We said last time that chapter 14 completes the interlude between the sounding of the seven trumpets and the pouring out of the seven bowls of God’s wrath. You remember we have these three sets of seven in the central part of Revelation: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls. In this chapter we are given, by way of anticipation, an account of how everything turns out in the end: the triumph of the followers of Christ at last in heaven and the judgment of the unbelieving world on the last day and their punishment in the world to come.
- Before he is given visions of the last judgment John at first sees an angel calling all men to repentance while there is still time. The message is “to the inhabitants of the earth,” John’s characteristic phrase for unsaved, unbelieving human beings. The angel flies in midair and speaks loudly so that all might see and hear.
There is a debate as to how we are to understand the announcement of divine judgment as a gospel, as good news. How is that good news? The consummation of God’s plan for the world, a plan that includes both salvation and condemnation, has already been described as “good news” in 10:7; there we had the verb, here we have the noun. Perhaps what John intends us to think is that it is obviously is good if God’s perfect plan is fulfilled and consummated in history. There is good in the judgment of those who deserve judgment, as there is good in the salvation of those who believe. Or perhaps he means us to understand that the gospel is always a message of salvation in Christ and here the world is being given a last chance to hear that message, believe it and be saved.
- This is the first mention of Babylon in Revelation but it will by no means be the last. Here it is used as a figure for the unbelieving world, the citadel of paganism, the symbol of a world organized in opposition to the kingdom of God, used no doubt because in the OT Babylon was one of the great enemies of Israel. Babylon therefore made a natural title for the world arrayed against the kingdom of God. In context, Rome was Babylon for John’s readers, but it is the message of Revelation that all unbelieving world systems deserve the name Babylon the Great both for their vaunted pride in rebellion against God and for their eventual fate. Babylon’s promise of wealth and pleasure intoxicates the world but at last proves a deceit. Babylon is here introduced proleptically, ahead of time, as already fallen. Much more will be said about Babylon and her fall in chapters 17 and 18.
- Wine was mixed with water or spices in those days to render it more palatable. God’s wrath will have to be drunk full-strength. In the OT God’s wrath was often linked to the drinking of a cup of bitter wine. But there will be no sobering up when one has drunk this wine. The effect, as we read in the next verse, lasts forever. Mixing his metaphors John also refers to the destruction of the unbelieving world under the image of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as is often done in the Bible. Burning sulfur is both very hot and produces a nauseating smell.
But most interesting here is the presence of the Lamb and his angels before those who are being punished. What is this and why is this? I think the most likely explanation is that it reveals the fundamental nature of man’s sin. They were offered salvation in Christ and refused it. They must face this fact: man’s adamant refusal to accept God’s love is the fundamental reason for his judgment. They suffer in full view of the Lamb who had stood ready to take them to heaven, but they wouldn’t have it!
- Remember, these striking images of judgment, destruction and suffering are just that – images – and should not be taken literally. The punishment they represent, however, is a literal punishment and should be taken very seriously. The two words used to describe God’s judgment here and throughout the NT – ỏργή (anger) and θυμός (wrath) – refer to God’s passionate displeasure with human sin, an anger, of course, that is untainted with all the defects of human anger. This anger participates in all of God’s other perfections: his justice, his holiness, his goodness, his wisdom, even his love. It is “God’s fury” to be sure, but not an outburst of temper or loss of control, but as everywhere in the Bible, the inevitable expression of God’s justice and holiness in the face of human sin and rebellion. You sometimes feel somethingof this anger yourself. When you feel angry, when your ire rises because you see some injustice being done against someone else; something was done that you know is wrong, cruel and evil and something inside you is revolted by that and you wish to see it punished and put right. That is in a small way what we are talking about when we speak of the wrath of God.
