The substitutionary atonement of Jesus is the most glorious good news—the wondrous exchange.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter
The death of Jesus Christ plays a pivotal role in John’s Apocalypse. It’s vision of a Lamb, standing, “as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6, NKJV)1 sits at the book’s theological/ethical heart and introduces the central motif and vehicle for atonement theology in Revelation—“the Lamb.” There is a far-reaching theology of atonement (and Christology) in the imagery of Jesus as “the Lamb”: lending to both His title and His work, a vicarious and sacrificial capacity that cannot be successfully denied.
This designation stresses the redeeming work of the Lamb―uniting vicarious suffering and victorious power, sovereign kingship and redemption—and in the process, theodicy. It underscores the wholistic nature, cosmic dimension, historicity, and universal application of Christ’s death. The sufferings of Christ are portrayed as an act in time that has eternal significance. His death is both a historic fact (1:5, 7, 18; 2:8, 18; 11:8), and an eternal fact (13:8). It is permanent and never needing repeating (5:6). It is unique, efficacious, a mystery that challenges our reflection. Within the book’s cosmic conflict narrative, it is the unequivocal turning point of salvation history. Because of His death, Christ is not only the Lord of history and human destiny but also the exalted focus of celebratory worship (5:9–14; 6:1–8:1).
Thus, a remarkable theology of atonement unfolds in Revelation—expressed in apocalyptic visions, explained in angelic interpretations, wrapped in a collage of evocative biblical allusions, set against a tapestry of both cosmic and existential realities, nuanced by Old Testament sacrificial cultic imagery, sung in praises of heavenly choirs, and contemplated in John’s own reflections of the revelations he received.
But what is meant by atonement? How does John’s apocalypse unfold its meaning—theologically, existentially, cosmically? It is argued that both atonement and sacrifice (or sacrificial) are slippery words that require careful definition and qualification—especially when examining themes of atonement and sacrifice in Revelation. It is also asserted that the relationship between sacrifice and atonement in Revelation is “fraught with terminological challenges.”2 Indeed, there are many definitions of atonement. Undoubtedly, a theologian/exegete’s own biases or heritage regarding atonement can impel him or her toward certain conclusions when exploring Revelation’s meaning. Uncovering the real meaning of the text is always challenging. Then, too, one can make sacrificial language too monochrome. Revelation itself, however, makes obvious the fact that the biblical witness of the atonement is astonishingly rich, complex, vibrant.
Two broad understandings of what atonement signifies in Revelation compete for primacy: (1) whether atonement in Revelation “signifies primarily a sacrificial death that expiates sin and puts humanity right with God”3; or (2) whether it refers to “the larger cosmological significance of Christ’s death as it relates to the overcoming of evil and the working out of God’s purposes on earth.”4 The former would see atonement as substitutionary and thus relating to realities of human sin and the need for personal redemption. This includes both objective and subjective aspects of atonement. The latter would be revelatory, relating primarily to questions of theodicy and the reputation/character of God (including substitution but not as the emphasis or center). The latter also often sees Christ’s death as exemplary—a model for believers to follow. It is tacit “anti-sacrificial”5 (anti-substitutionary, non-violent).
This tension is not an either/or, but rather two aspects of a unified whole in the Book of Revelation, and that substitution by the blood of the Lamb vindicates God’s character. A third aspect of atonement will come into view in the process: how that substitution by the blood of the Lamb brings about the salvation of God’s people, including their change of status within God’s sovereign reign in the Great Controversy. Both theodicy and redemption are substitutionary-based, and the latter is part of the movement toward the former.
Beginning at the Beginning
How does the theological significance of Christ’s death relate to these differing perspectives? How should the themes of sacrifice and atonement be best understood in Revelation? The book’s central motif and vehicle for atonement theology is the imagery of “the Lamb.” Revelation purposely places the concept of “blood” in close relationship to the Lamb’s person and work—it is “the blood of the Lamb” (7:14; 12:11), “‘your blood’” (5:9), “‘His own blood’” (1:5).
