Social Criticism in the Book of Revelation

[Written for graduate seminar, May 1985]


The general concern of this paper is Christian social criticism. The dictionary definition of “criticize” is “to consider the merits and demerits of something and to judge accordingly.” For Christians to engage in social criticism is for them to evaluate the merits and demerits of their society in the light of their religious convictions.

A recent and in many ways exemplary example of Christian social criticism is the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the United States Economy, the first draft of which was released November 11, 1984. The Letter attempts to add an explicitly Christian voice to the public debate about the United States economy. While not dependent solely on scripture, the Letter includes an extensive discussion entitled “Biblical and Theological Foundations” (par 9-51) which precedes the focus on “Policy Applications.” Throughout, the Letter reflects a rigorous effort to do social criticism Christianly, i.e., in the light of Christian values and traditions.

It is interesting, however, that the most explicit example of social criticism in the New Testament, the book of Revelation, is not once referred to in the Letter. I suspect that this lacuna is not due to a conscious attempt to avoid the teaching of Revelation as much as a reflection of the fact that Revelation is not a book that many people are familiar with and thus not one that can be effectively evoked in modern-day pastoral exhortation. My concern is not to argue that the Letter should discuss Revelation; rather, it is simply to look at this neglected work which, after all, is part of the New Testament, and to see what kind of social criticism it offers.

My thesis is that Revelation provides the main model of explicit social criticism in the New Testament. The social criticism of Revelation reflects two main concerns. The first is a quite negative evaluation of the Roman Empire based on several aspects of John’s viewpoint regarding the Empire. This evaluation, negative as it is, is qualified a little by some glimmers of a positive view of valuable elements of human culture, and by an emphasis on the effect of evil powers on social life. The second concern of the social criticism of Revelation is that of urging the church to faithfulness to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. This latter concern is the decisive one in the book and is ultimately the reason for the expression of the first concern.

What I will be doing in explicating my thesis is first setting Revelation in its social and historical context and summarizing some of the main themes of the book. Then I will focus in some detail on the contents of chapter 18, the clearest and most expansive expression of social criticism in the book. I will then discuss this chapters in the context of what follows it as a means of understanding the point of the social criticism. In conclusion, I will reflect on how the social criticism and its function in Revelation might apply to modern-day Christian social criticism and in particular the Bishops’ Letter.

Background to Revelation

There is very little about Revelation of which it could be said that a clear scholarly consensus exists. About the closest thing is the date when the book was written—though even here the agreement is not complete. But the vast majority of people place the book at about 95 or 96 C. E., very near the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian.[1] Domitian was assassinated in September, 96, closing a three-year period regarded as a time of terror hitherto unsurpassed. Domitian’s entire 15-year reign was an unsettled time in which the military gained unprecedented prominence in Roman society.[2] These factors no doubt affected John’s perceptions of the Empire.

Attempts to link Revelation with historical figures of the early church who are known to us from other sources have failed. It seems best to most scholars to conclude that it was written by a man named John who is otherwise unknown to us.[3] The reference in 1:9 to John being “on the island of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” quite conceivably implies that John was a political prisoner exiled to a penal colony on account of his Christian ministry. But there is no concrete external evidence to support that conclusion, or even the assumption that Patmos itself was even a penal colony.[4] On the basis of internal evidence, it seems likely that John was a sort of itinerant preacher active in Asia Minor who saw himself as being in continuity with the Old Testament prophets. His ministry was to mediate an intelligible message to his fellow Christians, a message seen by John to be received by him from God.

