Ted Grimsrud—October 10, 2017
Prominent Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has written an interesting and helpful book addressing what I believe are some of the most important issues in Christian theology. In this book, How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015), Crossan seeks to provide what is essentially a pacifist approach to the perennial question about how to understand the Bible’s notorious pro-violence teaching in light of Jesus’s message of nonviolent love.
Crossan’s antipathy toward Revelation
I greatly appreciate it any time a theologian argues in favor of nonviolence, so I am grateful for Crossan’s effort. However, I have some concerns as well that were triggered by the book’s first chapter. I became aware from reading an earlier Crossan book, God and Empire, that he is not a fan of the book of Revelation. Right away in How to Read the Bible, Crossan makes his antipathy toward Revelation apparent. Sadly, Crossan profoundly misreads Revelation—at least in my opinion. And his misreading weakens the overall argument of the book.
Crossan begins the book by describing how he was motivated to write it by questions he received from audiences on various speaking engagements. So he set out to respond to those questions and to make the case that the Bible can be read to support nonviolence—especially if we understand the message of the historical Jesus as the core.
One difficult set of questions concerns the book of Revelation. Crossan was continually asked: “What about that Apocalypse from John of Patmos, what about the book of Revelation, and what about the second coming of Jesus Christ? No matter what I said about the nonviolence of the first coming, questioners objected that the second coming was to be supremely violent, was to be a war to end all wars. Put bluntly, the nonviolent Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount seemed annulled and dismissed by the later Jesus in the book of Revelation” (p. 9).
Such questions about Revelation are indeed common for me, too, whenever I speak about the Bible and peace. Although Crossan and I share the same desired outcome—an embrace of the nonviolence of Jesus as the norm for all Christians—we see Revelation’s role in contributing to that outcome in drastically different ways.
Crossan does not question the accuracy of the portrayal of Revelation as pro-violence implied in the questions he cites. Rather, he develops a strategy for, we could say, “working around” Revelation. I, on the other hand, want to argue that Revelation actually reiterates the core message of Jesus and provides an imaginatively powerful coda to the Bible’s overall peace message.
The key questions
Crossan begins his slightly more than 4-page long discussion of Revelation at beginning of the book (he will return to a fuller engagement later) with a positive comment: “The Christian Bible ends with the glorious image of a marriage made in heaven, a wedding of humanity and divinity. It is a serene conclusion that establishes a transformed world, a hauntingly beautiful vision not of an Earth ascending to heaven, but of a heaven descending to Earth. This is a sublime symbol of ultimate cosmic regeneration here below upon a transformed and transfigured Earth” (p. 9).
He goes on, after quoting Revelation 21:2-5a, “it would be hard to imagine a more magnificent consummation. The biblical story ends, as do most comedic stories and romantic narratives, with a wedding feast. And yet, and yet, and yet…” (pp. 10-11). What follows is an elaboration on these three “and yets” where Crossan attempts to show why Revelation actually ends up being the antithesis to the nonviolent message of the historical Jesus.
- And yet … “you wade to that blessed event through a sea of blood…. [We are given many] metaphors of massacre and symbols of slaughter” (p. 11).
- And yet … while Jesus is indeed “the Lamb that was slaughtered,” a “nonviolent martyr of violent imperial authority … he is also the Lamb who unleashes these terrible four horsemen” (p. 11).
- And yet … “there will be, the text says, a great final battle between the Kingdom of God and the Empire of Rome” (p. 12).
Crossan does recognize that Revelation gives us a picture of Jesus, the Lamb, as an embodiment of self-giving love and that the book is full of symbolism and is not meant to be read literally. However, he nonetheless portrays the book as giving the reader strongly mixed messages—nonviolent and profoundly violent. Rather than trying to resolve the apparent contradictions in light of the self-giving love of the Lamb as the controlling metaphor, Crossan leaves the contradictions unresolved, and in reality allows the violent symbolism to determine his sense of the overall message of the book.
I have written at great length showing why I believe that Revelation should be read, from start to finish, as a book of peace. Here, I will focus on the three issues Crossan raises with his “and yet” comments.
What about the massively bloody punitive judgment of God?
The more I study Revelation, the more clear it has become to me that understanding the metaphor of “blood” is crucial to understanding the meaning of the book. We do indeed encounter a lot of blood in Revelation. However, if we but carefully examine the various references to blood we will see that the metaphor consistently points us to Jesus’s way of persevering love that reflects God’s love of God’s enemies—not to God’s violent judgment against those enemies.
