Down through the ages God's servants have asked certain questions again and again: When will God put an end to wickedness? When will He eliminate Satan's influence? When will man's inhumanity to his fellowman cease?
The book of Revelation answers these questions!
John writes: "Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended … Then one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God…" (Revelation 15:1-7, NRSV).
Before we examine the nature of this final phase of God's punishments on human beings who have refused to repent (Revelation 16:9-11), we need to get our bearings regarding the setting of these plagues.
As we have already seen, those who worship the Beast will be the recipients of the "full strength" of God's "indignation" that these seven last plagues represent. Also, these things will be completed "in the presence of the Lamb" (Revelation 14:9-10). These words indicate that all of the seven last plagues will occur within a brief time. As Christ descends through the clouds, "every eye will see Him" (Revelation 1:7; compare Acts 1:9-11). These verses imply that, as these punishments occur, Christ's direct involvement with them will be visible to the whole world.
It is important to remember that these seven plagues represent final aspects of the seventh trumpet or the "third woe," including the return of Christ (Revelation 11:14-15). One purpose for His return is to "destroy those who destroy the earth" (Revelation 11:18). In other words, Jesus plans to personally oversee the final phase of the destruction of Satan's kingdom.
The seven last plagues will complete God's punishment and destruction of the evil and satanic system of government, culture and religion that began in ancient Babylon. How will God bring this phase of His plan to a close? What impact will its completion have on the nations?
God's plan in destroying Satan's kingdom—with special focus on its leading city, Babylon the Great—is designed to change the worship patterns and practices of the whole world. After He completes that destruction, "all nations shall come and worship before" God (Revelation 15:4).
That will be an incredible reversal. Why? Because at the beginning of the plagues those nations are engrossed in the "worship [of] the beast and his image" (Revelation 14:11). This includes the "worship [of] demons, and idols of gold, silver, brass, stone, and wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk" (Revelation 9:20).
Not only must Satan's kingdom be destroyed, but the citizens of every nation must understand that God, who gave the Ten Commandments to ancient Israel, is the source of the destruction. They must see that the gods and idols they serve are utterly defenseless and powerless before God, whom they have refused to obey. Chapters 16-20 of Revelation give us details that show the living God accomplishing this.
The seven last plagues
"Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, 'Go, pour out the seven bowls of God's wrath on the earth'" (Revelation 16:1). God has carefully chosen each of these seven punishments. Each one will cause the kingdom of the Beast to reap what it has sown.
Each is directly related to the sins of that evil system as a whole, a system focused on enjoying pleasures and riches regardless of the harm inflicted on others. Many of those living in it who have understood and practiced what is true and just have been persecuted and killed because they were out of step with that society's twisted views and attitudes.
Notice the attitude of people in general "in the last days." Paul describes them as "lovers of themselves, lovers of money … without self-control, brutal, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
He describes them as obsessed with knowledge but woefully lacking in understanding—"always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7). This is a thoroughly deceived society.
God shows that He will be able to reach their blinded minds only by causing them to reap what they have been sowing. That is what He intends to accomplish with the seven last plagues.
"The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshipped his image" (Revelation 16:2, NIV). Their misguided worship—their form of godliness without substance—has been the prime cause of the pain inflicted on God's servants. So the first plague turns that anguish back on its perpetrators.
"The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died" (Revelation 16:3, NIV). The kingdom of the Beast had been systematically killing the servants of God. Now the sea becomes a lake of blood—an escalation of the earlier second trumpet plague. Densely populated coastal areas will be blanketed with the stench of blood and dead fish. The returning Christ will force those supporting the Beast's warfare against His servants to be personally overtaken with the stench and repugnance of death.
"The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water [intensifying the impact of the earlier third trumpet plague], and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say: 'You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged; for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.' And I heard the altar respond: 'Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments'" (Revelation 16:4-7, NIV). Remember, all of this is happening very quickly "in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (Revelation 14:10).
"The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him" (Revelation 16:8-9, NIV).