John’s prophetic message reflects a very strong sense of crisis on his part. he is operating with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” toward present reality, reflected especially in his adoption of the apocalyptic form for his message. Things as they are—in the world and in the churches—are not as they should be. It seems that he expected things to come to a head soon, but his sense of urgency also appears to be somewhat hyperbolic. According to Bernhard Anderson, this is a typical prophet’s tact:  “The proper place to begin to understand the prophetic proclamation is with their sense of time, and particularly their awareness of the relation of the future to the present. The eighth century prophets perceived that a storm was coming— ‘the east wind of Yahweh…rising from the wilderness,’ as Hosea said (Hos. 13:15). As messengers of God, their task was to make the eschatological shock of God’s future effective in the present, so that Israel—the people of God—might recover their identity and their vocation and so that possibly, in the incalculable grace of God, there might be a transition from death to life.”[5] John saw himself fitting in this tradition.

In some sense John was experiencing “tribulation” due to being on Patmos (1:9), even if he was not necessarily there as a political prisoner. He was suffering for his faith, and his sense of personal crisis was not doubt heightened by his inability physically to be with the Asian churches. I do not think it is appropriate to psychologize too much here, but we cannot help but recognize that John’s social location was that of a deeply concerned partisan, already paying a steep price for his own attempts to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”

John’s deepest concern was with the fates of the churches to which he was writing; and, really, with the fates of all the churches in Asia Minor. Though the seven churches mentioned in chapters two and three genuinely existed, their totalling a perfect seven and the geographical reality of the seven cities forming a circle would indicate that John meant this as a circular letter for the whole region. His biggest fears were not so much focused on current extreme persecution (since it likely was not occurring[6]) as on the constant possibility of persecution and the concurrent temptation of cultural conformity by Christians. The pseudo-prophets “Balaam” and “Jezebel” and other “Nicolaitans” mentioned in chapters two and three were tempting the churches to compromise with Roman religious and economic practices. To John this would be betraying their Lord.

A more general social reality which would have certainly facilitated John’s sense of crisis was a general social unrest in Asia Minor due to the maldistribution of wealth. There was a continuous struggle between rich and poor from the late 60s C.E. until well into the second century. Brilliant economic progress was made in Asia Minor in the early Empire, but the increase in wealth only made the rich richer. The poor remained poor and only their discontent increased.[7]

This sense of crisis led John to adopt the apocalyptic form—a form broadly characterized by: (1) the use of a narrative framework; (2) the claim of being a direct revelation from God which comes to a human recipient and discloses a transcendent reality; (3) the promise of eschatological salvation; (4) the promise of a new or transformed world; and (5) a dynamic, mythological orientation rather than one reflecting the use of strict analytical logic.[8]

Apocalypses emerged out of setting of perceived crisis and had as their goal either strengthening the readers’ resolve to remain faithful to the truth in the face of turmoil or moving them 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 the common perception. Such a perspective could serve to foster dissatisfaction with peoples’ present and to generate visions of what might be.[9] It could buttress the claim that the true identity of people of faith 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.[10]

Revelation is apocalyptic literature used in the service of John’s prophetic ministry. John’s real emphasis was not on foretelling the future, dwelling on the fate of his groups’ enemies, promising an otherworldly escape from present trials, or otherwise titillating the imaginations of his readers as an end in itself. John’s real emphasis was on using this imaginative genre to communicate a sense of the divine reality with the hope that by doing so he might move people in the churches to commitment and faithful action.

Central Themes in Revelation

The basic theme in Revelation is that of John trying to make sense of the Christ-event in the light of his perception of crises concerning the churches of Asia Minor—crises especially related to persecution, cultural conformity, and all the related problems stemming from being a part of an unjust society.

John’s central concern with influencing Christian living is seen in his casting his visions in the form of a letter addressed to seven real churches. John’s references to concrete realities affecting each church underline this concern.

Starting in 4:1, John writes of his apocalyptic visions. His use of this form serves the function of first of all giving his message divine authority. These visions do not just reflect John’s opinions but they are given to him by God and thus not to be taken lightly. A second function of this apocalyptic form is to speak to people’s hearts through their imaginations, hopefully thereby moving them with a depth of insight not accessible to the rational mind alone.