- Those Christians who are about to suffer persecution by the beast can take some comfort from the certainty of his doom. And they can be assured that their faithfulness to the Lord will have its reward. The dead here are the martyrs, those who suffer for their fidelity to Christ. But, as we have seen, in Revelation, the martyrs are representative Christians; all Christians are martyrs in the sense that the term is used in Revelation.
Now, to conclude the chapter, we are given summary visions. The question is whether both recapitulate what has just been said, that is, concern the judgment of the unbelieving world, or whether they recapitulate the entire chapter: the harvest of the grain an image of the ingathering of the saints while the harvest of the vintage is an image of the doom of the unbelieving. Do we have both results forecast here in a final summary, or just the one, twice? It seems to me more likely that the first describes the ingathering of the saints – who, remember, in 14:4 were described as first fruits offered to God – and the second the judgment of the unbelieving world.
- The fact that the angel comes from the altar means that the prayers of the saints are about to be answered.
- 1,600 stadia = 184 miles, approximately the length of Palestine. The image seems to be that the whole country will be filled with blood to the depth of 4 feet. The judgment is total and irreversible.
As with the description of the saints in heaven, much more elaborate descriptions of the defeat of the unbelieving world and its judgment are still to come in the book.
We have before us in this fourteenth chapter of Revelation an account of the last judgment and the Living God’s visiting of doom upon those who rejected his Son, rebelled against his law, and turned away from the Creator to worship his creatures. We can’t take up this subject without first admitting the obvious: people nowadays, especially in the Western world, don’t take this seriously. We know how alien, how utterly strange this sounds to people nowadays, whether it is couched in the dramatic imagery of apocalyptic literature, as here, or described in straightforward prose as elsewhere in the Bible. Relatively few people in our world believe in the Last Judgment and even fewer really believe in it, take it seriously, ponder it, and live under the specter of it.
I know that some of you have stood in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican and stared admiringly at Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment,” the magnificent fresco that adorns the altar wall of the most famous chapel in the world. There are the bodies being raised from the dead; others are being cast down into hell, with the Lord Christ in the center executing his righteous judgment. You saw that great painting. There is so much to admire: the artistry, the technical skill, and the commitment of one of the greatest of all painters who spent five years of his life on that single painting. But there are precious few among the multitudes who stream in and out of the Sistine Chapel day after day who view that impressive painting as an artistic image of what is soon to come to pass in time and space and of what might be their own fate on that final day.
And in our day when the few people who still read Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the greatest epic poems of human literature, take up the Inferno, the first part of that great work, they admire the literary skill of the great Italian poet, his inventiveness in describing the various circles of hell and the judgments meted out to various kinds of sinners, but in only the rarest cases are those readers arrested by the thought that what Dante has done is imaginatively to describe the actual fate of unbelieving mankind. They don’t really consider the possibility that the great poet has given us a powerful, thought imaginative account of a literal future. Few find themselves worried that the fates he describes as he descends further and further into hell might be their fate, their sentence.
Our world worries about many things. We worry about terrorism and the economy. We worry about health care and a cure for various diseases. We worry about the environment and global warming. We worry about crime. And on a more personal, individual level we worry about our jobs, our children, our bank account, our health, our marriage and on and on. We worry aplenty. Many pundits even worry about the moral decay, if not moral catastrophe overtaking our country. But what we do not worry about as a people is the Last Judgment. We are not alive to any realization that at some point in the future we will have to answer to an all-knowing, all-holy Judge who will assign to human beings punishment according to their deserts, and assign those punishments according to his standards of right and wrong, not to theirs or their friends or their societies.
