Are we living in “the Great Tribulation”? (Peaceable Revelation #3)

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. Continue reading “Are we living in “the Great Tribulation”? (Peaceable Revelation #3)”

War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2019

A high percentage of people who are interested in the book of Revelation believe that it is a book about violence and God’s punitive judgment. They take, for example, the imagery of blood flowing for miles as high as a horse’s bridal (14:20) in some literal sense as a vision of a future total war that will destroy God’s enemies and lead to the coming of New Jerusalem. Some of those who interpret Revelation in this way are horrified by such imagery and believe that its presence is a good reason to dismiss Revelation out of hand. Part of the vehemence of this dismissal follows from the presence of many more interpreters who actually welcome this violent vision as evidence that they will be united with God in eternity and that God’s enemies will be condemned to everlasting torment.

I think this future-prophetic approach is simply wrong. It fails to recognize the symbolic character of the imagery of Revelation. Partly this is due to a failure properly to understand the message of Jesus from the gospels as being a message of peace for this world. These interpretations then add another failure to that failure, which is to fail to recognize that the character of the Lamb in Revelation reveals that this imaginative book itself also brings a message of peace. I am convinced that we read Revelation appropriately as being in full harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus presented in the gospels. When Revelation 1:1 tells us that what follows is a “Revelation of Jesus Christ,” it makes a point that is indeed to be taken literally: the purpose of the account of this “revelation” is to help us better to follow the way of the Jesus of the gospels.

The “harshness” of Revelation

Of course, Revelation does contain some harsh appearing imagery (such as the flowing blood of 14:20, the devastating fall of the “Great Harlot” in chapter 17, the destructive sword of 19:11-21, and numerous others). However, the book makes it clear that its governing image is that of the Lamb, who wins the victory the book celebrates with his self-giving love (see especially 5:5-14 and 12:10-11). If we read the book in light of this governing image, then we will come to a different understanding of the “war” that is portrayed in the book—and of the means to fight that war that the book advocates.

The book does use the image of the “Lamb’s war” (17:14). When we note all the other violent imagery, it is understandable that peaceable people would find it difficult to embrace the war image. Several years ago I gave a paper on Revelation at a conference on “compassionate eschatology” (“Biblical Apocalyptic: What is being revealed?”) making the case for the Lamb’s war being a peaceable image. One audience member argued strongly with me, and I never did convince her. I respect her sense that we need to reject the use of war imagery of Jesus because that imagery is irredeemable in our modern world. At the same time, this is the imagery we have, and I tend to think that by embracing the imagery in Revelation and orienting it in light of how the book actually uses that imagery we may find important resources for actively resisting the domination system we live in the midst of. Continue reading “War of words: The key to understanding the book of Revelation (Peaceable Revelation #2)”

Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)

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. Continue reading “Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)”

God and punitive judgment in Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—July 29, 2018

 The book of Revelation is generally understood to be a visionary account of God who judges and violently punishes human wrongdoers and idolaters. I have long disagreed with that “standard account” interpretation of Revelation. Early in my career I wrote a book that presented a much more peaceable interpretation of Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. Now, thirty years later, I am in the process of completing a new book that interprets Revelation in a way that is even more radically peaceable—tentatively titled “Jesus, the Conqueror: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation” (a lot of the writing I have done in recent years on Revelation is available on my PeaceTheology.net website).

A recent Facebook discussion in a group of which I am part, “Wrestling with the Disturbing Parts of the Bible,” engaged the issue of God and punitive judgment in Revelation. The discussion started with an examination of the famous incident at Revelation 6:9-11 where martyrs cry out for God’s judgment and vengeance against “the inhabitants of the earth.” The original post quoted Old Testament scholar John Goldingay to the effect that these verses tell us that hoping for God to exercise punitive judgment to wreak deadly violence on sinners is appropriate—and that God will act on those prayers in God’s time and punish such sinners.

Now, Facebook discussions can be exhilarating and educational, but they are also extraordinarily fast moving and rarely allow for an in-depth response. If one does not notice the discussion until it is well underway and much if not all of the early momentum has dissipated, then one usually can’t join the fray. In this case, I was not aware of the debate until someone tagged me and asked what I thought. At that point, I was en route with my family to New York City and not in position for even a belated contribution. But missing out on the original excitement does give me an opportunity to put a bit more care into a response—and to expand it into a lengthy blog post. Continue reading “God and punitive judgment in Revelation”

The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation

Ted Grimsrud—May 8, 2018

I have read with great appreciation many of the books John Dominic Crossan has written over the years and have heard him speak several times. A few years ago he published a book I found pretty helpful and relevant to my interests, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015). I don’t know for sure whether Crossan, who is Catholic, shares my pacifist convictions, but he clearly cares deeply about peace on earth.

The right agenda

I believe that Crossan has exactly the correct agenda for this book. He argues, “escalatory violence now directly threatens the future of our species and indirectly undermines solutions to other survival problems such as global warming, overpopulation, and resource management” (p. 244). He writes this book in order to address that problem, to show how the Bible can be used in ways that contribute to violence, and to suggest ways the Bible might be read that will actually help us move toward peace.

