Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2021
I believe that the book of Revelation offers people in the contemporary world some helpful guidance—though not in the ways popular Christianity would have us think. Revelation is not a source of insights for fortune telling helping us to know the future before it happens. Rather, Revelation is, I believe, a meditation on the centrality of love as we seek to navigate a world in crisis. So, the argument I offer here goes against both those who think predictive prophecy is how Revelation is relevant and those who think the Bible as a whole—and certainly the Bible’s last book—is simply an ancient work with little to say that is relevant in any way today.
Two big problems
Let’s start with two general problems. The first is the problem of living humanely in our contemporary world. Such humane living seems to require that we seek to overcome, say, the brokenness of ever-present warism with its weapons of mass destruction, the all too present trauma of our nation’s legacy of white supremacy, the overwhelming impact of predatory capitalism and always worsening economic inequality, our emerging climate catastrophe and other ecological crises, and the curse of mass incarceration and its companion police brutality. How do we move ahead in such a world?
The second problem is more esoteric, but I believe significant, nonetheless. This is the problem of the visions in Revelation that portray a world undergoing several series of escalating catastrophes (or plagues). These visions seem to tell us that God initiates these plagues, and the standard interpretations across the theological spectrum generally understand these God-initiated plagues as acts of God’s punitive judgment. This very problematic view of God leads some to dismiss God and the Bible altogether and others to affirm a morally corrupt view of God. To believe that God brings punitive judgment often leads Christians themselves to become agents of the forces of destruction that exacerbate the crises mentioned above.
Is it possible that if we biblically interested Christians could resolve the problem of the plague visions that we would be better able to respond to the brokenness problem? I believe we are challenged to hold together our affirmations that (1) God is love, (2) Revelation is truthful, and (3) brokenness in our world is real. However, if the “truth” of Revelation is that God is the author of the plagues then we will have trouble being agents of healing.
I think of a similar set of affirmations: (1) God is love, (2) evil is real, and (3) God is all-powerful. All three of those as conventionally understood cannot be true at the same time. The resolution to the second set of affirmations is to revisit the affirmation of God as “all-powerful.” The best way to restate that affirmation, I think, is to affirm that as a God of love, God’s power is not power as being in control. God is all-powerful in that God’s love is ever present and cannot be conquered by the powers of evil. But as a God of love, God can’t help but allow evil to exist. God’s power is expressed in lovingly bringing healing to the world amidst its brokenness.
In thinking of the first set of affirmations, the obvious way to resolve it is to recognize that we must challenge the interpretation that God is the author of the plagues. The truthfulness of Revelation actually rejects the notion that God is a God of punitive judgment. I believe that when we recognize this truth, we will find in Revelation some surprising and powerful guidance for responding to the problem of brokenness in our world.
The context for Revelation’s plagues
My approach to Revelation’s plagues starts by putting them in the context of the larger message of the book. The first plague vision does not occur until chapter 6. The first five chapters establish Revelation’s orientation: (1) It’s a message about Jesus Christ (1:1), revealing his agenda for his people. Revelation identifies Jesus as the faithful witness whose life of self-giving love led to execution at the hands of the Roman Empire. Then, God vindicates this life by resurrection. The victorious Jesus then is affirmed as the ruler of even the kings of the earth, and he makes a “kingdom” of his followers (1:5-6). (2) These followers are exhorted to live unaccommodated lives where they “conquer” the Powers of evil as embedded in the Roman Empire with their faithful witness that imitates Jesus’s (2:1–3:22). (3) The Lamb (who clearly symbolizes Jesus) joins with the One on the throne (4:1–5:14), winning the ultimate victory through his faithful witness that enables him to take the scroll from the right hand of the One. (4) The Lamb’s victory has already happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and it leads in the present to massive worshipful celebration that involves all of creation (5:8-14).
