Chapter 12: An Ambiguous Apocalypse

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War
by Albert C. Winn

Chapter 12: An Ambiguous Apocalypse

Just as the Old Testament contains a full-blown apocalypse in the book of Daniel, so the New Testament contains a full-blown apocalypse in the Revelation to John.1 In it the hope that sustained the church as a subversively different community is expressed in full-blown apocalyptic imagery. The Revelation is so typical of apocalyptic writing that it is often called the Apocalypse.

The setting of the book is evidently an apocalyptic situation. The writer is in exile for his faith (Rev. 1:9). Martyrs have died for the faith and more martyrdoms are expected (2:13; 6:9-11). The Roman state, which appeared in Acts and in Romans 13 as a protector of Christians, now threatens them with persecution; it is satanic, called up out of the human mass and set over it by the dragon, that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole earth (12:9, 18); it is a beast, like the beasts in Daniel (13:1-8); it is a whore (17:1-18). The state has become blasphemous, claiming what belongs only to God (13:1, 5-6). A second beast, the state religion, compels people to worship the beast (13A, 8, 12, 15). There is no hope for deliverance within history. Hope must center on an act of God beyond history, which human action can neither hasten nor delay.2

Other typical features of apocalyptic writing follow from the situation. The bulk of the book is a series of visions (Revelation 1; 4-22). Angels abound, carrying out divine commands, and sometimes explaining the visions to the seer. The book is in a code which the persecutor will not understand, but the persecuted will, for example, Babylon Rome. Indeed the key to the code is the Old Testament; the Apocalypse is saturated with Old Testament allusions. Numbers are prominent, numbers with hidden meanings (see the many series of seven: seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven bowls; also the number of the beast in 13:18).3

The Apocalypse is not escapist literature or a guidebook for futurists. It is explicit political criticism.4 It is protest literature.5 It is a stark protest against all compromise, against the "that’s the way the world is" attitude that we noted in chapter 10.6 Its message is that in the struggle. God is not neutral.7

War in the Apocalypse

The Revelation to John is clearly the most warlike book in the New Testament. When the Lamb opens the scroll of human history (Revelation 5), out come the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (6:1-8). The rider on the white horse is a warrior with a bow and he comes out conquering and to conquer. The rider on the red horse is permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people will slaughter one another, and is given a great sword. The rider on the black horse brings inflation in the wake of war. And the rider on the pale green horse is Death: death by the sword, by famine, by disease. Human history is to be a history of wars.

Heaven itself is not exempt from war. There is war in heaven between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels (12:7). We are reminded of the heavenly army of Yahweh in ancient Israelite poetry, which battled most often against the enemies of Israel, but on occasion against the dragon of primeval chaos (see above, chapter 4). Michael and his forces win and the dragon and his forces are cast down to the earth (12:8-9). Unable to destroy the woman he has been pursuing (Israel? the church?), the dragon goes off to make war on the rest of her children (12:17).

The final conflict, which we met in Old Testament apocalyptic, is here again. Curiously, it is here twice. The beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gather to make war at Armagedon (16:12-16). The rider on the white horse whose name is The Word of God comes forth to meet them (19:11-16). The rider and his army win the battle, the beast and his false prophet are thrown alive into the lake of fire, and the army of the beast is slaughtered, making a great supper for the birds of the air (19:17-21). Then the devil is bound for a thousand years (20:1-6). After the thousand years the devil is released and a second final battle is fought. The devil rallies nations from the four corners of the earth (echoes of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38-39) and attacks the camp of the saints and the beloved city. This time fire comes down from heaven and consumes the army; the devil joins the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:7-10).

In addition to these visions of warfare, the Apocalypse is filled with series of woes and calamities. The opening of the sixth seal brings a devastating earthquake plus commotion in the heavenly bodies (6:12-16). The first four trumpets bring the destruction of a third of the earth, a third of the sea, a third of the rivers, a third of the sun, moon, and stars (8:6-12). The fifth trumpet brings a plague of locusts, reminiscent of Joel (9:1-11). The sixth trumpet brings an angelic army with two hundred million cavalry, who kill a third of humankind (9:13-19). The first five bowls of God’s wrath bring five plagues reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus (16:1-10). Earthquakes come again and again, accompanied by thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, and hail (8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18-21). In Isaiah 45:7, Yahweh says, "I make weal (shalom) and create woe." The emphasis in the Apocalypse falls on the woe. God seems to be at war with the whole earth. It is worth noting that the earthquakes and their accompaniments are echoes of various stories in the holy war tradition.

As the book moves to its climax, it becomes clear that the great object of God’s wrath is Babylon = Rome. The lament over Babylon (18:1-19:4) calls to mind the lament over Nineveh in Nahum or over Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28. Interestingly, and in contrast to the Old Testament parallels, there is no vision of the warfare that will bring down "Babylon." We only have the metaphor of a big splash, a great millstone thrown into the sea (18:21). But the gloating over the enemy’s fall is exactly like the gloating of the prophets in Old Testament taunt Songs. Hallelujahs go up to God for God’s vengeance on the great beast, the great whore.

