What about the Wrath in the Book of Revelation?
The purpose of this discussion is not to explain ALL the mysteries of Revelation. Rather, I want to highlight the key dynamics of how to read, interpret and understand the book in light of what we now know about God’s goodness.
Revelation is the “final exam” for understanding the goodness of God. If we don’t already know the nature of God, we will never understand the book of Revelation. As Revelation 5 clearly shows, ONLY the divine nature and wisdom of Jesus is WORTHY and ABLE to unseal and open the mysteries of the book.
People usually advertise Revelation as revealing a God who is incredibly violent, wrathful and destructive. Yet, is this true? Is this violent image the true Lamb of God portrayed in Revelation? NO!
Actually, Revelation is chocked full of various themes of God’s non-violent goodness:
1) Death and Hell will be destroyed by God’s goodness (20:13-21:4).
2) Satan is overcome by our non-violent and sacrificial worship of God (12:11).
3) God’s goodness makes all things new— we receive a new name (2:17; 3:12), God creates a new Jerusalem (3:12; 21:12), we worship God with new songs (5:9; 14:3), there is a new Heaven and a new Earth, and ALL things are made brand new (21:5).
4) The words “worship” and “worshipped” appear more in the book of Revelation than in any other book of the Bible (4:8-11; 5:8-14; 7:11; 11:15-17; 14:7; 15:1-4; 19:10; 22:9). Some commentators actually believe Revelation is just one big worship service.
5) The Lamb shall be our ABSOLUTE and ONLY source of provision— no more hunger (7:16), no more thirst (7:16), no more tears (7:17; 21:4), and even no more sun or moon, for the Lamb will be the light (21:23).
6) The theme of universal salvation is broached in Revelation 5:8-14, where “every creature in Heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that are in them, sing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!'” Certainly sounds like all creatures, great and small, are reconciled back to worshipping God here— bar none. Hallelujah!
7) The Marriage Supper of the Lamb is described, a celebration which joyfully heralds the defeat of evil and the full orgasmic union of Christ and His bride (19:4-10, 11-21).
BOTTOM LINE: Revelation is chocked full of goodness themes. It is not a book primarily about wrath and destruction, but rather life and restoration.
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS GOING ON IN REVELATION?
Have you ever been listening to your car radio, and because of poor reception you begin to hear two different radio signals at once? I remember driving late one night on a long road trip. I couldn’t find a clear channel to listen to, but I did turn the dial to a setting where I could hear BOTH a Gospel music station AND a talk radio show where alien abductions were being discussed. Sometimes the stations alternated so that I could hear each station clearly for a few moments as the signals fought back and forth for dominance, while at other times they both played over each other simultaneously so that all I could hear was a garbled mess of mixed signals.
Well, this is exactly what is going on in Revelation. We are hearing more than one signal, and both are battling for dominance in our hearts. And often, those signals produce oxymoronic messages. The definition of “oxymoron” means, “A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as, for example, in the following terms— ‘a deafening silence’ and a ‘mournful optimist.'”
The book of Revelation is full of oxymorons. “The wrath of the Lamb” is an oxymoron (6:16). Lambs don’t have wrath. These images conceptually clash. “The wine of the wrath of God” is an oxymoron (14:10). Wine is a symbol of celebration, not wrath. The “Lake of Fire” (Revelation 19:20). How can water and fire occupy the same space? Again, theses images simply do not blend.
Let’s consider some other oxymoronic imagery which pervades Revelation. Jesus is initially called the Lion of Judah in Revelation 5, but for the rest of the book is always referred to as “the Lamb”— hardly the picture of a wrathful killer. Jesus is pictured with “a sword coming out of His mouth” in 19:15, an “image-clash” between “speaking words of truth” and “hacking enemies to death.” In this same passage, Jesus is “treading” grapes in a winepress to make “the wine of the fierceness of His wrath.” But again, wine is a symbol of celebration and joy, not of anger and wrath. These images clearly contradict each other, and so should give us pause when we seek to interpret them.