Crossan’s book may be read alongside Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress Press, 2017). Boyd and Crossan happily share deep convictions about helping Christians deal with the violence in the Bible in way that will empower Christians to be peaceable today. They approach the issues quite differently, though. The differences are significant, for sure. I would recommend reading both works as a way of getting a sense of the breadth of possibilities for Bible-centered peace theologies.

One big difference between these two thinkers is how they think of biblical inspiration. Boyd affirms what he understands to be a very high view of inspiration, and as a consequence he undertakes to construct a quite detailed and elaborate argument for how he can see the Bible as truthful throughout and yet also argue that the Bible is consistently a book of peace. I have written a lengthy critique of Boyd’s argument. I see it as way too convoluted. But I find his work enormously instructive.

Crossan, on the other hand, has no trouble with asserting that parts of the Bible simply are untrue. This makes his argument much simpler and more straightforward than Boyd’s—though not without problems of its own. I am not fully happy with Crossan’s approach, either. I think he too quickly accepts the presence of major internal contradictions within the Bible and thus misses some insights that an attempt to read the Bible’s overall message as largely coherent might provide. However, in this blog post I want to focus my criticisms of Crossan elsewhere. Continue reading “The Bible, violence, and John Dominic Crossan—with special attention to the book of Revelation”

What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?

Ted Grimsrud—May 4, 2018

For the past several months I have been putting most of my writing energy into a study of the book of Revelation, and have not met my goals for blog posting frequency. I finally realized that I need to combine thinking so much about Revelation with writing blog posts. So I expect to share several sets of reflections that draw heavily on Revelation in the next few weeks.

Punitive judgment in Revelation

One of my ongoing interests is the issue of punitive judgment—in the Bible and in life. I feel that I have developed a pretty strong argument that shows that the book of Revelation as a whole emphasizes mercy and healing much more than punitive judgment. However, some passages in Revelation have been rather persistently interpreted in punitive terms. Perhaps the most notorious comes at the end of chapter 14. This is what is written:

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle. ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20, NRSV)

After reading through several dozen commentaries and other book and articles on Revelation, I recognize that there is a pretty strong consensus that these verses are talking about God’s punitive judgment against humans who have turned against God. There is one important stream of interpretation, starting with the influential 1966 commentary by George B. Caird, that reads this paragraph in a non-punitive way. In general, though, even commentaries that read other difficult passages in non-punitive ways, tend to see John teaching violent retribution here. Continue reading “What if Revelation 14 is about punitive judgment after all?”

The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4

Ted Grimsrud—December 11, 2016

The book of Revelation does not have a positive reputation these days. For many Christians it is seen as hopelessly complicated and obscure. In my opinion, it is indeed the case that understanding Revelation is difficult. I have been studying it pretty intensively, off and on, for about 40 years now. I believe I have to a large degree figured Revelation out, and I am trying to find clear and accessible ways to explain what I have figured out. But it is not a quick and easy task (one place I presented my ideas was in my congregation, where I preached a series of sermons on Revelation—I summarized the main points in some blog posts; it took 18 to cover all the points I had to make, and I felt as if I only scratched the surface). Revelation does not fit on a bumper sticker!

Perhaps, though, part of what makes Revelation potentially very useful for peacemakers today is precisely its complexity. But even with that complexity, I think some of the useful insights we can gain from Revelation are not obscure or inaccessible. If we are to learn from Revelation about how better to live faithfully in our troubled times what might be some of the key lessons? I’m at work on a book-length commentary on Revelation that will focus on this question. Here are some summary points:

(1) Keeping the way of Jesus central

Revelation offers the Bible’s most extended and profound critique of the dynamics of empires and their effects on people of faith. This critique remains important. However, we should also remember that the central concerns for the book are the health and faithfulness of the communities of Jesus’s followers. John critiques Rome in order to help his Christian readers to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

This ordering of priorities remains important. I don’t think the lesson is so much that we should focus only internally on the life of the institutional church while remaining indifferent toward our broader social situation. More so, I think the point for us is the reminder that in all areas of our lives, the way of Jesus remains our guide. We always run the risk of marginalizing that approach to life—sometimes with a preoccupation on the machinations of those “inside the beltway.” However, whatever healing is to come for our world and whatever the role of the “great nations” in that healing might be, the ultimate bases for healing remains always the message of Jesus—love God and love neighbor. And this way of healing has to be embodied in actual face-to-face relationships even as we also do what we can to further humane public policy on the macro level. This embodiment is why the congregations are so important to John. Continue reading “The book of Revelation on living in Empire: Christian faith in the Trump era, part 4”

The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?

Ted Grimsrud—November 29, 2016

To “break bad” can mean to “go wild,” to “defy authority” and break the law, to be verbally “combative, belligerent, or threatening” or, followed by the preposition “on,” to “completely dominate or humiliate.” [from Wikipedia]

It is difficult to write about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It seems certain that the US is entering uncharted waters. It also seems certain, to me at least, that what is coming will be worse than what most of us can imagine. The American Empire is entering a new phase, likely with little pretense of self-restraint or of serving the general human welfare or the wellbeing of the natural world. We are about openly to become the rogue nation—”breaking bad” indeed.

