Divine Violence in the Revelation

Similar to what I previously explored in the Synoptic Gospels, recent years have seen John’s Revelation interpreted by progressive Christians to favor pacifism and universalism. There are two common ways to alleviate the tension between our preference for a God who takes no part in violence, and the violence found in the Revelation. One is to excuse the Revelation’s violence as not coming from God at all, attributing it to the satan, to demons, or to humanity itself. Here, the book is merely a prediction of world events, without God himself taking part in their unfolding. The other way is to dismiss the Revelation’s symbolism as ‘just’ symbolism, rendering it useless in understanding the author’s ideas about God.

The problem is that, while both interpretations have the noble goal of advocating an ethic of non-violence, they are nevertheless inventions of the interpreters with no basis in the book itself. These solutions to divine violence in the Revelation, once more, prioritize the reader’s system of interpretation over the text’s own world.

Every book ever written is a product of its time. They all work with the tropes of their genre. And the Book of Revelation is not unique in this regard. It is one of many books that belong to a genre called ‘apocalypse’. This genre has roots in pre-exilic books like Isaiah or Ezekiel, but the genre truly emerged around 300 BC, and endured well past AD 150. The Revelation operates in the same mode as these other books.

Below, I will look at how John came up with the more prominent symbolism of his Revelation, and how a non-violent reading of the book undermines John’s message.

The Iron Rod

Rev 2.26-28 has Jesus promise to grant authority to his followers to rule the nations ‘with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered’, an authority Jesus himself received from God. The expression of the iron rod returns in Rev 12.5 and 19.15. In all three instances, John mentions that the iron rod is the means by which Jesus rules the nations. Violence is inherent to the image, since this is not a royal scepter, but an object of force used to batter subjects into submission. The source of this picture is Psa 2, where Israel’s king is granted universal authority by God:

He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve Yahweh with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.

The psalm begins with nations and kings opposing God’s anointed one, and God’s response is to enable and permit the anointed one to crush his enemies with an iron rod. Thus, the king warns the nations, they must submit to God, or they will ‘perish’ because his ‘wrath is quickly kindled’.

Psa 2 (and the closely related Psa 110) was popular in the early Christian movement. The authority of the messiah to commit violence to maintain order was not excised by early Christians. John incorporates the idea into his Revelation without further comment; he takes it for granted that Jesus, as the anointed one, will use the iron rod to force his enemies into submission.

The Throne

Past the introductory chapters 1-3, the initial scene of the book, in Revelation 4-5, is of God seated on his throne. John’s vision here draws directly from Isa 6, Ezek 1-3, and Dan 7.9-10. The common elements include God’s throne, the seraphs or cherubs attending to the throne, the song they sing, the scroll in God’s hand, and the thousands upon thousands of angels that surround the throne.

All three passages are scenes of God preparing to execute punishment against nations or kingdoms. In Isa 6, Isaiah is told to prophesy until Israel’s cities are empty and God sends everyone into exile. Ezek 1-3 has God hand the prophet a scroll that represents the ‘lamentation and mourning and woe’ of Ezekiel’s message of divine punishment against Israel. Dan 7.9-10 is the critical moment when God intervenes against a monster’s ‘little horn’ (Antiochus Epiphanes), slaying the monster and destroying its body (7.11).

The response is that the Revelation borrows these symbols and tropes with the intention of subverting them, showing that God is actually non-violent, but nothing in the text of the Revelation suggests this is the case. As with 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and other Second Temple apocalypses, the Revelation borrows these symbols and tropes from the Hebrew Bible because they accurately communicate the author’s ideas. John describes a scene of God seated on his throne and prepared to dispense judgment because that’s what he believed was about to happen (1.1-3; 22.7,10).

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The scroll in God’s hand is given to Jesus (the Lamb), who breaks the seals holding it shut. Each seal broken reveals more of the scroll’s contents. The first four seals unleash four horsemen, their horses different colors. The first horseman is the subject of debate, but the next three are spelled out plainly: they are violence, economic imbalance implying famine, and death caused by violence, famine, plague, and wild animals. These forms of worldly suffering are identified as punishment from God in Lev 26.21-26,33, Ezek 5.12,17, 6.8,11-12, Isa 1.19-20, and Jer 15.2-3.