The symbol of blood is clearly important in the Book of Revelation as demonstrated by the number of occurrences (19) and its use throughout the book in a variety of contexts. Revelation’s blood “is not a ‘static’ or a one-dimensional literary motif. It is a dynamic symbol of life and death, which draws the reader’s attention to issues of the sacred and profane, purity and pollution, deliverance and judgment.”6 It is a focalizing, “dominant ritual symbol.”7
John begins the discussion of the atonement in Revelation with a doxology of praise for liberation from our sins through Jesus’ blood (1:5). It is hermeneutically significant that the prevailing context or framework for the atonement theology of Revelation is doxology; that is, atonement imagery/themes occur in expressions of praise to Christ (1:5; 5:9, 10, 12). It is significant, too, that “though the central motif and vehicle for atonement theology in Revelation is the image of the slain Lamb, atonement language in Revelation precedes the appearance of the Lamb in the visions.”8 The doxology of Revelation 1:5 and 6, then, has both an introductory and a summarizing quality in the light of other atonement-related passages in the rest of the book. For the reader, this hymn is the first thing he or she encounters of Revelation’s atonement language. As such, it becomes foundational for understanding the use of the word atonement in the rest of the book.
This observation highlights the hermeneutical importance of both Revelation’s introduction and conclusion. The book’s introduction (1:1–8) forms a thematic inclusio with the epilogue (22:6–21). Major themes that will define the book are introduced and then concluded in the epilogue.
Introductions give clues and provide understanding for what unfolds. When confronted with possible nuances of apocalyptic imagery (in this case, the Lamb motif), the introduction has already pointed toward the intended meanings. One of those meanings obviously relates to the question of where the focus of Revelation’s atonement imagery might lay: either toward the personal and substitutionary (being right with God), or toward the cosmic (theodicy, God’s reputation, the expunging of evil), or perhaps both. Before the book plunges its readers into apocalyptic visions with their cosmic narrative, it is the very human and personal existential realities of that metanarrative that are first highlighted. It is as if the larger narrative somehow has meaning on the personal level first. Or at the least, that in some profound way, cosmic matters and their solutions would be hollow without corresponding personal human relevance. At least this is where Revelation’s atonement theology begins.
Revelation’s geographic sweep comprises the local, regional, global, and cosmic (in relation to both heaven and the earth). But there is also the geography of the human heart. The book begins with the personal and existential and then, dynamically moves back and forth from various aspects of human and cosmic moral/spiritual realities. In the conclusion, there is return to the personal, individual, existential—focusing again clearly on matters of sin and atonement. This reminds the reader that one’s personal life in a profound way mirrors and unfolds the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan, that somehow our own fortunes are integrally tied with those of the Lamb. The epic battles unfolding within the book encompass private heart battlefields of sin, fear, rebellion, and unbelief.
It appears that no matter how large the cosmological significance of Christ’s death as it relates to the overcoming of evil, the working out of God’s purposes on earth, or the vindication of the character and reputation of God, there is reference to individual believers’ sins being atoned by the blood of Christ. Christ’s death is concerned primarily with the once-for-all sacrifice that puts humanity right with God. The reader intuits this personal reality. The text leaves us with a feeling that somehow the fortunes of God are inextricably linked to ours and that our fortunes are linked with that of the Lamb—and heaven’s fortunes linked with ours. Here the vicarious and sacrificial capacity of Christ’s death looms large. It is indeed a mystery that challenges our reflection.
John’s first doxology praises Jesus for His redeeming work in relation to His followers: “the language is Johannine” and “is intimately connected with the primary themes in the book.”9
To Him who loved us (1:5)
And washed us from our sins in His own blood (1:5)
And has made us kings and priests to His God and Father (1:6)
—To Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1:6)
The threefold doxology unfolds important themes within the book’s atonement theology: divine love, human sin, blood (sacrificial/substitutionary), liberation from sin’s bondage through the shedding of blood, a new status in relation to God and the world as a result of the shed blood, and theodical worship. These themes set the stage for understanding the apocalyptic images, which appear later. In particular, they help prepare the reader for the striking introduction of the image of the Lamb later in Revelation 5.
