Theodicy in the Apocalypse by Grant R. Osburne


*Grant R. Osborne is Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.


Theodicy comes from two Greek words meaning “to justify/defend God.” The premise is that an omnipotent yet benevolent God must create a world in which these attributes are manifest. In that light, how does one account for the presence of evil and suffering? Theodicy in the Bible refers to the justification of God in two directions: the seeming triumph of the wicked and the suffering of the innocent. If God is sovereign and good, how can he allow evil to predominate unchecked? The presence of evil, suffering, and death was a threat to the divine order that controlled this cosmos. Ancient societies answered this problem in quite different ways: some, like the Greeks, portrayed gods with the same foibles and faults as human beings; others, like the Persians, developed a dualistic world in which good and evil are virtually equal forces.

The OT provides a multiplex answer. J. Crenshaw finds seven different views of suffering in Jewish thinking: suffering as retributive, disciplinary, revelational, probative, illusory, transitory, or mysterious.1 The solution begins with Genesis 3, which says the presence of evil and death was due to human choice. God throughout the OT is characterized by justice and love, wrath and mercy, and these coexist in a divine tension. Divine wrath2 is portrayed as just, linked as it is to human depravity; e.g. Gen 6:5: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time [NIV used throughout].” In v. 6 God’s response is first grief and pain, and then comes the wrath that leads to the flood.

Yet this does not explain the suffering of the innocent and of the righteous. Many have noted that in wisdom tradition a major crisis developed with regard to the challenge posed by the twin problems of evil and the suffering of the innocent. Wisdom at its heart may be defined as a creation theology: God has created this world and continues to control it; therefore wisdom is accepting one’s proper place in his created order and living by his rules. Yet this was challenged by common experience, namely the prosperity of the wicked and the indiscriminate nature of suffering that imposes itself on the just and the unjust alike. Wisdom answered this problem in two ways. First, wisdom stresses the principle of retribution, which says that God is ruler and judge and will both vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked in his own time (cf. Prov 10:27; 11:21; 12:21; 13:25). Death is the great equalizer and will demonstrate the fleeting nature of all earthly glory (cf. Ps 49:14–20; 73:18–20). Second, wisdom thinking emphasizes human inability to comprehend the divine order of things. In time of crisis, God’s people must simply wait for his greater wisdom to manifest itself (Job 42:1–6).3 Prophetic and apocalyptic literature picked up on these same themes. Many believe that apocalyptic developed out of both wisdom and prophetic precursors. This is especially evident in terms of theodicy. Prophecy added to wisdom the idea that faith in divine providence4 is future oriented, linked to divine judgment on this present world order and the promised restoration of the people of God. In apocalyptic thought both wisdom and prophetic theodicy are found, with the added stress on a final dissolution of this age and the inauguration of the eternal kingdom of God.5

In perusing the literature I have been unable to find a major article or monograph on the issue of theodicy in the Book of Revelation.6 Yet I find that this is a major theme in the book, occurring in virtually every section (chaps. 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20). Therefore this article is intended to help fill an important gap in understanding the Apocalypse. The primary theme in the book is the sovereignty of God over the present and future world orders. This sovereignty is especially manifest in divine retribution, which at one and the same time visits righteous judgment upon God’s enemies and vindicates the saints for all they have suffered at the hands of the wicked. I will approach the issue thematically rather than in linear fashion, tracing four themes through the book which together constitute the theodicy of the book.7

Before beginning, there are certain assumptions that must be stated. First, I consider the Apocalypse to be a combination of prophetic, apocalyptic, and epistolary material, and therefore a complex hermeneutic must be utilized in unpacking the many themes. Second, there is a growing consensus that the book relates both to the situation of the original readers of John and to future events that will end this present world order, so there is no need to dichotomize the relationship between Rome and the final empire of the Beast/Antichrist.8 One must combine historicist, idealist, and futurist perspectives in interpreting the book. Third, the structure of the book is a complex interplay of cyclical (the seals, trumpets, and bowls) and linear (the interludes of chaps. 7; 10–11; 12–14; and the final visions of chaps. 17–20) styles, forcing the reader to interact deeply with a tightly structured narrative whole. The themes develop within this interlocking web of intertextual forces. Finally, my definition of apocalyptic is as follows:9

Apocalyptic entails the revelatory communication of heavenly secrets by an otherwordly being to a seer who presents the visions in a narrative framework; the visions guide readers into a transcendent reality that takes precedence over the current situation and encourages readers to persevere in the midst of their trials. The visions reverse normal experience by making the heavenly mysteries the real world and depicting the present crisis as a temporary, illusory situation. This is achieved by God’s transforming this world for the faithful.

