The Problem of Evil

Original Date: 
Sunday, May 31, 2015
Series: 

Revelation 6-7 Jesus Wins: The Problem of Evil

What’s Going On?
There is a question that looms over all of Revelation: Why is there so much evil in the world?

Last week, we witnessed the concert of the ages taking place in heaven as Jesus’ great victory is celebrated by every segment of creation. We were reminded of the victory of the cross, as Jesus became a slain lamb in order to be a triumphant lion. But if Jesus has won, why doesn’t it look like it?

For John and his first readers, we know this question was huge. Eugene Peterson writes:

The puzzling ascendancy of evil must have occupied many Christian minds at the time of St. John’s exile. If the kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Christ, why are Roman armies so much in evidence? The gospel declared God’s love for the world; Roman decrees put the people who believed it in prisons and on crosses. Christ lived, suffered, died, and rose again—and the world was getting worse, not better. (p. 72)

2000 years later, Christians face the same dilemma. If God is on the throne, why does the world look so godless? If Christ has won, why does it seem like the church is losing influence instead of gaining it? If the end is already determined, why does it feel like it’s so out of control?

In Revelation 6 and 7, the seals on the scroll from chapter 5 are going to be broken. Last week, we said that this scroll, which sits in God’s strong right hand, contains God’s purposes for the world. This scroll, which only Jesus—the lion/lamb—is worthy to open, is the enactment of God’s judgments on sin and blessings for the faithful. And as the seals are broken, we’re going to get insight into this whole matter of evil.

Chapters 6 and 7 Belong Together
Before we begin, I need to say that chapters 6 and 7 belong together. I believe that in order to get the impact of what God is saying to us here, we need to consider these chapters as a unit. We’ll see, when we get to the end of chapter 6, how closely they are tied together.

And this brings up one of the real challenges when it comes to interpreting Revelation: the challenge of chronology. Our tendency is to want to read Revelation as though it presents events in chronological order: this happens, then this will happen, then this will happen, and Christ will come again. As I’ve said before, sometimes we think of Revelation like an almanac, laying out a sequence of events that the future will definitely follow.

But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Instead, I think it is better to think of Revelation as a collection of visions, shot from different camera angles, often of the same event. In fact, some scholars suggest that Christ’s return is pictured as many as 7 different times in Revelation, including at the end of chapter 6 (Vern Poythress, The Returning King, p. 117).

In the case of chapters 6 and 7, I believe it is best to view them sort of like a split-screen television. Chapter 6 focuses on the opening of the first 6 seals of the seven-sealed scroll, and the emphasis is on judgment. Chapter 7, rather than depicting events that follow after the opening of the seals, presents a different perspective of the same period of time. In chapter 7, the focus is on God’s people and their protection and even victory in the midst of judgment.

So we’ll consider the chapters together, first chapter 6 and the picture of judgment, then chapter 7 and the picture of protection. Both things happening side-by-side. And the main thing we’ll learn is: Even as evil and judgment rage all around us, those who belong to Jesus are promised a place with Him in glory. “We are protected from the God-separating effects of evil even as experience the suffering caused by evil.” (Peterson, p. 83)

So let’s see if we can make some sense of the text. And I’ll encourage you to buckle-up, because this is a wild ride.

Chapter 6
We’re going to start with chapter 6. The heading I’ve given for chapter 6 is this: The inhabitants of the earth suffer the natural consequences of evil under the sovereign supervision of Christ. If you’re taking notes, that’s what you can write down for chapter 6: The inhabitants of the earth suffer the natural consequences of evil under the sovereign supervision of Christ. Or, if you prefer: God’s judgment of the Earth.

