Biblical depictions of divine violence present an ethical problem for contemporary Christianity. For many Christians representations of the warrior God elicit feelings of discomfort and doubt. The prevailing cultural sentiment that violence, especially violence in the name of punishment and vengeance, is morally indefensible only adds to Christian disillusionment with their scriptures.
In response to this crisis, some scholars and theologians have attempted to develop biblically-credible remedies for the dilemma of divine violence. The most common solution posits that Christ reveals in his self-sacrificial death God’s true character vis-à-vis violence: God is the victim of violence, not its champion. In this way Christ’s decision to love his enemies at the cost of his own life becomes the interpretive plumb-line by which Christians ought to measure biblical portraits of God. While those passages showcasing the warrior God remain in some sense inspired, they are read wrongly if they appear crooked before the plumb, that is, if they are in conflict with Christ’s non-violent, self-giving love.
The book of Revelation offers a unique challenge for such readings because Christ himself is often the orchestrator of the work’s apocalytpic death-dealing. Committed to their moral vision, however, these readers insist that John has imbedded in his prophecy a number of images that subvert and resist traditional assumptions about divine violence: a lion that is a lamb, a warrior wet with his own blood, a sword drawn from the mouth, not from the scabbard. Each of these “cruciform” symbols, so it is claimed, directs the reader toward the true God, the God who is known fully and exclusively in the crucified Christ. Enlightened by these images, the reader can proceed untroubled by the apparent ferocity of the biblical God (cf. Deuteronomy 32:39-42).
In what follows we will evaluate each of these cruciform signs so as to determine their legitimacy and value as tools for the illumination of Revelation’s meaning.
Lion or lamb?
In conjunction with the aforementioned plumb-line, non-violent readings of John’s Apocalypse rely on chapter 5 as the book’s hermeneutical key. The shocking revelation that Israel’s long-awaited king is actually a slaughtered lamb redirects all Hebrew prophetic and messianic expectations. Those who have come to recognize the crucified Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, the Lion of Judah, can no longer accept Jacob’s promise to his son at face value:
Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies… He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like a lioness—who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and the obedience of the nations is his.
What’s more, the follower of the slain lamb cannot view the various militaristic images associated with the restored Davidic reign as endorsements of divinely-sanctioned eschatological violence. Refracted through the lion-lamb paradigm, rather, the Messiah’s kingdom comes not as an iron rod smashing clay pots (Psalm 2:7-9), nor as a great battlefield filled with corpses and crushed skulls (Psalm 110:5-6); Christ conquers not as a hungry lion, nor as a mace-bearing paladin, but as a slain lamb and by way of sacrificial enemy-love. In one sense or another then, Christ’s moral example wins over the wicked and delegitimizes evil’s grip on the world—no violence necessary.
The central problem with this reading, so it seems, is that it divorces the symbol of the sacrificial lamb from its function in John’s vision. Christ’s lamb-like martyrdom—his obedience unto death—does not replace his role as messianic warrior king. Instead, it is Christ’s painful piety that makes him “worthy” to become Judah’s crusader king.1 Only the one who died as God’s servant can open the seals of God’s judgements and unleash conquest, slaughter, famine, and death upon the earth (Revelation 6:1-8). It is because of his noble demise, therefore, that Christ is equipped with the “power” and “might” befitting an ancient king whose “wrath” befalls rival “kings,” “magnates,” and “generals” (Revelation 5:12-13, 6:12-17). Far from subverting divine violence then, the lamb’s death is only finally fulfilled when the Messiah presides over the desecration of the whole pagan social hierarchy, until birds consume the bodies of the “commanders of a thousand”2 (Revelation 19:11-18). The lamb’s death is thus the engine of unprecedented butchery. The cross cries out for vengeance.
Read in this light, what we have in Revelation is not a radical reinterpretation of power, but rather the rendition of a familiar biblical theme: God lifts the righteous from a position of disgrace and vulnerability to a position of honor and dominion. The lamb becomes the lion.
The pacifistic interpretive strategy also holds that Christ rides into battle already bloodied; at the height of the book’s triumphant militarism, it is Christ’s own blood, not the blood of his adversaries that stains his garments (Revelation 19:13). Christ’s conquest, therefore, proceeds via sacrificial bloodshed, not the bloodshed of war.
