16. The Judgment That’s Not a Judgment—Revelation 20:1-15
[This is the sixteenth 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.]
I have an idea that as much as any part of the Bible, the book of Revelation works kinds of like a Rorschach test, you know where you look at an inkblot and tell the therapist what you see. One of the things many people see when they look at Revelation is judgment. But what kind of judgment? Maybe what we see when we see scenes of judgment is itself kind of a Rorschach test. What we make of judgment reveals a lot about our psychological makeup—or at least our theological makeup.
Does judgment mean punishment?
Revelation 20 is one of the main “judgment” texts in the book. I think one of the big problems when we think about judgment in a passage like this is that we tend to assume that “judgment” has to do with “punishment”—the time of judgment is when people get punished. But what if judgment actually has to do with something else? Maybe judgment has to do, not with punishing so much as making things right. God is “judge” not as the Great Punisher but as the Great Healer.
There are two types of judgment going on in Revelation 20—the judgment of the Dragon and the judgment of human beings. It seems important to see them as separate. The Dragon’s judgment results in its destruction. But what happens to the people? It’s actually something quite different than punitive destruction—even for those who had trusted in the Dragon.
What the Dragon metaphor means for John
Let’s focus on the Dragon first. To understand the Dragon, we must first understand the agenda of the writer of Revelation. John’s concern is that people get sucked into beliefs and practices that usurp God. For example, people trust in their nation as the lynchpin of their identity and hence are seduced into violence and exploitation. With this trust, people see the world through the eyes of those in power—the False Prophet in Revelation is the master of propaganda. There was lots of self-destructive trust in power and wealth in ancient Rome—trust that John perceives even among those in the churches.
John uses the metaphor of the Beast to characterize a culture that shapes people toward domination. And he goes deeper. Behind the culture of domination is another force. Behind the Beast is the Dragon. This is a fascinating and appropriate image. What are dragons? They are mythological creatures. They are not exactly real. But they can seem real—they exist, we could say, in our collective and individual subconscious. The “Dragon” is an image for the deep-seated sense that the universe is dangerous, malevolent, hostile, a hierarchy of power.The Dragon, in Revelation, is the force that cultivates fearfulness that makes us vulnerable to trust in idols for our security—even idols that ultimately devour us. The beliefs, traditions, structures that act on us from the time we are born and that alienate us—the dynamics of racism, sexism, nationalism, exploiting creation.
There is something real about idols—but they have little or no power over those who are not deceived by them. Hence, the visions in Revelation 19 and 20 imagine them actually to be easily “bound” and “conquered” by those who aren’t afraid, who trust in the God of love. Chapter 20 actually repeats the vision of chapter 19—focusing though on the Dragon instead of the Beast—the deepest source of alienation and idolatry. But the story is the same. The Powers of evil and their human minions (led by the kings of the earth) gather to battle against the Lamb.
But there is no battle. Like with the Beast in chapter 19, here in chapter 20 the Dragon is simply captured and thrown into the lake of fire. The weapon that wins is the Lamb’s self-giving love of chapter 5. We learned that in chapter 19—the “white rider” (an image for Jesus) rides forth to the battle that’s not a battle, with blood already on his cloak—an allusion to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death that exposed the Powers for what they are. Peaceable resistance that led to death and then vindication.
So, the judgment on the Dragon is not God using violence to conquer. It is God revealing love that breaks deception. The weapon that works is persevering love. To try to crush the Dragon with brute force only empowers the Dragon. That people see and trust in the way of the Lamb breaks the hold of the Dragon and sends it into the lake of fire. This is the first kind of judgment—God’s condemnation of the idolatry of death for the sake of liberating humanity. When the militarism/nationalism/economic exploitation are disbelieved they lose their power and are “destroyed.”
The second kind of judgment—of human beings
What about the second kind of judgment? What happens to people in this story of judgment? Let’s notice that the “great white throne” judgment comes after the Dragon’s destruction. To what effect? The scene that depicts the judgment of humanity focuses on two kinds of books. The first books, that contain record of human beings’ “works,” are not named. They serve the second kind of book that is named: “the book of life.” The book of life is about God’s generosity and abundance. We have been told already in Revelation that the default stance of God is to welcome everyone who wants to be there to be in God’s presence. John assumes everyone is in the book of life. So when some are warned about identifying too closely with the Dragon, they are told that their names—already in this book—may be “blotted out.” A threat, not a certainty.
So we should not see the first books that focus on human deeds as suggesting that God keeps track of our good deeds and if we do enough we might earn our salvation that otherwise would not be offered. Rather, the “works” here are more likely the evil deeds that reflect hearts in harmony with the Dragon. They are works of hostility to peace, compassion, and restorative justice. They are the ways of life that blind people to God’s love and in that way lead toward the blotting out of names from the book of life. It is dangerous to trust in idols because you may become just like them.
Still, though, let’s remember the strong message of Revelation that such lives of hostility to love are shaped by the deceptions of the Dragon and his minions. We surely best understand this picture of final judgment as reflecting God’s awareness of the true status of human hearts once the deceiver’s deceptions have been taken away. We may hope that when the deceiver is taken away, when the deceptions end, people might find the freedom to see God and the Lamb for who they truly are.
We also need to think of the notion of “judgment” here in light of the overall trajectory of the book. “Judgment” is a term that links with justice. We could say that God’s judgment is to bring true justice to bear on the human condition. God’s intent in Revelation is to bring about healing for all creation, even including—as we will see in the final vision of the book of the New Jerusalem—the kings of the earth. The judgment of the destruction of the Dragon is part of the process of the judgment of human beings that provides for healing even for those people most deceived by the Dragon. Those who maim and murder and oppress need healing too. Our task is to follow the Lamb wherever he goes—to help that healing happen because all of life is precious.
The real message of Revelation is not certainty that no matter what healing will come—though we should hope for that. But the real message is about the means, the method, about how healing comes. The only way that healing will come is through consistent, persevering love. All of life is precious. As followers of the Lamb, our task it to embody that conviction.