What is perhaps most disturbing of all is the warlike picture of Jesus in the Apocalypse. In the initial vision that opens the book, Jesus has a sharp, two-edged sword coming out of his mouth (1:16; cf. 2:12, 16). The Son of David idea is revived (3:7; 22:16). In the great vision of the worship in heaven, we meet "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" (5:5). In another vision, the Human One has a sharp sickle in his hand with which he reaps the earth. When an angel also reaps, blood flows as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of two hundred miles (14:14-20). In the final battle the rider on the white horse is clearly the Messiah. His name is Faithful and True, the Word of God, King of kings and Lord of lords. His description resembles the initial vision: eyes like a flame of fire, a sharp sword coming out of his mouth. Allusions to the messianic prophecies and psalms abound. In righteousness he judges and makes war (19:11-16).

The ambiguity, of course, is that the most prominent name for Jesus in the Apocalypse is "the Lamb," often "the Lamb that was slaughtered" (5:6, 8, 12, 13; 6:1, 16; 7:9, 10, 14, 17; 12:11; 13:8; 14:1, 4, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3). The reference to the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53:7) is clear enough. He is the one who conquers by "reverse fighting," by accepting suffering rather than by causing others to suffer. T. R. Hobbs, who sees the New Testament as "transforming" the holy war tradition of the Old, finds in the "helpless figure" of the slain Lamb, standing as the meaning of history, the completion of the transformation.8

Peace in the Apocalypse

This warlike book contains amazing visions of peace. They are of two kinds.

The first kind is visions of a peace that coexists with war and woe. It exists at the same time, but in a different place. Alongside the reality of human history with its strife and distress, there is another reality, the heavenly reality, where all is properly ordered and unceasing worship surrounds the throne. It is visions of that heavenly reality, brought back by the seer, that enable believers suffering the stress and hopelessness of history to remain faithful and endure to the end.

The seer is "in the Spirit on the Lord’s day" (Rev. 1:10). He is aware of the worship taking place in the seven churches of Asia Minor. It is flawed worship in a world of violence and persecution. The churches have variously abandoned their first love (2:4), are facing imprisonment (v.10), have embraced heresy (v.15), are involved in fornication and idolatry (vs.14, 20), are more dead than alive (3:1), have but little power (v.8), are neither cold nor hot (v.15). But then, on another level, it is given him to see the magnificent worship before the great throne in heaven (chs. 4-5). This worship is the hidden dimension of the tawdry earthly worship of the seven churches!

The series of the seven seals, as we have seen, reveals human history as a history of war and disaster, in which the martyrs cry out: "How long?" But the climax is another scene before the throne where those same martyrs join in the heavenly worship and are blessed with peace: shelter, no hunger, no thirst, no scorching heat. The Lamb will be their shepherd, leading them to springs of the water of life, "and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (7:17). This peace is the hidden dimension of human history with all its terrors!

The series of seven trumpets is similar. The first four bring unparalleled disasters, but then we are warned that the last three will be worse (8:13). The fifth and sixth are terrible indeed, but the seventh is a surprise: once again the curtain rises on the worship in heaven and Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus" is sung, declaring that "the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever" (11:15).

Following the terrifying vision of the two beasts is a vision of the Lamb and the Lamb’s elect, standing in safety and peace on Mount Zion (14:1-5).

The other kind of vision is the vision of final peace. Like the visions in Isaiah 65:17-25 and Zechariah 8:1-8, the vision of final peace in the Apocalypse centers on a city. The Apocalypse is a "tale of two cities": the earthly city of Babylon Rome, which must be destroyed, and the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, which in the end comes down to earth (21:1-22:5).9

There is peace between this city and God: no more antagonistic warfare, no more bowls of God’s wrath. The covenant of peace so often promised in the Old Testament, and especially in Ezekiel -- I will be your God, and you shall be my people -- is realized in the new Jerusalem (21:3. 7). Its reality is signified by God’s dwelling in the city (21:3); the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and the heavenly worship glimpsed throughout the book will now take place on earth in the new Jerusalem (22:3); God’s servants in the city will see God’s face and God’s name will be on their foreheads (22:4). God and the Lamb will be the temple of the city (21:22), the light of the city (21:23; 22:5), the source of the city’s water (21:6; 22:1).

In this city there will be no more tears, no more death, no more mourning and crying and pain (21:4), no more uncleanness (21:8, 27; 22:3), no more night (21:23; 22:5).

