A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus

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Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2016

My transition to “retirement” (that is, to full-time writing) has gone a bit slower than I would have hoped due to some unforeseen (relatively minor) health issues. I take it as a sign of a renewing vigor that last night in those often intellectually fecund moments between lights out and sleep I came up with a new title for my next writing project: Healing Politics: A Non-Apocalyptic Reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

Problems with “apocalyptic”

For some time, I have been working on a thoroughly pacifist interpretation of Revelation. I put it on hold during this past school year and expect very soon to get back to it, in hopes of completing a publishable manuscript before too long. As I have studied, taught, preached on, and written about Revelation over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that the category “apocalyptic” has misled those interpreting Revelation a great deal.

What I hope to show in my book is that Revelation is not “apocalyptic” in the sense that it fits into a genre of literature that is characterized by a futuristic focus or a sense of impending cosmic catastrophe or a sense of hostility toward the historical world. Nor is Revelation “apocalyptic” in the sense of portraying an almighty, judgmental God who will rain down destructive wrath on God’s enemies (or the enemies of the writer of the book).

It is crucial to read this work in terms of the title it gives itself: “the apocalypse of Jesus Christ” (that is, always to link “apocalypse” or “revelation” with “Jesus Christ”). This book sees itself as being a message from and about Jesus. I choose to start with the assumption that the Jesus of this revelation is the same Jesus of the rest of the New Testament. And so I read Revelation expecting that it helps us understand Jesus better and that it wants us to follow the path that Jesus set for his followers as described in the gospels.

And, interestingly (and excitingly, for me), the book actually turns out to lend itself to this kind of reading. It has become clear to me that the Jesus of Revelation is the same as the Jesus of the gospels. This is apparent once the reader’s imagination is cleared of the futuristic, cosmically catastrophic, judgmental, and pro-violence assumptions that putting it into the box of “apocalyptic literature” impose on us.

Of course, there is another entire type of reading that ironically shares quite a few of the scholarly assumptions of the “Revelation as apocalyptic literature” approach. This is the future-prophetic approach popularized in the writings of Hal Lindsey and in the Left Behind books. This approach also reads Revelation looking for futuristic insights and in expectation of cosmic catastrophes—even as it is looked upon with scorn by the scholars. Continue reading “A non-apocalyptic reading of the Apocalypse of Jesus”

Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?

Ted Grimsrud—December 9, 2015

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, recently made the news with his provocative statement—proclaimed before thousands of cheering students at his college—that Christians should arm themselves to assure their ability to defend themselves against “Muslim attacks.” Responses, which have been many, range from strong support to a kind of ridicule that dismisses Falwell and Christianity as a piece. In my circles, most of the responses have been horror at what many see to be a terrible misrepresentation of the message of Jesus.

Happily, one of Liberty’s faculty members—biology professor Daniel Howell—has written a biblically-oriented response to some of Falwell’s critics with the clever title, “Falwell’s gun remarks on target.” There are many points that Howell raises that I am tempted to argue with. His Jesus is way too positive about violence, I’d say.

I want to focus on just a small part of his argument though. That’s his use of the Book of Revelation. I am sure that if Howell and I had a discussion about Revelation we would discover many differences. However, for the point I want to make here, I am willing to grant a lot to what I expect to be his assumptions about Revelation (most of all, that it is a book that gives concrete prophesies about the future—about what will be). Let’s accept that Revelation might be doing this. Even so, does his use of Revelation to support his affirmation of Christians preparing for and using violence in “self-defense”? This is what Howell writes:

“Unbelievers and others lacking knowledge about the true character of God sometimes refer to Christ’s moniker as the Prince of Peace to conclude Christianity must be a wimpy, defenseless teaching. Of course, this is one of many titles for Jesus, another being the Lion of Judah. While Jesus was exceptionally mild and meek at his first coming, we are assured by Scripture that he will not be so at his second coming. He is described in Revelation 19 as the King of kings who leads the armies of heaven on a white horse and utterly destroys his enemies with the word of his mouth (visualized there as a sword). In a world littered with violence, the Prince of Peace knows that real tranquility is only obtained through strength.”

Revelation and violent self-defense

Let me note several things about his points that relate to Revelation. My thoughts here would work equally well within a future-prophetic view of Revelation or a historical-symbolic view. My concern is what the text actually seems to be saying. Continue reading “Is the Book of Revelation on Falwell’s side?”

Should “love” define a Christian university?

Ted Grimsrud

[The following was shared as an opening meditation at a Eastern Mennonite University faculty assembly, November 16, 2015.]

