I remember years ago driving to my hometown of Robertson in the Southern Highlands of NSW, Australia. It was a wet, foggy evening, and as I was nearing the crest of a hill on the outskirts of the village, I noticed a small, grey form rapidly approaching. Out of nowhere, a voice told me: “Veer to the right, now!” Startled, I did as I was told, and as I swerved at 80km/hour, I looked to the left to see an enormous wombat crossing the road where my car would have been.
If you’ve never encountered one before, let me explain. A wombat is a marsupial native to eastern Australia that is small, pudgy and can grow up to almost 40kg. They’re often referred to as “furry rocks”, as their weight and low centre of gravity make them remarkably deadly to speeding motorists. If you hit one side-on, you’ll risk flipping your car. Hitting it head-on will risk you severely damaging your undercarriage. Either way, the wombat probably wouldn’t be that pleased.
I was shaken at this near miss, as was my girlfriend in the passenger’s seat. When I asked her if she had told me to veer right, she replied that she hadn’t. It was like a higher power had given me a wake-up call just at the right time. We all need a wake-up call from time to time. I like to think I’m smart enough to deal with life on my own, but really, I don’t have all the answers. Like that night in Robertson, sometimes I need a wake-up call.
Perhaps one of the most significant wake-up calls in the Bible is a scene in the book of Revelation involving the worship of a hideous beast, an ancient empire and three mysterious angels. You can read the entire passage in Revelation 14:6–12, but for now we’ll focus on a few key moments.
To fear or not to fear? (Revelation 14:6, 7)
The first angel’s message is not for any one group of people or nations: this everlasting Gospel (“Good News”) has always been for everyone, and at the final moment of earth’s history, it remains an inclusive invitation. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has rescued humanity from the power of sin and is reaching out to all people to find ultimate restoration in Him. The message is simple: because of what Jesus has done, we are all invited to fear God!
That seems contradictory. I don’t know about you, but there are a few things I’m afraid of. Heights, snakes and small, dark spaces feature on the list. But God? Certainly, many of us grew up with the image of a lightning-throwing, angry deity. But if we’re being honest, that image describes Zeus much more than it does the God of the Bible. Luckily, the Greek language helps us out here.
The word phobeomai means “to reverence”. John is drawing from a well-known Old Testament idea: fearing God means taking Him seriously as the Creator of all things, putting our trust in Him and worshipping Him. To fear God is not to be afraid of Him. Rather, to do so is to fully surrender to Him as our Creator.
End of an empire (Revelation 14:8)
Babylon is another recurring theme in the Bible. Once an ancient empire, it eventually became in the biblical imagination a symbol for any power structure that represents authoritarianism, violence and greed. Here, the second angel’s message is of celebration: Babylon is fallen!
For all its opulence, power and terror, it has been revealed for what it truly is: a hollow pretender. Selfishness will never truly triumph over selflessness. The threat of violence can never win over the transformative power of love and any system that perpetuates the ideals of Babylon will in the end collapse under the weight of its own corruption.
Eternal consequences (Revelation 14:9–11)
The third angel’s message continues the theme of the first and second. It’s a call to worship, as well as a reminder of the consequences for those who perpetuate the corrupting evil of Babylon. If we persist in giving ourselves over to selfishness, violence and greed, we will eventually bring about our own undoing.
It’s at this point we should address a misconception in the text. The last portion seems to suggest that those who worship the beast will be burned in hell forever:
“They will be tormented with fire and burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever. They will have no relief day or night, for they have worshipped the beast and his statue and have accepted the mark of his name” (Revelation 14:10, 11).
A surface-level reading would seem to support the popular idea of an everlasting hell where sinners are tormented endlessly, unable to die. The problem is this picture doesn’t harmonise with the rest of Scripture.
The language of “fire and sulphur” echoes the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These were two ancient Middle Eastern cities who were destroyed by God because of their evil. Just like the smoke that rose from the two cities (Genesis 19:28), the smoke that rises from the remains of Babylon represents the finality of its judgement.
In the same way, Isaiah prophesies that God would punish the kingdom of Edom with fire and sulphur that would “not be quenched day and night” (Isaiah 34:8–10). If you were to take a trip to the Middle East today, you wouldn’t see Sodom, Gomorrah or Edom still burning. Fire consumes and never preserves, as one scholar remarks.
In the biblical imagination, death (not eternal suffering) is the ultimate result of sin. God does not take pleasure in the suffering of humans, so if you or I choose not to put our trust in Him, the most merciful thing He could do is honour our choice as well as the natural consequence of it.
The tragic truth is that there is no life apart from the life giver Himself. Anyone who chooses not to live in a relationship with God will in the end no longer have access to life itself.
If we choose to live in a trusting relationship with God, it’s like entering into divine rest. By contrast, if we reject God’s way of love and embrace Babylon, we will be barred from it (Hebrews 4:1–11). Like Sodom and Gomorrah, our acceptance or rejection of God will determine our final resting place (pun intended).
This wake-up call should be confronting for all of us. The good news is the fact that because we’re able to talk about it, it means we still have time left! Scenes like this are designed to invite us to see the world the way God sees it and respond to Him. The three angels’ messages may be full of dense language, but to boil it down, their message is simple.
God is reaching out to you and I, imploring us to put our trust in Him before it’s too late. We often think things are always getting better but with wars raging around us, economies on the brink of collapse and the reality of a global pandemic, it’s clear to me that this world has an expiry date. It is God’s deep desire that you and I will be able to experience new life in a remade world one day.
Jesse Herford is a pastor and associate editor for the Australian/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times. He lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, Carina and their dog, Banjo. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.