It has been mentioned before but since we have been discussing environmental issues on another thread, I thought it might be timely to discuss Rev 11:18 which has recently become a popular text for those Christians concerned about environmental threats of pollution and climate change. Is this passage being interpreted correctly? Did the writer somehow anticipate the modern environmental situation, or did he intend something more in keeping with the Bible's general concerns of morality and sin?
First, what does the Greek say?
Secondly, how does the context help to interpret it?
Third, are there parallels outside Revelation to compare?
First, the Greek for "ruin" is diaphtheirai it is defined as "morally corrupt, defile, destroy" and is used numerous times in the NT and in the Greek translations of OT. So the Greek can mean "destroy those who are corrupting the earth" which would be perfectly consistent with the general message of the authors of the Bible, but is this the best interpretation consistent with the context?
Secondly, does the context help? Yes, rev 19:1,2 says:
“After these things I heard a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power belong to the Lord our God! “For true and righteous are His judgments, because He has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication; and He has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her”
Here in the context of Revelation the word clearly supports the meaning of people morally ruining or corrupting the earth.
Third, are there parallels outside Revelation? Yes, many. In those usages a variety of shades of meaning is meant, consistent with the definition above. For example 1 Tim 6:5
These people always cause trouble. Their minds are corrupt, and they have turned their backs on the truth. To them, a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy.
A notable parallel in application among them is Gen 6:11 (LXX) which gives as justification for killing everyone in a flood:
11 But the earth was corrupted before God, and the earth was filled with iniquity.
The LXX Greek translation here at Genesis uses the same Greek word we are discussing. This is significant as the author of Revelation was most likely using the LXX and made countless allusions to, and drew heavily from, the OT.
Considering the global environmental devastation of a earth-wide flood killing everything outside the ark, I doubt the authors of the Bible though of their god as concerned about environmental impacts.
While I have not been able to pinpoint an exact moment when this passage in Rev 11 was reinterpreted as an environmental ruining it likely was pretty recent when the topic became of interest. If someone has the resources to do a search as to when the WT first applied this passage with an environmentalist spin, I'd love for them to share it. I suspect it was no earlier than the 1960's.