On the assumption that the book of Revelation is an apocalyptic summary of the gospel, it can doubtless make its contribution in helping us to understand Romans 8:18-25. (1* See my Romans 8:18-25.)
The Four Living Creatures
Many commentators would have us believe that the four living creatures of 4:6, etc., represent nature or the entire animate creation (e.g. Beasley-Murray, p.117). Wilcock, to whom I am indebted more than to anyone else for my understanding of the book as a whole, is particularly strong in his adoption of a similar view. He suggests that just as the twenty-four elders stand for the church, the four living creatures with which they are associated stand for the world (p.64). On page 68 he baldly asserts that “The world of nature, which was cursed when man was cursed (Gn. 3:17), is also to be redeemed when man is redeemed (Rom. 8:19-21). So nature joins the church in praising God, and for both he is not only Creator (4:11) but also Redeemer (5:9,10). Their song is even more glorious than that of the angels, who though they praise the slain Lamb, yet ‘know not Christ as Saviour, but worship him as King’”.
In response, I would make the following observations. First, man insofar as he is flesh epitomizes the creation from which he stems. Jesus and Paul tell us that it is indispensably necessary (Gk dei) for us to be born again (John 3:7) and transformed (1 Cor. 15:53) since flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). Second, Wilcock’s assertion prompts the question: Does creation know him as Saviour? In contrast with the angels who are differentiated from the four living creatures (cf. 5:11; 7:11), nature, both animate and inanimate apart from man, knows nothing at all and can be said to praise God only metaphorically (cf. Ps. 19; Rom. 1:20). Third, it is noticeable that in Revelation 5 the four living creatures join with the twenty-four elders (cf. 4:4-11; 5:8,14; 19:4, cf. 7:11) in singing a new song (5:9) giving glory to God and the Lamb who was slaughtered. By his blood he ransomed saints who serve as a kingdom and priests drawn “from every tribe and language and people and nation”. These are then joined by the angels and together they sing with full voice. In verse 13 a climax is reached when every creature in the universe (not ‘all creation’, pace Mounce, p.138, cf.124), both the living and the dead (Beasley-Murray, p.128), forms an apparently undifferentiated group of good and evil alike to praise God and the Lamb. This reminds us of John 5:28f., Acts 24:15, Ephesians 1:20f., Philippians 2:9-11 and Colossians 1:20.
In Revelation 7 where sealing and salvation are the theme, that representative members of the heathen majority of mankind are included can hardly be doubted. Keener suggests (p.175) that their ceaseless praise (4:8) indicates divine empowerment and the worthiness of God (7:15). Wilcock himself points out (p.208) that ‘ungodly’ Abraham (Rom. 4:5), Isaac and Jacob (who significantly, though for chronological reasons, did not belong to the twelve tribes of Israel) will be joined by many, like the queen of Sheba, for example (Mt. 12:42), from the ends of the earth (Mt. 8:11, cf. Mal. 1:11). On the other hand, many of the heirs of the kingdom who have lived under the aegis of the twelve Israelite elders will be cast out (Mt. 8:12). This conforms with what Paul teaches in Romans 2 where the uncircumcised heathen sometimes do by nature what the law requires and hence are righteous in God’s sight (2:13, cf. vv.26f.; James 2:14-26). Though the Israelites were meant to be a covenant and a light to the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47), their conduct in fact often prompted blasphemy among the heathen (2:24). It is hardly surprising therefore that some that are last will be first (cf. Luke 13:28-30, to which Wilcock alludes). It would seem that one of the most fundamental problems involved in Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Bible has arisen from persistent failure to appreciate diminished responsibility (cf. Amos 3:2; Acts 17:30; Rom. 3:25, etc.). This in turn has doubtless stemmed from the idea of a “Fall” from initial perfection, failure to understand biblical covenant theology, recapitulation or what might be called genealogical or transgenerational repetition.
