How Revelation’s non-predictive prophecy speaks to our pandemic (Peaceable Revelation #7)

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.

Continue reading “How Revelation’s non-predictive prophecy speaks to our pandemic (Peaceable Revelation #7)”

Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]

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.

Continue reading “Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]”

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)”

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 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””

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?”

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 Revelation. 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!”