12. Seven Bowls and the World Crucified
(Revelation 15 — 16)
I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name. They held harps given them by God and sang the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb:
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.
Who will not fear you, Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened. Out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues. They were dressed in clean, shining linen and wore golden sashes around their chests. Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever. And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.
Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”
The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died.
The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say
“You are just in these judgments, O Holy One, you who are and who were; for they have shed the blood of your holy people and your prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”
And I heard the altar respond:
“Yes, Lord God Almighty,
true and just are your judgments.”
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.
“Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.”
Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake.
The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, fell on people. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.
We’re about two-thirds the way through Revelation.
This is usually the point in a story where we’re approaching a climax. Luke is climbing into an X-Wing to fly toward the Death Star. Indiana Jones has escaped the snakes and is barreling after the ark. And Revelation is approaching its climax as well.
It’s the story of heaven’s throne,
a mysterious scroll,
a broken world,
a suffering people,
and answered prayers.1
This ancient letter has delivered the story of heaven’s plans for the world finally being “opened” through a stunning parade of images, symbols, political satire, mythic animation… all of it has been deeply marinated in the Hebrew scriptures. And now we’re barreling into the story’s climax. Into a final cluster of seven judgments.
Some of the scariest reading in Scripture.
Having seen seven seals broken (Rev 6-7),
and having heard seven trumpets sound (Rev 8-9 & 11v15),
we’re now arriving at seven bowls poured out (Rev 16).
Though the recent mythic animation has faded, the song of the conquering martyrs (Rev 14) echoes in our ears: God is going to save the world. But the sobering reality meets us here as we approach the climax of all things:
To save the world,
God must judge the world.2
Think of a rotten tooth that must be pulled or an infected wound that must be cleaned. Healing and wholeness can only reign when judgment falls on disease. So too with the cosmos. The cancer of sin must be killed.
Revelation 15-16 gives us the good news of divine judgment. Despite their checkered history of interpretation, these seven bowls are not a picture of cosmic destruction. Remember: the identity of Jesus guides us through the hard parts of Revelation. When we continually remind ourselves that God himself is crucified for (and by) his enemies, we slowly begin to recognize these bowls as a reminder of his goodness. The One who planted Eden at the beginning promises he will make his creation flourish. And weeds must be destroyed for gardens to grow.
The seven bowls are
a promise of cosmic de-weeding
not a threat of cosmic destruction.
Bowls of “wrath” shouldn’t make us doubt God’s goodness; they should remind us that God takes seriously the sickness infecting the world.
Many atheists contend that an all-powerful, all-good God is incompatible with a world of evil. Christians should empathize deeply with this faith concern. It’s actually an objection to faith rooted in a longing for divine justice. If there exists an all-powerful, benevolent God, then this God must sort the world out.
God must save his good creation.
God must judge evil.
Both “out there” in the world as well as “in here” inside of me.
Who would want to live forever in a world plagued by evil?
Who would want to live a hellish kind of life forever?
Judgment is what must take place
for resurrection to be good news.
And the good news of Revelation 15-16 is that judgment is coming.
The seven bowls paint a haunting portrait of God’s wrath poured out on the world. This portrait almost inarguably belongs to history’s future, for it ushers in a transformed world (Rev 21-22). These bowls of “wrath” bring about a world resurrected.
Wrath brings resurrection? How does that work?
We tend to think of words like “wrath”3 and “fury”4 in petty, trivial, reactionary ways. My “fury” is what happens when I have a really bad day: when I traffic crawls, when my stomach growls, when my toe stubs. Suddenly I’m filled with wrath and lash out in fury.
But that’s never what the Bible points us toward when it talks about God’s “wrath” or “fury.”
God’s “wrath” is a way of talking about God’s love.
Love, after all, is what Christians confess God to be.5 Love is elemental to God. Love is eternal—always and forever there between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Between them flows infinite, relational, unchanging love, before and beyond all things.
“Wrath” is not eternal. It hasn’t always been. It’s not elemental. What we call divine “wrath” is not an equal and opposite “yang” to the “yin” of divine love. In fact, “wrath” actually is a form of God’s love. Wrath is what God’s love looks like doing painful, uncomfortable, impossibly hard things like moving mountains and overthrowing tyranny and destroying evil.
