The Big Picture of the End Times: Revelation

The Doctrine of the End Times: Rapture, Antichrist, Return of Jesus, Day of the Lord, Final Judgment, Heaven and Hell

How do you understand the book of Revelation? Previously, I taught a series of messages on the end times, but I haven’t ever written it all out in any kind of systematic way. This article is the second of two attempting to cover the relevant Biblical teaching on the topic of the end times. In the previous article, I covered the teaching of Paul, Jesus, and Daniel and in this article, I’ll address the teaching of the Apostle John (specifically Revelation).

But first, let’s do some review.


In my previous article, I started with the teaching of Paul, then because he quoted Jesus, I looked at the teaching of Jesus, and then because Jesus quoted Daniel, I went to Daniel. After looking at all those passages, I assembled the main points they were making into the following chronological list of end times events:

  • Gospel Transmission / Increasing Wickedness, Apostasy
  • Removal of Restrainer (?)
  • Rise of the Man of Lawlessness (Antichrist)
  • Great Distress and Persecution (Tribulation)
  • Return of Christ in Power (Resurrection & Rapture)
  • Great Judgment (Book of Life)
  • Eternal Life or Eternal Fire (Jesus taught these two destinies, recorded in Matthew 25)

However, I also said there are key parts of end times doctrine that aren’t included in this list because neither Jesus, nor Paul or Daniel addressed them. Among those things are the doctrine of the Rapture, the doctrine of the Millennium, and the nature of Eternal life. In this article, we will swim through the book of Revelation (and other bits of John’s writing) at a rapid clip to fill in those blanks. Specifically, we will address the following questions:

  • Does Revelation or any other New Testament text give us any justification for the Rapture doctrine?
  • What does Revelation teach about the Millennium, Armageddon, the Antichrist, or the time of God’s wrath?
  • What should we know about the nature of eternity and the eternal destiny of human beings?


As before, I want to share the methodology I’m using to study the book of Revelation. Also as before, there are two general approaches to the book of Revelation. The first approach is to see Revelation in a broader systematic framework like Dispensationalism. From a Dispensational perspective, various parts of the book could be referring to different time periods in the age of the church. Other systematic approaches are sometimes employed too. The second approach is to see Revelation as a deeply encoded book that must be decoded by the reader for proper understanding. This approach allows for an unending stream of new interpretations and new ideas, but it also faces the weakness of reflecting the thought, culture, time, and perspective of the interpreter more than the intent of the text.

My approach will be the same as before: look for the author’s intent. However, when it comes to the book of Revelation, discerning author intent is more difficult because there are two layers of authorship to the book. A very small portion of the book is claimed by John as original to him. The major part of the book is John writing down the words dictated to him by Jesus or an angel, or John simply recording in text what he experienced in a vision. As a result, we need to pay attention to any time John addresses his audience directly because those moments reveal what he thought of his experiences. Additionally, we need to pay attention to those moments when the experience John had was beyond his own ability to express or when the angelic messenger gave him direct guidance about the message he was given.

Finally, my approach toward Revelation will reflect one fundamental presupposition of my own. I’m convinced we are not meant to know the details of these prophecies, and therefore, efforts to see the trees in the forest are doomed to failure. Let me try to make this point.

Forest Not Trees

Sometimes the Prophet Doesn’t Know the Meaning

In Daniel 12:8-9 we read this:

(8) I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?”

(9) He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end.

Daniel 12:8-9 NIV

Both Daniel and John were writing apocalyptic literature in response to visions from angelic beings, and Daniel’s prophecy shows us one key precedent in biblical apocalyptic writing: The prophet often doesn’t understand the prophecy, and sometimes, no explanation is ever given.

Sometimes the Prophet is Commanded to Hide the Meaning

John’s writing in Revelation goes a step further than this. Consider Revelation 10:4:

(4) And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.”

Revelation 10:4 NIV

In this passage, the angel specifically tells John not to write down what he has heard. For some reason, John was allowed to experience something but then was not allowed to communicate it to his readers.

Most Times, Readers Get it Wrong

On top of that, I am utterly convicted by the testimony of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Consider just a few relevant verses from those prophetic texts:

(1) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

(7) All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
(8) “He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

(16) Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
(17) All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
(18) They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

Psalm 22:1, 7-8, 16-18 NIV

Psalm 22 described the Messiah’s crucifixion in extreme detail nearly 1000 years before Jesus was even born. You’d think the people of Jesus’ day might be aware of a prophecy about piercing hands and feet, but no. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he literally quoted the first verse of the Psalm and the people didn’t get it even then:

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

Mark 15:34-35 NIV

Then, consider these verses from Isaiah 53:

(3) He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
(4) Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
(5) But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
(6) We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(7) He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
(8) By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
(9) He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
(10) Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
(11) After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied ;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
(12) Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53:3-12 NIV

Some servant of God would be rejected by people, pierced and whipped, killed along with wicked men, buried in a rich person’s tomb, and yet resurrected back to life! Written hundreds of years before Jesus, this resemblance is astonishing! Still, before the crucifixion, none of Jesus’ followers expected him to be killed, and even after the resurrection, the Jewish leaders still didn’t make the connection.

Here’s the point. God’s people have (almost) never been able to understand prophecy except in hindsight. The one exception is when Daniel reads Jeremiah’s prophecy about 70 years in captivity and realizes that the 70 years is just about over. However, when it came to the Messiah, the most important set of prophecies ever given, no one other than Jesus understood them until after they were fulfilled.

Therefore, out of hubris I could say, “But I’ll get it right when I look at the details” or out of humility I could say, “Maybe I’m no better than those people and should reserve judgment until God brings it about.” Speculation may sometimes be valuable, but in any case, I want to choose the path of humility.

Speed is Our Friend

So, my general approach to a book like Revelation is actually to go through it faster rather than slower. Instead of the slow bit by bit analysis of every tiny detail, I think it’s more valuable and more accurate to go through it at the pace John experienced it. It’s highly likely that it took him longer to write down his visions than it did for him to see the visions, and I think we will benefit from that same kind of experience.

Therefore, in the following article, I will at times quote passages from Revelation, but my assumption is that those quotations are coming in the context of a fast reading rather than a slow one. If you want to join me in this journey, it’s probably in your best interest to pause before each section below to read through the relevant section in Revelation before continuing with what I have to say about it.

Let’s dig in.

Prologue: Revelation 1

The Pre-Prologue

The first three verses of Revelation are a section to themselves, and there are two bits of information often missed by readers.

  • The main point of Revelation is to give the servants of Jesus information about the Father’s plans for the future, and through that information to bless them.
  • The expectation is that the book would be read aloud, heard, and taken to heart. That is, the book itself has a preference against detailed study and analysis and a preference for the kind of absorption that comes from hearing it read aloud.

Therefore, we have additional justification for our faster approach to the text, and we understand that the goal is for the servants of Christ to experience a blessing through this book.

John’s Introduction

John records a vision of a glorious Jesus who tells him to record seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

John addresses the book to seven churches in Asia, but rather than focusing on himself or his audience, he quickly shifts to an expressive doxology that references what Jesus had said about his return.

In this introduction, John also uses a literary device he will employ often in the book.

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,… I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.

Revelation 1:10, 12-13 NIV

The device we will see used over and over again goes like this:

  • I heard something like something.
  • I turned or looked (sometimes left out).
  • I saw something like something.

In this case, he hears a voice like a trumpet, but when he turns he sees lampstands first and later sees someone like a son of man. The important thing for us at this point is to realize that what he hears first (voice like a trumpet) is the same thing as what he sees later (someone like a son of man). This will help us in the rest of the book.

