Toward the end of the book of Revelation, a startling command is given to the people of God following the final judgment of Babylon: “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” (Revelation 18:20) This rejoicing is recorded a few verses later: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants” (Revelation 19:1–2). And again, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Revelation 19:3).
These may be the most offensive words in all of scripture to our culture’s inclusive, pluralistic sensibilities. In this world’s end scenario, humanity is identified as belonging to one of two cities, Babylon or the New Jerusalem. Babylon is sent to an eternal state of fiery judgment and the New Jerusalem rejoices over that judgment. When we plug friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members into the equation, it can become unbearable to imagine.
Such strong teachings challenge us to ask ourselves one of the most fundamental questions about how we view the world: is God at the center or are humans at the center? From our first gasps of air our default answer is that humans are at the center. When my conception of the world begins from this assumption, ideas like divine judgment and eternal destruction reek of narrow, arbitrary, draconian power-trips.
But this is not the story the Bible tells about the world. The same narrative that ends with God’s judgment began with God’s creation of an ordered paradise in which he communed with his image-bearers, Adam and Eve. The God-centeredness of this world was not expressed in harsh, dictatorial tones but in gracious provision and a single law, best expressed in Genesis 2:16–17: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” When Adam and Eve did eat of that forbidden tree, a new path was blazed by which humans pursued the same comforts of Eden without the tedious caveat of living under God’s rule. This path would be explored by the majority of Noah’s generation, the builders of the tower of Babel, and a Pharaoh who would have nothing to do with the God his Hebrew slaves served.
When we arrive at Babylon in Revelation 18, we see the destination of the path Adam and Eve blazed–a society decidedly against God’s rule that makes power, luxury, and sexual expression its end. We also see the story of Cain and Abel writ large. The society that rejects God murders the people that submit to his reign (“in [Babylon] was found the blood of prophets and of saints” [Revelation 18:24]). All of this dissonance begs the question: is God at the center? Will those who reject his rule truly die? Will those who trust in him be vindicated?
In light of this backstory, the saints’ rejoicing in Revelation 19:1-3 has a different tone. It is not a childish taunt of the defeated rival but a celebration of God’s truthfulness and centrality. The recounting of Babylon’s defeat is not the centerpiece of the song but the grounds for exulting in God. “Hallelujah [Praise Yahweh]! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just” (Revelation 19:1–2). God who created, God who generously provided, God who communed with his people, God who gave a good law and a clear consequence, this God remains glorious and faithful despite all who would depart from his authority.
As we find ourselves challenged by teachings about God’s final judgment, we must return to his story to get our bearings. There we are reminded that God is at the center of all things–not only creation but the redemption of the fallen creation. God in skin, Jesus of Nazareth, bore an eternity’s worth of judgment at the cross so that citizens of Babylon might become citizens of the New Jerusalem through trusting in him. This is our story of mercy, and it is our proclamation to the citizens of Babylon around us. May the centrality of God as our Creator, Redeemer, and Judge propel us to faithfully share this good news until that final day.