Revelation and Christ as the Divine Warrior (Part VII)

Part II: The Divine Warrior in Revelation 19:11–21 (continued)

The Great Supper of God

Another image used to elucidate the significance of the warring Christ is the scene of “the great supper of God” (Rev. 19:17–18), which is contrasted to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6–9). The scene of birds eating the flesh of the wicked stems from Ezek. 39:17–20, although Ezekiel describes birds and wild animals eating the flesh and drinking the blood, with the judgment limited to those of the higher socio-economic order, whereas in Revelation it is just birds, they only eat the flesh, and the judgment encompasses all people, the “flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great” (Rev. 19:18).[1]

Although such an image is quite offensive to modern sensibilities, it would possibly have been less bizarre in the first century considering the sight of carrion birds would have been a familiar sight over the battlefield. Aune astutely notes that dead combatants who are consumed by birds means they have been deprived of burial, “an ancient means for hurting and humiliating an enemy even after death, sometimes accompanied by the mutilation of the corpse.”[2] The significance of this is that this scene is not so much about promoting violence and gore, but is rather using such an ignominious fate to convey the ultimate disgrace the wicked undergo.[3]

The Lake of Fire

One final disturbing image in this pericope is that of the beast and the false prophet being “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Rev. 19:20). The infamous lake of fire is obliquely mentioned earlier in Rev. 2:11 where it is referenced as the “second death”, which John later equates with “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev. 21:8), the sulfur no doubt being a reference to the fact that it is found in its natural state in areas such as the valley of the Dead Sea. The lake of fire is described elsewhere by John as a place where its occupants are “tormented with fire and sulfur … and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 14:10–11; cf. 20:10). The probably source for this fiery lake is the tradition of Gehenna, a valley known in the Hebrew Bible as the “valley of the Ben-hinnom” and as a place of human sacrifice (2 Kgs 23:10; Jer. 7:31-33; cf. Isa. 66:24; 1 En. 54:1), and which was later used in the New Testament to denote an outcome opposite to that of the kingdom of God (e.g. Mark 9:43–48).

The idea of eternal punishment can be found in the Hebrew Bible. A good example of this is seen in Isa. 34:9-10 where we are told that the land of Edom “shall become burning pitch” and that “night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever … no one shall pass through it forever and ever.” Naturally, this language is symbolic, for the smoke of Edom isn’t rising today, demonstrating that same notion in Revelation isn’t referring to an eternal duration of punishment, but to its finality.[4] This concept is also found in the New Testament where Sodom and Gomorrah are said to “serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Thus, the lake of fire in Revelation can thus be understood not as describing an actual place of everlasting conscious punishment in actual flames, but as signifying that its purpose of destroying evil cannot be prevented.[5]

Conclusion

The imagery in Rev. 19:11–21—the sword, the bloodied robe, the wine press, the feast of the birds, and the lake of fire—seemingly depicts a dreadful scene bereft of any consideration for mercy. Yet this study has attempted to show that the violent eschatological scene of the Divine Warrior has been subtly transformed by John in a nonviolent way. While he does utilize this motif of the Divine Warrior being victorious in battle, he uses it in an innovative manner by filling it with new content. When Christ fights against the enemies of God, his sword is the word of God proceeding from his mouth. The blood on his robe is his own (and possibly that of the martyrs), signifying the ultimate expression of Christ’s victory over evil is his self-sacrificial death on the cross. Thus, one can conclude that Revelation portrays Christ in the Divine Warrior role and substitutes militaristic violence as being the path to victory for faithful witness to the point of death, epitomized in the shedding of Christ’s own blood. Faithful witness unto death is the powerful weapon that the Lamb wields in Revelation and it is the weapon that his followers possess as well.

Such an interpretation of Revelation may superficially seem absurd, yet it is not strange for someone who mentions robes being washed and made white in blood, who describes a Lion as a Lamb, and who identifies victory as being slain. John did not discard the Hebrew Scriptures, but he does read them deliberately, with his own distinctive hermeneutic and therein lies a risk that one must be careful of. John’s method of juxtaposing paradoxical images is not a panacea for any and all troubling texts in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament, but it does help show that the depiction of Christ in Revelation is, ultimately, much more coherent with the portrayal of Christ in the canonical Gospels than is often thought.

Notes

[1] Boring, Revelation, 199; Sweet. Revelation, 285.

[2] Aune, Revelation, 1068; cf. Mounce, Revelation, 358.

[3] McDonald, “Lion as Slain Lamb”,  43 warns that “the vividness of John’s language may seduce the reader into taking the images more literally than John intends.”

[4] Boring, Revelation, 118, 213.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: