Lesson 7: The Last Judgment and Millennium in Revelation 19 and 20

The Final Battle of RevelationJohn has treated us to three versions of the Tribulation. Now in these two chapters, he offers at least two Last Judgments. Two obvious ones employ an Armageddon battle to eradicate evil powers and people. The second of these adds an admissions test based on record books kept in heaven.

Two questions arise as you read this fast-paced account. The first asks what John is doing when he introduces the millennium. My answer stems from my interview for a position on the board of the local Rescue Mission. A committee of very kind Evangelicals somewhat embarrassingly asked a Lutheran pastor if I was a premillennialist or a postmillennialist, indicating making the correct answer was necessary for being accepted. The question is used by several Christian groups as a test for reading the Bible properly. It asks if Christ returns before or after this 1000 year reign of Christ and the martyrs that appears only in Revelation.

Upon reflection, I realized the question illustrates how essential appreciating the nature of prophecy is for understanding Revelation. John uses a form of language more poetic than scientific or historical. This becomes evident when you notice that far more hymns are based on phrases from his writing than any other biblical book. The Rescue Mission fell into the basic error of Fundamentalists when they read the poetry of prophecy as scientific or historical predictions of specific future events.

Poetry has no problem offering stories that complement one another even though they differ in subject matter. You see this in the many differing visions of the future found in the Bible, such as those associated with the peaceable kingdom, the just society, the beloved community, the marriage feast, and even more. Again, we have little trouble when Jesus teaches several dissimilar parables about the Kingdom of God back to back in the gospels. It only gets confusing when John, in the frenzy of prophetic utterance, mixes them all up together.

I think the Prophet is presenting Armageddon as a necessary stage in both a this-worldly just society and an other-worldly apocalyptic kingdom. That, of course, brings up a second question. How can John be a pacifist when he pictures these last judgments as military battles between the armies of God and Satan?

Again, a personal incident has greatly influenced my answer. When I read of the Great Judge named the Word of God riding a white horse at the head of a great army on the way to battle, I remembered the beautiful word picture offered by a modern prophet at a small prayer meeting. She went into her trace and launched into a long description of Christ in full armor coming over a hill on a white horse. We heard how the sun was brilliantly reflected off his war horse, his spurs, his helmet, his breastplate, his sword, and his lance. Just as we were ready to hear of Christ meeting the enemy in battle, the prophetess exclaimed that she can read the words on the banner streaming from his lance. “They are… they are..love one another” and with that she returns.

So, too, John pictures Christ headed for war and the dead of the evil army laying on the battlefield, but never includes the battle. I think he wants to proclaim Christ cleanses the world of evil totally through the Word of God he speaks and the sacrifice of his life he offers. Christ’s only weapon is the sword extending from his mouth; his robe is already covered with blood, his own. Just as military images are used to oppose war in the Battle Hymn of the Republic and to call for fervent evangelism in Onward Christian Soldiers, so John uses them to promise pacifism will overcome military power. The first Last Judgment is a civil war in which the two beasts representing the Roman Empire are destroyed. The second is the ultimate Gog and Magog conflict where Satan, death, and Hades are destroyed by fire.

Remember, the primary promise of the Last Judgment is that God will establish a just and loving community. John pictures this as two cities that are heaven on earth. The first is that enjoyed by the Christian martyrs in the millennium after the fall of Rome. The second is an eternal city descended from heaven populated by every good person on earth.

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  1. Fr. Jude says:

    I thought much about your characterization of the text more as poetry than anything else. It occurred to me that this is the progress of Theology, as well.

    Theology has always struggled with exactly what it is. In the Pentatuch it is Wisdom (and/or Knowledge)

    Later, with the start of the early church, it assumed the role of Philosophy.

    In the Age of Aquinas (not Aquarias!), it decided it was Science (the Queen of Sciences, as I seem to recall).

    But what Theology really is, and has always been, in my humble opinion, is Poetry.

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