8. How Not to Get Repentance—Revelation 8:2–10:10
[This is the eighth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
The standard interpretation of Revelation 8–10
We read in Revelation 8 of another series of terrible plagues. The first series of plagues in Revelation six, that had a kill-rate of one-quarter began when the Lamb broke the to the great scroll he had been given by the one on the throne. These were terrible things—wars, famine, disease. Just as the first plagues are initiated by the Lamb, it seems, this second series is initiated by God’s angels. What is God trying to do?
The trumpet plagues in chapter 8 continue with horrific and destructive locusts that torture people so badly that they seek death. Then comes more war. An army of 200 million that, with the locusts, brings death to one-third of humanity.
Then we get to the point—according to most interpreters. John writes: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts” (9:20-21). After all this judgment, stiff-necked, rebellious humanity still will not repent, turn from its idols and turn toward God. So, the text seems to imply, the reason God initiates these plagues is to try to get repentance. Thus, the text emphasizes how incredibly stubborn these unrepentant human beings are. Crazy. They see one-third of the earth destroyed and they won’t turn in faith toward the destroyer!
If this indeed is what the text means to say—those who remain rebellious richly deserve their fate.
Is Revelation 8–10 wrong?
If this is what the text says, let me suggest, the book is wrong. Why would I say this?
Well, for one thing, if this is what God thinks will bring repentance and change, I don’t think God is very smart. God then is like the head of the British air force policy during World War II—a man nicknamed Bomber Harris who believed that if the British bombed German cities enough, the people would rise up against the Nazis and embrace the British as their liberators. The British created a firestorm in Hamburg that became the worst inferno the world had ever known. It incinerated tens of thousands of children, women, and old people. And this would lead the British to be seen as liberators? In the event, as you would expect, these bombings only strengthened the resolve of the German people to stay the course against their ruthless enemies. Plagues are not likely to lead to love for their source.
Yet most interpreters of Revelation assume that God brings these plagues in order to get people to give up their idols and turn to God. But does this make sense? Why would people repent and turn toward a God who is such a punisher?
Also, this view of God as the spearheader of punishment simply is not true to the Bible—all things considered. The biblical materials do give us powerfully mixed signals. There are images of punishment—though perhaps not as many as we may think. But we can’t hold on to all of these views of God. We need to choose which ones provide the interpretive core. I choose Jesus. He gives us a view of God as healer, not punisher. Jesus taught that we should be merciful, even loving our enemies, in order to be like God.
So, if Revelation teaches a punishing God, one who makes plagues in order to get people to repent and when they don’t justifiably condemns them, we should say that “the book is wrong.” But, notice I say if. Maybe it’s actually the interpreters who are wrong.
A different reading of Revelation 8–10
John’s message is more sophisticated and profound than simplistic reward and punishment. At the beginning, John insists this book is a revelation of Jesus Christ, the Lamb whose witness of self-giving love provides the meaning of history. The victory of the Lamb celebrated in chapter five is the victory of this self-giving love, not of punishing violence.
And then, remember where the book ends up. Lamb’s victory leads to the New Jerusalem. The followers of the Lamb from throughout the book are there, but they are not alone. The New Jerusalem also includes the kings of the earth, bringing the glory of the nations into this place of wholeness. These kings throughout the book serve the purposes of the Beast. But repentance does come, in the end. They embrace the Lamb.
How can this be? The message in 9:21 about the people not repenting is not so much about how stiff-necked humanity is. The message, actually, is that plagues are a terrible way to try to get repentance. And God does not use them for that purpose. In light of the refusal to repent in chapter nine, what we will see over the next several chapters is a creative series of images that show how God actually does work to bring about repentance. The inhabitants of the earth are transformed and the nations are healed by means other than punishing judgment.
In a nutshell, God’s means for healing are the continuation of the Lamb’s witness to self-giving love. Right after the statement about the refusal to repent, John sees a new angel—who brings to mind earlier visions of Jesus. This angel’s presence signals a change in focus. What follows are visions of witness by followers of the Lamb—this witness leads to martyrdom. But, ultimately, to healing—healing even the kings of the earth.
Redirecting the narrative
At the end of the trumpet plagues in chapter 10 John sees a mighty angel. And with the shout of this angel, John hears seven thunders. It appears that more plagues are on the way. But John is told not to write them down. And with this stopping of the plague cycles, the story takes a turn.
The mighty angel in chapter 10 links with the initial visions of Jesus in chapter one: he has a rainbow over his head, a face like the sun, and legs like pillars of fire. The rainbow might be the key—a symbol of God’s commitment to creation. The rainbow tells us that these plagues do not actually come from God. We start to get a clearer sense of where they come from with the image of the terrible locusts here who are agents of the powers of evil (the star fallen to earth who opens the bottomless pit).
Instead of reporting the thunders, another series of destructive plagues, John starts to tell of the martyr/witness of the Lamb and his people. The two witnesses of chapter 11. The woman and her offspring of chapter 12. The 144,000 of chapter 14. These are the ones who, through their persevering love, reveal the content of the great scroll—God’s coming city of wholeness that includes even God’s human enemies.
How do we think, then, of the plagues? They express of God’s impersonal “wrath,” not God’s personal punitive anger. John struggles with a creative response to the questions of the plagues and God’s sovereignty and the power of God’s love. There is a sense that the plagues are linked with God’s work. God does not desert creation and God brings healing. But in their direct expression, the plagues are the work of evil and serve evil. God’s love sees to it that evil does not win—but only through Jesus’ way of persevering compassion and mercy that resists the cycle of violence.