In this section of The Revelation we’re treated to an image of the final battle and the defeat of the beast monsters. Jesus shows up on a white horse, surrounded by a heavenly army and birds feast on the flesh of God’s enemies. The common interpretation of these verses suggests that there will be a violent bloody conflict at the end of time, involving wholesale slaughter by Christ and his angelic hosts against non-Christians and demons. I understand why this interpretation is so common. At first blush, the text can be read like that. But, I have some lingering questions:
1. Jesus is here portrayed as a rider on a white horse. But, how is he predominantly depicted elsewhere in The Revelation? As a slain-lamb, right? How can the slain-lamb now take vengeance on his enemies? How can Jesus finally stop ‘turning the other cheek?’
2. Jesus’ robe is here dipped in blood. Who’s blood is it? The war hasn’t begun yet, so why is Jesus covered in blood? Is it possible that the blood is his own? He is described in 1.7 as ‘he whom his opponents have pierced’ and we’re told that it’s his blood that either redeems or condemns (1.5-6, 9.9-10), so is there any credence to the idea that Jesus isn’t violent?
3. If this is a war, why is there no fighting? Jesus armies never do anything, right? And, by the way, since they’re wearing ‘shining, pure linen’ doesn’t that suggest these are the martyred saints not the angelic warriors of chapter 12? How come the only weapon mentioned here is the sword from Jesus’ mouth? How does he slice and dice with that?
I have other lingering questions, but only one more that really deserves mention in this post. I’ll get to it in a minute. For now, let me just say that a careful reading of this section of The Revelation shows us that John is just up to his old tricks once more. For example, throughout the book John consistently turns imagery on its head. He defines ‘dying’ as ‘conquering’, ‘lion’ as ‘lamb’, and here ‘warrior’ as ‘judge.’ There were a few ancient prophecies about God’s total victory over his enemies, but John has reinterpreted those in much the same way as he does everything else. He uses the ancient form of the divine warrior, but fills it with new content. Instead of a bloodthirsty Spartacus, John gives us a crucified Christ who conquers with his Word. His victory is immediate and total. In this “war” there is no battle. The beasts are bound without a single blow being delivered. The armies of heaven are just spectators.
Which leads me to my last lingering question: isn’t this exactly what the rest of the Bible teaches? That Jesus is the Word? That the Word is the one weapon that can disarm Satan? That Jesus has triumphed through his sacrificial death? That we ought to rejoice because we are washed in his blood, saved, and defended? Why can’t we be content with that? Why do we insist on making Christ’s hands red with enemy blood instead of rejoicing at his blood-stained robe?
We’ve hardly learned anything! Our record stinks—the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, the wars in Northern Ireland and the Balkans—when will we learn that Christ doesn’t want us to ‘hurt to convert?’ One of the great criticisms of the Roman Empire was that they ‘make a desert and call it peace.’ Rome conquered through violence. Shouldn’t Christ offer something more…Christian? Are we so in love with Babylon, that the only way we can imagine the Second Coming is more like Hitler than Jesus? Are we, as poet Wendall Barry suggests, ‘hoping to kill everyone opposed to peace?’