I had the honor of conducting the funeral of a war veteran not too long ago and was captivated by the solemnity and honor with which service people are buried. The ritual posture of respect, the dress uniforms, the twenty-one gun salute, the presentation of the flag—all of it designed to pay rightful tribute to those who make the supreme sacrifice. I was duly moved by the ceremony and wondered whether I would be willing to die for my country. I read of American servicemen and women in Iraq who actually oppose the cause for which they risk their lives. For them their willingness to die is for their friends, their fellow soldiers, and not for Iraqi freedom or American foreign policy. Would I be willing to die for my friends? How strong is the self-preservation instinct? I stroll my daughter Violet across a busy intersection, morosely imagining some unyielding car careening toward us. Would I sacrifice my life to save hers? Or would self-preservation reflexes take over instead, accustomed as I am to looking out for myself? How about my faith? Would I give up my life for Jesus? We speak of the gospel in terms of saving your life, but Jesus was clear that believing in him means losing your life first. Would I do that?
At that veteran’s graveside I read from Revelation 14: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.’” The promise of eternal rest in God’s presence eases the pain of loss and the fear that sacrifice inflicts. Yet while I presume the soldier we buried would have died for his country, and maybe even for his faith, he did neither. He lived deep into his eighties and died a quiet death, his faith never a cause for personal endangerment. That’s the way it is for most of us. “Lose your life for Jesus?” Sure, we say, knowing that likely we’ll never literally have to do that. For most of us, bearing a cross is little more than bearing some loss of reputation among those who consider religion to be idiotic. You may have to put up with not getting invited out to drinks after work, or getting left out of conversations on occasion or maybe getting mildly ridiculed. But then only if you have the courage to admit you’re a Christian.
For John’s congregation here in Revelation, believing in Jesus was much more of a grave proposition. To be a Christian in first century Rome was to be an outlaw, a criminal, a traitor to the Empire. To take up your cross would get you strung up on one. There was no Lord but Caesar, and to confess otherwise bought you an automatic death sentence. It was Jesus or your country back then. Naturally, the self-preservation instinct being what it is, many who stepped forward to accept Jesus stepped backwards once the government turned up the heat. Threatened with execution, there were those among the faithful who readily renounced their faith to save their lives. And thus the graveside words of Revelation 14 were not so much for post-mortem comfort as for pre-mortem conviction. In order to steel the wavering faithful for the deadly realities of cross-bearing, chapter 14 paints a portrait of heavenly reward. The Lamb of God slain stands triumphant atop Mount Zion, the enduring 144,000 alongside, representing all faithful people, each marked with the name of the Lamb and the Father, each set to enjoy their eternal rest.
The redeemed are described as “those who did not defile themselves with women,” which is just another way to say they did not give in to the “maddening adulteries of Fallen Babylon” mentioned in verse 8. They did not succumb to the wiles of the beast or to the lies of the false prophet that we looked at last month. Moreover, these redeemed “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” which meant they go all the way to the cross since that is where the crucified Lamb went. They are called “firstfruits” and “blameless,” which, if you recall my Leviticus sermons, are words that denote sacrifice. These redeemed are those who lost their lives for Jesus. Their reward would be eternal rest from their labors. To them Jesus says, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”
For many, such promise of rest and joy proved sufficient motivation to stand unashamed of the gospel against Roman oppression and injustice. But for others, visions of kicking back and singing songs to God forever just didn’t do the trick. Picturing heaven as a fluffy hilltop with strumming harps sounded so boring, why would anyone die to get in there? For these, Revelation paints another portrait, one that warrants the label “fire and brimstone” since that’s how the word “burning sulfur” in verse 10 used to get translated. We read, “Whoever worships the beast and his image and receives his mark [understood in that day as compromising to Roman culture and worshipping the idols of empire power], they will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured undiluted into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image.”
Now you’ve heard such language ranting from the lips of who some would consider deranged preachers who scream on the Boston Common or who wear T-shirts ablaze with images of doom and damnation. As in Revelation, threats of hellfire are supposed to scare you back toward God’s mercy, if that’s what it takes. However, seeing the way most passersby give these fiery messengers wide berth testifies to their ineffectiveness. Ironically, in our day, the threat of hell ranks up there as a chief reason for not believing in God. It’s why you don’t hear many preachers preach hellfire and brimstone anymore, not even here at Brimstone Corner. Critics of Christianity cite passages such as Revelation 14 as evidence of a violent God who gets his righteous jollies out of eternally scorching those who scorn him. As one young man put it to popular New York pastor Tim Keller, “You’ve said that if we do not believe in Christ, we are lost and condemned. I’m sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who aren’t Christians. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy too.”
