Day 7. The Wrath of the Lamb (Revelation 6:15-17; 14:9-11)


Audio (12:20)

Agnus Dei, bronze sculpture, Loggia del Mercato, Florence, Italy.
Agnus Dei, bronze sculpture, Loggia del Mercato, Florence, Italy.

We now shift scenes from the throne room of heaven filled with praise to a scene of judgment -- and it is jarring to us.

In Revelation 6, the Lamb opens the seven seals from the scroll, and with each seal comes terrible judgments upon the earth, as God's plan for the End unfolds. The sixth seal brings a cataclysmic earthquake, and changes the sky, land, and sea.

Hiding from the Wrath of the Lamb (Revelation 6:14-17)

This brings great consternation on earth. Finally, the rulers of the earth attribute the terrible things happening around them to God's judgment, not just bad luck.

"15  Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16  calling to the mountains and rocks,

    'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne,
    and from the wrath of the Lamb
    17  for the great day of their wrath has come,
    and who can stand?'" (Revelation 6:15-17)

"Wrath" (orgē) might be defined as "strong indignation directed at wrongdoing, with focus on retribution, wrath."29 We'll discuss it further in a moment, but first let's examine the other verse in Revelation that connects wrath with the Lamb.

Fire and Brimstone in the Presence of the Lamb (Revelation 14:9-10)

This passage occurs later in Revelation, where John sees Mount Zion, the 144,000 and the Lamb (Revelation 14:1-5).

  1. A first angel proclaims "an eternal gospel" to those on earth, calling all to worship because "the hour of his judgment has come"
  2. A second angel declares the fall of Babylon (Revelation 14:8), and
  3. A third angel outlines the terrible nature of the judgment to come (Revelation 14:9-11)

"9  And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice,
'If anyone worships the beast and its image
and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand,
10  he also will drink the wine of God's wrath,
poured full strength into the cup of his anger,
and he will be tormented30 with fire and sulfur
in the presence of the holy angels
and in the presence of the Lamb
.'" (Revelation 14:9-10)

The inhabitants of earth have heard the gospel, and have been warned of the fall of the world powers (Babylon = Rome, etc.). Now they hear the terrible punishments that come upon those who refuse to repent -- those who follow the broad path that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13) and love the world and all its allurements (1 John 2:15-17), allowing their lives to be marked with the mark of the "beast" (Revelation 13:16-17), the mark of the Antichrist, Satan's puppet.

Drinking the wine of God's wrath is an allusion to judgment from the Old Testament.31 Torment with fire and sulfur (brimstone) is also an image from the Old Testament closely associated with volcanic eruptions.

"The LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven." (Genesis 19:24)

I expect that the ancients were aware of the sulfur pools and eruption sites around the Dead Sea, since that land sits astride one of the most active earthquake faults in the world at the junction of two tectonic plates, the Arabian plate on the east and the Sinai sub-plate on the west. Perhaps you've seen and smelled sulfur in the volcanic vents at Bumpass Hell at Lassen National Park, or the Sulfur Caldron at Yellowstone National Park, or the sulfur springs at Ethiopia's Dallol volcano. Sulfur and fire, fire and brimstone are portents of great cataclysms and judgments.32

Revelation closes with the beast and the false prophet (Revelation 19:20) and then all who are guilty before God being thrown into "the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8; cf. 20:14-15).

Reconciling Judgment with the God of Love

These are terrible pictures of suffering and agony! How does this fit with a God of love? The famous twentieth-century skeptic Bertrand Russell explained that the primary reason he could never believe in Jesus was that Jesus "so clearly believed in the wrath of God." He called it "the one profound defect in Jesus' character."

I'm sure I can't give a full answer to such objections. But three thoughts come to me.