Given the nature of the lamb-lion metaphor addressed above, this argument is problematic from the start: Christ’s spilled blood justifies rather than subverts Revelation’s apocalyptic violence. While Christ’s own blood could serve as a badge of his eschatological authorization, it remains in this context a license to kill.
Still, more to the point, the weight of the evidence suggests Christ does indeed sport the blood of his enemies. The image of the divine warrior in a blood-stained cloak originates in Isaiah’s vision of God’s fury against the nations. The peoples that oppress Israel, Edom in particular, are crushed like grapes in a winepress, splattering blood upon God’s tunic.
Who is this… dressed in bright red…? Why are your clothes red? Why do you look like someone who has stomped on grapes in a vat? “I have stomped grapes in the winepress all by myself… I trampled [the nations] down in my rage. Their juice splashed on my garments, and stained all my clothes. For I looked forward to the day of vengeance, and then payback time arrived… I splashed their juice on the ground.”Isaiah 63:1-6, cf. Joel 3:13
That John is alluding to this text becomes apparent a few verses later: Christ “stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God” (Revelation 19:15).
Beyond this though, prior to the vision of holy war in chapter 19, John sees the son of man inaugurate a great harvest upon the earth (Revelation 14:14-20). Sickled angels go out to reap the vintage, tread the winepress, and issue forth rivers of blood. Readers should therefore not be surprised that Christ rides out for battle already crimson.
It may be that the bloodied Christ also evokes another facet of Jacob’s blessing over Judah: “He will wash his garment in wine, in the blood of the cluster his clothing” (Genesis 49:11). Though this appears to have originally been a prophecy of provincial agricultural abundance, John may have thought that the Judahite king was destined to realize God’s Isaianic wrath against the nations, treading the winepress himself and thus soaking his garments.
What kind of sword?
The final image commonly believed to subvert divine violence is the sword discharged from Christ’s mouth—the weapon with which he will “strike the nations” (Revelation 19:15). Given the blade’s unusual origin, non-violent interpreters argue that Christ’s sword, and indeed his whole mode of warfare, is metaphorical in nature—Christ “conquers” his enemies by means of the evangelizing word of his testimony (cf. Revelation 12:11). The word of God, spread out upon the face of the earth, defeats evil without the threat or use of violence. In other words, the message of God’s love made manifest in the crucified Christ converts sinful hearts and realigns sinful structures.
For their part, these readers have correctly identified Christ’s sword with God’s word. The word delivered to the nations here, however, is one of judgement and death, not of reconciliation and peace.3 This word, after all, is a sword, an instrument of war, not an olive branch. As with many of the prophetic oracles of old, the divine word that Christ brings in Revelation 19 uproots nations and fills the earth with slaughter (cf. Jeremiah 1:9-10).
Two texts are particularly helpful in understanding this sword-word metaphor.
- When the Davidic king at last establishes his reign over Israel and over the unruly heathen he will figuratively “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth” but literally “order the wicked to be executed” (NET Isaiah 11:4).4
- When the Lord’s personified word—”a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of [God’s] authentic command”—descended from his throne during the Exodus he “filled all things with death”—thus annihilating Egypt’s firstborn (Wisdom 18:15-19).
Whatever various intertexts John may have pulled from, it is clear that the divine utterance could, and often did, affect destruction. It is this kind of word—the word of God’s retributive judgement—that best fits John’s vision of the last battle.
Christ’s oracular sword is thus capable of far greater violence than its manual counterpart. With the sword that comes from his mouth Christ can dispense death on an imperial scale (cf. Luke 19:27, Matthew 22:7).
The bottom of the well
With each of these supposedly subversive apocalyptic images, context within and without the book of Revelation undermines the cruciform approach. Indeed, the allusions and metaphors John appropriates appear to only deepen his commitment to the God of violence.
More damning still, John nowhere articulates his purported hermeneutical plumb-line, his interpretive key and christological lens—it remains always hidden from view, at best glimmering in the murk at the bottom of a relentless divine deluge. What’s really down there? If the bottomless shaft gives any clue, there awaits yet more madness and yet more death in the deepest gloom (Revelation 9:1-6).
