Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2018
The book of Revelation is generally understood to be a visionary account of God who judges and violently punishes human wrongdoers and idolaters. I have long disagreed with that “standard account” interpretation of Revelation. Early in my career I wrote a book that presented a much more peaceable interpretation of Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. Now, thirty years later, I am in the process of completing a new book that interprets Revelation in a way that is even more radically peaceable—tentatively titled “Jesus, the Conqueror: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation” (a lot of the writing I have done in recent years on Revelation is available on my PeaceTheology.net website).
A recent Facebook discussion in a group of which I am part, “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of the Bible,” engaged the issue of God and punitive judgment in Revelation. The discussion started with an examination of the famous incident at Revelation 6:9-11 where martyrs cry out for God’s judgment and vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth.” The original post quoted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay to the effect that these verses tell us that hoping for God to exercise punitive judgment to wreak deadly violence on sinners is appropriate—and that God will act on those prayers in God’s time and punish such sinners.
Now, Facebook discussions can be exhilarating and educational, but they are also extraordinarily fast moving and rarely allow for an in-depth response. If one does not notice the discussion until it is well underway and much if not all of the early momentum has dissipated, then one usually can’t join the fray. In this case, I was not aware of the debate until someone tagged me and asked what I thought. At that point, I was en route with my family to New York City and not in position for even a belated contribution. But missing out on the original excitement does give me an opportunity to put a bit more care into a response—and to expand it into a lengthy blog post.
The context for interpreting Revelation 6:9-11
I believe that it is essential, in the effort to arrive at the best reading of any particular text, to read that text in the context of the entire book of which it is part. So, to interpret Revelation 6:9-11, we should not simply focus on these three verses in isolation from the rest of the book. With a particular passage such as this, we should give the big picture much more weight than zeroing in on particular words or short phrases (I am impressed as I read various long commentaries on Revelation [e.g. by David Aune, Grant Osborne, and Stephen Smalley, three I am working through right now] with how much the writers focus on individual words and how little on the book as a whole—the opposite of my approach [an exception is the fine long commentary by Craig Koester in the Anchor Bible series]).
First, we ask about the book of Revelation as a whole—what does it seem to be about? What is John’s agenda? Then we ask about how our particular passage serves the agenda of the book as a whole.
I think it is crucial, in analyzing any particular passage in Revelation to take seriously the first words of the book: “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” We notice that “revelation” is singular. Whatever distinct and numerous visions the book contains, they are part of one revelation. I do think we should be careful to avoid trying to harmonize all the distinct images in the book and to avoid coming to too quick of a conclusion about what the one revelation is about and then resorting to reducing every distinct part to supporting that one revelation. But at the same time, with the affirmation of the revelation’s singularity, we should expect the book as a whole to have coherence and we should expect the various parts to (at least in a general sense) complement each other.
So we have one revelation. What is it about? The rest of our opening phrase gives us an answer: “Jesus Christ”. That designation could still be seen as a bit cryptic. What about Jesus Christ is in mind? Does “revelation of Jesus Christ” mean revelation from Jesus, telling us what he wants to say? Or, more, a revelation that tells about Jesus Christ that is meant to help us understand him better? What are we to understand about Jesus from this book?
Briefly, I lean to the approach that the book of Revelation most of all tells us about Jesus—and it means the Jesus of the gospel stories. The book is applying the story of Jesus to the challenge late first-century Christians faced in living faithfully to the way of Jesus in the midst of a culture shaped powerfully by the Roman Empire. As we read the book as a whole, we see that it is a powerful call to discipleship, to imitating the pattern of Jesus that is sketched right away in 1:5 and then alluded to throughout this book. This is the pattern to be embodied by believers who, we are told, are to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
The pattern of Jesus consists of three elements, according to 1:5-6—(1) his life as a “faithful witness” that leads to execution by the Empire as a political revolutionary, (2) his vindication as the “firstborn of the dead”—the one whose resurrection defeats the Powers that killed him and provides the template that will be followed by the multitudes of the faithful who follow his path, and (3) his rulership of “the kings of the earth” (a statement that the power of the Lamb is the power that rules the world, ultimately).
The victory of Jesus, the Lamb, that allows him to reign is the victory of his faithfulness unto death (vindicated by resurrection) that frees those who follow him from the Powers of sin (1:5-6) and empowers them to be an “empire” (or kingdom) that is free from and outlasts Rome. And Jesus’s victory comes through his “blood” (a metaphor throughout Revelation for his persevering love that shaped a life of resistance to the ways of Rome [that is, the ways of the Dragon and Beast]), resistance even to the point of death that is vindicated when God raised the executed Jesus from the dead.