Secondly, I want to highlight something else that happens often in the book. The voice gives a lesson in the meaning of some of the metaphors. In this case, after identifying himself as the one who died and rose again, the Son of Man describes the meaning of the stars and the lampstands. However, he doesn’t give a meaning for anything else in the previous vision like the sash he wears or the sword coming from his mouth. We might speculate about those things, but we should remember that the meaning is not specified.

Aside on the Deity of Jesus

Finally, there’s a point of doctrine in this section that has nothing to do with end times understanding, but whenever I teach on Revelation, I make a point of this because it is incredibly important for our understanding of the identity of Jesus. After John gives his expressive description of the Son of Man, the Son of Man speaks and reveals that he is Jesus (without using that word) who is “the First and the Last.” Make a note of that, “the First and the Last” is a phrase referring to Jesus.

Additionally, at the end of the book we hear Jesus say this:

“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

Revelation 22:12-13 NIV

Make a note of that, “the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last” is a phrase Jesus uses to refer to himself.

However, back in Revelation 1:8 we saw this:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Revelation 1:8 NIV

Clearly, “the Alpha and the Omega” is a phrase used by God Almighty to refer to himself. This is important because God uses an all-inclusive phrase to refer to himself as the beginning of all things and the end of all things, but Jesus uses the exact same idea to refer to himself. However, the very first verse of the book said that it’s a revelation given to Jesus by God, and later in the first chapter (verses 4-6) it is again emphasized that Jesus and God are separate from each other. Simultaneously, the book affirms a distinction between Jesus and God while also affirming the equality of Jesus and God. If Jesus is “First” and God is “First” then Jesus is God.

This line of reasoning supports both the full deity of Jesus in contradiction to the teaching of Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons and others while also affirming a distinction between Jesus and the Father in contradiction to the teaching of Oneness and other modalist traditions.

Those who support the authenticity of Revelation should also support this understanding of the nature of Jesus.

The Seven Letters: 2-3

Those who overcome will be rewarded.

At various points in history, people have attempted to decipher allegorical meanings from the seven letters or to see each letter as a reference to a different age of the church. Perhaps not so strangely, those who take the approach that each letter is a different age of the church usually see themselves in the seventh letter giving themselves justification for concluding that they are living in the last days. However, nothing in the text itself indicates that these seven letters are to be taken for anything other than what they are: seven letters to seven churches under John’s ministry purview. Perhaps they are a reference to seven ages of the church. Perhaps they are a reference to the seven kinds of problems churches face. But neither of those interpretive angles is supported by the text. What’s more, those approaches can make us think one or more of the letters might not apply to us.

The better interpretive framework for these seven letters is the widely respected one we all know as if the shoe fits interpretation. That is, if something in the letter applies to you, apply it to you.

Nevertheless, these letters, although informative and interesting, give only minimal prophetic information about the end times, and therefore, for the purposes of this article, we will only consider the brief promises Jesus gives each church about the future:

(2:7) Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God….

(2:10) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (2:11) Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death….

(2:17) Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it….

(2:26) To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—…

(3:3) Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you….

(3:5) The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels….

(3:10) Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. (3:11) I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. (3:12) The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name….

(3:21) To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.

Revelation 2:7, 2:10-11, 2:17, 2:26, 3:3, 3:5, 3:10-12, 3:21 NIV

There are repeated promises for eternal life in spite of earthly death, authority with Christ over the rest of the world, and a new identity, but there are also two other promises that are worthy of specific attention.

First, in 3:3, Jesus promises to “come like a thief.” This is similar to the language of Matthew 24, and is often used to support a secretive Pre-Tribulation Rapture, but note that both here and in Matthew 24, the language is used as a threat against those who are unfaithful. As we saw in the previous article, Matthew 24 includes the threat that unfaithful people will be “taken away” while the faithful people will be “left,” and that same idea can apply here too.

Secondly, in 3:10, Jesus praises the faithfulness of the church in Philadelphia. Because they have “kept” his command, he will “keep” them from the hour of trial. For proponents of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, this passage promises that faithful Christians will be removed from the earth before the days of Tribulation begin. However, the word “keep” could just as likely mean “preserve” as it might mean “remove.” One way to keep something safe is to remove it from danger. Another way to keep something safe is to protect it in the midst of danger. One way to stay safe is to never go out during a pandemic. Another way to stay safe is to get a vaccine. If you start with a presupposition of Pre-Tribulation Rapture, this verse has a simple meaning, but if you don’t start with that presupposition, the nature of the protection is less clear.

Additionally, we need to remember that these letters were written to churches in John’s day. The people in Philadelphia were not raptured away from any persecution, and all the people who were in that church when the letter was written are dead now. Therefore, it’s hard for us to know exactly what these promises have to say to us today. Where the promises indicate something in the distant future like being spared from the second death or being welcomed into the new Jerusalem, we can hold out hope, but where the promises indicate something unique for that church, we can’t draw any strong conclusions.

The Throne and the Lamb: 4-5

The Lamb who was slain is the Lion who is worthy to unseal the end of days.

Chapters 4 & 5 are filled with rich references to previous prophetic visions. Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah each record visions of the Throne Room of Heaven that bear significant resemblances to this one. Once again, there isn’t a lot of predictive prophecy going on in these chapters, but there are a few specific things that are worthy of note.

“Come Up Here”

Verse 1 is one more verse used by proponents of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture to support their position. Their claim is that from the beginning of chapter 4 John himself is a symbolic stand-in for the Church itself. He gets to watch things unfold for the rest of the book as an outside observer even as the Church will be raptured away before the real end times hardships begin. Therefore, when John hears the voice, like a trumpet, call “Come up here,” it’s a symbolic representation of the moment Christians will be “caught up” to meet Jesus in the air.

However, once again, that point of view only makes sense if you start with the presupposition of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. John never refers to himself as a symbol of all Christians. He is instructed to “come up” so that he can be shown a vision in heaven, and then he describes his experience as being “in the Spirit.” However, the “caught up” moment in 1 Thessalonians 4 has Christians rising bodily from the earth to meet Jesus in the air and no mention of heaven is made at all. This is another case where if you start with a doctrine, the verse makes a certain kind of sense, but if you don’t start with that presupposition, the verse means simply what it says: John had a vision of heaven.


The second thing to note from this section is that everything is indescribable in human language. Compare this moment to the writings of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel, and you get the clear impression that the prophet is experiencing something utterly ineffable.

John says he sees a “rainbow” that looks like an “emerald,” Isaiah (chapter 6) says of the Lord, “the train of his robe filled the temple,” Daniel (chapter 7) says his visions “disturbed” him, and Ezekiel just ran out of words when he said:

Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

Ezekiel 1:28 NIV

By comparing these four accounts of the throne room of heaven, you can see incredible similarities, but you can also see a completely indescribable scene. This is important to realize because it sets the stage for one of the most important interpretive principles of the book of Revelation: John is doing his best. By that, I mean John is literally incapable of describing what he sees and experiences in these visions. What he writes down will be not exactly flawed but thoroughly inadequate and incomplete compared to the reality of what he saw. Even Ezekiel with his intensely detailed account of his vision ended his chapter with vague words: appearance, likeness, glory.

Hear, See

For the second time, John uses the literary device to make a point out of something incomprehensible.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

Revelation 5:5-6 NIV

The voice tells John to look at the triumphant Lion of Judah, but when he looks, he sees a Lamb, slain, yet standing. The voice describes a Lion, but John saw a Lamb. We know these metaphors refer to Jesus as both Sacrifice and King, but it’s important to recognize once again that John has employed the device to say that what he heard and what he saw are different but the same, incompatible yet complementary perspectives of the same reality.