Violent images continually converge with non-violent images. “The wrath of the Lamb,” (6:16) and “the wine of the wrath of God” (14:10) and “the winepress of the wrath of God” (9:15) and “the marriage supper of the Lamb… where ye eat the flesh of kings, captains and mighty men” (19:9) are all so contradictory. A lamb as an image of wrath? Wine, normally a symbol of joy and celebration, used as a symbol of wrath? A celebratory marriage feast where we eat the flesh of sinners? Jesus is portrayed as wearing a robe dipped in blood (19:13), but the blood is not His enemies but His own. How can a lake (Revelation 19:20), defined as a body of water, consist solely of fire? Oxymoronic images abound all through the book of Revelation.
What is going on here? Often, when oxymorons are profusely used as they are here, it is often because the author’s intent is for us to totally deconstruct our presuppositions. By crashing these contradictory images into each other, the better truth then survives and arises victorious.
It is a battle of imagery where instruments of peace overcome brutal instruments of war. Swords are conceptually hammered into plough-shares. Instruments of wrath become attached to symbols of joy and celebration instead. God overcomes evil one way and one way only, with goodness. This is not theology but poetry. We need to see it as such and keep focused on the end of the matter: tears done away with, death done away with, pain done away with, Hell emptied, a new heaven and a new earth.
The book of Revelation is written in a style known as Jewish apocalyptic literature. It is heavily metaphorical, feverishly symbolic and incredibly non-linear in its exposition. Theologians warn us NOT to read it literally for theological doctrine, but rather to read it poetically for mystically moving imagery.
In the first place, Revelation was mediated by angels according to 1:1. However, all the other New Testament books were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit without the need of any mediator. This by itself should give us pause, because ANY writing mediated by a third party is once removed from direct communication. The five books of the Law, which no man could fully understand or keep, are the only other Biblical books which are said to have been mediated by angels. And it is clear that all the Old Testament saints distorted and deformed the true spiritual meaning and application of the Law (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19).
The longer the chain of custody is between any two communicators, the more likely it is that some part of the message can become distorted. And, here in Revelation, it is impossible to know exactly how many angelic mediators are involved because it is written in the first person, but clearly more than one narrator is speaking to us. Sometimes it’s John’s voice speaking, and at other times John is quoting other celestial figures he encounters.
“When one works through Revelation 6-16, one needs to be prepared for shifts in points of view. Sometimes the perspective is that of those on earth; sometimes it is the heavenly viewpoint through the so-called hymnic interludes.” Ben Witherington III, THE NEW CAMBRIDGE BIBLE COMMENTARY: REVELATION.
Remember, there is “a war in Heaven” going on in this book (12:7). Enemy angels are all over the place (12:7-10). There is chaotic, pinball-like activity swirling all around, which mandates that we can’t automatically assume that every angel we encounter in Revelation is necessarily serving God.
FEAR VERSUS AWE, BEAST VERSUS LAMB, CHRIST VERSUS ANTI-CHRIST
Simply put, there are two spiritual stations transmitting here in the book of Revelation. One dial is set on “awe” and the other is set on “fear.” Which station you set your heart on will determine how you read and understand Revelation.
The ancient Jewish rabbis taught that there are two types of fear, LOWER FEAR and HIGHER FEAR. The definition of LOWER FEAR is simply TERROR and FRIGHT. Conversely, HIGHER FEAR is defined as AWE and WONDER. We are called to have HIGHER FEAR “toward” God, but NEVER the LOWER FEAR “of” God.
The book of Revelation is the Biblical battlefield where our inner “fear” battles our inner “awe” for supremacy in our view of God, a boxing ring where “violence” and “peace” clash for dominion in our hearts, a wrestling mat where “wrath” and “love” grapple each other for kingship of our soul.
In fact, our whole faith walk carries this same continual conflict. We are constantly challenged to either see God as love, or to see Him as wrath. If we are fearful, we will see God as hard and harsh. But, if we see God as Jesus saw Him, our hearts will be pure and we will rightly see the Father of lights as He truly is— loving and heroic. To the pure God appears pure, but to the twisted God appears twisted (Titus 1:15; 2 Samuel 22:27).