So, the book of Revelation as a whole tells us about Jesus and Jesus’s call to discipleship. Jesus calls his followers to nonviolent resistance to the domination system that Rome embodied. The book’s visions creatively speak to the heart of faithfulness empowered by the Lamb and also challenge and critique the tendencies of Christians to be accepting of the lure to conform to the ways of Empire and weaken or even reverse the resistance they are called to.
What we learn from the heavenly throne room
We read in chapters two and three about some of the key issues that faced seven different congregations in John’s world. Some issues relate to the direct costs of resistance as the Empire and its minions seek to hurt people of faith. Other issues relate to the approaches to life and faith that seek to avoid those costs by lessening the resistance and escape being hurt. Each of the seven is called to “conquer.” The call to “conquer” the Lamb’s way (through persevering love) is, throughout the book, contrasted with the way the Dragon’s servants “conquer” (through violence and punishment and seduction).
The final contextual point setting up our consideration of Revelation 6 is that one of the main interests of the book is to empower and encourage faithfulness to Jesus and his way. Perhaps the most important of the visions that make up the Revelation of Jesus Christ comes in chapters 4 and 5. The congregations are called to “conquer” in chapters 2 and 3. The readers are then immediately transported to God’s “throne room” for a worship service that will tell them how to conquer and why they can devote their lives to such conquering.
We are first shown “the One on the throne,” the Creator, worthy of the praise and devotion of the entire animate creation. This One has a scroll that must be opened for the ultimate redemptive purposes of the One to be fulfilled. At first, John bitterly reports no one has been found to open the scroll. But then he is reassured, “one has been found” (5:5). This one is identified with messianic hopes, the promised Deliverer from Israel’s tradition, a Lion, a conquering King.
Then, though, comes something shocking that profoundly illumines the subject of this book’s “revelation”: A Lamb, crucified, resurrected, powerful, worthy of worship. In fact, the Lamb is worshiped in the same way and to the same degree as the One on the throne (5:8-14). The Lamb, Jesus as faithful witness, turns out to be the (only) one who can open the scroll. We thus learn that God is best seen in terms of the persevering love of the Lamb—and that all creation recognizes this link.
The Lamb’s work: Reading Revelation 6
So, it is crucial to interpret chapter six in light of chapters four and five and what they say about God’s close identification with the Lamb and about the nature of God’s victory that is won through the persevering love of the Lamb.
As well, in reading chapter six in light of the entire book we must keep in mind crucial texts such as 11:18, where the reign of God is celebrated, in part because of God’s work to “destroy the destroyers of the earth” (i.e., the spiritual powers of evil); 12:11, where the means of the victory (which includes the destruction of the destroyers) is described as the blood of the Lamb and the word of the testimony of the Lamb’s followers; 19:11-21, where the “battle” we are set up to expect turns out to be merely a “clean-up operation” where the conquering rider (Jesus) turns out to have shed his blood before the confrontation with the Powers of evil and their minions and simply captures the leaders and throws them into the lake of fire; and 21:9–22:5, where the outcome of all that comes before is that the nations and the kings of the earth (synonymous with “inhabitants of the earth”) are healed and present in New Jerusalem.
The framework for interpreting Revelation 6 is healing love, not punitive judgment. We will learn through a careful reading of chapters 6–18 that God’s true enemies are the spiritual Powers of evil (especially the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet), not human beings (“the inhabitants of the earth,” “the nations,” and “the kings of the earth”). Certainly, many human beings align themselves with the Powers (which is a main reason for John’s urgency in this book—he seeks to prevent people in the congregations from embracing such alignments), but the overall message of Revelation tells us that in destroying the destroyers of the earth, God seeks to liberate human beings who have been deceived into aligning with the destroyers.
For all their drama, creative imagery, frightening scenes, and chaos, the series of visions linked with the plagues (seals, trumpets, and bowls) offers us simple metaphorical descriptions of human history. The plagues come from the evil Powers, not directly from God. But John wants us to recognize that those Powers will not defeat God and that, in fact, the very dynamics of the plagues will lead to the Powers’ destruction. The destruction will not come by direct intervention from God but by the outworking of the influence of the Lamb’s self-sacrifice and its embodiment by the countless multitudes of his people of chapter 7 (who wash their robes white with and conquer via the Lamb’s blood and their word of testimony, 12:11).
This reality of human history is given a duration several times in the book: 3½ years (or, alternately, 42 months or 1,260 days). John hopes to encourage his readers with a sense of the finite length of the struggle effectively to resist the Powers and with an account of the importance of their conquering work (which is to imitate the witness of Jesus—to share in his “blood” and his faithful proclamation of the gospel of God’s healing love).
