franciscan - May 2004
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2004
Judgement In The Revelation Of St John
by John Sweet
I saw a great white throne . . . and the dead standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books (Revelation 20:12). All through John's vision there have been anticipatory 'judgements'. Jesus threatens the church at Thyatira: 'I will give to each of you as your works deserve' (3:23). When the sixth seal is opened people cry out to be hidden from God and the Lamb, 'for the great day of their wrath has come' (6:16, 17). When the third angel pours his bowl and the rivers are turned to blood, an angel says, 'You are just, O Holy One, . . . for you have judged these things; because they shed the blood of saints and prophets you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve' (16:5, 6).
We seem to be shown the Old Testament 'Day of the Lord', sorting people out for eternal reward or punishment (mostly the latter), with intermediate judgements which fail to bring people to repentance. But what of the book of life? Is it just 'judgement by works' - no grace?
To understand Revelation we need to work with its biblical assumptions:
a) In Greek to judge is to sift, sort out, and pronounce - usually guilty; 'I came not to judge the world but to save the world' (John 12:47). But God's sorting out is to put things right; a judge is a saviour (Judges 2: 16).
b) The Day of the Lord is the end not of the physical world but of the present (corrupt) world-order. Sun darkened, stars falling, represents God undoing - or letting human idolatry undo - his work in creation (Genesis 1:14-16). But it is decreation for recreation - removing the corruption rather than its victims; leaving a remnant through whom all will be gathered in.
c) The Day of the Lord is not 24 hours (Psalm 90:4); and for Christians it had already begun at Calvary, when the sun was darkened. Judgement is now; by the word made flesh (John 12:31, 48). It will finally be manifest to every eye (Rev.1:7).
d) The wrath of God on that day is already being manifested in 'judgements' (introduced by seals, trumpets and bowls; cf. Romans 1:18). This wrath is impersonal, the recoil of God's creation on those who go against its grain, often better translated as retribution. But it is not just mechanical. It is 'in the presence of God and the Lamb' (6:16; 14:10). God is responsible.
Judgement language is primarily not about some future event, but about human choices and their effects now, within God's created order.
To understand Revelation then we need, further, to grasp the situation John is addressing, and the messages to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 are the clue. He was writing to seven churches (seven representing the whole) in the province of Asia (Western Turkey), at the end of the first century. There the Pax Romana was strong and successful after the terrible civil wars of A.D.68-70. Christians were becoming established. There was persecution only in Smyrna and Philadelphia, and mention of only one martyr, in the past (2:13). But there was affluence (Laodicea), sleep (Sardis) and compromise with pagan culture (Pergamum and Thyatira): 'eating meat sacrificed to idols and fornication', symbols of religious infidelity. In Asian cities there was grateful enthusiasm for the cult of the Emperor as Son of God and Saviour. Influential Christians were taking part (perhaps quoting Romans 13?), rather than bearing witness to Christ as the true Emperor. If you did not stick your neck out, you would normally not be bothered.
In such a grey situation the function of an 'apocalypse' ('unveiling') is to present black and white, to unmask the reality behind the appearances, whether they are threatening or seductive; to wake people up, open their ears with parables ('anyone who has an ear, listen'; 2:7; cf. Mark 4:9). And where Christians are 'asleep', at ease with the world, thinking they are already saved, you paint in lurid colours the true nature of the world, and the final end of the road they are on, the lake of fire (20:14,15). This is not predicting an event, but painting a consequence (14:9-11). You also depict the glorious vindication of the faithful and the result of that fidelity in the New Jerusalem (21 :1).
So John unveils the true nature, and fate, of the idolatrous Roman world which many Christians are being conned to go along with (not unlike the 'German Christians' under Hitler, over against the 'confessing church'). On one level it is to be destroyed by its own allies (vassal kings, 17: 16-18), but on a deeper level by the arrogance of its wealth and power. John's hearers would recognise the grim sequence of Greek tragedy: affluence, hubris, infatuation and nemesis. The dazzling catalogue of Babylon's goods is built on 'slaves - human souls' (18: 11-13; were Bristol and Liverpool offshoots of Babylon? Does judgement, nemesis, still await us?) Nemesis is very close to biblical 'wrath' - allowed by God, not personally inflicted.
What then is God's personal involvement? The 'book of life' is the book of 'the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world' (13:8) - slain to ransom saints from every nation (5: 6-10). There is a tension throughout the Bible between 'judgement by works' - vindicating the faithful, destroying those who destroy the earth (11: 18) - and God's sacrificial love for all he has made. Chapters 4 and 5, God as Creator and Redeemer, are confirmed by 21:1-22:5, where the nations, previously destroyed along with the agents of corruption, bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem, for healing (21:24-22:2).
Revelation, like the Bible, never resolves the tension. It puts the choices in black and white. In this rhetoric there is no distinction between sin and sinner, corruption and corrupted; no recognition that we are all both wheat and weeds, not wholly sheep nor wholly goat; no recognition that God wills all to be saved, and to banish only what corrupts.
Revelation gives no clue how all may be saved, no clue how to get from lake of fire to Holy City - no clue except the Lamb's book of life, what G. B. Caird called 'the alchemy of the Cross'. f
Canon Dr. John Sweet was formerly Dean of Selwyn College, Cambridge.
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