Ted Grimsrud—September 21, 2014
For me, the book of Revelation has turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Going back to when I, as a 20-something set out to disprove my pastor’s claim that Revelation’s violence means we shouldn’t be pacifists—I have lived pretty closely with Revelation. It’s like, when I face a challenging issue—say, war and peace, the character of God—I turn to Revelation. The book has not let me down yet. So, in thinking about how Christian faith and our environmental crises interrelate, I expect Revelation to have something helpful to say.
In this paper I ask, is there a message in Revelation that might encourage Christians to “care for God’s creation, for the land and all that lives in it”? To remove the element of suspense, I answer this question with a vociferous yes! Maybe the suspense that remains is to wonder how I could possibly support such a conclusion.
Revelation and the destruction of the world
Many different approaches to Revelation all seem to see it as our prime biblical example of “apocalyptic” writing—writing characterized by an expectation of a sudden and violent end to the world we live in. To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think of visions of fire from the sky that judge and destroy. The “apocalypse” is a time of catastrophe, of dramatic change, the end of what is and the birth of something drastically new and different. Apocalyptic power is the power of vengeance and judgment. As a consequence of God’s exercise of such power, every knee is forced to bow before God—either in joyful submission or in defeated submission.
There are those we could call the “cultured despisers” of Revelation—including some who avoid Revelation because it is too violent and judgmental and some in the scholarly guide who see Revelation as a prime example of how the early Christians expected an immediate apocalypse in their lifetimes. And, on the opposite extreme there are those in the future-prophetic school who understand Revelation, to be predictive of actual events in human history. Future judgment, destruction and re-creation, vengeance and reward. The earth will be consumed—praise God. All three approaches agree; Revelation teaches a pessimistic theology in relation to the world we live in. We would have to go elsewhere for a constructive environmental ethic.
However, there is a fourth approach—what we could call the peaceable Revelation approach. Revelation is not about the destruction of creation. Revelation scholars such as Barbara Rossing and Mark Bredin, whose book is called The Ecology of the New Testament, have made the case that Revelation actually articulates a pro-creation perspective.
A call to human activism
I mean to complement these writers when I talk about how Revelation portrays the human role in moving history forward. Contrary to many readings of Revelation that see God as all-powerful and human beings as passive, I believe the book actually makes a case for human activism. Revelation calls for faithful discipleship. This discipleship plays a major role in the resolution of the book, where the destroyers of the earth are destroyed and the creation is healed.
God’s victory through love is central from the start. “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). Jesus lived faithfully, resolutely resisting the ways of domination. Such a life free from sin cost him his life—but such a life also empowers others to find liberation from the ways of domination. That is, Jesus “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father” (1:5-6). The conquering that God does will be done through Jesus’s blood.
The entire book is oriented around the seven messages in chapters two and three. Those who hear these messages will conquer—like Jesus does. John, the author, artfully and speedily fleshes out his concept of “conquering” immediately after the seven messages. The messages conclude with the exhortation to the congregation at Laodicea—“To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” 3:21. Then we are transported to God’s throne room itself.
In chapters 4 and 5 John describes a worship service that begins with praise for the one on the throne and ends with the same “congregation” offering identical praise to the Lamb. In the middle, the focal point, we learn the basis for this praise. First, no one can “open the scroll” held in the “right hand of the one seated on the throne” (5:1). John grieves, perhaps fearing that all the terrible self-destructiveness of the human project will remain unresolved. But don’t weep, John! One has been found. The Lamb that was slain—the “faithful witness”—stands. His “blood” (his faithful witness) has been vindicated and has resulted in life. And every creature sings in praise.
This vision fuels the seven messages’ exhortation to conquer. Humans are responsible, responsible to resist Empire and embody true shalom. What follows in Revelation expands on that exhortation to conquer—and helps illumine why “blood” is so central. “Blood” becomes a potent symbol for following the way of Jesus in the midst of Empire, a way does that lead to conflict and possibly death. But “blood” is not a symbol for death, per se—and it’s certainly not a symbol for punishment—but a symbol for faithful living without fear of death.
A central metaphor: “Blood”
Each mention of blood in Revelation refers either to Jesus’s blood or the blood of his followers. We never read of the blood of God’s enemies being shed. “Blood” does not connote destructive divine dynamics toward creation. God deals with those rebellious powers through the self-sacrificial shedding of blood by God’s people (most notably, Jesus, the Lamb), not the aggressive shedding of the blood of those inhabitants of the earth who ally with the powers. Let’s trace how blood is used.
