Ted Grimsrud—June 23, 2015
I have been interested in the book of Revelation for years. It has now been 28 years since I published my first book, a popular-level commentary on Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. I have times when I pursue this interest more, and then it lies dormant for awhile. I am currently in an upswing in my interest and hope to complete a new book on Revelation by the end of 2015. I’m tentatively calling it, “Healing Empire: A Radical Reading of Revelation.”
Revelation as radically peaceable (or not)
One way that my reading of Revelation is “radical” is that I am presenting Revelation as a peace book, from start to finish. Though Revelation has often been seen as vengeful and supportive of violence both by those who approve of the violence and those who find it repulsive, there is a long tradition of peaceable readings of Revelation going back at least to G. B. Caird’s influential commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, first published fifty years ago.
The new Anchor Bible commentary on Revelation by Craig Koester is very much in the Caird tradition, I am happy to say. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily helpful commentary, packed with great detail but quite well written and theologically engaged. Unfortunately, it’s also quite expensive.
One can’t read scholarly writing on Revelation without encountering a perspective that is contrary to my peaceable reading, however. The book that has triggered this blog post is Greg Carey, Elusive Apocalypse: Reading Authority in the Revelation to John (Mercer University Press, 1999). I also recently read theologian Catherine Keller’s engagement with Revelation, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Beacon Press, 1996). And I have on my pile of books to read a.s.a.p. John Dominic Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015) which has a short but very pointed discussion of Revelation. Of these three, Crossan takes the most negative view of Revelation: “Revelation is filled, repeatedly, relentlessly, and ruthlessly, with metaphors for actual, factual, and historical violence to come” (p. 180). Carey and Keller are pretty negative, too, though they do find some attractive elements to the book.
What follows was elicited by my reading Carey’s book. It’s a good book that I would recommend. What I offer is not so much a critique of Carey, but some thoughts in defense of my reading of Revelation as a peace book that arose for me as I read Carey. What are some pieces of evidence to support my reading?
Our starting point matters
(1) First, is simply a matter of the perspective with which we approach Revelation. Carey assumes that John has a vengeful orientation so he does not really have to make the case. This shapes how he reads the evidence. I take up Revelation with a skepticism toward the idea that John’s orientation is fundamentally vengeful. That John is vengeful has to be shown when I approach Revelation. My main reason for not assuming that Revelation has a vengeful orientation is that this book is part of the New Testament (which, overall, does not have a vengeful outlook in my opinion) and that the very first sentence of Revelation tells the reader that it is a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (note that in Carey’s subtitle it becomes “the Revelation to John”). Now it could be that John’s Jesus will be different from the Jesus of the gospels, but that is something I think needs to be established, not assumed.
As I read Revelation, recognizing it as part of the New Testament and as orienting itself toward Jesus, I expect it to elaborate on central New Testament themes such as God’s healing love and the call to follow the way of Jesus. Of course, the book must be studied for what it itself says, but what we see will be shaped by what we expect to see. What reason would we have to assume that John has a vengeful orientation—and then inevitably allow that assumption to take away the need to establish that this is John’s orientation? I am skeptical that there is a good reason.
(2) Though his assumptions about Revelation’s vengeful orientation show that Carey is not actually “neutral” in how he reads the book, he does take a detached, “scholarly,” approach more than a stance sympathetic with Revelation’s mode of resistance versus the Roman Empire and the domination system in general. It could be that the difference is unbridgeable between taking a detached, scholarly approach and, say, and approach that reads Revelation “from the inside” (that is, reads Revelation as part of my story [as the reader] of seeking peace—or, stated alternatively, reads Revelation as a part of the Christian canon from the point of view of one who accepts that canon as providing a normative source for my theology/ethics).
To read Revelation as a peace book, we probably need to start with this question: What does this book have to teach us about peace? If we take a detached, “scholarly” view without presuppositions about the book’s meaningfulness and simply treat it as an artifact to analyze, we won’t be likely to see it as very peaceable. I’d say that this latter approach, though, makes it less likely that the interpreter would be able to understand the message of Revelation accurately. It’s kind of a dilemma—can we truly understand Revelation if we don’t try to read it the way it was meant to be read?
The centrality of the slain Lamb who stands and is worshiped
(3) I believe that at the heart of why we should read Revelation as a peace book is the centrality of the vision contained in chapters four and five to the message of the entire book (and to the message of the New Testament as a whole and the Bible as a whole). These two chapters portray a worship service that begins and ends with worship by all of creation. The beginning focuses on worship of the one on the throne, the ending focuses on worship of the Lamb (that is, of Jesus). In between, we learn why the Lamb is worshiped. Due to his persevering love that lead to his death and his vindication by the one on the throne through resurrection, he demonstrates what allows “the scroll” to be opened (5:6)—that is, what allows history to reach its culmination.