Seals, Trumpets, and Bowls

The bulk of the book of Revelation happens in a sequence of three increasingly dramatic scenes. The Lamb opens the seven seals of the scroll, and with each seal, some new calamity befalls the earth. Then, angels blow seven trumpets with more calamities. Then, angels pour out seven bowls with even greater distress. Intermixed with these seals, trumpets and bowls are other visions as well, and after the final bowl is poured out, the visions resolve from distressful to glorious and blissful.

Of course, the most important interpretive questions boil down to these two:

  • What’s the meaning of the events? Are they literal, metaphorical, or code for something else?
  • What’s the timing of these events? Are they sequential or simultaneous, and are they all future, or might some of them be in the past?

Again, I encourage you to read through the sections quickly before reading what I have to say about them.

Seven Seals: 6:1-8:1

Seals 1-6

Before we do anything else, we should recognize that even though John describes a sequence of seal-opening, nowhere in the text is it hinted that this means the events described are temporally sequential. It’s possible that the conquest comes before the famine, but it’s also possible that they all come at the same time or even in a different order. The text doesn’t explicitly order them in time or describe their extent. Therefore, we shouldn’t either.

The seals describe a variety of tragedies that will befall people on the earth: conquest, warfare, a broken economy (perhaps as a result of famine), death (as a result of many causes), martyrdom, extreme cosmic distress (darkened sun, blood-red moon, and more). At the end of the sixth seal, the people of the earth expect the “great day of [God’s] wrath” to be at hand, but an angel speaks to declare that the wrath won’t come on the earth until God’s “servants” are sealed. (It’s interesting that after six “seals” are opened, the people of God are to receive a “seal” upon them before the seventh “seal” is also opened.)

The 144,000

Once again, John employs the device of hear, look, see to demonstrate the equivalence of two seemingly opposite truths—remember when an angel told John to see the Lion, but when John looked, he saw a Lamb. Many false interpretations of this passage come from misunderstanding this simple hear, look, see structure in Revelation. In this case, John hears that 12,000 people are sealed from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, but then it says:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9 NIV

Even though John heard that 144,000 were selected, chosen, or sealed from the tribes of Israel, he sees that the crowd is uncountable and comes from every tribe and every nation. The 144,000 was symbolic, but the reality is that there are many more. Calling them Israelites was also symbolic. In reality, they come from all over the world.

If you read my previous article on the end times, you might be able to see how important this interpretation is, but it’s worth my time to make it plain. A major expectation of the Dispensational / Pre-Trib Rapture understanding of the end times depends on the belief that the Church is distinct from Israel and that God will remove the Church from the earth so that he can renew his work with national Israel. Dispensationalists support that claim by making reference to the 144,000 mentioned here and also elsewhere in Revelation.

To dispensationalists, the 144,000 taken from Israel proves that God still has work to do with Israel. However, in the context of the actual text of Revelation, it means exactly the opposite. Not only does the dispensationalist perspective ignore the hear, look, see device used in Revelation, it also ignores one of the most foundational truths from the history of Israel. Aside from Judah, Levi, and Benjamin, all tribes are lost to history. When the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria, the people were deported and dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire. Their entire identity, heritage, and genealogy was lost. In other words, no one is alive today who can trace their lineage to Naphtali or Reuben or Gad, and therefore, when John hears of 12,000 sealed from those tribes, either the number or the tribe or both must be understood metaphorically.

There is one more thing we should note about the 144,000 / great multitude. They are described as those who have been clothed in white robes. Now, just a few verses earlier, when the fifth seal was opened, John saw a bunch of martyrs who were told that more would be added to their number and who were promised white robes. In other words, it seems likely that the 144,000 who are sealed are not going to be protected from martyrdom. It’s a popular idea that the 144,000 will be protected from harm, but the text seems to indicate otherwise. In fact, when John asks about the crowd wearing white robes, we see this:

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Revelation 7:13-14 NIV

The 144,000 / great multitude are those who have “come out of the great tribulation.” That is, these servants of God went through the “great tribulation.”

Now, it is possible that the 144,000 and the great multitude are two different groups, and it is further possible that to “come out of the great tribulation” might mean they were raptured out of it. However, the best approach seems to be that the martyrs of seal #5 are joined by more martyrs who are the symbolic successors of Israel, and who have remained faithful to God through the time of the tribulation.

The Seventh Seal

When the seventh seal is opened, we are told that there is nothing but silence. Many attempts at interpretation have been given for this silence, but John himself gives no interpretation of it. I’m personally taken aback by the contrast of all the drama found in seals 1-6 and the utter silence of seal 7. Perhaps it’s because we all need to take a breath. Perhaps it’s because John needed an interlude. Whatever it means, the next sequence of the vision is about to begin.

Seven Trumpets: 8:2-11:19

Next, John sees seven angels receive seven trumpets and prepare to blow them. Similar to the section of the seven seals, this section will see the angels blow their trumpets in turn. Many interpreters see the sequence of seven trumpets as nested inside the seventh seal. Others see the seven trumpets as taking place after the seventh seal. Pragmatically, it doesn’t much matter. Also John doesn’t indicate one way or another which it is or why it would matter. In fact, it only matters if you are trying to build a timeline of events from the book of Revelation. If all the trumpets happen inside the time of the seventh seal, then you might conclude the trumpets happen faster than the seals do. However, recall that John isn’t describing a timed-out sequence of events. He’s describing a vision and merely writing down what he saw in the order he saw it.

Trumpets 1-4

When the angels do sound their trumpets, great calamity falls on the earth. First, one third of all the earth is burned up by fire from the sky. Secondly, a burning mountain (volcano?) falls into the sea, and a third of the life in the sea dies along with a third of the ships on the sea. Thirdly, a burning star fell from heaven (asteroid?) and destroyed a third of all fresh water, killing many people. Fourthly, a third of the heavenly lights were put out such that the day was a third dark and the night was also a third dark.

Before going on, I want to recognize that during the sixth seal, the sun was darkened and the moon became like blood. This point is important because here, only a third of the sun is affected and likewise the moon. In some ways, the trumpets are less intense than the seals. In other ways, they are more intense than the seals. However, in both cases there is overlap between the seals and trumpets. Perhaps the cataclysm of trumpets 1-4 happens simultaneously with seal 6. Perhaps the sun and moon recover after seal 6 only to be later affected in trumpet 4.

Or perhaps we should just realize that in both visions, John is seeing a cosmic calamity that will come to pass. Furthermore, note that all these trumpets so far can be describing a singular event. For example, if an asteroid hit the earth, it would produce all these effects. That doesn’t mean John is predicting an asteroid, but it does show how one event could satisfy all these trumpets so far. John is describing the effects sequentially, but they could be happening simultaneously. Again, John never claims the sequence of the vision equates to a temporal sequence of the future.

Trumpet 5 / Woe #1

When the fifth trumpet sounds, an angel proclaims that it is the first of three “woes” and the events described are woeful indeed. John sees a thing or person he describes as “a star that had fallen from heaven” and who is given a key to open “the abyss.” From the abyss comes enough smoke to darken the sky and also locusts who look like armored horses but also people and also have power like scorpions and who are permitted to torment for five months the people who do not belong to God. The locust/horse/scorpion people are governed by the “angel of the abyss” who is called Abaddon or Apollyon (words that mean destroyer).