Chapter 6 begins with the opening of the first 4 seals, the famed “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Verses 1-2:

1I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" 2I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

The Rider on the White Horse represents military conquest. In the ancient world, conquering generals would ride white horses in their victory parades. This is a reminder that war is a fact of life in this world. Whether it was Julius Caesar marching out to subdue the tribes of Europe, or those same tribes later coming to conquer Rome; or more recently Napoleon invading Russia or Hitler’s blitzkrieg of Poland or even the United States’ invasion of Iraq, wars of conquest plague the earth. Verses 3-4:

3When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" 4Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

The Rider on the Red Horse represents violence. This rider carries a large sword and makes men slay each other. He takes peace from the earth. This too, is warfare, but it is warfare at a different level. If the first horseman represents an army coming in from without, bent on conquering; this horseman seems to represent what happens when civil restraints are removed and anarchy takes over. The genocide in Rwanda in the ‘90s would seem to fit this category, as would the current situation in Syria and Iraq where ISIS is wreaking havoc. This often happens in the power vacuum of war, and if you look through history you’ll see example after example of it. Verses 5-6:

5When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. 6Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"

The Rider on the Black Horse continues the progression. This is famine, which often follows war. A quart of wheat represented one day’s ration, and it can only be had for one day’s wages. Scholars say that represents inflation of about 800 percent (Johnson, p. 121). A man has to work all day just to feed himself, and he’d have nothing left for his family. Again, think of the terrible inflation that hit Europe after WWI; or consider the famine conditions that exist in Africa today because of ongoing warfare in the Sudan and Somalia and so on. Verse 7-8:
7When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" 8I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
The Riders on the Pale Horse then (and there are two, they are death and Hades) complete the progression. They portray the grisly effects of the previous three: “They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” Warfare leads to civil disorder. Civil disorder leads to famine and plague. And eventually, civilization recedes and nature takes back over.

Now, before we move on to the fifth seal, allow me to make a few comments.

For one thing, remember what I said the first week about Revelation being first and foremost a book for the time in which it was written as well as a book that portrays patterns throughout history. First century readers would have been intimately aware of the things represented by these horsemen. They knew the devastating effects of warfare. They knew about out-of-control inflation and rampant disease. And likewise, you can see these patterns repeated throughout history. Like I said, WWII, tribal Africa, even what is currently happening in the Middle East all give examples of these Four Horsemen at work in the world.

Also, I want you to notice that what is symbolized here is the natural consequence of evil in our world. These are things that sinful men do to one another. Whatever your politics, you have to admit that war and its results are the product of man’s inhumanity to man.

But, even as we say that, notice who is in charge here. It is the Lamb who opens these seals. These Horsemen do nothing without divine permission.

Notice the word “given.” The first rider is “given a crown” (v. 2); the second is “given power to take peace from the earth” (v. 4); the fourth are “given power over a fourth of the earth to kill” (v. 8).

As terrible as it is, and as much as this evil originates from within sinful humanity, there is still a sense in which it is being used by Christ to accomplish His purposes. Through His sovereignty over all things, from rulers to bacteria, Christ is sending all sorts of providential judgments on the world.

This is a theme throughout Scripture. Evil is kept on a leash by God. In the book of Job, Satan is not able to test Job without first obtaining divine permission (Job 1:6-12). In the book of Luke, Satan needs to gain divine consent to sift Simon Peter as wheat (Luke 22:31). There is evil at work in the world, but somehow in the mystery of divine sovereignty, it is used by God to accomplish His purposes.

This becomes clearer as the fifth seal is opened. Verses 9-11:

9When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" 11Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

This is a scene change. Again, the idea is not that these seals represent events which must follow one after another in precise chronological order, so much as different perspectives on what God wants to teach us. And the perspective here is that of martyrs in heaven—those who have died maintaining their faith in Jesus—wondering how long it will be until God brings justice to the earth.

This is one of the rare occasions that the Bible tells us what is going on with people who have died in between this life and the establishment of the New Heaven and New Earth. And it indicates that they have at least some awareness of what is going on here on earth. And their question is similar to the one we began the sermon with: “How long will evil continue on the earth?” They are aware of the evil represented in these Four Horsemen, they see the death and destruction, and they are longing for God to bring it to an end.

Jesus actually answers the “when” question, but in a way that will frustrate anyone trying to set a specific date. Jesus says that the end will come when the last of the martyrs lays down his or her life. Obviously, only God knows how many martyrs there will be.

Seal number six, though, does jump ahead to the final judgment. Verses 12-17:

12I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

15Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?"