The initial visions in chapters four and five are the interpretive key to the rest of the book. First, in chapter four, John reports a vision of the “Almighty God”, the all-powerful and redemptive creator seated on a throne, surrounded by a rainbow, and worshiped by all creation. Then in chapter five comes the vision of the slain Lamb who is risen, able to open the scroll containing the destiny of human history, and already worshiped as the victor. What follows in chapters six and following are visions of the working out of this victory, won on behalf of all creation, including people out of every nation.

Chapters six through the end of the book contain visions of judgment and destruction, interspersed with visions of worship and celebration. The culmination of these visions is the coming down to earth of the new Jerusalem, the final dwelling place of “the glory and the honor of the nations” (cf. 21:26).

The negative focus of these visions is the destruction of God’s and the church’s “eschatological enemies” (i.e., the evil powers which have bedeviled humankind since Adam’s time). These enemies are personified as “the great dragon, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9); the Beast and False Prophet (chapter 13); the harlot named “Babylon” (17:5); as well as Death and Hades (6:8; 21:14). They are all ultimately destroyed.

The negative focus ultimately serves the positive focus, which is the repeated scenes of the masses of God’s people worshiping and celebrating. These scenes culminate in the marriage supper of the Lamb, the celebration of the establishment of the new Jerusalem, the “conversion” of the kings of the earth (21:24), and the healing of the nations (22:2).

The practical force of these visions is twofold. The visions identify the hold the evil powers had on Roman society and promise that they will be judged and done away with. This served as a warning to the “Balaams” and “Jezebels” in the churches and to those tempted to throw in their lot with these conformists.

Second, these visions underscored the positive value of discipleship. John envisioned some kind of present-day experience of “protection” from the global judgment of the evil powers through worship by faithful followers of the Lamb as well as ultimate resolution, a future state of perfect shalom.

Chapter 18

Chapter 18 is the most detailed of John’s social criticism. It contains an account of the reasons for the judgment of Babylon, the evil city of opposition to God and God’s people.

A new section of the book begins with 17:1. Chapter 16 has concluded the third of the three seven-fold plague sequences—the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. The seventh bowl (16:17-21) pictures God’s remembering and judging “great Babylon.” 17:1–19:10 then elaborates on this vision, highlighting the depravity of Babylon and identifying this city as a “harlot” who has corrupted the kings of the earth and the nations. Chapters 17 and 18 differ in that 17 employs mainly apocalyptic imagery while chapter 18 reflects the imagery of earlier prophetic writing.[11]

18:1-3—The earth being made bright from the splendor of the angel in 18:1 alludes to Ezekiel 43:2, which speaks of God’s splendor making the earth bright. In Ezekiel this was used to highlight the destruction of Jerusalem as being connected with the promise of a new Jerusalem. The implication in John’s use of the image might be similar: a sign connecting the judgment and destruction of Babylon with the coming of the new Jerusalem.

The angel’s speech in 18:2-3 is in the form of a funeral dirge, a song of mourning. The reference to Babylon’s fall alludes to a number of Old Testament passages, the most significant being Isaiah 13:19-22: “Babylon, the glory of the nations,…will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. It will never be inhabited or dwelt in for all generations; …wild beasts will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures…” The root image is total destruction.

Some people see the reference to Babylon as strictly referring to Rome; others see it as a broader, more universal symbol of which Rome was but one example. The connection between “Babylon” and Rome was made by contemporary Jewish and Christian writers (cf. 2 Baruch 11:1; Sybilline Oracles 5:143,158; 4 Ezra 2; 1 Peter 5:13). But I would agree with Paul Minear that: “Babylon embraces more than one culture or empire. It is defined rather by dominant idolatries than by geographical or temporal boundaries. Babylon is coextensive with the kingdom of that beast which has corrupted and enslaved humankind, and whom the Lamb must conquer (Rev. 17:14) if humankind is to be freed. Babylon is an eschatological symbol of satanic deception and power; it is a heavenly mystery, which is to be comprehended prophetically, and which is never wholly reducible to empirical earthly institutions.”[12] Certainly this critique of Babylon was a critique of Rome. But it applies to any society characterized by the realities which characterized Rome.

