A Theodicy of Evil – Lenten Season 2023
“After this, I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
At once I was in the Spirit and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper qand carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.
From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings.
Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crows before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4: 1-11 NIV).
Revelations – Day 11 “The Throne Room of God”
Last week my wife and I saw an interview about a man who had died and gone to heaven and came back to tell us about it. It was an interesting interview which I found intriguing. By his own admission, the man was a nominal Christian at best but mostly an agnostic who called himself a Catholic. Not someone you would expect to go to heaven in the first place. He had heart problems among other things but was still active in his business.
He found himself at one point in a large field in the middle of nowhere in his truck checking on survey pins. His out-of-body experience started when he slumped over the steering wheel of his truck and his heart stopped pumping. It would be many hours later before he was found, brought to the hospital, and declared dead upon arrival. Or so they thought.
The thing that stood out the most was his interaction with three angels and then with Jesus himself. The things that were said and the attitudes shown were deep, powerful, and moving. Of course, he also spoke of the standard rolling hills, horses, and strange nature of heaven itself. He spoke of aborted children who were cared for and grew up in heaven. He even spoke of a deep chasm full of darkness and fire and of a creature that crawled out of that place of horror to confront him. Most of these things were par for the course but interesting, nonetheless.
Some nay-sayers may claim that it is all a figment of their imagination, but many people have given testimony to this heavenly encounter with the risen Lord and have come back to tell us about it. In an age when modern medicine can bring people back from death’s door and people seem to have similar visions but with different details in their experiences, the phenomenon of heavenly visits seems to be growing. But that doesn’t mean that I am not still somewhat skeptical. After all, these are the testimonies of imperfect people who may or may not entirely understand what they saw or what it meant.
And this interview was a case in point. I believe that his vision was genuine and that the details were authentic. I have had a vivid dream where I met the risen Lord, and it has stayed with me for years and given me comfort. This may be no different. But the vision is one thing, and the interpretation is another. Let me give you some examples.
At one point, Jesus was standing a few meters away and was looking at a book in his hands and then hid it away in his sleeve and turned to face our friend and told him that he had to go back. It was very touching to hear how he begged to stay and how his eyes watered even in the retelling of the story. We can all relate to that. But what caught my attention was his interpretation of his dream or vision. He seemed to think that this was the Book of Deeds by which he would be judged and for him to be able to come back, he needed to spend the rest of his life telling others about what he saw and experienced in heaven.
He said on more than one occasion that he “hoped” he would be let back into heaven and that he would be found worthy to stay. Of course, we know from the scriptures that we are welcomed into heaven only on the righteousness of Jesus and not on the basis of anything we say or do. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have work to do but rather that the work comes from a place of gratitude not a place of fear or unworthiness. If I had the opportunity to talk with this man, I would remind him of his conversation with Jesus and the love he so obviously had for him BEFORE he had done anything. He needs to embrace that truth first and then go to work and tell his story from a place of gratitude.
It is difficult not to compare this whole experience of heaven by those who have died and come back to life again with the experience of John here in the Book of Revelations. Whereas the testimonies of others may be interesting and even valid, they must be tested by the light and truth of the Scriptures. That much is certain. But there are many other differences as well. John doesn’t describe rolling hills and beautiful landscapes. He doesn’t tell us about informal talks with Jesus similar to the ones he had with him on earth. He doesn’t describe the angels in the common language of our modern-day preconceptions. In fact, John’s vision of heaven is remarkably different.
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, (Rev. 4:1,2a NIV).
There is a very clear distinction between what happened before and what is happening now. In the first three chapters, Jesus is there with him in his prison cell dictating his letters to the churches. Now Jesus is calling him heavenward “in the Spirit” into the throne room of God. The “door standing open in heaven” is an opportunity for ministry for John and he is invited to take advantage of it. None of this would sound strange to anyone who knew the Old Testament.
Micaiah, an OT prophet who spoke to King Ahab, says that he “saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left” (I Kings 22:19 NIV). God consulted his angels about how to make his will effective in human history and did so in the presence of the prophet so that his decrees could be communicated directly to the King and those who were involved.
Amos tells us, “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7 NIV). Even Jeremiah declares that it is a trait of true prophecy that it comes from the prophet who “has stood in the council of the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:18 NIV).
Even in the NT, Paul claims that he knew a man “in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (II Corinthians 12:2 NIV). This event largely validated his ministry as an apostle “untimely born” (I Corinthians 15:8 NIV) since he didn’t witness the life and ministry of Jesus as the other apostles did firsthand.