This is a picture of what happens when God draws near. The “day of wrath” is written about repeatedly in the prophets and we’ll get additional pictures of it throughout Revelation. The language here is a mingling of poetic expression and real natural disasters. Stars, for example, cannot literally fall to the earth. The net effect, though, is to stress that when God acts in judgment—that is, when His day of “wrath” comes—it is terrible and terrifying. All classes of people—from kings and generals to average citizens and slaves-- will cry out in terror, preferring to be crushed by the mountains to facing the wrath of God.

While this is a picture of what will happen at the end, it’s worth noting that episodes like this happen again and again in history. Think of Mt. Vesuvius erupting and burying the Italian town of Pompeii right around the time Revelation was written. Or think of the Christmas Tsunami of a couple of years ago. Events like that prefigure the final cataclysm of the end of the world, but we see it happen over and over.

The point is: God is active in judging the world. Even the events that appear so evil and dreadful to us, are in some strange and fascinating way instruments in the hand of God reminding us that His justice is real; that we cannot defy Him forever. The inhabitants of the earth suffer the natural consequences of evil under the sovereign supervision of Christ. That’s what chapter 6 is all about.

Chapter 7
Chapter 6 ends with a desperate question: “Who can stand?” The evil depicted in the Four Horsemen and the destruction of the great and terrible day of wrath are frightening. It’s meant to be so. Revelation 6 has been used to terrify people for centuries. And it seems pretty hopeless. Who can stand in the face of such evil? Who can stand when God’s judgment is poured out? You suspect the answer is: no one.

But chapter 7 provides an answer. Chapter 7 provides hope.

Like I said earlier, chapter 7 is best read as a split-screen with chapter 6. And while chapter 6 portrays the natural consequences of evil and God’s sovereign judgment of it, chapter 7 gives us a glimpse of what happens to those who belong to Him. My heading for chapter 7, if you are taking notes, is: the people of God are protected and in the very presence of God Himself. Or, more simply, God’s protection of His People.

Verses 1-3:

1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3"Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God."

Four angels stand at the four points of the compass holding back the destructive winds that have the power to harm the land and sea. I take this wind to be a sort of stand-in for all the cataclysms described in chapter 6 as part of God’s wrath. What this means, then, is that God’s judgment on the earth is not yet as bad as it could be. It’s being restrained until God’s servants are sealed.

The seal here is the name of Christ and of God. We know that from Revelation 14:1, when this group of people reappears as the company of victors with Christ on Mount Zion. So God is marking out His people by writing His name upon them.

Later in Revelation, in chapter 13, we’re going to see a satanic counterfeit of God’s seal when those who worship the beast receive his mark on their right hands or foreheads. That’s the infamous “mark of the beast”, or “666”, that we’ll learn more about in a few weeks. God’s “seal” implies a protective authority that the beast’s “mark” cannot provide.

This doesn’t mean that those sealed by God will be spared physical suffering. Rather, what is symbolized is God’s protection for His followers from being deceived by the Serpent and the beasts, and protection from God’s ultimate judgment.

Who can withstand the day of the Lamb’s wrath? Only those “branded”—as it were—with the Lamb’s seal of ownership. Don’t expect a visible mark on believer’s foreheads, this is symbolic after all, but this is all who confess the name of Jesus (i.e. Rom. 10:13)

Verse 4, then, gives the number of those sealed:

4Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

It goes on to name 12 tribes and count 12,000 from each.

This is one of the more controversial things in Revelation. Because the text says that these 144,000 come from all the tribes of Israel, some believe that these are literal physical descendants of Abraham who are going to come to believe in Jesus at some point before His second coming. This is the view promoted in the theology of the Left Behind books. According to this view of the end times, all Christians are going to be suddenly “raptured” off the earth and into heaven. There will then be a period of 7 years, known as the “tribulation”, in which the events of chapter 6 will be fulfilled and during which many Jews—who have been “left behind”—will come to believe in Jesus.

Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to explain this view more fully to you later. But for now, it is enough to say that it is not required by the text. I don’t think that this passage intends for us to look for 144,000 Jewish Christians won to Christ in the final days. Rather, I think this is a symbol for all believers in Jesus Christ, the new Israel.

I say that for a couple of reasons:

One is because, the number 144,000 is obviously symbolic. The number 12 is important in the Bible—12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles—and so 12 times 12 is a way of expressing the completeness, or fullness, of God’s people. The addition of thousands makes the number even more complete.