So, when we get to the plagues that begin in chapter 6, several crucial aspects of the big picture have been established. God’s agenda is healing. The means of achieving this healing are the various elements of the faithful witness of Jesus and his followers as they embody the way of Jesus. The healing is for all of creation, including the kings of the earth. And, in the most important sense, the victory envisioned in Revelation has already been achieved through the witness of Jesus. Thus, whatever the plagues are about, they should be read in light of the victory of Jesus, a victory already won and achieved with self-giving love. This victory leads to the healing of creation, of the nations, and of (to anticipate what will be shown later in the book) the inhabitants of the earth.
If we keep in mind the context set by the first five chapters, we will recognize that our interpretive challenge will be to understand the plagues as in some sense supporting the message of healing. The problem with most interpreters (across the theological spectrum) is that they read the plagues in a kind of autonomous way and ignore this context, as if we should understand the plagues in isolation. They then read into the plagues their assumptions about God as a punitive judge that do not follow from the message of the chapters 1–5. That message makes clear that the “revelation of Jesus Christ” reinforces the message of the Jesus of the gospels.
Significantly, the challenge to read the plagues in ways that support the message of the healing dovetails with the challenge to read Revelation in ways that support the responsibility of people of good will to work for solving our contemporary crises listed in our first big problem above. The easy assumption that the plagues tell of the punitive judgment of God actually is likely to make those crises worse.
What goes on in the plague visions?
The central chapters in Revelation (chapters 6–18) recount a series of three visions of catastrophe and destruction. In the first series, the breaking of the seals of the great scroll, the damage is severe. “Sword, famine, and pestilence” bring death to “a fourth of the earth” (6:8). The second series, the blowing of seven trumpets, portrays an expansion of the destruction. “A third of the earth was burned up” (8:7). Then, the third and final series, tells of total destruction. “Every living thing in the sea died” (16:3).
Clearly these visions are symbolic. It literally is impossible to imagine in real life the scale of destruction they portray. Throughout Revelation we get visions of extreme destruction followed by further visions where life continues as if the destruction hadn’t happened. But what is being symbolized? And for what purpose?
It is true that God is involved. The first set of plagues are initiated when the Lamb breaks the seals on the scroll (6:1) and the other two are initiated by actions of “the seven angels who stand before God” (8:2 and 16:1). Clearly God and the plagues are linked. At the same time, the visions take pains to show that God is not directly the agent of the catastrophes. The language throughout seems intentionally to keep a distance between God and the plagues. Passive voice is often used. God is generally at least a step removed from the violence and destruction.
Let me suggest that this distance makes an important point. The visions seek to hold together two difficult truths: (1) the plagues are a part of human history that are real and terribly destructive and thus are not God’s will, and (2) they do not defeat God’s purposes for the human project and do not separate creation from God’s loving presence. The Lamb and the angels symbolize God’s presence amidst the catastrophes even while those catastrophes actually occur due to agency of other forces in the universe.
A God of love
My perhaps counterintuitive proposal is that the plagues are both against God’s will for human life and a confirmation that God is a God of love. God does not directly cause the plagues, but amidst the plagues God works in ways consistent with the dynamics of persevering love. A God of love is not to be expected to intervene in a controlling way and dominate creation. Rather, a God of love is to be expected to be present amidst the suffering and to use faithful witness to the path of love in face of that suffering as the means to defeat the sources of the brokenness and suffering.
Revelation tells us a couple more things that help support this proposal about God and the plagues. The first is that amidst these visions of catastrophe, we also find moments of worship. The second is that we learn of another agent who affects what happens on earth—the Dragon.
The moments of worship make explicit the affirmation of God’s genuine presence during plague time on earth. And the worship times are not simply moments of escape. They affirm the victory of God and affirm that the only means of victory is persevering love. In fact, the worship scenes are contentful enough to challenge another standard interpretation. I suggest that the core reality in this entire middle section of the book is the worship, with the plagues being the supplemental content, not vice versa. At the heart of things, then, we find not the alleged punitive judgment of the plagues but the affirmation of salvation and the means of gaining that salvation.
