Ted Grimsrud—December 9, 2015
Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, recently made the news with his provocative statement—proclaimed before thousands of cheering students at his college—that Christians should arm themselves to assure their ability to defend themselves against “Muslim attacks.” Responses, which have been many, range from strong support to a kind of ridicule that dismisses Falwell and Christianity as a piece. In my circles, most of the responses have been horror at what many see to be a terrible misrepresentation of the message of Jesus.
Happily, one of Liberty’s faculty members—biology professor Daniel Howell—has written a biblically-oriented response to some of Falwell’s critics with the clever title, “Falwell’s gun remarks on target.” There are many points that Howell raises that I am tempted to argue with. His Jesus is way too positive about violence, I’d say.
I want to focus on just a small part of his argument though. That’s his use of the Book of Revelation. I am sure that if Howell and I had a discussion about Revelation we would discover many differences. However, for the point I want to make here, I am willing to grant a lot to what I expect to be his assumptions about Revelation (most of all, that it is a book that gives concrete prophesies about the future—about what will be). Let’s accept that Revelation might be doing this. Even so, does his use of Revelation to support his affirmation of Christians preparing for and using violence in “self-defense”? This is what Howell writes:
“Unbelievers and others lacking knowledge about the true character of God sometimes refer to Christ’s moniker as the Prince of Peace to conclude Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching. Of course, this is one of many titles for Jesus, another being the Lion of Judah. While Jesus was exceptionally mild and meek at his first coming, we are assured by Scripture that he will not be so at his second coming. He is described in Revelation 19 as the King of kings who leads the armies of heaven on a white horse and utterly destroys his enemies with the word of his mouth (visualized there as a sword). In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength.”
Revelation and violent self-defense
Let me note several things about his points that relate to Revelation. My thoughts here would work equally well within a future-prophetic view of Revelation or a historical-symbolic view. My concern is what the text actually seems to be saying.
(1) The title, “the Lion of Judah.” In contrast to the image of Jesus being known as the “Prince of Peace” in a way that leads to the conclusion that “Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching,” Howell points out that another title for Jesus is “the Lion of Judah.” This title is used in Revelation (5:5) when John tells us what he hears after he is told that one has been found who can open “the scroll” that appears to symbolize something like the redemptive outcome of human history.
I agree with Howell that the “Lion of Judah” title definitely is meant to convey a sense of power, even violent power—anything but “wimpy-ness.” But what Howell misses is what immediately follows from what John hears in 5:5 (the sense being that he hears that the one to open the scroll is the great, long-expected Messiah—understood as a great king like David who will take the sword to his enemies). Because John sees something very different than what he hears. In 5:6 we read that what John sees is a Lamb standing as if it had been slain.
From what follows—the Lamb is worshiped by all of living creation—we clearly are to understand that the Lamb image upturns the Lion image. The Lion image reflects the expectations that many had of the Messiah, expectations that caused many to miss Jesus’s message as being the message of the true Messiah. Jesus is indeed the Lion insofar as he is indeed the Messiah and insofar as he is indeed the only one who can open the scroll and insofar as the he is the one who manifests God’s redemptive power in the world. But all of this is to be seen in relation to Jesus’s persevering love during his entire life that led to the cross. This love is vindicated by God raising Jesus from the dead and this love is seen in Revelation 4–5 as the most fundamental characteristic of the one on the throne.
So, for Howell to imply that the title “Lion of Judah” means that Jesus himself would support and even exercise death-dealing violence on behalf of God’s coming kingdom is to make the same mistake Jesus’s contemporaries made and to miss completely John’s point in using that title in Revelation 5. John means to upturn the meaning of that title and emphasize that Jesus is a messiah who practices persevering love all the way down.
(2) Jesus’s violent return at his second coming. Howell states that while Jesus was “mild and meek” when he lived in first century Palestine, when he returns “he will be not be so.” As evidence for this assertion, he cites Revelation 19—which says, Howell writes, that Jesus returns and “leads the armies of heaven on a white horse and utterly destroys his enemies with the word of his mouth (visualized there as a sword).”
As I mentioned above, Revelation five tells of the slain and risen Lamb as the key figure in the victory of God. The verb tenses in that chapter make it clear that this victory has already been won, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And it is won by persevering love, not by using the sword to kill people.
Does this change when Jesus returns? Granting that Revelation 19:11-21 may be read to refer to a future return of Jesus, nonetheless we need to read the passage carefully to understand what it actually might be referring to. Let’s notice first the Jesus rides forth into battle with his robe already “dipped in blood” (19:13). If we remember Revelation five and several other references to Jesus’s blood in Revelation (for example, 12:11: “Our comrades … have conquered [their accuser] 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”), we will be led to conclude that the reference in 19:13 is to Jesus’s crucifixion as the moment when the powers of evil were defeated.
That is, Revelation 19:11-21 is not presenting a future battle that must be waged with death-dealing violence. It is (if understood as a picture of the future) presenting Jesus as facing the arrayed forces of the Dragon and Beast already victorious due to his death and resurrection. And, the image of his bearing a sword is anything but a human-killing weapon of war. That the sword comes from his mouth (19:15) obviously refers to his “word of … testimony” with the implied reference also to how he also “did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
To confirm that Jesus is not entering into a future human-killing battle, we go on to read that there is in fact no battle. The only blood mentioned in this passage is Jesus’s own blood in 19:13. His actual enemies here are the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet. Because of the “battle” Jesus already won referred to in Revelation five, here he is able simply to have his angels capture the Beast and False Prophet and throw them into the lake of fire (19:20). They will soon be joined by the Dragon (20:10).
With these three Powers out of the way, the book goes on to show that the human enemies of God, the “kings of the earth” (19:19) will be healed and welcomed into the New Jerusalem (21:24). The “blood” throughout Revelation symbolizes Jesus’s and his followers persevering love. There is not one case of God’s human enemies having their blood spilled. The purpose of this “blood” is the healing of creation—including the potential healing even of the kings of the earth.
(3) “Real tranquility is only obtained through strength.” Howell’s concluding statement about Revelation is that it teaches that peace comes only through violence, “tranquility … through strength.” In fact, the message of Revelation, as indicated in my comments above, is pretty much the opposite. True healing comes only through persevering love that is willing to suffer, even to die. A key theme in Revelation is that Jesus’s witness—faithful life of peaceable, persevering love leading to resistance against the Dragon and Beast leading to death and culminating in God’s vindication through resurrection—is the model for all Christians. The call to John’s readers is to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). This never involves using death-dealing violence.
Of course, Revelation also insists that such a path does reflect true strength. And it does lead to “real tranquility.” But it is the strength of persevering love, even to enemies. The Lamb is strong enough to open the great scroll of 5:4. The Lamb is genuinely named “Lion of Judah” (that is, Messiah). But it is precisely as the slain and resurrected Lamb that this title comes to be applied to Jesus.
Revelation’s actual message about self-defense
The book of Revelation has a potent reputation as a book of violence. And there is indeed plenty of violence and blood in Revelation. Remarkably, though, and consistently throughout the book, the violence is perpetrated by the enemies of God, never God and never God’s people. And the blood is always the blood and Jesus and his followers. It is by accepting violence and not dealing it out, that Jesus is victorious—and how his followers might share in his victory.
So Revelation is far from providing a justification for the Christian practice of “self-defense” that relies on preparing to deal out death-dealing violence to other human beings. Such “self-defense” actually only adds to the spiral of violence that empowers the Dragon to deceive and turn people from worship of the true God, a God revealed most definitively in the Lamb.
[Look here for much more on a peaceable reading of Revelation.]