Think again about the atheistic objection to God. They argue that goodness and love is absolutely incompatible with crimes against children. Or crimes against adults. Or ethnic cleansing or hatred in general. And they’re right. God’s love is fundamentally incompatible with all the darkness in the world that the Church calls “sin.” Wrath is what God’s love feels like when sin shipwrecks against it.
Chemo therapy feels like wrath for the cancer. And it doesn’t look pretty for anyone who is watching. But the goal of chemo therapy is healing. The goal of chemo therapy is new life. And this is the final treatment (15v1)—seven blistering bowls of God’s vintage love distilled to destroy evil. God’s wrath is “completed” with this.
In language stylized to fit the rest of the letter, seven angels receive these seven bowls… and notice where they get them. They receive the bowls from one of the four living creatures we met in chapter four (15v7). One of those four living creatures (who together seem to represent all of creation) is handing out great bowls of burning love.
Perhaps here we finally have an answer to why those four living creatures seemed be welcoming evil in chapter six.6 Perhaps now we have an answer to why Jesus himself gave power to a great enemy in chapter nine when he was handing out keys to the Abyss.7 Perhaps here we have some sort of mysterious, provisional answer to why God hasn’t stopped evil yet. Why evil seems free run amok. Why God lets bad things happen.
The strange story of Revelation seems to indicating that God allows darkness grow and blossom, allowing evil rise to its full strength—and then God will pull evil up by its root. God often allows evil to flower so that it can be completely uprooted.
That’s the way God frequently works in our lives. The Twelve Step Program calls it “rock bottom.” When disorder and darkness become unmanageable, unsustainable, unlivable, you’re at rock bottom and open to complete healing. Revelation seems to say that God works in human history too. Creation itself welcomes disorder and darkness to reign completely in preparation for complete healing. However this works eventually itself out on literal level of human history, this is the impact of chapters 15 and 16 on a literary level: Evil grows fully and will be fully uprooted.
Eventually God finally will pour out
painful, purging, purifying love.
When God was breaking down barriers to his purposes (the seals) and answering prayers for justice (the trumpets), there was always a delay—an intermission—between the sixth and the seventh.8 But here, with the bowls, there is no delay. Time is up. The wait is over. This is the end of evil.9
The time has come to de-weed whatever is choking the garden—to destroy whatever is destroying the world.10
One helpful way to reflect on these bowls is to recognize that the story of the Exodus is being told again. John describes the people of God next to the sea singing the Song of Moses and the Lamb (15v3). That sounds just like Exodus 15, where the people of God find themselves saved and singing next to the sea. God had conquered the chariots of Egypt and the watery chaos.11 Now, once again, the sea has been calmed… it’s like glass, yielding to the fiery love of God (15v2). God’s deepest purposes are always to spread salvation and song. But to get there, God has to uproot evil, to destroy Babylon, to conquer Egypt.
We’re given symbolic pictures of God uprooting evil. This is NOT a literal forecast of weather and tidal patterns in the future. Once again, Revelation is NOT an Almanac; it’s an Apocalypse. These bowls are “a sign” (15v1) just like “the Woman” in the wilderness (12v1) and “the Dragon” in the sky (12v3). They’re symbols, signs pointing in a fog. We cannot exhaustively unpack everything they mean, but we can see the direction they’re pointing.
John uses the language of the exodus from Egypt to describe God’s final judgment on evil. The images include sores on people’s bodies (16v2) and water turning to blood (16v3-4), to a kingdom plunged into darkness (16v10), frogs leaping around12 (16v13), and the worst kind of hailstorm (16v21). These are all images from Exodus.
These are pictures of God defeating everything that opposes him.
This cycle of seven signals the end of the story. There is no more delay, no more intermission, and no more repentance. Everyone who wants God—who wants real and lasting Life—has turned to God. Everyone else would rather “curse the name of God” (16v9) than live with him or sing his praise. They would rather “gnaw their tongues” (16v10) than use them for Song of Life. The time for repentance has passed because some people have made their hearts as hard as Pharaoh’s. And like the Exodus story, there comes a point where God is no longer trying to “change Pharaoh’s mind.” Now God is overthrowing Egypt, liberating creation from its chains.
