The Destroying Angel: Grim Reaper or Divine Manifestation? – Part 2
As I look at our world—the unsettled state of society, the alarms of war, and the fear of ecological crisis—I see plagues upon the earth in the form of disease, drought, earthquake, wildfire, flooding, and extreme weather that sometimes make things unbearable and drive revolutions and conflict. Following the logic of the Exodus story, today’s selfish domination may make the world seem meaningless and cruel. Are today’s plagues self-inflicted, or should we conclude that God is terribly angry with us or perhaps even coldly absent from our world? It takes faith to see the deeper meaning behind the tragedies that plague us. We often do not know why plagues fall, and life can be confusing without a voice from heaven to reveal the answers or angels from heaven to assist us. This is why I am intrigued by the seven bowl plagues held by the heavenly angels in the final end (Revelation 15:6). These plagues are said to be the last to fall.
John’s descriptions in the Book of Revelation are the fruition of the many Old Testament allusions and help us understand human reality. Comparing the Exodus tradition and the ten plagues of Egypt with Revelation’s seven bowl plagues, we see that while the first three plagues of Egypt were experienced by both the Israelites and Egyptians, the Israelites merely watched the Egyptians experience the final seven, just as the faithful do with Revelation’s bowl plagues (Exodus 8:22). Read in this way, the final seven plagues not only play a role of deliverance like the plagues of Egypt but also reflect God’s judgment against oppression and cruelty. The actions God takes to pass judgment are called plagues of wrath—or the seven last plagues of His disappointment—and have some very serious consequences. A loving God delivers His faithful ones from their oppressors, but it is most important to ask who caused these terrible plagues.
Is God seeking vengeance against mankind? Is the world to be judged and punished by the most awful scourges? Will God actually inflict horrible sores and scorch people’s skin with intense heat? We must recognize the final seven plagues for what they are: gruesome violence. Why would I worship a God who inflicts such suffering and torment? We find this thinking about plagues in the arguments of Job’s friends, but the God revealed in Christ said that He does not come to steal, kill, or destroy but to bring life. He does not bring horrible sores and death but comes to heal and to defeat death itself (John 10:10). So, is it really God who inflicts the seven plagues? The Book of Revelation names the agent “the Destroyer” (Revelation 9:11). Though God has restrained Satan and his evil demonic forces, they are now released to reveal their destructive character. As in the Exodus story, we see sores, water turning to blood, darkness, frogs, and hail.
While there are many similarities between the bowl plagues and the plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, there are also stark differences. The bowl plagues are not only much more severe than the plagues of Egypt but their “sequence is not the same, and the cosmic ramifications in Revelation are of a different order” (Sigve Tonstad, Revelation, 2019, p. 224). In Exodus, the plagues were authored by God to expose the false gods of Egypt. In Revelation, the plagues not only expose Satan’s activity but are clues for identifying their cause. While God is presented as the author of the plagues in Egypt, who brings the power of heaven into the created order, the plagues do not provide overt clues that they are inflicted by God in Revelation. John used the language of the plagues within his own context. As Sigve Tonstad notes, “Revelation controls the story line, not Exodus” (Revelation, 2019, p. 227). This reframes the plagues in Egypt; considering them direct retributive action by God is incorrect. The plagues in Egypt were educational, for many Egyptians heeded the warnings and were saved. These plagues prompted them to consider their values and acknowledge the Creator, but this is not so with the final plagues.
The plagues of Egypt should be understood as actual plagues that highlight the supernatural scale of God’s signs and wonders. Egypt’s plague of frogs involved actual frogs coming from the Nile, while the frogs in Revelation’s bowl plagues are not described as natural but “demonic spirits” working miracles and wonders to deceive the whole world for a final battle against God. Sigve Tonstad points to Revelation 16:13–14 as evidence that the bowls describe demonic horror and not divine terror. In plain language, we are told that these signs and wonders are not performed by God but by the demonic forces that are gathering the world to battle God. John expects us to remember the demonic serpent or dragon that lies behind those who collude with evil (Revelation 12:15–16). By unmasking satanic activity, God is clearly demonstrating what the world will be like if fully under Satan’s control.
The answer is made clear and unambiguous. With the curtain pulled back, we see the plagues as demonic reality. God has let go of restraint, allowing the seven angels dressed as priests to pour out the awful plagues on the earth (Revelation 16). At first glance, it may seem that the angels are inflicting these plagues, but on closer investigation, it is clear that they are not the direct activity of God.
Each of the bowl plagues results from activity that originates in the heavenly sanctuary. The sacred tent’s veil opens to reveal the place where God rules, the place of His presence, where the Lamb stands and does what is right (Revelation 5:6). Jesus pulls back the curtain on our world, allowing us to see what is happening and what happens when the world rejects God’s peace and love. The apparent randomness, brokenness, and confusion of human experience and the presence of evil in our world leave us baffled. Knowing happens only via divine revelation. The seven priestly angels that emerge from beyond the veil press against the confusion of human reality. How can we conceive these plagues as instruments of a compassionate God? What is the purpose of pouring seven horrible plagues if no one will repent or change their mind?
The seven bowls do not contain arbitrary punishments against those who war against the power and presence of the Holy of Holies but the justice of love. If we think that they are about spilling the blood of God’s enemies, we have completely missed the point. Philippians 2:6–8 presents the ultimate example of the offering God pours out, describing Him as “emptying Himself” on our behalf. Though He pours Himself out for everyone, those who worship the beast reject this offering and thus separate themselves from all actions taken by God on their behalf. They show that they do not honor or acknowledge God and continue to oppose Him (Romans 1:21-28). When these actions defy His protection, He has no other choice but to release that protection and “pour out their own wickedness on them” (Jeremiah 14:16). The wrath of God in the final seven plagues is revealed in the same act that revealed His love. The sacrifice on the cross exposed both the love of God and the violence of the world.
As I see it, the contents of the golden bowls are not inflicted upon the world by a vengeful or arbitrary God but poured out as an expression of His suffering. God destroys by revealing His love, as those who reject that love and peace destroy themselves. As the angels pour out their evil, each bowl brings such people the consequences of their own actions—the terrible consequences when God allows people to reap what they have sown. Each bowl exposes evil by revealing actions—by powerfully unmasking the deception and evil in our world. When humanity turns on itself as God eventually comes to rescue His people in the climax of the plagues, God will let evil reap its consequences. This may not be a popular view of the final seven plagues, but it is consistent with the view of God revealed to us by Jesus. Jesus never poured out horrible plagues on men, women, or children. Instead of inflicting cruel and violent acts, God judges through co-suffering love, truth, and freedom.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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