No longer will there be fear of hostile enemies: the city’s gates will never be shut (21:25). One of the most remarkable statements is that "the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it" (21:24). "The kings of the earth" are big in Revelation. They are all over it. They are big and they are bad. They are cowards. When the Lamb opens the sixth seal and there is a great earthquake, the kings of the earth run and hide in caves from the face of God and the wrath of the Lamb (6:15-17). They are on the devil’s side: the demons assemble them at Armagedon to do battle with the Lamb (16:14, 16). Three times it is said that the kings of the earth commit fornication with the great harlot, the city of greed and lust (17:2; 18:3, 9), But in the end the kings of the earth bring their glory, their wealth and power, into the holy city. God has transformed enemies into friends and servants. Likewise "people will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (21:26). Here is the ultimate extension of shalom. The nations, who have always been on the outside, no part of the people of God, are now on the inside.

The agricultural theme that marks so many visions of peace is not totally lost, for in the city there are trees on either side of the river that runs down the middle of the street. It is the tree of life, which we last saw in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9; 3:22). It bears twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).

The Role of God’s People

At first glance it seems that the ambiguity regarding war and peace, which is so sharp in the Old Testament, has been resharpened in the Apocalypse. The ambiguity fades somewhat in the Gospels and epistles, but it returns with a vengeance in the Revelation to John. God creates more woe than weal. The Lamb makes war.

But there is no rallying cry here, as there was in the old days of holy war, for the people of God to come out and do battle. They are mainly spectators, not participants in the warfare.10 Jesus’ word to Peter in the garden (Matt. 26:52) is virtually repeated in Revelation 13:10, "If you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed."11

The people of God are not passive. They are urged to "conquer" (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21), but they conquer, not by aggressive warfare, but by patient endurance, faithfulness, holding fast (1:9; 2:2-3, 10, 13, 19, 25; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12). They do indeed struggle with Satan, their accuser, but they conquer him "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death" (12:11). The fighting of the saints in the Revelation to John is "reverse fighting": enduring suffering, not inflicting it. That the Lamb that was slain opens the scroll means "that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history."12

The Apocalypse, then, for all the din of battle in its pages, does not represent a turning back from the clear direction of the New Testament which we noted in chapter 11. There is remaining ambiguity here, to be sure. The angels, who are God’s servants, send great suffering on the earth. The gates of the city are open, but the wicked are excluded. Alongside the new Jerusalem is the lake of fire. We have met the ineradicable ambiguity between God’s wrath and love before. But the church’s role is clear. Revelation expresses the faith that sustained the church in its faithfulness to Jesus teaching. It expresses the hope that God’s promises of victory are reliable no matter "how long" (6:9-11)13 it takes for them to come true.




1. There is, of course, an extensive Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature outside of the canon. including such works as 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Apocalypse of Peter, and others. Josephine Massyngberde Ford in Revelation, Anchor Bible, vol. 38 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1975), suggests that Revelation is essentially a Jewish apocalypse, originating in the school of John the Baptist, to which Christian additions have been made in chs. 1-3; 21-22. This has not commanded wide agreement, but it emphasizes the kinship between Jewish and Christian apocalypses.

2. The Apocalypse is best understood by oppressed people who find themselves in an actual apocalyptic situation. This is why Allan Boesak’s Comfort and Protest. The Apocalypse from a South African Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987) speaks with such authority. Fashionable millennial speculations by well-to-do Christians will always miss the point.

3. For a brief discussion of the typical features of apocalyptic writing, see the article "Apocalypticism" by Martin Rist in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 157-161. Adela Yarbro Collins summarizes the results of more recent study of apocalyptic writings in general and of Revelation in particular in" Reading the Book of Revelation in the Twentieth Century," Interpretation 40(1986): 229-242.

4. Boesak, Comf art and Protest, p.17.

5. Ibid., p. 38.

6. In agreement with Christopher Rowland and Mark Corner in Liberating Exegesis: The Challenge of Liberation Theology to Biblical Studies (Louisville. Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), pp. 146-153.

7. Boesak, Comfort and Protest, p.84.

8. T. R. Hobbs, A Time for War (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1989), p. 233.

9. I am obviously not persuaded by those who see in Rev. 21-22 two Jerusalems, one earthly during the millennium, the other heavenly. See R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), 2:140-226, and P. Gaechter in Theological Studies 10 (1949): 485-521. Ford in Revelation in the Anchor Bible takes the same position.

10. "Revelation does not authorize violence and militarism. It is true that this book draws upon ancient combat myths which depict struggles between good and evil. It is true that militant images are employed to portray the victory of God over every evil force in creation. However, the battle is God’s, in behalf of the beleaguered and oppressed faithful. Nowhere does the writer call upon the Christians to take up arms against Rome or other victimizing powers." Fred B. Craddock, "Preaching the Book of Revelation," Interpretation 40(1986): 272.

11. "It seems to me that an illustrative sample of quietist or pacifist apocalyptic writing is the Revelation of John. Here I believe we have an outstanding example of the Divine Warrior motif and the complete absence of a call to arms on the part of human beings." Josephine Massyngberde Ford, "Shalom in the Johannine Corpus," Horizons in Biblical Theology 6 (1984): 67.

12. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), p. 238.

13. Compare Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the State House steps in Montgomery: "How long? Not long. Because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." James Melvin Watson, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 230.