I’ve been presenting a lecture I gave to a regional meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature recently on the violence of the book of Revelation.  In my previous post I talked about a passage that strikes me as excessively ugly, which discusses Jesus’ treatment of the prophetess Jezebel (a Christian leader/teacher) from the church of Thyatira.   At this point in my lecture I move on from detailing aspects of the violence of the text to considering its significance.


Most of Revelation, of course, is not about what will happen to Christians that John considers wayward, but to those outside the church who suffer incomprehensible catastrophes and are eventually tossed alive into a lake of burning sulfur.

But why would it have to be this way, even if God is just and decides to avenge his persecuted or even martyred followers and to wipe out the masses of the ungodly?  Couldn’t he simply give them a simultaneous and fatal coronary?  Or just disintegrate them with a cosmic ray gun?  Not for John.  The wrath of God and the Lamb needs to be satisfied.  The Christian martyrs in chapter 6 plead for vengeance, and God gives it to them.  Everyone except the most devoted followers of Jesus will suffer torment and then be subject to a hideous death.

I anticipate many of you may be thinking that the book of Revelation is symbolic and that I’m making a mistake in thinking any of this is literally going to happen.  Jesus is not actually going to kill babies, torture almost everyone on earth, and then execute them in the most horrifying way we can imagine.  The book is all a metaphor about how God will restore justice, destroy evil, and make the world good again, a paradise for those who are faithful.

In part, I agree.  I do not think that John imagines the events he narrates will literally happen just as he describes.  He is using symbolism in order to convey a message.  And that message does provide hope for those who are – or who at least feel – persecuted and oppressed for their faith.  In the end, God will triumph and evil will be destroyed. That part is good.   But why does the author tell this story in such incredibly violent and gory terms?

It is important to realize that

Do symbols matter?  It probably depends.  To see why they matter here, in a book of Scripture, keep reading!  To keep reading you’ll need to join the blog.  But it’s inexpensive and you get tons for your money!  And every penny goes to charity! Click here for membership options