Revelation and the Afterlife

By Neil Earle

Greetings again, brethren.

Many have told me how eye-opening this series has been as far as a more holistic look at the marvelous Book of Revelation. And that’s good. Much public preaching today makes a hash of this book because it

  1. Refuses to work with the First Century context and the sufferings of the First Century Church
  2. Sees it as “God is mad at everybody,” which makes it a harum-scarum book in too much public preaching
  3. Turns it into a jig saw puzzle game – “Pin the tale on the Beast” – Who is he?

A writer named E.F. Scott in 1939 put Revelation in sharp perspective. Revelation, he said, is “a trumpet call to faith…written to strengthen the faith and courage of John’s fellow-believers in Christ, to steel them for battle with anti-Christian forces in the world and to help them bear witness [to the death if need be] to the one true Lord and Savior.”

Setting the Scene

When Emperor Domitian proclaimed himself Lord and God about 94-5 AD and the Christians around Ephesus refused him that title, a vicious and savage (though short-lived) persecution broke out. Christians were arrested, imprisoned, beheaded. John was banished to the isle of Patmos, a barren crescent-shaped isle about ten miles by five miles just forty miles west of the coast of Turkey. William Barclay tells us that this form of punishment for political prisoners involved scourging, perpetual fetters, scanty clothing, insufficient food, sleep on the bare ground, hard labor in the rock quarries, malnourishment (Revelation: One, page 41).

There is the historical context – blindingly clear. Yet, the key action of the Vision is not on Patmos but in heaven with the Lamb on the throne, and not Rome either, which figures in as the doomed Beast-city on the seven hills (Revelation 17). Most thoughtful commentators rate Revelation 4 and 5 as the center of the book, the thrilling community scene around the throne in heaven involving “ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands” saints, angels, elders giving Jesus seven-fold praise as the Lamb of God (5:12).

Of course, in the past, we in the WCG have also had our part in misinforming people on this wonderfully sober depiction of the deep, profound love story between Christ and his church, people placed in the path of the storm. Revelation casts a long shadow seemingly reaching down into the early Christian centuries and the grim call to martyrdom, etc. Revelation has a lot of language about death, blood, enduring to the end, the patience of the saints, being led into captivity, killing with the sword, beheading, etc. All this makes the Book much more than a parlor game for prophecy buffs (of which I was one).

So let’s look today at yet another theme in this capstone to the Bible – the teaching on the Afterlife. Keep in mind that Revelation is written in a style that exaggerates, magnifies and goes “technicolor” with some of the doctrinal statements found in Jesus, John and Paul.

“The Patience of the Saints”

This theme is struck early and often. If saints are dying because of Roman violence then the very first designation of Jesus as “He who was alive and is dead and lives forevermore” sets the stage quite effectively (1:18). Jesus is the Pioneer of our salvation. He is with us in suffering. This is essential teaching as the theme of Life after Death continues:

Revelation 2:7 gives to the faithful the right to eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God. This is an echo of Jesus’ words on the cross – “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” a word that has definite other-worldly connotations.

To the fearful congregation huddled in Smyrna Jesus says, “Be faithful to death and I will give you a crown of life” (3:10). “Life” (Zoe in Greek) is another key word in this Book, as it is in John’s Gospel. It refers here to life after death, and what N.T. Wright calls “life after life after death.” That is, the General Resurrection referred to at the end of time, explained below.

Revelation 6:9-11 ups the ante quite a bit. Here the martyred saints from Asia Minor are pictured as waiting in heaven for their white robes. They commune with God – “How long will righteous blood be spilled?” they ask. They are not aware of all that is going on in the earthly realm but are told to wait in patience until God’s purpose in suffering in fulfilled.

Revelation 7 is the spectacular vision of the much-discussed 144,000 thousand which is almost certainly God’s people symbolized to the max – 12 squared, beyond anything ancient Israel’s 12 Tribes could have conceived. The innumerable multitude comes out of great tribulation and seem to signify all those who will suffer martyrdom in the future. John seems a bit puzzled by this large grouping. How could he know that they seem to represent the suffering faithful of the next two centuries and, quite possibly, down through time? The important thought for us here is that these in white robes (7:13) seem to be already enjoying the rewards of those announced at the General Resurrection at the end – they have washed their robes in Christ’s blood, they are constantly in God’s presence, they do not hunger and thirst, they have slipped the surly bands of earth and have the lamb as their shepherd. We know that such visions were full of comfort to the martyrs who died in Lyons in 177 and at Carthage in 202 (see the end).

Many have missed this insight into an existence after death but the great scholar John Calvin did not. In 1534 he wrote, “The Rest which the saints enter into is not yet full and perfect till the glory of God in them is completed at the Judgment. The White Robes in Revelation 6 describe the commencement of their glory. This Rest represents the total assurance of faith and their eternal security...Thus the common death which is the necessity of nature is rather to the Elect a kind of passage to the highest degrees of immortality.” Well said.