The theme of divine punishment is found in the four horsemen themselves, which are borrowed from the Book of Zechariah. The horses in Zech 1 hide among the myrtle trees, spying on the activity of the world; they are the scouts for God’s imminent judgment on Babylon. The horses in Zech 6 are fixed to chariots, and impatient to rush into the world; they are the execution of God’s judgment. Their emergence from the mountains (cf. Joel 2.4-5) has parallels in ancient Near Eastern literature, signifying the divine origin of their attack.

Chariots and horses are associated in the OT with superior military power (Exod. 14:25-26; Josh. 11:6; Judg. 4:15-16; 1 Sam. 13:5; 1 Kgs. 10:26-29). [...] In the OT, as well as more broadly in ancient Near Eastern literature and iconography, deities are often depicted as divine warriors riding on a chariot. [...] Thus in Isa. 66:16 Yahweh comes with his chariots which are like a storm wind (sûp̱â) from which he will launch his flames of fire (lightning). In Ps. 68:18(17), Yahweh is said to be positioned among tens of thousands of chariots. While the single chariot of associated with Elijah’s translation in 2 Kgs. 2:1, 11, 2 Kgs. 6:17 reveals multiple fiery chariots with horses sent to protect Elisha. In the presentation of the divine warrior in Hab. 3:8, Yahweh is depicted as riding (rāḵaḇ) on horses and chariots of salvation, and these horses trample the sea underfoot (3:15).1

In the Revelation, ‘Babylon’ is a cipher for the capital city Rome (see here). For John to adapt Zechariah’s horsemen to his own vision indicates the revelator believed God was bringing judgment against Rome, which would manifest as war, famine, plague, and wild animal attacks.

Cosmic Catastrophe

Rev 6.12-17 depicts the universe falling apart.

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?’

Imagery of universal ‘decreation’ is found across the prophets of the Hebrew Bible: the sun darkening, the moon reddening, the stars falling, the earth shaking, the clouds storming, the heavens collapsing. Such ‘cosmic catastrophes’ are commonly invoked in prophecies concerning the downfall of nations. At a minimum, this decreation language was metaphoric for sociopolitical upheaval. Taking into account that ancient people literally worshiped the sun, moon, and stars as gods (e.g. Deut 4.19), this decreation language could also be taken somewhat more literally, that the prophets believed God was overthrowing heavenly powers, which in turn manifested on the earth as kingdoms being overthrown by their enemies.

John’s vision is derived from four primary sources: Isa 13.9-11, Isa 34.2-4, Hosea 10.8-10, and Joel 2.1-2,10-11.

In each of these chapters, earthly manifestations of violence are attributed to God: he punishes Babylon, he slaughters Edom, he comes against Israel, he leads armies against Jerusalem. John borrows the symbolism, but he never repudiates the divine origin of the violence behind that symbolism. Rather, he reinforces it by identifying the earth’s terrified response as part of the ‘the great day of wrath’ of God and Jesus.

The Exodus Plagues

Revelation 8-11 displays plagues announced by trumpets, and chapter 16 shows more plagues poured out from seven ritual bowls. Both sets of plagues are highly influenced by the plagues of the exodus.

  • Trumpet one (8.7): hail, fire, and blood (Exo 9.13-25).
  • Trumpet two (8.8-9): seas become blood (Exo 7.14-25).
  • Trumpet four (8.12): darkness (Exo 10.21-29).
  • Trumpet five (9.1-12): locusts (Exo 10.1-20).
  • Bowl one (16.2): boils (Exo 9.8-12).
  • Bowls two and three (16.3-4): seas and rivers become blood (Exo 7.14-25).
  • Bowl five (16.10-11): darkness (Exo 10.21-29).
  • Bowl six (16.12-16): frogs (Exo 8.1-15).
  • Bowl seven (16.17-21): hail (Exo 9.13-25).

Exodus repeatedly says the plagues came on Egypt because God sent them. Exo 12.12 even calls it ‘judgment’ on the ‘gods of Egypt’ stressing that the plagues disrupt the entire order of Egypt’s society. John identifies these plagues not merely as the self-caused suffering of humanity, but as originating from God’s throne-room (8.2-5; 15.1,5-8), calling them the ‘wrath of God’ (11.18; 15.1,7; 16.1).

