What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

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.


5 thoughts on “What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

  1. I think great care needs to be taken to assure that we are not covering for God or for writers. As Peace Keepers We are called to speak truth to power. We need to see the world that We live in as it is. The engine of evolution runs on violent and reproductive abandon from the amoeba to the man. Seeing the way of the world, wrought up as it is with systemic violence, God repented and was sorry for having created it. There in lies our hope and the evidence of God’s love transcending creation even while the Children of God remain busy working on co=creating a shared reality that is better suited to serve Us all in the work of actualizing our love. We need to see and to know God by the works of God but We must not define/judge the Children of God by the finite limitations of Creation. As bad as the world is the Family of God continues down the path of seeking to continuously improve upon it. The 13th Chapter of Job makes the case for being honest to God even when God does evil. God loves us as the Children of God, the co=creators of the world we share, dedicated to putting our love to work in service to each Other in the context of Eternity.

  2. Harvest. This motif is the core feature of the Rev. 14 passage. If we fail to identify the time, place and target of the harvest we are not likely to have the necessary framework to address the ethical and political and legal and theological issues you are attempting to address.

    The harvest, is the harvest of the vineyard. This symbol is not difficult to identify because it is so commonly explained for us. It is Israel. E.g. Is. 5:7, Mat. 21:33-46. The parable of the wicked tenants is the most obvious and important interpretive key to Rev. 14, and it is surprising that you didn’t use the key to unlock the meaning.

    The parable of the wicked tenants ends with:
    They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

    This is exactly the same issue as the bloodshed you grappled with in your post. The wicked tenants are judged with the death penalty. This is the same judgement as the invitees to the wedding who spurned the invitation: The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. (Mat. 22:7). It has the same target: Israel was invited to the wedding (Is. 25:6-8), and Israel would be judged at the wedding with the reversal (Is. 65:11-15; Mat. 8:10-12).

    So, we may positively identify the vineyard as Israel and the harvest as the judgement upon Israel for rejecting the wedding invitation and for killing the prophets.

    Now let’s consider the time of the harvest judgement upon Israel for killing the prophets. Moses said that this judgement (Deut. 32:43) would come upon the final generation of Israel (Deut. 32:5,20), and it would be the time when the grapes of Israel would be the grapes of Sodom and Gomorroah (Deut. 32:32-33), at the time when the measure of sin would be full, having been sealed up in the vault and then repaid to Israel (Deut. 32:34-35).

    Jesus identified this final generation as his own (Mat. 12:39; 16:4; 17:17) as did Peter (Acts. 2:40), and Paul (Phil. 2:15). Jesus said that Israel of his day, that very generation, would suffer the repayment of all the blood shed on the land since Abel, at the desolation of the temple (Mat. 23:29-39). Paul said that the Jews had filled up the measure of their sins and that God would repay them (1 Thes. 2:14-16). In Revelation, we have the same responsible party, the prostitute, whose cup was full of the blood of the saints and the apostles and prophets, and who was drunk on the blood of the saints. The prostitute ‘Babylon’ is the Great City, where the Lord was crucified (Rev. 11:8). The harvest of the vineyard in Rev. 14 is the same judgement as the judgement upon the prostitute for shedding the blood of the prophets, apostles and saints, when her sins had reached their full measure, reaching up to heaven itself (Rev. 18:5).

    Let’s look more closely at the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard, because it is the same motif as we have in Rev. 14. Jesus told the parable, and then he linked it with other prophecies and applied it. Here is the text from Matthew:
    Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

    “‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
    this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is marvellous in our eyes’?

    Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

    When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

    The wicked tenants of the vineyard were the chief priests and the Pharisees who then ruled Jerusalem. The parable was about and against THEM. The judgement of the Jerusalem authorities was the taking away the kingdom from them at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. At that time, when their kingdom was destroyed, the stone of Dan. 2:34 destroys the feet of iron and clay, grinding it to powder to be dispersed to the wind. The final kingdom of iron and clay, and the beast with teeth of iron was Old Covenant Israel which would be judged and destroyed at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven in fulfillment of Dan. 2 and Dan. 7. The importance of Jesus identification of the kingdom destroyed at the coming of the eternal kingdom cannot be overemphasized. Any eschatology that identifies the Fourth Kingdom otherwise is not Jesus’ eschatology.

    Jesus said that the kingdom of God would come when Jerusalem was destroyed (Luke 21:31). Jesus said that the harvest was at the end of the age (Mat. 13:39), and that the end of the age was at the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in his generation (Mat. 24:3,34).

    Having set this out sufficiently to show the framework of harvest at the end of the age, upon the final generation of Israel, at the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, we now turn to the theology of divine judgement, as illuminated by the history and the application predicted in history in the First Century.

    Deut. 32 was to be fulfilled against the persecuting power that was, at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, persecuting the Christian church (Rom. 12:12-21). Paul quotes the Song of Moses as the prophetic solution to the persecution of the Christian church by the Jews — this pre-dated any Roman persecution of Christians by several years.

    Paul explains HOW and by what AGENT the Song of Moses would be fulfilled: by the governing authorities who then collected taxes and who then carried the terrible prophetic sword (Rom. 13:1-4). Payment of taxes to Rome was odious but they could take solace that they were contributing to the solution to their persecution. Those who took up the sword in rebellion, would die by the sword (Mat. 26:52; Rom. 13:2-4). This fate of the Jews was a tragedy causing Paul ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ (Rom. 9:2). This is the same upcoming event that brought our Lord to tears (Luke 19:14-44). The Lord cared for those caught up in this event and warned his people to come out of her (Luke 21:20-24; Rev. 18:4). This weeping for the judged material is of great significance to your ethical thesis: yes, the bloodshed is tragic and its justice is lamentable. Yet justice it is, it is the shedding of the blood of those who shed blood on the earth,in fulfillment of the Law of Moses (Deut. 32:43; Num. 35-33-34; Mat 23:29-39). The judgement in Revelation is just (Rev. 15:3; 16:5, 7; 19:2).

