(I’ve wanted to share that “Four Little Ponies of the Apocalypse” image ever since I saw it on shirt.woot.com months ago.)
In other news, this post is the one I’ve been dreading since I began this series. Seriously, in the time it took to write the first sentence, I’ve been to the fridge, the mailbox, the bathroom, the Twitters, and the Gmail… I really don’t want to talk about this stuff.
It’s probably not a great sign of things to come if our first chapters in the main text of the book (remember, up till now we’ve been working with what we called the “front matter”) cause this much consternation, but it’s just that these chapters are so difficult to discuss.
Maybe because it’s just so weird: horsemen and earthquakes and blood moons and demon locust-horses with scorpion tails. It sounds like the recording of a Frank Peretti and Stephen King acid trip.
Maybe because the symbolism is flying so fast and furious it’s hard to keep up. Almost makes you long for the simple times of ch 1 with Zeus-ified Jesus or ch 4 where the Frankenstein-esque living creatures at least are the good guys. Trying to make sense of the terrifying, overlapping symbols seems to require charts and multiple reference books and I’ve diligently veered from fact-fests thus far as they are boring to write and impossible to remember. I aim for inspiration and transformation over against knowledge accumulation–not that I’m against academic study!–so it’s a challenge to wrench the reader’s view away from the surface symbolism to a deeper, memorable, theological meaning.
Or maybe it’s really due to the excessive violence and pitilessness of God and God’s people that gets me.
Read the text. All of heaven is against the peoples of earth. God’s judgments are ruthless and terrifying. Though we’re only a page beyond the Song of the Lamb in ch 5, it seems we’re lightyears removed from the Jesus of the Gospels. With the seals and trumpets, evil’s self-destructive nature isn’t simply rebounding on itself, God is actively using evil as a form of Divinely-sanctioned judgment against the enemies of the Lamb.
And don’t miss that point: God is responsible for this. The evil powers of the horsemen are explicitly given to them; neither taken nor inherently held.2 The judgments originate from the throne room. The Lamb opens the seals, out of which explode the horsemen of judgment (called out by the four living creatures), the trumpets of 8-9; 11:15ff are sounded by angels who stand before God (8:2, 6), and the bowl plagues which we’ll discuss at a later point issue directly from the Throne room (15:5).
So what are the people of the Lamb supposed to take from this?
How do we reconcile these scenes of violent, vengeful judgment with the image of the Lamb who conquers through self-sacrificial death?
How are we meant to understand the evil and suffering of a world supposedly under Divine control, and how do we work against injustice and seek to console a hurting world when our God is the one apparently meting out said injustice and pain?
The first time I seriously studied this text, the message I came away with was, “Take heart!
God is in control! We’re winning!” Basically a sadistic version of Buddy the Elf’s “World’s Best Cup of Coffee!” or the often undiscussed dark side to our overwrought worship songs: Our God is greater, our God is stronger…
But the more I learn about the Christ’s redemptive, restorative movement among all people, the more hollow this message rings. First, it distracts us from the fact that even here we still are technically not receiving, “The revelation of Jesus Christ . . . given by an angel to his servant John” (1:1).
This is an important point to assist our interpretation: the seals the Lamb breaks off the scroll He received in 5:1-7 are not the contents of the scroll itself. As Bauckham reminds us, “The scroll will reveal how the followers of Christ are to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom by following him in witness, sacrifice and victory. Because the Lamb has conquered, he is the one who can reveal how his followers are also to conquer.” The seals and the trumpets they unlock are not showing us God’s will for how people are to conquer, but are literary devices preparing that revelation found in the scroll, which reappears in 10:2, 8-10.3 This is why it’s a great misinterpretation to view these judgments as God’s final word toward unrepentant humanity: they are the rising action leading to the revelation of the Divine will for people, not the revelation itself.
