by God’s goodness and forbearance and thus being freed to give the wicked what they deserve–retribution.[25]

Obviously Mounce’s view differ greatly from mine.  Two of my problems with his interpretations are: (1) He fails to see the “rebirth of images” which takes place in Revelation where John redefines the conquering Messiah motif by the suffering Lamb motif (cf. 5:5-6), a redefinition which reflects what actually happens in the Christ event.  Mounce instead redefines the Lamb image by the conquering Messiah image. (2) Mounce sees God as internally divided between love and righteous anger.  This is contrary to the ultimate biblical message that everything about God and God’s actions flow from and serve God’s creative and redemptive love.

In Yarbro Collins’s view, this wrathful picture of God (she would largely agree with Mounce’s understanding of John’s views) is most decidedly not normative for us, it is a dangerous projection stemming from the social alienation of John from Rome and his feelings of powerlessness.[26] Revelation reflects deep-seated feelings of envy toward Roman wealth[27] and pent-up aggression expressed as disguised hatred toward the Romans.

It seems to me that Yarbro Collins overstates the dualisms of Revelation.  It was not “good people” (i.e., John and his churches) vs. “bad people” (the Romans and their leaders) as much as evil powers (Satan and company) vs. all people (even the “kings of the earth,” who make it into the New Jerusalem after the evil powers are taken away). It is not religious faith vs. creation and human culture but the appropriate use of creation vs. its exploitive use (the “glory and honor of the nation” are part of the New Jerusalem, 21:24ff.).

The theme of the first four bowls is that God’s creation itself is taking vengeance on those that do harm; the land, the sea, the fresh water, and the sun all play a part.  The principle seems to be that “whereby a person sins, thereby he or she is punished.”[28]  For example, the “mark of the beast” in verse two becomes ugly and painful sores, the symbol of its punishment.  In verses four through seven, the ocean of “blood” which the worshippers of the Beast have shed contaminates their own water supply.  This image is picked up in chapter 17, where we see the harlot Babylon staggering to her appointed doom, drunk with the “blood of the saints and prophets.”[29]

The images in chapter 16 bear a striking resemblance to the plagues of the exodus.  All seven judgments here repeat in varied ways the plagues of Egypt.  15:1-4 indicate that these plagues conclude in a redemption greater even than that from Egypt.[30]  This promised redemption is the subject of a full-fledged vision in chapters 21 and 22,

In the context of the whole book, it would seem that there are four major purposes of the plague visions.  One is to serve as a serious warning to Christians not to conform to the surrounding culture, not to accept the mark of the beast.  A second is to promise that the evil events of history are not ultimately independent from God’s purposes but in a mysterious way actually serve them.  Third, in the context of the plagues, John emphasizes that God is continually hoping for and seeking repentance on the part of those who dwell on the earth.  A fourth purpose is to show that God’s wrath, in hating and destroying evil, serves the purpose of cleansing creation so that in the new creation things will be whole.

This passage emphasizes that the outworking of “wrath” is part of God’s justice.  The implication is that evil has consequences, that it is self-destructive.  The reality of God’s wrath is necessary for evil to be destroyed, which is the only way creation can ultimately be liberated.  God’s wrath serves God’s redemptive purposes.

The wedding supper of the Lamb: 19:1-10.

Following the account of the destruction of Babylon in chapter 18, John reports a vision of a scene of great celebration.  God’s judgments are said here to be “true and just,” for God “has condemned the great harlot who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.  God has avenged on her the blood of God’s servants” (v.2).

These “true and just judgments” lead directly to the wedding of the Lamb in verse seven, which is the real focus of the celebration.  This wedding marks the reign of the Lord God Almighty (v.6).  The “Bride,” which symbolizes the followers of the Lamb, is said to have made herself ready by putting on the fine linen given to her to wear.  The linen “stands for the just acts of the saints” (v.8).

Salvation is being celebrated in this passage.  Negatively, this means that all that has stood in the way of God’s rule has been removed (cf., the account in chapters 17–18 and the ultimate effect of the plague series, along with the visions in 19:11-21 and chapter 20).  Positively, it means that the New Jerusalem can now come down.

