I’m reposting a great blog article by Tim Chester from his website on God’s judgement as seen in the book of Revelation. Here it is:
The film Arlington Road tells the story of Michael Faraday – a man trying to rebuild his life after the death of his wife, an FBI agent killed in action. The film begins with Faraday saving the life of the son of a neighbour, a guy called Oliver Lang. They become friends. But gradually Faraday begins to suspect that Lang is a terrorist – an anti-federal government extremist. He discovers Lang has changed his name to hide the fact that he bombed a government building when he was sixteen. He thinks the plans he sees in Lang’s house are not for the shopping mall Lang claims to be working on, but a federal building he is planning to bomb. Faraday’s new friend leaves him because she thinks he is becoming paranoid. His son is antagonised because Faraday tries to stop him mixing with the Lang family.
Finally Faraday gets the evidence he needs, but he is too late to stop them kidnapping his son. Lang tells him to keep quiet if he wants to see his son again. What should he do? In the end he follows them, seeing his son in the van that has the bomb. Then we are into a heart-pounding pursuit. During a struggle with Lang he discovers the target is the FBI headquarters. Lang alludes him so he rushes back to his car to find the van gone. He pursues it into the FBI building, crashing through the barriers. FBI agents surround him, trying to restrain him. He is frantic, shouting that there is a bomb in the van. But when the van is opened it is empty. And then the action goes into slow motion as he realises that, while he was struggling with Lang, they switched the bomb, putting it into his car – the car he has just driven into the building. As he opens the boot the bomb explodes.
The film switches to a series of news reports showing the carnage and placing the blame upon Faraday. He had the motive – his wife was an FBI agent killed in action – and he it was who drove the bomb into the building. The film closes with his son looking distraught, trying to come to terms with his belief that his father is a murderer. And the Lang and wife, calm as you like, wait for their next assignment.
It is very powerful film. It is also a very disturbing film. All the time you hope – you expect – that Faraday will expose the terrorists, get there in time to stop them, rescue his son. After all, we have seen Die Hard where Bruce Willis overcomes a whole gang of terrorists. But Faraday does not succeed. The good guy looses. Not only does he die in vain, he gets the blame. The terrorists get away with it. The whole thing offends our sense of justice. We long for another ending. But the credits roll. This is how it is. Evil triumphs.
The book of Revelation offers us an alternative ending.
Read Revelation 15-16
The seven bowls follow a similar pattern to the seven trumpets: 1. earth; 2. sea; 3. rivers; 4. sun; 5. the realm of darkness; 6. an army from the Euphrates; 7. the final judgment on the world (including lightening, thunder, earthquake and hail). And like the seven seals and seven trumpets, they ultimately come from God (15:1, 5-6). But there are some important differences between the bowls and the seals and trumpets. There is no significant interlude before the final one in the sequence (before the seventh seal we are shown the sealing of God’s people and before the seventh trumpet we are shown the witness of God’s people). More significantly, the seven bowls are: (1) total, affecting everyone (16:3); and (2) final ‘for with them God’s wrath is finished’ (15:1). They complete the sequence of one in four impacted by the seven seals, one in three impacted by the seven trumpets and one in two that presumably would have been impacted by the seven thunders had they not be rescinded. The bowls affect one in one: everything and everyone. The seven bowls are no longer educative. They are retributive. They are no longer an attempt to bring people to repentance as the seals and trumpets did (9:20-21). The bowls have a different function. Their function is to establish and complete the justice of God.
In chapters 6-7 we have seven seals and in chapters 8-9 we have seven trumpets. They are the disasters and conflicts we experience in history. We learn that they come as judgments from God, but they also give people the opportunity to repent (9:20-21). That people do not repent confirms the just judgment of God. In chapters 10-11 we meet two witnesses who represent the people of God. They witness through suffering. The result seems to be that people do repent (11:13). Certainly God uses their witness to bring history to its climax which is that ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (11:15-18)
In chapters 12-14 human history is portrayed as a battle between the woman and the dragon; between God’s people and Satan. And we are presented with a choice: to worship beast or to worship God (13:14-15 and 14:6-7). What is the outcome of that choice? According to 15:3-4, those who overcome the beast sing the song of Moses in worship to God. But according to 16: 9 and 11 other people do not repent. Indeed instead of worshipping God, they curse him (16:21). People from all nations will worship God (7:9-10). But other people from all nations refuse to worship God. Many people choose death rather than giving God glory.