In the Book of Revelations, John points out that this revelation is a “prophesy” at the beginning (Rev. 1:3 NIV) and at the end (Rev. 22:10 NIV) of the book. He even makes the claim that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10b NIV) meaning that all prophecy which claims to be true must be in accordance with the testimony of Jesus. It also means that it was not really John who was acting in the prophetic role here but rather Jesus, himself. Jesus is the prophet who brings this revelation from God. Jesus says, in Rev. 22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” John is involved and is no doubt acting as a prophet as well, but this vision is bestowed on him by none other than Jesus himself.
“And there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of Jasper and Carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne” (Rev. 4: 2,3 NIV).
The first thing to notice is that his first impression is more about the “throne” than about the one “sitting on it.” Why not just say, “God” was sitting on the throne? Why be so indirect (at least at this point)? Later, it would become clear that this “someone” was the God “who created all things” (Rev. 4:11 NIV) but for now the focus seems to be on the throne itself.
And the throne is the central issue in the drama being played out here in heaven. The great white throne on which God sits eternally will be handed over to the Lamb for a time to fulfill God’s purposes on earth. At the end of time, the Lamb will give the throne back to the Father together with people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. This is the basis of the plan of redemption that is being revealed to the churches.
After all, the last they saw of Jesus was when he ascended into heaven after forty days of divine visitations after his resurrection. He was carried by a cloud into the air and the disciples went away rejoicing, staying in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit would come at Pentecost. This is the continuation of the story. Now they would find out what happened when Jesus ascended into heaven.
Jesus had already given his disciples a hint of what was happening when he told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…” (Matt. 28:18 NIV). I am now in charge of human history, Jesus is saying. And my first decree is that my followers go and make disciples. I will rule the earth through you and transform lives through your testimony.
Now we get to see the enactment of that very moment in the halls of heaven. That is why the focus is initially on the throne itself. Still, it is important to make it clear that this is, indeed, the throne of God. There is no other authority, power, or throne that Jesus is given. It is not a second or secondary throne. It is the throne of God that he is given. He is the “ruler of the kings of earth” and has all of the power and resources of heaven at his disposal.
For the churches living under the rule of the Roman throne, and even under the throne of Satan, who stood behind the Roman emperors, the idea that the throne of God is the final source of power for human history is a comforting thought. Nothing would happen, no matter how terrible, without God’s approval first and only if it accomplishes the purposes of Christ.
Even so, John does not even try to describe the one “sitting on the throne.” How can you describe God as the ancient of days, the one “who was, and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8b NIV)? No one can see God and live (Exodus 33:18) and the only one who can show us the Father is Christ his son (John 14:6). So, instead, John uses precious stones and their brilliance to describe him.
This seems to reflect what Ezekiel describes in his vision of the throne room of God when he says “Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and from there down he looked like fire, and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him” (Ezekiel 1:26-28 NIV).
You can see the similarities although Ezekiel saw more of a human-like form on the throne than John did. The presence of the rainbow in both instances requires some comment since the rainbow clearly refers to the covenant God made with Noah (Genesis 9:13-16). This is a key element in the vision of the Sovereign Lord over all creation who has the power to raise up nations and destroy them at his pleasure. His sovereignty and power have been channeled into a particular purpose and covenant with mankind not to destroy them completely like he did with the Flood. The covenant with Noah was creational but it provided the context for the redemptive covenants to follow with the nation of Israel and, particularly, through Christ.
Already God has incorporated his plan of redemption into his very essence, into his appearance to his prophets, and into his interaction with the world of men. He will never forget his promises to Noah even though, as the creator of the world and the judge of all mankind, it would require his patience with sin and evil every day until his plan of redemption is completed in Christ.
Before we go any further, something must be said about all of the symbols and descriptions that are being used by John in this vision. It isn’t necessarily that everything will look exactly like this when we arrive in the throne room of God on our personal “Parousia” day when we die and go to be with him. When we receive a new body, I suppose we will see heaven for what it really is, and it will be indescribable to those of us who are still left on earth. This is no sterile environment although it may seem so at first glance.
The look and feel of heaven is worship and the worship is not perfunctory or repetitive but rather the worship of those who truly love with all their hearts the one who sits on the throne. They “cast their crowns” before him (Rev. 4: 10b) and sing their praises with all their might with “loud voices” (Rev. 5: 12 NIV). But how can you describe that without a lot of analogies and metaphors and descriptions that make sense to those of us who are still on Earth?
“Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also, before the throne, there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal” (Rev. 4:4,5 NIV).
No one is quite certain who the twenty-four elders are supposed to be. Some claim that it is a special high level of angels who give God counsel about what happens on earth. Others claim, more accurately, that they represent the 12 patriarchs of the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament. That is more likely. Not that John gives us much more detail than that, because he doesn’t. We don’t know the names of the patriarchs specifically, only the tribes that they represent.
