In Titus 2.11–14, the Apostle Paul summarized the Christian faith in this way: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
Christianity, you see, is about what Jesus Christ did for us in the past (salvation, redemption, and purification), what he is doing for us at present (training), and what he will do for us in the future (appearing, and so fulfilling our “blessed hope”). Much of Revelation concerns the present age in which all Christians are “training to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions.” But we must never forget the future orientation of our faith either, which looks to the second coming of Jesus Christ—an event narrated in the final chapters of Revelation.
To that event we now turn our attention.
Justice at Last (Revelation 19.1–5)
Many times during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded his longsuffering followers that the arc of the universe was long but it bent toward justice. In saying this, he was stating a uniquely biblical truth.
Atheists, you see, cannot guarantee that the world will ultimately turn out right. There is not, in their philosophy, any supernatural power that can restrain nature (“red in tooth and claw”) or evil men with a will to power. For the atheist, injustice is simply part and parcel of human existence and will always be so.
Older religions—such as the Near Eastern religions that flourished in biblical times—or the Eastern religious philosophies of the present day, envision history as an eternal recurrence of the rise and fall of justice. Like the passing of seasons, these religions see a cycle of times during which justice on earth waxes and wanes. But, again, there is no guarantee that the world will one day, finally, turn out right.
Biblical religion—Judaism and Christianity—teaches that history is linear, that God is shepherding human events toward a climactic showdown at which justice will once and for all triumph over injustice, evil, and sin, so that God’s will in fact will be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” and not just in our prayers.
Revelation 19.1–5 celebrates this climactic event in exuberant song. “Hallelujah!” the song begins, which in Hebrew simply means, “Praise the Lord!” Why? Because “salvation and glory and power belong to our God.” He is the source of the healing—i.e., salvation—of the world. He has the power to make things right and thus deserves the glory for doing so. But how do we know that such things belong to God? Precisely because of his judgment of Babylon—the City of Man, the urban incarnation of society organized in opposition to God. So, John reports the crowd singing, “his judgments are true and just, for he has judged the great prostitute [Babylon] who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
God’s judgments are not arbitrary or spiteful, nor the result of some Hatfield-McCoy blood feud. They are true and just. In other words, when God judges Babylon, it is because that city has truly “corrupted the earth” and so justly deserves punishment.
And this judgment, I hasten to add, is something we ought to celebrate. It is sometimes hard for us, who live privileged American lives, to understand why anyone could celebrate the judgment of someone else for their crimes. It seems so bloodthirsty. But what if you were the person victimized by the crime? What if you were a Jew in Nazi-era Germany or an African American in Jim Crow-era America? Often, it takes the deep suffering of injustice to make us fully understand the exuberant praise that erupts when justice is finally done. If we have not been harmed by the world, as John’s readers had, we may not understand why the judgment of the world’s corruption comes as such good news.
Karl Marx once derided Christianity as “the opiate of the people.” Christianity’s “blessed hope” in the second coming and final judgment served, he thought, to make Christians so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly good in the present-day struggle for justice. Actually, it seems, Christians who long for justice in the future are more likely to long for justice—and work to achieve it now, just as Dr. King did.
God’s universe bends toward justice, and at our present point on the arc, we ought to bend with it.