Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2021
As we struggle to comprehend the various large-scale social problems that we face today, we might do well to do some thinking about the book of Revelation. Although the word “evil” is not used in Revelation, the concept of evil is quite present. I find myself thinking that reflection on evil is part of what we need to do as we seek social healing.
Revelation features the spiritual forces of evil quite prominently. And it presents us with the character of the Dragon as the mastermind behind those forces—this Dragon “who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Now, the character of Satan is a deeply problematic figure in our culture’s history. Without engaging the bigger issues about why Satan is so problematic, in this post I want to focus on the use of “Dragon,” “Satan,” and “the devil” in Revelation and how those images might actually be helpful for us today, though in somewhat complicated ways.
What do we learn about Satan in Revelation?
Though the Dragon character is not explicitly introduced in Revelation until chapter 12, it does cast a shadow back over the earlier part of the book and remains central for what follows in chapters 13 and following. I think that because the Dragon will be closely linked with the Beast, who in turn has a close connection with the Roman Empire, all the allusions from the beginning of the book to the Empire and to the kings of the earth and to the conflicts that John’s readers have with their wider world point to the importance of the Dragon. Revelation presents the environment its readers lived in (and, by implication, the environment that we live in) as plague filled: wars and rumors of wars, environmental devastation, economic injustices, and on and on. In my interpretation, the Dragon will prove to be the immediate force behind the plagues. So, the entire agenda of Revelation has to do with living faithfully in a Dragon-infused world.
At the same time, it is crucial that we recognize that Revelation does not have the agenda of presenting an open-ended war between near equally powerful protagonists. The Lamb is victorious over the Dragon from the very beginning of the book. The struggle lies in the embodiment of that victory. Satan in Revelation is actually quite similar to Satan in the gospels. There is a sense in both places that the battle is Jesus vs. Satan. The words from the letter to the Ephesians describe the situation: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Or, in the words in Revelation: the struggle is about “destroying the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). Let’s equate “Satan” with the “spiritual forces of evil” and the “destroyers of the earth.” The struggle against the “spiritual forces of evil” is what the “war of the Lamb” in Revelation is about.
Yet we must also note that in both the gospels and in Revelation, Satan is easily defeated. The stories of Jesus the exorcist are mostly about showing how much more powerful Jesus is than Satan. In Revelation, the immediate context for the reference to “destroying the destroyers of the earth” in chapter 11 is a celebration of the Lamb’s victory: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15). In Revelation 12, the Dragon goes to war “in heaven” and is defeated. The foe who defeats the Dragon is Michael, a mere angel (12:7-9). God did not even need to be directly involved. The final scene of Satan in Revelation shows him gathering his forces for a battle that will not actually occur. Satan is simply captured and thrown into the Lake of Fire.
Revelation thus echoes the message of the gospels. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God is present. Simply trust in God and enter the Kingdom. The only threat (tragically all too powerful) is that of deception and illusion. The spiritual forces of evil are powerless except when their claims are accepted, and they are allowed to claim loyalty that belongs only to God. The antidote is to believe the good news of love. The key to victory will be found in the simple but profound truth that love of neighbor captures the meaning of life and that any call to violate that love is a call to give loyalty to Satan and not God.
What kind of entity is Satan?
Revelation does not portray the Dragon as a person. We get no sense of an inner life or personal intelligence. The image is mythological, not a literal personal being. I think the best way to think of the Dragon is as the personification of systemic evil. The Dragon represents the dynamics of the Powers to claim the loyalty of human beings. Systemic and ideological realities such as racism, nationalism, materialism, and warism exist beyond individual consciousness. These forces act on human beings, on cultures, on various groups of people shaping people to “worship the Beast” in its various manifestations.
The Dragon can be seen in the impetus people feel to trust in their nation for meaning and security and to dominate other peoples in the name to the glory of their nation. The Dragon can be seen in the drive to accumulate possessions, to achieve social standing, or to accumulate weapons of war. The Dragon does this through deception—making claims and promises that people want to believe even when they can’t be fulfilled. The Dragon has to do with the stories about reality and meaning that people believe. Some of these stories may enhance life but most often they sew conflict and alienation. Ironically, as the Dragon’s deceptions take hold and brokenness results, the promises are only intensified and people, in their fears and sufferings, turn even more to the hopes in security and success that the Dragon deceptively gives them.
We could say that the imagery of “Dragon” in Revelation has to do with the “spirituality” of Empire. It is the inner reality of the structures and institutions that gives them “life”—the ability to lure and manipulate. The “essence” of Rome; its seemingly deepest elements. Walter Wink’s book, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, remains a powerful account of the “inner reality” of human structures and ideologies, something that gives these structures and ideologies lives of their own, as it were.
Another important aspect of the way Revelation presents the Dragon is the insight that in its deceptions and ubiquitous presence, it is the true enemy of God that must be overthrown. The Dragon, along with other personifications of the powers of evil that derive from the Dragon such as the Beast and False Prophet, are what must be destroyed—not actual human beings. The war of the Lamb is, we could say, “spiritual warfare,” not the warfare of killing and conquering other human beings. We must note, too, though, that the realm of the spirit is not separate from the realm of flesh and blood. The Dragon has no existence except as an expression of human structures and ideologies. So, the war of the Lamb is a war fought in history, in the human realm. But the battle is against the ideologies, the biases, the baked-in systemic evil, the various ’isms.
When Revelation refers to destroying the destroyers of the earth, it refers to freeing people from deception, from the distortions of reality caused by systemic evil. Crucially, the means for this are at hand. Jesus’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection (the “blood of the Lamb”) have already established the means of defeating the powers of evil. Follow the path of love, reject any and all doctrines, claims, and systems that undermine the path of love. This is possible now because the victory has already been won.