At the beginning of Revelation, we are told that Jesus is the faithful witness who loves us and frees us from the power of sin by his blood—by his ministry as faithful witness. He’s a faithful martyr whose life of patient, nonviolent resistance shows the path toward liberation.
Then, in chapter five. Jesus, the executed and resurrected Lamb is shown to be the true Lion of Judah (that is, the Messiah) who has the power to open the great scroll. Jesus is praised, “you are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed (you freed), for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
In chapter 7, the same point is made again. We have an amazing vision of the 144,000 who are actually a countless multitude who find healing amidst the terrible plagues. They praise God and the Lamb. Who are these multitudes? “These are the ones who come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).
In chapter 12, John emphasizes again the faithful witness of the Lamb to the point of crucifixion. Those who trust in God’s ways “have conquered [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
So, this is what “blood” signifies: Jesus’s life, and other lives lived in solidarity with his. It’s the willingness to stand against violence and oppression and for compassion and shalom. Such life leads to some kind of cross, resistance from the powers-that-be, and self-sacrifice, possibly even death. And, we will learn from what comes later in Revelation, this self-giving love actually is the very force that takes down the Powers and brings in the New Jerusalem.
“Blood,” then, is not retributive violence from God. “Blood,” then, does not signify death, per se. “Blood,” then, is not about God punishing those who are found to be outside the narrowly defined boundaries of doctrinal or ritual “truth.” In fact, “blood” signifies life for the multitudes. Blood signifies the ultimate healing of the nations and even the healing of the kings of the earth. “Blood” signifies the battle that was already won in Jesus’ faithful living—and guarantees that healing is God’s final word.
“Blood” and the destruction of earth’s destroyers
The next reference to “blood,” in Revelation 14 the most challenging in the book. This chapter follows the terrible vision of the Beast in chapter 13. The people cry out, “who can stand against the Beast?” We get the answer right away—the Lamb stands along with the 144,000 (that is the great multitude of chapter seven who follow the Lamb). The Lamb wins due to what many translations call “patient endurance” but could just as well be translated “nonviolent resistance”—the path of love and compassion followed consistently in face of the Beast’s terrors.
Chapter 14 concludes with two “harvest” visions. The first is a harvest of grain gathered by “one like the Son of Man.” This is Jesus gathering his people for the “wedding supper of the Lamb” that we see in chapter 19, the celebration that leads to the coming of the New Jerusalem.
The second harvest vision, of the grapes, is more complicated; how we understand it depends on what we think the blood metaphor refers to. I think what we have here is another image meant to encourage followers of Jesus to faithful witness. The angel who reaps the harvest of grapes comes “out from the altar” (14:18)—linking back to the image of the martyrs under the altar in chapter 6. The grapes are harvested and thrown into “the great wine press” that was “trodden outside the city”—a reference to the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. Later, we will read of the Great Harlot (another symbol for Babylon) drunk on the blood of the saints. And it is this “blood” that will lead to Babylon’s downfall.
What all this tells us is actually simple, even if the images are complicated. Jesus is our model. He lived his life as a faithful witness whose commitment to nonviolent resistance led to his execution by Empire. This life that led to execution, vindicated by resurrection, is what “blood” refers to. The picture in Revelation 14 means to show that this “blood” of Jesus, joined by the “blood” of his followers, is the very means of God to bring about the world’s healing.
Now, the most gruesome aspect of this vision is that the blood “flowed…as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about 200 miles” (14:20). This is too much blood even to imagine, and is a terrible image if we think it signifies punitive violence. But it actually means something else. In chapter seven, the 144,000 turns out to be a countless multitude whose robes are made white in the blood of the Lamb. The idea with this bridle-high blood, I think, is that the love of Jesus and his followers is abundant enough to heal the countless multitudes!
The role of “blood” in relation to the healing of creation is made more explicit in chapter 17. We read that the Harlot (who is Babylon) is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (17:6). The saints follow Jesus wherever he goes (14:4). They resist Babylon’s corruption and injustice. Notice there is no hint that the Harlot’s blood is shed. No hint that the blood of the kings of the earth, or that of the inhabitants of the earth who serve Babylon, is shed. It is only the blood of the saints—and of the Lamb—that is spilled. The one on the throne and the Lamb are not blood-shedders; only the Dragon and the Beast shed blood.
