I recently read about a court case that is of interest to me. In light of the intense scrutiny that our State Board of Investigation is under, with several instances of mishandling of evidence, most capital cases are being reviewed. People have gone to execution and later review evidence has shown that maybe some who were executed were actually innocent! Is there any great miscarriage of justice? To be sure, prosecutors are now covering their tracks and doing everything twice. They don’t want any innocent people punished. And, they don’t want any guilty criminals set free because of prosecutorial or investigative carelessness.
Lack of justice is not a problem with God. “You are just, O Holy One” an angel sings to God (Revelation 16:5). God indeed does not make mistakes. God knows who is guilty and punishes accordingly. “Because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve” (16:6)! This chorus is echoed in the next verse, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
For sinners like you and me (and everyone you know and everyone I know, Romans 3:23), the unfailing justice of a Holy and blameless God is a problem. We don’t face the crisis of injustice. We face the horrible reality that God’s justice is perfect justice and we are sinners, guilty, and deserving of punishment. Revelation 16 is the fourth cycle of punishments (seals in 6 and 8:1-2; trumpets in 8:6-9:21 and 11:15-19; thunders 10:3b-4). In Revelation 16:2-20, seven angels pour out seven bowls of God’s wrath. The seals, trumpets, thunders, and bowls each bring to mind the plagues that God sent on Egypt in Moses’ day, when the Pharaoh refused to release God’s people the descendants of Abraham (see Exodus 7-11).
In Revelation, the central issue is not the specific images of each judgment. Rather it is that God will not tolerate sin and that sin is punished severely and eternally. In life, we live with the painful consequences of our sins and of those around us. In death, we are eternally cut off from God’s love, God’s presence, and God’s protection.
In Revelation 16, the bowls of wrath are poured out on those who killed God’s saints and prophets (v.6), while those who are in Christ, the conquerors (15:2) are in Heaven worshiping. But how did they conquer? By great feats of heroism? No, they are conquerors because of what Jesus did. They are those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb – Jesus (Revelation 7:14). To be washed is to come to the cross, kneel before the crucified, resurrected Jesus, and receive forgiveness. Just as God punishes sin, God receives all who turn from their sins in honest confession and humble repentance.
Revelation 16:9 makes the point that those who were scorched with fire after the pouring out of the fourth bowl of wrath cursed the name of God. The suffering of judgment did not lead them to faith. Their sin grew bolder and more evil. “They did not repent and give him glory,” the text says. A similar indictment comes down after the sixth trumpet of judgment is blown (Revelation 9:21). At issue is not our ability to identify future events that correspond to this first century prophecy. Everything John wrote was born out of his knowledge of the Old Testament story and the current conditions – Roman persecuting Christians. All of the symbols, images, and metaphors can be located either in the Old Testament or in John’s world.
At issue then is do we learn from the mistakes of others. When we sense God’s hot, heavy hand of judgment, do we admit our sins, confess them to God, aided by the Holy Spirit; and, do we turn from sin to Him? The graphic, creative pictures in the book of Revelation are there to humanity to turn from sin and to God. And in Revelation we see that all who do that receive Heaven, not punishment. Before it is anything else, Revelation is Gospel.