We also don’t know the names of the apostles specifically, only that they represent the church. Of course, we can deduce their names from the disciples that followed Jesus when he was on earth but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Is John there sitting on one of the thrones? Where is Paul? Should he not also be included as the thirteenth apostle? Again, not the point.
The twenty-four elders seem to represent God’s people from the Old and New Testament periods with no further information given. What is clear is that they are both kings and priests and therefore represent God’s people which Christ has made into a “royal house of priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:6 NIV). They wear “crowns of gold” on their heads which is the reward promised to those who would be martyred for their faith, in addition to wearing white robes and sitting on a throne together with Jesus. Perhaps the number twenty-four is simply symbolic of all those believers who would “overcome” and be granted these rewards. On the other hand, the whole concept of authority, together with Jesus, really has to do with their testimony on earth.
The reward is better understood as the promise to give these martyrs the authority to judge others through their testimony, demonstrating what it really means to be a radical discipleship and therefore becoming a measuring stick of what Jesus is expecting from all of us. The white robes are the sanctification and righteousness of Jesus which is finally and completely given to us in heaven and the crown of life is a royal existence that is a quality of life that is indescribable except to say that it is connected with an intimacy with Jesus beyond anything we can imagine.
The description of the throne casting off peals of thunder and flashes of lightning reminds us of Mount Sinai in the desert where the people of Israel went up to meet with God. “On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him” (Exodus 19: 16-19 NIV).
It would be a mistake to think that this is just about God making his people tremble in his presence. It is that but it is more than that. It is a reminder that this is the God of Sinai, the God of the covenant with Moses. Just like the rainbow that reminds us of God’s unchanging covenant with Noah to protect the earth until his plan of redemption has been completed. Here, too, in the very description of God, we are reminded of his covenant with the people of Israel. But even more, this is a description of the character of God that he does not exercise his Sovereignty and Power to fulfill his own desires and will in an arbitrary manner but rather that his power is in service to his love for his people. And that says a lot about the kind of God we serve.
He is good. To be a good God means that he must be just, but he is also loving. It is not that he sets aside his justice for the sake of his love but rather that he fulfills his justice with his love in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. That is the character of the God we serve. And that should make us tremble even more. To be so loved that he would become one of us, be ridiculed by us, be tortured and killed by us, and to do so in love in order to save us, is a revelation of God that is more brilliant than all the precious stones in creation.
The description of God would not be complete without talking about the seven lamps before his throne which “are the seven spirits of God.” The Holy Spirit has always been a difficult concept to incorporate into our theology of God. He is a person. He is divine. He is God. That much we know. But it is always a bit disconcerting to hear him described in such “non-personal” ways like this. It’s not so much the concept of him being “seven” lamps since we know that the number seven is symbolic of completeness, fullness, and perfection. That describes the Holy Spirit well. But the concept of seven “lamps” which are ablaze with fire is something more.
John the Baptist describes Jesus as one who will come to baptize us “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16 NIV). We are reminded of the pillar of fire that the Israelites followed at night and that hovered over the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, sometimes called the Shekinah Glory of God. We remember that the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost as tongues of fire and gave spiritual gifts to the disciples so that they could do effective work in ministry and in sharing their testimonies.
It was in the New Testament experiences of ministry and salvation that the Holy Spirit was seen in signs and wonders and speaking in tongues just like he was evident in the life and ministry of Jesus. So, he is no stranger to us. But to describe him as a lamp burning with fire before the throne of God is a bit different.
The thing to remember is that this vision of the throne room of God is functional rather than merely descriptive. What that means is that God, the Father, is described in his primary role as the Creator of the Universe, even though we know that the Spirit of God and the Word of God were also involved. We see Jesus described in his primary role as the Lion and the Lamb who redeems the world through his blood. And we see the Holy Spirit in his primary role as the one who carries out the will of the Father and the Son in the lives of his people and in the events of history. In that context, the cleansing fire of God that brings men to repentance and gives them transformed lives is now, because of Christ, free to be sent out to all corners of the earth to do the will of God.
Finally, we come to the “sea of glass, clear as crystal” (Rev. 4:5b NIV). At first glance, it isn’t all that clear what this “sea of glass” represents, especially in the context of heaven. But John actually talks about this body of water quite a lot throughout the Book of Revelations. It is out of this sea that the monster arises (Rev. 13:1 NIV). It is the sea through which the redeemed must pass (Rev. 15:2,3 NIV). On the other hand, in the new heavens and new earth there will be no more sea (Rev. 21:1 NIV). It represents something unwanted, something negative, perhaps even evil.