The doxology nuances an understanding of the atonement in two related directions. The first has to do with God: His love for us—the divine motive that lies behind our atonement. The second includes expressions that affirm God’s character and sovereign reign over all, and that spring from a heart of gratitude, wonder, and surrender. These are significant relational images within the book’s cosmic conflict narrative, questions of theodicy, and atonement themes. The heart, character, and reputation of God are the clear focus. Love indicates matters of the divine character and motive. Liberation speaks to the salvific reality of atonement. Blood speaks to matters of instrument of atonement. Doxology returns to divine character, being, and justice—theodicy.
The present substantival participle (“the one who loves”) is an all-embracing concept that summarizes Christ’s past love leading to His sacrificial death, His present love, and His future love seen in the defeat of the forces of evil. It is love that is current, continuous, compelling, real—and intensely personal. It is love that encompasses our past, our present, and our every tomorrow—as it does the Lamb’s sacrificial death as a historical event.
This love that leads to the Lamb’s atoning death is no abstraction. Nor is it elusive. It is personal. Real. It is born of love that longs to restore us so that we can behold with wonder the face of Him who loves us so deeply (Rev. 22:4). While Revelation mentions divine love in only two other places, an atmosphere of divine love permeates the book.
Liberation From Sin
These doxological themes and images remind us that the matter of God’s character, actions, and judgment are important themes in Revelation. “John’s Revelation is, above all, a triumphant disclosure of God’s love, expressed through his judgment.”10 The text, however, reminds us that this divine love was especially demonstrated in the Lamb’s atoning blood that has freed us from our sins (1:5). Christ’s work and its effects are emphasized. The verb loves is paired with the next verb, freed, in such a way that the first may be seen as the basis for the second. One sees in the second the display of the first. Love is displayed in the redemptive release from sin via sacrificial blood: “In the aorist (lysanti, “loosed” or “freed”) the present love of Christ is exemplified in his past sacrificial death.”11 Revelation presents “the shed blood of Christ as the life of Jesus poured out in substitution” and “understands that sacrifice as providing liberation from sin and death.”12
Two phrases predominate in Revelation for this redemptive work, “the slain Lamb” (5:6, 12; 13:8) and the sacrificial “blood” (1:5; 5:9; 7:14; 12:11). As noted above, the theme of blood is a “dominant ritual symbol” in the Apocalypse.13 Here, the emphasis is on the “atoning effects” of Christ’s death, i.e., it “freed us from our sins” (1:5, NIV). This is the only place in the New Testament where this has redemptive connotations.14 In addition, the concept of the Greek word translated “sin” is found only twice elsewhere in Revelation (18:4, 5), where it appears in relation to the sins of the harlot Babylon. The implication and awesome wonder is that “While the sins of the enemies of God continue to pile up in readiness for divine judgment, the sins of those who have turned to God have already been ‘loosed’ by the ‘blood’ of Christ.”15
The doxology’s language (“released us”) recalls the Exodus, the first of several Exodus motif references in Revelation. At its core, Egypt stands as a symbol of oppression, suffering, bondage, sin, and the brokenness of our world. The Exodus is seen as a story repeated in every soul (and generation) that seeks deliverance from the enmeshing and enervating influence of the world. Here it is specifically linked to the reality of human sin. John’s doxology connects the blood/death of Jesus directly with the severing of the hold of sin over us. The phrase “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (1:6, NIV) reflects the eschatological aspect of Christ’s work. This is Exodus imagery.
Revelation’s opening vision of atonement is thus linked to the fundamental reality of human sin. It begins with the reality of human sin, not objective or cosmic evil per se. This suggests that any dealing with evil has the question of sin and its atonement as an integral element. In so doing, the book “voices an atonement doctrine compatible with that found in Paul.”16
It is suggested that, because reference to believers’ sins being atoned for by the blood of Jesus occurs only once in Revelation (1:5), sin is rarely if ever seen as a “problem” that separates humanity from God. Rather, it is suggested, the real problem is the presence of evil and the ongoing battle for the establishment of God’s reign on earth.17 The text, however, demonstrates that John is quite aware of and accepts the idea that Christ’s death was unique and efficacious—even vicarious—for the individual, particularly within the context of the larger cosmic conflict. Appearing as it does in the book’s introduction, it becomes a conceptual marker that guides the reader’s understanding as the book unfolds.
