On Warfare and Weakness: Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb

Our theological detour in thinking about power and the weakness of God in the biblical narrative continues.

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.”

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...
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:
Revelation 12.7-12
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..."
Note 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.

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.


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16 thoughts on “On Warfare and Weakness: Part 7, The Victory of the Lamb”

  1. I love the stance of agnosticism regarding the origins of evil. It seems to me to be the only morally responsible way to construct a compelling theodicy.

    Regarding your reference to the New Jerusalem in Revelation, I am also reminded that the final picture we have is of the Spirit and the Bride saying, "Come!", apparently to all those who are outside the city (Rev. 22:17) -- the city whose gates will never be shut! A picture of hopeful universalism perhaps?

  2. I would watch for statements like, "it is the only way." They are almost always wrong, and almost always used to browbeat people into accepting things that they wouldn't otherwise accept. Whenever I hear that phrase, I think of the boss telling his workers, "It is the only way." Like hell it is.

  3. Fair enough. In the spirit of intellectual humility, perhaps I could rephrase to something like, "At this point, I know of no other morally responsible way to construct a compelling theodicy."

  4. Great series, Richard. Many thanks. Regarding your observations about Revelation 22, it seems pretty clear there are people on the outside of the walls. After all, where does the river go, and what is the point of the trees on the riverbank whose leaves are "for the healing of the nations" if the nations do not exist?

  5. Right, so it seems to me that what we have in Revelation isn't a vision of "the end of all things," but a highly symbolic vision of the situation as it stands today: in the work and ministry of Christ the kingdom of God--the "New Jerusalem"--has been established upon earth. Jesus now reigns as "Lord of All" as we see declared in the book of Acts. The eschatological victory over evil isn't in the future but has already occurred, is our present reality:

    Colossians 2.15
    And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

  6. Emphatically YES: " 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."

    There's a sort of linkage here to the scientific method and its implications: we ought to be much less certain of our conclusions when we extrapolate beyond our data (in this case, the age of human history and experience) than when we interpolate within those data. Certitude about extrapolations - I'm thinking here about the _Left Behind_ strain of literature, but not only that - makes Christians look really, really silly. It *does* matter to our witness that we not adopt gratuitously ludicrous positions on such things. (That's distinct, of course, from the "craziness" of the Cross, which is not in the "gratuitous" category.)


  7. In this post you describe chaos-void as both "raw materials" and "evil". Caputo takes pains to indicate that these things are in fact _not_ evil, but merely raw materials, something "unformed". I think it's a critical distinction, because as a consequence, Caputo interprets our task as one of forming or making, not one of righteous warfare.

  8. Touché Chris! I'd suggest that there are a few on offer that I find compelling, even if "freedom" and "soul-making," don't quite cut it. I also think that the basic exercise of providing a theodicy explicitly is helpful, because we tend to adopt one implicitly at any rate. I do think people tend to adopt the "weakness" theodicy out of a profound sense of hopelessness, and a sense that it is the only option. I'd like to push against that. But yes, Mark seems admirably epistemically humble to me as well!

  9. Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice.” 1994.

    How useful can it be to add one more variable to this enterprise? (‘infusing progressive Christianity with energy, excitement and popular appeal’ Oy vey!). Still, posing Caputo and Boyd is perhaps one way to get folks thinking more about death, evil, chaos, and void. It’s certainly more pleasant than trying to figure it all out while crammed into a ice covered cattle car on the way to Auschwitz! And would it really ease one’s terror and pain to believe that god was right there in the cattle car with you and your children? See, that’s god right there in the corner, that old women squatting over the piss bucket or that emaciated child with the rat bites on his face.

    Many have found some help in the Jewish concept of tzimtzum though, and Caputo’s ‘Weakness’ could be helpfully engaged as a Derridean reading of Isaac Luria (while I just can’t keep from thinking that Boyd’s ‘warfare’ seems more like a theodicy extrapolated from the adventures of Indiana Jones (bar Maccabee) and his battles with various cartoon nazis). So let me point y’all towards and offer a bit of (again?) Hans Jonas’s “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice.” It is also, as Jonas states at the beginning of the essay, “a piece of undisguisedly speculative theology,” that is trying to construct a useful response to evil. Only this theodicy is thought through from the inside of the cattle car that transported his mother to Auschwitz. So what if God is not the ‘Lord of History‘ as so many suppose, asks Jonas, what if god is indeed as vulnerable to history as an old women squatting over a piss bucket? What if God really did relinquish power not in some symbolic way but what if god has actually risked god’s own life with ours? What if...

