In this section of The Revelation we’re treated to an image of the
final battle and the defeat of the beast monsters. Jesus shows up on a
white horse, surrounded by a heavenly army and birds feast on the flesh
of God’s enemies. The common interpretation of these verses suggests
that there will be a violent bloody conflict at the end of time,
involving wholesale slaughter by Christ and his angelic hosts against
non-Christians and demons. I understand why this interpretation is so
common. At first blush, the text can be read like that. But, I have some
1. Jesus is here portrayed as a rider on a white horse. But, how is
he predominantly depicted elsewhere in The Revelation? As a slain-lamb,
right? How can the slain-lamb now take vengeance on his enemies? How can
Jesus finally stop ‘turning the other cheek?’
2. Jesus’ robe is here dipped in blood. Who’s blood is it? The war
hasn’t begun yet, so why is Jesus covered in blood? Is it possible that
the blood is his own? He is described in 1.7 as ‘he whom his opponents
have pierced’ and we’re told that it’s his blood that either redeems or
condemns (1.5-6, 9.9-10), so is there any credence to the idea that
Jesus isn’t violent?
3. If this is a war, why is there no fighting? Jesus armies never do
anything, right? And, by the way, since they’re wearing ‘shining, pure
linen’ doesn’t that suggest these are the martyred saints not the
angelic warriors of chapter 12? How come the only weapon mentioned here
is the sword from Jesus’ mouth? How does he slice and dice with that?
I have other lingering questions, but only one more that really
deserves mention in this post. I’ll get to it in a minute. For now, let
me just say that a careful reading of this section of The Revelation
shows us that John is just up to his old tricks once more. For example,
throughout the book John consistently turns imagery on its head. He
defines ‘dying’ as ‘conquering’, ‘lion’ as ‘lamb’, and here ‘warrior’ as
‘judge.’ There were a few ancient prophecies about God’s total victory
over his enemies, but John has reinterpreted those in much the same way
as he does everything else. He uses the ancient form of the divine
warrior, but fills it with new content. Instead of a bloodthirsty
Spartacus, John gives us a crucified Christ who conquers with his Word.
His victory is immediate and total. In this “war” there is no battle.
The beasts are bound without a single blow being delivered. The armies
of heaven are just spectators.
Which leads me to my last lingering question: isn’t this exactly what
the rest of the Bible teaches? That Jesus is the Word? That the Word is
the one weapon that can disarm Satan? That Jesus has triumphed through
his sacrificial death? That we ought to rejoice because we are washed in
his blood, saved, and defended? Why can’t we be content with that? Why
do we insist on making Christ’s hands red with enemy blood instead of
rejoicing at his blood-stained robe?
We’ve hardly learned anything! Our record stinks—the Inquisition, the
Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the wars in Northern Ireland and the
Balkans—when will we learn that Christ doesn’t want us to ‘hurt to
convert?’ One of the great criticisms of the Roman Empire was that they
‘make a desert and call it peace.’ Rome conquered through violence.
Shouldn’t Christ offer something more…Christian? Are we so in love with
Babylon, that the only way we can imagine the Second Coming is more like
Hitler than Jesus? Are we, as poet Wendall Barry suggests, ‘hoping to
kill everyone opposed to peace?’