Some of you will remember the trial of Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry. He was caught red-handed using drugs in an FBI sting. Everyone saw his arrest on videotape, saw Barry yelling at his former girlfriend who had turned FBI informant. There were felony and misdemeanor indictments but the jury acquitted him on all of those charges and found him guilty of a single misdemeanor charge from a previous incident. Judge Thomas Jackson of the Washington D.C. court, livid at the jury for giving the mayor a slap on the hand when everyone knew he deserved much more significant punishment, delivered a sharply worded dissent to the jury in which he said, “The jurors will have to answer to themselves and to their fellow citizens for the way in which they discharged their duty.” Perhaps Judge Jackson thought that would worry the jurors. But, in fact, that is precisely why the jurors did what they did. To say that they would have to answer to themselves and to their fellow citizens was, in effect, to say that they would not have to answer to anyone for anything. If they wanted to poke the establishment in the eye with a stick they could. Nobody could do anything to them; they were never going to suffer any punishment for letting a guilty man go free. Judge Jackson’s tirade has stuck with me as the perfect summary of how hollow all notions of moral accountability have become in our society.
And that pretty much sums up the prevailing mood in our land. In regard to our lives in their totality, in regard to our moral failures as a people we do not think we will have to give an account. We do not expect that we will be judged or punished. We do not expect that our works will follow us right up to the judgment seat of Christ. We do not expect to have to answer for what we have done that we should not have done and what we have failed to do that we should have done.
The interesting and telling fact is that, phenomenally important as this conclusion is to which most people have come in our land, so much resting upon it as it does, most people who have no fears of a last judgment have thought very little about the question. They have not seriously considered the arguments for it or against it. They live their lives in unconcern but if you were to press them and to ask why they don’t expect their lives to be brought into judgment, most would likely say that they simply don’t believe that such a thing would happen.
In truth, people object to the very idea of a last judgment, a judgment that results in people facing the music for the lives they lived and being punished by God because he was seriously displeased with their lives. It is an idea that offends them and, I would say, for entirely understandable and predictable reasons.
These are people, by and large, who have lost touch almost completely with the idea of the God of the Bible: a transcendent, holy, just, and sovereign being who, as man’s creator, has imposed upon all mankind a moral order. In our culture people are born and raised to believe, and are confirmed every single day by the media in this belief, that such a moral order, regulating the lives of all human beings, requiring the same obedience of everyone, and relating it all to the will of the infinite-personal God who is the judge of all men, is an impossibly old-fashioned and discredited idea. It is unscientific. Now we know, so they are taught to believe, that man is the product of evolution and that morality is not a fixed and universal law that stands above and outside human life, but rather is nothing more than the ever-changing tastes of people influenced both by their genes and their environment. Modern, sophisticated, scientifically minded, democratic people have rejected that old idea of human life, with its timeless and inflexible moral standards, and replaced it with the idea that we have a right to make our own choices.
People nowadays find the notion of impending judgment a violation of our freedom, our rights to self-determination. Hell is, in modern Western thought at least, undemocratic; a violation of our civil rights. All of this makes complete sense and is absolutely convincing to the modern mind shaped as it has been by the spirit of the age: tolerant, relativist, non-judgmental, pluralist, and pleasure-seeking. The Last Judgment as it is described in the Bible does not fit into this worldview at all. I understand that.
But that is a very different thing from saying that there will not be a Last Judgment. People believe all sorts of things that are not true. And if we know anything about people’s beliefs, we know that they tend to believe what they want to be true. That is why it is easy to understand why most people in our land think there is a heaven and almost everyone thinks he or she is going there. A substantial majority of people also believe that there is a hell but almost no one thinks he or she is going there. Is there a serious argument here or is this simply predictable human sentimentality: believing to be true what one wants to be true.
As a matter of fact, however, there are very impressive reasons for believing the Bible’s account of the Last Judgment. Let me mention just a few.