Some of the above plagues are combined with jargon borrowed from other parts of the Hebrew Bible. The fourth trumpet reiterates the cosmic catastrophe language we’ve already seen. The fifth trumpet combines the locust plague on Egypt with the hyperbolic similes used in Joel 1-2 to describe armies sent by God to destroy Jerusalem. The seventh bowl proclaims that God forced ‘Babylon’ to drink the ‘cup of the fury of his wrath’, an idiom found in Jer 25, Ezek 23, and Isa 51, to describe how God punished Israel and other nations.

Increasing Severity

As the symbolism in the Revelation progresses, the severity of the judgments increase.

The seven seals (Rev 6.1-8.1) are dispensed in measurements of one-fourth: there are four horsemen, a full day’s pay buys only one quart of wheat, and the fourth horseman has authority over one-fourth of the earth.

The seven trumpets (Rev 8-11) increase to measurements of one-third: the first trumpet burns one-third of all flora, the second turns one-third of the seas to blood, the third poisons one-third of the rivers, and the fourth darkens the heavenly lights by one-third. These first four trumpets also show the increasing scale of God’s judgment, beginning with the land, moving into the seas and rivers, and then reach even the heavens. An eagle laments three woes (the final three trumpets), and the sixth trumpet contains three plagues that kill one-third of humanity.

We would expect the next grouping to increase to measurements of one-half, but this doesn’t happen. Instead, the seven bowls (Rev 15-16) are not limited in any way, ‘for with them the wrath of God is finished’ (15.1), and when the last bowl is poured out, a voice in heaven shouts ‘It is done’ (16.17).

The Seven Thunders

There is some speculation that the seven thunders briefly mentioned in Rev 10.3-4 were meant to be the judgments measured in one-half, but were retracted in order to speed things up after humanity failed to repent in the face of the seals and trumpets.2 Alternately, the seven thunders may not be related to the theme of increasing severity, and are an allusion to Psa 29.3 If that is the case, John is still drawing on a background of divine violence, as the psalm describes God’s voice as seven thunders that terrify his creation.

Psa 29 evolved from earlier concepts of Yahweh as a warrior god and storm god (cf. Psa 18.7-15 and Hab 3), which in turn grew from myths concerning Baal as a storm god who shook the earth with thunder, and fired lightning as arrows.4 This conceptual evolution is long in the past for John, but he elsewhere shows familiarity with age-old myths, so it’s not out of the question that these ideas could be behind the ‘seven thunders’ of Rev 10.

The Cup of Wrath

The cup of wrath is found in Rev 14.10, 16.19, and 18.6, always in association with the downfall of ‘Babylon’ (Rome). The severity of this symbolic cup cannot be understated.

Yahweh commands cupbearer Jeremiah to make the nations drink the cup of divine wrath (25:15-29; see also Num 5:11-31). At this chilling banquet of death, all who drink the poisonous cup will eventually die (McKane 1986, 634-35). The force of God’s anger is overwhelming, and none can resist it (25:28-29). The wine of divine wrath reveals the terrifying power of Yahweh and the diminutive might of “all the kingdoms of the world that are on the face of the earth” (25:26). The One who controls the destiny of the world is able to send the once-powerful nations away reeling in pain.5

In Rev 14.10 it is said the wine of God’s wrath is ‘poured unmixed into the cup of his anger’. In Rev 18.6, it is stated that Babylon will drink ‘double’ of God’s wrath. The message is that God’s wrath will be undiluted and pure, and will be dispensed excessively. The full unit of Revelation 18.1-19.8 greatly revels in the downfall of Babylon, and the ‘torment and grief’ (18.7) the city endures. The entire premise of this judgment on Babylon is ‘vengeance’ (19.2).

The Rising Smoke

The Revelation also draws extensively on a tradition of divine punishment that goes all the way back to Genesis. In that book, God annihilates Sodom and nearby cities with heavenly fire. All that remains for Abraham to find is a burnt valley with smoke rising into the sky (Gen 19.27-28). Isaiah picked up on this scene and exaggerated it to describe God’s vicious wrath against the nation of Edom:

For Yahweh has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever.

—Isaiah 34.8-10

John combines this with the cup of wrath symbol, but changes it, in Rev 14.10-11:

they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day and night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

John is not describing the burning of land, as Isaiah was. It is not a landscape that burns ‘night and day’. It is not a countryside that sends up smoke ‘forever’. This is the punishment of people, a crowd of individuals. Their torment sends up smoke ‘forever and ever’; they suffer ‘day and night’.

