Ted Grimsrud—June 27, 2019
Let’s imagine a bright, compassionate, spiritual-not-religious churchgoer—I’ll call him “Justin.” “Justin” is a person who grew up in a fairly traditional Christian home. He experienced church as a relatively benign part of his life, though he never took the belief system very seriously. He got married fairly young to someone with a similar background, became a schoolteacher, and had a couple of kids. He’s politically progressive and likes hanging around with like-minded people.
“Justin” would not necessarily call himself a Christian—he’s repulsed by the current expression of popular conservative Christianity with its support for Trump. But he also wouldn’t call himself an atheist and he is comfortable being active in his local congregation. We could say he’s a “post-Christian” (in distinction from anti-Christian atheist, secular humanist, or even unaffiliated agnostic). What would you expect that “Justin’s” attitude about the book of Revelation would be?
If he has given it any thought, I would assume that “Justin” would think Revelation is pretty bad. He wouldn’t feel any obligation to give it the benefit of the doubt because he has no loyalty to each book in the Bible as inherently authoritative and normative. He may know about how Revelation is used as predictive prophecy by conservative Christians to, for example, justify blind support for Israel’s vicious policies toward Palestinians. He also may know that Revelation is often cited as a basis for belief in a near future terrible “Tribulation” that will lead to great punitive judgment for most of the world—and the miraculous rescue in the Rapture of conservative Christians. All this seems quite repulsive to “Justin,” and he has no reason to doubt that these views are an accurate interpretation of Revelation itself.
I would like to invite “Justin” to give Revelation a chance. I think there are good reasons for post-Christians (as well as pre-Christians and current Christians!) to look to Revelation for hopeful and inspiring guidance. I will sketch a few of those in this post, recognizing that a positive appreciation of Revelation is a learned disposition—and one that requires some nuanced reading. I can only be suggestive in the short space I have allotted myself here, and point to further explanations I have given elsewhere.
Revelation is not predictive prophecy
It is a misreading of the book of Revelation to see it as containing accurate predictions about the future that was far off when it was written. Like the other books in the Bible, Revelation was written in a specific historical moment with the intent of speaking to people in that moment. John, the author of Revelation, wrote to a group of seven congregations in the eastern part of the Roman Empire with the intent to help give them encouragement to live free from blind obeisance to Rome.
John drew on various images from the Bible (our Old Testament) and elsewhere to present an imaginative retelling of the story of Jesus and a challenge to his readers to live like Jesus did—“faithful witness” to the path of love and compassion, willingness to resist the call by the Empire to fall in line with its anti-human practices, and trust in being vindicated by the God of love and compassion. That is, John was deeply concerned with humane living in his inhumane social context. His focus was totally on his present.
John practiced the art of prophecy as “forthtelling” in challenging his readers with a restatement of the core truths of their tradition that were expressed by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus. His only nod toward prophecy as “foretelling” was not to set out a schema of far future events that would signal the coming final massive catastrophe that would usher in New Jerusalem. Rather, John did foretell of negative consequences in the near future should his readers continue to accept Rome’s definitions of reality. The Empire will self-destruct and those who trust in its ways will likely go down with it.
However, this nod toward “foretelling” was in the mode of what we could call “futurology,” the effort to project what the near future will hold based on an understanding of present day trends and trajectories. In the prophetic mode, this looking ahead was not for the purpose of guessing at what the future actually would bring but for the purpose of challenging people to follow the moral path that Jesus established.
In contrast, the type of looking to the future we could call “fortune telling” (which is characteristic of future-prophetic theology widespread among conservative Christians) where certain events are set in stone in a deterministic way and only those with special insights can know about these “signs of the times” is actually presented in the Bible as deeply problematic. Future prophetic “soothsayers” were generally condemned in the Bible as trafficking in magic and as the enemies of the true prophets.
In general, reading Revelation as future predictive prophecy requires reading it in little pieces that are stitched together with other little pieces from elsewhere in the Bible (for example, the term “antichrist” is never found in Revelation, it comes from the letters of John in the New Testament, nor is the notion of the “rapture,” which is extracted from a cryptic reference in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians—both of these terms from outside of Revelation are then linked with texts within Revelation to create the current speculative understandings that have become poorly supported doctrines). As with the rest of the Bible, we read Revelation much more authentically when we read it as a book, focus on the interior developments within the book, and try to discern their meaning in relation to the context of the book’s original writing.
What Revelation actually is about
The book of Revelation itself gives us clear clues about its intended meaning. It begins with a strong statement of focus—“the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), meaning an account that will illumine the meaning of Jesus’s life and death and its relevance for living faithfully in the context of the late first century Roman Empire. This Jesus is described in the early verses of the book (1:3-5) as “the faithful witness” (an allusion to Jesus’s life of active love and resistance to the domination system in service to the vision of life articulated by Torah and the prophets, a life that ended with murderous violence by the Empire), “the firstborn of the dead” (an allusion to God’s vindication of Jesus’s way of life when God raised Jesus from the dead and repudiated the judgment the political and religious leaders had placed on Jesus), and “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (a surprising reference that will require the rest of the book to unpack—in fact we could see this third characteristic of Jesus here as pointing us to the task of discerning what the meaning of such a “rule” might be, which will turn out to be the focus of the book—how does Jesus exercise this “rule”?).