The blood of Jesus occupies an important place in Revelation (as well as in New Testament thought as a whole).18 One cannot read either the Exodus—on which Revelation’s imagery is built—or the Apocalypse without being confronted with the idea of “liberating blood.”19 As noted above, blood is an extremely vivid part of the visual imagery of Revelation. It occurs 19 times. Sometimes it refers to a blood-red color. In describing the wrath of God, bloody waters abound. Often, however, blood is a metaphor for a “violent death.” Here it points to the violent death of Jesus on our behalf.
Furthermore, Jesus is described as the Lamb 27 times in Revelation. The Lamb motif is the most profound description of Jesus and first appears in Revelation 5: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (5:6, NRSV). Revelation 13 refers to Jesus as “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (13:8). Christ’s violent sacrificial death is well summarized by the phrase “blood of the Lamb” (7:14; 12:11).
Thus, like the Book of Exodus, the Apocalypse sets substitutionary atonement squarely in the context of the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan, and the final exodus (15:1–4). The blood of the Lamb, the death of the Lamb, and the saving power of the slain Lamb are recurring themes. It is a theme set against a backdrop of warning trumpets, plagues of wrath, and heavenly appeal. The gospel call that celebrates the slain Lamb is the only solution. Believers are invited to wash their robes in this liberating blood (7:14; 22:14).
Revelation outlines four realities of Christ’s atoning blood in the believer’s life. Sin as enslaving bondage (1:5)—the Lamb’s blood releases. Sin as incalculable debt (5:9)—the Lamb’s blood purchases. Sin as moral/spiritual defilement (7:14)—the Lamb’s blood cleanses. Sin as legal guilt, condemnation, and shame (12:11)—the Lamb’s blood justifies, acquits, and removes shame so we can behold the face of God. Revelation does not explain how these realities occur, but it affirms that they do—through the Lamb’s blood.
In the imagery of John’s Revelation, the horrible effects of sin are more than bondage or captivity. Sin is an incalculable debt. It is defilement. It incurs legal guilt/shame. “‘You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood,’” we hear the four living creatures and 24 elders sing (5:9). The Lamb’s blood (death) “bought” people for God out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation! Sin incurs a debt against God’s holiness and justice, which has resulted in our being sold into slavery or captivity. It’s a debt and bondage to sin that leads ultimately to death (Rom. 6:20–21, 23). There is no arbitrary cancellation of the debt. A price is to be paid. The Lamb bought us out of captivity, paid the debt that had bound us over to sin and death. This He did with the price of His precious blood (Rev. 5:9). It is in keeping with what John quotes from John the Baptist elsewhere: “‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29).
In Revelation 7, John sees a vision of this very multitude of purchased people, a group “that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (7:9, NIV). Later these saints clothed in white are described as those who have “come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (vs. 14, NIV).
Here we meet a paradox: blood that whitens. The redeemed wash their robes white in the Lamb’s blood. Here we are dealing now with the idea of sin, not as a debt or bondage, but sin as defilement. Sin renders sinners impure and unfit for the presence of a holy God. The clothing metaphor (here, “robes”) represents one’s life or character as reflected in thought, values, and deeds. It relates to who one is in his or her inner private world, and all that one does because of what he or she is—being. White garments symbolize righteous character. They symbolize a range of positive meanings that include both ritual and moral holiness and purity.
Revelation connects existentially with how sin defiles—how we can have the inner sense that we are impure, unfit for the presence of God. We feel shame and guilt. Dirty. And our conscience accuses. John expressed this truth of sin as defilement elsewhere when he wrote: “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, NRSV). In light of Christ’s love and sacrifice, we are to think “How much more . . . will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14, NIV). Revelation touches on this phenomenon with the imagery of those who run from the face of God and those who see His face (Rev. 6:17; 22:4). Revelation’s garments of white are neither earned or self-made. Rather, they are graciously given or offered to receptive people by God (3:5, 18; 6:11; 19:8)—and are predicated on the Lamb’s atoning blood.
