“Armageddon and the Last Word on Judgment”
August 14, 2022
Once, during an impassioned sermon about death and God’s final judgement, there was a pastor at a church who announced forcefully, “Each member of this church is going to die and face God’s judgement.”
Glancing down at the front pew, the pastor noticed a man with a big smile on his face. The pastor repeated his point louder. “Each member of this church is going to die and face God’s judgement!” The man nodded and smiled even more.
This really got the preacher wound up. He pounded the pulpit emphatically when he came to the ultimatum: “Each member of this church is going to die and face judgement!!!” Though everyone else in the congregation was looking somber, the man in front continued to smile.
So finally the preacher stepped off the platform, stood in front of the man and shouted, “I said each member of this church is going to die!” The man grinned from ear to ear.
After the service was over, the preacher made a beeline for the man. “I don’t get it,” the preacher said in frustration. “Whenever I said, ‘Each member of this church is going to die,’ your smile got bigger. Why?”
The man looked at him and said, “Well, I’m not a member of this church.”
This funny story fits the caricature that I think many people have of preachers in churches. How many comics or movies or books usually portray the local preacher as at least somewhat of a passionate, fiery personality who loves preaching about God’s judgment and hellfire if there isn’t repentance?
Luckily for all of us, I’ve always been quite turned off by that type of preaching. But more than just pastors, we’ve all come across that guy standing on a streetcorner with a cardboard sign yelling about God’s wrath, or we know that Christian who always seems intent on reminding everyone around them that God punishes anyone who is an unbeliever. And of course there’s the book of Revelation fanatic who insists that it’s all spelled out right here: God is coming to punish and destroy unbelievers and evildoers…best to be on the right side of the end times.
For centuries many Christians have been a bit obsessed with the idea of God’s final judgment and deciding who is going to hell and who isn’t. Funny enough, it always seems like the group who makes the rules about who is in and who is out is always on the inside. That’s convenient.
But I’ll be honest with all of you that talking and thinking about God’s wrath or biblical depictions of God’s final judgment when Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff and some people enter into eternal paradise and others get locked into a fiery hellscape…this type of stuff has always made me a bit squeamish.
I don’t know about you, but I much prefer the Hallmark version of Jesus. The kind, loving, tender shepherd who offers grace upon grace and who accepts us back no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done and who seems much opposed to any type of violent wrath or judgment.
But then I come across sections like this one in Revelation – and we see many other violent depictions of God’s wrath throughout scripture—and I’m not quite sure how to reconcile the two portraits of God I’m presented with.
On the one hand there’s the kind, loving, radically accepting Jesus we see throughout the gospels. And on the other hand, there’s the Jesus who flips over tables and calls people “brood of vipers” and who is depicted in Revelation with eyes like fiery flames, his tongue like a sword and his voice that the roar of a waterfall.
I’m comfortable with the Jesus who loves me and accepts me no matter what and whose arms are open wide for everyone. I’m less comfortable with the Jesus who takes issue with the sins in my life or who might have wrath to pour out.
So what do we do with the type of Jesus portrayed here in Revelation? What do we do with the violent wrath that God is intent on pouring out? Is God not as loving as we thought?
This section is John’s crescendo to the masterpiece of poetry he is weaving. He has been rhyming three different sets of seven that detail the coming of God’s kingdom. We’ve already seen seven sets of seals opened, which detailed all sorts of evils that exist in the world and God’s response to them. And then we had seven trumpets blown, (which we didn’t read) which all unleashed various plagues. And now we have seven bowls being poured out upon the nations. The first five bowls are plagues, a repetition of the trumpet plagues. The sixth bowl unleashes the beast and the dragon who gather their armies for a final showdown at Armageddon. And the seventh and final bowl pours out God’s wrath and final judgment on the people who followed the dragon.
What do we do with such violent imagery, when your pastor has been emphasizing for the last four weeks that the central image of the book is a slain lamb who conquers through love and sacrifice, not violence! What is going on here?
We like the portrait of a nice, loving God. We’re not sure what to do with the God who doles out wrath and judgment.
But before we address these seemingly clashing depictions, I want you to imagine that you are a Jewish person living in the first century under Roman occupation. The Romans rolled into your town several decades ago and burned homes down, violated the helpless and they’ve set up a military outpost in your town. They steal your money, your livestock and your kids, because Caesar requires it from you. You’re just being a good citizen, by letting them do all of this, you’re told.
Now how do you feel towards these Romans? Probably helpless and also probably very very angry. And if you believe in a God who is watching over you, how do you want this God to respond to these Romans who have invaded your village and ruined your life?
You’d probably want God to do the very same thing to these Romans that they did to you, so they know how it feels.
The Bible was written by Jewish people who belonged to a Jewish minority living under the oppression of a succession of massive military superpowers who had conquered them. The entire Bible chronicles this series of superpowers who conquered and passed the Jewish people around like candy.
First there were the Egyptians, then the Assyrians, then the Egyptians again, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans.
The people writing these stories and letters that comprise our Bibles had experienced defeat generation after generation after generation. They are all too familiar with what it feels like to be oppressed and conquered. You can see why crowds of people wanted Jesus to be the one who would liberate them. They’ve been conquered by nation after nation for hundreds of years and they want it to end. They’re tired of being oppressed and they want to be free.
This is why crying out is such a common theme in the Bible. People crying out to God for help, for respite, for freedom. This is why there are nearly fifty psalms that sound something like this:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must my enemy triumph over me?”
“How long, O Lord?” That is the question that hangs in the air throughout the Old Testament as the Israelites go from oppression to exile; that is the question that hangs in the air as Jesus shows up on the scene, said to be God’s Messiah, the one who would free Israel; that is the question that hangs in the air as John is writing to seven churches who are being killed by Rome. “How long, O Lord?”