Verse three alludes to Jeremiah 51:7: “Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank her wine, therefore the nations went mad.” The image of all the nations drinking “the wine of her impure passion” implies complicity. Perhaps Babylon was deceptive, but all the nations willfully joined in. “Fornication” implies idolatry, spiritual bondage, total compromise.

This verse reflects a strong antipathy on John’s part toward the powers-that-be in the Empire, both at the center (Rome) and at the outskirts (the “nations” such as Asia Minor that were part of the Empire and whose leaders willingly joined in Rome’s practices and values). The early mention of the “merchants,” who are highlighted more than the kings of the earth in this chapter, indicates that John had a special concern for the unjust economic impact of Roman rule and commerce.

These initial verses set the tone for the rest of the chapter: a negative viewpoint regarding Rome and the complicity of local leaders in Roman dominance and injustice, a special concern for economic exploitation, and an implicit warning to John’s readers regarding the dangers of compromise and, ultimately, of idolatry.

18:4-8—Verse four is a key verse. The call to “come out of her, my people” repeats numerous calls in Isaiah and Jeremiah concerning the people of God in Babylon. Perhaps it also alludes to the calls concerning Sodom and Egypt (cf. Rev. 11:8). If so, the call picks up an exodus motif and applies it to the movement from Babylon to the new Jerusalem. Regarding ancient Babylon, Jeremiah 51:6, in strictly negative terms, proclaims: “Flee from the midst of Babylon, let every person save his life! Be not cut off in her punishment, for this is the time of the Lord’s vengeance, the requital he is rendering her.” Isaiah 48:20 had a more positive emphasis: “Go forth from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’”

This call to “come out” should be seen as metaphorical. It calls its hearers to refuse to co-operate with Babylon’s injustice, idolatry, and violence.[13] but it is not a call physically to remove themselves from the Roman Empire. This view would be supports by an interpretation of chapter 11 which sees the message there including an implicit call for the people of God to witness on the streets of the “great city.”

Verse four also serves the function of reinforcing the motif of the “eschatological protection” of God’s people. They will not be a part of God’s ultimate destruction of the forces of evil. The call here has a similar function as the sealing of the 144,000 in chapter seven and as the measuring of the true worshipers in 11:1-2. It announces the eschatological protection of those who remained faithful at the great day of the Lord.[14]

The image of Babylon’s sins piled high as heaven in verse five underscores her evil by identifying her with ancient Babylon (Jeremiah 51:9: Babylon’s “judgment has reached up to heaven and has been lifted up even to the skies”), the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:4), and perhaps even Sodom (Gen. 18:20-21).

Babylon gets her just deserts, 18:6 tells us. The implication here is that Rome is to be destroyed as she destroyed, with her wars waged to gain control over others—especially the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The idea of the double draught can be traced back to Jeremiah’s preaching regarding Judah’s judgment: Yahweh “will doubly recompense their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted the land with the carcasses of their detestable idols and have filled God’s inheritance with their abominations” (Jer. 16:18).

Babylon is to be judged for her self-glorification and “luxuriating” (18:7). She is self-absorbed and totally ambitious and therefore blind to her own injustice and oppression.

Verse seven contains one of the more striking images in the chapter. Babylon deserves judgment because of her self-complacency and arrogance: “A queen I sit, I am no widow, mourning I shall never see.” This closely parallels Isaiah 47:5-9: “You [Babylon] shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms.…You said, ‘I shall be mistress for ever’.…Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children.’: These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments.” The widow was the type par-excellence of poverty and helplessness, the opposite of Rome’s splendor and power. But John is echoing 2 Isaiah’s proclamation that in a moment she will love everything. An ironic contrast to this impending widowhood is pictured in chapter 19 with the marriage supper of the Lamb.