Critiquing North American higher eduction

I listened to Henry Giroux, a political philosopher at Canada’s McMaster University, on the radio a couple of weeks ago. He detailed crises in higher education in North America—and focused, among other things, on how higher education’s work of fostering genuine democracy is increasingly subordinated to the ever more all-encompassing corporate agenda. We have seen these issues dramatically illustrated in the recent student uprising at the University of Missouri.

I am quite sympathetic with Giroux’s critique and think it is relevant for how we think of our work here at EMU. Whatever it all is that “Christian” higher education might be about, it seems like it must include many of the things Giroux talks about—confronting our “cold commodity culture” for the sake of social wholeness, justice, care for the vulnerable, a stronger and more vital democratic public sphere.

But I also felt something was missing in his presentation. That I have a hard time naming what I missed might reflect my own failure of theological imagination. The best I can do is say that there is not much talk about love in his vision. There’s not a lot of talk about compassion, servanthood, turning the other cheek, a Martin Luther King-style sense of “self-suffering” for the sake of social justice.

As I think about what it might mean to be a genuinely Christian college, shaped most of all by the core convictions that the Bible articulates for us, I think of a call to combine social critique with love; to combine saying no to empire, no to corporatism, with saying yes to compassion, to care, to kindness, to valuing each person. Continue reading “Should “love” define a Christian university?”

Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA

Ted Grimsrud—July 6, 2015

I hope to have quite a bit more to say about the Book of Revelation and about Mennonite Church USA in the days to come, but since I don’t know when those opportunities will arise, I wanted to share a brief reflection from this morning’s work on Revelation.

“Wrath” in Revelation

A major theme in Revelation is “wrath.” The term is used throughout the book (far more than anywhere else in the New Testament). Often, our English translations perhaps misleadingly add the word “God” as in “God’s wrath” rather than simply “wrath.”

This addition is not unwarranted; generally it is clear from the context that there is a close association between God and “wrath.” But I think it is important to recognize that the absence of the direct connection also likely indicates something significant—perhaps that we should recognize that “wrath” is not the same thing as a direct act by an angry God (I also have in mind to write a blog post soon that reflects in much more detail on the notion of God as an “angry God).

In many of it uses in Revelation, “wrath” seems to indicate more a sense of the outworking in history of negative consequences of human actions and beliefs—kind of an indirect expression of God’s negative response to human injustice. “The wrath” reflects not so much God’s direct intervention as a sense that God’s creation carries within it the dynamics of cause and effect where at some point injustice does lead to brokenness; you live by the sword, you likely will die by the sword.

An added dimension

What I was struck with today, as I was looking closely at the third series of terrible plagues in Revelation, described in chapters 15 and 16, is the thought that maybe a significant element of the experience of “wrath” depends upon the perspective on the agents on the human side of the God/human relationship. That is, an element of the meaning of “wrath” is that we perceive something as “wrathful” or not depending on our way of seeing the world.

Maybe—and at this point this is just a question, I haven’t really looked more closely at the text in light of this thought—what some people experience as God’s love in Revelation is experienced by others as God’s wrath. What is attractive about this thought to me is that then we don’t have to struggle with the deeply problematic idea that God acts sometimes in loving ways and sometimes in punitive ways, that God is divided within Godself between love and punitive justice, that God’s intention for humanity is partly salvific and partly punitive. Continue reading “Revelation, God’s Wrath, Healing Justice, and Mennonite Church USA”

Revelation is a peace book!

Ted Grimsrud—June 23, 2015

I have been interested in the book of Revelation for years. It has now been 28 years since I published my first book, a popular-level commentary on Revelation called Triumph of the Lamb. I have times when I pursue this interest more, and then it lies dormant for awhile. I am currently in an upswing in my interest and hope to complete a new book on Revelation by the end of 2015. I’m tentatively calling it, “Healing Empire: A Radical Reading of Revelation.”

Revelation as radically peaceable (or not)

One way that my reading of Revelation is “radical” is that I am presenting Revelation as a peace book, from start to finish. Though Revelation has often been seen as vengeful and supportive of violence both by those who approve of the violence and those who find it repulsive, there is a long tradition of peaceable readings of Revelation going back at least to G. B. Caird’s influential commentary, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, first published fifty years ago.

The new Anchor Bible commentary on Revelation by Craig Koester is very much in the Caird tradition, I am happy to say. In fact, it’s an extraordinarily helpful commentary, packed with great detail but quite well written and theologically engaged. Unfortunately, it’s also quite expensive.

One can’t read scholarly writing on Revelation without encountering a perspective that is contrary to my peaceable reading, however. The book that has triggered this blog post is Greg Carey, Elusive Apocalypse: Reading Authority in the Revelation to John (Mercer University Press, 1999). I also recently read theologian Catherine Keller’s engagement with Revelation, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Beacon Press, 1996). And I have on my pile of books to read a.s.a.p. John Dominic Crossan’s How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation (HarperOne, 2015) which has a short but very pointed discussion of Revelatio. Of these three, Crossan takes the most negative view of Revelation: “Revelation is filled, repeatedly, relentlessly, and ruthlessly, with metaphors for actual, factual, and historical violence to come” (p. 180). Carey and Keller are pretty negative, too, though they do find some attractive elements to the book.