I.        God’s Judgment as Revelation of his Righteous Character

A.       An Expression of God’s Sovereignty and Authority

Divine retribution is depicted throughout the Apocalypse as the natural outgrowth of the very nature of God and of Christ (the two are continually presented as a united godhead). This is seen in the opening revelation of Christ coming in the clouds, when “all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him” (1:7). The text combines Dan 7:13 (“son of man coming with the clouds”) and Zech 12:10 (“they will look on me, the one they pierced, and they will mourn”). As Mounce brings out, this remorse is not repentance (as in Zechariah) but that sorrow which accompanies the disclosure of divine judgment.10 Clarifying this, God and Christ are portrayed as sovereign over history (the “Alpha and Omega, … who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” [1:8; cf. 1:17]). The depiction of Christ in 1:12–14 elaborates Daniel 7 and 10 by stressing Christ as high priest (the robe and the sash), as God (the “Ancient of Days” of Dan 7:9), as judge (the two-edged sword), and as sovereign over the church. The characteristics of Christ in the letters to the seven churches continue this theme, often repeating the imagery of chap. 1 (e.g. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1) and adding descriptions of Christ as “holy and true” (3:7) and as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (3:14). Throughout the seven letters, the union of Christ as sovereign and as judge/vindicator comes to the fore, but here this is linked to the divine faithfulness as contrasted to the unfaithfulness of many of the churches. In all of this, retribution is seen as part of the character of God, visited upon the pagan (1:7) and the Christian (chaps. 2–3) alike.

This theme culminates in the throne room vision of chaps. 4–5. Here the holiness and transcendence of God comes to the fore. The turning point of the book occurs in 4:1, as John is caught up to heaven to see the enthroned God, creator and judge of all, in sovereign majesty.11 R. Wall calls this passage an “epistolary thanksgiving,” a type of berakah or liturgical prayer celebrating the power and saving grace of God.12 In chap. 5 the creator God becomes the saving God, and sovereignty is passed on to the Lion who is a Lamb. This wondrous and startling juxtaposition of images (5:5–6) combines the redemptive sacrifice of the paschal lamb (cf. Isa 53:7) with the imagery of the eschatological Lamb who triumphs. John here uses the word arnion (not amnos as in John 1:29, 36), the same term used of the eschatological Lamb in 1 Enoch 89:45–46; 90:9–16. This word occurs twenty-eight times in the Apocalypse, thus becoming one of the primary metaphors for Christ. In 5:5–6 one of the key themes in the Apocalypse is presented, that of triumph through suffering. It is this that makes the Lamb worthy to open the seals. As the Lamb opens the seals in chap. 6, the themes noted in chap. 1 come to the fore. The sovereign Lamb who redeems via suffering now becomes the Judge. The imagery comes full circle: the One who is sovereign must be both redeemer and judge. His nature demands it, and this truth is the first step in John’s theodicy.

B.       A Revelation of God’s Holiness and Justice, and Thus a Cause for Worship

It is not only God’s essential nature that makes judgment mandatory but also the revelation of his character. The angel “flying in midair” in 14:6–7 tells the earth-dwellers, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come.” The creator who is also judge (v. 8) calls all people to reverence and worship, a startling invitation in light of the activity of the dragon and the two beasts in the preceding two chapters. Yet while the offer is made to the earth-dwellers, it is the heaven-dwellers that truly experience this worship in chap. 15. The “song of Moses” (vv. 3–4) re-enacts Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32, picturing the victorious people of God praising his deliverance as their enemies lie destroyed. God is depicted as great and true, holy and righteous, and the nations are forced to pay homage and worship by his righteous deeds.13 In the prelude to the outpouring of the bowls of wrath (15:7, 8), God is described as the One who lives forever, and smoke from his glory and power fills the temple. Judgment is clearly linked with worship.

