A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus

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Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2016

My transition to “retirement” (that is, to full-time writing) has gone a bit slower than I would have hoped due to some unforeseen (relatively minor) health issues. I take it as a sign of a renewing vigor that last night in those often intellectually fecund moments between lights out and sleep I came up with a new title for my next writing project: Healing Politics: A Non-Apocalyptic Reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

Problems with “apocalyptic”

For some time, I have been working on a thoroughly pacifist interpretation of Revelation. I put it on hold during this past school year and expect very soon to get back to it, in hopes of completing a publishable manuscript before too long. As I have studied, taught, preached on, and written about Revelation over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that the category “apocalyptic” has misled those interpreting Revelation a great deal.

What I hope to show in my book is that Revelation is not “apocalyptic” in the sense that it fits into a genre of literature that is characterized by a futuristic focus or a sense of impending cosmic catastrophe or a sense of hostility toward the historical world. Nor is Revelation “apocalyptic” in the sense of portraying an almighty, judgmental God who will rain down destructive wrath on God’s enemies (or the enemies of the writer of the book).

It is crucial to read this work in terms of the title it gives itself: “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ” (that is, always to link “apocalypse” or “revelation” with “Jesus Christ”). This book sees itself as being a message from and about Jesus. I choose to start with the assumption that the Jesus of this revelation is the same Jesus of the rest of the New Testament. And so I read Revelation expecting that it helps us understand Jesus better and that it wants us to follow the path that Jesus set for his followers as described in the gospels.

And, interestingly (and excitingly, for me), the book actually turns out to lend itself to this kind of reading. It has become clear to me that the Jesus of Revelation is the same as the Jesus of the gospels. This is apparent once the reader’s imagination is cleared of the futuristic, cosmically catastrophic, judgmental, and pro-violence assumptions that putting it into the box of “apocalyptic literature” impose on us.

Of course, there is another entire type of reading that ironically shares quite a few of the scholarly assumptions of the “Revelation as apocalyptic literature” approach. This is the future-prophetic approach popularized in the writings of Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind books. This approach also reads Revelation looking for futuristic insights and in expectation of cosmic catastrophes—even as it is looked upon with scorn by the scholars.

So, when I conceive of my approach as “non-apocalyptic,” I am counterposing it both to the scholarly apocalyptic-literature reading and the popular future-prophetic reading. Instead, I will follow what I expect to call a “mundane political” reading. I will show that Revelation is presenting a kind of political philosophy meant to provide insight for the navigating of life in the Jesus way lived amidst Empire. And these insights remain extraordinarily relevant for us today as we also try to navigate live in the Jesus way amidst empire.

This “political philosophy” is decidedly not state-centered. It is not about politics defined in terms of who holds the legitimate monopoly on violence. It is not about politics understood in terms of who runs the world. It is a counter-imperial, a counter-domination, and counter-enemy-oriented politics—but nonetheless in a genuine sense a politics.

Biblical apocalyptic

An aspect of how my argument will unfold may be seen in my discussion of what I call “biblical apocalyptic” (what follows draws from my essay, “Biblical Apocalyptic: What is Being Revealed”).

To talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to our purpose for living in the world. “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for. In this sense of “end,” the “end times” have to do with why we live in time. The Bible generally speaks in the future tense only in service of exhortation toward present faithfulness. The Bible’s concern is that the people of God live in such a way that we will be at home right now in the New Jerusalem—not with predictions about when and how the future will arrive.

Let me suggest that biblical apocalyptic (which I differentiate from the genre “apocalyptic literature” that modern scholars have developed) actually is best understood as exhortation to faithfulness in present life. What biblical apocalyptic reveals may be seen especially in the formation of communities of faith called to resist imperial hegemony. The power that matters most in biblical apocalyptic is the power of love that sustains these communities in the face of empire.

If we focus primarily on the biblical language of “revelation” (from the Greek apokalypsis) and consider this language in the context of the rest of the Christian Bible, we will find that power according to biblical apocalyptic coheres with John’s vision in Revelation five, where the power that enables the opening of the great scroll that resolves human history is the Lamb’s power of persevering love, not the power of weapons of war and coercive force.

The term “apocalyptic” as a label for a genre of ancient Jewish and Christian literature comes from the first several words in Revelation: “The revelation (apokalypsis) of Jesus Christ.” The linking together of apocalypse with Jesus Christ provides our first essential clue for understanding power in biblical apocalyptic. The power of biblical apocalyptic is the power of Jesus Christ.

Rethinking power

Most contemporary writing on biblical apocalyptic in general, and Revelation more particularly, does not generally self-consciously link “apocalyptic” with “Jesus Christ.” We don’t allow “Jesus Christ” to shape our understanding of “apocalyptic.” To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think in terms 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, it is implied, is top-down power, the power of might and coercion, 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.