I want to highlight a few important things from this section. First, there is way too much going on in this passage for us to fully understand it. Each generation has its own way of interpreting the symbols. Most recently, it has been popular to think of the locusts as armored helicopters because helicopters would be flying things with human faces at the front and scorpion-like tails at the back. However, John was a smart man, and he would have known the difference between people inside something and a creature with the face of a human. His description does not say people were inside something else. His description is that there were locusts who looked like horses with human faces and tails like scorpions. In other words, John had no words to describe what he saw, and it’s arrogance for us to think we can understand his vision based on his inadequate words.

Secondly, and more importantly, these locusts consider the “angel of the abyss” known as the Destroyer to be their king. Perhaps the Destroyer is a reference to Satan (as a rival king to God), perhaps the Destroyer is a reference to the Beast (who will come up from the Abyss in a later vision), perhaps the Destroyer is a reference to a destroying angel (like in the Passover Plague of Exodus). Nevertheless, no single solution fully explains the vision, and it’s not important anyway. There’s something more important. No matter who the “fallen star” is, no matter who the “angel of the abyss” is, one thing is certain: this terror is controlled by and constrained by God to pour out wrath on the earth but to protect his own people, those who have been “sealed” by him, the 144,000 / great multitude we have already talked about. Yes, there will be tribulation and martyrdom, but God’s faithful people will be protected from the greatest woeful events in the tribulation (recall Jesus’ promise to the church in Philadelphia).

Trumpet 6

When the sixth trumpet sounds, four angels who have been prepared for that moment are released to kill a third of the human race. Once again, John’s vision is beyond words. He describes an army of 200,000,000 mounted soldiers on armored horses with lion heads and snakes for tails. However, he also describes them as producing multiple plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur.

Again, we could attempt to discern the significance of all these symbols, but let’s be honest. There’s no way for us to know what a plague of smoke means, what an army two hundred million strong would be like, or what is meant by a horse with a snake tail. That’s not the important point anyway. John tells us what the important point is at the end of chapter 9: regardless of the great tragedies that befall humanity and regardless of the protection offered to the people of God, the people of the earth still refuse to repent and turn to God. They continue in idol worship, in greed, in murder, sexual immorality and theft, and therefore, they are still eligible for judgment.

Trumpet 6 Extended / Woe #2

From 10:1 to 11:14, John records a number of other visions that may or may not be connected with the sixth trumpet. This follows the structure of the seven seals from earlier. Each of the first five seals had a relatively brief explanation, then the sixth seal had a similar description followed by an extended scene of the 144,000 and the great multitude before the seventh seal was opened. The trumpets follow the same pattern. The first 6 trumpets have a relatively brief description, but then there is a sequence of other visions before the seventh trumpet sounds.

In the first extended scene, John sees a glorious giant angel come out of heaven and stand with one foot on land and another on the sea. The angel calls out something, John hears seven “thunders” respond, and when he is about to write down what he heard, another voice tells him not to. Then, he is commanded to take a scroll from the hand of the giant angel and eat it. It tastes sweet, but makes him feel sick, and then he’s commanded to keep prophesying. This is exactly parallel to what Ezekiel experienced in chapter 3.

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.

Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.

He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them.

Ezekiel 3:1-4 NIV

Additionally, the words God gave Ezekiel to speak would be bitter words indeed.

In the second extended scene, John is given a measuring rod and is told to measure the inner temple area (excluding the court of the Gentiles). He is told that the “nations” will “trample” the city for 3.5 years, but that God’s two “witnesses” will also be empowered for 3.5 years to speak prophecy, to be protected from harm, and to do miracles like Elijah and Moses did. The two prophets will eventually be killed by one John calls “the beast” and will lie dead in the same city where Jesus was crucified (note John doesn’t name it as Jerusalem, rather, he calls it Sodom or Egypt!). Finally, after 3.5 days, the prophets will return to life, they will visibly ascend to heaven, and an earthquake will kill thousands.

John identified this as the second woe.

As a disappointing side note, John never tells us what the third woe is.

Let’s Talk About the Temple

I want to take a moment now to address something that’s commonly assumed by the predominant Christian interpretation of the End Times. The Pre-tribulation / Rapture / Dispensational interpretation holds that before the end can come, the Jewish Temple must be rebuilt in Israel. According to them, since John was commanded to measure the Temple, this must be a prediction that there will be a real measurable Temple in the future. However, there’s one thing this interpretation fails to recognize. John received this vision while he was in exile on Patmos near the end of his life. Our best dating indicates that John was there on Patmos in the early 90s A.D.; however, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. When John received this vision, the Jerusalem Temple had been gone for 20 years, and he certainly would have known about that! Therefore, when John was commanded to measure a temple in his vision, if he thought it was a real future temple, he would have called it the rebuilt temple. At least he would have made a clear prediction that the Temple would be rebuilt. We know that John was not talking about an earthly temple anyway because multiple times in Revelation, he tells us this temple is in heaven. Later in this very chapter we see:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.

Revelation 11:19 NIV

The book of Revelation does not predict the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. In fact, Revelation 21:22 will teach that a temple is not even a desirable thing!

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

Revelation 21:22 NIV

Trumpet 7

When the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven. When the seventh trumpet sounds, John hears loud voices in heaven singing praise to God and declaring that the time has come for God to bring judgment on the earth.

Woman & Dragon, Beasts & Lamb: 12-14

Nothing happened between the seventh seal and the first trumpet, but after the seventh trumpet sounds, John receives a sequence of visions that form the basis for much modern speculative interpretation. As before, I’ll recognize that very little of what we read in this section can be understood with concrete specificity. Nevertheless, there is one super important lesson John wants us to know throughout these visions, and I’ll get to that at the end.

The Woman, Child, and Dragon

John sees a vision of a giant woman in the sky in labor. She has 12 stars on her head (12 is the number of the tribes of Israel and also the number of the disciples). There’s a dragon with seven heads (Rome was built on seven hills, but who knows what the seven heads might mean) planning to eat her child when it is born. A male child is born and is identified as king over all the nations before being “caught up” to the throne room of God. The woman flees and God protects her for 3.5 years.

Next, John sees a war in heaven where Michael (likely a reference to the “archangel” who was assigned to protect the people of God according to Daniel 12) and his angels war against the dragon and his angels. The dragon is defeated, cast out of heaven, and identified as Satan. A song in heaven rings out rejoicing that the “accuser of the brethren” has finally been defeated.

Following the heavenly defeat, Satan attempts to persecute the woman but she is aided in her escape and is protected. The 3.5 years time is reiterated. However, when Satan can’t do anything to the woman, he goes after her offspring, those faithful to the testimony about Jesus.

Although we can’t fully understand this vision in detail, we can probably be accurate in understanding the broad brushstrokes of it.

The woman is probably symbolic of both Israel and Church. It’s out of historic Israel that Jesus was born, but the vision refers to the followers of Jesus as the woman’s offspring. Additionally, the woman is protected from the dragon just as Jesus told his followers that the gates of Hades would not prevail against his church. Also, even though the woman (the Church) is protected, Satan still has the ability to go after her offspring, individual believers.

My best interpretation of the meaning of this section is that John was seeing an allegorical depiction of all history being condensed to it’s most important moment. God planned to use Israel to bring a Savior to the world, Satan tried to oppose that plan, but the plan succeeded, the Savior is now in heaven, and Satan was defeated. Although he is now still able to annoy Christians, he is powerless to defeat the total people of God.

