The Problem of Evil in the Book of the Revelation
If Jesus the Christ is the great protagonist in the great drama, then the question arises, who is the antagonist? If Christ is the hero, who is the villain? It seems the villain is one and the villain is many, like a multi-headed Hydra. The cast of villains is represented by some very colorful metaphors.
Let us look at them, in descending order of threat, and conclude with their demise.
The Red Dragon
A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.
Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:1-17)
Who is this dragon? It is Satan himself. The Devil. The Serpent that tempted Eve & Adam. It is portrayed as horrible in its power as it attempts to devour all that is good and godly. This image of the great dragon is taken from the Greek myth of Python, who tries to kill Apollo the son of Zeus, and from the Egyptian myth of the Red Dragon who pursues the goddess Isis to try to kill her divine son Horis. This is the serpent/dragon that has plagued all humanity.
Though he is first described in chapter 12, we have met him earlier in this book. He is in Smyrna (2.9) and in Philadelphia (3:9) where there is a ‘Synagogue of Satan’. He is in Pergamum (2:13) where John says “Satan has his throne”, and he is in Thyatira (2:24) where Jezebel has been learning and teaching the “so called deep things of Satan.”
The Fallen Angels
And Satan is not alone. He is joined by the Fallen Angels. Here is how John describes them: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (12:7-9)
The fallen angels may have been thought to be the demons that oppressed and possessed their victims, and were expelled time and again as Christ begins his ministry in Galilee.
But besides Satan and his angels there was someone else who seemed to be the physical incarnation of the evil one. He is called “the Beast”.
Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. (13:1-8)
Who is this beast? He looks like Satan cloned. He could easily be seen as the Son of Satan, as Jesus was seen to be the Son of God. He is the Roman emperor, Domitian. Or is he Nero, or is he Nero returned from death? Here are the passages that connect Nero to Domitian.
- One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. (13:3)
- And a second beast “exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.” (13:12-14)
- When I saw The Harlot, I was greatly amazed. But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. (17:7-11)
The emperor of Rome is portrayed as a Counterfeit Messiah. Domitian believes that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but John says he is an animal. Hardly human. Mostly demonic!
But John adds some other images to reinforce his understanding that the current emperor is the re-incarnation of an evil we have met before. He causes his readers to think about that old villain Antiochus Epiphanes IV (See I & II Maccabees) and Caligula and Antiochus and Nero.
The False Prophet
But John turns our attention to a third villain. Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. (13:11-18)
This second beast is called the False Prophet later in the book:
And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. (16:13)
And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image.(19:20)
This one is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seemingly exercises miraculous powers, like Elijah returned, but it is a false prophet, whose chief aim is to deceive. In the Roman Empire he may well be the Minister of Religion, the prophet and high priest of the Cult of the Emperor whose task is to promote the Divinization of the emperor across the world. It is he who declares who is “elect” and who must be eradicated.
The Red Dragon, and the Beast, and the False Prophet make up a trinity of evil (note the 3 foul spirits of 16:13-14) in imitation of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One would think the evil triad would be a sufficient foe for the church to face. But the cast of villains has only just begun. In chapter 17 and the following chapters we meet the Great Harlot. The supreme seductress of the entire civilized world.
The Great Harlot
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.
The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. (17:1-18)
Who is this foul woman? She is the great city of Rome (16:19, 17:18, 18:10, 16, 18, 19, 21) but she is also called “Babylon (taken from Jeremiah 51) and “Sodom” & “Egypt” & “Jerusalem” – “where Jesus was killed.” (11:8).
Rome’s sword creates victims, but so does this Terrible Beauty who wins by her wiles. Converts to Rome can be coerced by Roman power, or beguiled by her beauty, The legions have “killed their thousands”, but beauty has killed her “tens of thousands”.
But Satan, Caesar and Rome and their minions are not the only foes the church faces. The other nations in which the church finds itself, are also hostile to followers of the Christ. Towards the end of his book John notes the enmity of the “ten kings” and the nations of that day:
And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb.” (17:12-13)
When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. (20:7-9)
In the Book of Ezekiel “Gog of Magog” is the leader of several hostile nations during Babylon’s domination of Israel. (Ezekiel 39-39) But John has used “Gog and Magog”, prince and nation, in a mythic sense of representing all nations that are hostile to God and his people.
Evils within the Church
It is terrifying that all of these external enemies are marshaled against the church, but just as bad are the enemies within the church. They operate like quislings, collaborating with the external foe, that weakens the resolve from within. They are named “False Apostles” (2:2), “Nicolaitans” (2:6,15), “Followers of Balaam” (2:14), and “Jezebel” (2:20).
It looks like the Church of Jesus Christ does not have a chance of survival against such odds. Who can face such an array of foes?
The Sure Defeat of all evils
The answer to this question is in no doubt. The Lamb of God has already conquered all of his foes. But he does not do it alone. Some of us think the key verse in the entire book is found in Chapter 12, verse 11.
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
The church has its part to play in the defeat of evil, though they, like their Lord, will face death. The book reminds us constantly that battles may well be lost, but has no doubt at all that the war will be won. Here is the report on how each foe will fare both in time and in eternity.
The unholy trinity is defeated
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. (20:1-2)
When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (20:7-10)
And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth. (19:20-21)
All other foes are defeated
Whether it is the Great Harlot, or the fallen angels, all the hostile nations, and every evil within the church, they shall be dealt with summarily, and the conclusion will be, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and forever!” (11:15-16)
There are some other interesting features about the evils that exist and persist: the evil they do is by permission of God himself. The word “allowed” recurs frequently throughout the book.
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation. (13:5-7)
It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast. (13:13-15)
Evil has been “permitted” from the garden of Eden all the way to the end of history. It is allowed existence by God until the day when he says, “enough!” Satan & his ilk are like rabid dogs, but securely on God’s leash.
The Time Change
There is another interesting phenomenon in this book. It has to do with time. John is clear, the time for evil is Short! Here are the stats.
1:10 The church will suffer tribulation for ten days
3:10 The hour of trial that will come
11:2-3 The church will suffer for 3½ years
11:9 The three witnesses were ridiculed 3½ days
12:6 The woman will spend 1260 days in the wilderness
12:12 The devil knows his time is short
13:5 The Beast rules 42 months
17:12 Kings hold authority for one hour
But, the time for Jesus & His Kingdom will be long!
1:6 To Him be glory forever and forever
1:18 I am alive for ever more
5:13 Blessing & honour & glory… forever
7:16 Hunger no more & thirst no more
15:3 King of the ages
20:2-4 Satan is bound for a 1,000 years
21:4 Death will be no more
Evil is real, but never invincible. So the question still exists, what shall the church do to play its part in this terrible struggle? This will be discussed in the next chapter.