The affirmation that God’s sentences of judgment are “true and just” alludes back to the altar in 16:7, to the song of Moses and the Lamb in 15:3, and to the announcement of judgment in 11:18.  Salvation, glory, and power belong to God.  These are political terms and gain significance when seen in the political context of John’s day.  Augustus had been called “savior of the Greeks and of the whole inhabited world,” “savior and benefactor,” “savior and founder,” and “savior and god,” whose birthday was called the beginning of “good tidings” (gospel).  He was known as the “just and generous lord” whose reign promised peace and happiness, i.e., salvation.  The heavenly choir John saw was therefore asserting:  It is not Caesar’s but God’s power and salvation that is revealed in the justice given out to Babylon/Rome and it cohorts.[31]

The genuine celebration here is not for the destruction of Babylon per se but only of that as one element of the coming of God’s reign and the “marriage of the Lamb.”[32]  The key aspects of the references to “justice” here are: (1) the tying together of God’s justice, the destruction of the evil powers, and ultimate salvation, and (2) the emphasis on the importance of the Lamb’s followers doing deeds of justice.

The Warrior for Justice: 19:11-21.

This passage is particularly interesting because it is the only reference to Jesus’ justice in Revelation.  It is a complicated section that has been explained in various ways.

The reference to the rider as “Faithful and True” (v. 11), “the Word of God” (v. 13), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16) make it clear that this is indeed Jesus, of whom verse 11 states: “in justice he judges.”

The white horse he is riding (v. 11) symbolizes victory.  He comes as the one who has conquered sin, death, and evil through his death and resurrection.  As the following verses make clear, he comes to this apparent battle with the forces of the antichrist (a “battle” foreseen in 16:14: “The three evil spirits that looked like frogs…go out to the kings of the whole earth to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty”) already the victor.[33]  The outcome of the “battle” is not in question.

The rider is called “faithful and true;” that is, “the faithful and true witness” of 1:5 and 3:14.  He is the one who remained faithful and true to God even when it meant a martyr’s death.  That is how he gained the white horse.

Verse 13 contains a key image.  The rider approaches the “dressed in a robe dipped in blood.” The blood has already been shed before the battle begins.  This would seem to be an allusion to Jesus’ blood shed in his death and the reason why no real battle takes place here.[34]  He can already ride the white horse because the real battle is over and he won it on the basis of his death and resurrection.

The “armies of heaven” (v. 14) would seem to be the saints wearing their bridal linen (vv. 7-8).  They carry no weapons.  They too are already victorious.  The only weapon mentioned at all is the sword that comes out of Jesus’ mouth—his word, the gospel (cf. Heb. 4:12 and Eph. 6:17).  This is what eventually brings the nations to their knees.[35]

The “winepress of the fury of God’s wrath” (v. 15) could well be a reference to the means by which the wine that brought down Babylon is prepared.  These means are the martyrdom of Jesus and the saints.[36]  The meaning here could be that God is causing the wine to take effect.

I understand the “great supper of God” (vv. 17-18) to be the same as the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (v. 9).  It is the time of judgment; for those who belong it is a time of great rejoicing, for those who do not it is a time of condemnation (cf. Jesus’ parable of the supper in Matthew 22 where the one without wedding clothes is booted out).  I see the picture of the birds eating the flesh of all people (v. 18) as one of judgment.  This judgment reveals the true status of all people—either they are with God or against God.

The Beast and the kings and armies are all ready for battle (v.19).  In spite of the enormous massing of all the enemy’s forces (the same thing is described in 16:12-16), they have only to be “seized” and “thrown” into the lake of fire (v. 20).  And their followers fall away before the word of Christ (v. 21).  There is no trace of any battle.  And angel can arrest the satanic dragon and render him harmless for the time of the church’s triumph, the hidden nature of which has been revealed in the resurrection (20:4-6).  Even his last rebellion after his liberation serves only “one purpose”: to reveal his powerlessness (20:7-10).

