To avoid hell avoid women

An examination of Revelation 14:4

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons)

The first Muslim apologist to mention this verse as an argument against Christianity was Shabir Ally in a debate that he had with Sam Shamoun. In the debate the former cited the eminent theologian Prof. William Barclay after Sam Shamoun charged him with misrepresenting the text. Sam Shamoun came back and dismissed William Barclay’s interpretation as erroneous and offered his own instead. Shabir Ally rebutted saying that Sam Shamoun hadn’t read William Barclay and how then could he simply dismiss Barclay’s interpretation as erroneous. Some weeks ago I posed the verse to a Christian who goes by the nick name ‘madmanna’ on Paul William’s blog which prompted a rather interesting discussion between the two of us that later unfortunately turned somewhat stale.

In this article I wish to shed some light on the verse further and show that alternative views abound despite conservative ones that are taken for granted by those like madmanna. The verse in question reads, “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb,”. Echoing conservative interpretation of the text madmanna simply says that the verse is symbolic and metaphorical and should not be taken literally to mean that virgins without any experience in sexual intercourse in or out of wedlock are being spoken of here, but rather those who keep themselves spiritually clean from moral impurity and idolatry. Commentaries that can be cited to support madmanna’s position include Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Liberty Bible Commentary and others. Is there a consensus view among Christian scholars that the verse ought to be taken metaphorically or symbolically rather than literally? The answer is of course no. I have mentioned earlier that Shabir Ally cited William Barclay who propounds an interpretation that does not agree with madmanna’s or Shamoun’s stance. Barclay says:

Rev. 14:4a

These are they who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins.

We take this half verse by itself, for it is one of the most difficult sayings in the whole of the Revelation, and it is of the utmost importance to get its meaning clear. It describes the unsullied purity of those who are in the company of the Lamb, but in what does that purity consist?

(i) Does it describe those who in sexual relationships have been pure? That can hardly be the case, for the people in question are described, not simply as pure, but as virgins, that is, as those who have never known sexual relations at all.

(ii) Does it describe those who have kept themselves free from spiritual adultery, that is, from all disloyalty to Jesus Christ? Again and again in the Old Testament we find it said of the people of Israel that they went awhoring after strange gods (Exo.34:15; Deut.31:16; Judg.2:17; Judg.8:27,33; Hos.9:1). But this passage does not read as if it was metaphorical.

(iii) Does it describe those who have remained celibate? The days soon came when the Church glorified virginity and held that the highest Christian life was possible only for those who renounced marriage altogether. The Gnostics held that “marriage and generation are from Satan.” Tatian held that “marriage is corruption and fornication.” Marcion set up churches for those who were celibates and from which all others were barred. One of the greatest of the early fathers, Origen, voluntarily castrated himself to ensure perpetual virginity. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (11) it is the charge of Demas against Paul that “he deprives young men of wives and maidens of husbands by saying that in no other way shall there be a resurrection for you save by remaining chaste and keeping the flesh chaste.” There is a record of a Roman trial (Ruinart: Acts of the Martyrs, 27th April, 304) in which the Christians are described as “the people who impose upon silly women and tell them that they must not marry and persuade them to adopt a fanciful chastity.” This is precisely the spirit which was to beget the monasteries and the convents, and the implication that everything to do with sex and the body is wrong.

This is far from the teaching of the New Testament. Jesus glorified marriage, saying that for this cause a man left his own family and was so closely united to his wife that they were one flesh, and warning that what God has joined no man may put asunder (Matt.19:4-6). In his highest teaching Paul glorified marriage, likening the relationship of Christ to his Church to the relationship between man and wife (Eph.5:22-33). The writer to the Hebrews lays it down: “Let marriage be held in honour among all” (Heb.13:4).

What, then, are we to say of our present passage? If we are to treat it honestly, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it praises celibacy and virginity and belittles marriage. There are two possible explanations.

(a) It is possible that the writer of the Revelation did mean to exalt celibacy and virginity; the likelihood is that he was writing about A.D. 90 when this tendency was already in the Church. If that is so we will have to lay this passage on one side, because, tested by the rest of the New Testament, it is not a correct statement of the Christian ethic.