    Although the Romans did have a part in provoking and finishing this judgement, the worst of the suffering and death and bloodshed and fire came from the beast, the Zealot forces who, in fighting each other (cf. Rev. 16:19), brought so much lawlessness, rebellion, deception, false prophecy and false christs upon the city, as Jesus had predicted (Mat 24:4-13). Brother delivered brother to death (Mat. 10:21).

    The beast worked in Jerusalem (Rev. 11:7-8). It killed those who wanted peace. The kingdom of God came when God destroyed those who destroyed the land (Rev. 11:17-18). That was when the Fourth Beast/Kingdom was destroyed.

  3. May I list a few passages to show the consistency and theme and motif of just retribution, repayment and judgement upon Israel by shedding blood in our tradition and theology. I think it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge the teaching and grapple with it squarely, and not simply go hunting for alternative models where the blood is of the martyrs who eschew violence.

    The theology we have is that:
    1. Israel sheds the blood of God’s servants, the prophets, saints, apostles and the Christ, and
    2. God repays Israel by shedding her blood in the final generation.

    The stream of the Old Testament is that God sends his messengers, the prophets, to speak his word to the powers, generally the Israelite monarchy. The powers generally respond by persecuting and killing the prophets. The prophets pronounce doom and judgement and repayment, specifically for shedding the blood of the prophets, and by means of shedding the blood of those who shed the blood of the prophets.

    Let’s start with Moses: He said that God would, in due time, repay Israel (Deut. 32:35) saying ‘Vengeance is mine, and recompense’. This repayment is by this:
    Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
    for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
    he will take vengeance on his enemies
    and make atonement for his land and people. (Deut. 32:43)

    Here we have the atonement for the land and the people by, and at the time of, the judgement upon Israel, specifically by shedding the blood of those that shed the blood of the prophets. We can’t pretend that the bloodshed here is not retributive, nor that it is not from God. The atonement for and cleansing of the land is BY MEANS OF shedding the blood of the blood shedders who are guilty.

    Isaiah has the same nature of judgement. Last Days Israel’s sin is her bloodstains and God will cleanse her from that by the spirit of judgement and fire (Is. 4:4). Isaiah ends his book with more details on this judgement:
    But you who forsake the Lord,
    who forget my holy mountain,
    who set a table for Fortune
    and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
    I will destine you to the sword,
    and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
    because, when I called, you did not answer;
    when I spoke, you did not listen,
    but you did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose what I did not delight in.”
    Therefore thus says the Lord God:
    “Behold, my servants shall eat,
    but you shall be hungry;
    behold, my servants shall drink,
    but you shall be thirsty;
    behold, my servants shall rejoice,
    but you shall be put to shame;
    behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
    but you shall cry out for pain of heart
    and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
    You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
    and the Lord God will put you to death,
    but his servants he will call by another name. (Is. 65:11-15)

    Here we have God putting to death wayward Israel at the reversal, when those who forsook God received their judgement. This has a repayment theme, and God is the one who is repaying (Is. 65:6-7). The repayment is both righteousness and vengeance:
    He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
    he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
    According to their deeds, so will he repay,
    wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
    to the coastlands he will render repayment. (Is. 59:17-18).

    The New Testament writers accepted these judgements as just and as applicable to Israel of their day.

    Jesus said it would be repaid against Israel in his generation (Mat 23:29-39). He portrays it as just, fitting and righteous.

    Paul said that those who then persecuted the Thessalonians, i.e. the Jews (1 Thes 2:14-16; Acts. 17:1-9), God would consider it just to repay with tribulation:
    God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thes. 1:6-10)

    Notice that the target is the Jews and the timing is soon enough to bring relief to those then suffering. And it is just repayment.

    Jesus said he himself would be the one doing the repayment in his generation (Mat 16:27).

    So … how should be address the stated justice of the repayment indicated for those blood-shedders who would be repaid in that generation at the fall of Jerusalem, in the bloodbath?

  4. Apologies for writing so many comments, perhaps it is better to refer interested readers to the following papers:

    https://www.academia.edu/33357808/Pauls_Repayment_Theology_in_Romans_13 This one deals with the most pertinent passage combining pacifist ethics with apparent sanction for the sword, and it is consistently the most butchered passage on the topic.

    https://www.academia.edu/34013537/Typological_Fulfilment_of_the_Civil_Law_of_Moses This one deals with the death penalty primarily, showing how the mandate to shed the blood of the blood shedder was fulfilled in history and how this fulfillment was typological, as well as looking at some other cases of the civil law of Moses fulfilled.

  5. David, I enjoyed your posts. The Second Coming, such as it was, was contained within the slightly extended envelope of Biblical time that You have so ardently studied. And We, such as We are, must now write the New Song, Our New Song, that is not Bible based but rather rests on the dawning realization that the Family of God is indeed at work in the present. We are now living in and participating in the actualization of our own becoming as We have been for some time now. In many ways we find this to be disappointing primarily because we failed to appreciate going in that our glory lies in the greater realization that going forward the Work of co=creating the reality We share is ours to know, to own and to do. We are all on our Way to a room among uncounted rooms that We are preparing even now in relation to Others in the work that we are sharing. The House has many rooms and each of Us will find our Room is as it is according to the work the We have been and will continue to do. We are each of us invincible and harmless until we choose to participate in a shared set of co=created limitations that challenge us to responsibly work with love and wisdom. Our future is not to be found in the prophecies of old, as inspiring and as damning as they may be, but in our dreams, our love and our work. Enjoy.

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