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!”

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”

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)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 16)

Ted Grimsrud

16. The Judgment That’s Not a Judgment—Revelation 20:1-15

[This is the sixteenth 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.]

I have an idea that as much as any part of the Bible, the book of Revelation works kinds of like a Rorschach test, you know where you look at an inkblot and tell the therapist what you see. One of the things many people see when they look at Revelation is judgment. But what kind of judgment? Maybe what we see when we see scenes of judgment is itself kind of a Rorschach test. What we make of judgment reveals a lot about our psychological makeup—or at least our theological makeup.

Does judgment mean punishment?

Revelation 20 is one of the main “judgment” texts in the book. I think one of the big problems when we think about judgment in a passage like this is that we tend to assume that “judgment” has to do with “punishment”—the time of judgment is when people get punished. But what if judgment actually has to do with something else? Maybe judgment has to do, not with punishing so much as making things right. God is “judge” not as the Great Punisher but as the Great Healer.

There are two types of judgment going on in Revelation 20—the judgment of the Dragon and the judgment of human beings. It seems important to see them as separate. The Dragon’s judgment results in its destruction. But what happens to the people? It’s actually something quite different than punitive destruction—even for those who had trusted in the Dragon. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 16)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 15)

Ted Grimsrud

15. The War That’s Not a War—Revelation 19:1-21

[This is the fifteenth 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.]

In Revelation, we are told that the Beast, the Dragon, the city Babylon, these Powers that symbolize the domination system are defeated, that “it is all over.” Yet the powers keep coming back. They go down in chapters 11 and 12, and in chapter 17, and then again in chapter 18. And at the beginning of chapter 19, the great harlot has been judged and smoke goes up from her forever and ever. And yet, in the second half of the chapter the powers of evil are back, gathered for the great battle of Armageddon.

There’s a war going on in Revelation—a war against these Powers. But it’s a strange kind of war. Revelation 19:11-21 pictures a great warrior. Notice that though the warrior is victorious, the Powers come back in chapter 20. That they always come back is a literary technique pushing the narrative ahead. We come to the end but know there is still more of the book to come. Then we circle back and it happens again. It’s a way to hold readers’ interest. But I also think there is a theological message here too—it’s a way of saying that history, what Revelation symbolizes as the 3½ years, the time we live in, is not simply linear. The outcome that matters isn’t only in the future.

That is, that the Powers keep coming back and that the Lamb’s followers keep celebrating tell us that what matters is what we do now. Revelation is not about the future. It’s about the present—the present of John the writer but also the present of all the readers throughout history. The Powers are always present, but so too is the celebration, if we choose to join it.

The war that is not a war

Revelation tells us about an on-going deadly conflict that is deadly and frames the conflict in terms of living a life-enhancing life in the midst of the death-dealing ways of the Roman Empire. And, yet Revelation makes it clear that this war is not to be fought with conventional weapons. It’s not to be a typical war with winners and losers, with death and destruction. The “conquering” that needs to happen comes about through love, not through force. So, there is a war, but it’s not really a war. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 15)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 14)

Ted Grimsrud

14. Confessions of a Birthright Imperialist—Revelation 18:1-24

[This is the fourteenth 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.]

Revelation, chapter 18, focuses on a critique of the great city, called here Babylon—probably with Rome in mind, but also most other imperial capital cities ever since. John challenges his first readers with how they think about the empire they are part of. As such, I think Revelation, chapter 18 works as a good challenge for us today to think about how we feel about our empire.

What’s wrong with Babylon?

What does Revelation 18 say is wrong with Babylon/Rome? Well, Babylon may seem all powerful, full of greatness and things to inspire awe and respect. But the vision in Revelation states that Babylon is home for demons, every foul spirit, bird, and hateful beast. Now, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that Rome was disgusting and foul. This is not an objective statement of clear sociological fact. It’s more a kind of moral or theological interpretation that said, in effect, that Babylon/Rome in actuality, beneath the smoke and mirrors of imperial power and splendor, was corrupt—and corrupting. It was not a place of genuine life-enhancing beauty, but the opposite, the haunt of death.

Babylon/Rome did like all imperial centers did and do—it demanded and, by and large received, loyalty. People believed in it, trusted in it, gave it their consent to dominate. Babylon gives wine to the nations that makes them drunk. And it “commits fornication” with the “kings of the earth.” And it makes the “merchants of the earth” rich. The problem is not literally alcohol and sex. The problem is that by trusting in Babylon, the nations, the kings, and the merchants join in Babylon’s injustice.

Revelation 18 twice details in subtle but powerful ways the dynamics of empire that Babylon follows. First, the chapter portrays the economic dynamics of empire. The merchants of the earth grow wealthy almost beyond measure due to their collaboration with Babylon. They profit from trade of all sorts of things, according to a long list: gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots. At the end of all the cargo comes this, stated as just one more item: “slaves—and human lives.” This is what’s wrong with Babylon. The commerce may benefit many people, but the great wealth it generates for the merchants and Babylon ultimately comes off the backs of the poor, the vulnerable, the defenseless—and makes their lives worse. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 14)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 13)

Ted Grimsrud

13. Seeking the Peace of the City—Revelation 17:1-18

[This is the thirteenth 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.]

I hate the use of “harlot” as a metaphor in Revelation 17. Among other things, it gives the misleading impression that the concerns John has in Revelation are about illicit sex. However, in terms of what the image communicates, we may see many parallels with our current situation—the one superpower that corrupts people from around the world to do its bidding, to serve its insatiable greed and will to dominate. And the arrogance and lack of self-awareness of this superpower.