1—The word “worthy” appears four times in chapter 5.
2—Chiliarchs (χιλίαρχος); in this context the Roman tribunes set in charge of the legions.
3—John has little interest in seeing the masses come to repentance: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy” (Revelation 22:11). The delay of the Lord’s vengeance functions only to increase the world’s blood-guilt (Revelation 6:9-11).
4—The more literal NRSV reads: “with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” The context makes clear that the royal pronouncement is in view (Isaiah 11:1-5).
Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 quotes LXX Isaiah 11:4 to the same effect as Revelation 19:15. The king’s word, his imperial decree, puts the wicked to death: “Look, Lord, raise up for them their king, David’s son, at the time you choose, that he might rule over Israel, your child. Gird him with power to shatter wicked regents, to cleanse Jerusalem from the nations that trample [upon her] in destruction, and [gird him also] with righteous wisdom that he might cast out sinners from [Israel’s] inheritance and smash the arrogance of the sinner as a clay pot, to shatter all their substance with an iron mace, to destroy lawless nations by the word of his mouth, that by his threat nations should flee from his face, and that he might convict sinners in their conspiracies.”
15 thoughts on “God’s unfailing wrath: divine violence and the cruciform mirage”
These are all very good responses and explanations of the problems. I am going to suggest that the divine inspiration of Revelation needs to be reconsidered. Luther did not think it belonged in the Bible. It has been the source of much confusion, so many wild end times theories and the justification of horrific actions.
Given the abundance of bad fruit derived from this manuscript, it does not deserve to be accorded the same level of consideration as scripture and would be better accorded the same level of respect as other ancient non-canonical writings.
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Great and sobering thoughts, Wayne. Thanks for the engagement. Here’s what I’m thinking.
1) I would argue most if not all of the NT presupposes the apocalyptic worldview showcased so dramatically in Revelation. The radical ethical program advanced by Jesus and Paul and John relied upon belief in God’s imminent action in the world to deliver and exalt the righteous.
2) Rather than questioning Revelation’s canonicity, I would advise the church to first situate the book in its particular socio-political context. Contemporary churches should not assume that they exist in the same kind of salvific moment as did the churches John wrote to.
3) Before rejecting the book’s vision of a violent God completely, I would also advise the church to try to sympathize with the difficult and seemingly indelible position early Christians found themselves in under the pagan empire. Revelation’s violent imagery reflects the violence and marginalization early Christians suffered and internalized.
You are definitely right that the book needs to be understood and interpreted in light of the cultural and religious context in which it was written (as do all books). We constantly have to be vigilant about not imposing our 21st century understanding and perspective upon earlier people.
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If we accept that the religion was conceived in violence, that is during the violence of the Roman-Jewish War, we can explain the images of violence and pronunciations regarding violence that we find in the New Testament. Paul says, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” 2 Corinthians 2:12-16 “NOW Titus Caesar tarried some time at Berytus, as we told you before. He thence removed, and exhibited magnificent shows in all those cities of Syria through which he went, and made use of the captive Jews as public instances of the destruction of that nation.” Wars of the Jews, Book 7.
This all presupposes that Jesus IS the “Christ” and is a GOD, co-equal with “the Father”. Yet, he supposedly ‘sits at the right hand – so it appears he is NOT co-equal. Also – the New Testament – is “Paulisian” who turned the “Jesus movement” into ‘Christianity.’ which has almost NOTHING to do with Jesus in his real life.
John holds that Jesus is God’s king and that as such he has been given the authority to act as God (i.e. judge and save) in order to bring about the eschaton.
Thanks for your post. We don’t often talk about the Book of Revelation from a critical viewpoint. I admit I’m among the students of the Book that interprets the river of blood from the sword in Jesus’ mouth as a symbol of God’s grace through worldwide salvation, not as a prediction of a world-changing bloodbath. Nor do I choose to entertain the violence of an angry, vengeful God as something helpful in living my life among others. Crossan says we must choose the God we worship, because in those thousands of pages of Scripture there’s a lot of choices.