In chapter 7, we read of an uncounted multitude that worships God and the Lamb. Those in this multitude have been active participants in the dynamics of salvation: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). In chapter 12, we have a celebration of the followers of the Lamb who have conquered the Powers of evil “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12:11). And in chapter 14, we again encounter the great multitude of chapter 7 (here referred to as the “144,000,” a symbol taken from chapter 7 where it is equated with the countless multitude) who provide a counter-witness to the rampages of the Beast and False Prophet described in chapter 13. These worshipers “sing a new song before the throne” and “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
These worship visions affirm the presence of the God of love revealed in the Lamb. God is not defeated by the dynamics of the plagues and also is not the author of those plagues. The worship visions underscore that this God is victorious due to God’s love, and they anticipate the final vision of the book that finds the nations healed along with the kings of the earth who join in the everlasting worship of God and the Lamb.
The role of the Dragon
We learn of another agent in the story. We meet the Dragon in chapter 12. The presence of this new character in the story provides a way to understand the direct origin of the plagues, the will that seeks the brokenness and destruction. In the mythological account in chapter 12, the Dragon is thrown out of heaven by the angel Michael: “That ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). After this expulsion, it ends up on earth and decides to wage war on the followers of Jesus (12:17). I think it makes sense to read this “making war” by the Dragon as being linked closely with the destructive authority exercised by the Dragon’s servant, the Beast, in chapter 13. And then, to link these dynamics with the plagues in general. The Dragon, thus, may best be seen as the source of the wars and other destructive elements of the three sets of plagues.
So, by taking the Dragon into account, we may see the plagues as the constant manifestation of the Dragon’s war on earth and the inhabitants of the earth. They last for “42 months” (or 3 ½ years or 1260 days), which in Revelation may be understood to symbolize present historical time. The agenda of Revelation, thus, may be seen as John’s effort to inspire his readers to “conquer” the Dragon (note the seven-times-repeated-call in chapters 2 and 3 for the congregations to “conquer”). This “conquering” means that the Lamb’s comrades maintain a consistent testimony to the path of love as their way to resist and emerge victorious in response to the Dragon’s war on earth. This testimony links inextricably with the “blood of the Lamb” which is Revelation’s symbol for Jesus’s faithful life and teaching lived to the point of the Empire’s crucifying him. Such is the calling for the lives of people of faith throughout history.
The victory in Revelation finds its definitive expression in chapter 5 when the slain and standing (that is, executed and resurrected) Lamb takes the scroll and receives accolades from all of creation. Throughout the book, the faithful witness of the Lamb’s comrades is mentioned in close connection with the Lamb’s own witness. Revelation portrays Jesus’s faithfulness and his comrades’ faithfulness as the dual bases for the ultimate triumph of God (12:11).
The message of Revelation for us
First of all, Revelation does not teach that God exercises punitive judgment through the plagues. The book does not in any way underwrite human punitive judgment. It does not in any way support a notion that the brokenness of our present world reflects God’s punitive disposition toward humanity. We are completely justified to exert our energies to overcome the brokenness that diminishes life in our world. In doing so, we align ourselves with God and the Lamb who in Revelation are agents for healing, not punitive judgment.
As well, Revelation portrays the Lamb’s healing efforts as fully consistent with the story told in the gospels of Jesus’s approach to brokenness—focused on compassion, forgiveness, restorative justice, empowerment of the weak and vulnerable, and a consistent rejection of domination. If people of faith are given the task to fight against the plagues, the means for waging this fight are the weapons of the Spirit, not weapons of coercion.
If we understand the Dragon as the author of the plagues in Revelation, we may ask what relevance that understanding has for us. That is, is it helpful to use the notion of the Dragon (i.e., Satan) as a tool for discernment in our world? I will reflect in more detail on these issues in another post in the near future.
For now, I will suggest that indeed it can be quite helpful to try to apply Revelation’s theology of the evil Powers to our current context. Brokenness is real, it is the fruit of malevolent social dynamics, deception is a powerful force in our world, and we live with many ideologies and institutions (i.e., “idols”) that shape us toward attitudes and actions that are harmful to life. We may helpfully think of “spiritual warfare” as the focused effort to discern and resist deception and idolatry. Revelation teaches us that the dynamics of this spiritual warfare are best understood to be determined by the peaceable way of Jesus and his justice.