“Blood” and the pattern of Jesus. Over and over again, we find allusions to Jesus’s pattern of loving resistance to the ways of the Empire followed by persecution and even death—and then followed by vindication and renewed life. At the beginning of Revelation, we are told about Jesus (1:5-6). He’s the faithful witness who followed a path of nonviolent love that resisted the powers and led to his execution. He is described as well as the firstborn of the dead—his life was vindicated when God raised him. Because of this witness and vindication, he is also described as the true ruler of the kings of the earth. Then we are told that he loves us and frees us from the power of sin by his blood, that is, by his ministry as faithful witness. He’s a faithful martyr whose life of patient, nonviolent resistance shows the path toward liberation.
This exact same point is made in chapter 5. Jesus, the executed and resurrected Lamb is the true Lion of Judah (that is, the Messiah) who has the power to open the great scroll that tells of the ultimate victory of God. An uncountable number of creatures worship Jesus here as God, a powerful image of his divinity, of how his life revealed the character of God. The worship includes these words of praise: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9).
Yet a third time, in chapter seven, the same exact point is made. Here 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 “blood” is mentioned one more time. John emphasizes again the faithful witness of the Lamb to the point of crucifixion. And in this witness comes the power to break free from the Powers’ death-dealing grip and find wholeness. 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” (12:11).
So, this is what “blood” signifies: Jesus’ 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 an approach to life leads to some kind of cross, resistance from the powers-that-be, self-sacrifice or, as Gandhi term it, self-suffering. And, as it turns out, this self-giving love actually is the very force that takes down the Powers and brings in the New Jerusalem.
We read in chapter 17 of the “Great Harlot,” symbolizing the Roman Empire (and other empires as well), who “drunk with the blood of the saints” (17:6). And then, in chapter 18, she goes down, repaid for her deeds, “a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (18:6). In the context of the book as a whole, it is clear that what actually takes the Harlot down are “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [the] testimony [of the followers of the Lamb who] did not cling to their life even in the face of death” (12:11).
That the victory over the Harlot and the Powers of evil is the same as the victory of the Lamb portrayed in chapter 5 and not some future literal battle is made clear in chapter 19. Jesus Christ rides forth for “the battle of Armageddon” with his blood already shed (19:13). And there is no actual battle. Jesus simply captures the Powers of evil and throws them into the lake of fire.
“Blood,” then, is not retributive violence from God nor does it signify death. “Blood” 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 and the ultimate healing of the nations and even the healing of the kings of the earth (21:24). “Blood” signifies the battle that was already won in Jesus’ faithful living—and guarantees that healing is God’s final word.
In fact, all of the references to “blood” and the allusions to “blood” have in mind the blood of Jesus or the blood of his followers. There are no bloody battles where the human enemies of God are judged and slain.
Is there an exception? But what about 14:17-20, where the “blood as high as a horse’s bridle” flows, the image Crossan alludes to with his first “and yet”? These verses are notoriously difficult to interpret. They likely stand as the strongest portrayal of direct and punitive judgment from God against human beings—if such judgment is present in Revelation. However, I think it is important to notice several points that actually together provide a sense that these actually are verses that reinforce the peaceable message of Revelation.
We are not told whose blood is being pictured here—and the identity of the source of the blood is crucial to understanding the meaning of the reference to the harvest of the ripe grapes. However, as I noted above, each direct reference and each allusion to “blood” in Revelation where we do know whose blood is in mind is a reference or allusion to Jesus’s blood or that of his followers. So we surely should start with the expectation that a non-specified reference to blood would also be a reference to Jesus’s blood.
The “wine press” that turns the grapes into “blood” here is called “the great wine press of the wrath of God” (14:19). Too quickly do interpreters equate “the wrath of God” with God’s punitive anger. In fact, were we to follow the references to “wrath” throughout Revelation we see a bit more ambiguity. “Wrath,” it seems, refers more to the outworking of the consequences of human choices in history than the direct intervention of God. In the message of Revelation, we get the sense that Jesus’s crucifixion was an outworking of God’s “wrath” in that God allowed for the choices by the power elite to kill Jesus—and then turned that action into those Powers and used it as a means of actually defeating those powers. The Powers didn’t actually know what they were doing when they killed Jesus, for that act became in integral part of God’s work of salvation (2 Cor 6:8).