Let’s Talk about Satan

I’ve addressed this topic elsewhere but it’s worth mentioning again. Some have seen in this Revelation passage an “origin story” for Satan. The narrative goes that Satan was an angel in heaven who chose to rebel against God, who convinced a third of the angels to follow him, who fought against God, and was eventually cast out of heaven to earth. The narrative provides for us an origin story for one of the most interesting spiritual beings in the Bible, and it also seems to line up with this vision in Revelation. However, we should note that the Revelation account is of a future time when Satan will be defeated. Satan has been “accuser of the brethren” for a long time before he is defeated by Michael. Whatever this heavenly battle is, it hasn’t happened yet, and therefore, this part of Revelation cannot function as an origin story for Satan. What is his origin story? We don’t know. In fact, no part of the Bible claims to give an origin story to us.

Dragon, Beast, and Mark

In the next scene of this vision, John sees a “beast” come up out of the sea. The beast has horns and heads and crowns and is described with layers of symbolism that we will not be able to decipher before he is actually revealed. However, the most important symbol is that the beast looks as if it had survived a fatal injury. The dragon gives it power, and the whole earth falls in love with the beast and the dragon who empowered him, even worshipping them. The whole earth will worship the beast except for those whose names are written in the “Book of Life.”

John also sees another beast that looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon (a false Christ?). The second beast points people to the first beast and even builds an image of the first beast. The second beast is able to give breath to the image and the image itself speaks and exercises authority. The image mandates worship of itself and requires people to get a mark signifying their allegiance to the beast. John says the mark of the beast is the name of the beast or the number of the name or the number of a man or the number 666.

Let’s Talk about the Mark of the Beast

Christians are fascinated or terrified by the idea of the mark of the beast. Where I live in Lafayette, Indiana, there is an area of Main Street where a building has been divided into 5 separate businesses each with the exact same width, each with the exact same blue awning out front, and each with the address of the unit clearly displayed on that awning in large white text. From left to right, you can see the numbers: 660, 662, 664, ?, 668. What number do you suppose they put on the awning of the fourth building? Nope, not 666! The number they used was 666 1/3?! Someone somewhere decided that marketing a business at 666 would not be good for business, so they changed the address to be just a tiny bit bigger. I personally would have gone with 665.9, but they didn’t ask me.

During the early days of 2021 as vaccinations for COVID-19 were rolling out around the world, I heard many Christians declare they would never get the vaccination because they thought it was “the mark of the beast.”

When I was a teen and ATM machines were getting popular, I heard Christians decry them saying they were “the mark of the beast.”

When I was a child and VISA and Mastercard were rising in popularity, I heard people say they were “the mark of the beast.”

Before I was born, when the Federal government was rolling out Social Security Numbers, Christians of the day were calling that “the mark of the beast.”

Simply put, none of those things have ever been the mark of the beast because none of those things have ever been associated with the beast, the second beast, or the image of the beast, because the beast hasn’t shown up yet. There has never yet been a global demand that all people everywhere worship a single man, and the mark of the beast is intrinsically tied to that demand for worship and a person’s willingness to join that worship. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

The Lamb, the 144,000, and the Reaping

The next scene in John’s vision has him seeing the Lamb standing on Mount Zion (usually a reference to the hill in Jerusalem where the Temple had been) with 144,000 people that had been marked by the name of Jesus and the Father. They are described as faithful and undefiled, those who followed the Lamb.

John hears an angel declare the coming of judgment, another angel declare the fall of “Babylon the Great,” and a third angel declare coming torment for those who receive the mark of the beast and the need for endurance on the part of the faithful.

Finally, he sees the Son of Man seated on a cloud sweeping a sickle over the earth to “harvest” it. Then a second angel sweeps a second sickle over the earth, harvesting grapes that are then trampled in a winepress, but the wine flowing from the winepress is actually blood.

The Point of All This

Though John doesn’t give any detailed analysis to any one of these fantastical images, there are a few things we should discern.

First, Satan might try to destroy God’s plans but it will never work. He is a loser, and he will always be a loser.

Secondly, Satan will never be able to defeat the people of God, but he will have power to cause us pain and hardship. We shouldn’t lose hope, because once again, we need to remember he is going to lose.

Thirdly, the best Satan can ever do is to imitate God’s work. Each of the beasts has something that looks like Jesus but isn’t quite the same. One looks like it was mortally wounded but lived while the Lamb looks like it was actually slain. One of the beasts looks like it is a lamb but actually speaks like a dragon. This is Satan’s true power. He is able to imitate the work of God in ways that are more attractive to us than the real work of God. Both of the beasts are more attractive to our natural human tendencies than is Christ. It’s hard to follow a man who sacrifices his life, but it’s exciting to follow a person who survived a mortal injury. It’s hard to follow a man who keeps his mouth shut like a lamb going to slaughter, but it’s exciting to follow the voice of a dragon.

Additionally, the threefold combination of dragon-beast-beast, is simply Satan trying to mimic the threefold combination of Father, Son and Spirit, and the mark of the beast is Satan trying to mimic the fact that God has sealed his own people with his own name for himself.

People who follow God will never get the mark of the beast because they will see through the fraud. People who get the mark of the beast will never get marked by God because they will have fallen prey to the imitation rather than the true. Nevertheless, one of these days, Jesus is going to gather up his own to himself, and all the rest will be trampled in judgment.

The Seven Bowls: 15-16

Similar to the seven seals and the seven trumpets, John gets a vision of seven last plagues to be poured out on the earth as if from bowls. Before the plagues begin, though, John describes hearing a song from the faithful who had “won the victory over the beast” and remained faithful to God in spite of the opposition from the beast. Then, he sees seven angels receive the seven bowls of wrath and they pour them on the earth one by one.

  • Painful sores appear on all those who received the mark of the beast.
  • The sea turns to blood and all life in the sea dies.
  • The fresh waters turn to blood, and an angel declares that the people of the earth deserve it because they shed the blood of God’s people.
  • The sun scorched people and they further rejected God.
  • The kingdom of the beast is engulfed in darkness, but the people still don’t repent.
  • The Euphrates dries up, and demonic spirits come from the dragon, the beast, and the other beast (now called the false prophet) to assemble the kings of the earth to a place called Armageddon.
  • Finally, with the seventh bowl, a voice declares, “It is done!” and the earth is ravaged by a great earthquake, the fall of cities, and a hailstorm of 100 pound hail!

The account of the seven bowls is remarkably brief compared to the seven seals or the seven trumpets, and there is no gap between the description of the sixth and seventh bowls even though we expected to hear about the battle at Armageddon. Later in Revelation, John will record a vision about that battle, but here in the account of the bowls, he gives no details about it. Because of that, I want to point out two things to keep in mind for later:

  • The different visions John gets are not showing everything in chronological order. Some later visions describe events contained within earlier visions. The different visions interweave or overlap with each other, and drawing a full, clear timeline is likely impossible.
  • The battle at Armageddon involves the energy of the dragon, the beast, the false prophet and the kings of the earth, but it materializes as merely a blip in human history. They assemble, and shortly thereafter a voice declares, “It is done!” The point we will see is that when God decides to move, nothing can stand in his way.

Following the bowls, John’s visions will be grandiose, detailed, and cryptic, but they give us broad brushstrokes for the final narrative of the earth. That final narrative will involve a time of great destruction, a time of God’s victory, and the recreation of heaven and earth.

Destruction of Babylon: 17-18

John is approached by an angel who takes him away into a new vision. This vision is of a woman dressed in splendor riding a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The beast has blasphemous things written on it, and the woman holds a cup of abominable things and she bears the title on her forehead: Babylon the Great, Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations.