In light of Revelation chapter five, we may ask whether these assumptions about power accurately capture the sense of what John the Seer believes allows the Lamb to open the scroll. What characterizes “apocalyptic power” according to the book of Revelation?

First, the book’s self-designation as a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) reminds readers of the gospel message of Jesus’ persevering, self-giving, transforming love is the truly creative power of the universe—in direct contrast with the type of power characteristic of the Roman Empire and all other human empires (signified in Revelation as the “Beast”).

This contrast reflects Revelation’s agenda. The “revelation” of Jesus correspondingly reveals the nature of the Empire that demanded Christians’ loyalty. John’s visions disillusion. To see through eyes of faith in the Lamb and his way undercuts the Beast’s hegemonic demands. The power to perceive the character of the true God and the contrast between that character and the true nature of the Beast stands at the heart of biblical apocalyptic.

A second characteristic of power according to biblical apocalyptic may be seen in the fruit of God’s “apocalyptic intervention.” This intervention does not turn out to lead to the catastrophic end of human history nor the massive and violent punishment of God’s human enemies. Rather, God intervenes to create and sustain faith communities that stand over against Rome—in this world, not in some “after-world.”

The pictures of crises and catastrophes serve a different kind of purpose than predicting some future, wide-open battle. They portray the continual struggle to perceive that the Lamb’s victory is genuine and worth shaping Christians’ lives around. They contrast the Lamb’s claims with the competing claims from Babylon concerning the nature of power and the outcome of history.

The revelation of Jesus Christ that constitutes this book most of all reveals that those who worship the Lamb embody within their common life and faithful witness the same kind of power that enables the Lamb to open the scroll. “Apocalyptic power” finds its paradigmatic expression in the formation and sustenance of these communities. In making this point, Revelation continues in the biblical apocalyptic tradition as seen, for example, in Paul’s writing, Jesus’ proclamation, the visions of Daniel, the prophesies we call Second Isaiah, and the exodus story: God intervenes in the midst of catastrophic events most fundamentally by creating and sustaining communities of resistance.

A third characteristic of apocalyptic power may be seen in the contrast between the two ways of conquering portrayed in the book. These two ways of conquering characterize the difference between citizens of Babylon and citizens of the New Jerusalem. John does see a spiritual struggle defining human existence. It is either “conquer” or “be conquered.” But, for those who would be conquerors, the question centers on the nature of the conquering.

What kind of power gains one a reward as a “conqueror”? Chapters two and three provide hints. Hold fast to love as definitive of your life as God’s people (2:4). Listen to Jesus (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7,14). Remain faithful unto death in the face of persecution (2:10). Reject the teachings of those who advocate giving loyalty to the Beast (2:14; 2:20). Actively commit yourselves to following the Lamb (3:10). Chapter five makes the basis for conquering absolutely clear. It is the Lamb’s persevering, suffering love, validated by God’s bringing him back to life.

In contrast, the Dragon, Beast, and their allies “conquer” with violence, force, deception, intimidation, and domination. This kind of conquering seems overwhelming, “who can stand against it?” Even as John asks that question, though, he supplies the answer. Those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4) conquer, celebrating their victory with worship of the true God even amidst their trials and tribulations.

John does not intend his readers to be passive observers of God’s transformative work in creation. In fact, he portrays God’s expectations of them as being quite rigorous and demanding. Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Live in the Lamb’s empire right now; his type of power is authentic. Turn from the trust in idols and idolatrous ways of exercising power. And in doing so, you will actually play a crucial role in God’s work of transforming the nations.

The fruit of faithfulness in following the Lamb is genuine “victory.” This victory contributes both to the destruction of the personified powers of evil (the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet) and, correspondingly, to the healing of the nations and the transformation of the kings of the earth. The power of apocalyptic in Revelation is much, much bigger than simply the power to destroy or coerce. It is actually the power to heal.

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9 Comments

Filed under Biblical theology, Book of Revelation, Christian hope, Jesus

9 responses to “A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus

  1. Thank you Ted. I’ve been reading your blog for some time and I hope something comes of this. As someone who’s considered to have a ‘political’ ministry, to do with tackling poverty and building capacity, I have been thinking along similar lines (but much less methodically or coherently) for some time. The ‘powers’ that do the violence in my world are to do profit driven exploitation of people, especially those who are on low incomes.

  2. Great article, Ted. I especially appreciate the emphasis on communities of love and resistance to Empire (and its ways). This the “peace churches” have a long and good track record on. And your interpretation lines up well with a Process understanding… the vital importance of seeing God’s power as coming through persuasive and totally non-coercive love. This is the reason God DOESN’T descend with fire and sword and punish all “enemies”, and never will.