By way of response, in the tradition of CS Lewis, Keller describes hell as “simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” God doesn’t send you to hell. You send yourself. As CS Lewis wrote, “There are only two kinds of people—those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell.” But what about the fire and brimstone? Who would ever choose that? Keller writes, “Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: ‘What if when we die we don’t end, but instead our lives extend into eternity?’ Hell, then, is the trajectory of the soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”
I like CS Lewis and Tim Keller here, if for no other reason than they debunk the whole identity of God as a violent and capricious tyrant. But I also like that they take away some of the guilt I feel when I fail to speak about my faith to others. It’s one thing if keeping quiet means leaving a person to burn in hell for eternity. It’s another if keeping quiet only means an eternity of self-absorption and self-centeredness. That’s not so bad. It’s like driving a Lexus SUV. To the righteous person driving a Prius, a Lexus is a clear sign of self-absorption, one that masks the misery and anxiety that no doubt tortures the Lexus driver, trapped as they are into assuaging their envy and finding their happiness in a fancy car that not only advertises their blatant insecurity and paranoia but ruins the environment too. But hey, it’s a Lexus. The only problem is that when you talk to the Lexus driver they seem genuinely happy. They usually have a lot of other cool stuff too. Self-absorption has its upside. So much so that some Prius owners might start to have second thoughts about their own choices.
It might be better to use another contemporary analogy for hell. Employing the language of relationship, hell can be described as eternal “separation from God.” The horrific epitome of this separation was experienced by Jesus who in his sin-drenched self cried out on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” If you’ve ever had an acquaintance forsake you, you know that can hurt. If a good friend does the same—that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, that is devastating beyond comparison. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous the separation. It truly hurts like hell. But there’s a problem here too. Hell as “separation from God” rightly presumes sinful humans as the ones who walk away from God. However, as any of us know, the one who walks away suffers much less hellishness than the one who’s betrayed and left behind.
Yet maybe there’s something to this. If when Jesus stood outside Jerusalem and wept over his people’s pending betrayal and abandonment of him, representative of our own sinful rejection, it ironically steeled him to go through with the only thing that would ultimately bring us back. While at that point it would have been understandable for Jesus to call down some fire and brimstone and be done with us, he chose instead to bring down fire and brimstone on himself for us and subsequently to suffer abandonment by his Father too. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” In God’s eyes you are more wicked than you could ever imagine. But in Christ God loves you more than you could ever hope.
If you have ever loved someone, then you know love’s sheer power. You know the pleasure, the rapture that comes with giving yourself gladly and unashamedly to someone else and watching their glowing responsiveness. You know that palatable happiness that comes with making someone else happy. That thrill in doing good and sweet things unexpectedly just because you want to. That impish inner grin you get when you realize others envy your joy. Loving someone makes the surrounding air lighter, the colors of your world more vivid, it even makes your food taste better. You smile more, you laugh more. I get the biggest kick out of romantic couples in premarital counseling as they sit close on the couch holding hands, giggling and goo-gooing. And though I wobble between chuckling and upchucking, deep down I am honored to be in the presence of love. It affirms what is good and right about being human. I see the same in friends who teetered on life’s multiple edges the last time we talked, but who now dance with sanguine hope along those very same edges all because they met somebody special. Troubles dissipate in the face of love with a gladness that cascades over you and cleanses away despair, loneliness and fear. Poets praise it. Singers revel in it. Writers exalt it. We all crave it. When push comes to shove, when it gets down to brass tacks and bottom lines, whatever cliché you prefer—the greatest of these is love.
If you have ever loved, you know how absolutely wonderful it can be. And if you have ever loved, you also know how horrible it can become. How horrible it is when you discover the betrayal, when you read the note, when you get floored with the abandonment and the rejection. You know the initial incredulity that resounds with the question: How could you? How could you? If you’ve ever loved and been betrayed and abandoned, you’ve known the rawness that hollows out your insides. You know how the overwhelming heaviness that makes it so that you can hardly breathe. You try to make sense but you can’t and start to think you’ve gone mad, but then you get mad. The jealousy kicks in. The rage. If you have ever loved, you know how horrible love can become. And you can see how it is that a loving God can be a God of wrath. And you begin to understand how hell is possible. God passes sentence on sinful humanity with the jealous fury of a husband scorned. As my wife Dawn astutely observed, hell is not the losing your relationship with God, hell is getting into a really bad relationship with God. “Jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,” the Proverbs declare, “and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge.” In Ezekiel, the Lord roars “I will bring blood upon you in jealous fury. I will hand you over to your lovers, and they will destroy your pagan altars and your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you ashamed. They will incite a mob against you who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords.”
