Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2021
I am sure that it is no coincidence that the emergence of mass crises in the 20th and 21st centuries (world wars, pandemics, famines, environmental devastations, et al) has corresponded with increased interest in the book of Revelation and other materials in the Bible that are said to have prophetic importance. Sadly, the assumption that “biblical prophecy” has mainly to do with predicting the future has blinded many Christians to the wisdom that prophecy understood in a non-predictive sense has to offer for our difficult times.
One way to get insights into the wisdom of Revelation is to try to apply it to our present pandemic—but not in the sense that Revelation directly predicted what is happening now nor even in the sense of thinking of our current events as in some sense related to the End Times. Instead, I will reflect a bit on how Revelation’s insights into the world of the first century might be helpful for us in the same ways that the stories of the gospels or the theological analyses of Paul’s letter might be helpful.
Revelation as non-predictive prophecy
I begin with an assumption that we should read Revelation in the same way as we read other books in the New Testament. We understand it to be written by a person of the first century addressing readers in the first century about issues that mattered in the first century. It is indeed prophetic writing—in the same sense that Paul’s writings were prophetic writing. These writings follow the Old Testament prophets in speaking on behalf of God to people of their own time, offering challenges and exhortations that their readers live faithfully in light of the message of Torah and (in Paul’s context) the message of Jesus.
So, I do not read Revelation to be offering predictions about the long-distant future. It is “non-predictive prophecy.” As a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is basing its critique and exhortation on the message of Jesus. Too often, interpreters of Revelation have (and still do) miss the ways that the book is oriented around Jesus—missing, that is, the relevance of its first verse that gives a self-identification as the revelation of Jesus Christ.
As it turns out, reading Revelation as non-predictive prophecy oriented around the message of Jesus makes it more relevant and helpful for Christians living in our time of worldwide pandemic than reading it as future predictive prophecy. Revelation provides insights and encouragements that are true and relevant for all times, including ours. Perhaps, though, given the importance of the plague visions in Revelation, it has particular application to us in this moment of an especially intense experience of plagues with our pandemic.
The center point of Revelation—and the center point for all Christian theology—will be found in chapter 5: The vision of the slain and risen Lamb taking the great scroll from the right hand of the One on the throne. This vision, which includes worship of the Lamb by all creation, emphasizes that the peaceable life of Jesus that elicited a violent and deadly response from the Roman Empire and that was vindicated by God in raising Jesus from the dead shows us what God is like and how the victory of God has, is, and will be achieved. This vision underscores the truth that Jesus embodied, love of God and neighbor as the meaning of the law.
Revelation’s great contribution is that the understanding it presents of Jesus’s way as a counter to the way of the Roman Empire remains enormously insightful for later Christians, including those of us living in the 21st century in a time of pandemic. However, the insights are not due to some magical kind of awareness about the future that John might have been given. Rather, they are due to the parallels between John’s times and ours. Let me mention several examples of how Revelation’s teaching might speak to us.
The “end times” are now
On the one hand, Revelation is not a book of predictive prophecy with a planned-in-advance calendar for the “end times” where events such as our pandemic are markers on the schedule for the consummation of human history. On the other hand, it is indeed meaningful to think of Revelation as giving us a portrayal of the “end times.” It’s just that the “end times” according to Revelation began with Jesus. Revelation presents the “end times” as the current history within which we live, and the urgency is not due to chronology. The urgency is a call for active discernment and resistance.
The drama Revelation recounts indeed should be understood as getting its intensity from the struggle between the forces of God and the forces opposed to God (symbolized as the forces of the Dragon). This is a struggle that occurs during the “great tribulation” that marks the “end times.” However, the key point here is that this is Revelation’s way of asserting that all times and places are the arena for the call to follow the Lamb wherever he goes. We are not living in a pre-determined series of different eras (or dispensations) that one after an other lead to a final time of catastrophic battles and the ushering in of a new age. Rather, we are simply living during human history where the struggle to follow the Lamb always remains central and urgent. Revelation is encouraging us for our present—just as it encouraged John’s original readers for their present.
A call to resist Empire
Revelation contains a powerful critique of the realities of the Roman Empire. It is the great example of early Christian resistance to the mindset of Empire. A big factor in Rome’s domination, as portrayed in Revelation, is the work of the False Prophet—the “minister of propaganda.” Revelation encourages a strong sense of suspicion toward the powers-that-be. John especially seems to care about how the Empire’s ways of presenting reality attracted many in the congregations he wrote to.