According to Leviticus 21:9, the punishment of harlotry was to be “burning with fire.” One background prophecy to John’s vision in 18:8 is Ezekiel 23:25-35 concerning Jerusalem, concluding: “Because you have forgotten the Lord and cast him behind your back, therefore bear the consequences of your lewdness and harlotry.” Images like this would intimate that John is not making a strict church/world separation as much as a separation on the basis of coherence with God’s values. When the faith community departs from these values it too receives judgment. And that fruit from the nations which coheres will find its way into the new Jerusalem.

The emphasis on the suddenness of the judgment in verse eight underlies the urgency of the call to “come out from her my people” in verse four and the foolishness of Babylon believing her own claims in verse seven.

18:9-19—The special source behind this section is the prophecy of the fall of the great Phoenician shipping city of Tyre in Ezekiel 26–27. Tyre was especially blameworthy in Ezekiel’s eyes because it gloated over the fall of Jerusalem (Ez. 26:2), possibly because Tyre could gain some economic advantage thereby.

This section, a litany of sorrow utilizing the dirge form, makes up the core of the chapter. Within the section, the lament of the merchants (18:11-17) is central, being flanked by the king’s lament (18:9-10) and the shipmasters’ lament (18:17-19).

The effect of this structure focuses the attention on the merchants and their grieving at the loss of so much wealth (18:17). This loss was due to the greed of the merchants in contributing to the wealth being used in service to Babylon’s wantonness and thereby going down with her in her judgment. Perhaps to some degree John reflects an antipathy towards merchants characteristic in general of pre-modern societies.

John highlights the merchants in this chapter for a number of reasons.[15] First, he was likely aware of and agreed with the Old Testament prophets’ negative view of foreign trade, which they saw as facilitating ties with foreign nations (a very risky thing in itself) and bringing wealth and heightened social stratification and oppression of the poor.

Second, John was concerned with the special temptations facing Christians living in cities such as Thyatira and Laodicea which were commercial centers.[16] The church at Thyatira was taken to task for tolerating the cultural conformist tendencies of “Jezebel” (2:18-29), and the church at Laodicea deceived itself into thinking (falsely) that because of its material wealth it was in need of nothing.

A third reason for John’s focus on the merchants would have been his general perspective that wealth tends to create a false sense of security (cf. the harlot in 18:7) which blinds people, preventing them from seeing greed, cruelty, and injustice in their true light.

The use of the dirge-form in articulating the laments of the kings, merchants, and shipmasters has the effect of evoking a sense of sadness, poignancy, even awe over such a loss. “What city was like the great city” (18:18 ) in the mouths of the shipmasters echoes John’s feelings. Back in chapter 17 he had to be told not to stare in wonder at the great harlot (17:6-7).

John, however, is aware of the city’s true nature. The jarring conclusion to the list of cargoes in 18:12-13 emphasizes this. The cargoes are listed in descending order of value, finishing with livestock, “horses and chariots, and slaves, that is human souls.”

John’s purpose in this passage was not to evoke sympathy for Babylon and her cohorts. Kings, merchants, and shipmasters, mournful as they were, were not people with whom John’s readers would have identified. The ultimate effect of the songs of lament was to serve as another way of announcing the judgment; a subtle and effective image.

18:20-24—Verse 20 also precludes sympathy for Babylon with its call to rejoice over her fall. The point would not be gloating so much as gratitude.

The literal sense of verse 20b is: “God has judged her for the way she judged you”; that is, as Babylon has (unjustly) found the saints, prophets, and apostles guilty and condemned them, so God has done to Babylon. John likely had the law of malicious witness in mind here:[17] “If a malicious witness…accuses his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother” (Dt. 19:16-20).

John alludes to various Old Testament passages in this section, perhaps the central one being Jeremiah 51:60-64, which concludes: “When you finish reading this book (of Babylon’s evils), bind a stone to it and cast it into the midst of the Euphrates, and say, ‘thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the evil that I am bringing upon her’.”