(b) There is another possible interpretation. When scribes were copying New Testament books they often added notes and comments in the margin, to explain the text. It may well be that some scribe in later days, copying this passage wished to give his opinion as to who the one hundred and forty thousand were; and added in the margin: “This means those who never defiled themselves with women and who remained virgins.” This is all the more likely since many of the later scribes were monks. When the manuscript was recopied, the comment in the margin may well have been included in the text as very commonly happened. This would then mean that the first half of Rev. 14:4 is not the words of John at all but the comment of a scribe. [1] (emphasis added)

Thus according to Barclay Revelation 14:4 (These are they who have not made themselves unclean with women; for they are virgins. These are they who go after the Lamb wherever he goes. These were taken from among men to be the first fruits to God and to the Lamb.) :

1. Is not metaphorical

2. Is an exhortation to virginity and celibacy

3. Is against Christian ethic when tested against the New Testament

4. Is an interpolation by a monkish scribe later

Is Barclay alone in the above points that he makes in his commentary? No, he is not. On points one and two Harvey Blaney in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary says:

“Here their purity is described in terms of truthfulness and virginity. This latter quality harks back to the Levitical ritual concerning sexual purity (Exod. 19:15), and may be associated with their following the Lamb whersoever he goeth, the One who never experienced the wedded state on earth.” [2]

Judith Covacs and Christopher Rowland in interpreting the verse cites Origen who believes that this refers to an elite group in the church and that: “He(Origen) interprets 14:4 as a call to pursue perfection: the ‘virgins’ – that is, the celibate – are also called the ‘first-fruits’.”[3] They continue saying:

“The virginity of the multitude indicates the importance of continence and virginity (cf. Vir. iv). In the Coptic Apocalypse of John, the seer himself is described as a ‘holy virgin’, and the Second Apocalypse of John speaks of humans who live like angels in this age (i.e. without sexual relations, see Luke 20:34-6), although without direct reference to Rev. 14:4 (in Court 2000:47).” [4]

On point three we find support in The Book of revelation by Robert H. Mounce which says, “The major difficulty with this interpretation, however, is that it implies that the sexual relationships within marriage are defiling. This is contrary to the clear teaching of the NT.” [5] Echoing Covacs and Rowland, Mounce says:

“A number of commentators understand John to be describing the 144, 000 as an elite group of saints who have attained the utmost in spirituality by renouncing marriage with its detracting sexual relationships. They are celibates and virgins.”[6]

In a footnote(ft. 5) to the above Mounce cites Kiddle, who says that “in John’s opinion the married Christian is further from the godly ideal than the unmarried.”

Explaining further he says:

“That certain segments of the early church came to exalt celibacy is perfectly true. Jesus had spoken with approval of eunuchs (Mt 19:12), and Paul wished that all men possessed the gift of continence so as to serve without hindrance the cause of Christ (1 Cor 7:1; 7:32). As early as the second century, Marcion had established a church solely for celibates. Origen, the great theologian and apologist, was said to have castrated himself to insure chastity.”[7]

Even more forward and direct are the words of Pablo Richard who remarks:

“First, “these are they who were not defiled with women: they are virgins.” This line sounds horrible to our ears today, and, however it might be explained, it still sounds horrible. Hence it should be eliminated from new translations, and a different reading should be put in its place, one that faithfully expresses the meaning of the original text.”[8]

Richard is so horrified by the obvious meaning that the verse conveys that he suggests that it be eliminated and substituted with a new translation. Though he does not arrive at every point made by Barclay concerning the verse he does to an extent agree with point three. To resolve the problematic message imparted by the verse he suggests a fresh new translation for the verse to replace those “from new translations”. The problem with this is that the translation that Barclay gives which is found in many modern day versions of the Bible too can be traced back to the oldest translation of the Bible into English namely the Wycliffe Bible which renders the verse thus:

These it ben, that ben not defoulid with wymmen; for thei ben virgyns. These suen the lomb, whidir euer he schal go; these ben bouyt of alle men, the firste fruytis to God, and to the lomb.”