The Identity of the Four Living Creatures
While Revelation 19:17f.,21, which refer to the destruction of all flesh, might lead us to think that along with the beast and the false prophet all the heathen are finally damned, Revelation 21:24-27, which refer to the nations and their honour and glory, suggest otherwise. This brings us back to what is meant or symbolized by the four living creatures. (2* I have already suggested that they represent the heathen of the world, but it is dangerous to jump to conclusions. According to Mounce, p.124, Lenski referred to twenty-one efforts at a solution!) Morris (p.91) quotes Swete as follows: “The four forms suggest whatever is noblest, strongest, wisest and swiftest in animate Nature, including Man, is represented before the Throne, taking its part in the fulfillment of the Divine Will, and the worship of the Divine Majesty”. But why unreasoning nature rather than rational man made in the image of God? It might be remembered at this point that the early church held such men as Socrates in high regard. Again, if as Rabbi Abahu taught the mightiest of the birds is the eagle, the mightiest among domestic animals is the ox, the mightiest among wild animals is the lion and the mightiest among them all is man (Beasley-Murray, p.117), why cannot they all together represent the best of heathen mankind? Since they all have one face and speak, sing and worship as one, why should they not reflect the glory of the nations (21:24,26)? Morris himself thinks they suggest the most important of created beings (p.90). If so, it is a safe inference that they are technically heathen men/women of faith who surround the throne of God along with the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11 and the Christians who follow them. All three, that is, heathen, Jew and Christian, the three covenant peoples of the world, are perfected together (Heb. 11:39f., cf. 1 Cor. 10:32) and form a new creature (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) born from above who eventually descends from heaven as the bride of Christ and is presented to him as a pure virgin (2 Cor. 11:2).
Revelation 19 and 21
These two passages from Revelation 19 and 21 also suggest something else. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. So when the ‘supper of God’ (19:17, contrast v.9) takes place and the birds are gorged with the ‘flesh of all’, the presumption is that they are human beings who, having sown to their flesh (Gal. 6:8) like animals, die like animals (cf. 2 Peter 2, Jude). “Those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10, etc.) are such. Their portion is in this world (Ps. 17:14; 49:13; John 15:19) and they will not enter the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). On the other hand, not all are tarred with the same brush as Abraham was acutely aware when he interceded on behalf of Sodom (Gen. 18:25). Admittedly, at that time only Lot and his daughters were rescued but fleshly though they were at that stage of mankind’s (covenantal) development (Gen. 19:30ff.), they eventually produced Ruth who was a Moabite and an ancestor of the Lord Jesus himself (Mt. 1:5). This surely indicates that the heathen cannot be cavalierly and indiscriminately dismissed as being of no account (cf. the Athanasian Creed, WCF 10:4 and Question 60 of the Westminster Larger Catechism).
Creature and Creation
At the end of the day it seems very odd that the book of Revelation should refer explicitly to creatures (3* Morris, p.90, says the word ‘zoon’ emphasizes life. This is reminiscent of Paul’s claim that before he, like Adam, came to understand the law, he was ‘alive’, ezon, Rom. 7:9.), yet many moderns, in contrast with the KJV, translate ‘creature’ as ‘creation’ in Romans 8:19-21, thereby rendering verse 21 at least absurd. The problem would seem to arise from traditional Augustinian theology which contrary to the implication of John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:50 dubiously seeks to redeem creation from the curse of Genesis 3:17 but rejects out of hand the morally self-conscious heathen who are made in the image of God. A better appreciation of biblical covenant theology would surely do much to bring such ideas into question. (4* See my Covenant Theology, Covenant Theology in Brief) What needs to be noted is that at the beginning, creation as such is not covenanted at all. But when after a period of human development it eventually is, the covenant with Noah only guarantees its preservation until the plan of human salvation is completed at the end of the world (cf. Gen. 8:22). (5* See further my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?) As I understand it, the present creation will be permanently and completely destroyed (e.g. Mt. 24:35; Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12), that is, subjected to the ban (cursed by fire) as Jesus implies in Luke 17:28-30. By contrast, heaven, or what is for us the already existing eternal world or age to come, will never be so subjected (herem, Rev. 22:3). In the circumstances, I suggest that the close association of the 24 elders (the church including Israel) and the four living creatures (the heathen) arises from covenant theology seen as a triad, that is, as the (dispensational) covenants of Noah (heathen, cf. Eve), Moses (Jews, cf. Adam) and Jesus (Christians) apparent in Romans 1-3 and John 1:9-12, for example. They are summed up or recapitulated in the individual as child, adolescent and adult (cf. Rom. 7-8; Gal. 4:1-7). If human beings, who know the law which promises life however minimally, can sin (break the law) in their youth (Gen. 8:21; Jer. 3:24f., etc.), by the same token they can also exercise faith in their youth. Only as babies, lacking all understanding of (the) law like the animals and creation at large, are they excluded.
