Hell in Heaven?

Those of us who live by faith, though we may not see what God is doing in a predicament, trust that He is acting for our benefit; however that may look. Those who walk by sight are destined to see only what’s before their eyes, which can lead to panic, despondency, and even hopelessness. For the Asian Christians, they were striving to live by faith, but the sight of their reality was so grim that they couldn’t help but see what’s before them. Luckily for them, John can see beyond the physical into the heavens and reveal what it was precisely that he beheld. When we are so overtaken by sight, it always helps for someone of greater faith to come along and to aid us in better viewing the matter as Jesus would have us.

One of my favorite Bible stories occurs along this line. Elisha, the prophet, was at the helm of the prophetic ministry of Israel. One early morning, his servant arose to see that the Syrian army had surrounded the city where they were, and he lamented the sight of what he saw. Elisha, however, was not phased. Instead, he told his servant that they had more on their side than the Syrians had. The servant was puzzled by this because he could only see by sight, so Elisha prayed that God would “open his eyes” to see what was occurring in the heavenly places. God did so, and here’s what we read, “And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). There it is: seeing by faith.

What John Now Sees 

 The trumpets of judgment have finished, and we’ve been shown an interlude of the past. John showed us the nativity of our Savior, and even the fall of Satan from heaven after the resurrection and kingdom of our Lord came. However, because the enemy has been cast to the earth, he has sought to devour the faithful. How he was doing this now was through two beasts: the first beast, the Roman Empire, the second beast, enforced image worshiping. If one were a faithful image worshipper, they received the seal or appropriate documents to transact business—known as the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:16–18). For a Christian to bear the mark of the beast entailed that they do not carry the mark of the Lamb, what John turns to next.

After seeing those who worship the second beast, John looks and sees the 144,000 with the Lamb as if a conquering army. They have overcome, but how? By martyrdom (Rev. 15:2). In American Christianity, we would seldom think of sacrifice as an “overcoming” or “victory” (nike), but that’s how it’s portrayed here. John’s Revelation even receives and gives a blessing for those who have died in the Lord (Rev. 14:13). Our view of death is often as one of defeat and loss. This isn’t at all to minimize the heartache that it causes to we who remain on the earth, but we’d do well to see death as the Lord has now defined it—victory. This Greek term is the one that birthed the popular Nike shoe. The word means “victory” and is taken from the goddess of victory who shares that name.

 If the majority opinion is correct that this letter was composed in the 90s CE, then by the time of the reading of the very first verse of this chapter, a chord would have been struck. The Lamb stands on Mount Zion with the 144,000, but if this dating is accurate, Jerusalem has once again been destroyed by Roman armies, and the temple is no more. Here, however, is not so much the physical location as it is the heavenly (cf. Heb. 12:22). Thus, we see here the city of God where victory is and the city of man where troubles await—Babylon, as John sees it (Rev. 14:8; cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Just as Babylon of old destroyed Jerusalem, so the modern one did the same. Notice, however, the 144,000: they are redeemed (Rev. 14:3–4). Some translations may here say that they were “purchased,” which is an equally appropriate translation. Those who could not buy nor sell (Rev. 13:17) are themselves purchased by the Lamb. What a lovely thought!

The Message of the Angel 

This is the first time John had seen an angel since 11:15 with the fifth trumpet. He sees the angel flying in heaven, having the everlasting good news to preach to those on the earth. It isn’t that the angel itself is preaching the gospel per se, but that by its flying amid heaven, the message is being proclaimed through the martyrs.[1] Contrary to worldly thinking, the word of the cross thrives in times of intense turbulence. The persecution of Christians led to them scattering to Samaria, where disciples were made (Acts 8:1), and Paul’s imprisonment resulted in the conversion of the jailer charged with keeping him and Silas (Acts 16:25–34), to name a couple of occasions. The message is also universal, and anyone who tries to tie the good news to any particular race misses its essence. It’s global, but it also carries with it judgment.

Not only is this everlasting gospel proclaimed, but what follows it is also of consolation to the faithful. A second angel announces the fall of Babylon, by which is meant Rome (Rev. 14:8).[2] What’s unclear is if John sees the fall of the Roman Empire or if he had something else in mind, because the Roman Empire wouldn’t officially fall until the late fifth century CE. Does John have in mind the city herself? Whatever is in mind, the point is that on the heels of the good news of the kingdom of God, any opposing force is sure to fall as so noted by the twice, emphatic proclamation of “fallen.” The kingdom of God and her King, Christ, provide peace and justice, whereas Babylon has made the nation’s drink of sinfulness.