A decisive feature in this picture of the parousia is that John never gives up his central christological conception.  For him there is only one battle and one victory of Christ, which already lies in the past.  With his birth into the world, his death, and his resurrection, he hurled the dragon from his place in heaven and enabled his church to win the victory (12:5,10f.).  As the slain lamb he has become the “lion of Judah” who is everywhere victorious and into whose hands dominion over the world has been committed (5:5)—an affirmation made prior to the plague visions.  John knows nothing of any other battle or victory of Jesus.  The future eschatological war, for which God’s enemies prepare, will not take place.[37]

“The rest of them” (v. 21), those who were deceived by the false prophet, are now judged by the word of Jesus.  The birds ate their flesh.  Perhaps that also was a reference to their being judged for where their ultimate trust really resides.  With the deceiver gone, maybe they have some hope of seeing the light.  21:24 indicates that the kings of the earth bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.

John is convinced that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, won the only battle necessary to defeat evil.  To picture him in another battle would be to imply that the first victory was not good enough.  The picture of Christ’s victory in this passage is simply the revelation of the one sufficient victory he has already won.

Again Mounce and Yarbro Collins can serve as representatives of views that differ from mine, though also diametrically opposed to one another.  Mounce reflects a strong futuristic interpretation of Revelation.  He sees the visions in 19:11-21 as eschatological in an absolute sense.  John describes a great future historic event that brings an end to the antichrist and his forces and an end to temporal human history.[38]  These visions picture a literal battle closely modeled after Isaiah 63:1-6.[39]  What happens here is messianic judgment upon the wicked.  Mounce sees the blood that stains the rider’s garment (19:13) as not Jesus Christ’s own blood but the blood of his enemies shed in the conflict.

It seems to me that Mounce misses the realized eschatological thrust in Revelation and thus misinterprets or ignores the imagery in this passage that makes it clear that no battle takes place.  He ties John too closely with John’s sources.  Certainly Isaiah 63:1-6 contributed to John’s imagery here.  Throughout the book however (and Mounce recognizes this elsewhere), John diverges significantly from the meaning of the source texts and at times even stands the meaning on its head—which is what I think he is doing here.  Mounce ends up making an unwarranted and disastrous division in the work of Jesus Christ, seeing his parousia as in some sense totally different from his first coming.  There is nothing in the New Testament to support this.  It is the temptation of the ages to try to explain away the eternal normativeness of the suffering Messiah.

Yarbro Collins interprets 19:11-21 quite differently: “This passage describes the final victory of the forces of creation over those of chaos.  This does not necessarily mean that at some point in the future the values of creation will be permanently established and fully eliminate those of chaos.  Rather, it implies that the fundamental character of reality is better expressed in order than in chaos, that order, peace, and justice are more real and true than their opposites.  Therefore one can assume an attitude of trust in the creator; it is worthwhile aligning oneself and one’s efforts with the forces of order, peace, and justice.”[40]

I do not really disagree much with what she says here.  However, this interpretation seems to separate John’s vision from the concrete and historical reality of the Christ-event and to weaken the claims of that event on us.  John’s sense of realized eschatology meant that in a concrete, historical event the kingdom of God broke into human history.  This presence of the kingdom is what provides people of faith with hope and strength to resist the allures of the Harlot and the brute strength of the Beast and thus to be effective instruments of God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

Jesus’ “war” for justice (v. 11) is a war to set things right, a war to establish God’s kingdom fully.  It is a war fought with the weapons of the cross and resurrection; i.e., total, all-powerful love.

The Ultimate Result of God’s Work is the New Jerusalem

“Just” is a key term used in Revelation to evaluate what God is envisioned doing.  Why is God “just” in Revelation? John intends to show that all that happens in human history is somehow used by God for the purpose of establishing the New Jerusalem. All of God’s “just deeds” are ultimately redemptive—for creation, for the faithful witnesses, and ultimately for the nations and the kings of the earth (cf. 21:24).