There is another point worthy of consideration. There are three ascensions (cf. the three measures of meal in Mt. 13:33) described in Scripture, those of Enoch, Elijah and Jesus respectively. Why? It is difficult to be certain, but the suggestion seems to be that they are representative of the Gentiles, the Jews and Christians. (While adult Enoch admittedly walked with God prior to the covenant with Noah, he was like Abraham at a later date nonetheless heathen, but he preceded him in the course of mankind’s spiritual evolution.)
In Romans 1-3, Paul teaches that despite their gifts and calling the Jews are every bit as sinful as the heathen (3:9), indeed, arguably more so since they are more accountable (Rom. 2:24, cf. 4:15; Amos 3:2). The covenantal divisions in Romans are not between heathen Gentiles on the one hand and Jew and Christian on the other (6* Murray in comment on Romans 2:12-16, p.69, says that there is no suggestion that any who are “without law” attain to the reward of eternal life. In other words, he assumes in typical Westminster Standards fashion the universal damnation of the heathen. However, he maintained earlier that revelation is always to those possessed of intelligent consciousness, p.38, cf. his The Covenant of Grace, pp.13,15. The inference I draw from this is that faith as well as sin both of which require knowledge is therefore a possibility even among the heathen, cf. Heb. 11:1-22. And Abraham who was simul justus et peccator, at once righteous and sinful, was a prime case in point.) but between heathen and Jew who are classified together as sinful under law on the one hand (3:9,19, cf. 1 Cor. 7:19) and Christian (believing Gentile and Jew) on the other (Gal. 5:6). In light of this, the attempt to exclude the heathen while including nature which is totally devoid of intelligent consciousness in the plan of redemption not least in the book of Revelation is more than questionable. Indeed, the NT seems to exclude the very possibility of material redemption of any kind (Rom. 1:20; 1 Cor. 3:12-15; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27; Rev. 21:1). It is man made in the image of God who is the object of salvation, and it is surely sheer presumption to assume that the heathen who live solely under the covenant with Noah are to be casually and callously dismissed as an Augustinian mass of perdition (massa perditionis) (cf. Acts 14:17; 17:22-31).
Children and Recapitulation
Perhaps even more to the point is the fact that even boys (not to mention uncircumcised girls who as daughters of Eve were often classed with the heathen) in Israel were not strictly under the law of Moses until they reached their bar mitzvah at age 13. Does that mean then that like the heathen they were all indiscriminately damned if they died? Assuming that the individual (the one) recapitulates the history of the race (the many), are we not compelled to recognize that children as those born of woman, the true offspring of Eve and deceived by the lusts of the flesh like the heathen (cf. Rom. 1:24ff., etc.) were included under the covenant with Noah along with the Gentiles in general. Judging by what Paul teaches in Romans 7 this is certainly the case. There he sees himself as, first, a child of Eve (cf. 7:11, and note especially 7:14 and Gen. 3:6), second, a son of Adam who like the Jews had the law in specific form (7:12-25), and then, third, a believer in Christ in chapter 8 (cf. 7:25). I conclude therefore that if all the heathen are damned, all children are likewise. And baptism imposed on them shortly after birth apart from faith is hardly calculated to save them (pace Augustine).