History is usually told by the strong, by the winners, who get to tell you all about those they conquered and the brave acts they did.
But the Bible is different. The Bible is unique. Because the Biblical writers relentlessly critique those types of stories. As Rob Bell writes, “Empires always need propaganda to keep expanding. They need a myth, a story, a narrative that justifies their endless hunger for more soldiers, more victory, more wealth and power. And these writers of the Bible know that underneath all that propaganda will be an animating myth that justifies the…violence.
And they condemn it, again and again and again.”
So, do we think it’s possible, to perhaps admit that as Americans, we might sometimes miss some of the central themes of the Bible? Can we perhaps see how we, as citizens of the most powerful global economic and military superpower the world has ever seen, “might miss some of the themes of a library of books written by people under the rule and domination of the superpowers of their day?” (Rob Bell).
In the Psalms it’s written: “Some trust in chariots…but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
“The chariot was the tank or the fighter jet of the ancient world. When you don’t have as many chariots (or tanks or guns or fighter jets) as whoever is conquering you at the moment, you have to look beyond your own strength, and beyond the strength of your oppressor, for hope and consolation. You have to trust that there are larger forces at work in the universe, forces that are on your side.
Do you see why this Psalm was such a comfort to these people? Do you see why you may miss the power of this Psalm when you’re the one with the chariots?” (Rob Bell).
The same goes for the book of Revelation. It’s written to a terribly oppressed people. And most of us in this room are not a terribly oppressed people. So we need to acknowledge that before we start reading.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand what it’s saying. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something hopeful to offer us…it just means our starting point is different and we need to acknowledge that, otherwise we’re going to butcher the message of this book and what John is trying to do with it.
We may not have personally experienced oppression like the Jews did, but we know what it is like to cry out, “How long, O Lord?” And we know what it is like to pray on behalf of someone else who is oppressed.
How long, O Lord, will Russia invade Ukraine?
How long, O Lord, will systemic racism and sexism and ageism exist in our nation?
How long ,O Lord, will the oppressive forces of mental illness and cancer and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s be given free reign?
How long, O Lord, will corporations continue to make billions of dollars and be let off the hook from taking care of the planet they’re stripping bare?
How long, O Lord, will poverty and child hunger continue to exist?
Here in Revelation, John shows us God’s answer to the evils of empire and oppression, depicted as the nation of Babylon. Babylon is code for Rome or any other oppressive force that tends towards taking and destroying life, the opposite of what God desires to do.
And God’s response to Babylon and oppressive forces of all kinds, shown again as a dragon and its beasts, is through plagues, which harken back to the Exodus story, when God freed his people the first time. John is reminding his people of God’s freedom agenda.
And then God allows the dragon to gather all of his armies together at a place called Armageddon. Which, is actually the name of a plain in Northern Israel where many battles were fought.
And once the dragon and his minions are gathered and allowed to put up the best fight they can possibly muster, they are utterly destroyed by God’s wrath. This wrath is violent, it is total, it is destructive. God heaps upon Babylon what Babylon has been heaping upon Israel and other oppressed nations for centuries. They receive what they have been doling out.
John uses these graphic, violent images and scenes in his letter because that’s how life is. If you’re living in a country where military groups are coming through to burn, violate and kill, you need encouragement—“but it has to be encouragement that matches in intensity the evil that you are experiencing, right?” (Rob Bell).
We use similar language with regards to cancer. It’s a fight, it’s a battle, you’re hanging on for dear life, because cancer is horrible. We use language that matches its intensity.
And this is what John is doing here. He’s giving his people encouragement that God hears their cries. God sees their oppression and the evil that Rome is committing against them, and God will respond in kind to it.
Does this make God a violent wrathful God? From a certain perspective, I suppose so. But from a different perspective this makes God a God who hears, who sees, who cares about the evil in our world and who wants to eradicate it.
Do I like the loving, kind, shepherd Jesus. Heck yeah. We need this depiction of Jesus to remind us of how beloved we are. But do we also need a Jesus who can get serious with evil and who is so enraged by it that the only way to deal with it is to eradicate it completely? Yeah, I think we need that Jesus too.
So let’s keep God’s wrath and final judgment. Let’s certainly be careful how we talk about it and in what context we frame it, but let’s not scrub it from our images of God just because it makes us uncomfortable. If you’re not at least a little uncomfortable with your image of God, then you’re probably missing something.
There are evils in our world that we are waiting for God to answer: the Holocaust, Apartheid, school shootings, children dying from hunger, I could go on. John promises that these evils will be answered and accounted for.
And let us not forget to notice that God’s wrath is for the purpose of restoring Creation and humanity, not destroying it. And that as the seven bowls are poured and throughout the rest of the book, there are always opportunities still given to enter into the fold of God’s mercy. When it comes to individual people, the purpose of God’s judgment is restorative, not retributive. God wants to eradicate evil, not people. Let’s get that straight.
I’ll close with a funny story from the Gospels. Jesus is traveling with his disciples and they’re not welcomed in a particular town. The disciple John, along with his brother, call upon Jesus to rain down fiery judgment and destruction on that town for not accepting the Son of God. Jesus declines and rebukes them.
Funny enough, this John is the same John who many years later wrote the most famous verse: “For God so loved the world, that God gave his one and only son, that we might not perish, but have life everlasting. For God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world.”
For God so loved the world that he wanted all evil eradicated from it. For God so loved that world that he wished to save us and give us life and restore all of Creation.
Does God hate evil? Yes.
Will God do something about it? Yes.
Are God’s arms always wide open? Yes.