Another reason I take issue with the “It’s cool, God is in control” reading is how it makes God seem calloused and unconcerned with the suffering of the world, along the lines of a Pat Robertson (after all, they deserve it!). This gets us off-track from the throne room perspective we literally just read about in chapters 4-5! Almost like someone looking into a mirror and immediately forgetting what they looked like…
The Lamb is proof of God’s personal interest in humanity. With the Incarnation, the Divine quite literally has “skin in the game,” the Divine not only coming to be with the least of these, but actually becoming one. So such violent retribution would seem to be an utter rejection of the solidarity gained from walking so far in our feet. The pain and heartache suffered at the vicissitudes of life is not assuaged by the simplistically sovereign God removed from its impact or experience, but by our faithful acceptance that, in Christ, God truly knows what it is to suffer.4
The judgments, particularly the seals in Rev. 6 and the trumpets in 8-9 are not God “winning.”
Hear it again: when we hear that God and the Church “conquer,” it is through sacrificial love unto death which, according to ch. 5, has already happened. The Lamb has already won! The fundamental view point of Revelation is from the far side of the Cross. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
So then, what are these about? Where do we find the hope of the Lamb that leads His people to resistance against earthly powers in these ugly pages of Divinely-ordained bloodshed?
The primary thing we need to see is that the partial judgments of the seals and the trumpets are not actually “judgments” at all. They are rather two visions depicting the same truth from different perspectives: namely, that judgments and alone do not lead people to repentance.
First, a word about Christ as “judge” (at which time you will most likely decide to never read these posts again), then a bit about why God would show us these visions if the point is to prove they don’t work.
Christ ultimately will judge all people “according to what they have done” (Rev. 22:12; cf. Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6), but again, that judgment will not be carried out by an aloof king, but one who is intimately aware of how difficult it can be to believe in God in the midst of pain (cf. Mark 15:34), who paid the ultimate price to bring people to Himself. As Frederick Buechner reminds us, “The one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”5 We need to remember that when Christ gives images of judgment in the Gospels, it is always the result of someone choosing separation by their actions rather than God vengefully afflicting the objects of Divine wrath due to incorrect beliefs. In that vein, one way to view the movement of Revelation is in the various images of Christ we are given: in ch. 3, we see Him as the “faithful and true” witness (3:14), who in ch. 5 becomes the slaughtered Lamb–who was killed for His witness. After a few other images (including the war-like Rider on the white horse of ch. 19), we settle on Christ as the “faithful and true” judge (19:11), who then welcomes people into consummated union with Him (ch. 21-22).
This sentence might be tough to swallow but hear me out because we’ll return to this in coming weeks: it is an open question in the Bible whether people are ever fully and finally separated from God. We do not actively preach universalism in the Church for many prudent reasons, but it’s important to understand 1) the concept of ultimate restoration is not a heresy but an alternative, orthodox viewpoint, and 2) the Church does not claim to know for a fact any single person currently residing in hell (not that this in any way negates its existence).6 As Buechner continues: “The worst sentence Love can pass is that we behold the suffering that Love has endured for our sake, and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one.”
Okay, now that your pitchforks are properly sharpened, let’s turn back and close with why the seal and trumpet judgments are not meant to be understood as literal future tribulations unrepentant humanity will undergo. They are rather more like “thought experiments” given to show the result of such simplistic approaches to what causes repentance. They are as much warnings against hoping for Divine vengeance as against unbelief.
Even apart from Revelation “seals” and “trumpets” are both understood as symbols of warning to both friends and enemies. The seals on a scroll are intended to be warnings to enemies: they say that the contents within are important enough to keep from prying eyes and those who disregard such warnings will certainly be punished by the one who’s symbol is embossed on the wax. Trumpets are also warnings and are used in the biblical tradition to both warn enemies and gather God’s people for festival, worship, travel, and war.
By framing these vicious judgments as symbols associated with warning, “John has,” as Bauckham states, “taken some of his contemporaries’ worst experiences and worst fears of wars and natural disasters, blown them up to apocalyptic proportions, and cast them in biblically allusive terms.”