Also, as I’ve already said, this group of 144,000 show up again in chapter 14, and there is no indication there that this is an ethnically select group. In fact, in chapter 14 you can really only understand the number as being representative of all of Christ’s people.

And then, most significantly I think, is verse 9:

9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.

In verse 4 John “hears” that the number is 144,000 and then, in verse 9 he looks and sees a group that “no one can count.” I believe this is the same group of people.

How can that be? Well, remember how Revelation likes to mix its metaphors. Last week John heard about the Lion of Judah and then, when he looked, he saw a lamb. We said both were Jesus. He is both the lion and the lamb. Each metaphor said something different, but equally true about Him.

That’s what is happening here. 144,000 from the tribes of Israel represents the perfect number of God’s people, the “true Israelites” who belong to Him. The great multitude, meanwhile, reminds us that God’s people come from every corner of the globe and with every skin color and every ethnicity.

And the point of these two pictures taken together, is that God’s people are protected and triumphant. Even as evil and judgment play out, these are the ones who can stand. So verses 9 through 12 give us another picture of worship around the throne:

They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
"Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb." 11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying:
"Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!"

This is similar to the picture we saw in chapter 5, and it is a reminder of the power and vitality of worship even in the face of evil. Verses 13-14:

13Then one of the elders asked me, "These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?"
14I answered, "Sir, you know."
And he said, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Notice the source of protection. Those who come out of the tribulation are those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Once again Revelation draws us back to the cross. Verse 15:

15Therefore,
"they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.

I love the image of God spreading his tent over his people. Even as judgment rains down on the earth and people beg the rocks and mountains to fall on them, God’s people are sheltered and protected. Now, again, this doesn’t mean Christians will never suffer. We will go through trials and tribulation. Those who stand up to evil often take the biggest brunt of evil. But we are promised we will be spared ultimate judgment. Verses 16 and 17:

16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Here Revelation foreshadows the language of chapters 21 and 22, which describe the New Heavens and the New Earth. Those who shelter under the blood of the lamb are promised a future free of tears along the shores of the river of life.

So, again, chapter 6 and 7 belong together, and we see that even as evil and judgment rage all around us, those who belong to Jesus are promised a place with Him in glory. This is a picture of what happens to those “who live by faith in a world noisy with evil.” (Peterson, 84)

Two Points to Ponder
So, that’s a brief overview of chapters 6 and 7. And, again, there’s a lot there. Let me finish by giving you two points to ponder as you go through this week.

1) First, evil is not explained here, but it is faced head on and put in its place by Christ. Evil is kept on a leash by Jesus.

The question we started with: “Why is there so much evil in the world?” is never fully answered; but the Bible does not gloss over the fact of evil, and it gives us a context in which to deal with it. Despite all appearances, Jesus is still in control. While He permits the natural consequences of evil to play out, He is still mysteriously, sovereignly using it to His purposes. Eugene Peterson writes:

Nowhere in the Bible is there any attempt to answer the question, “Why does a good God permit evil?” Evil is a fact. The Bible spends a good deal of space insisting that certain facts are evil, and not minor blemishes on the surface of existence. But the Bible does not provide an explanation of evil—rather, it defines a context: all evil takes place in an historical arena bounded by Christ and prayer. Evil is not explained but surrounded. The Revelation summarizes the context: admit evil and do not fear it…endure evil, for you are already triumphant over it. (p. 85)

Evil is still a fact, but it is on a leash controlled by Christ. For those who belong to Him, we are not promised release from the effects of evil, but we are promised that we will overcome.

2) Second, one of the things we learn in Revelation is that everybody gets a mark, and everybody faces wrath. This idea of sealing, of the angel going through the earth to mark those who are servants of God, is obviously symbolic, but it is a key theme in Revelation. God’s servants are marked, and they are protected from His wrath. Later, those who belong to the beast must receive his mark, or face his wrath.

So…everybody has a mark, and everybody faces wrath. The question is: whose mark do you want, and whose wrath do you want to face? Clearly, it is better to be on the Lord’s side and to make an enemy of the devil, than to have it the other way around.