1. Jesus. Jesus is quite clear about the reality of final punishment, "hell," the "hell of fire," "eternal fire," and "hell, 'where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'"33 If we believe in Jesus, then we believe and accept what he teaches as truth. You can't call Jesus a "great teacher" and then edit out from his teachings whatever you find fearful and distasteful. What profound wisdom allows you to judge him? Paul declares in Athens:

"[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice
by the man he has appointed.
He has given proof of this to all men
by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31)

2. Punishment. There is an ongoing debate concerning public policy regarding criminal punishments. On one side are those calling for retribution. Let them pay for their crimes! Another group promotes rehabilitation for criminals so they can find jobs and be productive members of society (hence, the hopeful term "reform school"). A third group emphasizes deterrence -- stiffer sentences to deter future crime by fear of the punishment ("three strikes," robbery with a gun, etc.).

When we look at Judgment Day, we're talking about the final judgment, the final punishment. So rehabilitation is a moot point.

If we believe in a God of justice -- and that is certainly how he is portrayed in the Old and New Testaments -- then not to punish injustice is unrighteous. There must be some consequence for crime, for sin, or God is unjust -- a squishy uncle you can manipulate, who'll never follow through with what he says he'll do.

Stiff punishments are only a deterrent if you believe they will actually be carried out. Thus fear of punishment can keep us in line, can be a deterrent if we believe they will actually be delivered. The Old Testament especially notes the difference between those who "fear God" and those who don't. God-fearers don't have to be constantly terror-stricken, but they believe in Final Judgment -- and that affects their actions. For those who don't believe strongly in final judgment, it has little effect on their behavior.

I think you could make an excellent case that the terrible punishments of Judgment Day in the Book of Revelation have certainly deterred many from worse sins. Who are we to criticize God for being too harsh?

3. Love. Some people, such as Bertrand Russell, speak as if they would never punish so harshly! But Western world's embrace of love derives directly from the teachings of Jesus! Are you claiming to be more loving than the One who taught us to love? And remember, God has provided a way out of punishment by providing the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The cost of this love is his own Son.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

We have all been "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). Those who put their trust in him are saved, forgiven, no matter what sins they have committed. It is truly amazing grace! What can be more loving than that? Those who reject the Savior, reject Life itself.

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life;
whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life,
but the wrath of God remains on him." (John 3:36)

Combining Wrath and Love

How do we combine the concepts of wrath and love? We understand some of this, since we know that normal earthly parents become angry with their disobedient children, rebuke them sharply, and punish them for their own good. But our heavenly Father has to deal with children who do not fear him and who live their lives in conscious independence from and rebellion towards God.


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We may not be able to fully wrap our minds around "the wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:15-17) and eternal torment "in the presence of the Lamb" (Revelation 14:9-11). But perhaps believing they are true will "put the fear of God in us" and have two effects:

  1. That we may take seriously our obedience to the Lamb who is Jesus (Hebrews 12:25-29), and
  2. Be thankful that, because of him, we "will not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16)

We ponder the paradox of the Lamb -- the tension between the Lamb who is slain for our sins, and the wrath of the Lamb on Judgment Day.

Prayer

Jesus, we know that we don't deserve to be saved. We know that "while we were yet sinners" you did for us. We have passed from death to life. Thank you that in your righteous judgment against sin, you saved us from wrath by interposing your own body on the Tree. In your loving name, we pray. Amen.

Day 7 Meditation (Revelation 6:15-17; 14:9-11). What is the purpose of the punishment meted out by the Lamb? Retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence? Why is having a Lamb (Jesus) exacting justice more troubling to us than the idea of Almighty God acting justly? How important to a rounded understanding of Christ is the Messiah of judgment?
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Endnotes

(References and Abbreviations)

[29] Orgē, BDAG 720, 2.

[30] "Tormented" is the future tense of the verb basanizō, "to subject to punitive judicial procedure, torture," then, "to subject to severe distress, torment, harass" (BDAG 168, 2b).

[31] Psalm 60:3; 75:8; Isaiah 51:17, 22; Jeremiah 25:15-17.

[32] See also Psalm 11:16; Deuteronomy 29:23; Ezekiel 38:22; Luke 17:29; Revelation 19:20; 21:8.

[33] Mark 9:47-48; Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:8-9; 23:33; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5.

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