Jacques Ellul concludes in Apocalypse that justice in Revelation is consistent with “the evangelical image of God which is the parables of the worker at the eleventh hour, and the lost sheep, and the pearl of great price, and the prodigal son, and the unfaithful steward–such is the justice of God.  Neither retributive nor distributive.  It is the justice of love itself, who cannot see the one he judges except through his love, and who is always able to find in that fallen miserable being the last tiny particle, invisible to any other than his love, and which he is going to gather us and save.”[41]

There are indeed visions of destruction in Revelation (cf. chapters 6-20), but they are bracketed by the overarching vision of God as creator and redeemer (chapters 4 and 5), who is the one who makes all things new (chapters 21 and 22).  Thus the carnage and chaos are seen to be within God’s plan and to lead through into the fulfillment of human destiny in final union with God.[42]

This final redemptive product of God’s just deeds is not just a collection of individuals.  John believed in a purpose for collective human history as well as for individual souls.  Into the New Jerusalem are brought not only the souls of the faithful but the wealth and glory of the nations; and down the middle of the city’s streets are avenues of the trees of life, whose leaves provide healing for the nations.  Any achievement of people in the old order, however imperfect, provided it has value in the sight of God, will find its place in the healed and transfigured life of the New Jerusalem.[43]

As in the exodus, so also in Revelation, the crucial event is not the plagues.  Those do not exemplify God’s justice but only serve the true end of God’s justice: the redemption that leads to the new world.

The Controlling Metaphor in the Book is the Slain Lamb

The fulcrum of Revelation is not Jesus’ return and the descent of the city of God, described in its closing visions.  Rather it is the vision of God and the Lamb in chapters four and five.  The slain and risen Lamb pictured there has accomplished redemption, he has risen to the throne of God, and he has begun his reign with God.  The turn of the ages lies in the past.[44]  John is saying that if one wants to see the clearest and most decisive expression of God’s justice, just look at the Christ-event.

The Lamb in chapter five is also identified as the ruling Lion of the tribe of Judah.  The Lamb that is slain is at the same time the bearer of seven horns (the symbol of complete power) and the seven spirits of God (the symbol of the fullness of the Holy Spirit).  Revelation proclaims again and again the paradox that the suffering and dying Christ is the victor.[45]

John sees Jesus Christ as both as both the redeemer and the judge.  Not one after the other, but one because of the other.  In two passages (14:14-20 and 19:11-16) there is indeed a picture of judgment, but it is the judgment of the cross.  It is not intended to tell us that Christ and the saints will some time in the future conquer and judge their enemies, but to tell us that by the virtue of the victory won once for all on the cross, Jesus and his faithful followers “are more than conquerors,” and that this applies to all post-incarnational history.[46]

That Christ’s past historical death and resurrection are central is seen in the fact that the visions of Revelation never show him engaged in direct battle with the dragon.  Nowhere does John mention such a battle, not even in the portrayal of Christ’s coming in 19:11ff.  It is only as the Lamb who dies for the world that Christ has won his battle (5:5, 9; 3:21).  Therefore, according to the interpretive hymn of 12:10-12, humankind’s possibility of victory over the dragon is found only “by the blood of the Lamb,” that is, in the death of Jesus for them and therefore only “by the word of their testimony,” whose content is the victory promised them by the Lamb’s death.[47]

This centrality of the Lamb in Revelation leads to a reversal of conventional wisdom regarding power and justice.  The power of love is true justice.  If the Lamb reigns over history, it is not as a crowned king like Caesar, but it is as the incarnation of love itself, the love which goes so far as to give itself, to abandon itself; and his power is no other power than that of this kind of love.[48]

Punishment is of Evil Powers, Not People

The Book of Revelation affirms that God’s just deeds accomplish the destruction of the evil powers that imprison humankind.  John clearly differentiates between these powers, who are God’s real enemies, and human beings, for whose sake these powers must be destroyed.

John sees a power of evil beyond the wills of individuals (personified in Revelation by entities such as the Beast, the Dragon, the False Prophet, and the Harlot) at work in the processes of history.  Its effect is destructive of all that is good in this world, and it exceeds the wit or strength of humankind to overcome it. Just as Christ by his redemptive deeds delivers from sin and brings the powers of the age to come into this world, so too Christ alone can bring the struggle between the powers of good and the powers of evil for ultimate sovereignty over creation to its final conclusion.

It is perhaps here that John’s apocalyptic imagination is the most creative and profound.  His visions show a procession of plagues (most if not all of which reflect natural and social catastrophes endemic in all eras of human history).  Even after the worst of these plagues, human beings remain on the scene (cf. 16:21; 18:9-19).  The culmination of the plagues is the destruction of Babylon (chapter 18) and the casting of the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet into the lake of fire (20:10).  After this, John reports a vision of the New Jerusalem, where by the light of the glory of God “the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it” (21:24).