It is true that many ancient cultures regarded the sea and the monsters that lived in it as dangerous and mysterious. Even in the Bible, there is talk of the great Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1 NIV) which is associated with the dragon and which God will defeat. It is not about the actual ocean and seas of our planet which is full of creatures and wonders that God, himself, created and called “good.” This is about a symbol that developed over centuries of fear and apprehension about the sea and the power of the wind and the waves.
People also refer to the Babylonian Creation Myth in which Marduk, the god of light and order fights with Tiamat, the goddess of darkness, and is described as living in the chaotic depths of the ocean. Although everyone living in Palestine knew of these myths, they were not incorporated into the Biblical message as some might have suspected. Rather, in the Biblical story, it is only after creation and after the rebellion of mankind that evil entered into the picture. In that context, it now becomes necessary for God to defeat the dragon and therefore certain images and descriptions could carefully be brought to bear in describing the battle that now ensues.
Still, if all of this is true, how can we say that there is a “sea of glass, clear as crystal” at the foot of the throne of God? On the one hand, nothing impure or evil is allowed into the presence of God but, on the other hand, God is fully aware of everything that is happening even in the darkest night and the vilest places on earth. The whole earth is the kingdom of God, and he is king even over those who are presently in rebellion against him. The “sea of glass” is a present reality because of our rebellion and sin and is something that God tolerates in his presence only because he loves us and has a plan to redeem us out of and through this “sea of glass.”
Just like during the Exodus when Moses raised his staff to separate the waters to allow the people to walk through on dry land, so, too, the redeemed must also pass through the waters to come to the new promised land. Don’t forget that we are talking about baptism here and the need to die to oneself so that we can be raised to new life. The symbols all are relevant to our new life in Christ here on earth.
“In the center, around the throne were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings” (Rev. 4: 6b,7,8 NIV).
The name “living creatures” makes us think that these mysterious creatures somehow represent all of creation. And we would not be far off. The faces of a man (humans), a lion (wild beasts), an ox (domesticated animals), and an eagle (birds of all sorts), would also seem to indicate the same. Certainly, there are entire species and categories of living creatures not included but that isn’t really the point. It isn’t about being inclusive but about being representative.
What many do not realize is that Isaiah and Ezekiel also had visions of these living creatures. Isaiah called them “Seraphim” (Isaiah 6:2 NIV) and Ezekiel called them “Cherubim” (Ezek 1:4-21 NIV). Apparently, they were also depicted on the sides of the ark of the covenant (I Samuel 4:4 NIV) since the ark was considered the throne of God.
And what do we make of the eyes all around them and the wings that they have? The wings remind us of the Seraph in Isaiah’s vision and represent the angels of heaven, also created beings. The eyes represent the ubiquitous nature of creation and that it indicates everything and anything that has been created by God.
Therefore, they seem to represent the entire created order both in heaven and on earth. They don’t necessarily play a significant role in the drama that unfolds before the throne since they are meant mostly to be representative of the created order before the throne of God.
“Day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:8b-11 NIV).
This is the climax that everything has been building towards. The worship of heaven. It is a worship of pure, unadulterated love. It is a worship that those on earth can only imagine because “now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face” (I Corinthians 13:12 NIV). It is difficult to describe much less feel but we see something of what it must have been like when John describes the twenty-four elders as “laying their crowns before the throne” as they worshipped.
This is the action of someone who is giving up every reward, every benefit, every honor and laying it before the God who loves them so much. They want no glory for themselves to tarnish the glory that belongs to him. They want no honor for themselves that would dare to take away the honor that belongs to God alone. They were given crowns and thrones which denote power and authority, but they would give it all up in a heartbeat to declare with their worship that all power and authority belongs to God, for he is worthy.
Not only is it remarkable that the twenty-four elders would match their worship with their actions, which is not all that common on earth, but in addition, all of creation would worship their creator in the exercise of their created glory. As birds fly, they declare the glory of the God who gave them flight. As animals live and breed and bring up their young, they declare the glory of the God who created them with all of their uniqueness and differences. In the beauty of the mountains, in the mysteries of the depths, in the clouds and winds and rain and storm, the glory of God is declared as creation fulfills its purpose as a reflection of the creativity and stunning diversity of the God who is the creator and who sustains their life.
Therefore, both in terms of creation (the four living creatures) and redemption (the twenty-four elders and their crowns of gold), all of creation join in singing praise to God the Creator of us all. It is not a surprise that they would do so since they are in heaven and can see God face to face. But that isn’t the point. They represent the earth. They represent us. And so, the question that remains is whether we are willing, here and now, to cast our crowns before the throne and worship our God in love and adoration, not for the benefits that may come our way but only and simply because he is worthy.
The Desert Warrior