Here’s the second part of the article from Tim Chester on God’s judgement. In the first part we saw how Revelation gives an alternative story to evil triumphing in the world. It declares God’s judgements are true and just:
The justice of God matters for two reasons:
1. 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.
2. 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.