After the third bowl is poured upon the earth, the angel “in charge of the waters” (one of the angels in charge of the natural elements) sings a hymn similar to the victorious acclamation of 15:3–4, again celebrating the justice and holiness of God (16:5–7). There is a distinct element of theodicy here, as the judgments of God not only flow out of his holiness but also are his just response to the depraved deeds of the earth-dwellers against his people (more on this below). The final statement of this theme occurs in the hymns of the multitude in 19:1–12. After the fall of Babylon in chap. 18 (in specific response to the angel’s call to rejoice in 18:20), the hymns of 19:1–5 form a prelude to the marriage supper of the lamb in 19:6–10. It is interesting that the four “Hallelujah” sayings of vv. 1, 3, 4, and 6 are the only occurrences of this praise acclamation in the NT! The destruction of Babylon is depicted in  v. 1 as an act of “salvation and glory and power,” and God’s righteous judgment is an occasion for worship. In all of this it is clear that the first aspect of theodicy in the Book of Revelation centers on the very character of God, for his righteousness and holiness demand judgment.

II.       God’s Judgment as a Necessity in Light of
Humanity’s Depravity and Final Rejection

A.       The Acts of Depravity

The vice code list of 21:8 is not simply a general list drawn from Jewish and Hellenistic parallels. In it the “cowardly” (namely those in the church who failed to “overcome”) are linked with the earth-dwellers—those who are “the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars.” Each term reflects emphases seen elsewhere in the book. “Unbelief” is the basic sin that has led these people to reject continually the divine overtures (see the next section). “Vile” deeds are stressed in 17:4, 5 (referring to the “abominable” deeds of Babylon the prostitute) and 21:27 (the “shameful” deeds that will never be allowed in the eternal city). “Murder” refers to the followers of the beast who have martyred the saints (e.g. 6:9; 9:21; 13:7, 10, 15; 20:4). In 11:10 the earth-dwellers gloat over the bodies of the two witnesses slain by the beast and engage in an orgy of celebration. “Sexual immorality” is practiced first by members of the false cults in the churches (2:14, 20, 21) and then by the earth-dwellers (9:21; 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3, 9; 19:2). The practice of sorcery is stressed in 9:21; 18:23; 22:15 (cf. Acts 19:19). “Idolatry” is one of the major foci of the book, again beginning with the false cults (2:14, 20) and then practiced by the earth-dwellers (9:20; 22:15). Many scholars believe the primary error of the Nicolaitans (2:2, 6, 14–15, 20) lay in their syncretistic teaching that followers participate in the imperial cult. In 13:1, 5, 6; 16:9, 11, 21; 17:3, this idolatry is accompanied by blasphemies against God. “Liars” are frequently castigated (2:2; 3:9; 14:5; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10; 21:27; 22:15). In this brief perusal of one vice list it is clear that the depravity of the unbelievers is one of the basic

emphases of theodicy in this book. The guilt of those punished is a constant aspect of OT theodicy as well. Such depravity can only lead to the divine justice of the “Judgment Seat” (20:11–15).

B.       The Stubborn Refusal to Repent

I believe that here we are at the heart of the theodicy of the Apocalypse; in fact, it was the frequency of this theme that first alerted me to the presence of theodicy in the Apocalypse. In 2:21 Jezebel refuses to repent, and a warning of impending judgment ensues (vv. 22–23). At key points in the description of the trumpets and bowls, a call to repentance goes out—see particularly the sixth trumpet (9:20–21) and the fourth (16:9) and fifth (16:11) bowls. After the seventh bowl (16:21) there is no mention of an offer to repent, but the “cursing” of God is similar to the other three instances (especially to the same “cursing” of 16:9) and may imply it. In addition, in 14:6–7 a call to fear God, give him glory, and worship him goes out to all the earth-dwellers. It is clear that the judgments of the trumpets and bowls are not just the over-reaction of a vindictive God who wreaks vengeance on all his enemies14 but a last call to repentance while there is still time.

A formal study of the contexts of three passages in which a call for repentance is issued (9:20–21; 16:9; 16:11) reveals a three-step process. (1) There is an outpouring of wrath, which in both the trumpets and bowls constitutes a reenactment of the plagues on Egypt (the first four trumpets and bowls allude to the Egyptian plagues) and with a similar purpose: to prove that the pagan gods (here the dragon and the beast) are powerless. In the case of the sixth trumpet (9:13–21) a further emphasis is found. The demonic hordes (200 million, almost the number of people alive in the Roman Empire at that time!) turn on their followers and kill a third of them. Yet even after this suffering at the hands of their idols, the earth-dwellers still reject God and prefer to worship the very beings that are taking their lives. (2) A call to repentance, explicit in 14:6–8 and implicit in the “refused to repent” of the texts we are examining, demonstrates the true intention of God. (3) Each passage culminates with the rejection of God and his call. It is clear that total depravity has occasioned the judgment inflicted here and the final judgment to come. Whenever God proves the worthlessness of the earth-dwellers’ gods and issues a call to repentance, he is always met with scorn, refusal, and blasphemies. The pagans prefer the very gods that destroy them to the one God who offers them life!