A key phrase in 18:21-24 is “never to be found again” and its variants “never to be heard again” and “never to shine again”. These are used first of Babylon herself, then of the various mundane, human things which will no longer be found in her: musicians, craftsmen, the sound of a millstone, the light of a lamp, the voice of bridegroom and bride. This refrain is then given an ironic and very telling twist in 18:24: “And in here was found the blood of…all who have been slain on earth.”[18] This is the final and perhaps most forceful reason given for Babylon’s condemnation, effectively emphasized as the conclusion of the vision that makes up chapter 18.

The “mighty angel” John reports on in 18:21 is the third mentioned in the book. The other two had to do with the two scrolls (5:2; 10:1) which contain the records of God’s work in fulfilling God’s purposes in history. The reference to the mighty angel here likely has the connotation that with the final fall of Babylon, those purposes are fulfilled.

The merchants are brought into the picture again in 18:23 as perhaps the prime example of how “all nations were deceived by the harlot’s sorcery.” The harlot controlled the lives of the people who grew rich from serving her.

The black arts were common in John’s world, but the reference here to “sorcery” would seem to be broader. John likely had in mind Rome’s apparent control of the world’s powers and resources; the perception of which led people to accept her claims to divinity and eternity.[19] In particular, the “sorcery” is put in direct relation to commerce and wealth in the way the merchants are highlighted here. This certainly could be an echo of Jesus’ teaching regarding the dangers of wealth.

The concluding reference to Babylon as containing “the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” besides emphasizing a major reason for Babylon’s condemnation, also serves to universalize Babylon beyond just Rome. Babylon somehow encompasses every society that has unjustly shed the blood of righteous people.

This closing section, like 18:9-19, evokes sadness, poignancy, and a sense of tragedy. But the punchline on 18:24 effectively precludes any sympathy for Babylon and her fate.

Social Criticism in Revelation

Chapter 18 serves as the clearest articulation of social criticism in Revelation, at least insofar as it provides the reason for Babylon’s (and by inference, Rome’s) condemnation. The themes touched on in chapter 18, though, are alluded to throughout the book. I want to emphasize four[20] and speak of them in terms of how they likely applied to Rome.

(1) First is the idolatrous and blasphemous worship offered to and encouraged by Rome; especially the emperor cult but also the worship of wealth. This can be seen in chapter 18 in the references to the nations drinking “the wine of her impure passion” and the kings committing “fornication with her” (18:3), as well as the general reference to Babylon as a harlot (cf. 17:5, where Babylon is called “mother of harlots”). “Harlotry” and “fornication”, of course, were Old Testament code words for worshiping gods and idols other than Yahweh.

For John, this false religion contradicted worship of the one true God. In practice, this undercut central Christian ethical/theological values such as concern for outsiders, the poor, and powerless; love for all people; and hunger and thirsting for justice. Roman religion buttressed an oppressive status quo and made the gods the tool of the powerful in the society.

(2) A second reason for John was the violence perpetuated by Rome, especially against the people of faith. We saw an allusion to this in 18:6. The clearest reference is the last sentence in the chapter, verse 24. This verse’s place at the end underscores the significance of this criticism.

Certainly John’s own sense of self-defensiveness regarding himself and his tradition affected his outrage. But by speaking “of all who have been slain on earth” he broadens his outrage. He cries out against all the unjust killing committed by all societies against righteous people. This reflects a fundamental concern for shalom and interhuman harmony and a rejection of all that counters that as contrary to God’s will.

(3) A third reason for Rome’s judgment was its blasphemous self-glorification, arrogance, and glorification of coercive power. Especially 18:7 (“a queen I sit…”) and 18:16 (“the great city that was…bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls”) highlight this. The vision of the Beast and False Prophet in chapter 13 constitutes a more detailed consideration of the theme of glorification of power.

