Ted Grimsrud—May 4, 2018
For the past several months I have been putting most of my writing energy into a study of the book of Revelation, and have not met my goals for blog posting frequency. I finally realized that I need to combine thinking so much about Revelation with writing blog posts. So I expect to share several sets of reflections that draw heavily on Revelation in the next few weeks.
Punitive judgment in Revelation
One of my ongoing interests is the issue of punitive judgment—in the Bible and in life. I feel that I have developed a pretty strong argument that shows that the book of Revelation as a whole emphasizes mercy and healing much more than punitive judgment. However, some passages in Revelation have been rather persistently interpreted in punitive terms. Perhaps the most notorious comes at the end of chapter 14. This is what is written:
“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle. ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20, NRSV)
After reading through several dozen commentaries and other book and articles on Revelation, I recognize that there is a pretty strong consensus that these verses are talking about God’s punitive judgment against humans who have turned against God. There is one important stream of interpretation, starting with the influential 1966 commentary by George B. Caird, that reads this paragraph in a non-punitive way. In general, though, even commentaries that read other difficult passages in non-punitive ways, tend to see John teaching violent retribution here.
Now, as I will describe at the end of this post, I do read Rev 14:17-20 in a non-punitive way (here’s a sermon I preached on this). But I thought it would be interesting as a thought experiment to take seriously the possibility that this is a punitive text and try to follow the logic of such a reading. What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment? What would the implications of such an interpretation be?
If Revelation 14:17-20 teaches punitive judgment….
Let me suggest several implications of affirming that Rev 14:17-20 does portray God-enforced punitive judgment—and that this picture gives a true picture of God’s character and will (I recognize that some interpreters would conclude that the passage teaches punitive judgment but still believe that such a picture of God is not true).
- The moral nature of the universe is retributive. The picture in 14:17-20 comes from living in a world where there must be retaliation against all evil doing. The world is governed by the norm of reciprocity. Perhaps this view includes a sense that simply being alive makes one subject to such retaliation, since to be human is to be complicit in human sinfulness.
- God is all-powerful and uses His power to kill massive numbers of people in vicious ways that leads to extraordinary amounts of blood to be shed. We are not told explicitly that God is behind this unfathomable bloodshed (“blood flowed … as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles,” 14:20) or precisely how all this blood was taken. But we should assume that it is all due to God’s direct intervention—a God who kills in massive quantities and by causing the dead to bleed profusely.
- God’s practice of retributive justice is inefficient since this judgment takes place in a world where we know that many sinners get away with being sinners. If this punitive judgment is at all understood to be a historical event, we have to imagine that—like in historical incidences of large-scale human warfare—many of the actual perpetrators of the evil deeds that lead to war do not themselves suffer the violence of the conflict.
- The level of collateral damage is extremely high because this violence surely is indiscriminate in its expression, reaching not only idolatrous wrongdoers but also relatively innocent bystanders, including numerous children. Again, this point reflects the terrible history of actual warfare over most of recorded human history, especially modern warfare.
- The likely response to this kind of massive violent judgment from God by the people who remain surely would be mostly terror. It is difficult to imagine people responding to such extraordinary punitive judgment with love for the one who creates the slaughter.
- If God brings this kind of massive violence as a response to human wrongdoing, then Jesus was wrong when he portrayed God as loving and merciful; the writer of Exodus was wrong when he wrote about God’s love lasting forever (even as God’s judgment lasts only a couple of generations—Exod 20:5-6); and Paul was wrong when he wrote that God loves God’s enemies (Romans 5).
- We are left with the question of what this massive punitive and indiscriminate violence would possibly achieve. What good is accomplished by killing enough people viciously enough to create this kind of scene with blood several feet high over an area of 200 miles?
What are our interpretive options?
Probably, for most of us, thinking seriously about the ramifications of the punitive judgment reading of Revelation 14:17-20 leaves us feeling a bit uneasy. What are the possible ways we might think about this text and this approach? I assume that many people kind of pass this passage over fairly quickly, accepting the likely punitive judgment interpretation but not thinking carefully about it. So, I am suggesting here that we stop for a while and think about the ramification I listed above. When we do so, we then are faced with a few options.
First, we may decide that indeed the punitive judgment interpretation does seem the most likely. And with this, we may be committed to affirming the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the entire Bible. So then, we will need to think about how to integrate this reading of Rev 14:17-20 with our overall reading of the Bible and our beliefs about God.
How do we hold together the punitive judgment here with what the Bible teaches elsewhere about God as being loving—most notably in the message of Jesus (but also in parts of the Old Testament and in the writings of Paul—not to mention elsewhere in Revelation itself)? How do we apply this portrayal of God with the likelihood that such beliefs about God and the moral universe seem to correlate closely with human practices that are violently punitive, even in ways that turn out to be deeply unjust?