Hence it is not a matter of new translations or old translations, but rather it is a matter of the actual meaning that is found in the text. As the verse stands today Richard does concede the point that it is ” horrible to our ears today, and, however it might be explained, it still sounds horrible.”

Although there is currently no manuscript evidence for the claim that the verse was originally a marginal note by a monk that crept into the text as stated by Mounce, he does convey the idea mentioned by Barclay that, “A more common tack is to suggest that this part of the verse was originally a marginal note of some monkish scribe and later copied into the text by mistake.” [9] Similarly, Rev. Nigel Turner says, “The idea of this author, that celibacy is a particularly high Christian calling (the first fruits), has included Dr Charles to suspect that the reference is an interpolation of monkish scribes.”[10] He also points out that, “these virgins who accompany the Lamb are men, not women…” [11]  which means that Shabir Ally was right on the mark in saying that the verse suggests that “women will not enter paradise”. Some conservative quarters especially in the Protestant tradition attempt to interpret the text in a way that does not give rise to disharmony with the rest of the New Testament suggesting for example that the celibacy  implied here is not total sexual abstinence, but is rather a call to observe general sexual morality. Rev. Turner rejects such feeble attempts in no uncertain terms:

They are male ‘celibates’. It is beside the point to say that elsewhere in the NT celibacy is not particularly commended, and that therefore these saints are celibates only in the sense that they are not immoral. This author is not necessarily in line with the rest of the NT. To twist his words out of all resemblance to their real meaning, in the interest of making his ideas more palatable, is not in accord with the best traditions of Christian scholarship. [12]

The implications that the verse has are clearly pejorative to women which is why Christian scholars like Barclay are led to suggest that the verse is not authentic and even the less “liberal” like Pablo Richard is horrified by the meaning discernible from the text as it stands today.



[1] Barclay, W. (1960, June).  The Daily Study Bible Series. Revelation. Retrieved June 1, 2011, from,%20Part%20II.htm

[2] Blaney, H.J.S. (1966). Revelation. In Carter, C. W. (Ed.), The Wesleyan Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans. pp. 477

[3]Kovacs, J.L. & Rowland, C. (2004). Revelation: the apocalypse of Jesus Christ.  United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mounce, R.H. (1977). The Book of Revelation: The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans. pp. 269

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pablo, R. (1995). Apocalypse: a people’s commentary on the book of Revelation. New York: Orbis Books. pp. 119

[9] Mounce, R.H. Op. Cit.

[10] Turner, N. (1962). Revelation. In Matthew Black & H. H. Rowley (Eds.), Peake’s Commentary on the Bible. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. pp. 1053

[11] Ibid. pp. 1052

[12] Ibid.

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4 Responses to “To avoid hell avoid women”

  1. Tridax says:

    Assalamualaikum !

    Nice to see you refining the old arguments with new material and arguments. I like your style of writing too. Masha Allah. Keep it up.

    I tend to agree with the 4th explanation. Celibacy is exalted here for very good reasons . Remaining a virgin physically and spiritually through out the life time is an impossible task. No wonder only 144,000 are selected and that too only from the twelve tribes of Israel. Rev 7 :1 . So definitely all the modern day christians if they are not from the house of israel are excluded from this. Isn’t it ironic .

    • Ibn Anwar says:

      Wa’alaikum salam warahmatullah!
      Thanks Tridax. I really do appreciate your thoughts that you share with us and I certainly am elated to hear from an old friend ;). I hope you are in the best of health, insha’Allah.

      • Tridax says:

        I am fine .Alhamdulillah. I am glad to hear from you too. You are one of my favourite islamic personalities. 🙂 Keep sending your erudite articles for posterity.
        May Allah reward you for your efforts in both worlds.

  2. Tariq says:

    Assalamu alaykum, so this is true? Only 144,000 are going to heaven in christianity? Jazakum Allah Khair, It’s not taken out of context right, Insha’Allah it’s not.

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