As well, the “wine press was trodden outside the city”—this “outside the city” is quite likely an allusion to Jesus’s crucifixion, reflecting a tradition alluded to several times in the New Testament, most directly at Hebrews 13:12 (see also Matt 21:39 and John 19:20). This allusion fits well with the general picture in Revelation that Jesus’s crucifixion is precisely the means that God uses to defeat the Powers of evil. See especially 12:10-11, a celebration of God’s victory over the Dragon: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God…. They have conquered him 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.”
Following this picture of the trodding of the wine press and the resultant “harvest” of blood, we will read in Revelation 17 and 18 how the Great Harlot is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). This “drunkenness” is linked with the “fornication” she commits with “the kings of the earth” (18:3), and the “cup she mixed” becomes the instrument of her judgment (18:6). Finally, the white rider who defeats the forces of the Dragon in Revelation 19, rides forth already having shed his blood (19:13) and able simply to capture the Beast and False Prophet and throw them into the lake of fire without an actual battle (19:20). The decisive moment was the Lamb being slain in chapter 5 and, at that point, “by your blood, ransom[ing] for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation … [to] reign on earth” (5:9-10).
The meaning of the “grape harvest.” So, how to we make sense of the grape harvest and all the blood? I think the best answer is to see it as a symbol, albeit perhaps excessively gruesome, of the breadth of the significance of Jesus’s persevering love—and that of his followers. As I just mentioned, in chapter 5 Jesus’s blood is mentioned as the basis for the liberation of “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Then, in chapter 7, we read of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” who celebrate the Lamb’s liberation and “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:9, 14).
That the blood at the grape harvest “flowed from the wine press as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about 200 miles” (14:20) is a graphic way to illustrate just how much blood was needed to wash white the robes of the great multitude. In other words, the victory won by Jesus’s persevering love is unbelievably broad and wide and deep, reaching to the end of the earth with its healing power.
But what about the Lamb unleashing plagues of judgment?
Crossan’s second “and yet” has to do with the Lamb’s role in what seems like an unleashing of God’s judgment with the riding forth of the four horsemen of chapter 6, the first of three series of terrible plagues in the book. Like many interpreters, Crossan seems to accept that Revelation makes a dizzying and seemingly inexplicable leap from chapter 5 to chapter 6.
Jesus, the Lamb, transforms from the loving, self-giving Lamb who shows he can open the scroll due to his faithful life of nonviolent resistance that culminates in the cross, to one who unleashes the terrible four horsemen, authors of unspeakable violence when he actually begins to open the scroll. However, that Jesus would be responsible for such violence simply does not make sense given the vision of chapter 5. Is there any other way to read chapter 6 and its portrayal of his role in the plagues that accompany the breaking of the seals of the scroll?
The role of the Lamb in the plagues. I think John brings together two truths in chapter 6. First, he affirms that the one on the throne made, sustains, and heals creation. The scroll that the Lamb took from the one’s right hand truly does contain the story of the healing of heaven and earth. And this healing will happen through persevering love, expressed most fundamentally in the Lamb’s path of faithful witness (5:5-6). But the second truth cannot be avoided. And it is this: The world we live in remains broken. It remains powerfully alienated. It remains the home of terrible injustices, violence, and domination. The need for healing remains all too obvious—as does the influence of the powers of greed and inhumanity.
How can we understand and affirm God’s care for creation and all that is in it in face of the brokenness that is so apparent? That is the question Revelation 6 (and the bulk of the rest of the book) tries to respond to with these horrific visions of destruction. But does God add to creation’s hurt with punishing judgment? How could this be in light of what we learned from Revelation 4 and 5? How could this be if truly we see God in Jesus, the Jesus who shows us, above everything else, that God is love? So, we remember, front and center, what Revelation has already told us about God and the Lamb. Then we look more closely at the imagery of chapter 6 itself.
Let’s note that the Lamb only breaks the seals to the scroll here. This act does not reveal the content of the scroll. These plagues are not the message of the scroll—that message is the New Jerusalem, the healing and renewing of heaven and earth. I suggest we best see the opening of the scrolls as a metaphor. The Lamb in this way provides insight into how we understand the world we live in right now. These are not visions of a future catastrophe a punishing God is going to visit on rebellious creation. Rather they are visions of the world in which we now live.