The image here, too, of the hostility of the one superpower toward people who challenge it, especially out of concern for the vulnerable ones on whose lifeblood the system thrives. But also, that the Lamb’s way nonetheless conquers the system. And then the rather shocking picture—the kings who had earlier allied with the woman turn on her and destroy her. Is this a picture of the self-destructive nature of this insatiable greed and lust for power?

Revelation 17 as a call to seek Babylon’s well-being?

Let me test an idea: Even with all this destruction, the picture here actually holds out hope for the city symbolized by the harlot and Babylon. This vision is a call to seek the well-being of Babylon. At the end of the previous chapter, chapter 16, the seventh of the full out plagues is visited on the city Babylon. The greatest earthquake the world had ever known splits Babylon into three parts. A loud voice, presumably God’s, cries out: “It is done!” (16:17).

But then, starting in 17:1, there are more visions that elaborate on the final plague. The point, as with all the visions, is not to predict how the world will end. The “revelation of Jesus Christ” in the book of Revelation is not a vision of the chronological end of time but, rather, a vision of the purpose of our existence. The seventh and final plague that completes the vision is about purpose, not future predictions.

The final six chapters of the book elaborate the seventh plague. They make clear the purpose of the plagues—that Babylon would end and out of its ashes would arise the New Jerusalem. The revelation of Jesus Christ is a revelation not of the literal destruction of Babylon but of the transformation of Babylon itself into the New Jerusalem. The visions are not so much about a future outcome as they are about a present process: follow the Lamb resolutely wherever he goes. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 13)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 12)

Ted Grimsrud

12. Transforming Babylon—Revelation 15:1–16:21

[This is the twelfth 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.]

At the very beginning of World War II, British poet W. H. Auden wrote what became a famous poem called “September 1, 1939”—the day that Germany invaded Poland and that Britain and France declared war on Germany. Auden realized this was a world-changing moment. He laments: “I and the public know, what all schoolchildren learn, those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” He struggles with the outworking of this spiral of evil, then concludes with the poem’s most famous line: “We must love one another or die.”

Now, as it turned out, Auden repudiated this poem and especially this line. He rarely allowed the poem to be reprinted and when he did once, he left that line out. I suppose he thought that it showed him to be too sentimental and weak. After all, what was necessary to stop the Nazis was brute force, not love. But still, did the Nazi spirit truly lose that war? Was Auden’s plea for the need for love refuted? I tend to think not.

In fact, were we to summarize the life work of Martin Luther King in just a few words, this phrase, “we must love one another or die” would work pretty well. But we live in a world not all that friendly to love, it would seem—look at what happened to King himself, shot to death at the age of 39.

The “real world”

Revelation 15–16 actually can be helpful for us as we think about love and the “real world.” What we have here is the third of three terribly destructive sets of seven plagues. Each set gets worse—first, we read of terrible destruction that brings death to one-quarter of the earth; then, the destruction comes to one-third of the earth. And now, here, in chapter 16, “every living thing in the sea died.”

What’s going on with these visions? Well, they are not meant to be read with precise literalism. We have these visions of death and right afterward the story goes on with people and things still living. The tales of destruction should be read symbolically. They symbolize—not particular moments of extraordinary, even unbelievable death and destruction—but the on-going reality of human life.

The numbers, one-quarter, one-third, total, do not tell how many are going to be destroyed. Rather, they simply convey terrible destruction. People die in wars and famine, empires and nation-states wreak havoc, the earth itself is exploited and polluted and poisoned. Such destructiveness ebbs and flows throughout human history. But the brokenness, the alienation, the attempts at domination and control, the conflicts, the corruptions, wars rumors of war, all stretch back over most of the past 2,000 years. Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 12)”

What does the book of Revelation say? (part 11)

Ted Grimsrud

11. How to Read Revelation—Revelation 14:1-20

[This is the eleventh 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.]

Many of the commentaries on Revelation agree that the blood at the end of chapter 14 indicates God’s punishing judgment. The blood that flows “from the winepress as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of about two hundred miles” shows just how widespread God’s retribution will be.

I’m impressed with how easy it is to assume the worst about this vision—as if this same book does not include the vision of the Lamb’s self-giving love in chapter five and the vision of the healing of the nations in chapters 21 and 22. Interpreters seem to find it obvious that “blood” symbolizes death and punishing judgment. Some cultured despisers of Revelation are horrified by this theology that they see in Revelation and reject it. They think Revelation is bad news. Others welcome this kind of bloody theology—they embrace the idea of God as punisher and see Revelation as a key source. However, I have discovered that Revelation actually teaches something quite different.

Revelation’s theology of “blood”

We can see that Revelation is not about violence if we focus on this most troubling of metaphors—the blood flowing from the wine press in chapter 14. This is not the first time blood is used in Revelation. Let’s look at some of the other places that speak of blood.

At the beginning of Revelation, we are introduced to Jesus, the faithful witness who followed a path of nonviolent love that led him to resist the powers to death. He is described as well as the firstborn of the dead—his life was vindicated when God raised him. Because of this witness and vindication, he is also described as the true ruler of the kings of the earth. Then we are told that he loves us and frees us from the power of sin by his blood—by his ministry as faithful witness.

This same point is made in chapter five. Jesus, the executed and resurrected Lamb is the true Lion of Judah (Messiah) who has the power to open the great scroll that tells of the ultimate victory of God. Jesus is worshiped here as God. The worship includes these words of praise: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Continue reading “What does the book of Revelation say? (part 11)”