Chapter 18 tells us what the consequences for drinking this “blood” will be for Babylon. Babylon shared her beverage with her minions. The “blood of the saints” turns out to be the Babylon’s downfall. Though the imagery is gruesome, the message is simple—Jesus’s thoroughly nonviolent testimony has been embodied in the lives of the saints and becomes a poison to the Powers of evil. This blood takes Babylon down, not by shedding Babylonian blood but by breaking the hold that the Beast and Dragon have on the inhabitants of the earth. The blood of the Lamb and of his followers frees people to embrace the Lamb’s ways—their “conquering” is a blessing for the inhabitants of the earth, not their destruction.
In 18:20, the call to rejoice at Babylon’s fall, states, “God has given judgment for you [saints and prophets] against her.” Judgment because Babylon is where the blood of saints and prophets is found. These images link back to chapter 6 when the witnesses under the altar (surely the same as chapter 18’s saints and prophets) cry out for vengeance. That cry is now answered.
But there is a key difference between what the witnesses ask for in chapter 6 and what they are given in chapter 18. In 6, they ask for vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth.” But in 18, they are told that God’s judgment is against Babylon. Babylon goes down like a large millstone being thrown into the sea—but the human allies of Babylon stand far off and watch.
The final reference is in chapter 19. The rider on the white horse (that is, Jesus) goes forth to the “battle of Armageddon” with his robe already bloody (19:13)—this likely alludes to Jesus’s “faithful witness” that the rest of the book sees as so crucial to “conquering.” And then, rather than actually fighting and shedding the blood of his enemies, the Rider simply captures the Beast and False Prophet and throws them into the lake of fire (19:20).
God’s justice and the healing of creation
In the end, God’s justice works differently than simple punitive vengeance focused on the inhabitants of the earth. What Revelation portrays is destruction of the systems of evil. It is the human city insofar as it is organized for injustice that goes down. But with what consequence for the human kings of the earth? The consequence for the kings of the earth is that they are healed. They themselves are welcomed into the New Jerusalem—as, too, is the glory of the nations, the glory of the human city (insofar as the human city is humane).
This outcome underscores the significance of how the one on the throne, the Lamb, and the followers of the Lamb conquer. They conquer through faithful witness even to the death, not by shedding the blood of their enemies. As a consequence, healing even for those enemies is possible. It’s the difference that theoreticians of nonviolence talk about when they point out that a nonviolent revolution would not destroy infrastructure and create permanent enemies—but instead make reconstruction after the revolution much more likely. The meaning of “blood” is the non-coercive, patiently transforming power of self-giving love. It is only used of Jesus and his followers. It is his means of victory, of conquering—and is the means by which his followers also conquer. This is the message of Revelation: The Lamb has conquered; let us him follow.
Applying Revelation to our care for creation
John’s direct concern in this book is to encourage resistance to the ways of the Roman Empire. Give loyalty to the Lamb and do not join in the Empire’s ways of domination. However, more generally, the message of Revelation also may easily be applied to present-day life amidst our “plagues” of environmental degradation. I close with a few comments about this.
- Our current empire is one key source of our environmental crises. Revelation provides images and analyses that encourage our suspicion of the kinds of claims for “national security” that directly lead in myriad ways to environmental destruction and cause a devastating diversion of resources away from working to heal the earth and toward weapons of war.
- At the heart of Revelation’s call to resistance is the sense that such resistance should be gentle, patient, persistent, life-affirming, and constructive. Such an approach may be applied as well to the politics of resisting environmental evils. The call to conquer in Revelation is not a call to feverish, means-justify-the-ends, can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-eggs energy. It’s rather for resolve patiently to remain consistent to the Lamb’s way, to remain clear about the problems with Empire, and to embody life-giving approaches to life.
- This sense of resolve could be seen to underwrite a gentle approach to the land. One of the biggest problems with how Revelation has so often been misread is that people of faith have missed the gentleness of the message of the book. Sure, there is the language of “conquering,” but this is an upside-down image. Conquer by being gentle, patient, and compassionate—not by dominating and overpowering. The power that is truly powerful in Revelation is power as service, cultivation, and co-existence not power as top-down control.
- And, finally, the ultimate focus of Revelation’s imagery is healing—in the realms of politics, environment, religion—as we see with the leaves of the tree of life in the New Jerusalem. I read this mostly as an exhortation for the present: If you want healing to come, act right now consistently with that. No matter what.
[This post is adapted from a paper presented at “Rooted and Grounded: A Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship,” Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, September 20, 2014.]