Satan's kingdom is founded on a "form of godliness" (2 Timothy 3:5) that has consistently substituted many of the traditions that began in ancient Babylon for the commandments of God. His kingdom has been at "war with [those] … who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17). Therefore God, who has control of everything everywhere, will turn against that kingdom the very sun they unwittingly still worship.
The modern custom of substituting Sun day—the day originally dedicated by the pagans for worshipping the sun—in place of the biblical seventh-day Sabbath is one clear example of such worship.
Also, the custom of keeping Christmas comes from another ancient tradition of celebrating the annual "rebirth" of the sun at the winter solstice. As almost any encyclopedia will tell you, Dec. 25 was celebrated in ancient pagan religions as the birthday of the sun, then later adopted as the supposed birthday of Christ. (To better understand God's perspective on such practices, be sure to read Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe?)
Jesus reprimanded the people of His century for substituting human traditions for God's commands: "In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" and "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (Mark 7:7-9).
"The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done" (Revelation 16:10-11, NIV). God now adds the terror of total darkness (more so than in the earlier fourth trumpet plague) to the pain of the sores, the stench of blood and the excruciating heat they are already experiencing. Darkness is an appropriate plague because of the spiritual darkness the Beast has cast upon the world.
The nations gather to fight Christ
"The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty … Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon" (Revelation 16:12-16, NIV).
Again let's remember that the seven last plagues are the culmination of the seventh trumpet or the third woe. As we saw earlier, the sixth trumpet (the second woe) introduced a global military onslaught on a scale never before seen. Now the sixth of the seven last plagues presents a mobilization to the final throes of this struggle.
In anticipation of Christ's appearance in the clouds, God has allowed Satan and his demons to create seemingly miraculous signs to motivate world leaders to move their armies into the Holy Land. While their initial intent may be to fight each other, they will join forces against the returning Christ. Satan's objective has always been to fight Christ at His coming, using the armies of the world.
The armies are now gathered at Armageddon (the Greek form of the Hebrew Har Megiddo, or "hill of Megiddo," about 55 miles north of Jerusalem), apparently on the vast open plain that lies to the east of this site. The final battle, to take place at Jerusalem (see Zechariah 14), is about to begin.
"Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, 'It is done!'" (Revelation 16:17). All of God's efforts to reason with human beings are now over. Yet humanity still stubbornly refuses to repent.
As mankind's Savior descends to earth, John explains that "great Babylon" is "remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath" (Revelation 16:19).
This is accomplished partly by "a great earthquake, such a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth" (Revelation 16:18). Islands and mountains disappear as the earth shakes and shudders (Revelation 16:20).
Notice what accompanies these vast earthly convulsions: "From the sky huge hailstones of about a hundred pounds each" batter the earth and its inhabitants (Revelation 16:21, NIV). Satan's modern "Babylonian" kingdom is being systematically demolished.
Why Babylon the Great is destroyed
Chapters 17-19 explain the reason for the harlot city's destruction. They also describe the fate of the armies Satan has persuaded to fight against Christ as He descends to the Mount of Olives just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.
We have already seen that Satan's influence on mankind, especially over the kingdom of the Beast, emanates from "the great harlot [city] who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication" (Revelation 17:1-2). "She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit …" (Revelation 18:2).
More than any other Western city, Rome, heir of ancient Babylon's mystery cults, has a history of being "drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus" (Revelation 17:6). Influenced by a religious system that has led the way in opposing obedience to the commandments of God, Rome has allowed and often led the charge in persecuting "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (Revelation 14:12).
No city in the world fits the description of Revelation 17 as she does. Pictured as a harlot sitting astride the Beast—the 10-king empire of which she is the cultural and spiritual center—this city of John's prophecy will yet again exert a vast influence over the earth's "peoples, multitudes, nations and languages" (Revelation 17:15, NIV). As she has so often in the past, she will once more enjoy the fame and status of being "that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth" (Revelation 17:18).
In the end, however, her honeymoon with political leaders will turn sour. The kings supporting her widespread influence will come to despise her. Possibly they will finally recognize that God is not with her, that her claims of divine support are a lie.
