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)”

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 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”

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”