- We all are forced to accept the fact that in human life, to a remarkable degree, our behavior and, in particular, our misbehavior regularly has unwelcome consequences. If you stop and think about it, you will be struck by how universal this principle is in human life. We encounter it everywhere. Sometimes the judgment is imposed by other human beings. More often it just happens. Driving too fast gets you a ticket. Robbing a bank gets you jail. Promiscuity gets you a disease or an unwanted pregnancy. Infidelity ruins your marriage. The misuse of alcohol or the use of drugs can lead to addictions that a person then finds it impossible to escape. In fact, this law of consequence is far more deeply enmeshed in human experience than we usually recognize or admit to ourselves. Misbehaviors of all kinds dog us all our lives. We cannot escape them and they harry our steps; we are in their grip and we suffer their judgment. Patterns of speech and behavior that we formed early in life bring us and others pain for years thereafter. Cruelty, unkindness, or indifference leave us with little respect and few friends. And so it goes. Violate the great and small laws of human life as those laws are recognized by everyone and pain and trouble are the result.
- On the other hand, two more facts about human life are likewise obvious and important to everyone. First, there is often a significant lag between misbehavior and consequence or judgment. A drunk does not immediately find himself with cirrhosis of the liver. A philanderer is not always immediately discovered and can sometimes escape the consequence of his infidelities for a long time. A lazy person does not always immediately suffer the loss of the rewards that come to hard work. A selfish person is not always soon seen for what he or she is. It often takes time for our sins to find us out, for our moral failures to catch up with us.
- Second, all our sins are not punished in this life. In fact, most of the real harm that human beings do to one another is never really punished in this life. Many crimes are never solved. A murder occurred on the campus of our Covenant Theological Seminary some years ago. The police think they know who did it, but they couldn’t find evidence enough to arrest and indict. The man walks free today. But there is so much more harm that is not criminal, however evil it is. How many husbands have blasted the hopes and dreams of their wives or vice versa and gone on to serve themselves leaving the carnage behind them. How many children grow up to bear terrible burdens in life because of what their parents or some other adults from their childhood did to them or never did to them? Think of all the heartbreak that is caused by the selfishness of others, all the sadness and hopelessness and despair that washes over human life in our world every moment of every day. Hardly any of it is a crime for which someone might be arrested and sent to prison; most of those who cause this untold misery never answer for it here in this world. We know the connection between sin and punishment and we justify it in our own judgments about the behavior of others every single day. We feel that sins – especially the sins of those who sinned against us – ought to be punished, but we know they usually are not; not in this world.
- And then there is our universal and inescapable penchant for moral judgment. If there is no God who has imposed his moral will upon the life of mankind, it is certainly hard to explain why that moral code exists everywhere and is so inflexibly applied by everyone to everyone else’s conduct. Everyone is offended, even thieves and murderers, when a lie is told to them, when their property is stolen, when their names or reputations are sullied, when sexual license is practiced at their expense. Whatever people say about this when they are philosophizing, every human being makes categorical moral judgments about the behavior of others. If these moral judgments in fact mean nothing and are nothing but people’s changing opinions; if they do not reflect a transcendental reality that comes upon man’s life from outside, then no one can begin to explain human life as it is actually lived. And certainly not the most important part of human life to every one of us, that is its personal and moral character: love, truth, meaning, justice, goodness. When Mother Theresa and Islamic terrorists use the same moral code to justify their actions and to condemn the actions of others, when you and your enemies appeal to the same standards of behavior, it is the counsel of despair to argue that such morality is not real, that it does not come from outside of us, and does not rule over us. But if that standard is real and is outside of us, then it came from somewhere and, because it is so personal in its nature, it came from someone. Will that someone not care about our obedience or disobedience to that moral standard when we care so much?
- But we are still not done. The Last Judgment is here and everywhere in the Bible described as a sudden catastrophe that breaks upon the world and takes it by surprise. There is nothing in our experience to make that seem impossible. Catastrophes aplenty dot the history of our race; unwelcome surprises meet us at every turn. We encounter life- and even civilization-ending judgments again and again. That there should be one final such catastrophe may be an unpleasant prospect, but it is hardly unbelievable. Indeed, people worry about such an event all the time, though they do not attribute it to divine justice but to global warming or nuclear war or drug-resistant diseases.