I think the hermeneutic is pretty clear. The book itself says it’s to be read aloud to a congregation typical of the seven (numerologically, “perfect”) churches of Asia Minor to which it’s ostensibly addressed. The book says it means to encourage their faith under the threat of persecution, and when he says he’s a religious prisoner of Patmos Island, contemporaries would recognize the dynamic behind it.
Listening, the congregation would be sitting in a worship room like the one described in the opening of the vision (and not differently furnished from ours today). They would have sung some of the songs the heavenly choir sings (and we sing today as the Sanctus, or “Holy, Holy, Holy”). They would recognize the symbolism of the Whore of Babylon (Rome) and the Anti-Christ (Nero or his rumored doppleganger), figures that capture the imagination of Christians even today (often, alas, to their detriment). They would recognize the numerological significance of items in the visions. They would have heard of the volcanic explosion that destroyed Pompeii with burning rocks flying through the air. They would recognize allusions to Old Testament prophecy and apply those meanings — especially of the winepress — to what they hear. They were not unacquainted with the Four Horseman of Plague, War, Famine. and Death, especailly after the cruel seige and ransacking of Jerusalem. They are witnessing through the vision a cosmic battle for the hearts of people in which these terrestrial struggles are almost trivial.
The crucial verse to me is 14.2, where among the visions of angels harvesting the vineyard — an allusion to Isaiah — John explains his meaning: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.” From their catechisms, the congregants would remember that Jesus summarized the commandments of God this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:37-39). And how Paul summarized the faith of Jesus: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor health, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Rom 8.38-9)
This passage is helps me understand the more lurid passages of the book. The commandments of God and the faith of Jesus — the crucial basis for his listener’s perseverance, in the author’s words –speak to a kingdom of God where God loves and forgives us and becomes real when we act in concert with with God by loving others. Jesus announces –the sword in his mouth (Isa 49.2) — the imminence of the kingdom of God. John describes it as a river of blood, but throughout the New Testament blood symbolizes the saving grace of God. The size of the river numerologically can symbolize the entirety of souls of the world. In a Christian book full of symbols, can “blood” not symbolize what it does almost everywhere in early teachings and practices about Jesus?
It’s a gospel in apocalyptic form. I wish it wouldn’t seem to encourage martyrdom over matters like eating meat sacrificed to Roman gods which are indifferent to messages and acts of love and forgiveness. But I do see it as consistent, in its way, with other announcements of the good news of the kingdom of God — announced, imminent, promised, and made manifest by our love for our neighbors and our concern for the poor.
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Thanks for your insightful comment. I really appreciate the engagement.
I think your interpretation works well from a canonical, even theological, standpoint—drawing upon the neighbor-love command—but I would characterize the ethical content of Revelation itself in more apocalyptic and thus sectarian terms.
What I mean is that Revelation is primarily concerned with the integrity of the community as an anti-pagan witness in the midst of persecution and under the effects of social marginalization. Given these difficult conditions, the central ethical prerogative is 1) to resist the temptation to assimilate into pagan social structures (i.e. to act in ways that ingratiate oneself to the idolatrous system), and 2) to support those within the community being pressed towards apostatize (i.e. love the brothers in such a way as to encourage their faith in God’s imminent dramatic action in the world on the church’s behalf). I understand the call to perseverance in commandment-keeping and faith-holding in this context.
From outside this intense and ephemeral social situation, other biblical works offer a fuller vision of what it means to be a holy people on a social and political level (e.g. the books of the Law).
What? Do you expect God to change His rules for covenant, and the penalty for violating them? Should rejecting this new covenant somehow yield different consequences than violating the Mosaic Covenant? I’m pretty sure He says somewhere: ““For I the Lord do not change…”
Ah, but see, God is doing a new thing with the New Covenant, as the prophets said.
John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ.”
And Paul wrote in Romans 5:15-17, “ But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many! 16 And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification.”
Jesus fulfilled the rules of the Old Covenant, which resulted in death and punishment. The New Covenant is one of Grace. The rules of the old do not apply to the new, which is why there is a New One. It is like the parable of the prodigal son. Both the obedient and disobedient child received grace and acceptance.
I’m catching up on my “Reading List” and finally got around to this piece. Excellent stuff.