If you’re like me then you didn’t open up Revelation much growing up because you didn’t know what to make of all the violence. Jesus showed us His loving character by dying on behalf of others and exercising extreme forgiveness, but at first glance He appears quite the opposite in Revelation. What do we do with that?
Well for starters, if the John that wrote the Gospel of John is the same John that wrote Revelation (as plenty would propose), then we need to remember that He is more than familiar with the extravagance of Jesus’ love, having been the “beloved disciple” himself (John 20:2). Let’s keep this in mind as we take a brief look at some of the writer’s more violent passages in Revelation.
JESUS’ SWORD: John uses plenty of allegorical imagery throughout Revelation. It’s important to note that the sharp double-edged sword Jesus wields throughout the book is actually his mouth (1:16, 19:15). In other words, it is Jesus’ words and judgments that defend or destroy life.
A BLOODIED LAMB: We often love the roaring lion imagery of Jesus, but that’s never how He appears in Revelation. True, it is announced that the lion is entering the throne room of God, but when John looks up to see the lion, he instead sees a slain lamb (5:5-6). How shocking this should be for any readers, ancient or modern. It’s a beautifully ridiculous scene. John is intentionally saying that the lion strength of God is actually a hobbling lamb that’s soaked in its own blood. The only violence in this picture is the violence that the lamb has taken upon himself, just like the violence John’s audience may have to take upon themselves.
PLAGUES: God holds all things in place. And with that in mind, some of the plagues of Revelation look like God releasing His control over the earth and letting evil (whether it be Satan, other spiritual beings, or human beings) run rampant for awhile until the earth falls into the madness that comes with the absence of His control. The world doesn’t want Him in charge anyways, so He allows the world to experience what that’s like. Among the plagues are also references to Old Testament passages and stories, showing us that John is saying much more with his plagues than what we perceive at face value. Furthermore, it seems that a part of the reason for these plagues is so that people will urgently turn to God for salvation. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
BLOOD FOR MILES: There’s a metaphorical scene in Revelation 14 where angels harvest a bunch of metaphorical grapes that represent people and toss them into a winepress. They’re then crushed to create an ocean of blood and a drink called “The Wrath of God.” This may sound odd at first, but I actually think it’s the lives of the martyrs that were pressed into this ocean/drink. God makes Babylon drink this cup (16:19) and she is drunk with the blood of martyrs (17:6). Furthermore, when Jesus finally comes back, He is seen treading this winepress (19:15) while wearing a robe dipped in blood (19:13)—which I suspect is both His own blood and the blood of the martyrs. But why is Jesus trampling these martyred Christians? To get His Father’s attention. The martyrs kept asking God when He would avenge their deaths, and God said to wait until their number was complete (Rev 6:11). By crushing all of the bodies of these martyrs Jesus is saying, “Look at all the blood of your children, Father. It’s unthinkable. The number is complete. The time has come to do something about it.”
FIRE-BREATHING PROPHETS: While there are violent-looking prophets in Revelation 11, the fire they breathe could easily be allegory. Just as Jesus has a sword of judgment in his mouth, so the prophets have the judgment of the coming lake of fire in their own. The two are representatives of the Spirit-empowered church and to afflict them is to bring judgment upon oneself. Even if they had the literal power to burn places down with fire, an angel once stopped Elijah from exercising his authority that way (1 Kings 1:15) and Jesus straight up rebuked his disciples for wanting to copy Elijah in that way (Luke 9:51-56)
All of this being said, I don’t think Revelation is a blood-fest on God’s behalf. Much of it is Christian blood spilt by Satan’s violence. Though while God remains merciful and patient through it all, at the end of Revelation He eventually says, “Enough,” and steps in to pronounce judgments. Those who follow Him go on to eternal life in the new resurrected heaven-and-earth while everything else, by its own denial of God, goes on to the finality of death in the lake of fire.
I actually think correctly understanding all of this violence in Revelation is crucial to how we live now. Revelation is not an approval of violence, but quite the opposite: It is the approval of the crosses we carry.
*With end times conspiracy theories floating about these days, I‘m offering some thoughts on popular misconceptions from the book of Revelation.