The Winepress

Rev 14.14-20 shows Jesus (the son of man) harvest the earth, immediately followed by an angel harvesting grapes which are thrown into a winepress. This unit of harvesting followed by a winepress comes from Joel 3.13:

Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.

John reuses the winepress metaphor in Rev 19.15. It is extremely common among progressive Christians to try distancing Jesus from the violence implied by the winepress by pointing out that the blood on Jesus’ robe is mentioned before he treads the winepress (19.13), and so must be his own blood, from his crucifixion. This explanation totally fails to address the sources John is working with.

In Rev 14, John directly calls it ‘the great winepress of the wrath of God’. When John describes blood overflowing out of the winepress, he implies it is the people of ‘the city’ (Babylon, cf. 14.8) who are being tread upon. His specification that the blood rose as high as a horse’s bridle might be an allusion to 1 Enoch 100.13-14, which says ‘a horse will wade up to its breast through the blood of the sinners’ on the ‘day of judgment’.

Rev 14.20 and Rev 19.11-16 are also based Isaiah 63.1-6:

‘Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bozrah in garments stained crimson? Who is this so splendidly robed, marching in his great might?’

‘It is I, announcing vindication, mighty to save.’

‘Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the winepress?’

‘I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year for my redeeming work had come. I looked, but there was no helper; I stared, but there was no one to sustain me; so my own arm brought me victory, and my wrath sustained me. I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.’

In this passage, God treads the winepress. In his ‘vengeance’ and ‘wrath’, he utterly crushed his enemies, and their blood splattered on his robes. As with Rev 19.11-16, the blood-stained robes are mentioned before the winepress, yet there is no denying where the blood came from. Rev 19.11-16 actually contains a small chiastic structure which shows this was John’s intention:

1A He has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.

2A He is clothed in a robe stained in blood.

3A And his name is called the word of God, and the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.

3B From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.

2B He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.

1B On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’.

In layer one, Jesus ‘has a name inscribed’ that only applies to him. In layer three, Jesus is called the ‘word of God’, which is symbolized as a sword in Heb 4.12 and Eph 6.17 (cf. Isa 49.2). And in layer two, Jesus’ robe is stained in blood, as he treads the winepress.

The Revelation frequently repeats elements across its twenty-two chapters. For example, armies trespassing the Euphrates shows up in both chapter 9 and chapter 16. When the Revelation does something like this, the intention is for readers to cross the bridge between the repetitions. For John to bring up the winepress twice, both times following the destruction of Babylon, we are supposed to connect them. The one who treads the winepress in Rev 19 and stains his robes with blood, is the same one in Rev 14 who causes the winepress to overflow with blood for nearly two hundred miles.

Vultures and Fire

Rev 19.17-21 depicts an angel calling down vultures and other carrion birds to ‘eat the flesh’ of God’s enemies. Rev 20.8-9 the enemies of God’s followers, ‘Gog and Magog’, destroyed by fire from heaven. These are, together, based directly on Ezek 39.1-20. In this passage, God emphatically identifies himself as the destroyer of Israel’s enemies:

‘I will send fire on Magog and on those who live securely in the coastlands; and they shall know that I am Yahweh.’

This is plain enough; I don’t need to elaborate more on it.

The Lake of Fire

As Jesus treads the winepress, and strikes down his enemies with the iron rod, and calls down vultures on his enemies, he also punishes two of his chief enemies in Rev 19.20:

And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.

The lake is mentioned again in the following chapters:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. [...] And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. [...] But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

There are initial echoes of Rev 14.10-11, identifying the ‘lake of fire’ with the earlier ‘cup of wrath’ punishment. Going further, John’s lake of fire most likely grew from his dependence on Dan 7. The Revelation as a whole borrows extensively from that chapter, but John once more modifies the symbolism. In Dan 7, the ‘beast’ is slain, and its corpse destroyed in a river of fire that pours out from God’s throne. In contrast, John specifies that the two beasts of his own vision are kept alive in the lake of fire (19.20), suffering torment not just for one thousand years (Rev 20.7), but ‘forever and ever’ (20.10).

