There’s a lot of confusion among Christians about the meaning of the book of Revelation and the end times in general. From movies that depict “the rapture” and God-initiated apocalyptic destruction to (my favourite) post-apocalyptic zombie thrillers, our culture—both Christian and secular—remains fascinated with how the world will end.
A popular belief that has (unfortunately) crept into the mainstream of churches today is the idea that Jesus will wage a bloody and brutal war against the nations (who follow the anti-Christ) in the end times. This isn’t surprising, considering the violent images that Revelation paints.
In Revelation 19:11-13, Jesus is depicted as a warrior riding on a white horse whose robe is “dipped in blood.” He has come to “strike down the nations” with a “sharp sword” that comes out of His mouth (Rev 19:15). We are told by John that the rider on the white horse “judges and wages war” (Rev 19:11) against “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies” (Rev 19:19). In the end, the rider kills His enemies with the sword coming out of His mouth (Rev 19:21). Taken literally, the sword Jesus uses is nothing short than a weapon of mass destruction.
Some scholars and pastors argue that we should read this eschatological account literally and futuristically—implying that Revelation was written to be a prophetic forecast of future events about the end times. Thus, it’s no surprise that some people believe Jesus will come back as a bloodthirsty warrior bent on vengeance.
But is this a responsible way to read Revelation? Probably not.
Reading Revelation with a Christo-centric Hermeneutic
We learn in the opening prologue of Revelation that what we are reading is “the revelation from Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1; emphasis added) and “the testimony to Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2; emphasis added). In other words, Revelation is from and about Jesus Christ. Taken together with the historical context in mind, the person and work of Jesus Christ should be our starting point for interpreting what we find in the book of Revelation. And from what we know about Jesus in the Old and New Testaments, He is the God of suffering and merciful love. Not a violent warrior bent on destruction. And thus anything we read in Revelation should be filtered through the Person and work of Christ as revealed in scripture. To read it through any other lens—be it prophetically, futuristically or literally—will lead us astray. And it has for many.
Locating the War in History
In my last post—Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?—we saw how crucial it was to interpret the conquest narratives in Joshua within the biblical and historical context of the ANE world. This holds true for Revelation as well. We should interpret Revelation through the lens of its own biblical and historical context—the first century Roman world. John R. Yeatts explains: “Like other biblical books, Revelation was written in a specific historical context. The content reflects the reality that it was written when Jewish Christians were under Rome’s imperial power.” 
Responsible interpreters of Revelation cannot read its contents without understanding the historical climate faced by the church when the book was composed. Most scholars place Revelation’s composition towards the end of the first century when Emperor Domitian was in power. First century Christians understood the dangers of living under Rome’s imperial rule. Many remembered or heard stories of Nero’s persecution in the early sixties and expected a coming persecution under Emperor Domitian. According to Yeatts, “it seems most likely from both the content of Revelation itself and the witness of various writers that the expected persecution of Domitian is the probable context for the book.” 
Symbolic Language in Revelation
One major characteristic of apocalyptic literature is the use of symbolic language. When we understand the symbolism, we will be in a better position to make sense of Revelation.
Revelation 19:13 – Whose Blood?
In Revelation 19:11-13, Jesus is depicted as a warrior riding on a white horse whose robe is “dipped in blood.” As noted earlier, some scholars and pastors propose that the blood on Christ’s robe is the blood of His enemies. However, this interpretation raises both theological and textual problems. From a theological standpoint, if Revelation testifies to the Person and work of Jesus Christ (as it says it does in Rev. 1:2), this image of Jesus shedding the blood of his enemies clearly does not line up with the Christology of the New Testament. And from a textual standpoint, “the tense [of the Greek word] indicates that the dipping is the permanent result of the onetime event of the cross of Christ.” The blood on Jesus’ robe is His own blood. Thus, the warrior Christ is actually the crucified Christ. The blood on Christ’s robe symbolizes His blood shed on the cross.
Revelation 19:15 – A Weapon of Mass Destruction?
Another passage mentioned earlier that depicts Jesus as a bloodthirsty warrior is Revelation 19:15: “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Rev 19:15). We are told by John that the rider on the white horse “judges and wages war” (Rev 19:11) against “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies” (Rev 19:19). In the end, the rider kills His enemies with the sword coming out of His mouth (Rev 19:21). Taken literally, the sword Jesus uses is nothing short than a weapon of mass destruction. However, when we understand that the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth symbolizes the Word of God, we are no longer led to believe that Jesus is an unstable and bloodthirsty warrior.
“[T]he beast and the kings and their armies are defeated not by violent or military might.” Rather,
They are undone—defeated by the Word of God. This passage is another symbolic representation of the victory of the reign of God over the forces of evil that has already occurred with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is by proclamation of the Word, not by armies and military might, that God’s judgment occurs. 
We can be confident that the divine warrior motif finds its ultimate expression in God’s triumph over evil through Christ’s death and resurrection.
The Word of God speaks the truth about Jesus Christ: He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). If God’s essence is love, than, we can agree with Bonhoeffer when he says: “Where Jesus is, there is God’s love.”  But God’s love is not indifferent to sin. Rather, through the cross of Christ, God’s love “experiences and suffers the reality of the world in all its harshness.”  The cross is evidence that God takes the world’s sin extremely seriously. Therefore,
Just because a christocentric hermeneutic leads [us] to conclude that God is not the kind of being who commands genocide, instantly annihilates people, or judges nations by subjecting them to the horrors of war does not mean that [we] believe God is a spineless deity who could not care less about how people behave. 
On the contrary, God deals with sin, suffering, evil and death by fully absorbing their assaults through His all-encompassing love on the cross. God’s character is revealed most clearly in the Person and work of Christ. Indeed, God’s “way of being in the world is not that of a genocidal despot but of a creative, life-giving, life-enhancing servant. He is omnipotent Lord, but his sovereignty is the sovereignty of self-emptying, cruciform love.” 
God wages holy war by way of the cross.
 John R. Yeatts, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Revelation, eds. Elmer A. Martens and Willard M. Swartley (Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 2003), 41.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 357.
 J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 51.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 10: Barcelona, Berlin, Amerika: 1928-1931, ed. Hans Christoph von Hasse (1991), 319.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6: Ethics, ed. Clifford J Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss,
Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 69.
 Eric. A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behaviour: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 2009), 206.
 C.S. Cowles, Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 99.