What follows was elicited by my reading Carey’s book. It’s a good book that I would recommend. What I offer is not so much a critique of Carey, but some thoughts in defense of my reading of Revelation as a peace book that arose for me as I read Carey. What are some pieces of evidence to support my reading? Continue reading “Revelation is a peace book!”

There’s Power in the Blood: Revelation’s Patience and Creation’s Transformation

Ted Grimsrud—September 21, 2014

For me, the book of Revelation has turned out to be the gift that keeps giving. Going back to when I, as a 20-something set out to disprove my pastor’s claim that Revelation’s violence means we shouldn’t be pacifists—I have lived pretty closely with Revelation. It’s like, when I face a challenging issue—say, war and peace, the character of God—I turn to Revelation. The book has not let me down yet. So, in thinking about how Christian faith and our environmental crises interrelate, I expect Revelation to have something helpful to say.

In this paper I ask, is there a message in Revelation that might encourage Christians to “care for God’s creation, for the land and all that lives in it”? To remove the element of suspense, I answer this question with a vociferous yes! Maybe the suspense that remains is to wonder how I could possibly support such a conclusion.

Revelation and the destruction of the world

Many different approaches to Revelation all seem to see it as our prime biblical example of “apocalyptic” writing—writing characterized by an expectation of a sudden and violent end to the world we live in. To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think of visions of fire from the sky that judge and destroy. The “apocalypse” is a time of catastrophe, of dramatic change, the end of what is and the birth of something drastically new and different. Apocalyptic power is the power of vengeance and judgment. As a consequence of God’s exercise of such power, every knee is forced to bow before God—either in joyful submission or in defeated submission.

There are those we could call the “cultured despisers” of Revelation—including some who avoid Revelation because it is too violent and judgmental and some in the scholarly guide who see Revelation as a prime example of how the early Christians expected an immediate apocalypse in their lifetimes. And, on the opposite extreme there are those in the future-prophetic school who understand Revelation, to be predictive of actual events in human history. Future judgment, destruction and re-creation, vengeance and reward. The earth will be consumed—praise God. All three approaches agree; Revelation teaches a pessimistic theology in relation to the world we live in. We would have to go elsewhere for a constructive environmental ethic.

However, there is a fourth approach—what we could call the peaceable Revelation approach. Revelation is not about the destruction of creation. Revelation scholars such as Barbara Rossing and Mark Bredin, whose book is called The Ecology of the New Testament, have made the case that Revelation actually articulates a pro-creation perspective. Continue reading “There’s Power in the Blood: Revelation’s Patience and Creation’s Transformation”

Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible

Ted Grimsrud—June 4, 2014

For Christians, our thinking about God should have at its core the life and teaching of Jesus. Obviously, what Christians think about God has to do with much more than what Jesus said and did, but part of the definition of “Christian” should be that we understand God in terms of Jesus’s teaching about God and how Jesus showed what God is like by his actions.

Sadly, due to what we could call a “christological evasion of Jesus,” the Christian tradition has all too often focused on doctrines about Jesus rather than on what he actually said and did. Thus, Jesus’s own life and teaching have not played a central role in the construction of the Christian doctrine of God.

As I discussed in my previous post introducing this four-part series of blog posts, Christianity is implicated in terrible spirals of violence characteristic of our culture here in the United States (imperialism, nationalism, militarism, punitive criminal justice, sexual violence, homophobia, et al). I believe one of our most important tasks is to rethink our theology in order to recover the deeply peaceable core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that one important component of such a task is to cultivate an understanding of God as pacifist.

To cultivate such an understanding, we need to wrestle with the biblical materials—source both of evidence for seeing God as violent and of evidence for seeing God as pacifist. In working through the biblical portrayal of God, we must make a decision about how central Jesus’s life and teaching will be—and, of course, develop an interpretation of what we understand the content of the Jesus part of the story to be.

What follows is a brief account of why I see the Jesus material in the Bible as decisive in discerning the pacifism of God. Continue reading “Why we should think of God as pacifist—(2) The Bible”

Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation

Ted Grimsrud

[This is the fifth in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013). Here is a link to the first four posts in the series.]

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Paul on the need for salvation

The interpreter of the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection who has shaped the generations since most powerfully has been the Apostle Paul. Christian salvation theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology. After examining key elements of Paul’s thought, I conclude that Paul understands salvation in ways fully compatible with the Old Testament and the story of Jesus.