That the Lamb opens the scrolls does not mean the Lamb causes the violence and destruction. That the Lamb opens the scrolls tells us that we are to understand the various expressions of hurt and damage in our world from the Lamb’s perspective. Note the passive voice: “a crown was given” (6:2); “its rider was permitted” (6:4); “they were given” (6:8). This passive voice makes the source of the plagues ambiguous. The source actually could be the Dragon. Chapter 12 will imply this. At the least, the passive voice creates distance. If it is God, in some mysterious providential way, still God does not intervene directly. God does not reach down to make the plagues happen. Many other wills shape these dynamics—especially those who oppose God.
The meaning of “wrath” and “vengeance.” But what about the “wrath” here—“the great day of their wrath” (6:17, referring to the one on the throne and the Lamb)? What does “wrath” mean? “Wrath” in the Bible actually often means something more indirect and less personal than anger. Wrath has to do with the processes of life. We tend to become like that which we trust in the most—if we trust in lifeless idols, our hearts are darkened. We may link the wrath of God and the Lamb with God’s respect for human choice. God lets us make our choices and then face the consequences. Revelation 6, then, does not picture an active, punishing, angry God and an angry, vicious Lamb. Rather, Revelation 6, through the breaking of the scrolls, helps readers understand better the world in which we live so we might better follow the Lamb wherever he goes—the way of persevering love.
These martyrs cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:9). Clearly a cry for punishing revenge, right? The key word here is often translated “avenge.” However, the word could be translated “bring justice.” If we recognize that it is a “justice” term, our understanding of what it means here will be shaped by our more general understanding of what “justice” means in the Bible. Biblical justice is not about vengeance but about restoring relationships; biblical justice is about healing that which has been damaged. Maybe this is what the martyrs cry out: “How long before you heal creation; how long before you transform the inhabitants of the earth?”
Notice two more things here. First, each of the martyrs was given “a white robe” (6:11). The white robes throughout Revelation are the garments worn by those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. And what was the Lamb’s attitude toward those who took his life? “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Does it not stand to reason that those who are closest to Jesus, to the point that they receive the reward of the white robe, would share his views about the treatment of offenders? And then, second, after their call for justice, the martyrs are told to remain patient. This time of struggle we live in will continue for a while longer.
But how does this all end? How is the call for justice answered? Let’s peek at the end of Revelation, the vision of the New Jerusalem, renewed heaven and earth, the completing of the story from the inside of the scroll. How do God and the Lamb bring justice? The story ends in the New Jerusalem. “The nations will walk by [the light of the glory of God], and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:24). The justice of God heals even the kings of the earth, God’s greatest human enemies. How does this happen? Well, one important part is for those with the white robes to remain patient, to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, and to trust in God’s true justice.
But what about the “Battle of Armageddon”?
Crossan’s third “and yet” has to do with what is commonly understood to be Revelation’s teaching about a coming, massive and unspeakably destructive “Battle of Armageddon” where God’s angry judgment finds full expression in the destruction of the earth and most of humanity.
The set-up for “Armageddon.” However, we need to look carefully at this understanding. In chapter 16, at the conclusion of the series of visions where the bowls of God’s wrath are poured out, we are told that the Beast and False Prophet will gather “the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty…at the place…called Armageddon” (16:14,16). But then come two chapters’ worth of visions of the destruction of the city of Babylon, the Great Harlot—the home for the kings of the earth, the social manifestation of the influence of the beast. There is no battle in chapters 17 and 18. This great city commits a kind of suicide as its own death-dealing dynamics turn on the city itself and bring it down. Then there is a celebration in 19:1-10, the city is gone, the marriage of the Lamb and the Lamb’s followers is at hand.
Yet the story does not forget the promised battle. At 19:11, a great warrior rides forth on a mighty white horse joined by “the armies of heaven.” So, it is Armageddon time after all. But be attentive. We must not forget the operating dynamic of the book as a whole. Remember, the Lamb who gave his life to love and nonviolent resistance to the Powers. He has been vindicated by God and expresses the ultimate power of the universe.
The war that is not actually a war. Keep the vision of the victorious Lamb from chapter 5 in mind. Then, we won’t have much trouble seeing that in fact what happens when the rider on the white horse comes is a creative way to portray a war that is not a war. There is, in the end, no battle. It is not accidental, though, that the Rider is portrayed with battle-like imagery. In fact, he is said to “make war.” He rides a great white horse. He wields a powerful sword. The Rider is joined by massive armies from heaven.
