Revelation 16 is a day of atonement text. The tabernacle of the testimony has been opened (15:5). The angels who receive the bowls are clothed in linen (15:6), the clothing of the high priest when he goes into the sanctuary on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:4). The temple is filled with smoke (15:8). On the day of atonement, the high priest filled a pan with coals and incense and placed it in the Most Holy Place to create a smoke screen as he entered into the Lord’s presence (Leviticus 16:12-13). Finally, and most importantly, the angels receive bowls full of wrath-wine, which is also blood. They pour out these seven bowls onto the world (15:7; 16:1-21). On the day of atonement, the priest performed a seven-fold sprinkling of blood before the Lord, three times (Leviticus 16:14, 15, 19).
But this is an unusual atonement. On the day of atonement, the high priest brought blood into the temple of the tabernacle of testimony to cleanse it. Here, seven priestly angels are bringing blood out of the heavenly temple and pouring it on the earth. The effects of this atonement are the reverse of a normal atonement. Yom Kippur was supposed to cleanse impurity and remove pollution, so as to maintain the order of the temple and the world of Israel. This atonement does precisely the opposite. It pollutes the land and calls up an avenger. Instead of removing pollution, this atonement intensifies it. Instead of maintaining the world, this atonement tears the world in pieces.
The first three bowls pollute the world. The first bowl is poured out on the land, which is Israel, and leaves leprous sores on those who worship the image of the beast and receive the mark of the beast. The mark is supposed to protect them and give them access to the commerce of the beast. Instead, it becomes a disease and excludes them from commerce with God. The second bowl is poured out on the sea, the sea of Gentiles, and turns the sea to blood. This is an Egyptian plague. It makes the Gentile sea bloody. In Revelation, springs and rivers are waters in the land, and they are specifically associated with the temple. These are defiled by the third bowl. They are made blood, and that means that the temple, instead of flowing with cleansing, life-giving water, becomes a source of pollution throughout the land.
Once the land, sea, and springs are polluted, the defiled world comes crashing down. The fifth bowl brings darkness, another Egyptian plague. The sixth bowl dries the Euphrates and makes a way for the kings from the sun to cross into the land. On the other side of the river are three unclean spirits like frogs that have come from the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. Once again, uncleanness spreads. The last bowl is poured out on the air. This completes cosmic judgment (land, sea, rivers, sun). Every sector of the creation is affected by the bowls. The whole cosmos comes under judgment.
All the phenomena that were originally associated with the throne come down to earth. Lightning flashes, thunder, sounds are the features of the throne scene in Revelation 4, and we have gradually seen that throne descend. The kingdom of God in heaven descends to earth over the course of the book. This is the “completion” of the bowls and of all the judgments of Revelation. It causes an earthquake like none that has ever happened on the earth. This is the shaking of the earth that brings in God’s kingdom. The city is split in three parts, and her sins are memorialized before God. God is reminded of Jerusalem/Babylon’s sins and reminded to pour out the cup of His wrath. Huge chunks of icy firmament crash to the earth.
Atonement is cleanse, remove impurity, and keep the world together, but this atonement pollutes and rips the world apart. Atonement is supposed to dispose of uncleanness and sin; this intensifies impurity. It is an inverted atonement.
Nice, but so what? What does this have to do with anything?
In Revelation, chapter 16 is near the climax of the story of martyrs. The bowls poured out on the land – the bowls that defile and destroy – are filled with the blood of the martyrs. The Jews who attacked the church thought they were doing God service when they slaughtered Christians. Like Saul of Tarsus, they thought they were acting like Phinehas, purging the impurity from the land. They thought the blood of the Christians was a suitable offering to God, bearing away the sins and uncleanness of the land. They thought they could keep their world together only by shedding the blood of Christians.
But God turns the blood back on them. Their libation is turned upside down, and the blood they shed comes back on them. They fall into the trap they dig; they drink the blood they shed. It is not an acceptable offering, and now all the blood of every martyr from Abel to Zechariah is poured out on the city. The blood does not cleanse, but is poured out to cause impurity. It does not purify the land but instead defiles the land and calls up the avenger of blood.
That is always true. People who hate Christians never think they are doing evil. They are always protecting national, cultural, or religious interests. They are defending their gods. Those who slander Christians today are protecting the American way of freedom, marriage equality, sexual liberty. Christians are a defilement and impurity that must be purged. They think they are doing service, and that their atoning sacrifices will purity their world and keep it intact.
It has never worked, and it never will. They offer the blood of the saints to their gods, but God turns their bowls upside down, and pours the blood of their sacrifices back on them. Instead of purifying and purging, it defiles. Instead of removing the stain of blood, it calls up the avenger who will avenge. Instead of holding the world together, it tears the world apart. And so martyrs come to reign in heaven and earth.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.