The seven bowls, therefore, reveal the character of God’s justice. ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (11:15-18) But will Christ’s kingdom be any more just than the Roman Empire? The totality and finality of God’s justice is on show. And what do we see? We see that the punishment fits the crime. Those who shed blood are given blood to drink: blood for blood (16:5). The earth turns on the destroyers of the earth (11:18). We see that God’s judgments are ‘just and true’. People have been given every chance to repent: both through the disasters of history and the faithful witness of God’s people. And so the song of heaven is:
‘Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was,
for you brought these judgments.
For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!’
And I heard the altar saying,
‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty,
true and just are your judgments!’ (16:4-7)
The message of the bowls is: ‘true and just are your judgments’. We find the same refrain in the song of Moses a few verses before:
Great and amazing are your deeds,
O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!
Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.’ (15:3-4)
God is ‘just and true’ in salvation. God’s ‘righteous acts’ throughout Scripture are his saving acts in faithfulness to his covenant promises. God has been true to his word. And God has been true to himself – to his holy character for ‘you alone are holy’. He has justified his sinful people while remaining just through the shed blood of the Lamb, judged by God in our place. But God is also ‘true and just’ in judgment. Again, he is true to his holy character. He gives people what they deserve after giving them opportunity to repent.
The justice of God matters for two reasons:
- It secures the empire of the Lamb
God’s kingdom is a kingdom of justice. Its social order is guaranteed. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of peace and justice because God is a God of justice.
Human empires are built on injustice. For all their might and power, it is a shaky foundation on which to build. Injustice may provoke a reaction. When the opportunity arises, oppressed people rise up in revolution against unjust empires. The constant vigilance, intimidation and security apparatus required to keep this in check simply shows how shaky unjust rule is. Or, if injustice does not lead to a reaction from outside the system, it corrodes it from within. The routine sanctioning of unjust acts creates a climate of mistrust. No-one within the system can be sure they will not be the next victim. Self-interest becomes the only certainty and factions turn on one another. Regimes built on injustice cannot create shalom or peace or harmony.
The empire of the Lamb, however, is built on faultless and flawless justice. And so only the Lamb can bring lasting social peace.
Justice is our as we mirror the empire of the Lamb in the church.
- It secures the endurance of the saints
A friend and I were discussing the book of Revelation. We were discussing how much it appears to be both a violent and non-violent book. It has certainly been used in both directions. Right-wing Americans have used to justify the use of nuclear weapons against the evil empire of communism. Mennonite commentators in it a rationale for pacifism and non-violent civil action.
My friend and I agreed the call of Revelation is to overcome through suffering rather than overcoming through violence. We overcome through the sword of the word rather than the sword of violence.
So my friend was left asking how we can explain (away?) the references to violence. The ‘problem’ of Revelation, as he saw it, was how to make sense of these violent episodes. He rather suspected they were a less than worthy response from John – an unwelcome intrusion into the message of the Lamb.
The same kind of move is made by Walter Wink. His analysis of the myth of redemptive violence in our culture which we explored when we looked at the politics of the Lamb is insightful and valuable. But Wink goes on to talk about ‘the myth of redemptive violence penetrating the Bible itself’ in the ‘bloodthirsty deeds of Yahweh’. He cites the total destruction of defeated peoples under Joshua’s leadership, the ‘atrocities’ committed by Jehu in Elijah’s name, Matthew’s picture of dead souls in hell and last but not least ‘the for vengeance in the Book of Revelation’. John, if Wink is right, not only subverts the myth of redemptive violence; he also succumbs to it!