If you take these signs literally, you’re left with a horrifying God that looks nothing like Jesus. In verse 6 of chapter 16, the saints sing: “[God has] given them blood to drink as they deserve.” If this is literal then God is sadistic—on the same level as the worst of pagan gods. What a graphic, horrible, disgusting, terrifying image.
As we said in chapter 7, John is NOT implying that Jesus has been in heaven nursing a grudge only to return with dark vengeance and a bag of tricks for beating up bad guys. Jesus is not returning as Batman. Jesus is always the Crucified One; the One who drained dry the bowls of wrath—who loves the world enough to drink the cup of wrath to its last drop.13 Take courage, dear heart, for Crucified Love lies behind these scary images.
Mysteriously enough, these seven bowls are actually a great but painful mercy for the world. That’s why so song after song in Revelation celebrates this coming act of God. Why the people of God sing (15v3): “Great and marvelous and your deeds… Just and true are your ways.” It’s why an angel sings (16v5): “You are just in these judgments.” It’s why the altar in heaven echoes back (16v7): “True and just are your judgments.”
These lyrics would be false if God or Bat-Jesus vindictively tortured people. Those words can only be true if God is finally, ultimately, forever judging evil. The seven bowls are a great but painful mercy. They’re the last treatment; the final round of chemo. The judgment of God looks like the world crucified so it can experience resurrection.14
A day is coming when God’s healing—complete, just, and requested—will finally arrive. Complete, because God will finally end the ancient insurgency of sin, death, and the devil. Just, because God will eradicate evil, right every wrong, and establish a world of love. Requested, because God does not coerce and will give all what they want.
Here we find the strangeness of what the Christian tradition calls “hell.” Nobody gets locked into hell… we lock ourselves there. No one is in hell who doesn’t want to be there. All who want God get God. In the next chapter, we’re told that “Lady Babylon” and her followers have already been drinking violence and hatred (17v6), and God simply pours her a double (18v6). God will give everyone what they desire most dearly.15
If you want to live a life in opposition to Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth, evidently you can. If you want to side with the dehumanizing forces of evil, and march against God in battle, and exist forever in unreality… if you’re hellbent on hell, evidently you can have it.
The sixth bowl reveals evil deceiving God’s beloved creation to march against him in a place called “Armageddon” (16v16). That’s a Hebrew word for “the Mountain of Megiddo.“ Megiddo was a place in the Old Testament where several decisive battles took place for the people of God.16 John taps into that place as a symbol for the most decisive battle of them all.
It’s unspeakably strange—utterly mysterious—why anyone would choose to march against Life with Death… but John seems to be warning that we’re capable of it.
The battle of Armageddon, however, is no battle at all. Despite the fact that earth’s mightiest heroes side with evil—”the kings of the whole world” (16v14)—heaven’s victory is infinitely one-sided. When the seventh and final bowl pours into the air,17 there’s no battle at all. The “great city”18 and “all the cities of the nations” crumble (16v19). Every tower of Babel, every false kingdom, the loftiest human rebellions against grace—they all collapse. Our strongest resistance cannot match the power of Love.
There is no decisive battle between good and evil in Revelation. Good is the only thing that truly exists; everything else is just a shadow. So goodness wins as effortlessly as the sunrise (cf. 21v23). Evil evaporates because it never really had any substance.19
These coming “bowls” raise a significant question: Are we living lives of substance? Lives that will last? Lives in step with the Spirit of God? On his great day of Love, where all that is not Love burns away, what of our lives will left? Anything?
Are there habits, or patterns, or ways of living, that—if we got honest—we’d have to confess: these choices are deceived choices… I’m gathering in opposition to God. I’m marching with Death. This way of living isn’t the way of Love.
What are the patterns of living that wouldn’t survive the blistering bowls of God’s love? If it won’t survive the sun rising on God’s new world, it’s not worth living now.20
Wherever those places are, whatever those patterns, choices, habits might be, it’s hysterically good news that they won’t survive the sunrise. Those things are death. And the good news of the seven bowls, my friends, is that death will die.
Victorious Lord of blistering love, help us believe the good news that your wrath will set free us and our world. May we be honest about the problem of evil and grant us hope that you have and will overcome it. Help us resist the dehumanizing spirits of evil that gather us against the true life in you. May your Spirit ready us for the future by forming love in us today.