Theodicy may also be one of the thrusts of the millennial passage in 20:1–10. Fortunately, the arguments over the various millennial views may be placed in abeyance. Nor is it in the best interests of this paper to list the multitudinous suggestions as to the purpose of the passage. They are legion. One could almost say there are as many suggestions as there are interpreters. It is important to realize that there is not a single purpose or theme, but rather a concatenation of themes—e.g., the transition from this age to the Age to Come, the end of world history, the nature and triumph of the final inbreaking kingdom, the final binding of Satan, the vindication of God’s people, the resurrection of the saints.

Whatever emphasis we give these elements, interpreters from competing eschatological perspectives can agree on this: that theodicy is an important purpose of the text. Rev 20:1–10 is the culmination of theodicy in the Apocalypse. It is debated whether the earth-dwellers are present during the thousand-year period. Some argue that they are all put to death by the sword of the King of Kings in 19:17–21.15 However, in 20:7, after Satan is released, he “will go out to deceive the nations” (Gog and Magog) and “gather them for battle.” Whether we understand this as a recapitulation of the Battle of Armageddon (19:17–21) or as a final battle after a literal millennium is inconsequential for the thesis here. The point is that the narrative world in 20:1–10 pictures the nations as present for the thousand-year reign of Christ and yet as once again deceived by Satan after that period. After experiencing the righteous rule of the Lord of lords for a thousand years, they still reject it and flock after the great deceiver as soon as he appears. This justifies the great white throne judgment and the final casting of the devil and his followers into the eternal torment of the lake of fire in 20:9b–15. Note that in that judgment “each person was judged according to what he had done” (v. 13). As already demonstrated, throughout the Apocalypse there are innumerable opportunities to repent, and each time God is rebuffed. Now after a final thousand-year period it is clear that the depravity of evil mankind is so great that an eternity of opportunities would not suffice. This in a very real sense is a theodicy of eternal punishment, showing the justice behind the final judgment of God. In light of an “eternity” of rejections, eternal punishment is mandated.

III.      God’s Judgment as Execution of his Righteous Punishment

A.       Sin Turning upon Itself

This is a natural outgrowth of the previous section. God is depicted as causing sin to come full circle and to consume itself. In every apocalyptic work, the total depravity of the enemies of God is stressed, and divine judgment is presented as his righteous response to the total evil of wicked mankind. In the warning to the followers of Jezebel (2:21), the church in Thyatira is told, “I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.” The “bed of suffering” (2:22) and the death of “her children” (2:23a) is the just punishment in accordance with the divine principle, “I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (2:23b). This is a key eschatological principle of divine justice, echoed by the Psalmist (Ps 62:12), Jeremiah (Jer 17:10), Jesus (Matt 16:27), Paul (Rom 2:6), and Peter (1 Pet 1:17). In other words, it is the just deserts of those who do evil. The basic ethical principle of the NT for believer and unbeliever is this: “What we do to others, we actually do to Christ, since they are made in the image of God. And he will return those deeds upon our heads.” This is the Roman legal principle lex talionis, and the point is that the earth-dwellers in the Apocalypse have earned their punishment. In fact, this is one of the chief justifications of the great white throne judgment in 20:12, 13. Verse 13 repeats the full effects of v. 12 for emphasis. All the dead (v. 12), those lost at sea as well as those consigned to death and hades (v. 13), are brought back to life (v. 5) and judged. Repeated in both verses is the key concept that all are judged “according to their deeds.” Final judgment is not according to the arbitrary whim of an aloof deity but is always based on the individual’s actual deeds.

The principle that evil turns upon itself is echoed several times in the book. In the opening of the first four seals, centering on “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” the first horse that goes forth (6:2) is white and is given a bow and a crown in order to conquer, representing the human lust for war. Most agree that there is allusion to the Parthian tribes, who with their archers and cavalry in AD 62 inflicted a startling defeat upon the Romans.16 The second horse (6:3–4) is red and takes peace from the earth. Its rider is given the great Roman short-sword, symbol of Roman slaughter, and people “slay each other.” In the second horse lust for war turns upon itself, and civil war erupts. The results are seen in the final two horsemen—famine, pestilence, and death, with a quarter of mankind lost. This civil war theme is programmatic for the rest of the book, as sin turns upon itself and consumes its adherents.