But the twin themes of divine violence and human non-violence are not in conflict. The message of Revelation is that one enables the other. It is the same message as Paul in Romans 12-13. In Romans 12 Paul tells us:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 17-21)
Paul says we are to conquer evil with good. John says we conquer through suffering. Paul says we are to bless those who persecute and do good to them. We are not to respond with evil, nor take vengeance. We should not take justice into our hands. It is not that justice does not matter. Clearly justice does matter. The first half of Romans is an exposition of the extent to which justice matters to God. God could not save guilty sinners at the expense of his justice and so he sends his Son as an atoning sacrifice to bear the penalty of our sin. Only in this way could God reconcile us to himself while remaining just. So when Paul tells us not to pursue justice ourselves it is not because justice does not matter. Rather, it is because:
1. Vengeance is the role of God
‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”‘ (Romans 12:19).
2. Vengeance is the role of the state ‘The one who is in authority … is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.’ (Romans 13:4)
The difference is that in Revelation John addressing a situation in which the state does not use violence to restrain evil, but to promote it; where the state turns its God-ordained authority against those who do good. But John’s response is really little different from Paul’s. Overcome evil through good, they both say. Paul says we do not pursue justice for ourselves because vengeance is the role of God and the state. John simply adds that, when we cannot look to the state for justice, we can still rely on God for justice. And so still we do not take vengeance for still God will take vengeance on our behalf. His justice may not come in history, but it will come. There will be a day when ‘the wrath of God is finished’ (15:1). ‘True and just are your judgments,’ is our song (16:7).
This song rises from the altar (16:7). It takes us back to 6:9-10:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’
Here are some of the links between the two passages:
Chapter 6 & 16
- The martyrs speaks from under the altar. (6:9) The affirmation of God’s justice comes from the altar. (16:6)
- God is described as Sovereign, Lord, holy and true (6:10) God is described as Almighty, Lord, holy and true (16:5, 7)
- The question is asked: ‘How long before you judge?’ (6:10) The answer is proclaimed: ‘Just are you … for you brought these judgments.’ (16:5)
- The martyrs cry out to God to avenge their blood. (6:10) The angel cries: ‘For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink.’
- The martyrs cry out to God to judge ‘those who dwell on the earth’. (6:10) The seven bowls are poured out on the earth. (16:1)
- The martyrs are clothed in white robes. (6:11) John calls on his readers to be clothed. (16:15)
The ‘finished’ wrath of God in chapters 15-16 is God’s response to the martyrs’ cry for justice in chapter 6. The seven bowls vindicate God’s justice. They answer the question: Is God just? But it is important to realise how the question has arisen. God’s justice is not called in question because, as modern sensibilities might suppose, his judgments appear excessive. The question is not: Are the sufferings of history (the question of theodicy) and a hell of torment too great a punishment for humanity’s crime? What calls God’s justice into question in the book of Revelation is the plight of the martyrs. Here is the question: ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ (6:10) And it comes from the martyrs under the altar. But now another cry comes from the altar: ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!’ (16:7)
Imagine someone cuts you up while you are driving your car. Imagine if immediately afterwards God judged them by sending down a thunderbolt. They are left like someone in a cartoon: shocked, blackened face, hair sticking up, holding on to the steering wheel of their car while it disintegrates into a tangled wreck around them. You would leave the scene feeling pretty good. ‘Yes, justice has been done. Very pleasing.’
But why does God not do that? The answer is that God is giving people time to turn from their sins. God’s judgment is delayed. So what do we so often do? We make judgments because God seems not to. We long for justice and when we do not see it we create our own. The message of chapters 15-16 is that God’s judgment is coming. He will establish justice. He will vindicate his people. And so we can endure – even in the face of injustice, persecution and martyrdom. The book of Revelation calls us to endurance (13:10; 14:12). The hope of justice in chapters 15-16 mean that endurance is not beyond us.