Again, in harmony with the rest of the Bible, Revelation is best seen as a call to practice a certain way of life, a life of embodying the core messages of Torah, the prophets, and the teaching of Jesus. That is, Revelation challenges its readers to live faithfully. All the dramatic and fantastic allusions to plagues and empires and the evil Powers ultimately serve that challenge to a certain style of living. We have what we could call “prophetic knowledge” offered in this book—knowledge that helps in the discernment for the task of living humanely and creatively and compassionately in face of the Empire that murdered Jesus and all too often treats his followers (and all other vulnerable people) likewise.
The meaning of Jesus as “ruler of the kings of the earth” becomes clear over the course of the book. In chapters 4 and 5, we are given a vision of Jesus as the Lamb who is closely linked with the One on the throne, capable of opening the “scroll” that contains the message of the meaning of history. The Lamb may do this only because of its faithful life and self-sacrificial death. And, as a consequence, the victorious Lamb is praised by all of creation and people from throughout the world. Visions of this widespread praise are repeated in the rest the book and offer what is actually a wildly optimistic view of the fate of human life and the creation—even in face of powerful and destructive opposition from the structures and ideologies of domination. In the end, in a powerful redemptive vision we learn that the rule Jesus exercises over the kings of the earth results in their healing (even though they are portrayed prior to the end as rebelling versus God).
Ultimately, the book of Revelation does not offer an ironclad guarantee to a happy ending to history. Its author, an otherwise unknown early Christian prophet called John, was not capable of offering that kind of knowledge. Rather, what Revelation offers is a vision for how such a happy ending might be attained. The message that matters most here is a message about method. It is an echo of Gandhi’s main tactical argument: what matters are the means, not the ends. As we follow the ways of peace, we will learn where they will lead us. The means to attain New Jerusalem are following the way of Jesus, practicing compassion and restorative justice in resistance to the ways of Empire embodied by “Babylon.”
Revelation calls its readers to be “conquerors” (see the seven messages to local congregations in chapters 2 and 3). The key idea in this notion of “conquering” is given in chapter 12 where we are told that the human conquerors attain victory through the means of “the blood of the Lamb” (which the book as a whole shows us refers to the whole of Jesus’s way of life that included a willingness to persevere even to the point of death) and “the word of their testimony” (their willingness to stay on message in publicly resisting the Empire).
How Revelation speaks to “post-Christians” today
The key for understanding Revelation as being of great value for “post-Christians” today is to recognize that it may be read as having a political more than religious message. John is actually very critical of the formal churches of his day. Five of the seven he writes to face severe criticism. He would surely turn over in his grave were he to learn that Revelation (like the rest of the Bible) ultimately became a tool for the status quo (recognizing, though, that Revelation itself was always on the margins of the Bible that Christendom domesticated; it often was ignored and left to the “crazies” on the margins of the official Church). John wanted to shape the Christian movement into a vanguard of subversion and resistance in relation to the social and political status quo.
The politics of Revelation may be understood as a politics of truth telling—in contrast with the politics of deception that characterized Rome (presented in Revelation both as the “Beast” and as “Babylon”—two symbols that apply to all later great nations as well). The “truths” that matter are that the Lamb and his way are an alternative to the way of the self-aggrandizing Beast, that the economics that commodify everything—including human beings (18:11-13)—are idolatrous and death-dealing, and that persevering love stands as more powerful than coercive violence.
“Worship” in Revelation must be understood in the context of such truth telling. The visions of celebration do not find their best present-day analogy in segregated Sunday morning religiosity that reinforces the classism and racism of our modern societies. Rather, we find more appropriate analogies in various public displays of defiance, solidarity, and aspiration that people in societies around the world enact that point to alternatives to domination and to the stifling of social justice. Or in smaller, more intimate gatherings where peacemakers empower one another to break down the walls of inhumanity and exploitation.
The God of Revelation is not some autonomous, perfect being up on the sky. Rather, the God of Revelation is revealed as present in the nitty-gritty of the Lamb’s witness of healing and resistance to domination. Revelation presents the Lamb and the One on the throne as being unified in will and presence. This unity has generally been misunderstood in the history of Christendom as indicating Jesus’s divine identity as part of the Holy Trinity, abstract and otherworldly. More accurately, we may see the unity as indicating an imminent, engaged, passionate God of compassion and restorative justice.
There are images and rhetoric in Revelation that exalt its God in the highest terms. However, when we recognize that the power of God in this book is the power of persevering love that suffers rather than inflicts violence in order to conquer, we will read the exaltation materials differently. Ultimately, Revelation exalts the Lamb-like method of conquering through self-sacrifice. This is a message that post-Christians like “Justin” might well be able to rally around in a world that seems increasingly chaotic as our contemporary idols of nationalism and corporate capitalism lose their hold and we struggle to create life-affirming alternatives.