Whatever the reason, they will turn on her with a vengeance. "The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire. For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God's words are fulfilled" (Revelation 17:16-17, NIV).
Chapter 18 describes the reaction of many of the world's most prominent people to the burning of this mighty city. "When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her … They will stand far off and cry: 'Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!' The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her …" (Revelation 18:9-11, NIV).
The commercial aspects of Satan's kingdom, as described in chapter 18, reflect the favoritism and greed that have driven the entire system. Those who profited most include the "merchants … who became rich by her," the "shipmaster" and "all who travel by ship, sailors, and as many as trade on the sea" (Revelation 18:15-17). "Your merchants were the world's great men," proclaims an angel. "By your magic spell all the nations were led astray" (Revelation 18:23, NIV).
With her fall the culture of Satan's empire collapses. His kingdom falls apart.
God has warned His people not to get caught up in this evil system lest they, too, become victims of her destruction. "Then I heard another voice from heaven say: 'Come out of her, my people, … so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes. Give back to her as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup. Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself … She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her" (Revelation 18:4-8, NIV).
All of creation is told, "Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!" (Revelation 18:20).
The theme of rejoicing continues into the next chapter: "After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: 'Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants'" (Revelation 19:1-2, NIV).
John now describes Jesus Christ's magnificent return to Jerusalem: "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war … and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. 'He will rule them with an iron scepter.' He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS " (Revelation 19:11-16, NIV).
Let's not forget that Satan has gathered the armies of the nations to Jerusalem to fight Christ (Revelation 19:19). At this point God is giving Satan the freedom to instigate the ultimate rebellion. But even in his rebellion Satan is carrying out God's purpose. God wants to make it clear that all the armies of the earth are nothing compared to the power of His King—the conquering Messiah—who returns to the holy city of Jerusalem.
Long ago God prophesied: "I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it … Then the LORD will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights in the day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley" (Zechariah 14:2-4, NIV). He adds: "The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name" (Zechariah 14:9, NIV).
Notice how Christ destroys the opposing armies: "This is the plague with which the LORD will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day men will be stricken by the LORD with great panic. Each man will seize the hand of another, and they will attack each other. Judah too will fight at Jerusalem. The wealth of all the surrounding nations will be collected—great quantities of gold and silver and clothing" (Zechariah 14:12-14, NIV).
An angel then summons scavenger birds to feast on the flesh of the armies (Revelation 19:17-21). Then "the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur" (verse 20, NIV).
As the kingdom of the Beast is dismantled and destroyed, Satan and his demons must be stopped from deceiving and manipulating. Therefore an angel "seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended" (Revelation 20:2-3, NIV).
Satan's control over "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:4; 1 John 5:19) is then terminated for the next 1,000 years. The battle for the control of the earth is finished.
Christ makes the saints rulers with Him
The peaceful 1,000-year rule of Christ now begins. John immediately sees Jesus rewarding the saints for the suffering they have endured at the hand of Satan and his Babylonian system. John watched as martyrs "came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years" (Revelation 20:4, NIV; see also Revelation 22:12).
As His faithful servants receive eternal life at the time of their resurrection, Jesus begins fulfilling His word that they would be corulers with Him. He had promised: "To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations" and "to him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne" (Revelation 2:26; Revelation 3:21; NIV).
"Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection," writes John. "The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6, NIV).
Daniel long ago also observed this wonderful occasion in a vision: "Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him" (Daniel 7:27, NIV).
This is the beginning of the wonderful era often referred to by students of the Bible as the Millennium. For details about what will occur during Christ's millennial reign, read our free booklets The Gospel of the Kingdom, What Is Your Destiny? and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.
The final judgment
We saw earlier that Satan will be constrained during the Millennium. Yet we also read: "After that, he must be set free for a short time" (Revelation 20:3, NIV).
During the Millennium many will be born who will not be exposed to Satan's influence. God's way will be the only way they will have ever known. Yet the Scriptures reveal that God tests people to see if their obedience is from the heart (Deuteronomy 8:2; Revelation 2:10). One way He does this is to allow them to choose between good and evil (Deuteronomy 30:19). John indicates this will happen at the end of the Millennium.