Rome’s self-glorification countered many central values of early Christianity; values which sharply opposed ostentatiousness, pride, self-centeredness, idolatry of power, seeking of prestige, and the like. These attitudes were perceived as profoundly inhumane and as destroying the possibility of a just human community.

(4) The fourth reason was Rome’s economics; its wealth and general economic practices which made a few rich but left the masses poor. We see this concern in the central role played by the merchants in the chapters, the allusions to the fornication of the kings and the deception of the nations, and the general wealth and wantonness of the harlot Babylon.

Rome’s economics led to social stratification and exploitation of the poor and powerless, interhuman strife and wastefulness, a general pandering to the worst in human values, treating human souls as cargo—all things which ran counter to basic Christian values.

In John’s eyes, Rome richly deserved her judgment. He critically (though not “objectively” in a neutral, disinterested sense) evaluated Roman society and found it fundamentally objectionable and contrary to Christian values.

Babylon and the New Jerusalem

John’s social critique is very strong and very negative. But in the context of the book as a whole it takes on a different significance than if simply considered on its own. The critique of Rome is not an end in itself.

The primary meaning of Babylon and the place of its critique and judgment are as antitheses to the new Jerusalem, both as a future entity and as a present reality partially realized in the church. John’s concern was not with Babylon (or historic Rome) per se. It was with the church and the faithfulness of Christians.

Babylon and the new Jerusalem are clearly juxtaposed in chapters 17 through 22. John gives his readers a choice: conform to Babylon’s culture and share in her judgment or conform to the ways of the Lamb and his city and share in his salvation.

John strongly emphasizes the urgency of this choice by repeating the affirmation that Babylon will fall quickly (e.g., “in one hour she has been brought to ruin!”—18:19). This concern especially related to the Laodicean church. The report of that church’s self-estimation strikingly parallels that of Babylon in 18:7 (cf. 3:17 on Laodicea: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”).

A closer look at the literary structure of the last several chapters of the book emphasizes the contrast even more.[21] The section 17:1–19:10, which pictures the fate of Babylon, parallels the section 21:9–22:9, which pictures the new Jerusalem. The two sections begin with the same exact twenty words: “Then one of the seven angels who has the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come I will show you…’” In the first case it is the harlot and in the second case it is the Bride.

Each section concludes with a declaration that these are truthful words (i.e., God’s own), mentions John falling down before the angel’s feet to worship the angel, and the angel’s forbidding this, saying he is a co-servant of John and his fellow-workers and calling upon John to worship God.[22]

John sets up these contrasts not to highlight the depravity of Rome/Babylon, but to heighten the importance of the choices made by his hearers and to help them to see what is at stake. His social criticism was meant to serve his pastoral ministry.

John highlights sharp contrasts between the two cities, but he does not assert a total disjunction between their respective populations. He focuses on the defeat and destruction of the evil powers that manipulate and deceive (and oppress) the kings of the earth and the nations. He does not assume that all the kings and lesser people in Babylon will necessarily be destroyed with her.

This becomes clear in 21:24: By the light of the glory of God in the new Jerusalem “shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it.” The close connection between John’s visions of the two cities means that his inclusion of the kings in the new Jerusalem was no mistake. When the cause of their deception and false worship is gone, they have the chance to enter God’s city.

That the cargoes and realities of day-to-day life mentioned in chapter 18 will not be found in Babylon any more does not mean that they will not be found. They will be found, as “the glory of the nations” brought into the new Jerusalem.

It would seen that the central contrast John is drawing is one between elements of human culture which are humane and those which are not. The judgments are on the latter, and when these elements are purged from creation the new Jerusalem will come in its fullness—complete with God-honored human cultural achievements.

Therefore, John’s view was not, to use H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories, one of Christ against all human culture so much as one of Christ transforming culture through the destruction of the evil powers.[23] In John’s view, Christians contribute to this transformation by their resolute refusal to compromise with the evil powers and their willingness to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4) and to the witness to his gospel on the streets of the great city (chapter 11).

