I remember driving home years ago on a wet, foggy evening. As I was nearing the crest of a hill on the outskirts of a rural town, I noticed a small, gray form rapidly approaching. Out of nowhere, a voice told me: “Veer to the left, now!” Startled, I did as I was told, and as I swerved at 50 miles per hour, I looked to the right to see a deer crossing the road where my car would have been.
I was shaken by this near miss, as was my girlfriend in the passenger’s seat. When I asked her if she had told me to veer left, 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 the near miss on that dark, rainy night, 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 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.
nothing to fear (Revelation 14:6, 7)
This wake-up call is not for any one group of people or nations: this gospel (good news) has always been for everyone, and at the final moment of Earth’s history, it remains an inclusive invitation. Humanity has been rescued from the power of sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and He 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 Yahweh. Luckily, the Greek language helps us here. The word translated as “fear,” phobeomai, means “to reverence.” The writer is drawing from a well-known Old Testament idea: fearing God means taking Him seriously, putting our trust in Him, and obeying His commands. To fear God is not to be afraid of Him; rather, it’s to fully surrender to His will and His leading in response to Jesus. If we put our complete trust in Him, we will have nothing to fear.
end of an empire (Revelation 14:8)
Another recurring theme in the Bible is Babylon. Once an ancient empire, it eventually became, in the biblical imagination, a symbol of any power structure that represents authoritarianism, violence, and greed. Here in Revelation 14, the second angel’s message is cause for 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 overcome 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 messages. 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 that we should address a misconception in the text. The last portion seems to suggest that those who worship the beast will burn in hell forever: “They, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (verses 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 that this picture doesn’t harmonize with the rest of Scripture. Take, for instance, Ecclesiastes 9:5: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” If that doesn’t convince you, then consider Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The language of fire and sulfur echoes the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These two ancient Middle Eastern cities were destroyed by God because of their evil. Just like the smoke that rose from those two cities (Genesis 19:28), the smoke that rises from the remains of Babylon represents the finality of its judgment.
“no rest day or night”
Living in an abiding relationship with God is like entering divine rest. The author of Hebrews cleverly picks up on this idea, using it to describe the joyful peace we experience when we put our trust in Jesus: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:9–11). In contrast, those who reject God’s way of love and embrace Babylon are described as being barred from entering the rest of God. The third angel declares: “There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image” (Revelation 14:11).
In the biblical imagination, death (not eternal suffering) is the ultimate result of sin. God does not take pleasure in the suffering of humans, but if you or I choose not to put our trust in Him, He honors our choice and allows the natural consequence. The tragic truth is that there is no life apart from the Life-Giver Himself. Those who choose not to live in a saving relationship with God cut themselves off from access to life itself.
This wake-up call should be challenging to all of us. The good news is that because we’re able to talk about it, 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 complex and full of confusing language, but their overarching message is simple. To boil it down, God is reaching out to you and me, imploring us to put our trust in Him before it’s too late. We often think things will get better over time, but with wars raging around us, economies on the brink of collapse, and the reality of a global pandemic, I believe this world has an expiration date.
It is God’s deep desire that you and I will be able to experience new life in a remade world one day. There is still time to respond to God’s wake-up call.
Jesse Herford is a pastor and associate editor for the Australian and New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times®. He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife, Carina, and their dog, Banjo.