Judging and Ruling
Another question is pertinent to the issue. In 1 Corinthians 6:2f. Paul claims that the saints are to judge the world. But if the heathen are universally damned, apart from degrees of retribution what is the point of judging it? Since Abraham (Gen. 18:25) and Jesus discriminate among the peoples (Mt. 10:14f.; 11:20-24; Luke 10:12-16; 11:30-32), are not the saints to do the same? Again, according to Revelation 12:5 (cf. 1:5; 2:27) Jesus is to rule all the nations. The apostles also, along with Christian believers, are to rule in the world to come (Luke 22:29f.; Heb. 2:5; Rev. 2:26f.; 3:21). The book of Revelation teaches us that the saints already rule both on earth (5:10, cf. 1 Cor. 6:3b) and in heaven (20:4,6). But who are they to rule and judge if all the nations are indiscriminately damned in what Augustine termed a damned mass (massa damnata)? Revelation 5:9 tells us that the saints derive from every tribe, tongue and nation (cf. Rev. 1:6). But it should not pass without notice that the four living creatures are included with them (v.8). Again, as we saw above, in chapter 7, after delineating the 144,000 who are sealed as Israel, that is, the church consisting of Jew and Christian together, verses 9f. refer emphatically to “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (ESV) who loudly confess that their salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb. Then in verse 11 the angels join with the elders and the four living creatures in praising God (cf. 4:6-11). This clearly suggests that the church and the living creatures are lumped together as recognizable redeemed people. And this ties in well with Jesus’ assertion in Matthew 24:31 that the angels will gather his elect, who surely comprise many of the heathen, from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Regarding the redemption of the material creation that is so frequently touted in the twenty-first century, there is not a smidgeon of real evidence in the entire NT. In the book of Revelation, rather the contrary (7:3; 6:14; 16:20; 20:11; 21:1). The temporal, visible, corruptible, obsolescent, manufactured world/creation, like the ‘hand-made’ body of flesh (2 Cor. 5:1) and the hand-built temple (Mark 14:58) which are regulated by the hand-written law (Col. 2:14), far from being redeemed is replaced by the eternal kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15; Dan. 2:44; 7:14, not ‘renewed’ as Wilcock suggests, p.198), by the new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13). The latter can be none other than heaven (cf. Heb. 11:16), the throne of God or what Jesus calls his Father’s house (John 14:2, cf. Rev. 21:3) where God and his children will live forever in perpetual harmony along with the Lamb (John 14:3; Rev. 21:1-7; 22:1-5).(Wilcock correctly, it seems to me, claims that 21:1-7 and 22:1-5 are identical, p.198. If the world is no more, pp.171,194, they clearly depict eternity, but this is hardly creation redeemed and restored! When the antitype or reality is revealed the type or shadow disappears.)
So, once more I conclude that the idea of the redemption of creation to the exclusion of the heathen stems primarily from bad theology which has given rise to egregious exegesis especially of Genesis 1-3 and Romans 8:18-25, calamitous covenant theology and the intrinsically inadequate OT. (7* The traditional attempt to posit both physical and spiritual perfection at the beginning leading to the idea of “Fall” and curse vitiates theology from the start and gives Christians a thoroughly distorted worldview. See my Worldview, The Biblical Worldview. What is more, it has inevitably meant that the very idea of development, growth, evolution, perfection (perfecting or completing process) and recapitulation intrinsic to man and most especially to Jesus, the Saviour of the world, has blinded theologians’ eyes for centuries.) Though it contains what I call intimations of heaven, the OT, lacking the revelation brought by Jesus, was basically earth-centred. The truth is, however, that the ‘good’ creation like the ‘good’ law, both of which were defective (Heb. 1:10-12; 7:18f.; 8:7), is inherently obsolescent (Mt. 5:18; Rom. 7:1; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8:13) like the body of flesh (dust) which derives from it (1 Cor. 15:42-50). God, whose aim has always been to deliver his children from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4), has something better in store for us (2 Cor. 4:17; 5:5; Heb. 7:19,22) as Revelation 21 and 22 make clear.
In the book of Revelation there are seven ‘no mores’: sea (21:1), death (21:4, cf. Luke 20:36), mourning, weeping, pain (21:4), curse (22:3) and night (22:5) all of which are features of this ‘evil’ age (Gal. 1:4).
G.R.Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, London, 1974, rev.ed.1978, pb 1981, repr. 1983.
C.S.Keener, NIVAC Revelation, Grand Rapdis, 2000.
L.L.Morris, Revelation, London, 1969.
R.H.Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev.ed., Grand Rapids, 1998.
J.Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, London, 1967.
J.A.Thompson, Deuteronomy, Leicester, 1974.
M.Wilcock, The Message of Revelation, Leicester/Downers Grove, 1975.
Re the Heathen
N.L.Geisler, The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, art. “Heathen”, Salvation in, Grand Rapids, 1999.
K.N.Schoville in The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, art. Nations, the, Grand Rapids, 1996.
See J.A.Thompson on Jeremiah 16:19f., and refs.
J.A.Motyer and Webb (pp.185f.,197), Oswalt, pp.218ff., on Isaiah 45:14-25; 49:22f.,66:18ff.
Acts 4:25-28; 14:16,17; 17:27,30; Rom. 3:25; Rev. 5:13; 15:4.