Like his predecessors, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world. Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor. Salvation, for Paul, is a gift of a relational God who seeks to free humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of sin and death.

Romans 1–3 provides one important opportunity for Paul to spell out his understanding of Jesus as savior. At the heart of the sin problem for Paul is the dynamic of idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God—with the consequence that instead of experience God’s healing justice, idolators experience “wrath.”

As Paul will make clear in Romans 5:1-11 and 11:32, God’s intentions toward humanity are about salvation. Hence, we make a mistake if we interpret “wrath” as God’s punitive anger directly aimed at people God has rejected. We should understand “wrath” in relation to the gospel. “Wrath” refers to how God works in indirect ways to hold human beings accountable, “giving them up” to the consequences of their giving their loyalty to realities other than life and the giver of life.

The true law exposes the sins of us all. It helps us see when we exchange love for neighbors with trust in idols. At such times, instead of practicing justice we instead practice injustice and violate God’s will for our lives. This problem characterizes Jews and Greeks alike. This is the problem: the universality of the domination of the “power of sin” (Rom 3:9) over all groups of people. Being a member of the empire does not save one—nor does being a member of the religious institutions that had emerged around Torah. In fact, when such membership fosters injustice it has become a curse, a ticket to alienation and idolatry. Continue reading “Salvation and the way of peace—(5) Romans and Revelation”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 18)

Ted Grimsrud

18. Why We (Should) Read Revelation

[This is the eighteenth (and last!) in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

Back in 1982 I preached my first sermons on Revelation. There is definitely some overlap between what I did those many years ago and what I have to say now. But there is always new light to be shed on a fascinating and complicated text such as Revelation.

Two types of arguments against pacifism

I was reminded recently why Revelation is worth reading. I encountered two different kinds of arguments against pacifism—one from the “right,” we could say, and one from the “left.”

I gave several lectures at the University of Pikeville on the Bible and peace. Not surprisingly, I heard a standard objection to pacifism. You would just stand by while someone is attacked? You would just stand by while our country is invaded? Behind these questions are assumptions that the only way to resist wrongdoing is with violence. The only way to have national security is with an all-powerful military. Pacifism is passive and helpless against injustice. Trust in the sword is necessary for national survival. We must be ready to fight.

The second kind of argument against pacifism came from a book called The Failure of Nonviolence by Peter Gelderloos, a “combative anarchist.” He sees pacifism or nonviolence, as too passive, too constrained, not really willing to take on evil and evil-doers. The big problem with nonviolence that Gelderloos focuses on is how nonviolent approaches tend to take the starch out of resistance movements. The book states: “Nonviolent campaigns around the world have helped oppressive regimes change their masks, and have helped police to limit the growth of rebellious social movements.”

I see some things both perspectives that share. It’s true that the people they want to use violence against are on opposite sides—law-breakers on the one hand and the enforcers of the law on the other hand. However, both assume that the only way to make sure the “good side” comes out on top is through use of “necessary” violence. Because this is true,  energy must be devoted to preparing for violence. Once you make violence a necessity, it can never be a last resort, something you avoid unless you absolutely have to use it. Rather, you must prepare for it, build up your firepower, shape your strategy by how you can position yourself to be successful in the violent actions.

It is at this point of understanding what it means to be victorious and what are the bases for true security that I have found Revelation especially meaningful. It  is  about victory and finding security. But it presents a radically different view of the how than those held by the anti-pacifist people. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 18)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 17)

Ted Grimsrud

17. What is Paradise For?—Revelation 21:1–22:5

[This is the seventeenth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation.  I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]

The book of Revelation ends happily, with a vision of paradise. The book contains several allusions going clear back to Genesis, and I think we are meant to read Revelation as in some sense the conclusion to the entire Bible.

Revelation is about now, not the future

I like this vision. But for somewhat different reasons than I used to. The first book I wrote, published in 1987, was about Revelation. Back then, I read Revelation to assure its readers that indeed everything will end up okay. There will be a happy ending. But I don’t quite read it that way now. It’s not that I don’t hope for a happy ending to the human project—but I think Revelation is all about our now, not about what will for certain be in the future.

When I read this vision of the New Jerusalem, I see three key points that have to do with now. First, this vision affirms that the brokenness caused by the plagues that dominates much of the book of Revelation is not the truest picture of reality. The vision envisions healing. And, second, the point of the vision of resolution is not predictive so much as exhortative—it does not so much say, this is what will be. It says, more, this is the direction you should live toward. And, third, the vision re-emphasizes that Revelation’s main concern is method, not future gazing. It’s not that God has this set in concrete plan for the future where the dragon and beast are defeated and the kings and nations healed. It’s that God shows us how to go about the work of defeating the dragon and healing the nations. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 17)”