A passage that rarely gets taken into account in expositions of the “gospel” is John’s vision of three angels in Revelation 14:6-11. The context is important. It comes as part of a visionary interlude between the seven trumpets (8-11) and the seven bowls (15-16). I argued in The Coming of the Son of Man, on intertextual grounds, that the trumpets signal judgment on Israel, the bowls judgment on the nations, culminating in the overthrow of immoral, corrupt, blasphemous Rome. That won’t convince everyone, but in any case the basic narrative shape of chapters 12-14 seems to me clear enough.
An allegory of Christian origins
What we have in this section is an allegory of the origins of the church and the nature of the conflict that it was in. A woman, who is righteous Israel, gives birth to a son who will rule the nations with a rod of iron—not save the nations, rule the nations. The child is threatened by a dragon with seven horned heads, but is taken up into heaven, and the woman flees to the wilderness. The dragon is cast out of heaven, fails in his pursuit of the woman, and goes to make war on the rest of her offspring, who kept the Jewish Law and proclaimed the testimony about Jesus (Rev. 12:7-17). The dragon then summons a beast from the sea—exceeding in monstrosity the beasts of Daniel 7—and gives to it “his power and his throne and great authority” (Rev. 13:2).
The beast is Rome. It is given a blasphemous mouth, allowed to conquer the saints (the righteous people of God, an allusion to Dan. 7:21), and is served by all peoples, with the exception of those whose names were written in the “book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:5-8). A second beast from the earth, perhaps representing Roman provincial power or the imperial priesthood, deceives the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē into worshipping the image of the beast (Rev. 13:11-18; cf. 12:9).
John then sees a second crowd of 144,000, this time drawn from across the world controlled by Rome, who have overcome persecution and now stand with the Lamb, who is YHWH’s king, on Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1-5; cf. 7:4-8; Ps. 2:6-9).
Against the backdrop of this war between the beasts of Roman imperial power, inspired by the dragon, Satan, who knows that his time is short (Rev. 12:12), and the other offspring of the woman, John sees an angel flying overhead “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6).
What is this “gospel”? Not that people are justified by faith in Jesus’ atoning death. Not that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Not even that Jesus is King!
It is that the hour of God’s judgment has come.
Therefore, the peoples of the empire should repent of their manifold idolatries, above all their worship of the beast of Roman imperialism, and serve the living God who “made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7).
It is the same “good news” that was proclaimed (euangelizomenoi) to the people of Lystra: “you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15); and, in effect, to the “men of Athens” (Acts 17:29-31). A number of Gentiles in Thessalonica heard this “gospel” and abandon their idols to “serve the living and true God”—and, critically, to wait for the Son from heaven who would deliver them from the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:3, 9-10).
Another angel follows close behind the first, expanding upon the “eternal gospel”: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (Rev. 14:8).
Then a third, driving home the personal implications of this judgment. Those who prostrate themselves before the beast of Roman imperialism will suffer the wrath of God that is to be poured out on idolatrous, immoral and unjust nations, in the presence of the Lamb who rules on Mount Zion, along with the vindicated martyrs (Rev. 14:9-11). The apocalyptic imagery is lurid, but this is not “hell”, it is not torment after death. It is the social “pain” of the living who cling to an obsolete civilisation, a profoundly antipathetic empire that has been—or rather will be, from John’s point of view—destroyed by the living God.
The best analogy we have
The fall of Babylon the great, which is Rome, is described in Revelation 18, in the vivid but quite realistic language of Old Testament prophecies against Babylon and Tyre. The city has corrupted the kings of the earth, and the “merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (Rev. 18:3). But John sees it in ruins, the haunt of unclean spirits and wild animals.
The kings of the earth stand far off and lament, seeing the smoke of her burning, aghast at the “torment” suffered by the devotees of the beast (Rev. 18:9-10). The merchants of the earth weep over the loss of income from their trade in fine goods, commodities and slaves (Rev. 18:11-17). Shipmasters and sailors—the Richard Bransons of the day—mourn the sudden collapse of their business (Rev. 18:17-20).
Apart from the flood story, this is potentially the best analogy that we have in scripture for the rash of interrelated crises that threaten modern global civilisation. In some ways, it is more appropriate than the flood story, because it is a judgment not just on humanity’s propensity for wickedness and violence but on the post-diluvial compulsion to build monstrous towers of Babel in defiance of the creator God (Gen. 11:1-9). It is a judgment on overweening power, prosperity, expansionism, exploitation, technology, on greed, consumption, decadence, waste, despoliation.
The current pandemic is seen by many scientists—not by many theologians, ironically—as the “beginning of the birth pains”, not the war but a rumour of the war that the natural order may soon wage against humanity (cf. Mk. 13:7-8).
The narrative boundaries must be respected. This is not the war that Jesus predicted. Nor is it the end of the world. But it may be the end of an age, somewhere between the two, and surely we must reckon with the fact that the biblical God, the God of history, has a serious proprietorial interest in what happens to his priestly people at this momentous time.
The gospel of our age
Let’s at least consider the loud call to action that accompanies the announcement of the “good news” (you’d forgotten that this was all about the gospel?) that Rome will fall:
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Rev. 18:4–5)
In the mouth of the Old Testament prophets this would have been heard as a call to leave Babylon and return to the land (cf. Is. 48:20; 52:11; Jer. 50:8; 51:6, 45; Zech. 2:6, 7). John presumably had in mind a symbolic departure: God’s people were not to take part in the sins of Rome or they would share in her plagues—the plagues of the seven bowls of God’s wrath that would be poured out in due course.
Perhaps then we must say that the living God who made the heavens and the earth, the sea and the springs of water, the forests and the wildernesses, and all the life that is in them, is no longer prepared to overlook the centuries of ignorance (cf Acts 17:30) and has at last remembered the iniquities of modern humanity.
This is the euangelion aiōnion, the gospel of our age—the proclamation that the righteous God is putting things right, much to the alarm of governments, traders and industrialists, and no doubt at great cost to the masses of ordinary people whose lives will be blighted as our world falls apart.
If so, then the word to the church, in the stark terms of this apocalyptic conceit, is to “come out of her”, to disengage quite dramatically and rigorously from the gross iniquities of modern humanity, before it’s too late.
It is time for the church to stop being part of the problem.