The visions in chapters 6–18 teach that brokenness is indeed genuinely a part of human life during the 3½ years of our history on earth. “Conquering” involves suffering (that is, “faithful witness” with the connotation of martyrdom seen in the word for “witness,” martys). Our text 6:9-11 refers to this. The Powers want to dominate and to destroy all who resist that domination. But these destroyers will themselves be destroyed by the same work of God that raised Jesus from the dead after the Powers executed him—the power of love, not punitive judgment.
The terrible destruction of the plagues comes from the Powers, not God (see, for example, 9:1-3; 11:18; 12, esp. 12:17; 13). But we need to know that even amidst these dynamics of rebellion versus God, God’s healing work that will lead to the destruction of the destroyers is having its effect. The deeper picture of reality comes from the scenes of worship that surround the first plague series presented in chapter 6. Chapters 4–5 portray the Lamb’s victory and the worship of the One on the throne and the Lamb as one act of worship. Chapter 7 shows us who indeed is “able to stand” before the One on the throne and the Lamb (6:17). It is a countless multitude (7:9) of healed human beings who “come out of the great ordeal” (7:14)—that is, out of the great plagues. They embrace the Lamb and his way and discover that God is not being defeated by the destroyers of the earth.
It is meaningful to affirm that the Lamb does open one of the scrolls (6:1), an act that John portrays as loosing the plagues. This is not a metaphor symbolizing the Lamb as the direct author of punitive judgment against sinful human beings. To the contrary (as we keep the message of Revelation as a whole in mind, especially as seen in the fulcrum for the entire book, chapter 5), what we are to understand is that the Lamb initiates amidst the plagues the dynamics of healing that lead to the worship of the countless multitude of chapter 7.
And the multitude of Jesus’s followers has a crucial role to play—it conquers the Powers of evil (12:11) through being transformed by the “blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This story is retold in 14:17-20 where we learn of an almost infinite amount of blood from this multitude linked with the Lamb’s blood, and in chapters 17 and 18 where we learn of “Babylon the great” being brought down by drinking “the blood of the saints and blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:6; see also 18:4-8).
What does Revelation 6:9-11 mean?
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed.
In light of what we learn later in Revelation, I believe we best interpret these verses as a call for those “souls” patiently to let their conquering work (see 12:11—the “work” of the “comrades” to conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”) have its effect. Ultimately, this “blood” is what takes down Babylon and helps lead to the coming down of New Jerusalem.
The message here fits with the general picture in Revelation that the only way that God works in the world to win victory is through the persevering love of the Lamb and his followers. That love is how the Powers of evil are defeated. So the point is that the transformative patience that God calls for will let God’s judgment and vengeance determine the process and will remember that God’s promised outcome is healing, even for the inhabitants of the earth.
The literal meaning of “avenge” here is “do justice” as in “do justice in relation to our blood.” Note that later, we will be told that “those who had conquered the Beast” (“conquer” as in defeat with the blood of the Lamb and the word of testimony) praise God for God’s “just ways” that result in “all nations” (= “the inhabitants of the earth”) worshiping before God (15:3-4). And, then, even later, we read of New Jerusalem, populated by, among others, the healed and transformed kings of the earth who bring in the glory of the nations (21:22–22:5).
The message of 6:9-11, then, coheres with the overall story of Revelation where God conquers only through the “blood” of the Lamb—that is, the Lamb’s faithful witness and God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection from the dead. We will learn in chapter 7 that these white robes are a sign of the healing that Jesus offers, the Jesus (who we know from chapter 5) is worthy of the same worship that is offered to the One on the throne. And this same Jesus is the one the countless multitudes (= 144,000) follow wherever he goes (14:4)—which is precisely what the “souls” of 6:9-11 have done.
The idea, then, that 6:9-11 teaches an affirmation of punitive judgment versus God’s human enemies is a misreading. These three verses actually teach a repudiation of human justice (insofar as human justice means punitive judgment and violent revenge). They call instead for followers of Jesus to affirm and practice divine justice that seeks to heal and not to punish—and that accepts that healing our broken world (i.e., “conquering”) requires vulnerable, patient, compassionate faithfulness. That is, according to these verses read in the context of the rest of Revelation, it is anthropomorphizing of divine justice to imagine it as punitive and retributive rather than restorative.
Considering a related text—Revelation 8:3-5
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.
The vision in these verses is followed by the rest of Revelation 8–9, an account of the second series of plagues, the trumpets. Is this vision of the prayers and the altar also pointing toward God’s punitive judgment in the same way 6:9-11 is said to? Or, if I am correct in my reading of 6:9-11, is this vision also affirming God’s persevering love in face of the brokenness of history in the 3½ years of tribulation (that is, the history of which we are now part)?
