The Justice of God in the Book of Revelation
Does the Book of Revelation picture God and God’s justice in ways that contradict Jesus’ teaching about God being the model for Christians’ loving their enemies? Does the justice of God in Revelation underwrite 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 enemies.
In Revelation, God’s justice has to do with the ultimate fate of humanity, the direction of human history. Much more than any other New Testament book, Revelation emphasizes God’s “wrath.” As well, also more than any other book in the New Testament, Revelation alludes to the situation of Christians vis-a-vis the Roman Empire.
Most modern scholars agree that Revelation was written in the 90s, in Asia Minor, and by some man—otherwise unknown—named John. It is clear from the book itself that it John perceived 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.
Conflict in Revelation
In her book, Crisis and Catharsis, Adela Yarbro Collins reconstructs what likely contributed to John’s perceptions. She points to four particular areas of conflict.
Conflict with Jews. Exclusion of Christians from synagogues was a relatively recent event. John clearly 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) that seems to allude to some Jews colluding with the government in persecuting the Christians.
Mutual antipathy toward neighboring Gentiles. Roman society tended to be suspicious of churches, given their rejection of much of what they saw as idolatrous and 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.
Conflict over wealth. Tensions flared between rich and poor. During the decades prior to Revelation, economic progress had been made in Asia Minor. But the rewards went mainly mainly to the wealthy. The result was widespread social unrest due to growing awareness of this maldistribution. While not a revolutionary zealot, John saw discontinuity between the present situation of great economic inequality and the promise of the kingdom of God’s justice.
Precarious relations with the Rome government. When John wrote Christians probably were not facing intense persecution. There is little evidence of persecution of Christians during the reign of the emperor Domitian late in the first century, which is when Revelation was likely written. But Rome had no friendliness toward Christians. Emperor worship was emerging and this was an anathema to monotheistic Christians. That reality 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. As well, 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. 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.
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.
The “Just” God of Revelation
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. John described this work of God’s that is envisioned in Revelation as a reflection of God’s “justice.” Why are God’s actions called “just.”
God’s justice and the song of the Lamb: 15:1-8. This passage prefaces 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. This third plague series, according to 15:1 is the final, ultimate pouring out of God’s wrath.
Wars, famine, rebellion, disease, tremendous social upheaval and the like characterize all eras of human history. These are evil events. John saw in the Lamb opening the seals (6:1) and thereby setting the plagues in motion, however, an affirmation that God uses even these evils to bring about God’s purposes. A biblical example of this type of phenomenon includes Assyria’s destruction of Israel. Evil caused that event, but God used it 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 did not believe that war, famine, and disease are the deliberate creation of Christ or that they are what God wills for people. They are the result of human sin. However, just where sin and its effects are most in evidence, Jesus’ kingship turns human wickedness to the service of God’s purpose.
Crucially, 15:1-8 (and the rest of the book) juxtaposes 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.
John alludes here to Exodus 15 (the crossing of the Red Sea). Those who have “conquered” the beast are direct heirs of the children of Israel. Their faith enabled them to be liberated from the dominance of the contemporary powers of evil. That they sing the “song of the Lamb” indicates that their triumph was won by the cross of Christ and the faithful testimony of his followers to that way.
The “song” in 15:3-4 contains phrases from various passages (Deuteronomy 32:2; Psalms 86:8-9, 111:2; Jeremiah 10:6-7, 16:9) that taken together emphasize God’s greatness leading to “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” (15:4). These are the same “nations” ruled by the “beast” in 13:7 and raging at God in 11:18. God’s justice does not destroy them but converts them.
This passage in its context next to chapter 16 clearly implies 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 connect the plagues with the exodus and the story of Jesus. God’s “just deeds” here lead to the celebration of the “conquerors” and the worship of the nations. The “conquerors” celebrate because they have, by conquering the Beast, contributed to the nations’ worshiping God, not to the nations being destroyed.
Giving the Oppressors Their Due: 16:4-7. This passage contains the third of the terrible bowl-plagues. God is called “just” twice here, first by the “angel of the waters,” the one who pours out the bowl that turns the rivers and springs of water into blood; and then by the “altar,” a reference 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” (16:6). In this judgment, God gives the blood-shedders blood to drink when the angel turns drinking water into blood. This seems like a clear case of eye-for-an-eye retributive justice. But not necessarily.
The plagues clearly serve as instruments of God’s “wrath” (cf. 16:1). We saw earlier that John describes the plagues in order to show God’s work in the midst of the evils and catastrophes endemic in human history. It is not that God directly causes these but rather that God uses what the powers of evil cause for God’s own ultimate purposes. These purposes include destroying those evil powers and fully establishing the New Jerusalem.
The “wrath” in Revelation, while attributed to God, refers to the impersonal working out within history of the process of evil being allowed to destroy itself. God’s wrath means that people reap what they sow, that evil rebounds on itself and is self-destructive. This process serves God’s purposes in two ways, first by hopefully moving people 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.
The first four bowls tell us that God’s creation itself takes 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.” 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” that 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 stagger to her doom, drunk with the “blood of the saints and prophets.”
The images in chapter 16 closely resemble the plagues of the exodus. All seven judgments here repeat in varied ways the plagues of Egypt. From 15:1-4 we learn that these plagues conclude in a redemption greater even than that from Egypt. This promised redemption is the subject of a full-fledged vision in chapters 21 and 22.