A third angel follows with the warning against those who worship the beast, his image, and who receives their mark. Such people will drink of the wrath of God, which is a warning to Christians teetering on the edge of deciding either to engage in commerce or to remain faithful to God and suffer from a measure of want—to recant Christ under penalty of death or to remain steadfast and suffer martyrdom (Rev. 14:9–10). Notice, though, that these “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” Sounds like hell, doesn’t it. We often think of hell as down there while heaven is up there, but Scripture discloses that “a fiery stream issued … from before Him” (Dan. 7:10). Wait a minute! Preachers have often spoken about hell as away from the presence of the Lord (cf. 2 Thess. 1:9). The understanding may be that they won’t experience his glory as of the faithful, because they responded to His love with rejection rather than with love. This is a message for the church and shouldn’t be misunderstood as God saying, “Look what I’ll do to those who injure you.” Instead, God is saying, “Look what awaits you if you reject me and apostatize.” Ergo, this is the patience of the saints (Rev. 14:12), and they are blessed to die in the Lord (Rev. 14:13).

Two more angels appear one to call for reaping the harvest, and the second to secure the grapes of the wrath of God. These are preludes to the bowl judgments. The faithful who’ve overcome are seen as triumphant, singing a new song. As they praise the God of heaven for His grace and their original state, angels step forth with the bowls of God’s wrath, poised to pour them upon the earth in the judgment of the righteous Creator of heaven and earth for what those on the planet have done: worshipped imperial power at the sake of the true and living God.

Hell in Heaven? 

As previously mentioned, the fiery stream that issues from God’s throne, as depicted in Daniel, may give pause to the Christian today who is unaccustomed to thinking that hell is in God’s presence. How can it be that such a horrific place can be in the presence of a loving God? This is a reasonable question. It all depends on your theology as to how you’d want to view the matter. I’m more inclined to Eastern Orthodoxy because of its antiquity versus Western American Christianity that has primarily been influenced by the Reformation and, especially, John Calvin. Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is a must-read for Christians. I would say behind Scripture, this novel should rank near a must-read. Therein, we’re introduced to an aged, saintly man in a monastery named Elder Zosima. When he defines “hell,” he says, “[It’s] the suffering of being no longer able to love.”[3] I do not so much view hell as God’s hatred of sinners as John Calvin did, but I view hell as a wrong response to the love of God.

God loves humanity, His creation. He has demonstrated the length and breadth of His love by sending His precious Son to die for us while yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). He doesn’t hate us, and He’s not like the Greco-Roman pantheon who uses humans as their playthings. Nor is he like an evil little child holding a magnifying glass upon ants while the sun erupts them into the fire. God’s disposition towards sinners and saints alike is love, and if we respond to God’s love with rejection, we will experience His love as torment. This is why hell, I believe, is depicted as agony, suffering, and pain. Imagine a rebellious little boy who’s dearly loved by his mother. The mother wants to hug him, but he rejects her hugs. She wants to give him a kiss on his cheek, but he dodges her. All she has to offer to him is her love. She’ll make him his favorite meal, but he isn’t thankful. She’ll dote on him, but he sneers. To him, her love is embarrassing, inconvenient, and overbearing. All she wants to do is love her son. His brother, however, is grateful for the meals, hugs her in return, and receives her kisses with a warmth that makes him feel special. Why is it that one son receives love with love while the other refuses to accept love and rejects it? No one knows.

People choose to receive God’s love with warmth and return that love to Him in faith. We, by faith, are overwhelmed by such a radical love that we do something that others don’t appreciate or understand. We trust God because His love is so powerful. We declare our love by confession. We return our love by repentance. We reciprocate our love in baptism. However, we should never become wary of God’s love, even when things get hard. We should, instead, be even bolder to say to the world that we would never abandon our love because He has so loved us. This is heaven: enjoying and basking in the love of God. Hell is finding His love to be inconvenient, overbearing, and so we reject His love and find it a torment. The prodigal son departed from the father and went into the land of sin, where he found misery. He chose hell in a manner of speaking. The father didn’t kick him out, and he didn’t drive him out. The son chose. We, too, must choose.


[1] Keener, Revelation, 372.

[2] Jewish literature demonstrates that they referred to Rome as Babylon (Sib. Or. 5.143, 159–61; 4 Ezra 3:1–2, 28; 2 Bar. 11:1–2.

[3] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (San Fransisco: North Point, 1990), 322.

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