The goal of the “just deeds” of God, according to the overall message of Revelation, is not the punishment and destruction of people but rather the destruction of the destroyers of people.  It is upon these that God’s retribution falls.

The Lamb’s people are called to follow him

We saw earlier in looking at the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:1-10) that what makes the Lamb’s bride ready for the marriage feast is the fine white linen which it is given—linen that was earned by the “just deeds” of the saints.  Discipleship is not a theme elaborated on in much detail in Revelation, but it is nevertheless an important concern to John.

A central aspect of this concern is the repeated exhortation to Christians to remain “pure,” not to conform to the society around them.  Revelation speaks not only of judgment against the dehumanizing anti-God powers but also warns Christians not to give in to these Powers’ very concrete pressures.  The book therefore begins with the seven letters, which form a section of censure and challenge to faithfulness.  The injunctions, beatitudes, warnings, and promises that run through the book continue this function.[49]

The only way that the followers of the Lamb participate in the battle versus the evil powers is to remain faithful throughout their lives.  In that way they will conquer.  This participation that Christians are called to in Revelation is, however, seen to be quite important.  The church has been appointed by Christ to be a “kingdom of priests” (1:6; 5:10) to mediate his royal and priestly authority to the whole world.  Through the church, as pictured in Revelation, the Lamb is to exercise his authority over the nations (1:5; 2:26f.; 11:15ff.; 12:5; 15:3-4; 17:14; 19:11ff.).  Through the church he is to mediate God’s forgiveness and lead the world to repentance (3:7-9: 11:13; 14:6-7; 20:1-6). And all this Christians may achieve only by following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).[50]

This means that the separation of the church from the world is thought of more in moral terms than physical.  Christians are called upon to refrain from moral and spiritual impurity while acting as agents of God’s justice, maintaining “the testimony of Jesus” and validating it with their lives in “the streets of the great city” (12:13-17).[51]

“Corrective Justice”

To conclude, I will touch on a few of the ways that I think taking the message of Revelation seriously can help our thinking about justice.

The essential thrust of the message of Revelation regarding justice is that “justice” has much more, ultimately, to do with concepts like correction, reconciliation, and the restoration of relationships than with concepts like retribution and an eye-for-an-eye.  Like most of the rest of the Bible, Revelation strongly challenges any tendency to separate God’s love from God’s justice.  God’s “just deeds” in Revelation serve God’s loving intention of making the New Jerusalem a reality and, by doing so, decisively bringing about the healing of the nations (cf. 22:2).

Hence, a Christian concern for justice should always take a redemptive slant.  Certainly injustice must be opposed, but never in a way that contradicts the dictates of love and reconciliation.  In Revelation 21 and 22 the only way that the kings of the earth could make it into the New Jerusalem was to be converted (cf. 21:27): they did not make it as oppressors and worshippers of the Beast.  But the hope is that even they can be converted.  They are not objectified as “enemies” and then disposed of.

A difference in attitude and goals

In the perspective I am presenting, “justice” is redefined to a certain extent.  It is not redefined in the sense that it is now concerned with different kinds of things, but rather in the sense that it is considered with a different attitude and different goals.  Justice, as I am conceiving of it in the light of the message of Revelation, is still concerned with brokenness in the world, scarcity, violation of moral norms, distribution of goods and services, and the like.  But the attitude and goals are not so much concerned with how I or someone else can get my or her or his due, how our self-interests can be balanced, how we can maintain a moral equilibrium in the world, how the punishment can fit the crime, etc.

The attitudes and goals take the shape more of how the values of God’s kingdom can be incarnated in the human order, how social brokenness can be corrected for the good of all concerned, how enemies can be reconciled, how victim and offender can experience healing; recognizing that there is something missing from the New Jerusalem if it is not also accessible to the kings of the earth should they somehow be freed from the snares of the Beast.