The warnings John is writing are against the acceptance of the lies of the Gospel of Caesar–a fault, we must remember, of which both Christians and non-Christians were guilty. This is why both immediately follow heavenly worship scenes (the seals following 4-5, the trumpets 7 – 8:1), because one of Revelation’s primary focuses is the truth of worshiping the one, true God over-against the falsehood of trusting in Caesars of any age.
However, it is not Divine judgment, but witness unto death–to the true God and to the Lamb’s sacrificial conquering–that ultimately exposes the uselessness of trusting in human rulers (cf. Pss. 118:8; 146:3; Isa. 131:1-3; 57:13; Jer. 17:5).
This is why the horsemen (seals 1-4) affect the basic stability of Roman life, bringing war, civil war, famine and price inflation, and death. They’re not actual horsemen who come to make life hard on Kirk Cameron (Sorry, Mr. Murray). The failure of the pax romana was the deepest fear of all who trusted in Caesar’s ability to be the “prince of peace.” This is why the “first woe” (trumpets 1-4) affect the natural world upon which the Romans were so dependent, because just like the plagues of the Exodus–which the trumpets are mimicking–the Roman pantheon was built upon a view of nature as divine.7
Notice, however, that even in such dire circumstances, the hearts of people were not in any way turned toward God. Following the seals we see this response:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide usfrom the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Rev. 6:15-17)
Fearful? Certainly. Repentant? Not in the slightest.
And following the trumpets:
The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Rev. 9:20-21)
Again, obstinate unbelief.
This is ultimately why in the visions of judgment in Revelation we skip the “seven thunders” (10:1-4), which undoubtedly would have affected half the earth (following the progressive intensity of the seals’ 1/4 and the trumpets’ 1/3). Not because God’s patience has run out, and so we must move on to the total judgments of the bowls, but because apparently the anger and fear of suffering do not, on their own, bring transformation. For every person scared into church due to fear of God’s anger, another leaves due to a lack of seeing God’s love. In the end, it is love and witness to that love that transform lives, and we find that love actually displaces, or “casts out fear” (I John 4:18).
In the final assessment, both the seal and trumpet judgments are warnings intended to bring repentance, but they do not work. Instead, they display–in dramatic fashion–how judgment unaccompanied by God’s people witnessing to Christ’s sacrificial love utterly fails at transforming the human heart. Fear of pain or punishment is an effective tool for the immature, and is in some contexts perfectly understandable, but if it is not relinquished for more mature forms of obedience it will result in a church that is reflective of the characters in these images: they will either look like the God who is angry or the people who are fearful, or they will simply shake the dust off their feet and find the God of love in the streets, where the Incarnation is always walking–and hurting–amongst the least of these.
1. For the purposes of this study, I will combine in this post the first two of the three judgment cycles, the seals of ch. 6 and the trumpets of ch. 8-9. This one will be a bit longer, but hopefully will keep us from having to have two separate ones about what we’ll see are essentially the same message. Next post, we’ll double back and look at their results.↩
2. 6:2, έδόθη (edothei), “was given”. For similar use, cf. 6:4, 8; 7:2; 9:1, 5; 15:7; 16:6, 8.↩
3. Yes, I’m aware of the difference in the Greek between ch. 5 and 10’s “scroll.” We’ll get there.↩
4. One of my favorite writers, David Bentley Hart, often discusses the concept of “divine impassibility (apatheia).” Meaning, God’s total lack of pathos, or the basic ontological peace residing within the Trinity does not separate a deep knowledge of human suffering. While it is present in much of his writing, I suggest first looking to The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?↩
5. Originally read in Beyond Words. Find at http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/7/19/judgment.↩
6. Another favorite writer, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, argues for this equivocal stance persuasively in Dare We Hope That “All Men Be Saved”?. This is why I am fond of coyly saying that I am not a universalist, I’m just not so sure God isn’t.↩
7. We are here largely ignoring a monumental motif within Revelation: the second exodus. This is mostly due to space. I will return to it and work in both the Lamb and the plagues by the time we get to ch. 15.↩