Here in verse 6 John witnesses an angel mid-flight, proclaiming an “eternal gospel,” the only time that the word gospel appears in Revelation. Only here the invitation is no longer “love God,” but “fear God because the hour of his judgment has come.” This warning is followed by pronouncements of doom not just for those individuals who have forsaken the Lamb, but for wicked systems and oppressive governments too, all of which get summed up in the doom of “Babylon the Great,” the sum total of evil who coerced and enticed the damned into drinking her lies and adulteries. After that there’s one riding on clouds, a “son of man” crowned with gold, and wielding a sharp sickle with which to harvest the earth of its wheat and chaff, followed by another grim reaper who effectively “tramples out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” The blood poured from the great winepress of God’s wrath flows as high as a horse’s bridle, a river of blood stretching two hundred miles. And all this on top of the fire and brimstone that burns an infinitely rising torment of smoke forever.
The temptation may be to write off all this violent imagery as the wacky genre of Revelation, but do that and you’re still left with Isaiah and Daniel, Joel, John the Baptist and Jesus himself from whence Revelation gets all its imagery. Daniel is the one who first sees the son of man riding on the clouds in final judgment. Isaiah is the source of the winepress. Joel ramps it up with the sickle and the reaper. And this without even mentioning Ezekiel and Jeremiah, Amos and Micah and the rest of the Old Testament. John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” He’s in the New Testament. And of course there’s Jesus who names himself as “the Son of Man who comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, who will sit on his throne in heavenly glory and judge all people before him like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The sheep will inherit eternal life, while the goats, aka the weeds, the chaff, the lazy servant and the hypocrites all suffer eternal punishment, weeping and gnashing of teeth and being bundled and burned.
It’s intense stuff. It’s extreme. And frankly, it’s offensive too. But honestly, it’s not unfamiliar. If you have ever loved and had that love rejected, you’re acquainted with the offensiveness. You know the intensity of emotion and the extremity of the jealousy and the revenge and the fury. If you have ever loved and had that love rejected, then you can answer how it is that a loving God could send somebody to hell, you can identify with wrath. But you know, when the Bible describes the jealous fury of the Lord, it’s not really interested in having you identify—with God. It’s pretty impossible to do that. No, here in Revelation and elsewhere, the goal is not to see yourself as the lover wronged, but as the one who commits the wrong—the one who’s walked out.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf puts it like this: God’s wrath falls on those who deserve it—not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves. “Underlying the theology of judgment is the assumption that nothing is strong enough to change those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets. We must not shrink back from the unpleasant and deeply tragic possibility that there are those human beings created in God’s image who through their immersion in evil have immunized themselves from God’s grace.” God cannot remain indifferent toward evil and still be a good God. Nevertheless, I do want to explain away the violence somehow, or at least mitigate it a bit. Like by noting how all the violent imagery is actually agricultural. Weeding and harvesting and pressing, these all have as their ultimate goal flourishing growth, right? Dawn told me how lame that sounded. God as “Old MacDonald had a farm.” An Old MacDonald God cannot survive in war-ravaged places like Iraq or Afghanistan, or in Sudan or Zimbabwe or even New York, Los Angeles and Boston. It can’t survive for people whose cities and villages have been plundered then burned and leveled to the ground. It can’t survive for people whose daughters and sisters have been raped, for wives who have been beaten and abused, for brothers and sons who’ve had their heads blown off for no reason.
And yet Revelation’s dire warnings are not weapons to be wielded against your enemies. The Bible asserts that it’s because of God’s wrath, it’s because justice and righteous vengeance belong to him only, that we are free to love our enemies, that we can say “God have mercy on you” and truly mean it. It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Christ commands you love them. To refuse to love your enemy actually turns you into God’s enemy. To this end, Revelation 14 is not so much about the fate of outsiders as it is a warning to insiders who ponder the question, “Is it such a terrible thing to compromise to the culture and have a few idols in my life? Is it so bad to withhold love and to be quiet about my beliefs? Is it so terrible to look out for myself and to guard my life and despise my enemies and ignore the poor?” To which John answers yes, it is more terrible than you think. There is a fate worse than death. And our proper response is not to explain it away, but to repent and believe, to fear God and follow the Lamb wherever he goes.