The final battlefield is in the heart of every man. What motivating force will finally win the day— the fear of wrath or the awe of love? In this type of Armageddon, “Perfect love” casts out all fear, wrath and violence (1 John 4:8). The “peace” of God rules our hearts and crushes Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20). The awe and wonder of God is the beginning of wisdom, and we are to abide in it all the day long (Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 23:17).
But, more than “just” fear versus awe, the competing spiritual radio signals also have the image of Christ as the Lamb of God combatting the image of the Anti-christ as the image of the Beast.
There are several similarities between these two competing images. The Christ-Lamb has a white horse (19:11), but the Anti-christ Beast also has a white horse (6:2). The Christ-Lamb has horns (5:6), but so does the Anti-christ Beast (13:1, 11-12; 17:12). The Christ-Lamb has a sword (1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), but so does the Anti-christ Beast (6:4, 8; 13:10).
But, there are very many distinguishing marks between the the two competing images. The Lamb loves (1:5-6; 5:9; 7:17), but the Beast coerces (6:4, 8; 12:12, 17; 13:4, 7). The Lamb liberates (1:5; 2:7, 11; 3:6; 7:9-17; 20:4-6; 22:1-3), but the Beast kills and drinks the blood of it’s victims (14:8; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24). The Lamb celebrates with victory songs (5:9-10; 14:1-3; 15:2-4; 19:6-8), while the Beast makes war on the saints (13:7; 19:19). The Lamb is faithful and true (3:14; 19:11), while the Beast seduces people with deceptive images and half-truths (13:13; 17:4-5; 20:8; 22:15). The Lamb and His people worship God alone (4:1-11; 5:9-14; 7:9-12; 15:2-4; 19:10; 20:4; 22:9), while the Beast usurps allegiance and worship to itself (13:1, 5-8, 15; 17:3; 19:20).
In short, the Lamb prioritizes worship, servanthood and sacrifice. The Beast prioritizes wrath, coercion and idolatry. The Lamb martyrs, while the Beast murders.
A THOUGHT ABOUT READING THE BOOK OF REVELATION “BY THE LETTER”
It is heartbreaking to see people entrenched in “by the letter” Scripture reading. The Bible warns us on its face NOT to do this, but “by the letter” Bible reading goes on and on and on and on. And God’s character gets maligned and maligned and maligned and maligned—— and it is always from people who are reading the Bible “by the letter.”
The following passage has got to be the most ignored Scripture in the Bible:
“And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us ABLE MINISTERS of the new covenant, NOT ‘of’ the LETTER but ‘of’ the Spirit; for THE LETTER KILLS, but THE SPIRIT GIVES LIFE.” 2 Corinthians 3:4-6
We are able, able, able, able ministers to read the Scripture by the life-giving Spirit and NOT by the KILLING LETTER. People in who wrath lies hidden again and again get snagged by literalism, always by literalism. And God becomes cast as the devil. God becomes the killer of men, not Satan. God becomes the afflicter of men, not Satan. God becomes the wrathful destroyer, not Satan. Yet the Scripture says “the letter kills.” How does it kill? One way is by making God out to be a killer.
Hebrews 2:14 clearly says Satan, not God, has the power of death. God simply does not kill— it is NOT in His nature. If Revelation appears to say BY THE LETTER, literally in other words, that God DOES kill, then we must back off the literal in favor of the spiritual meaning.
This exact same dynamic occurred in an Old Testament event recorded BOTH in 2 Samuel 24:1 and I Chronicles 21:1, where 70,000 Israelites die because of David’s sin in numbering Israel. In the Samuel version of events, “the wrath of the Lord” caused David to sin. But, the Chronicles version claims that “Satan provoked David” to sin. We know that the Chronicles lines up with what Jesus taught us about Satan as the author and finisher of our sin (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). Thus, here we redivide the literal BY THE LETTER reading of Samuel in favor of the higher spiritual reading. The point is that if Scripture ever mistakenly calls “Satan’s destructions” the “wrath of God,” then we are compelled to correct and clarify the passage under the authority of 2 Corinthians 3:4-6.
You want to know the best, and really only, reason we should never say God kills or ordains evil? Because the Holy Ghost within us does NOT bear witness that He does.