A close look at the imagery in chapter 19 shows that in waging war the Lamb actually does not wage war. There is only one mention of “blood” in this entire scene. And it is consistent with the way the rest of Revelation portrays “blood.” Whatever battle there is, it is one without any combatant’s blood being shed. The blood here belongs to the Rider himself—and it is shed before he rides forth. The Rider “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13). The Rider is Jesus. As chapter one tells us, he is “Faithful and True,” with eyes like a flame of fire, with a sword that comes out of his mouth. He is the Lamb that was slain and raised from chapter 5. This blood on his garment is “blood” as self-giving love as nonviolent resistance to the domination ways of the empire.
None of these armies of heaven that join the Rider carry weapons. They “wear fine linen, white and pure” (19:14). The Rider is the Lamb; the “armies” are the Lamb’s followers. They are chapter 7’s multitudes who are given white robes, those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They “conquer the [dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, [they] do not cling to life even in face of death” (12:11). These soldiers do not shed others’ blood, they do not inflict suffering on others, not even on the sold-out-to-evil kings of the earth. Like Jesus, they wage “war” with persevering love.
The one bit of blood, then, symbolizes Jesus’ love that led to his death and vindication by God. The one weapon is the sword from the Rider’s mouth, Jesus’s teaching, his word of testimony, his challenge to the ways of domination, his call to love neighbor (and to understand even the enemy as neighbor).
What a strange Armageddon this is! What happens? No bloodshed. No battle. The Powers of evil, the beast and false prophet, are simply captured. The issue is not their irresistible power. The beast and false prophet are powerless when people don’t believe in them. The problem is, though, that we do keep believing in them and we give them power: we believe in the necessity of violence to stop evil and in the need to defer to people in power.
The weapon that conquers. This is why Revelation emphasizes that the weapon that conquers the Powers is Jesus’s word of testimony. Jesus testifies: the way to salvation is to love your neighbor and forgive seventy times seven, the Sabbath is for humankind not humankind for the Sabbath, let the one without sin cast the first stone, the rulers of the nations lord it over others and it must not be so among you, the greatest among you shall be the servant of all, blessed are the peacemakers. In following these words, the “armies of heaven,” that is, all who seek to follow the way of the Lamb, are empowered to conquer. When there are questions or doubts, go back to the path of love. Then the Beast can’t conquer you. Then you won’t believe in the Beast’s ways.
In Revelation 19, the Beast and False Prophet are simply captured and thrown into the lake of fire. This image describes their destruction. “Beast” and “False Prophet” in Revelation are symbols. They are personifications, not persons. These are the systems of prejudice, the structures of injustice—human culture insofar as it dehumanizes, belief systems that diminish outsiders’ humanity, the dynamics of racism and patriarchy and homophobia that socialize us to fear and lead us to marginalize and scapegoat. The image of the Beast and False Prophet going into the lake of fire is not about revenge against human beings, it’s about destroying the destroyers of the earth for the sake of all humanity. And the human enemies of God, the kings of the earth, find healing in New Jerusalem.
By choosing to read Revelation in the most pro-violence way possible, Crossan greatly weakens his argument in favor of reading the Bible as a resource for nonviolence. I believe he can read Revelation the way he does only by emphasizing what may seem to be pro-violence imagery and by not even attempting to read the book as a coherent whole. Only by thinking that John is self-contradictory throughout the book can the interpreter understand what are ambiguous references to be pro-violence—and ignore the way the violent imagery is actually turned on its head.
As I showed above, the worst of the violent images, the sea of blood flowing up to the horse’s bridle in chapter 14, is actually an image of the nonviolent victory of Jesus through his life of love lived to the end even in face of Rome’s violence against him.
Crossan’s treatment of Revelation, though, is important to buttress his overall thesis in How to Read the Bible & Still be a Christian. Crossan argues that the Bible as a whole is made up of an unresolved tension between what he calls nonviolent, distributive justice and violent, retributive justice. In contrast, I argue that the peaceable Revelation provides a resolution to that tension. The Bible, when read as a whole, with a plot, and a sense of resolution in the end, gives us a picture of the victory of nonviolent, restorative justice (“restorative” is a much better term for biblical justice than “distributive”).
The Bible does contain many counter-testimonies to the message of nonviolent, restorative justice. However, the thread that runs through the creation story, the core message of Torah, the witness of the prophets, the life and teaching of Jesus, and the “revelation of Jesus Christ” that closes the Bible makes clear that we do have coherence and clarity that provide us with a strategy for dealing with the counter-testimonies.