Just as we tend to have a strange attraction to evil, we are also enamored with violence and destruction. Michael Bay makes a lot of money because we love to watch stuff blow up. So it’s not surprising that we are attracted to the violence in the Revelation. The Revelation seems to be excellent fodder for such a predilection for death and destruction. It is, in fact, full of scenes of destruction and gore including the famous (infamous?) scene of “blood running up to the horse’s bridle” (14:20). For some this is reason enough to leave the Revelation alone. Yet other Christians are drawn to the carnage and even seem to get rather excited about the thought of God unleashing mass destruction on the world (I call this the “God carpet-bombs the universe” approach). Readers of the Revelation have at times fantasized about getting in on the action by embracing destruction as part of our mission. It’s no coincidence that the view of God that underwrites the Left Behind approach to the Revelation eventuates in a people of God who pick up machine guns to engage the enemy.
In order to shift the focus away from destruction, two points must be made. The first concerns the genre of the book, whereas the second is a thematic and theological point. In terms of genre, the Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature, a genre that is usually addressed to a powerless people who are on the receiving (as opposed to the giving) end of violence. More importantly, apocalyptic literature is a highly symbolic genre. In such a work the images are usually metaphorical and not meant to be taken literally. As I’ll suggest below, some of the destructive imagery in the Revelation might not be what it first appears to be.
But my deeper concern is a thematic and theological point. If we see God’s major activity in Revelation as destruction, it’s hard to distinguish him from the devil, whose modus operandi is destruction. God is not the destroyer of the world, but its creator, as Revelation makes clear (4:11; 10:6; 14:7). Moreover, he is the renewer of the world, as the final two chapters indicate. God the Father only speaks twice in the Revelation and the second time we hear the beautiful words: “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5). Here is the heart of God. He is a maker and a remaker. God is in the business of undoing the destruction that the enemy has wrought on the world. It is the devil and his lot that deal in destruction. Destruction, when used by God, is always and only a means to some greater, redemptive, renewing end, whereas destruction is the end for the devil. The devil seeks to kill, maim, and destroy. God’s love of creation, both human and the world, compels him to resist and ultimately thwart the devil’s efforts. In one of the most significant verses in the book, we see the difference stated in crystal clear terms: the reign and wrath of God results in the “destroying of the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). God’s destruction aims at destroying the agents of destruction so that renewal can take place. Genesis begins with God’s creative act and the Revelation ends with an Eden-like renewal of creation. As the visions of Christ and the Father mentioned in the first installment bracket the evil characters in Revelation, so too the creation/renewal theme in the Revelation brackets the destruction and carnage found in the middle of the book and distinguish in a fundamental way the work of the Holy Trinity from the work of the Unholy Trinity.
To return to the issue of genre, some of the “destructive” scenes in Revelation look different when the symbolic language is taken seriously. The epic battle scene in chap. 19 is a case in point. Christ’s garments in chap. 19 are spotted with blood before the battle begins (19:13), suggesting that the blood is not that of his slain enemies, but his own blood, a reference to his sacrificial death. The sword Christ wields is said to protrude from his mouth (19:15; cf. also 1:16; 2:16), a description that begs for a symbolic interpretation. The sword by which he conquers is his word, the message of the gospel, a gospel predicated on a sacrificial death (not a slaughtering of the enemy). So even the moments of the Revelation that look most destructive seem to point in a different direction. This is not to say that there are no difficult parts of the Revelation where God’s judgment looks rather frightening (e.g., Rev 19:17-18). But it is a matter, once again, of focus. What is given the most attention, what is most important, and through what should we see the rest? In an admittedly bloody book we must never forget that the most significant blood is that shed by our Lord for the redemption of his followers.
Instead of focusing on destruction as the central activity of the book, a better focal point is the theme of “conquering” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7). In chaps. 2 and 3, the seven churches of Asia Minor are addressed by Christ. The format of the individual addresses follows a pattern, beginning with a description of Christ (recall our point about seeing everything through the visions of Christ) and ending with an exhortation to “conquer.” At first this sounds like it goes along with the theme of destruction. Isn’t conquering a kind of destroying? Yet it becomes clear that the conquering the author has in mind is of a radically different, indeed paradoxical, nature. The churches are exhorted to “endure patiently” (2:3; 3:10), to “be faithful unto death” (2:10), as some of them (Antipas) already have (2:13). The theme comes to a crescendo in 12:11 where we read: “And they conquered him [=Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (ESV; cf. also 15:2; 21:7). Christian conquering does not involve shedding the enemies’ blood but being faithful to Christ even if it means dying. By conquering in this way Christians are merely following the lead of their Lord and Savior, the Lion who is the slain Lamb, who conquered by giving his life and shedding his blood (3:21; 5:5-6; 9-10, 12). As Richard Hays notes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: “God overcomes the world not through a show of force but through the suffering and death of Jesus” (HarperCollins, 1996, 174). Far from taking up AK-47s to blast our enemies, the Revelation envisions a kind of conquering where it is our blood that is shed. Conquering looks like being faithful to God, even unto death. Christians are not perpetrators of violence, but if we follow in the steps of our Lord, we will likely be recipients of it. To return again to the battle of chap. 19, notice that the saints following Christ are dressed in fine white robes (19:14). Far from being battle gear, this is the attire of a worshiping community. In fact, Christians are never portrayed as engaging in violence in the Revelation!
Now I offer some suggestions for changing our focus with regard to this theme. In preaching and teaching, we need to shine the spotlight on those passages that show “conquering” in this paradoxical way. A sermon or Bible study series on the “conquer” passages would be instructive. Revelation 5:5-6 must be given specific and sustained attention as it shows our model for conquering. It could also be helpful to ask Bible study members how God’s activity in the book differs from the enemy’s activity. This question would invite a closer consideration of the themes discussed here. Helping our congregations understand the nature of symbolic language could go a long way towards changing our focus. The two examples I mentioned in chap. 19 (Christ’s blood speckled garment and the mouth-sword) are good places to start. A broader awareness of the workings of apocalyptic literature is helpful in making sense of the Revelation. Craig Hill’s In God’s Time (Eerdmans, 2002) is a great resource here; Hill also has a Bible study series that goes along with the book (see his website for details).
Given our lust for blood and violence as a culture and the degree to which the church has gone along with it, this shift in focus in reading the Revelation is crucial. In our next and final installment, we’ll consider the focal response. I’ll suggest that the longstanding response of looking for end time dates in Revelation should give way to a response of confession of our allegiance to Christ and Christ alone.