I suggest that everything that follows in Revelation should be read in light of this vision. There are, of course, images that seem to be in tension with the peaceable message of Revelation five. However, just about all of those images are at most ambiguous and open to different interpretations. None of them flat out contradict Revelation five. If those discordant but ambiguous images are seen as intended by John to support the vision of the slain Lamb standing and being worshiped, they will be seen quite differently than if they are seen as intended to convey a message of punishing vengeance. Carey does not discuss the Lamb vision in relation to the overall message of the book.
“Blood” and how God conquers
(4) Another key image in Revelation is that of “blood.” It is fascinating and enormously instructive to trace the use of blood in the book. Remarkably, in the face of those views that portray Revelation as vengeful and violent, never once in the entire book are we told that any of God’s human enemies have their blood shed (one possible exception is the picture in Revelation fourteen of blood rising to the bridle of a horse [14:20]—this is a key ambiguous image that reads quite differently in light of Revelation 4–5 and the way “blood” is used everywhere else in the book; here’s a fuller discussion of this point).
The “blood” in Revelation is always shed by Jesus or by his followers. Jesus’s blood signifies his faithful witness in his life and it heals those who follow his faith. The “blood” of Jesus is in fact the “weapon” that defeats the powers of evil; that is, the conquering that God, the Lamb, and their people do in Revelation is the nonviolent conquering of persevering love. That “Lamb’s war” is a war fought with the weapons of the word of truth and the faithful witness of Jesus’s message. Carey does not seem to notice this dynamic.
(5) Another key point in Revelation that is not noted by Carey is that the story makes a crucial distinction between human beings who stand against God and the spiritual forces of evil personified by the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet. Revelation certainly holds out the possibility that the human enemies of God (“the inhabitants of the earth” and “the kings of the earth”) may remain committed to the Dragon to the bitter end. However, only the evil Powers are actually throne into the lake of fire. The “destroyers of the earth” who are “destroyed” are the Powers, not the people. In the end, the presence of the kings of the earth in the New Jerusalem and the report of the healing of the nations (presumably the “nations” who opposed God) points to the conclusion that the focus of the judgment in Revelation is on these Powers, not on human beings. And when the Powers are gone, the humans who had allied with them have hope for healing.
Revelation’s sophisticated theodicy
(6) One of the difficult to interpret elements of the story is the jarring juxtaposition of the Lamb who conquers through persevering love in chapter five and the Lamb who breaks the seals of the scroll beginning in chapter six, leading to series of terrible plagues of violence and death. It seems possible to me that what we actually have with these seemingly contradictory pictures is a fairly sophisticated attempt by John to portray a way to navigate the perennial tension between belief in a good God and the awareness of terrible suffering and injustice in the world. John actually gives us a picture of God being somewhat removed from the plagues—with a sense that the main forces that directly cause destruction are actually the evil Powers. These Powers serve God’s “wrath” in the sense that they contribute to the consequences in the world of human beings turning from God.
Here is where the vision in chapter five (and the way it is reinforced throughout the book in the emphases on the faithful witness of the Lamb and his followers) is crucial. If we see it as central, we will be better able to see the plague visions as a way of conveying a sense that the world is home to a great deal of violence and injustice—driven by the oppressive obsessions of the Dragon and its servants (including, especially, the great empires such as Rome). How does God “conquer” those powers and bring healing in face of the violence? If God tried to conquer using vengeance and divine violence, the spiral of death would only be accelerated. Instead, God’s answer is to break the spiral through persevering love. It’s crucial to note that Babylon goes down due to drinking the blood of the saints (chapters 17–18) and the Rider on the White Horse rides forth to battle with his blood already having been shed and armed only with his word of testimony (the sword coming out of his mouth, chapter 19). Again, Carey seems not to notice these points.
Salvation for the many
(7) A final key point of interpretation that is crucial for our peaceable versus vengeful question has to do with John’s sense of who finds salvation. Is John’s vision narrow, holding out hope for only a tiny remnant while the vast majority of humankind faces the vicious sword of God’s condemning judgment? I think not. Only a selective reading of the book, following the assumption that the book is mainly about vengeance, could fail to see the strong universalist tendencies that are present throughout.
Throughout the book we have worship scenes. These scenes are not peripheral tangents, but actually help make up the core message of the book and serve to help us understand the plague visions. The worship scenes are notable in how all-encompassing the worshiping community is understood to be. Over and over again we read of the worshipers coming from every tribe and nation and language. The victory is for everyone!
A key vision comes in chapter seven. If read perceptively, this vision turns the famous number 144,000 on its head—this is not number denoting a limited sense of salvation but is actually a symbol for an expansive sense of salvation. In chapter five, John heard a narrow view of messiahship, but saw the Lamb worshiped by all creation. Then, in chapter seven, John hears the 144,000 but then sees an uncountable multitude. Clearly, these two groups are the same—the 144,000 defines the group as the people of God; the uncountable multitude tells us who makes up this people.
This universalistic inclination is supported elsewhere, culminating with the key mention of the kings of the earth (symbolizing God’s human enemies) healed and present in the New Jerusalem where, crucially, the door is never shut.