In our adult bible class on Sunday mornings we're studying the book of Revelation. The book guiding us through the study is Michael Gorman's Reading Revelation Responsibly.
What does Gorman mean by "responsibly"?
Well, Gorman means couple of things. First, a responsible reading of Revelation is going to avoid the end times, Left Behind nonsense you find in many Christian churches. Second, a responsible reading of Revelation is going to have a proper understanding of the violent imagery of the book.
Revelation is a violent book. Lots of blood and destruction. But Gorman's argument (and many others have also made this argument) is that the violent imagery of Revelation has to be read through the central image of the Agnus Dei--the Lamb that was Slain--found in Revelation 4-5. The War of the Lamb against the Dragon and the Beasts is fought through the self-giving of the cross.
Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne. There was writing on the inside and the outside of the scroll, and it was sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: “Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it.As John weeps in heaven he is told that the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David's throne, has "won the victory." It's militant imagery. But when John turns to look at the Lion he sees something quite different.
Then I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and read it. But one of the twenty-four elders said to me, “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered...The Lamb comes forward to take the scroll and all of heaven breaks out in song.
And they sang a new song with these words:Any reading of the violence of Revelation has to read that violence through the image of the Lamb that was Slain. God's victory over evil was accomplished not by force of arms but through the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, when the saints, the Followers of the Lamb, are depicted in Revelation they are found to be conforming to the Lamb's non-violent method of battle. For example:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and break its seals and open it.
For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
And you have caused them to become
a Kingdom of priests for our God.
And they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—
to receive power and riches
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and blessing.”
And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang:
“Blessing and honor and glory and power
belong to the one sitting on the throne
and to the Lamb forever and ever.”
Revelation 12.7-12Again, we have the militant imagery--there was "a war in heaven." But notice how the faithful fight this "war." The faithful defeat the Dragon "by the blood of the Lamb." Their weapon isn't a sword but "their testimony." And rather than kill, the faithful are martyred--"they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die."
Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.
Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens,
“It has come at last—
salvation and power
and the Kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters
has been thrown down to earth—
the one who accuses them
before our God day and night.
And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb
and by their testimony.
And they did not love their lives so much
that they were afraid to die..."
In short, when we read the violence of Revelation through the vision of the Lamb that was Slain we come to understand that the violent and bloody imagery in the book is symbolic rather than literal.
Symbolic of what? Symbolic of the rage and judgment of God.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
In order for the New Heaven and New Earth to come there is a great deal of evil in the world that God is going to have to deal with. Judgment will be a necessary prerequisite. The rage of God has to come before the restoration of all things.
And yet, when we read passages about the rage of God in books like Revelation I often sense a resistance among some of my friends. These friends, generally tenderhearted and liberal folks, find the rage of God depicted in Revelation to be "over the top" and "excessive."
But here's the weird thing. These compassionate and liberal friends of mine tend to be the people I know who are most upset about the evil, pain and suffering in the world. These are the friends that rage about sex-trafficking and world hunger. And well they should rage. So why are these friends the most squeamish when they see God rage against evil in Revelation? This seems strange to me. Why isn't God allowed to meet our rage? It seems that if we are raging against the evil in the world we'd be comforted by God's same rage. But that's not what you tend to see among liberal Christians. Liberal Christians seem very comfortable with their own rage but very reticent when it comes to the rage of God.
I think I understand their hesitancy. The rage of God, if not properly contextualized, can be misused by Crusaders who go to war in the name of God, wars that don't look very much like the self-sacrificing War of the Lamb. So I see the concern. The rage of God worries us because it is so often misappropriated and used to justify other forms of violence.
Which is why I started this post with some comments about the Agnus Dei. We do need to properly understand the cruciform shape of the War of the Lamb.
And yet, we shouldn't rob God of God's rage in the process. In our worries about others misinterpreting the "war of heaven" we shouldn't turn God into milquetoast. We need to allow God's rage to meet our own. Otherwise, Christianity loses its eschatological character and reduces to a bland form of liberal humanism.
Yes, this is a balancing act. If the rage of God is separated from the Agnus Dei we have some problems, problems conservative Christians often succumb to. But on the other side, liberal Christians are tempted to temper the rage of God, almost as if they are embarrassed that God actually cares about evil in the world.
To be biblical, we need both sides of the equation.
We keep the Agnus Dei firmly in view. And we allow God to rage.