When we consider what the Bible clearly shows regarding God’s promised judgment on sin and unrepentant humans, it is easy to see only the darker tones of the prophetic picture. We miss the highlights of goodness, mercy, and compassion that are also there.
In the messages of the Old Testament prophets, for example, we can overlook the loving God behind the looming punishments. Even in Isaiah, one of the most positive and uplifting of the prophetic books, we might not recognize the love in the graphic words of judgment aimed at Israel, Judah, and their surrounding nations. Yet the goodness of God is there.
While Isaiah 13-23 and other chapters consist of dire “burdens,” or pronouncements, on the nations, we should notice the attitude of both the prophet and the God who inspired him. For example, regarding the promised violent destruction of Israel’s enemy, Moab, Isaiah expresses strong emotions: “My heart cries out over Moab” (15:5); “My heart laments for Moab like a harp, my inmost being for Kir Hareseth” (16:11). Here he shows the deep, underlying divine sympathy even for those who must be punished in the extreme.
Righteous and just
But perhaps the clearest place we find God’s attitude toward those who must receive His punishment is in the Bible’s last book. Revelation repeatedly shows God’s judgment against sin and wrongdoing to be both final and fierce. This leads many skeptics to claim that Revelation shows a “harsh” God, as they claim many of the Old Testament prophetic books do. But Revelation shows that this is not the case.
We can find roots of this in the Old Testament, which acknowledges God’s righteousness in judgment, as when Abraham declares “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). The psalmist also declares that “righteousness and justice” are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14).
In the same way, the Greek word for righteousness used throughout Revelation is dikaiosuné, which carries the dual connotation of both righteousness and justice. Revelation asserts that this justice is based on the righteousness of God: “You are just in these judgments, O Holy One . . . Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” (16:5, 7, emphasis added). Justice is also based on the righteousness of Christ: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (19:11, ESV, emphases added).
Revelation shows that despite the patience God displays to the wicked, He will eventually judge and destroy evil. This theme underlies chapters 6-20, the bulk of the book. In two passages within those chapters (14:14-20 and 19:11-16) we are given graphic, symbolic summaries of God’s judgment. This is one of several indications that a number of scenes in Revelation may be parallel views of the same event, rather than sequential events. And it is not coincidental that both passages speak of God’s wrath (14:19; 19:15).
But this wrathful judgment has a purpose. It is loving anger aimed at freeing humanity from sin, rather than vengeful anger intended to simply punish God’s mortal children.
To see this, we must look closely at the imagery used in Revelation. The punishments described in its central chapters culminate in the catastrophic plagues poured out on humanity in chapters 15 and 16. The images used in this climactic part of Revelation closely resemble the plagues God brought on Egypt to enable the Exodus. That is why, as the plagues begin, a heavenly chorus is said to sing “the song of God’s servant Moses and of the Lamb” (15:3).
It is sometimes said that this song reflects God’s law (Moses) and grace (the Lamb), but this misses a point. Moses oversaw and administered the same kind of plagues on Egypt, to release Israel from slavery, that the Lamb will administer on the powers that hold humanity in sin and on those who will not submit to Him. Notice how the song stresses the justness of this punishment:
“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” (Revelation 15:3, 4, emphasis added).
Truly, the final plague-punishments of Revelation conclude in a redemption that is far greater than that of Israel’s release from Egypt. Now, instead of only Israel coming to worship God (Exodus 8:1, etc.), all nations are said to turn to Him — for the specific reason that God’s acts have been revealed and recognized as righteous judgment (Revelation 15:4). These are the very same nations that were said to rage against God in 11:18, but God’s righteous judgment does not destroy them. It frees them from sin and leads to their eventual salvation (12:10).
This point is nowhere more clearly made than in Revelation, but it is not a new theme in the Bible. The psalmist wrote, “Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness” (Psalm 96:13, emphasis added).
God’s judgment and punishment have always been, and always will be, made in righteousness and love.