Revelation’s imagery of sin incurring legal guilt focuses on accusation and condemnation. In Revelation 12, John sees a vision in which the great red dragon (Satan) is defeated explicitly in his role as accuser (12:7–10). Each of the dragon’s names—the devil and Satan (12:9)—has the connotation of accuser or adversary. Accusations have to do with guilt, and thus we are confronted with the idea of sin as legal transgression. In verse 11, the accuser—the one who would bring a charge against God’s people—is decisively defeated. His claims in God’s court have been stricken down through the blood of the Lamb. Christ’s death has justifying power on behalf of the sinner. The language of the law court and legal guilt is evidenced further in Revelation’s prevailing judgment theme in which record books are opened, and everyone ultimately is held accountable and judged by the things written therein.
The epochal close to Revelation’s post-millennial judgment asserts, “anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:15). One can easily focus on the negative here and miss the book’s tacit promise that there had been beforehand (and for the reader, presently) a way of escape from this profound existential moment at eternity’s hinge. Only for those whose names are in “the Book of Life” will the last judgment mean joyful vindication rather than shameful destruction.
We can only wonder how the mere appearance of one’s name in “the Book of Life” can counterbalance the damning evidence contained in the book of our deeds (Rev. 20:12). It is because this “Book of Life” belongs to the Lamb, who has been slain in sacrifice for those listed in it (13:8). John later refers to it as the “Lamb’s Book of Life” (21:27) and links it also with the Cross (13:8).
Substitutionary atonement and mediation are assumed in the imagery of the Lamb’s Book of Life. Ultimately, it is the blood of Jesus that releases one from this epochal judgment. Defiled, condemned, indebted, and sold into slavery, those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life have, by His blood, been purchased for God and installed by Christ as pure and holy, acquitted priests in His kingdom (20:2–6; 5:9, 10; 1:5, 6). They are cleansed from sin and freed of shame, guilt, and condemnation. They have become the Lamb’s spotless bride (19:7, 8).
Being “released from our sins by his blood” at Revelation’s doxological opening ultimately brings us to the reality of the “second death” at the book’s closing. The horrible effects of sin as brute bondage, incalculable debt, shameful defilement, and accusing legal guilt/shame all converge here in a soul-wrenching horror of darkness, dereliction, despair, and death from which there is absolutely no escape, no resurrection—the “second death.” The blood of Jesus releases us from it all!
Thus, atonement in Revelation is substitutionary.
For the reader, Revelation’s opening hymn is the first thing he or she encounters of Revelation’s atonement language. As such, it becomes foundational for understanding the atonement in the rest of the book. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus is the most glorious good news—the wondrous exchange: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21, NIV). It evokes spontaneous doxological praise with implications that ripple throughout Revelation’s cosmic conflict narrative: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12, KJV). It is both integrally linked and foundational to other nuanced aspects of atonement within the book—salvation and theodicy. The redeeming substitution by the blood of the Lamb, unites vicarious suffering and victorious power, sovereign kingship and redemption—and in the process, enjoins theodicy and redemption.
In Revelation’s beginning, the reader is reminded that one’s personal life in a profound way mirrors and unfolds the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan. It suggests that somehow our own fortunes are integrally tied with those of the Lamb. The epic battles unfolding within the book encompass private heart battlefields of sin, fear, rebellion, and unbelief. It appears that no matter how large the cosmological significance of Christ’s death as it relates to the overcoming of evil, the working out of God’s purposes on earth, or the vindication of the character and reputation of God, there is reference to individual believers’ sins being atoned by the blood of Christ. Christ’s death is concerned primarily with the once-for-all sacrifice that puts humanity right with God. The reader intuits this personal reality. The text leaves us with a feeling that somehow the fortunes of God are inextricably linked to ours, and that our fortunes are linked with that of the Lamb, and heaven’s fortunes linked with ours. Here the vicarious and sacrificial capacity of Christ’s death looms large. It is indeed a mystery that challenges our reflection.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter, Ph.D., is Dean of Philosophy and Theology and the Director of the Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.
NOTES AND REFERENCES