Notice how it will occur: "When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them" (Revelation 20:7-9, NIV).
God does not reveal if this is the only test He will use during the Millennium to separate insincere people from those who are sincere. But it will certainly be the final and most significant test of the 1,000 years. It will be a vital part of the judgment process.
Now comes the time for Satan's permanent removal from the picture: "And the Devil who deceived them was cast into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet were. And he will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10, Modern King James Version). He will never again be allowed to deceive anyone.
A second resurrection
But the process of judgment is not yet complete. Those who died without repenting before the beginning of the Millennium must be judged. In this final judgment God's mercy and wisdom become further apparent.
Remember, faithful Christians are resurrected at Christ's return, at the beginning of the Millennium. Theirs was the "first resurrection" (Revelation 20:5). Yet a parenthetical note here states that "the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (same verse).
The dead who are resurrected to appear "before the throne" of God (Revelation 20:12) after "the thousand years have expired" (Revelation 20:7) have never fully known God and His ways. They have never comprehended what it means to really repent of their sins. Are they resurrected to be condemned forever? Not at all. Notice the purpose of this second resurrection:
"Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books [of the Bible] were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books" (Revelation 20:11-12). They are resurrected, then judged by biblical standards—according to their response to the spiritual enlightenment they now receive for the first time.
The word translated "books" in this passage is the Greek biblia, the root of which has given us the English word Bible. When God resurrects these people, He will explain the full meaning of the books of the Holy Scriptures to them. When they respond and repent, their names also can be written in the Book of Life.
But notice what happens to those who, after being resurrected and receiving a clear understanding of what God expects of them, still refuse to repent. "And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:15).
Punishment of the incorrigibly wicked
Other scriptures indicate that a third group must be resurrected to be included in this final destruction of the wicked in the lake of fire.
Jesus said that some would deliberately and knowingly despise the spiritual knowledge that God would open their minds to understand. This calculated blasphemy "against the Holy Spirit," He said, will not be forgiven "either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:31-32).
Those who have turned down all opportunities to repent and be forgiven must also be resurrected for judgment at the end (Revelation 21:8). These are people who have deliberately rejected God's way of life—even after they have been "once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit" (Hebrews 6:4-6). They once were forgiven and given the Holy Spirit. But afterwards they chose to reject God's rule over them and blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, say the Scriptures, for those who have maliciously "trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace" (Hebrews 10:29), "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27).
It is important that we understand the purpose of the lake of fire. God has judged that all the wicked must be burned up. "See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shallburn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch" (Malachi 4:1, NRSV).
Therefore it appears that this final resurrection, of necessity, must include the wicked who have already been condemned to perish in the lake of fire—however few they may be, comparatively speaking.
Victory over death
This brings us to the time when, as Paul said, "death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54). By the end of the final judgment period all human beings who have ever lived will have been given the opportunity to choose between life and death—to repent and submit to God to receive eternal life or refuse to repent and, by so doing, choose eternal death. There is ultimately no middle ground, no other choice.
Some, sad to say, will stubbornly cling to their self-directed course in spite of all the opportunities to repent that God makes available to them. God will not force eternal life on anyone. Those who knowingly choose not to repent will be judged by their actions and destroyed in the lake of fire. This is truly an act of mercy, since such persons would bring perpetual misery on themselves and others forever.
When all is finished, we are told: "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Revelation 20:14). The judgment of God is complete. Never again will those who receive salvation have to fear death. Death will have been swallowed up in victory.
This fulfills one of Jesus' prophecies: "The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (Matthew 13:41-43).
The inspiring explanation of the resurrections teaches us that the reward of God's faithful people is not to go to heaven as a disembodied soul right after death. Instead, it begins with waking up from unconsciousness to renewed life in the first resurrection, when Jesus returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. (For a more complete explanation of what happens after death, and God's promised blessings for His obedient followers, be sure to read the free booklets What Happens After Death? and Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?)