Conclusions and Implications

The teaching of Revelation comes to us as something difficult to take. In a large part, this is true because the apocalyptic imagery is so strange and unfamiliar to us. Even if we do decipher some of John’s meaning, as I hope I have done in this essay, we may not find his teaching agreeable. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss this book as irrelevant. Perhaps some of John’s crises were not all that different than some of ours. Certainly our modern-day “Roman empires” (e.g., the United States, the Soviet Union) are vulnerable to John’s social critiques, at least to some degree. And the modern-day North American churches all too often resemble Laodicea’s comfort and self-complacency.

John’s critique of Rome in chapter 18 applies to all societies that are characterized by the same realities—e.g., nationalism, violence, self-glorification, worship of coercive power, materialism, maldistribution of wealth. So it certainly can serve as a model for Christian social criticism.

Perhaps equally applicable and even more significant for modern-day Christians is the fact that John’s ultimate thrust with his social criticism was to call for church renewal. John was not sitting back and taking potshots at those evil Romans. He was attempting to be constructive, to challenge his readers to offer the world something better by reflecting the reality of the true city of humankind, the new Jerusalem.

To get back to the Bishops’ Letter, I will close with a couple of thoughts. To read the Letter in the light of this reading of Revelation would lead us to push the Letter in two directions. Reflecting the critique of Babylon material, we might challenge the Bishops to be more radical and less reformist in their criticisms of the United States’ economy. John would likely assert that our system does not need just a bit of fine-tuning, but rather a radical overhaul.

Probably John’s bigger concern, reflecting the new Jerusalem material, would be more strongly to emphasize the church’s need to get its own house in order; to see to it that the institutions and economic realities which the church directly can effect (e.g., church schools, hospitals, church structures themselves) be made to approximate the values and peace and justice more and more.


1. Cf. the extensive discussion in Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 53-83.

2. G. E.F. Chilver, “Domitian,” Encyclopedia Britannica (1983), volume 5, 950.

3. Yabro Collins, Crisis, 25-52.

4. Colin J. Hemer, “Unto the Angels of the Churches,” Buried History 11 (1975), 5.

5. Bernhard Anderson, The Eighth Century Prophets (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 22.

6. Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 69.

7. Yarbro Collins, Crisis, 94.

8. John J. Collins, The Prophetic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 4,13.

9. Collins, 215.

10. Paul D. Hanson, “Apocalypticism,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supplementary volume, ed. Keith Crim (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 338.

11. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 263.

12. Paul Minear, “Babylon (NT),” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, volume one, ed., George Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1964), 338.

13. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Invitation to the Book of Revelation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), 173.

14. Schüssler Fiorenza, 174.

15. J.P.M. Sweet, Revelation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 270-1.

16. Hemer, 110-8, 175-90.

17. Sweet, 275.

18. Adela Yabro Collins, “Revelation 18: Taunt-Song or Dirge?” L’Apocalypse Johannique et L’Apocalyptique dans le Nouveau Testament, ed. Jan Lambrecht (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University, 1980), 199.

19. Sweet, 275-6.

20. I am indebted to Yarbro Collins, “Revelation 18,” 203, for this list.

21. Charles H. Giblin, “Structural and Thematic Correlations in the Theology of Revelation 16–22,” Biblica 55 (1974), 489.

22. Giblin, 490.

23. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951). Cf. a very helpful deliniation of the meaning of New Testament “power-language”, Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

24. Cf. the comments by Penny Lernoux and Joe Holland in the National Catholic Reporter 21.5 (November 23, 1984), 34 and 21.17 (February 22, 1985), 18, respectively.

1 thought on “Social Criticism in the Book of Revelation

  1. Pingback: THE WALKING DEAD: Can Zombies Help Resurrect Christian Social Critique? - The Peace Pastor

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