Abstract of Johns, Loren L. “Atonement and Sacrifice in the Book of Revelation.”

Johns, Loren L.  “Atonement and Sacrifice in the Book of Revelation.”  In The Work of Jesus in Anabaptist Perspective: Essays in Honor of J. Denny Weaver, edited by Alain Epp Weaver and Gerald J. Mast, 124-46.  Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2008.  Book 38. [Israel/Christian/Sacrifice/Offerings/Theology]

This essay examines atonement and sacrifice in the book of Revelation, seeking to uncover the primary theological significance of Christ’s death in the book.  Johns discovers that it is not as is commonly thought.  The concept of the Atonement is quite different.  Ransoming in Revelation is not from something, but to something–the kingdom.  The common concept of cleansing garments wasn’t aimed at moral or spiritual cleansing, but cleansing prior to holy warfare.  Moreover, the word sin does not appear often in the book and is not primarily concerned with the Savior’s sacrifice that puts humanity right with God, but with the victory won by Christ in which believers participate in overcoming evil.  References to Christ as the Lamb and the blood of the Lamb do not refer exclusively to Christ’s atoning death, but the deaths of Christian martyrs.

Atonement in Revelation is not a synonym for Anslem’s satisfaction theory of the atonement, which derives from the idea of reconciling or putting at one with another, roughly equivalent with expiation or reconciliation.  Its pervasive Temple and sacrificial imagery involves royalty and the question is how these images function in Revelation.  Sacrifice in other ancient religions was synonymous with worship, and appeasing the gods.  Even in Biblical thought, sacrifice was much broader theologically than expiation.  Expiation was not the focus of the burnt offerings, and “the lamb was not the primary offering of expiation. In other words, the lamb was not an obvious symbol for expiation in the sacrificial cult.”  There is linguistic evidence that John took care to avoid a sacrificial interpretation of the death of Christ.  He consistently used a different Greek word when speaking of the Lamb having been slaughtered, than the traditional one normally used when speaking of a ritual sacrifice.  Also the word for “lamb” in Revelation is different from the one used in the LXX to refer to Jesus’ atoning death.

Johns catches several conservative evangelicals in the error of arguing that the Lamb in Revelation is intended to call to mind the Old Testament sacrifice and blood as a means of atonement.  In summary he says this of the evangelicals: “In each of these cases, the controlling context for understanding the meaning of Christ’s death in Revelation seems to be orthodox theology, rather than the book of Revelation itself.”  (p. 134)   He goes on to caution against importing “unwarranted expiatory or sacrificial inferences” if they do not derive authentically from the text itself.   Again, “…while sacrificial images and language pervade the book of Revelation, they are used in such a way to support a message that is primarily ethical.”  The images are molded with the intent of rejecting a “scapegoating sacrificial system.”

The conclusion of the study is that “atonement” in the classical Anselmian sense “was not important to the author of Revelation.”   “While John seems to know and accept the tradition that Jesus died for humanity’s sins, his primary understanding of Jesus’ death is that it was the ultimate victory over evil.”   “The irony is that this book, which is perhaps second only to Hebrews in the pervasiveness of cultic language and imagery, is not concerned with the proper observance of cult, except that it is the God of Israel who is to be worshiped, not the emperor.  Instead, its burden is to elicit a kind of allegiance to God that allows no compromise with Greco-Roman religion or with emperor worship. …  In short, there is a kind of spiritualization of sacrifice and of cultic terms in this book.”

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