We may see 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 destroying evil, serves the purpose of cleansing creation so that in the new creation things will be whole.
Revelation 16:4-7 emphasizes that the outworking of “wrath” is part of God’s justice. This passage implies that evil has consequences; 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 his account of the destruction of Babylon, John envisions great celebration. God’s judgments are said to be “true and just” because God “has condemned the great harlot who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. God has avenged on her the blood of God’s servants” (19:2).
These “true and just judgments” lead directly to the wedding of the Lamb, the true focus of the celebration. This wedding marks the reign of the God (19:6). The “Bride,” who symbolizes the followers of the Lamb, made herself ready by putting on the fine linen given to her to wear. The linen “stands for the just acts of the saints” (19:8).
This passage celebrates salvation. 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). The New Jerusalem can now come down.
The affirmation of God’s sentences of judgment as “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 political terms gain significance when seen in the political context of John’s day. Caesar 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 therefore asserts: 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.
The celebration here centers not so much on the destruction of Babylon but on the coming of God’s reign and the “marriage of the Lamb.” 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 themselves doing deeds of justice.
The Warrior for Justice: 19:11-21. This passage provides the only reference to Jesus’ justice in Revelation. The reference to the rider as “Faithful and True” (19:11), “the Word of God” (19:13), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (19:16) make it clear that this is indeed Jesus, of whom verse 11 states: “in justice he judges.”
The white horse Jesus rides (19:11) 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 battle the forces of the Dragon (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. The outcome of the “battle” is not in question.
The rider is called “faithful and true,” echoing, “the faithful and true witness” of 1:5 and 3:14. He has 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. 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” (19:14) refer to the saints wearing their bridal linen (19:7-8). 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. Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17). This sword brings the nations to their knees.
The “winepress of the fury of God’s wrath” (19:15) 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. God now causes the wine to take effect. The “great supper of God” (19:17-18), identical with the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9), is the time of judgment. For those who belong, this supper 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). The birds eating the flesh of all people (19:18 ) picture 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 ready for battle (19:19). 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 (19:20). And their followers fall away before the word of Christ (19:21). There is no trace of any battle. A mere unnamed 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 the dragon’s final rebellion, after his liberation, serves only “one purpose”: to reveal his powerlessness (20:7-10).
John believes in only one victory of Christ. With his birth, life, death, and resurrection, Jesus hurled the dragon from his place in heaven and enabled his church to win the victory (12:5, 10). As the slain lamb he became the “lion of Judah” who is 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.
“The rest of them” (19:21), 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. In Revelation 21:24, the kings of the earth bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.
To picture Jesus in another battle would imply that the first victory was not good enough. The picture of Christ’s victory here simply reveals the one sufficient victory he has already won. Jesus’ “war” for justice (19:11) sets things right, establishing God’s kingdom fully. It is a war fought with the weapons of faithful life, cross and resurrection; i.e., total, all-powerful love. John had announced this at the very beginning of the book: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).
Why God is seen as “just” in Revelation
John shows that God uses all that happens in human history is for 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 suggests 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.”
Revelation does contain visions of destruction (cf. chapters 6–20), but they are bracketed by the overarching vision of God as creator and redeemer (chapters 4 and 5), who makes all things new (chapters 21 and 22). Thus the carnage and chaos are seen to be within God’s plan and to aid in the human destiny of final union with God.
Into the New Jerusalem are brought not only the faithful witnesses but the wealth and glory of the nations. 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 transformed life of the New Jerusalem.
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 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. If one wants to see the clearest and most decisive expression of God’s justice, just look at Jesus.
The Lamb in chapter five is also 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 triumphs.
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) John indeed gives 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”—for all time to come.
The centrality of Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection may be seen in how 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 Jesus’ coming in 19:11-20. 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 in two things. People of faith conquer “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 life, death, and resurrection.
This centrality of the Lamb 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.
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 genuine 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. This power seeks to destroy all that is good in this world. Human beings on their own cannot overcome it. Jesus brings the struggle between the powers of good and the powers of evil for ultimate sovereignty over creation to its final conclusion.
John’s apocalyptic imagination reaches its most creative and profound heights in portraying this struggle. His visions show a procession of plagues (most if not all 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 plagues culminate in 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 “just deeds” of God, according to the overall message of Revelation, do not have as their goal the punishment and destruction of people but rather the destruction of the destroyers of people. It is upon these that God’s retribution falls.
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.
The Lamb’s followers participate in the battle versus evil powers by remaining faithful throughout their lives. In that way they conquer. This role Christians play in Revelation has great importance. They have been appointed by Christ to be a “kingdom of priests” (1:6; 5:10), mediating his royal and priestly authority to the whole world. Through his followers, as pictured in Revelation, the Lamb will exercise his authority over the nations (1:5; 2:26-27.; 11:15ff.; 12:5; 15:3-4; 17:14; 19:11ff.). Through his followers he will 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).
In Revelation, “justice” has much more, ultimately, to do with concepts such as correction, reconciliation, and the restoration of relationships than with concepts such as 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).
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 self-defeating. 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.
1. An earlier version of this chapter was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 135-53.
2. Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Powers of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).
3. Jacques Ellul, Apocalypse (New York: Seabury, 1977), 212-13.
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