Lesson 11: The Wrath of God in Revelation

The throne of judgmentRevelation throws together, without any rhyme or reason, just about every theological vision of the future being discussed in his day. That, of course, entices us to find our favorite and read the prophesy entirely from that perspective. It is easy to see how the “religious wrong” do this when they make John’s promise into a threat. It is harder to discern our own prejudices that sometimes miss what I believe to be the Prophet’s helpful handling of difficult concepts.

Let’s examine this in terms of the wrath of God that poses a problem for anyone who espouses God’s unconditional love. “Wrath” is commonly defined as extreme vengeful anger or indignation. Many visions of the Last Days employ the concept to explain God’s action. They maintain there is a limit to God’s forgiving love. His anger and indignation at humanity’s refusal to acknowledge his authority in worship finally leads to his vengeful judgment.

That is the reasoning behind so much evangelical preaching that urges a decision for Christ while there is time. If you miss the window of opportunity, you will be punished, perhaps even being tortured for the rest of eternity. There were numerous times in the past when my attempts to proclaim God’s steadfast love and mercy were countered by someone quoting Old Testament verses where the divine states, “I am a vengeful God who demands punishment when my law is broken.”

There is, however, a side to us all that yearns for people to get what they deserve. Wild West movies played on that longing by picturing the innocent enduring the oppression of evil until finally the hero beats up or shoots dead the bad guys. Indeed, St Paul expresses the same in Romans 12 when he promises that even though it is hard for us to love some people, we can take pleasure that God will get them in the end. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

John accommodates convention by employing the wrath of God in his prophecy; however, he uses his poetry to modify its meaning. God acts in love, not anger, from beginning to end. He remains compassionate, not indignant, throughout. Divine wrath is not vengeance for offending his worthiness but resignation that he cannot prevent some from their own self-destruction. It does not punish, but rather allows those who do not want to participate in a loving community to separate themselves in death.

Granted, my interpretation of John’s poetry reflects my understanding of the Gospel. Nonetheless, consider how the Prophet reconciles the conventional idea that Christ came first as a sacrificial lamb who forgives, but will return a second time as a warrior who violently conquers. He depicts the warrior with his sword protruding from his mouth and with his own blood splattered on his robe. His only weapon is the truth of God’s word and he conquers by suffering for others.

Consider that John utilizes the common image of the Last Days being a battle between good and evil, but never pictures a military conflict. We are treated to descriptions of the forces of God and Satan, the saints and Rome, preparing for confrontation, but never hear of a battle. Instead, we are led to believe evil is destroyed by turning on itself. That is explicit in John’s depiction of Rome’s fall as a civil war in which the empire’s client states rebel.

Consider again that the tribulations describe God doing everything he could possibly do to convince people to repent. In the end, all but 1/10th of the world’s people worship God. And finally, consider that John speaks of the Lake of Fire as destruction, not punishment. It is the permanent ending of the dragon and his beasts, Satan and his agents in the Roman Empire, and the second death for those who refuse to worship God, even though they are well aware of his worthiness. The Lake of Fire certainly sounds like Jerusalem’s Gehenna Valley, a garbage dump for that which no longer has a use.

I think John carefully modifies God’s wrath so that it describes the natural consequences of not living according to God’s will. He, therefore, can preserve God’s unconditional forgiving love while still promising a future in which justice prevails.

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