Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 27, 2014

Making Sense Of The Violence In Revelation

I had my first go at preaching on a violent section in Revelation yesterday. It is hard to make sense of all of the violence in this book, especially when it is attributed to God. In chapter six we encounter the wrath of the lamb that causes people to hide out in caves and beg to be spared. Throughout the book demonic locusts torment people, idolaters are burned with sulphurous fire, and angels swinging sharp sickles cause blood to flow.

How does this imagery connect with the picture of Jesus we read about in the gospels? Did God have a personality change between the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John? Did he decide that the donkey and the cross weren’t working anymore, so it was time to pull out the big guns? Did our loving savior suddenly turn into a capricious tyrant prone to emotional outbursts?

A surface reading of Revelation can easily lead us to this picture of God. Mark Driscoll recently wrote a blog post suggesting that the book of Revelation teaches us that Jesus will eventually trade in the non-violent ethic we see in the gospel for a more aggressive response to evil. He writes,

Those who want to portray Jesus as a pansy or a pacifist are prone to be very selective in the parts of the Bible they quote. . . The European, long-haired, dress-wearing, hippie Jesus is a bad myth from a bad artist who mistook Jesus for a community college humanities professor. But if we want to learn all about Jesus we have to read all that the Bible says about him.

Driscoll then proceeds to quote some of the graphic parts of Revelation that I have referenced above to prove his point. He then concludes by saying.

Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning. Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow. Then there will be peace forever as the Prince of Peace takes his rightful throne. Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist. Jesus is no one to mess with.

I do not disagree with everything Driscoll says. I think it is important for us to attend to the biblical pictures of God’s wrath. Sometimes we do not treat sin as seriously as we should. Many contemporary theologians provide an overly narrow view of God’s love that excludes any type of accountability for sin.

However, it is important to balance our teaching on this topic of God’s wrath with a proper understanding of why God responds so strongly to sin. N.T. Wright says, “ it is wrong to imagine God as a capricious or vengeful tyrant. God is indeed angry at everything that has so horribly spoiled his wonderful world . . . but the lamb’s anger is the rejection, by Love incarnate, of all that is unloving” (Revelation For Everyone). In other words, God’s frustration with sin is actually an expression of love. It would not be very loving if God didn’t care about things like child abuse, economic exploitation, or human trafficking. His anger is righteous. Thankfully he is going to provide justice for those who are oppressed.

It is also important for us to recognize that the imagery used in Revelation is just that – imagery! It is not to be taken literally. I do not think we are literally going to encounter the locusts in chapter 9 that, “looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth (Rev 9:7-8).” I think it is dangerous for Driscoll to allow highly symbolic images to trump the incarnate image of God depicted in the historic life of Jesus of Nazareth.

To properly interpret the violent imagery used in Revelation we need to understand the point it is trying to make. Eugene Peterson argues that the imagery of God’s conquest in Revelation is simply saying that God is successful at overcoming the powers of the world (Reversed Thunder, ch.6). This imagery would have been very powerful to a group of Christians who were facing extreme persecution. The images in Revelation are meant to evoke hope for those who are oppressed.

They do not, however, show us the literal method by which he is going to overtake evil. Peterson says that the images in Revelation are creative ways of saying that the way of the cross will be successful. The God who, “disarmed the powers through his death on the cross,”(Col 2:15), will indeed triumph.

M. Eugene Boring makes a similar point. He argues that we have to hold the images of violence in Revelation in tension with the image of the slain lamb. These images are contradictory in a way. This weak animal that has been sacrificed is simultaneously powerful at overcoming evil. Boring uses a metaphor from mathematics to help us understand how this works. He writes:

“The traditional imagery of apocalyptic terror is adopted and used by John, but like everything else in his revelation it is transformed within his Christological perspective. The imagery of the lion is still used, but the Messiah is the slain Lamb. As in mathematics when one changes the valence of the sign outside the parentheses, the formulae within the parentheses are retained, but all their values are reversed. The same imagery is used, but its valence is changed (Revelation: Interpretation Series, 116).

In other words, we need to read the violent imagery in relation to the broader perspective of Christ and his mission. The slain lamb is the interpretive key to understanding the violence in Revelation. The lamb negates any attempt at concluding that Jesus is an evil tyrant that is out for blood. The violent imagery simply communicates that the slain lamb will triumph.

Perhaps this explanation might help us understand and apply the powerful imagery being used in Revelation. Revelation does not provide us with biblical support for extreme violence. It does not describe a change of heart on the part of Jesus. The purpose of Revelation is to give us hope in the face of evil. Thanks be to God, evil will not have the last word. The slain lamb will indeed disarm the powers of this world!


  1. The good news of the Gospel shared in a balanced way. HENRY

  2. Mark Driscoll needs to read more from one of his heroes, Charles Spurgeon:

  3. I have been reading Randy Alcorn’s book on Heaven, where he states that God is going to cleans His Creation, not destroy it. We are going to live on the newly cleansed earth, this earth, right where we are.

    • Thanks for commenting Paul. Yes, that is a perspective I have heard quite often as well and I find it quite convincing.

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