Ted Grimsrud—August 13, 2019
I first became interested in theology when I was in high school and began attending our small town’s Baptist church. My early education in theology included at its center the conviction that we were living in the End Times, the period shortly before Christ’s return. Virtually every sermon I heard and every Bible study I participated in touched on Jesus’s second coming. Someday I’d like to figure out why this was such a popular topic in that context.
One of the big ideas in this future-prophetic take on Christianity is the expectation of a catastrophic time just before Jesus’s return filled with massive violence and destruction. This event has often been called “the Great Tribulation.” I was taught that, happily, genuine Christians would be raptured out of their present life in order to be with God and to miss this terrible ordeal. In this view, the Tribulation would be a just act of God’s judgment against sinful and corrupt humanity—regardless of the carnage that would ensue.
I was taught to be attentive to the downward spiral of human history, looking for signs that the Great Tribulation was at hand. This was all pretty heavy stuff, and it does not surprise me that I, a young man about to head out into the big, scary world, would have taken all the teaching quite seriously. I read Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth over and over again, along with numerous other similarly themed books.
Rethinking the End Times
Then I went away to college. It was easy enough to live a kind of compartmentalized life —my fundamentalist theology in one compartment, my non-religious academic studies in another. However, that separation actually left me quite passionless about both compartments. When I was a junior in college, I found a congregation that started me on the path of bringing things together.
One of the key moments was a conversation with a mentor about our shared future-prophetic theology. With my minimal exposure to Christianity, I had assumed that what I was taught about the End Times was simply what all Christians believed. My friend said no, actually, the majority of Christians don’t believe the same thing I do. I was kind of stunned. That realization opened up everything. Almost immediately I encountered other views and soon dropped the future-prophetic schema. And during my senior year, I did find a strong passion for integrating my theology and my academic studies.
As my views about the End Times changed, I still held on to some sense that the biblical message was still linear—with a future consummation when Jesus returns. A few years after I finished college I decided to try better to understand the book of Revelation. That effort culminated in my first book, Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation. I wrote there about the New Jerusalem as our promised outcome that is certain to come in the future. I didn’t look for specific fulfillments of predictions given in Revelation, but I nonetheless did take the general promise of future paradise fairly literally.
Maybe we wouldn’t have a “Great Tribulation” like I had been taught, but we could still count on some kind of culmination, and it could be that things will get worse before that promised final healing.
A present-focused interpretation
I have continued to enjoy interacting with Revelation and have evolved in how I interpret it. What hasn’t changed since the late 1970s is my conviction that Revelation underwrites Christian pacifism (I have written extensively about this conviction on my website). What has changed is my gradually coming to dismiss the idea that there is anything at all in Revelation about the future—including a promise for a certain happy ending to the story.
I now think that the images in Revelation commonly interpreted as being about the future (especially those of New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22—but also earlier visions that seem to promise a sure downfall for the Powers of evil) are better understood as hopeful statements of what can be in the present should we live and believe rightly. The point of those statements is to inspire readers to follow the way of the Lamb in face of demands for loyalty from the nations of the world. If we are to have a happy ending, Revelation speaks of the only way that might happen—following the Lamb wherever he goes.
So, in this framework, the “great tribulation” (or, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the “great ordeal”) is not at all about a predicted (and hoped for) future nadir of human life that will precede our destined final outcome of paradise. Rather, it’s simply a kind of hyperbolic way of talking about present historical living on earth. The “great tribulation” is another image along with the terrible plagues that are presented in three series of awful events in chapters 6 through 16. Numerous times in Revelation, we are told of the duration of these plagues—3½ years or 42 months or 1,260 days. It becomes clear as we read the book as a whole that these numbers symbolize historical time. Revelation does not speculate about how long in actual history this 3½ years will last; there is no interest in when precisely the end will come. What matters is living faithfully during this time however long it lasts.
The book hopes to empower its readers for living in the long haul. To sustain faithfulness, John suggests, requires a healthy community (such as the congregations in Philadelphia and Smyrna) and clarity about what following the Lamb wherever he goes entails (such as consistently choosing loyalty to the path of persevering love over the path of giving loyalty to the various iterations of Babylon).
One way to characterize the “tribulation,” then is to see it as describing the on-going struggle to live with courage and creativity in the face of the clash of worldviews between the Beast and the Lamb. In our time, this courage and creativity leads to resisting those elements in our culture that make for brokenness and alienation, be it outright war and violence or the more subtle allure of living with the comforts of wealth and security while too many in our society and broader world struggle to get by.
The Beast (in cahoots with the Dragon and False Prophet) persistently seeks to gain people’s loyalty, to turn people away from the Lamb, to gather ever more allegiance to the dynamics of domination. The Lamb stands against this “worship” of the Beast (cf. 14:1-5), though at great cost. To follow the Lamb is to say no to all the various ’isms of these 3½ years. And saying “no” can indeed lead to tribulations.
Sustaining the witness
What is our best strategy (as followers of Jesus, as people of faith, as people of good will, as peacemakers) for living in our time of tribulation? A crucial point is to recognize that “tribulation” time is the same as historical time. There is no escape, no end to this time—as long as we live on earth. So, Revelation means to empower its readers to sustain their witness, not to hope for a “rapture” out of historical time. The numerous visions of worship scattered throughout the book help capture that dynamic (see 4:1–5:14; 7:9-17; 11:15-19; 12:10-12; 14:1-5; 15:1-4; 19:1-10). The worship happens in history, amidst the tribulations.
So Revelation means to emphasize the need for clarity of sight. There are two competing calls for loyalty in Revelation that the seven messages in chapters 2 and 3 make clear are vying for allegiance within the congregations. To navigate the time of tribulation (that is, the time of living in history), people need to keep the ways and commitments of the Lamb at the center and discern how the ways and commitments of the social and political status quo contradict the Lamb.
Revelation helps us to recognize the difference between religious convictions and practices that empower us to put into practice genuine justice and those that encourage us to live in harmony with empire as a way of life. Chapter 18 illustrates one key element of these two paths when it envisions judgment against the empire for how treats the fruits of creation, including human beings, as commodities to be exploited for the sake of profit. Linking back to chapters 2 and 3, we may note that the teachings of the false prophets in those chapters (e.g., such as “Balaam” and the “Nicolaitans”) surely involved affirming active participation in the economic world of the Roman Empire—unjust and exploitative as it may have been. Challenging such accommodation remains a central part of the Lamb’s message.
Revelation helps us to recognize the difference between two ways of “conquering”—the witness of the Lamb who conquers with persevering love as opposed to Babylon’s approach of “conquering” by treating human beings as commodities and relying on death-dealing firepower. The continuing attempt by those who claim to follow the Lamb also to affirm preparing for and participating in the state’s wars and other aggressions surely echoes John’s sharp condemnation of how his readers tended to join with the “inhabitants of the earth” in offering fealty to the Beast (i.e., the warring state; see 13:4-8).
Revelation does end with a powerful and inspiring vision of “New Jerusalem.” I’d suggest, though, that we should not take this as a guarantee that an all-powerful God will make sure everything ends up okay in the end. Rather, I think that the purpose of this vision is to hold before us a sense of what can be when we see reality in light of the witness of the Lamb. That is, New Jerusalem is only possible when we embody the Lamb’s way during this time of “tribulation.” And it is meant for our present, not off in the distant future.