One of the most important terms in this section is ejdovqh (“it was given”), which occurs three times in the descriptions of the first four seals (6:2, 4, 8).17 It is a divine passive and signifies that God is in sovereign control, causing the full effects of sin to take place. These horsemen are not acting on their own but are under divine impetus, bringing about the civil war theme. Even the powers of evil only have power as God allows it, and he will bring it to an end in his own time.

B.       Restoration of the Creation Order

Creation theology is another of the major themes of the Apocalypse. Apocalyptic follows wisdom literature in connecting creation theology closely with theodicy. The God of creation is at all times in sovereign control; and his deeds, especially in righting all wrongs, are just. The Laodiceans are told that it is Christ (not they) who is “the ruler of God’s creation” (3:14). As such he alone is sovereign. Yet the seeming triumph of evil has posed a challenge to this created order. Is God really in control? This is answered in the second hymn of the throne room vision (4:11):

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.

In spite of the evil personified in Rome and predominant in the churches, God is still on his throne and still in control of his creation. The heart of the apocalyptic message is that this world, controlled by evil, is not the real world, for it is temporary—the power of evil is an illusion. The real world is the transcendent reality of God on his throne, and his created order is in process of being reinstated, even though it may not look like it. The creation order has past, present, and future connotations, anchored in the God “who is, and who was, and who is to come” (1:4, 8). Apocalyptic celebrates the God of past creation, who fashioned this world, and the God of future creation, who will bring this present order to a close at the proper time. The saints in the present are to trust this God of creation and to await the consummation.

The primary creation theme, of course, relates to the eschaton. In 10:6, a lengthy description of God as creator of the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them precedes the angel’s promise, “There will be no more delay!” This is reminiscent of Rom 8:22, where creation groans “as in the pains of childbirth,” longing to be liberated from the bondage of the effects of sin. In the Apocalypse creation fights on the side of God. In Rev 12:15–16, when the dragon spews forth a torrent to sweep away the woman, the earth opens up, and “swallowing the river,” frustrates the dragon’s plans. In 16:8 the fourth bowl has the sun scorching the earth-dwellers with fire.

The culmination of this theme is the New Heavens and the New Earth (21:1–22:5). Many scholars have noticed that in 22:1–5 the vision reminds the reader of a new Garden of Eden, a new paradise where all the hopes of the first garden will come to pass.18 The final point of creation theology is in the new creation of God. The preceding portion of the vision (21:1–27) builds upon the image of the heavenly temple. The New Jerusalem is a perfect cube, 1500 miles wide, long, and high (21:16), depicting the Holy of Holies. Its central feature is the Shekinah: there need be no light, for the Shekinah glory provides the light (21:23; cf. 22:5).

The last segment (22:1–5) adds the paradise motif, building not only upon the imagery of Eden but also upon Ezek 47:1–12, the vision of the river flowing from the temple past the altar to bring life to the Dead Sea, with trees bearing fruit and leaves producing healing. Here the river flows from the throne (an allusion to chaps. 4–5) down the middle of the great highway, with the “tree of life bearing twelve crops of fruit” on either side. Unlike Eden, eating from this tree is not forbidden, for its leaves bring healing to the nations. Both the fruit and the leaves are plentiful and life-giving. The first Eden began with the appearance of death. The second Eden begins with the disappearance of death, as the “water of life” (cf. 7:17; 21:6; 22:17; John 4:10) ushers in eternity. In short, the new creation finalizes eschatological theodicy.

IV.      God’s Judgment as Vindication of His Righteous Ones

A.       Vindication for the Martyrdom of the Saints

The people of God in the Book of Revelation are at one and the same time the objects of divine love (3:9, 20:9) and the objects of intense persecution by the forces of the Beast (13:7, 10; 15:2). As J. R. Michaels says, “Within John’s horizons, ‘martyr’ is not a technical term for those unfortunate individuals who happen to be killed. Rather, it defines the very nature and existence of the church… Victory comes through suffering and death.”19 As so often, this theme begins in the letters to the seven churches. The church at Smyrna is told, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer” at the hands of “the synagogue of Satan” and “the devil” (2:9–10); and Pergamum is reminded of “Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (2:13). Martyrdom is to be a common experience of God’s people.