The angel then actually gives John an explanation of this vision, but the explanation is nearly as cryptic as the vision itself:

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because it once was, now is not, and yet will come.

Revelation 17:8 NIV

Either the beast is a person who has died and will rise again, or more likely, the beast is a symbolic representative of a thing that has come multiple times in history and will eventually come again. This, in fact, perfectly correlates to what Daniel and Jesus called “the abomination that causes desolation.” Daniel predicted a man who would bring such abomination, and it happened when Antiochus desecrated the Temple. Hundreds of years later, Jesus predicted a man who would bring such abomination, and it too happened when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD, but Jesus’ prediction hinted that it would still happen another time too. Perhaps the angel means that what has happened before is going to happen again—this future beast is just the latest version of the thing we have seen before. However, John has also seen a vision of a “beast” who had what looked like a mortal wound. Perhaps the language of the angel is merely a reference to that.

Next, the angel gives more details. The seven heads are seven hills or mountains (an apparent historical reference to the city of Rome which was built on seven hills), but they are also seven kings. Five kings have already come, the sixth is currently reigning, and the seventh is in the future. However, the beast is an eighth king. Additionally, the angel then says the ten horns are ten future kings who will someday receive authority to strengthen the authority of the beast. The beast and the kings will make war against the Lamb, but he will overcome them easily along with his followers. Then, the angel describes the beast and the ten kings as hating the prostitute, killing her, and eating her! However, the angel also describes the woman as the great city that rules over the kings of the earth!

Let’s be clear, this explanation doesn’t really give us much information. The heads represent both hills/mountains and kings? The beast has seven heads for seven kings, but the beast itself is an eighth king? The woman sits on the beast and rules the kings of the earth but is also consumed by them? She is the city who rules the kings? Everything here is two or three things.

Talking about Interpreting Details

Soooooo many different interpretations have arisen to decode the vision John just received! Sometimes people think the kings are different emperors of Rome. Sometimes people think the kings are different historical kingdoms. Sometimes people think it’s all metaphorical and the seven kings just refers to the totality of all human kingdoms. But there aren’t just seven kings, there are seventeen kings or eighteen if you include the beast itself.

What makes it worse is that we feel baited to decode the symbols by the words of the angel himself:

Then the angel said to me: “Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns…. “This calls for a mind with wisdom…

Revelation 17:7, 9 NIV

It seems like the angel wants us to know the meaning. It seems like the angel is teasing us: “If you really were wise, you’d get it,” or even, “If you devote yourself to wisdom you will be able to understand this.”

However, there’s another way of understanding what the angel says.

The angel understands the vision because the angel has the mind with wisdom to understand it. However, neither John nor we have been given the same mind. What we have is John’s description of the vision, and the words of the angel, but we haven’t been granted the actual mind to understand the details. Perhaps the angel is saying: “Listen, I’ll try to tell you what it means, but you aren’t going to get it. The only way to understand it is to have the mind of wisdom for this kind of thing. Anyway, here goes.”

Nevertheless, there’s one bit of interpretation we can easily get from this section.

The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”

Revelation 17:18 NIV

There are always kings who think they are in charge, but there is a “city” that rules over all them. It’s a “city” associated with all manner of abominations and sinfulness, greed and luxury, promiscuity and pleasure. It’s a “city” that will be consumed by itself.

Perhaps this is talking about a specific city, perhaps it’s talking about a specific society, perhaps it’s talking about a sinful worldview, perhaps it’s a combination of them. In fact, as we will see next, the woman, the great city, “Babylon,” is a great social/economic system that dominates the world, but is also identifiable enough with a specific city or state that it can “fall” and the world can mourn when it does.

The Fall of Babylon

John hears one angel declare that “Babylon the Great” is fallen. That angel also declares her sins: she harbored evil spirits and indulged with the kings of the earth in pleasures and luxuries. John hears another voice call the people of God to come out of Babylon before declaring more of her sins. The kings of the earth and the merchants of the earth will mourn her destruction because they will no longer have the benefits from her wantonness. All those who watch her downfall marvel at how fast it happened: “In one hour…”

What is Babylon the Great?

John devotes a whole chapter to commemorating the destruction of Babylon even though the method and moment of destruction is never described, but two details are worth pointing out. Babylon is both a worldview and a society representing that worldview.

In her was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people, of all who have been slaughtered on the earth.”

Revelation 18:24 NIV

This verse clearly indicates that Babylon is not one specific city or even one specific society or state. All the holy people who have been slaughtered owe their death to the activity of Babylon which means Babylon is a system of sinful indulgence that is opposed to the ways of God.

However, when Babylon falls, kings, merchants, and sailors all stand apart from the destruction mourning the loss of their lifestyles. In other words, when Babylon falls, kings, merchants, and sailors are still around. That means Babylon cannot only be a reference to a system. Some agents of that system will mourn the loss of Babylon from the outside. Therefore, we should conclude that Babylon is both a sinful indulgent worldview and a real society that embodies that worldview on a global scale.

For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Revelation 18:3 NIV

Throughout human history, there has always been one or maybe two predominant expressions of this worldview. The empires of Babel, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Alexander, and Rome are just a few world-dominating representations of that indulgent worldview.

Furthermore, every one of those societies has fallen. It is inevitable that the predominant indulgent society of the earth will always fall, and one of these days, even the greatest and most dominant expression of that society will also fall.

But here’s the most challenging question for any age: Which current society most fits the description of Babylon?

For roughly 200 years now, the best candidate for Babylon has been obviously the United States of America. Which society is the economic engine of the world? Which society runs the currency that powers global trade? Which society is so consumer-driven that merchants get rich on her indulgence? Which society has the kings of the world answer to it? Which society is known for its luxury and indulgence? No other society of modern life comes even close to the United States as a possible candidate for Babylon, and therefore, we are left with one unavoidable conclusion: Either the United States, the current embodiment of Babylon the Great, will be the society to empower the beast and then to fall as recorded in Revelation 18, or the United States will cease to be the economic engine of the world and another will rise up to take its place. Either way, the economic diminishment of the United States is guaranteed by the book of Revelation.

Victory: 19-20

After the destruction of Babylon is proclaimed, John hears a multitude of voices singing praises to God for his victorious vengeance against Babylon. A line in the song refers to the people of the Lamb as his bride clothed in white linen (a call-back to the promise in 3:18). However, no actual wedding feast is described.

Then, John sees a vision of a rider on a white horse with call-backs to many previous visions. The rider is called Faithful and True, the rider also has a name written on him that no one knows, the rider also has the name “Word of God,” the rider wears clothes dipped in blood, has eyes like fire and has a sword coming from his mouth, and the rider is also the one who treads the wine of God’s wrath. Finally, he also bears the name “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” We are to understand this as Jesus, but John avoids using such a personal name for one so glorious.

The kings of the earth and the beast gather to oppose Jesus and his army, but there is literally no description of the war. All it says is this: “but the beast was captured.” The battle ends before it begins; the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the Lake of Fire, and all their followers are killed by the sword from the mouth of Jesus.

John then sees an angel seize the dragon, identifying him clearly as Satan, and locking him in “the Abyss” for a thousand years. Then, John sees many thrones on which are seated people who were given authority to judge, and he sees the faithful martyrs who had not received the mark of the beast raised to life and given authority to reign with Jesus as priests for a thousand years. John calls this the first resurrection. Christians today use the word “Millennium” or “Millennial Kingdom” to refer to this period of time.

