We travel far and wide in Revelation. From the depths of the bottomless pit in the center of the Earth to the tippy top of Mount Zion, the setting changes from moment to moment. So where is exactly is this whole thing happening?
The setting of Revelation is actually an intangible vision in John's head. Though he's geographically trapped on the island of Patmos, John uses his mind to take us with him on his journey through the outreaches of the universe.
Let's review the fantastic voyage.
First stop on the Divine Vision Express is the Heavenly Realms (4:1-8). Here God is on his throne and all is well. The place is gleaming and shining and beautiful. The Lord is there in all his majesty and glory along with a heavenly entourage of worshippers who think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. Actually, they're pretty sure he's the reason there is sliced bread. If there was even sliced bread back then.
The book also ends with a description of the New Jerusalem, where all the faithful will live in harmony with God for ever and ever (21:1-27). The streets are paved with gold—literally. The walls are also encrusted with jewels. The place is made to some very specific and symbolic measurements, which make it the most holy and wonderful town in the universe. Trust us, God knows how to decorate.
Compare that to the places the evil folks hang out.
For starters, there's the Bottomless Pit (9:1-3). When it's opened (the angels usually keep the thing locked up tight), smoke comes out and blocks the sun. Then terrifying locusts emerge. Then an evil angel. Finally, the Devil gets locked there for a thousand years (20:2-3). Yeah, it's not a nice place.
And don't forget the Lake of Fire (19:20). It's a place of ultimate punishment where the damned burn in a sea of boiling hot sulfur for all eternity. John calls it "the second death" (20:14) so you know it's going to fall a little short of a five-star rating. It's also the final resting—or should we say unresting—place of the two Beasts and the Dragon.
Not exactly our idea of a swell vacation getaway.
Speaking of a thousand years, that's about how long it takes Revelation to fully play out. It's actually over a millennium when you add everything up. That's a lot of death and torture.
The only good news is that John probably doesn't mean all these time periods literally. When he says that locusts will torture people "for five months" (9:5) or Satan will be "bound […] for a thousand years" (20:2), it probably doesn't mean that these things will happen exactly within those time frames. God's clock might be a little off, after all. When he spouts off all these numbers, it's possible he just means these events will last for "a really long time." Ouch.
Another place you might want to avoid until this whole Apocalypse thing blows over is Earth. Specifically the parts of the Earth covered by the Roman Empire and its allies.
Overall, the world is not a pretty place to be during the Armageddon. There are mountains falling from the sky. Rivers of blood. Crazy plagues. Hideous creatures torturing everyone. And the whole place is covered in darkness. We demand a refund.
And why is this happening? Because God is ticked. If we're being exact, we'd say he's ticked that his people are being dissed. And by dissed we mean killed in brutal and terrifying ways.
Revelation was written around 95 CE (source, p. 1187). That's towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian. Like his predecessor, Nero, he also might not have taken too kindly to Christians and their unwillingness to submit completely and fully to the holy authority of the Empire.
There's some debate about just how much persecution was going on during the time Revelation was written. Scholars think that the Roman Empire was a pretty quiet place for Christians between the years 64 and 250 CE, when Diocletian really started to turn up the heat… by boiling people in oil (source, p. 1187).
But even if no Empire-wide anti-Christian drives were going on, that didn't mean that local persecutions weren't happening. Because Christians refused to worship Roman gods or take part in traditional Roman life (like wearing fancy clothes, going to games and events, and using money) they kind of stuck out and made other people a little angry. After all, who doesn't like to watch gladiators fight to the death? Christians were seen as pretty anti-social (source, p. 1288).
The Set Up
The role of the setting in Revelation feeds into all this. Christians should keep the faith because there's a big reward in it for them—living in the shining city in the sky, for one. However, if you want to go ahead and take the easy way, there's also an alternative home waiting for you for all eternity. We just hope you're not allergic to sulfur.