We certainly see a lot of need for suspicion in our current context. Powerful economic and other social forces have exploited the chaos of the coronavirus for their own interests. The rich have only gotten richer. They may present their efforts as being for the sake of the wellbeing of the general population, but a sense of suspicion as encouraged by Revelation can help counter the momentum toward exploitation. We are in the “Great Ordeal” (or “Great Tribulation,” another way Revelation refers to the “end times,” or the 3½ years).
Crucially, Revelation also insists that we are also in the time of worship (see for example, Rev 5, 7, 15, and 19). “Worship” in Revelation seems not so much about people attending Sunday morning services as about a general sensibility of gratitude toward God and commitment to understand reality in the terms presented by the Lamb. “Worship” in Revelation also underscores the importance of solidarity among those committed to the Lamb’s way. Only with such solidarity may the Empire’s propaganda and hostility be successfully resisted.
Recognizing the Dragon
The Dragon plays a crucial role in Revelation’s visions. The presence of the Dragon makes it apparent that the plagues are not the direct hand of God at work in the world. There are evil forces, in some sense independent of God and malevolent toward humanity and all other life. Throughout the past 2,000 years, wars and rumors of wars, the destruction of nature, famine and widespread disease have reared their ugly heads. Revelation helps us understand these events as the expression of the deep-seated brokenness of our fallen and too often malevolent structures, ideologies, and institutions. These “Powers” seem at times to have an independent will that shapes human life for injustice (e.g., nationalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, economic exploitation). This brokenness can be personified as the work of the Dragon (or, as Revelation states, Satan). All too often, powerful people contribute to the brokenness and figure out how to exploit the brokenness to increase their wealth and power.
Thus, our present pandemic is not strictly random. Revelation’s portrayal of the Dragon can help us see the Dragon at work in our current crisis—the breakdown of ecological balance, vulnerability of the poor, social stratification, mindless commitment to warism, out of control global capitalism. Yet, Revelation also portrays the Dragon as ultimately powerless against the Lamb. The ways of peace and persevering love will not be conquered by the Dragon.
The victory of the Lamb over the Dragon in Revelation may inspire and guide our response to the pandemic. We should always seek to act in ways that echo the Lamb’s generosity, welcome of and care for the vulnerable, and critique of the powerful. We should also celebrate and encourage all the ways that people do act to enhance life and healing during this time of stress and trauma and fearfulness.
Ultimately, Revelation contains a central message: “Fear not!” The agenda with the plague visions includes a portrayal of life in the world as intensely frightening. This is not a world where an all-powerful, controlling, interventionist God protects God’s people. It is not a world where the existence of brokenness constitutes a scandal where we should doubt God’s existence because bad things happen to good people. The world Revelation portrays is a world with brokenness but not a world without meaning or love. In fact, it is the opposite.
The God of Revelation is actually the kind of God you would expect if you trust in a God of love in the world we live in. It’s a God who intervenes with healing love, not with coercive domination. It’s a God who coexists with the Dragon and the Dragon’s malevolence, breaking the Dragon’s hold with unyielding and suffering love. Revelation tries to help its readers find meaning amidst the plagues—meaning grounded in work to heal and to resist evil and to further the effects of love.
Revelation’s call to “fear not!” rests on its presentation of the Lamb’s victory as powerful and stable. Remarkably, the only means in the entire book that works to gain the victory is the suffering love of the Lamb and his comrades—this is the point that chapter 5 makes and that it is reiterated numerous other times in the book. The victory, though, leads to enormous consequences. The praise from all creation in chapter 5. The uncounted multitude of chapter 7 that have “washed their robes white” (a sign of their being made whole). The defeat of the Dragon in chapter 12. The defeat of the Beast and the False Prophet in chapter 19. And the healing of the nations (and, it appears, the kings of the earth) in chapters 21 and 22.
The Lamb’s victory by means of suffering love involves liberation from the deceptions of the Dragon—and deception is actually the only power the Dragon has. The basic message of Revelation is fearlessly to trust in God, trust in the way of the Lamb. That’s the needed response to the oppression of the Roman Empire in the first century, to all the plagues since, to the American Empire today, and to our pandemic.