John then reports that after the thousand years are over, Satan will be released to deceive the nations again. He will do so gathering all he can for another battle against the people of God. However, as before, the battle ends before it begins.

They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Revelation 20:9-10 NIV

This is the final end of Satan.

Then, the last act of victory comes in what we call the Great White Throne Judgment. John describes a vision of a great white throne with Jesus sitting on it. In his vision, the earth and sky both disappear from view, and he is left with a vision of the throne and a multitude of people in front of it. The multitude is every person who has ever lived brought back to life for judgment. Each person is then judged according to two kinds of criteria. First, everyone is judged according to what they have done in life. Then, the Book of Life is checked for that person’s name. That’s the only criteria that really matters. If a person’s name is not in the Book of Life they will be cast into the Lake of Fire where Satan and his followers were sent. John calls this moment “the second death.” The final two chapters of Revelation will be concerned with the destiny of those whose names were found in the Book of Life.

Talking About Hell

Before finishing our discussion about the people whose names were found in the Book of Life, we should make a few quick observations about another important doctrine—the nature of Hell.

In many Christian traditions, the doctrine of Hell is defined by three words:

eternal, conscious torment

However, those three words never show up in the text of the Bible. Furthermore, the idea of Hell is a major stumbling block to many people contemplating Christianity. Many Christians believe that the consequence for living 70 years as a flawed human, committing sins and sometimes doing good will result in conscious torment for all eternity unless a person prays a prayer of salvation. However, most non-Christians think eternal punishment for a finite number of sins is an expression of a completely unjust and irrational God.

What’s important to note is that the doctrine of eternal, conscious torment is not the only perspective on Hell held by the Church. Catholics believe that eternal torment is reserved for the worst people while Catholics will only experience a temporary torment in a place called Purgatory. Other Christian traditions embrace annihilation (the belief that the soul will cease to exist in the Lake of Fire), universalism (the belief that no human other than the beast and the false prophet will ever actually end up in Hell), or what I’m calling eventualism (the belief that each human soul will eventually graduate out of Hell or be annihilated).

The reason that’s important is simply because no text in the Bible directly teaches eternal, conscious torment. Many texts teach conscious torment without mentioning the duration:

But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew 8:12 NIV

They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:42 NIV

Many texts teach eternal punishment without mentioning consciousness. Consider these texts:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.

Mark 9:43 NIV

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Matthew 25:41, 46 NIV

Some texts even seem to indicate that the Lake of Fire is a place where the soul is destroyed.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:28 NIV

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

Revelation 20:14 NIV

The bottom line is that no Scripture gives us a clear picture of what the Lake of Fire is like for those who are in it or what the extent of their torment will be. As a result, we should be very cautious regarding how we talk about it.

New Creation: 21-22

At the beginning of chapter 21, John has seen visions of the people of God persecuted and killed, he has seen the rise of individuals and societies opposed to God, he has seen the destructive vengeance of God poured out on heaven and earth, and he has seen the final victory of Jesus over all evil. The book ends with a final vision of the renewal of creation before a final epilogue.

In this final vision, John describes the appearance of a “new heaven” and a “new earth” because the old heaven and earth had “passed away.” He also says of this new creation, “there was no longer any sea.” At this point, I want to pause to address the nature of this new creation.

What is the New Heaven and New Earth?

The most natural way of understanding the new heaven and earth is to say that God literally destroys planet earth and builds a new one. This idea is supported by other passages in the New Testament:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:10-13 NIV

However, we should recognize that neither Peter nor John used the word “heavens” to refer to a spiritual dimension. They used the word “heavens” to refer to everything “above” them including the sun and stars. Therefore, in order for the heavens to be fully destroyed, God will have to destroy the entire universe and then build it all over again. This isn’t really a problem for anyone who thinks from a Young Earth or Flat Earth perspective, but for those who accept the lessons of science, the idea that God will destroy and rebuild the entire universe because of what he’s doing with people on the earth doesn’t fully make sense. Furthermore, John gives the cryptic comment that the new earth no longer has any sea in it. If God were going to recreate the earth in a way to support life, we should assume he would put water on it somewhere, right?

As a matter of fact, the comment that there is no sea opens up the door for us to understand this entire moment more metaphorically. You see, for ancient people, the “sea” was a common metaphor for the powers of chaos and destruction. When John says from his vision that there is no longer any sea, he was almost certainly speaking of a world that is perfectly ordered not a world that is void of all large bodies of water, and therefore, we should understand that the vision is fully intended to be taken metaphorically more than literally.

What does that mean?

Honestly, we don’t know. Both Peter and John are clear that the world we know will be destroyed somehow and God will rebuild it somehow, and Jesus and Paul also teach something similar, but does that mean God plans to incinerate planet Earth and build an entirely new one? Does that mean God will relocate Christians to another planet? Does that mean that God is going to destroy this universe and move Christians to a completely different universe or different dimension? Simply put, we don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus will raise to life his own, and he will take us to be with him into an eternal future.

New Jerusalem

John’s metaphorical vision of eternity continues as he sees a “new Jerusalem” descend out of heaven to the earth. The City itself is “dressed” as a bride, and a voice from heaven declares perhaps the most important and most encouraging words in the entire book:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Revelation 21:3-7 NIV

Not only is this an impressively strong picture of the doctrine that Jesus is God, it is an impressive reaffirmation of the words of the ancient prophets:

The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Genesis 17:8 NIV

Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.

Exodus 29:45-46 NIV

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Jeremiah 31:33 NIV

My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’ ”

Ezekiel 37:27-28 NIV

In other words, John’s vision in Revelation is the fulfillment of the oldest promise God ever made with people, and it’s the fulfillment of the specific promises God made to the people of Israel.

John then hears an angel invite him into a new vision with a new perspective on the “bride” of the Lamb. As before, he sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, but gives more detail this time. The city is brilliant like a jewel but also clear as crystal. It has a wall with twelve gates and an angel at each gate and the name of a tribe of Israel at each gate. The city has twelve foundations, each foundation with the name of an apostle on it (I wonder if one of them says Judas or Matthias or even Paul). Finally, the angel tells John to measure the city, and he measures it as a cube with each dimension 12,000 stadia long and he measures the wall as 144 cubits thick.

Let’s take a brief detour to note that it’s impossible for John to have personally made these measurements. A Roman “stadia” was 125 paces or about an eighth of a mile, and that means the New Jerusalem was 1400 miles in every dimension according to the calculation done by the NIV translators! Not only is that an insane distance to measure along the ground by hand, but it would be even more insane to measure that height. Mount Everest is only 5 miles above sea level. Space begins 62 miles above sea level. 1400 miles is almost one fifth the diameter of the whole Earth!! The 144 cubits measurement is far more reasonable at only about 200 feet, but still, we can conclude that John did not literally measure the New Jerusalem. The numbers had to be given to him, but more than that, the numbers are certainly symbolic. The point of all this counting and measuring is simply to say that the number 12 shows up everywhere. Twelve Tribes and Twelve Apostles demonstrate the unity of Old Testament and New Testament, the unity of Israel and the Church, the consistency of God who has used both to build his people.

This final vision also contains the two most memorable visual elements that people associate with “heaven”: The Pearly Gates (not gates of pearls, but gates that each are made from a single giant pearl) and the Streets of Gold (not really yellow streets, but streets that are somehow both pure gold and clear as glass. Additionally, just because of the mythology associated with it, please note two important things: (1) the text does not call this “Heaven” but describes it as a physical location that came out of heaven and has descended to the earth; and (2) neither Peter nor any other person stands at the pearl gates to let people in because at this point, all the people have already been sorted.