This theme carries through the book. When the fifth seal is opened (6:9), we are confronted by a heavenly altar beneath which are those martyred for “the word of God” and their “testimony.” They are told to rest and wait until the “number” of their fellow martyrs is “completed” (6:11). It is clear that the martyrs are pictured as blood sacrifices poured around the base of the altar (cf. Lev 4:7, 18, 25). Note the irony: the earth-dwellers who took their lives were in fact producing an offering to God! Moreover, there were still many who were yet to lose their lives.20 In 7:14, the great multitude in heaven is described as those who have “come out of great tribulation; they have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” While martyrdom is not explicitly mentioned, the imagery makes it likely that these are the completed number of 6:11.21

Martyrdom centers on the evil actions of the dragon and the beast. In 12:17 the dragon, filled with rage, makes war against all who obey God and follow Jesus’ testimony. In 13:7 the beast likewise makes war against the saints and is allowed by God to “conquer them” for a time. This becomes martyrdom in 13:15, as “all who refused to worship” the beast were to be killed. It is the beast who will “overpower and kill” the two witnesses in 11:7. In 16:6 the earth-dwellers are described as those who have “shed the blood” of the saints; in 17:6 the great harlot is “drunk with the blood of the saints”; and in 18:24 Babylon is pictured as containing “the blood of the prophets and of the saints.” Many in fact believe that in the Apocalypse all the saints on earth are martyred, so extensive is the imagery. While this is probably an overstatement,22 martyrdom is indeed a major emphasis in the book.

Yet the Apocalypse is also clear that God “will wipe away every tear” from the eyes of the martyrs (7:17; 21:4). Vindication will be total; all suffering and pain will be removed and forgotten. In fact, the paradox is that the martyrdom of the saints is their victory. In 12:11 Satan is “overcome” not only by “the blood of the Lamb” but also by the “testimony” of the saints “who did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Ladd states, “Victory over Satan is not physical victory to be found in preservation of life or escape from the persecution he wages against the saints… Their very martyrdom was their victory over Satan.”23 In 15:2, the saints stand by the sea of glass as those “victorious” over the beast, his image, and the number of his name. It is they who sing Moses’ song of deliverance in 15:3–5. Finally, in 20:4, those who reign with Christ for a thousand years are those who were “beheaded” (the basic Roman form of execution) for their witness and refused to worship the beast. The theme in the Apocalypse is not the fact of martyrdom but God’s vindication of the martyrs. Here is a further irony: as the dragon and the beast lose their kingdom, their authority over it is assumed by the very ones they have killed for remaining true to Christ.24

B.       Response to the Prayers of the Saints for Vindication

The prayers of the martyred saints for revenge/vindication are indeed answered by God. In 5:8 the four living creatures and twenty-four elders prostrate themselves before the Lamb, holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Building upon the OT imagery of incense as a sweet-smelling fragrance to God (burnt every morning and evening on the altar of incense in the temple), the prayers of the saints form the heart of the heavenly worship.

In 6:9–11 the prayer of the martyred saints is for revenge/vindication (both connoted by ejkdikei’» in 6:10): “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge (ejkdikei’») our blood?” Many have noted the difference between this response and the forgiveness extended by Jesus (Luke 23:24) and Stephen (Acts 7:60). Yet the background to this must be seen in biblical theodicy and specifically in the imprecatory prayers of the OT (Psalms 12; 35; 58; 59; 69; 70; 83; 109; 137; 140). As Fee and Stuart point out,25 this does not contradict the NT teaching on loving our enemies. By placing one’s natural feeling of bitterness and desire for revenge in God’s hands, one can be freed to love the unlovely. Even more, the imprecatory psalms actually place the vengeance with God, in keeping with Deut 32:35: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (cf. Rom 12:19). Here, as in the imprecatory psalms, the saints are calling for judgment on the basis of the covenant curses (Deut 28:53–57; 32:25). Concern for the name of God as well as desire for vengeance is included.