Faithfulness to the Lamb is crucial

Revelation asserts that the short-term result of the saints’ “just deeds” would be their suffering.  Jesus’ just deeds resulted in his death.  The implication of this is that a Christian perspective on justice cannot expect to be rationally acceptable to everyone in the world (a criterion seemingly axiomatic for modern-day philosophical ethics).  The message of Revelation points toward a perspective on justice which challenges Christians to embrace the particular insights that they have, based on the Christ-event, concerning justice as care for the outcasts and other needy, love for enemies, and self-sacrifice to the point of martyrdom.

Such a perspective places a premium on one’s faith commitment and thus immediately parts company with natural law, rational liberalism, and other philosophical approaches.  It is not that all of these viewpoints would disagree on all specifics, but the ultimate commitments are totally different.  The point of John’s apocalyptic exhortations were to call Christians to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” even when that seems, in many ways, to be “irrational.”

The “narrow” way

As I understand it, the theology of Revelation includes the affirmation that what is best for human society, and indeed for all of creation, is the way of the Lamb and his faithful followers.  The book includes an implicit criticism of the worship of coercive power as being ultimately satanic and idolatrous and thus total self-defeating for anybody.

If this theology is at all true, then it would seem to follow that the most socially “responsible” thing Christians can do would be practicing the Lamb’s justice in every way possible.  Revelation promises that such practices will likely lead Christians to share in Jesus’ fate.  It is not reading too much into history to assert that that promise has often been fulfilled and continues to be, daily, in our time.

Such a stand is, according to social theorists such as Ernst Troeltsch,[52] inevitably “sectarian” and by definition marginal and of little long-term social relevance.  Perhaps the term “sectarian” is irredeemable.  Many who have been labeled such no doubt have been escapist and selfish and thereby “irresponsible.” But Revelation asserts that the real hope for the world and its legitimate structures lies in the perfect obedience of the Lamb and the faithfulness of his followers.  I am not sure that it is totally idealistic and naïve to think that maybe John was on to something.

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1]Jose Porfirio Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974).

[2]Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984.

[3]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 86.

[4]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 88.

[5]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 94.

[6]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 69.

[7]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 98.

[8]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 104.

[9]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 106.

[10]John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 4.

[11]Collins, Apocalyptic, 13.

[12]Collins, Apocalyptic, 215.

[13]Paul D. Hanson, “Apocalypticism,” in Keith Crim, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supplementary volume (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), 29.

[14]G.B. Caird, A Commentary of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 82-83.

[15]Anthony T. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb (New York: Seabury Press, 1957), 177.

[16]J.P.M. Sweet, Revelation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), 136.

[17]Caird, Commentary, 198.

[18]Harry Boer, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 106.

[19]Hanson, Wrath, 160.

[20]Caird, Commentary, 188-95.

[21]Sweet, Revelation, 49-51.

[22]Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 163.

[23]Mounce, Book, 163.

[24]Mounce, Book, 295-96.

[25]Mounce, Book, 304.

[26]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 152.

[27]Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 153-54.

[28]Sweet, Revelation, 243.

[29]Caird, Commentary, 202-03.

[30]George R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 232.

[31]Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Invitation to the Book of Revelation (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 177.

[32]Beasley-Murray, Book, 174.

[33]Matthias Rissi, Time and History (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1966), 26-27.

[34]Vernard Eller, The Most Revealing Book of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 177.

[35]Caird, Commentary, 245.

[36]Caird, Commentary, 246.

[37]Matthias Rissi, The Future of the World (Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1972), 26-27.

[38]Mounce, Book, 349.

[39]Mounce, Book, 345.

[40]Adela Yarbro Collins, The Apocalypse (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1979), 138.

[41]Jacques Ellul, Apocalypse (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 212-13.

[42]Sweet, Revelation, 47.

[43]Caird, Commentary, 300.

[44]Beasley-Murray, Book, 25.

[45]Rissi, Time, 38-39.

[46]Hanson, Wrath, 176-77.

[47]Rissi, Time, 38-39.

[48]Ellul, Apocalypse, 120-21.

[49]Schussler Fiorenza, Invitation, 30-31.

[50]Caird, Commentary, 297.

[51]Sweet, Revelation, 34.

[52]Cf. his classic text The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Macmillan, 1910).

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