There is debate whether John intends for his ‘beast’ and ‘false prophet’ to be identified with individual people or with systems of oppression. While I think the latter is most likely (the beast is the Roman Empire and the false prophet is the emperor cult in Asia), we are still left with the impression this lake of fire represents some manner of divinely-mandated suffering.

This is corroborated by the special idiom applied to the lake of fire: ‘the second death’.

The Second Death

This idiom, teased in Rev 2.11, appears to have originated among Aramaic-speaking interpreters of the Hebrew Bible. When Israel’s holy scriptures were translated into Aramaic, they freely paraphrased or elaborated in many places. These interpretive translations were called ‘targums’. A recurring phrase is ‘the second death’, which Targum Isaiah places in Gehenna, the location of divine punishment described by Jesus. As mentioned in my previous article:

Targum Deut 33.6 identifies the ‘second death’ as an irreversible punishment following the resurrection, while Targum Jer 51.39,57 identifies it as exclusion from the resurrection entirely. Targum Isa 22.14 and 65.15 follow the first view, and state that God himself will be the one who carries out the execution.

The Revelation’s usage of ‘the second death’ likewise follows the first view: the dead are raised out of Death and Hades and the sea, and they stand in judgment before God’s throne. For critical readers, it must be asked how John can call the punishment of the lake of fire a ‘second death’ if this punishment apparently consists of ‘torment day and night forever and ever’. This is close to Targum Isa 65.5-6:

Their retribution is in Gehenna where the fire burns all the day. See it is written before me: I will not givem them respite during (their) life, for theirs is the retribution of their sins and I will hand over their body to the second death.

As many have noted, ‘torment forever and ever’ is hardly ‘death’, and yet John insists exactly that. Decades before the Revelation was written, the Judean theologian Philo of Alexandria laid out his understanding of the ‘two kinds of death’ that people may suffer:

Since then the action of this man [Cain killing of Abel] was a novel one, it was necessary that a novel punishment should be devised for him; and what was it? That he should live continually dying, and that he should in a manner endure an undying and never ending death. For there are two kinds of death: the one that of being dead, which is either good or else a matter of indifference; the other that of dying, which is in every respect an evil, and the more protracted the dying the more intolerable the evil.

—Philo, On Rewards and Punishments 70

Philo is here talking primarily about Cain, but he uses this to illustrate the manner of punishments God will mete out. Given that John describes the lake of fire as both death and eternal torment, it must be admitted he had no problem with the apparent contradiction in terms that today’s readers do. For him, eternal torment was unending death, and this was punishment designed by God himself.

Conclusion

Progressive Christianity brings a mode of thought that genuinely wants what is best for humanity. It wants peace, it wants compassion, it wants reconciliation. However, members of this movement routinely misread biblical texts, driven by various motivations.

It is currently common to attribute violence in the Hebrew Bible to a ‘progressive revelation’ of God, that the earlier biblical authors kept misunderstanding God’s nature, wrongly attributing acts of destruction and disaster to him, but just a little bit less as time moved forward. Hence, by the time the biblical record reaches Jesus, the full nature of God is revealed: he is not responsible for violence and has no intention of destroying or tormenting sinners.

The Christ and his original followers are supposed to have unveiled the truth about God, that he is devoid of wrath or punishment, and yet we keep running into messages of divine retribution indistinguishable from those found in either the Hebrew Bible or the apocalyptic literature contemporary to Jesus and John. Not only does divine violence not disappear when Christianity emerges, it is actually amplified to a greater degree than anything in the Law or the Prophets, and the Revelation is perhaps the epitome of that.

Over and over, the Revelation takes texts of divine violence from the Hebrew Bible and mixes them together so that their sum is greater than the parts. John repeatedly calls the plagues and violence the ‘wrath of God’. He envisions time and again Jesus executing punishment. Not once does John draw on the Hebrew Bible’s passages of divine violence in order to subvert them; he consistently validates them. There is no way to objectively read the Revelation in light of John’s sources and conclude he understood God as non-violent.


1 Mark Boda, The Book of Zechariah, 369-374.

2 Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 82-83.

3 G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 534-535.

4 John Day, ‘Echoes of Baal’s Seven Thunders and Lightnings in Psalm XXIX and Habakkuk III 9 and the Identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah VI’, Vetus Testamentum 22.

5 Louis Stulman, Jeremiah, 227.