I think that when we read 8:3-5 (and what follows) in light of chapters 5 and 7, it could not be clearer that God’s victory is won through persevering love, not violence and punitive judgment. The visions in those chapters, and many more to come in Revelation, help us to see that God’s victory emerges not through God intervening to cause the plagues nor through an escape from the plagues (there is no “Rapture” in Revelation!) but through the costly practice of persevering love in the midst of the plagues.
The allusion in 8:3-5 to the prayers of the saints on the altar points back to 6:9-11. The message there we saw to be a message (reinforced by chapter 7) where the meaning of “white robes” has to do with going through “great tribulation” and suffering and then being washed “white in the Lamb’s blood” (7:14).
Probably, the angel throwing the censer to the earth (8:5) conveys two things. First, that the work of the Lamb is indeed extraordinarily powerful and transformative, and, second, that followers of the Lamb will have to suffer insofar as they embody his powerful and transformative work. Then, in what follows in chapter 8, we get more plagues. In an exaggerated way we are reminded of the dynamics of life during the long period of human history John calls the “3½ years.” In a mythical way chapter 12 will portray this dynamic.
Again, I point out that the trumpet plagues in chapters 8 and 9, as well as the other plagues, are not the direct intervention of God either as redemptive works or as punitive judgment. They are the direct work of the Dragon. But God’s redemptive will still finds expression and works its transformation.
We learn more about this when we continue reading through chapter 11. At the end of the trumpet plagues, we are told that wrongdoers do not repent, even after all the trauma of the plagues (9:20). Many interpreters treat this refusal to repent as an indication that these human beings deserve to be punished by God. However, how often do punishment and the violence it visits upon people ever lead to repentance? What the story may actually tell us is that God’s response to the lack of repentance is not one of punitive judgment (as well as pointing to the crucial role that followers of the Lamb have in the redemptive work of God).
Chapter 10 begins by introducing to us yet another series of plagues to be associated with the “seven thunders” (10:3). However, John is stopped when he begins to write and told not to tell about the thunders. An angel who seems like kind of a Christ figure gives John a “little scroll” to eat (10:8-10). John eating this scroll evokes the prophetic calling of Ezekiel (Ez 2:8–3:3), as does his commissioning by the angel to “prophesy again” (10:11).
Chapter 11 tells a story that portrays the embodiment of this call to prophesy. We read of two witnesses (called lampstands, 11:4, linking back to the seven congregations of chapters 1–3) who follow the pattern of Jesus. They bear witness and are killed, but then are vindicated and raised to heaven. Right afterwards another earthquake strikes and many people are killed. But this time, nine tenths of the people do repent and give glory to God. This time, the faithful testimony of the two witnesses (symbolizing the community of Jesus’s followers) bears fruit. God is not the source of the plagues where they are created in order to get people to repent. Rather, God’s persevering love enters even in the midst of the Dragon-caused plagues to bring healing—not punishment.
There are plenty more plagues to come, of course, but now we know what God’s direct intervention actually involves. God intervenes by empowering those who have been healed by Jesus to embody the mercy of God, to provide places to worship God amidst the plagues and to counter the Dragon’s propaganda, and to bear witness against the Powers of evil and the human structures and ideologies they have poisoned.
Afterword: How would punitive judgment work in actual life?
Let’s think about the notion of God practicing punitive judgment by directing the plagues in Revelation. How might that actually work? Nothing in these plagues gives us the idea that God’s punishment is precise and limited only to wrongdoers. How do we know that these plagues will target the people who deserve to be punished—and only them? From all appearances, the violence of the plagues is indiscriminate with an extraordinary amount of collateral damage.
In the real world, almost always the people with power and wealth manage to evade the devastation of earthquakes and plagues and wars and the like at a much greater rate than poor and vulnerable people. The very people whose exploitation would be the cause of punitive judgment toward society’s leaders (who Revelation clearly teach are God’s main human enemies) are the one most damaged by the plagues.
A God who kills and destroys in order to punish killers and destroyers is bad enough, but how much worse is a God who kills and destroys countless seemingly innocent people with random violence in order quite inefficiently to punitively judge the guilty ones.
It makes more sense to affirm what Revelation actually seems to teach: The plagues’ violence and destructiveness are the work of the Powers of evil (the true “destroyers of the earth”). The way to deal with these Powers is not to imitate their retributive justice but to stand in their way with nonviolent resistance, to follow the way of the cross, and patiently to count on God’s indestructible love to bring resurrection out of the self-sacrificial shedding of blood.