Or, second, we may agree that the violently punitive interpretation of Rev 14:17-20 is the most likely reading of the text itself but insist that such views should not be seen as normative for Christians today. This would leave us with some more challenging questions. What are the implications of separating the Bible into truthful and untruthful parts? How much responsibility do we have to seek energetically to find ways to read the Bible as presenting an essentially coherent (even if not perfectly harmonious) message about how God relates to humanity? What kind of normative ethical and theological guidance is possible if we accept the Bible as largely fragmented, incoherent, and internally contradictory?
Or, third, we may reread this text more rigorously and look for an interpretation that fits with the rest of Revelation, with the rest of the New Testament, and the rest of the Bible and that is theologically and ethically coherent and life-giving. Is such a reading possible?
I believe that it is possible to interpret Rev 14:17-20 in a peaceable way. In fact, I believe that such an interpretation is not only possible but is in fact the best reading, the one that takes fullest account of the words in these verses and the teaching in the rest of Revelation.
I will briefly sketch such a reading here.
If Revelation 14:17-20 is not about punitive judgment
Chapter 14 concludes with two harvest visions, first of grain (14:14-16) and second of grapes (14:17-20). The reaper of the grain harvest is “one like the Son of Man,” almost certainly a way of identifying the reaper with Jesus (this same phrase is used of Jesus in 1:13). The meaning is not totally clear, the reaping is simply described. But since it is Jesus, most likely the idea is to portray salvation, the “judgment” of the followers of the Lamb to be found worthy to join him in paradise.
The grape harvest is more complicated, but there are good reasons to see the grape harvest as another way that John portrays the style of conquest characteristic of Jesus and his followers. Jesus achieves victory through faithful witness and persevering love even to the point of shedding his blood and dying. Crucially, in Jesus’s picture of “conquering,” the shed blood comes from Jesus and his followers, not their human enemies (most obviously, see 12:11: “[The followers of the Lamb] have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death”).
The reaper in the second harvest vision is not Jesus but an angel (14:17). That the angel reaps suggests something similar to angels that participate in the plague visions described in chapters 6–10. Likely, the second harvest, like the plague visions, portrays the present time where followers of the Lamb conquer the evil Powers through their persevering love, even to the point of the shedding of their blood. Evoking the martyrdoms of 6:9, we are told in 14:17 that the second angel “came out from the altar.”
The angel reaps the ripe grapes and throws them “into the great wine press of the wrath of God” (14:19). As we learn from the plague visions, the “wrath” may be understood as the outworking of the rebellion of humanity against God—not God’s direct intervention but an unfolding of negative consequences. We might also add, from chapter 13, the outworking of how humanity empowers the Beast to go conquering with their idolatrous trust in the Beast. These dynamics call for persevering love from the Lamb’s followers, not for retaliation (13:9-10).
We are told “the wine press was trodden outside the city” (14:19). This “outside the city” image was used in Hebrews 13:12-13 to refer to Jesus’s death. Certainly the model of Jesus’s faithful witness that lead to his blood being shed reinforces the sense that John has in mind here “blood” as a symbol for the entire process of “conquering” the Dragon “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [the comrades’] testimony” (12:11).
The final image in the harvest scene is extraordinarily gruesome. “Blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (14:20). This is a picture of terrible excess. But what does it mean? It would be out of character in relation to the rest of Revelation to see this blood as the blood of God’s enemies. The other references to “blood” in the rest of the book always refer to the blood of Jesus or his followers.
So, the excess here should be seen as a powerful way of underscoring the importance and effectiveness of the way of life that Jesus embodied and called upon his followers to imitate. We could link the picture here with the vision in chapter 7. The picture there is also of excess, “a great multitude that no one could count … [that] have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:9, 14). It would take a lot of blood to wash that many robes!
Finally, according to Rev 17–18 the martyrs’ blood of Jesus and his followers in fact turns out to be the precise means that are used to bring Babylon down. Chapter 17 will picture Babylon as a Great Harlot that “was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). Then, in the next chapter we read how the nations that have persecuted Jesus and his followers themselves “have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication” (18:3)—the “wine” that is the blood of the faithful witnesses. A few verses later, the Harlot herself falls. What takes her down is that she drinks “a double draft [from] the cup she mixed” (18:6). The faithful witnesses, that is, have “conquered by the blood of Jesus and the word of their testimony” (12:11).
We must take the language in Revelation about “conquering” seriously. Jesus conquers through his faithful witness and his followers share in the conquest with their faithful witness. And this “faithful witness” is bloody—at least metaphorically in that it involves living lives of nonviolent resistance to the Empire’s hegemony. At points such resistance leads to suffering, even, perhaps, to death. The book promises from the very beginning, though, that such witness is vindicated and that Jesus indeed is “ruler of the kings of earth” (1:5)—and that the nations and their kings will find healing in the New Jerusalem (21:24; 22:2).
Revelation emphasizes strongly the link between Jesus’ self-sacrificial love and the self-sacrificial love of his followers. John’s main agenda in Revelation is to encourage his readers to follow Jesus’ path. This is the path Jesus spoke of in one of his great parables: the path of giving drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, friendship to the lonely, care for the sick, clothing to the naked, and companionship to the imprisoned—on all occasions, since all people in need are, in a genuine sense, Jesus himself.