    As to the author and original hearers/readers, I think we have reliable indications they DID expect a literal coming of Christ in some form in the very near future, as Paul also had. But I allow they could have been wrong about that while still getting it right on the foundational issues, and leaving us a valuable message.

  3. rwwilson147

    So, am I mistaken in thinking that you are reducing the witness of the apostles to the person and work of Jesus to a political philosophy? That seems to be what you have said: “Revelation is presenting a kind of political philosophy meant to provide insight for the navigating of life in the Jesus way lived amidst Empire.” It seems to me that if one doesn’t accurately comprehend the spiritually conceived apocalyptic context in which Jesus and the apostles experienced Christ it is unlikely that one will understand what an Apocalypse (a revelation) of Christ is actually trying to convey to communities of faith that are centered in faith in Christ rather than faith in political life and action. Political resistance to the empires of the world has its place and purpose, no doubt, but that hardly encompasses the whole of what Christ was and is about. The social gospel seems to be a major movement withing Mennonite circles of belief and practice. Jesus came that you might have a life of social activism–god is social justice activity. Half a gospel isn’t enough for me.

    • It seems you may be creating overly black/white (or clearly separate) categories. As to Mennonite involvement, I have only a family (of my birth) connection and friends in it. But I’m in a United Church of Christ Church, noted to be involved in social support programs and sometimes “social justice” (not much in my local congregation). Your remarks relate to the UCC and other “mainline” denominations. For me and many of its members I know, it’s certainly not a matter of one “half” of the gospel or another…. The gospel is both personal/transformative and social/transformative, in the context of a community of faith and Jesus-following.

      Yes, views of the Bible, of personal salvation, etc. are seen in various ways, sometimes conflicting. Those are areas in which deeper conversation is important. But to me it expresses misunderstanding and is unfair to charge Ted’s description or social-justice-oriented churches as having “faith in political life and action” over against “faith in Christ”. Aren’t these things, and more, merely aspects of the larger whole? To many of us, they are.

      • rwwilson147

        Actually, I don’t think I’m creating the categories, just reflecting on the actual language used by Ted (and others of the progressive tribe). I think I agree that the Gospel is both personal and social, individually and culturally transformative, but it is more than either of those if the person of God is given appropriate place in the midst of those dynamics. Notice your language: “The gospel is both personal/transformative and social/transformative, in the context of a community of faith and Jesus-following.” No mention of God, forgiveness for sins, obedience to the revealed will of God through Jesus (as witnessed to by the apostles), or calling others to submission to the Gospel as actually preached in scripture. This is the water in which UCC folks swim, sorry to say.

        I understand that it is not a simple matter to develop an interpersonal relationship with God, especially because there has been no additional authoritative revelation of the person of God since Jesus’ time. But faith in God in Christ needs to be the center, not the afterthought or mere justification for a political or social movement.

    • Dan Umbel

      Hello rwwilson, I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who is critical of the “political” turn in Anabaptist theology. Your critique is entirely correct, by the way. However, I encourage you to see “faith in Christ” and “political life and action” to be related to one another; perhaps along the lines of “faith” and “works” or “gospel and law”? Using these traditional Lutheran distinctions has, for me, helped me appreciate the work of people like John Howard Yoder and Ted by placing there work primarily in the later categories. The problematic aspects of both are very clearly evident in the subtitle of one of Yoder’s books “social ethics as gospel.” I think that reduces Jesus Christ and faith in him to a social program, as you have very aptly argued.

      • rwwilson147

        Thanks for your comments and affirmation. I am definitely a faith and works in Christ kind of follower. I did a Master’s Thesis on the theology and ethics of JHY many years ago.j

  4. RWWilson, After 4 years of involvement in the UCC, I’m not quite sure myself what “waters” the UCC folks swim in. (Even some of the official statements are a bit ambiguous, while others like “open and affirming” are clear enough to be offensive to some, celebrated by others. But across the country and even within my local congregation, theological opinions differ significantly.)

    As to what I omitted, I’m not sure what you expected in a one sentence statement. Apparently a lot more. No mention of God?? One might say this by logical extension: The entire book of Esther doesn’t use the term God, in any of its several Hebrew forms, to my knowledge. Does that imply bad theology or disqualify it from the Canon?

    As to forgiveness, perhaps no concept is more important in the Bible nor in my own understanding of the Bible (even if not fully “orthodox”, whatever that precisely is). We could go more into that, but it’s afield for now.

    • rwwilson147

      Hope to meet you and get to know you better some day. Yeah, can’t say everything at any particular time, but when some things never get said,,,, one begins to wonder. BTW, I don’t know anyone that goes to the book of Esther for their theology, so I wouldn’t make too much of the purely historical nature of it. All the best to all in Chirst.

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