If you honestly believe the Holy Ghost has revealed to you Jesus to be a wrathful and vengeful killer, afflicter and smiter of unbelieving men, then go for it. Fire and brimstoners unite. But, if, on the other hand, the Holy Spirit speaks a different tone about God, a tone of light, love and perfect mercy, then go with it where it leads. Just don’t let “by the letter” Bible reading be your guide, for it surely kills the truth. Make sure the Spirit is your central source of conviction.
Finally, consider the words of John Wesley when responding to by the letter scriptural arguments that God is the source of evil:
“You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by Scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture? That God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it can never prove this; whatever its true meaning be, this cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, What is its true meaning then? If I say, I know not, you have gained nothing; for there are many Scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense at all, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it means besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will, it cannot mean that the judge of all the world is unjust. No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that His mercy is not over all His works.” Wesley’s Journals, Vol. VII, p. 383.
Armed with this mindset, we then can better translate the tough passages of Revelation. For instance, we know that when Jesus is talking about killing Jezebel’s children in 2:20-23, He is not referring to “literal children,” but rather to “sinful impulses” birthed by the Jezebel spirit. Jesus does “kill” sinful thoughts, emotions and ideas, but He kills them with the anointed truth of His love.
Concerning other difficult passages, we know that when Revelation describes the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 6:1-8, these represent demonic forces of plague, war, famine, and death (see the NIV Study Bible note on this passage). Just because Jesus warned us of these attacking forces does not mean He sent them. We know better. God frequently warns His children of approaching danger. It is men who mistakenly take the warning as an indication that God actually sent the destruction. This is like blaming the fireman who heroically rescues us FROM the fire for CAUSING the fire itself.
Another tough passage speaks of the demanded blood revenge cried out by martyrs who have been killed (6:9-10). Yet, we know martyrs don’t talk or feel this wrathful way. We know this from Jesus’ dying remark from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We also know it from Stephen’s last words as he was being stoned to death, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” Both of them forsook revenge, not demanded it. We know that revenge is simply not in the divine nature (Matthew 5:38-48). And any verse in Revelation, or anywhere else for that matter, which paints God as a torturer, a wrath monger, a mass murderer, all just simply can’t be literally true.
The point of Revelation is to allow WRATH and LOVE, FEAR and AWE, BEAST and LAMB, CHRIST and ANTI-CHRIST, to fight to the death for the core motive of our hearts. God’s goodness WILL win this Armageddon. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).
Revelation may be the last book in the Bible, but it is not the last word. Jesus is the first, middle and last word. Only Jesus is worthy and able to unseal and open the mysteries of Revelation. Listen to Him! Like a brave fireman warning us of danger and instructing us how to avoid it, Jesus in Revelation is our heroic rescuer. Never think of Him as otherwise.
The overcoming spirit of love and patience we are to take from reading Revelation is wonderfully exemplified in the following quotes, with which I want to close this discussion.
“In Revelation 17:14 we hear of war against the Lamb. It raises important questions of how Christians could help to stop the cycle of violence or violence’s glorification. There is a story from the fourth century A.D. about a monk named Telemachus who once paid a visit to Rome and attended a gladiatorial fight held in the Roman Colosseum. Disgusted and horrified by what he observed, he hurled himself into the arena and stood between the gladiators seeking to prevent either of them from being killed. But, in the process, he himself was killed. This repulsed various of the observers, who one after another got up and left the Colosseum. It is said that this action precipitated the end of the gladiatorial games in that venue.” – Ben Witherington III, THE NEW CAMBRIDGE BIBLE COMMENTARY: REVELATION.
“Revelation is more a book about terror defeated than terror inflicted… which is why worship and liturgy are such a central feature of the book.” – Barbara Rossing, THE RAPTURE EXPOSED: THE MESSAGE OF HOPE IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION.
“We must say to our white brothers all over the South who try to keep us down: we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with spirit power. Do to us what you will, and we will not hate you. And yet we cannot in all good conscience obey your evil laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Do to us what you will and we will still love you… Say that we’re too low, that we’re too degraded, yet we still love you. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” – Martin Luther King.