The last thing John notes about the New Jerusalem is that the city has no temple and no need for sun or moon because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are present in the city. They themselves are the temple and the source of light. There will never be any night, the gates will never be shut, and all shameful deeds will never enter it because the only people left are those whose names were in the Book of Life.

Tree of Life

The final vision John receives is of a river running through the center of the city. Somehow “the tree of life” stands on “each side” of the river. It bears a crop of fruit every month… twelve in total, and its leaves provide healing. John says the curse (from Genesis 3) is now gone and there will be perfect relationship between people and God, and they will “reign” with God forever and ever.


After all these visions, John ends his book the way he began it, by quoting Jesus and by describing something about his own situation. Jesus says: “Behold, I am coming soon…” John testifies that he is the one who heard and saw all these things. He also says that much of the revelation was given to him through an angel who commands him to spread the prophecy he just received.

John again quotes Jesus who says he will come soon and bring rewards to the faithful. The faithful will be welcomed into the city and have access to the tree of life.

Finally, John gives an invitation: The free gift of the water of life is given to anyone who is thirsty and will come. But John also gives a warning: anyone who messes with the words of prophecy in Revelation will be subject to God’s judgment.

On this point, I think we should admit that what passes for “interpretation” of Revelation is often a violation of John’s warning to not mess with the words of the prophecy. For example, the vision had locusts with heads like men and tails like scorpions. If we interpret that and say, “Oh that means military helicopters,” then we have added something to the text and taken something away. The text said the locusts had human faces, but we said the helicopters had human pilots. Maybe one is meant by the other, but if the text doesn’t say so we are adding to the text when we say so. Let’s admit it, there is almost no way to do the modern “decoding” of Revelation without adding or removing from the text, and John specifically warns against doing either.

It might be fun for us to guess what is meant by some of the imagery in the text, but we should never pretend that we have understood the real meaning of the text unless we are quoting from the text and letting it stand on its own.

Then, as a final benediction, John gives this:

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

Revelation 22:20-21 NIV


Twenty-three thousand words in (both posts so far) I finally come to this concluding summary.

The book of Revelation is far less informative about the end times than we want it to be. We want the book to be a clear description of future events in sequence so that we can have the psychological reassurance that only comes from knowing details of the future. However, the book never pretends to offer us such clear knowledge. At various points it specifically indicates that we can’t understand it or that we shouldn’t understand it. At many points the language says two opposite things at the same time (Streets of gold clear as glass? A countless multitude numbering 144,000? A “city” who rules over kings but is devoured by them?).

Nevertheless, there is are two lessons that thread their way from the beginning of the book throughout its entire length: (1) No power in heaven or on earth will be able to resist the glorious judgment of God and (2) Those who hold fast to Jesus will be rewarded at the end even though they should expect great persecution before then. This is the main point of the book: God is fully in control, and he will bring victory through Jesus, so remain faithful.

I cannot overstate this. Although it’s tempting to view Revelation as a code book to be deciphered, all such attempts are futile at best and dangerous at worst. Recall John’s warning that adding or taking away from the book is a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, what’s abundantly clear from the beginning to the end of the book needs no decoding. God’s Kingdom WILL come on Earth as it is in Heaven; God is currently in charge of the world and even great tragedies and persecutions are under the umbrella of his plan and constrained by his will; Jesus himself WILL return in power and glory, the enemies of God’s people will be cast into the Lake of Fire, and the faithful will be rewarded with a glorious eternity.

But What Specifics Can We Know?

After all the caveats against our attempts to decode Revelation, there are some details in the text that need no decoding to understand, and these events line up remarkably well with what we have seen from Daniel, Jesus, and Paul:

  • Before the “time of the end” begins, the people of Jesus are called to a faithfulness that means loving Jesus and loving each other, maintaining personal holiness and purity, holding to the truths of the gospel, and enduring persecution whenever it comes.
  • During the time of the end there will be a sequence of events expressing both the wickedness of people and the wrath of God. Though we can’t fully discern the timeline or the details of these tragedies, they will involve extreme events that affect the whole earth at once (i.e. asteroid impact, nuclear war, volcanic activity); large portions of the planet (plants, animals, and people) will die; famines and pandemics will kill many as well; and human conflicts will likewise happen.
  • During the time of the end, the faithful followers of Jesus will face persecution and martyrdom, but they will also be spared from the truly terrible expressions of God’s wrath on the earth.
  • During the time of the end, Satan will empower a man (called the beast) as well as another (called the false prophet) to rise up. The beast will become a global leader deceiving many, working miracles, and demanding both loyalty and worship. He will clearly identify his followers (with a “mark”) and will persecute and kill those who don’t receive the mark. However, after a span of 3.5 years (mentioned many times, but perhaps metaphorical), God will disrupt the reign of the beast with dramatic expressions of his wrath similar to but worse than the events previously mentioned.
  • Satan, the beast, and the false prophet will attempt a direct act of aggression against God (maybe metaphorical), but Jesus will return, gather his followers to himself, raising the dead back to life, and will defeat them. The beast and false prophet will be immediately judged and sent to the Lake of Fire, but Satan will be imprisoned for a time while Christ reigns.
  • After 1000 years (maybe metaphorical), Satan will be released for a second try at leading the world astray. He will once again be defeated. This time, he and his angels will be cast into the Lake of Fire.
  • All humans still dead will be raised to life, and all will face the final judgment. Those whose names are in the Book of Life will be welcomed into the glorious eternity of God’s Kingdom while all others will be cast into the Lake of Fire, and thus begins eternity.

Although I myself believe these events will be real historical events (I take a pre-millennial view), many Christians through the centuries have taken even these bullet-points to be metaphorical too. The tragic events might be metaphorical, the rise of the beast might be metaphorical, and the 1000 years of Satan’s imprisonment might be metaphorical or even happening right now! Sadly, this metaphorical understanding is just as consistent with the teaching of Revelation as is the historical understanding. I say “sadly” because we want more details, but it’s wrong to think we have been given them when we haven’t. Still, we don’t need to worry because there are two firm details we can hold onto; all Christians of all centuries have agreed that some of these events are actually historical. Specifically, the first and the last bullet points are taught explicitly by Jesus himself and his first followers to be actual historical realities. Before the end, authentic followers of Jesus will live lives of faithfulness and endurance even in the face of persecution. Eventually, Jesus will raise all people back to life to face the final judgment and enter either an eternity with Christ or an eternity away from his presence.

The Rapture?

I kinda hate to say it, but once all the decoding attempts cease, there is no longer any evidence for a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. In fact, the plain evidence in the text speaks against a Rapture of any sort until the very end when the Son of Man harvests his own from the earth. In the text, God’s people are repeatedly encouraged to endure persecution and are promised protection from God’s wrath while the rest of the world goes through great tribulation. The text, from beginning to end, blurs the lines between God’s holy people from Israel and God’s holy people from the Church. The text even obviously equates them with each other as in the 144,000 / great multitude vision.

As I always tell people, I want there to be a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, but it’s just not taught in the book of Revelation.


The number of people who will disagree with my understanding of Revelation is astronomically high. For whatever reason, Christians often have opinions of Revelation that are as strong as their opinions on politics or the nature of the atonement. However, I’m convinced that interpretations of Revelation, perhaps more than with any other book, ought to be held lightly. If God really wanted us to know the future, he would have written some dates down for us. However, he didn’t. What he did give us repeatedly is the invitation to be faithful no matter what and the promise that he would bring rewards with him when he finally makes all things new.

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