- Throne room = Rev 4.2; mysterious scroll = 5.1-3; broken world = 6.1-8; the suffering saints = 6.9; answered prayers = 8.4-5f
- A proper understanding God’s judgement in Scripture recognizes that God’s judgment always aims at salvation. God’s “no” always serves a bigger, better “yes.” This is such a pervasive theme in Scripture that one scholar has written an entire biblical theology framed around it. See James Hamilton’s aptly titled “God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology” (2010).
- Revelation 14.10,19; 15.1,7; 16.19.
- Revelation 14.10.
- 1 John 4.16.
- The creatures kept saying “come” in 6.1,3,5,7.
- Rev 9.1.(cf. 1.18)
- Notice the strategic delay between the sixth and seventh seals (6.12, 8.1) and the sixth and seventh trumpets (9.13, 11.15). It’s like John is saying “a lot has happened, but there’s still time…”
- The lack of delay is another clue that the “bowls” belong to the future. A subtle shift occurs at the seventh trumpet (the perfect answered prayer) in 11.15 where the saints sing praise that “the kingdom of the world HAS become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah.” From there we transition into the mythic animation of chapters 12-14 that shows different angles of the Church’s faithful witness. But when we arrive at chapters 15-16, John seems to be unpacking the answered prayer of the seventh trumpet (again, 11.15). When we “zoom in” on the seventh trumpet, we find the seven bowls.
- Revelation 11.18.
- Exodus 15.1-18.
- The frog-like evil spirits coming from the mouths of the Dragon, the Sea-Beast, and the Land-Beast (now called “the false prophet”) seem to serve the dual purpose of invoking the plagues of Egypt (Ex 8.1-15) and illustrating how inhuman and dehumanizing are their deceptive suggestions (“the almost pornographic quality of their demonic speech,” Mangina, 188).
- The cup of God’s wrath is a frequent image of judgment in both the prophets (Isa 51.17,22; Jer 25.17,28; 49.12; 51.7; Ezk 23.31-32; Hab 2.16) as well as the gospels (Matt 20.22-23, 26.39, etc). The good news, of course, is that God himself in Jesus has drank the cup himself (Matt 26.27-28).
- In one of his earliest (and rawest) letters, Paul writes “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20). The cross is where, mysterious, Paul died so that he could experience new life. At the end of that letter he describes the cross as where “the world [lit. “the cosmos”] has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6.14). There’s something profoundly true about Paul’s assertion that the world/cosmos has been crucified. All things will be brought together in Christ (Eph 1.10). The final judgment of the world will be the journey of every Christian writ large, namely, crucifixion and resurrection with Christ. One day the cosmos itself will declare: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
- In the words of Paul from Romans 2.7-8: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”
- See Judg 5.19, 2 Kgs 9.27, 23.30. The plains of Megiddo, therefore, invoke a significant and decisive battle for those familiar with Israel’s story. In the words of Joseph Mangina: “It was therefore the archetypal battlefield… If John is alluding to Megiddo, it is because he wants to evoke the image of a decisive battle and not because he wants us to locate his story on a map of northern Palestine” (189). And since there is no mountain on the plains of Megiddo, that seems a clue that we’re not supposed to find it on a map.
- In the ancient world, air is the space between earth and heaven ruled by powers, demons, and spiritual beings other than God. This is a common notion that even Paul adopts and assumes (Eph 2.2). On a literary level, the air has been polluted by froggy, unclean “pneumata” (“spirits” or “winds”; 16.13) and now they’re begin cleansed (Mangina, 191).
- While “the great city” could correspond to Rome, the cities are iconic representations in Revelation of systems and patterns of living. So “the great city” correlates more properly to all system and patterns (any “city”) that stand against God and his anointed (cf. 11.8, Ps 2.2). Likewise the new city coming down from heaven (Rev 21.2) correlates to the people of God themselves (cf. 11.2; also the 12 foundations and 12 gates of the city – 21.19-21)
- There is a long tradition in the Church (back to at least Augustine) which recognizes that evil itself has no ontological substance. Evil is not a thing in itself but essentially parasitic—a privation of the good. Evil is a “hole” in reality where goodness should be.
- Notice how in the imagery of Malachi 4.1-2, the same heat source (the day of the Lord) will simultaneously destroy and comfort.