These prayers are answered in 8:3–5. After the opening of the seventh seal, and before the seven trumpets are sounded, an angel with a golden censer (the golden pan that held the coals at the altar of incense) is given incense along with the prayers of the saints.26 These prayers ascend to God, and then the angel fills the censer with fire (symbolizing divine judgment) and casts it to the earth. The message is clear. The outpouring of judgment in the trumpets is in part God’s response to the imprecatory prayers of the martyred saints.27 The outcry of God’s righteous, persecuted people is now heeded by God. Earlier we noted the redemptive purpose of divine judgment. Here the punitive purpose is seen, yet still it is part of theodicy. God does not punish out of vindictive bitterness but out of the need to vindicate his people. In 15:7, the bowls of 5:8 are filled not with prayers but with wrath. The prayers have already ascended to God, and wrath is his just response.

The justice of this is seen in 16:5–7. Between the pouring of the third and fourth bowls an angel says (in justification of the terrible outpouring of judgment), “You are just in these judgments, … for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve” (cf. 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:2). God is returning to the earth-dwellers exactly what they have done to his people (the principle of lex talionis discussed above).

C.       Vindication of the Lamb That Was Slain

The paradigmatic martyr, of course, is the Lamb. In 5:5–10, the primary theme is stated: victory over Satan is forged through suffering and death. The Lion who is the Lamb has already “triumphed” (v. 5), and as he takes the scroll, the living creatures sing of his worthiness to open the seals “because you were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God” (v. 9). Christ’s own martyrdom is the basis of redemption and victory in the cosmic war. Through it his people have become “a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (v. 10). In other words the Lamb has won not only his victory (v. 13) but ours as well. The “blood of the Lamb” has defeated Satan finally (12:11), and the Book of Life belongs to the Lamb (13:8). Elsewhere the Lamb and God sit on the throne together (7:10); the Lamb is vindicated and placed “at the center of the throne,” where he shepherds the saints (cf. 14:1, 4, with his name “written on their foreheads”), leading them to the water of life (7:17). It is the Lamb who will “overcome” the armies of the earth (17:14), meet his bride, the church, in the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:7, 9; cf. 21:9), and function as the eschatological Judge (14:10).


Theodicy is indeed a primary stress in the Apocalypse, encapsulating the justice and the mercy of God, his love as well as his righteous wrath. It is the depravity of people that has resulted in the necessity of final judgment. God has continually presented opportunities for repentance, even when pouring out his wrath, and yet the earth-dwellers have not only rejected God’s overtures but blasphemed his name. The sovereignty of God is the primary theme of the book, seconded by the futility of Satan. Satan is already a defeated figure, “filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (12:12). Satan can do nothing except copy the perfect work of God (e.g., the mark of the beast, 13:16, cf. 7:3; the “false trinity,” 16:13) and do as much harm to the people of God as he can.

The triumph of evil in this wicked world is an illusion from a cosmic perspective, but its power to inflict suffering upon God’s people in this earthly sphere is great indeed. The primary exhortation of the book is to persevere or “overcome” this prevalent evil, for God will indeed vindicate those who place their trust in him. Their victory is assured, but they must make certain that they are not among the “cowardly” who will also face an angry God (21:8). Their martyrdom signifies their final victory over Satan, and their reward is assured (cf. 21:1–22:5). Thus the theodicy of the Apocalypse is complete, centering upon the goodness of God, the depravity of evil mankind, and the final vindication of his people.

1 1. J. L. Crenshaw, “Introduction: The Shift from Theodicy to Anthropodicy,” in Theodicy in the Old Testament (ed. J. L. Crenshaw; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 4.

2 2. K. Koch (“Is There a Doctrine of Retribution in the Old Testament?” in Theodicy in the Old Testament, 57–87), argues that a doctrine of retribution is inherent from the very beginning of OT thinking. He finds it especially in wisdom and prophetic traditions. He defines the doctrine as connecting the judgment of Yahweh with human responsibility, particularly with the necessary consequence of one’s actions.

3 3. See G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991) 194–95.

4 4. On this see W. Eichrodt, “Faith in Providence and Theodicy in the Old Testament,” in Theodicy in the Old Testament, 17–41.

5 5. H.-P. Mueller (“Theodizee? Anschlusserorterungen zum Buch Hiob,” ZTK 89 [1992] 249–79 [especially 262–64]) sees a further parallel between wisdom and apocalyptic, the concept of the hidden and unknowable God. He believes that in the apocalyptic solution of the present world order as given over to demonic powers (cf. Dan 7:2–8, cp. Gen 6:1–4 as interpreted in 1 Enoch 6–36) God is seen as a distant deity until he takes control once again at the end of the age. In my opinion this is an overstatement, since the purpose of apocalyptic is to show that the God of the future is still in control of the present and will vindicate both himself and his people at the proper time.

