Here is part 2 of the article written by John helpfully giving us a lens through these challenging passages in Revelation.


A recurring theme in Revelation is God’s judgment. This does not always make for easy reading and raises difficult questions for some of us. However, it is a continuing focus not just of Revelation but of scripture as a whole, so we need to come to terms with it rather than air-brushing it out of our theology.

The whole topic is far too big to cover in one short article. All I want to do is to give some personal reflections on judgment as seen in Revelation. I shall start from a specific question in chapter 6, on which I recently preached. Moving out from that I will give four general thoughts on how we can approach the judgment material in Revelation, which hopefully will help us as we continue our preaching series. No doubt many aspects will be left untouched and questions unanswered, but at least it is a starting point.


A. The martyrs in chapter 6.

Verses 9-12 speak of the martyrs in heaven:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

Here the martyrs are calling out to God to avenge them. However, Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 6:44). On the cross he himself prayed for forgiveness of his persecutors (Luke 23:34). Paul told us not to repay evil for evil but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21). Peter told us not to repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing (1 Peter 3:9). How does the call of the martyrs fit with the repeated teaching in the rest of the New Testament?

I think there are two aspects to the answer.

First, the instructions from Jesus, Paul and Peter are given to believers still alive on earth. We are prone to sin, can easily become vengeful, and still need God’s mercy just as our oppressors do. We are called to hold out the message of reconciliation while there is still hope for our persecutors. Moreover, we do not know what is going on in their hearts and how God may be working in them – he changed Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle!

By contrast, the martyrs in heaven have completed their race, have no further temptations to sin and now “know fully even as they have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Therefore, they can safely and righteously call out for justice to be done.

Second, although God tells us not to return good for evil, that does not mean that evil will not be judged. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 12:

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

In other words, it is God’s work to judge, and he will do it. Evil will not go unpunished. The martyrs are doing exactly the right thing: they are calling out to God for his action. The answer is seen immediately in Revelation 6:12-15, which gives us a picture of the last judgment, when justice is finally completed. Then the unrepentant persecutors will say:

“Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

In conclusion, the prayer of the martyrs, far from contradicting the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, fulfils it perfectly.


B. General reflections on judgment in Revelation

Judgment is a repeated theme in Revelation, sometimes in gruesome terms (eg 14:19-20). How do we understand such things? How do we square these visions with our knowledge that God is love?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have four suggestions that may be helpful as we continue through Revelation.

  1. A word for the moment

Revelation was written as a prophetic revelation to people undergoing persecution. It encourages them to persevere in the face of great difficulties, even if their faithfulness risks death for them and their families. A vital part of this motivating message is a deep conviction that God will put everything right, that rights will be wronged, that righteousness will be vindicated, that faithfulness will be rewarded. This was not abstract theory for the readers, it was a practical response to their immediate dangerous situation

It is notable in our own times that when people have faced terrible evil (such as the murder of family members) there is a profound ache for justice which cannot be set aside by bland words. We can see this in the reactions of family members or victims to the conviction of a child killer or serial rapist. It is to this deep heart cry that Revelation speaks.

Revelation is not intended as a book of systematic theology and we should not expect it to address all the questions about good and evil we may have. Other parts of scripture may help us answer such questions, but we will benefit most from Revelation if we come to it as it was written, and gain comfort and strength from the hope it holds out to God’s faithful people.

  1. Powerful symbolic images

The visions, given by Jesus and described by John, are powerful, challenging our imaginations, breaking through our complacency, igniting our hope. They touch us in ways that calm, systematic teaching doesn’t. God is breaking into our lives in ways we cannot just ignore.

Part of this impact comes from exaggerated symbolic language. For instance, the judgment in chapter 6 is described like this:

There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.

This kind of language comes out of the Old Testament (eg Exodus 19:18, Psalm 99:1, Joel 2:10, Isaiah 13:10; 50:3, Ezekiel 32:7-8, Joel 2:31) where it symbolises God’s work in judgment. In some cases, it is clearly not a literal event. Rather such language speaks to us of a loss of all that is stable and relied-upon, of an end of false hopes, of judgment for sins, of events that are traumatic, of things that are impossible to describe to us literally.

Therefore, such language, here and elsewhere need not be taken as literal statements but as images of extraordinary and fearful events. Their very intensity stirs us with the seriousness of what is at stake.

It is therefore missing the point to look for their literal fulfilment, such as the interest in blood moons as signs of the end[1], and is actually a distraction from the message that Revelation brings us. Rather we need to be provoked and encouraged by the magnitude of the issues and the glory of our hope.

  1. Judgment out of love

Judgment has negative connotations to most people, including many Christians. But in the Bible it is something to be anticipated joyfully, because it is God putting all things right (eg Psalm 96:11-13, Psalm 97, Psalm 98:4-9).

In 6:16-17 we read:

“Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

Judgment is being carried by the Lamb, the one who “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood” (1:5). He is the one who is ultimate love, yet judgment is described as his wrath. His anger and judgment are an expression of his love. He is making all things right, undoing the effects of all the evil that has happened, vindicating his faithful people.

In chapter 2 the love of Jesus is expressed in judgment. The church in Thyatira was being troubled by a woman called Jezebel; this was probably not her real name but a symbolic nickname chosen to highlight the way she was hurting God’s people, just as Jezebel had in the days of Elijah. Jesus says this:

21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.

This judgment of sin and suffering is nevertheless an act of love, because it helps the wrong-doers see their need for repentance and protects the church from their evil influence.

The promise of judgment by Jesus is real (see also John 5:22-30, Acts 17:29-31, 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10), but is always still an expression of his love.

  1. A context of open evil

I wonder whether some of our discomfort with God’s judgment comes as a result of living in a relatively pampered society, largely shielded from aggressive or life-threatening evil?

Croatian theologian Miroslav Wolf wrote that as a young Christian he found the idea of God’s judgment very difficult. How could a God of love judge the world? Then his country went through a horrendous genocidal civil war, in which neighbours turned against each other and great atrocities were committed on both sides. Faced with this bitter reality he now wondered how a God of love could not judge.

The Christians to whom Revelation was written were directly exposed to many evils in life. This included both things that affected everyone (conquest, war, famine and death from the four horsemen in chapter 6) and persecution directed at them specifically. Perhaps they were better attuned to the general reality of the world than we in 21st century Britain are.


  1. Conclusion

As we read Revelation in its original context, maybe our eyes will be opened to see the goodness of God in ways we haven’t seen before, highlighted by the intensity and horror of evil. These four suggestions may give us a lens through which we can understand more of what Jesus was showing us through the visions he gave to John.


[1] See (accessed June 25, 2020)