Let me say a couple of things to start this post.
Yesterday's post (Part 6) might have freaked some people. It wasn't intended to. To be sure, Caputo takes his creation theology into that freaky direction. Boyd less so. Regardless, they both make a similar move, which is all I really wanted to draw attention to. And that move is this: the bible doesn't really have a lot to say about the origins of evil. Evil seems to predate the biblical story. It's the "void" of Genesis 1.2 or the snake in the Garden or the missing backstory about the satan. To be sure, we can sketch in some of these details, and Christians have. But I wonder, and this was the general point I wanted to make in the last post, if we shouldn't follow the bible's lead on this and not speculate overmuch about the origins of evil. Perhaps the most biblical thing we can do is do what the bible does: assume evil exists and confess that God is that Spirit that moves over creation bringing order, beauty, goodness and light. We can confess at least that much. Why evil exists, I can't say. But I can confess that the Spirit of God is, right now, bringing light into the darkness. And maybe that's the only "creation theology" we really need.
Having considered origins in the last post we turn to endings in this post. And again, the point isn't to be provocative but to reach a conclusion similar to the one from the last post. To be sure, these two posts leave a ton of threads loose and hanging. To help with that tomorrow I'll try to pull those threads together into a more straightforward, simple and less speculative theological picture.
Okay then, if in the last post we talked about how we might think about the power/weakness of God in the creation narrative in this post we swing over to the last book of the bible to think about how the weakness of God might be viewed in the power displays found in the book of Revelation.
Unfortunately, neither Boyd's God at War or Caputo's The Weakness of God are of much use to us here. In God at War the victory of God over evil in the book of Revelation is, according to Boyd, a fairly straightforward display of power. So that's not helpful given how we are thinking about the weakness of God. As for Caputo, he doesn't much get into eschatology in the The Weakness of God (likely because he doesn't believe in eschatology traditionally understood).
So we are flying bit solo on this. But we can borrow from a host of recent insights about eschatology generally and the book of Revelation specifically. What follows are a three interconnected observations to mull over in thinking about how the weakness of God relates to eschatology.
First, regarding the violence in the book of Revelation I think we simply lean on the many non-violent readings of Revelation. I'd recommend Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman. The key insight in these readings is that the victory over evil in the book of Revelation is won by the weakness and non-violence of God as seen in the enthroned Lamb Who Had Been Slain in Revelation 5:
I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”In short, any victory of God is won by the weakness of the cross. This is also seen in the book of Revelation in how the martyrs wage war with the weapons of the Lamb:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders...
Revelation 12.7-12Note how the "war in heaven" is fought by the saints. The saints defeat evil "by the blood of the Lamb," "by their testimony," and, finally, by the sacrificial giving of their lives like Jesus on the cross.
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..."
The point being, I think the weakness of God can be made consistent with the book of Revelation.
To my second observation.
I think the recent work of scholars such as N.T. Wright (see his Surprised By Hope) have encouraged us to see the eschatological vision of the New Testament as being more this-worldly than other-worldly. The eschaton and "eternal life" have much more to do with the quality of today's life than with a judgment at "the end times." Our prayer is the same as Jesus': "Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."
In this view, "the end" is less about a literal, future apocalypse than it is the goal state and the divine, prophetic perspective on our world, right here, right now. We are an eschatological people when we live with "the end"--the vision of God's ultimate rule where Jesus is Lord--ever in view
The point being, as we did in the last post, we can bracket questions about "the end" like we can bracket questions about "the beginning." We can be agnostic about those things yet still have a rich, energized and biblical eschatology.
Finally, I would like to make an observation about the ending of the biblical narrative and its similarity to the beginning.
Recall from the last post that, given a certain reading, chaos pre-dates creation. Creation assumes the raw material of chaos, the formless clay that God shapes and calls "good." (An activity we are called as God's image-bearers--as Adam was called--to emulate, the creating of goodness out of chaos.) Genesis, in this view, brackets the question about where that chaos--that raw material--came from.
What is interesting is that Revelation ends on that same open-ended note. Specifically, in the description of the New Jerusalem, a restoration of Eden's Paradise, there are few curious things. First, it's a city with walls. Why do you need walls? Why not the whole earth restored as a garden? Second, the doors of this city are always open. Why are doors open if no one is on the outside?
On this point--Are there people outside the walls of the New Jerusalem?--the text seems mixed. In 21.6-8 it appears that the "outsiders" are consigned to death in the Lake of Fire. But at the end of the text in 22.12-15 it seems like their are people living outside the city. The simple resolution to the paradox is to say that, right now, there are insiders and outsiders, but that at the end of time the outsiders get thrown into the Lake of Fire.
Which is fine as far as that goes, but unless you are an annihilationist most Christians actually do believe there is an "outside" to the New Jerusalem. It's called hell.
The point being, according to most Christians the ending of the bible brings us back to where we were at the beginning. Which isn't with a vision of total, universal goodness. In Genesis there is chaos and, in the midst of that chaos, the Garden of Eden where the Kingdom of God is experienced. And in the book of Revelation there is a city--the New Jerusalem--where the Kingdom of God is experienced and, outside of those walls, there remains an eternal chaos, like at the beginning, which most Christians label as hell. In both visions there are two basic territories. In Genesis it's the formless void versus Eden. In Revelation it's the Lake of Fire (Hell) versus the New Jerusalem. And in both cases evil is associated with the territory opposed to the territory where the Kingdom of God is experienced.
Now am I saying that evil is co-eternal with God, that evil existed alongside God in the beginning and will exist alongside God forever?
No. All I'm saying is that the biblical narrative doesn't get into that question. From beginning to end the bible simply assumes two locations--a location where God's rule is experienced and holds sway (Eden, New Jerusalem) and a location which is "outside" God's rule. Biblically, that's all we can say for sure. Anything more is metaphysical speculation that can't be adjudicated with the bible. Which means that, in my opinion, biblical Christians can be agnostic about all this.
More, if I can circle back to my second point above, if an eschatological perspective is more about today than "the end times" then such agnosticism might have salutary effects upon Christians and the church. This agnosticism keeps us focused on what is most important:
Waging the War of the Lamb to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.