Why the metaphor “Dragon” is helpful
The Dragon (along with “Satan” and “the devil”) are helpful metaphors for numerous reasons. By personifying the way structures demand loyalty, they help us get a better sense of the coherence and intentionality of the dynamics of, say, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and economic exploitation. We too often fail to account for the force of those dynamics. In denying that force, we become more susceptible to it.
The metaphor helps us understand that we have to do in our world with an active dynamic of brokenness that exists beyond separate individuals and actually bears down on us. We are drawn into war fever and the belief that our society requires violence in order to be strong and secure. We are born into societies shaped before our births by ideologies of white supremacy that then shape the way we think and talk from the time our lives begin. The world around us is not simply a neutral and morally inert place. It is active in its shaping our language and belief systems. The Dragon metaphor helps us to see that that shaping often is malevolent.
In terms of Revelation’s story, the metaphor helps us see that the plagues happen outside of God’s direct action—and that they are not simply random chaos. Our world has forces at work that influence toward brokenness and alienation. At the same time, this picture of the dynamics of reality also strengthens the message of Revelation that the means to defeat the powers of evil must be consistent with the truths of Jesus’s way. Fighting the violence of the plagues with more violence only strengthens the Powers behind them. This is why, for example, wars inevitably make things worse in the world. “Winning” a war all too often leads to long term defeat.
Finally, the Dragon metaphor can include the metaphor of the “demonic.” The demonic is not about individual beings we call demons but about the aspects of idolatry where the Dragon-influenced beliefs and ideologies that do not actually correspond with reality are retained and advanced in intense, irrational claims and violent enforcement that seems impervious to evidence and common sense. So many disagreements and conflicts spin out of control due to the difficulties of finding common ground and compromise when “true believers” insist no matter what on getting their way—a manifestation of the “demonic.”
Why the metaphor “Dragon” is problematic
At the same time, the “Dragon” metaphor can nonetheless also be problematic. It is too easy to externalize our sense of evil, putting it on entities outside ourselves. Such an attitude can often lead to violence, to hatred, to “othering” people we consider to be under the sway of evil. It can also reinforce a kind of good/evil dualism. We can think of pure evil as being present only in our enemies (who thus deserve to be killed).
Thinking in term of Satan can undermine our sense of responsibility when we blame an external, personal being for evil and don’t recognize ways we are all complicit in the dynamics of brokenness and alienation. The answer here is not that we need to share in the guilt and punishment so much as that we all have roles to play in overcoming evil.
The understanding of the Dragon I have articulated above, though, understands the powers of evil as being inextricably linked with human beings. We become susceptible to those powers when we choose to trust in idols. The powers do act on us, but they are not irresistible. They are overcome when we see through their deceptions and trust in the ways of love. So, it is not helpful to posit some kind of good/evil dualism where we strive to live on one side over against those on the other side. We all have potential to affiliate with evil powers and do evil acts. And Revelation makes it clear that everyone, even the “kings of the earth” (the worst of human idolators), also has the potential to affiliate with the Lamb.
How might this metaphor be applied to the contemporary United States?
I write this post on the morning of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. For many Americans, including most of my family, friends, and wider social circle, today will be notable even more as the end of the presidency of Donald Trump.
Most of us, it seems, have concluded that Donald Trump is a truly terrible person and has been a terrible president. There is little attractive or humane about him—less than with just about any other public office holder I know anything about. He has been remarkably bad. Yet, clearly, the deep problems that are destroying the earth in our day are bigger and older than Trump—and, in fact, are very little affected by Trump.
The lesson of Revelation is that our problem has to do with structures, ideologies, traditions, and the like—the New Testament’s “principalities and powers.” Today in the United States, these Powers are all too much the locus of various anti-life dynamics:
- White supremacy
- Predatory corporate capitalism
- Domination of nature
I believe that we best understand Satan (in Revelation and in our day) in relation to these Powers that have to do with human life. Satan has no existence apart from the Powers and their evil concretions. There are malevolent dynamisms that destroy life that are attached to the structures and ideologies. Human beings implement these and believe in them, but the dynamisms transcend any individual, and they act on us to shape us for injustice. Even Donald Trump is not the enemy that matters. It’s the evil Powers that use Trump and his colleagues.
Revelation makes a most important point about the method for effectively resisting Satan. “The blood of the Lamb” has to do with self-sacrificial love, with witnessing to the way of Jesus, with the recognition that doing so will lead to hostility and even violence toward Jesus’s comrades from the Powers. “The word of their testimony” is the comrades’ embodied witness, in public, in the open, that involves both a critique of the idolatries and the practice of self-sacrificial love.
One lesson as we end the Trump era is to be reminded that according to Revelation, Donald Trump himself is not the destroyer of the earth who needs to be destroyed. At the worst, he is an agent of the Dragon, the power behind the Powers. To try to “destroy” Trump (or his comrades or his successors in the ways of alienation) with the “sword” (that is, with punitive coercion) is actually to serve the will of the true destroyer of the earth. That destroyer can only be destroyed by the weapons of the Spirit, the irresolute witness to the way of the Lamb.
The weapons of the Spirit surely include a sharp eye of critique toward Trump’s life and practices. Also, a sharp eye of critique toward the plagues linked with almost the entirety of the Republican Party right now, but also all too much of the Democratic Party. I do believe the weapons of the Spirit can include joining with those in the political system who do genuinely seek justice and shalom. But the story of Jesus especially emphasizes the call to embody a politics of compassion and restorative justice in every way possible as much as possible. Such a faithful witness is how his comrades help bring healing to the nations—even to the kings of the earth.