- And may I mention finally that we live in a cosmos in which nothing ever really disappears. It is an axiom of science that no material object can really be destroyed. That which disappears in one form reappears in another, in another form of matter or in the form of energy. We are used to this fact but hardly ever consider what it suggests concerning the continuing existence of human beings. When things “die” in the Autumn we know they will “live” again in the Spring. The reality of continued existence after death is not the reach many people seem to think it is. But if not, what makes us think that God’s moral judgment that has pressed with such weight upon us here in this world would not meet us in the next world, the next life?
We could say so much more. All of this leads me to say simply that the sort of naïveté regarding the Last Judgment that we encounter in our culture nowadays should not trouble our faith as Christians. We can easily understand the reticence of people to believe it true. It is an unwelcome truth and those are the hardest truths of all to believe. But the question is not whether we wish it so; the question is whether it is so.
Many will nowadays say that a God of love would never punish people as the Bible says he will. But there is a great irony hidden in that argument. The God of love of whom Western people so confidently speak, whose existence they so confidently assume: that God is the God of the Bible. No other religion reveals to us or ever has revealed to us such a God; no other philosophy holds up such a God to our view. It is the Bible and the Bible alone that has taught us, that has taught the world, to think of God as love. Islam will speak of God’s love and mercy but it has no knowledge of his heart of tender compassion toward individual human beings, or of his inviting us to enjoy fellowship with himself, or offering to us his own heart. There is no outpouring of love in Islam’s God such as would create some tension with the expectation that he will also judge the world. Such an idea is considered disrespectful to God in Islam. The gods of the ancient world and of animist faiths were not and are not gods of love. Buddhism has no God to speak of and Hinduism’s gods are not at all gods of personal, self-forgetful, and sacrificial love.
No other God but the Christian God is so much a God of love that he can be said to be love itself. No other God is such a God whose compassion and mercy and kindness and goodness are the chief features of his self-revelation as he gives it to us both in the Bible and in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There is no other God apart from the God whose very nature is triune – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and so whose very nature is and has always been and must always be love for others. There is no other God of love than the God of the Bible. We can understand why a person might think that God’s judgment was incompatible with his love, but it bears pointing out that those who object to divine judgment as a contradiction to divine love would have no thought of a God of love were it not for the God of the Bible. But it is the Bible that teaches us that the God who is love is also a God of judgment and wrath; that he holds men to account for their thoughts, words, and deeds; and that he will punish those who live in rebellion against him. The only God of love there is is also a God of justice and judgment.
More important than all of these arguments, however, is the fact that God has so clearly, emphatically and repeatedly revealed his intention to judge the world and that doctrine is placed supremely in the mouth of our Lord and Savior who gave himself for the world and the world’s salvation. The Lord has not left us wondering; he has told us straightaway that we must answer for our lives and our behavior toward him and toward others. He has published the standard according to which we will have to answer for our lives.
Why should I struggle against sinful desires when those desires are so powerful, so constant, so unrelenting? Why should I refuse to give in and struggle my life through to do what is right, what is pure, what is honest, what is faithful, and what is loving? Well there are many reasons. But the others pale compared to this: the day is coming when you will have to answer for your life and for your choices and for your behavior and for your treatment of others and for your reverence for the God who gave you life. And when you are standing before the Lamb that was slain, none of your arguments, none of your excuses, none of your extenuations will matter at all. You will be judged and you will be condemned. And you will gnash your teeth that you were warned – by the Word of God, by the light of nature, and by your own conscience – and you ignored the warning.
And, worst of all, you will stand condemned in the presence of the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb who offered you eternal life as a free gift. What might have been had you not ignored the gospel when it was proclaimed to you. It is the tragedy of the Last Judgment – that it might not have been so – that is the Bible’s first and last word about it. “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come.” In other words, it is not too late to be saved.
If only you had taken heed; if only…
For all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been.”