The impending storm

A memory comes to mind. Many years ago, Kathleen and I were on a road trip. As evening neared, we approached Clovis, New Mexico from the west. To the east we saw a huge dark, dark purple horizon. As we got closer, the darkness grew. We clearly were heading into a storm. It turned out to be a big one. Hail, heavy rain. We inched into town and the streets were awash with several inches of water. We had a similar experience more recently, driving home from the northeast. Here the dark, dark purple horizon was near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia come together along the Potomac River.

In both cases, there was this strong uneasy, fearful, feeling as we approached the storm. We felt some wind but basically things were calm. But we knew we were heading into trouble and there was no place to go to avoid it. And, in both cases, the storm turned out to be worse than we even imagined.

This is how I feel right now. We’ve got these few weeks before the fury of the new Republican unified power on the federal level will hit us. I see no reason not to expect that the impact of that power won’t be even worse than the most fearful imaginings we might have right now.

Still, this is a time to try to think seriously and deeply—and I believe it is also a time to think theologically for those so inclined. The United States, the world’s one superpower, is in deep trouble. It is nearly impossible to imagine that the next four years won’t be a disaster in almost every sense of the word. And even should the nightmare end at that point, something that right now seems less than likely, the damage that will be done will be difficult to repair.

The importance of core convictions

I believe that one of things we should  be doing now—and this will remain important for as long as I can foresee—is think deeply about core convictions, about the meaning and purpose of life, about our orientation toward life. We are going to face severe stresses, and conflicts, and fears, and deep discouragement. What will guide us as we struggle to move ahead? Continue reading “The empire “breaks bad”—Christian faith in the Trump era, part one: What happened?”

The Book of Revelation’s Revelation to Eastern Mennonite University

Ted Grimsrud—October 15, 2016

[This is a transcript of a talk presented to the Annual Haverim Breakfast during Eastern Mennonite University’s Homecoming Weekend, October 15, 2016. Haverim is a support group of friends of EMU’s Bible and Religion Department.]

I am glad to be here today to share with you. I well remember 20 years ago when I attended my first Haverim breakfast; it seems like yesterday. It’s hard to believe that now as I share this talk, it’s so many years later and I stand up here as a retiree.

My life with the book of Revelation

In a sense I am going full circle right now. My first book, published before I started teaching at EMU, was on the book of Revelation. Now, the first book I hope to publish after I have finished teaching at EMU will also be on Revelation. When I am done with it, maybe someone could read both books and tell my how my thinking has changed.

When I was asked to speak this morning, I faced a problem. What to talk about. Well, it’s like the joke. If you have a hammer in your hand, any problem looks like a nail. My version, if you have the book of Revelation on your mind, any problem of what to give a talk about looks like something related to Revelation.

Well, I chave found Revelation to be remarkably relevant for thinking about faith in our contemporary world—over and over again. I believe that much more strongly now than I even did when I was writing a book about it thirty some years ago.

I suppose I owe my career at least somewhat to Revelation. When I became a Christian as a teenager, I was taught what we might now call “Left Behind” theology—a strong emphasis on the End Times, on Jesus’s soon return, on the Rapture that will come before the Great Tribulation and allow we Christians to escape the carnage—and all proof-texted from Revelation. So, my initial impression was that Revelation was about the future and that the future predicted in Revelation is at hand. It was a book of war and judgment, death and destruction—with a joyful ending only for those whose personal savior is Jesus.

When my theology changed and I became a pacifist and learned that most Christians in fact did not believe in the Left Behind theology, I began to ignore Revelation. It ceased to be part of my usable Bible. But I was taught by some of my new pacifist mentors that all of the Bible, properly interpreted, is usable and can support pacifist convictions. I learned of Millard Lind’s work on the Old Testament and had my anxiety about that part of the Bible undermining pacifism alleviated. But no one said anything explicitly about Revelation supporting pacifism. Continue reading “The Book of Revelation’s Revelation to Eastern Mennonite University”

A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast”

Ted Grimsrud—September 19, 2016

I offer what follows as a thought experiment, an attempt to flesh out a recent late night rumination. I finished reading a fine book, Douglas Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace. Fry, who is an anthropologist, seeks to refute the notion of “man as warrior” that assumes that human beings are innately hardwired to fight wars. Fry focuses on hunter-gatherer societies; he argues that some of these societies, presumably more revelatory of human nature, are not warriors.

I like Fry’s argument, though since I don’t know much about hunter-gatherer societies, I mostly have to take his word for it on the evidence he cites. But what he suggests fits well with other things I have read over the years. At the very end of the book he tries briefly to draw broader implications. Here he speaks of the need for a stronger, UN-type organization to help nations avoid warfare.

That suggestion made me think. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with that kind of approach—I’d like to see the peacemaking work of the UN be strengthened and more effective, as well as a stronger and more effective international law regime. But then I thought, surely the most powerful force that resists that kind of movement is the United States. If the US were committed to UN peacemaking work and international law, then we’d have a much more peaceable world. Continue reading “A simple way to world peace? Recognize America as “Beast””