Revelation 11 and the famous Two Witnesses passage seems to reinforce the fate of the faithful dead. The witnesses ascend to the throne in heaven. Notice they enter very quickly into God’s presence (11:12). These witnesses appear to be the two great end-time Prophets the Jews were expecting – symbolic Moses and Elijah but given a Christian reinterpretation. Powerful though these figures are, they suffer ultimate defeat and death. Barclay says this confirms the Gospel story: it is in suffering that the church advances, their death brings about conversion and change for some who witness their sacrifice (11:13). Thus we meet the message of the Cross all over again – God’s work is perfected through our weakness not our human strength. The Witnesses gain immediate access to heaven, however, reinforcing Paul’s bold testimony that he would “rather depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

Note Revelation 12:11. Those facing martyrdom are not afraid to die. No wonder, with this eternal hope lying before them. Remember 2 Timothy 1:8 that God through Christ has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to life through the Gospel.” The bloodthirsty masses who saw Christians suffer painful deaths in the next two centuries were sometimes moved to exclaim: “Behold how these Christians die.” St. Perpetua and her slave, St. Felicitas, were two young women in Carthage in 202 AD who were mangled, tossed and trampled by wild bulls. Perpetua apparently insisted on returning to the contest when she had somehow survived the first ravages. This is Hebrews 11:35 being fulfilled. The Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches have carefully preserved the memory of those early martyrs.

Revelation 13, the first Beast chapter, shows that some Christians will die and suffer prison (13:10) but the Lamb will bring about vengeance on their persecutors. Rome did fall after suffering awful earthquakes, fires, floods, armed invasions, as we covered last time. John’s Vision was vindicated.

This leads to another magnificient vision of the Redeemed Church now in the presence of Christ. Note this in Revelation 14:1-5, They are now perfected in His presence (verse 5). The great promise of future hope is reiterated in verses 12 and 13 which is sometimes used to begin funerals even today: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” How can that be? Yet the apostle Paul who had travelled to the heavenly places in vision wrote that to live for Christ and to die was great gain (Philippians 1:21). Death is gain for Christians. How can this be? Remember, heaven is the Rest of the saved. It is not the full final reward, not the completion of our salvation, that happens at the Resurrection of the Just when God miraculously unites our spirit and our body in a new glorified spirit body. Paul wrote that we eagerly await Christ from heaven “who will transform our lowly bodies that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”

John Calvin felt that this heavenly rest fulfilled the later-mentioned First Resurrection, a resurrection to Paradise, to a spirit-based existence in God’s presence that is but the beginning of our ultimate glorification. The spirit and the body are united at Christ’s return, taught Calvin, when the Lord will bring His saints with him (1 Thessalonians 4:14) i.e those now “asleep” relative to their physical bodies. This is a great mystery but not outside God’s capacities (!?!). God is committed to the resurrection of the whole person in a glorified state. Thus 1 John 3:2, “we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him.”

Some call this the Good, Better, Best principle. Good to be in Christ right now. Better to be with Christ after death. Best of all to be like him in His glorified state.

Even in the midst of the horrific plagues poured out on the Roman Empire – many which historians duly recorded from about 185 to 474 AD – God has a word for his people to stand firm. This is the third of the seven Beatitudes in Revelation found in Revelation 16:15. God’s eye is on his people even in the midst of this turmoil.

Revelation 17:6 graphically reiterates the theme of martyrdom and why God will punish this persecuting Beast system – but it’s a warning to oppressors Present and Future from the Past. God is consistent though the characters and circumstances change.

Revelation 18:4 is yet another call to repentance. God continues to offer salvation through this time of empires declining and falling. His saints are not forgotten (18:24).

Revelation 19:7-9 is the Fourth Beatitude or Blessing in this book. Christians are both the Bride and the Guests – a facet of the “beyond logic” visionary style of the Apocalypse. Once again, we note how much this Book is written as a comfort and remembrance for God’s people.

This brings us to Revelation 20 and some important teaching on the Afterlife. Many have interpreted the five references to 1000 Years in this passage as necessitating a Millennial Reign for Jesus Christ on this earth. This is a quite respectable belief except it has never been a majority view in Christianity. First, the promise is to “those beheaded for the witness of Jesus,” which seems a direct First Century and afterword reference to the faithful refusers of Emperor Worship. “They did not worship the Beast.” Secondly, the word or the phrase 1000 years nowhere else occurs in Scripture except in 2 Peter 3:8 where it is clearly a poetic reference to God’s majesty – actually, a million years is like a day to God. The word 1000 is used in the Bible to indicate a large but indefinite number – “I will show mercy on thousands of those who love me,” “the cattle on a thousand hills are mine.” Thirdly, John Calvin may have had a better explanation of the First Resurrection i.e. the saints who have deceased are in the presence of the Lord for an indefinite time. Paul said, those absent from the body are present with the Lord.

The majority Christian view since Augustine is that the 1000 years represents the Church period when the Devil is not able to stop (though he can hinder) the spreading of the Gospel. Indeed, the references to the saints ruling and reigning if not fulfilled in heaven (2:26;3:21) could well have been seen by Christians in the early 300s as a real possibility when Emperor Constantine (306-337) publically sided with Christians, stopped the persecutions, reformed slavery, convened the Council of Nicea and generally hastened the process when the Church exercised power and influence over the nations.

Some don’t like this interpretation for the way the Church eventually became corrupted but – as history shows – the potential for reform was always there. A-Millennialists (A = Without) argue that once this long indefinite Church period is over, Christ will return with his saints, initiate the Resurrection of the Just and the Last Judgment and then usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth. This seems to be the sense of John 5:28-30 and Matthew 25, last part.

The best we can say now is that “time will tell.” One thing everyone seems to agree on is the New Heavens and New Earth (see – even heaven needs renovation) where the vast majority of human beings will enjoy the blessings extended to the faithful dead in Revelation 7 – the fullness of God’s presence, living springs of water, life forever more.

Whew, that was quite a lot to cover, but lots of food for thought. See you next time.