6 6. Closest are the articles by W. Klassen, “Vengeance in the Apocalypse of John,” CBQ 28 (1966) 300–311; and A. Y. Collins, “Persecution and Vengeance in the Book of Revelation,” in Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (ed. D. Hellholm; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1989) 729–49.

7 7. Here I must express my gratitude to my graduate assistant, A. Köstenberger, who has helped both in research and in developing the thematic outline.

8 8. See, e.g., A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979); and R. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).

9 9. See Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral, 222.

10 10. Mounce,Revelation, 73; contra E. S. Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 44, who says the writer here builds upon the “spirit of compassion and supplication” of Zech 12:10–14 and thus sees this as a “salvation prophecy.”

11 11. D. Aune (“The Influence of Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John,” BR 28 [1983] 5–26), convincingly argues that the imagery in chap. 4 deliberately contrasts the throne of God with the court of Caesar in order to demonstrate that true glory and splendor belong only to God. This is especially meaningful in light of the extent to which the imperial cult is addressed in the letters to the seven churches.

12 12. R. W. Wall, Revelation (NIBC; Peabody,  MA: Hendrickson, 1991) 90.

13 13. The issue of “forced homage” vs. true worship here is problematic, for elsewhere the book stresses the refusal of worship on the part of the nations (see below for this theme). I agree with Mounce (Revelation, 288-89n), that it probably refers to forced homage, though it is possible that it is a reference to the procession of the nations theme from the OT.

14 14. See the excellent articles by Klassen and Collins mentioned above.

15 15. Fiorenza, Revelation, 107. See also E. Boring, Revelation (IBC; Louisville: John Knox, 1989) 205–7.

16 16. G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (HNTC; New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 79–80; and Mounce, Revelation, 152–54; contra W. Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967,) 113–17, who argues that the rider is Christ. The continuity of the seals makes the lust for conquest far more likely. G. R. Beasley-Murray, (Revelation [NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968] 131–32), believes it is lust for war but that it does not allude to the past (Parthians) but the future. In my opinion, it does indeed look to the future but builds upon the imagery of the Parthians.

17 17. This verb is a primary term of divine judgment, used of the four angels with power over the land and sea (7:2), the angels with the seven trumpets and golden censor (8:2, 3), the fifth angel (9:1, 3, 5), etc. Most impressively, divdwmi is used frequently in chap. 13 (vv. 2, 4, 5, 7, 14, 15). In vv. 2, 4, it is the dragon that passes on authority (e[dwken) to the beast, but in the rest of the chapter it is undoubtedly God who allows the beasts to exercise authority (ejdovqh). In other words, even the action of the two beasts is under sovereign control and part of the divine justice theme.

18 18. See Caird, Revelation, 280; Beasley-Murray, Revelation, 330–31; Wall, Revelation, 256–57.

19 19. J. R. Michaels, Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Guides to New Testament Exegesis; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992) 137 (cf. 134–37).

20 20. As Mounce brings out, the “completion” of the number probably builds upon the Jewish belief that God has specified a full number of martyrs before the eschaton will come (cf. 1 Enoch 47:4; 2 Esdr 2:41)(Revelation, 160).

21 21. Boring says, “As in 6:9–11, those who have ‘conquered’ are dressed in the white robes of the victors; as there, martyrdom is seen only from the heavenward side” (Revelation, 131).

22 22. In 13:15 “all” who refuse to worship the beast are to be killed, but this could be the intention of the two beasts rather than a reflection of what was to happen. At the same time, the Greek text of 20:4 could have two groups: those beheaded, and those who had not worshipped the beast (but did not lose their lives). It is best not to be dogmatic on the issue.

23 23. G. E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 173.

24 24. The debate as to whether the martyrs or some other figures inhabit the “thrones” in the first part of v. 4 is not important for the point here. The critical point is in the latter part of the verse: “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”

25 25. G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) 182–84.

26 26. Or, with some, “incense, namely the prayers of the saints.”

27 27. Fiorenza, says, “Whereas in 5:8 the bowls of incense that are used in the hymnic liturgy celebrating the Lamb’s enthronement to kingship symbolize the prayers of the saints, here the prayers of the saints kindle and sustain the fire of the altar that signifies God’s wrath and punishment” (Revelation, 71).

Comments are closed.