    “In the beginning, for unknowable reasons, the ground of being, or the divine, chose to give itself over to the chance and risk and endless variety of becoming. And wholly so: entering into the adventure of space and time, the deity held back nothing of itself – no uncommitted or unimpaired part remained to direct, correct, and ultimately guarantee the roundabout working out of its destiny in the creation. On this unconditional immanence the modern temper insists. It is its courage or despair, in any case its bitter honesty, to take our being-in-the-world seriously: to view the world as left to itself, its laws as brooking no interference, and the rigour of our belonging to it as not softened by an extramundane providence. Our myth demands the same for God’s being-in-the-world. Not, however, in the sense of a pantheistic immanence.... But rather, in order that the world might be, and be for itself, God renounced his own being, divesting himself of his deity – to receive it back from the Odyssey of time laden with the chance harvest of unforeseeable temporal experience; transfigured, or possibly even disfigured, by it. In such self-forfeiture of divine integrity for the sake of an unprejudiced becoming, no other foreknowledge can be admitted than that of possibilities which cosmic being offers n its own terms. To these conditions God committed his cause, effacing himself for the sake of the world.”

    Much obliged (*note to Chris in post #6, Heidegger was already baptized (and Derrida circumcised. Dr. Beck, this whole essay used to be available on-line but I couldn’t find it today, I would be willing to send you a paper copy though, thanks for your insights, blessings and shalom).

  10. Agreed. But I think that's a weakness in Caputo, which is a partial motivation for this series. That is, there is a certain passivity in his book that I think is admirable in a way but doesn't rise to certain moral challenges. However, if "forming" and "making" can shade into resistance, defiance, and opposition to the forces of dehumanization then I'm fine with those words.

  11. I'd love a copy Daniel if it's not too much trouble. beckr@acu.edu

    BTW, I know a lot of people are just hating the warfare metaphor and Boyd's use of it as a theodicy. But I really do think the kernel of his idea is worth talking about: resistance is our only theodicy. So while I think it's very easy to caricature Boyd's view I think his goal is, at root, motivational. In the face of the forces of violence and dehumanization maybe the dichotomy between resignation and resistance is too simplistic but, for my part, I'm drawn to articulations of resistance, "warfare" metaphor and all. I wish their had been a bit more militancy in German Christianity during the rise of Nazism. So I take inspiration for the spiritual warfare metaphor from people like the White Rose martyrs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Rose).

    From the fourth leaflet of the White Rose:

    Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking maw of hell and his might is fundamentally reprobate. To be sure, one must wage the battle against National Socialism using rational means. But whoever still does not believe in the actual existence of demonic powers has not comprehended by far the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the tangible, behind that which can be perceived by the senses, behind all factual, logical considerations stands The Irrational, that is the battle against the demon, against the messengers of the Anti-Christ. Everywhere and at all times, the demons have waited in darkness for the hour in which mankind is weak; in which he voluntarily abandons the position in the world order that is based on freedom and comes from God; in which he yields to the force of the Evil One, disengaging himself from the powers of a higher order. Once he has taken the first step of his own free will, he is driven to take the second and then the third and even more with furiously increasing speed. Everywhere and at every time of greatest danger, people have risen up – prophets, saints – who are aware of their freedom, who have pointed to the One God and with His aid have exhorted the people to turn in repentance. Mankind is surely free, but he is defenseless against the Evil One without the true God. He is like a ship without a rudder that is given over to the storm, like a nursing child with a mother, like a cloud that dissolves.

    I will ask you, those of you who claim to be Christians: In this struggle for the preservation of your most precious goods, is there a hesitancy, a pretense of intrigue, procrastination of your decision in the hopes that someone else will raise his weapons to defend you? Did not God Himself give you the strength and the courage to fight against [these powers]? We must attack the Evil One where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler...

    We will not keep silent. We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not let you alone!

    For dispensing this and other pamphlets the leaders of the White Rose were beheaded by the Nazis.

    In their memory I'm sticking with the spiritual warfare metaphor.

  12. Personally i can't get excited about fighting a war that might never end. But I realize that not everyone feels that way.

  13. Thanks for this. It makes me think of some of the life that is left in that creaky old trinity, which insists on something like this, and, simultaneously, the sovereign storyteller God who writes Godself into just this kind of story. In that, God's own warfare story is perhaps more Kurt Vonnegut than Indiana Jones.

  14. All I have is a paper copy Dr. B. so if you want you can email your address to me and I will snail mail you a copy or even fax you one, let me know, it is pretty interesting. I am not too hung up on the warfare metaphor, every metaphor has problems and limitations. I really like that concept of yours: “resistance is our only theodicy” (with all the usual caveats of course. That, coupled with silence where the bible is silent about the origins of evil, and a lot of other stuff, is pretty good advice, although I don’t want to be too dismissive of the Talmud, holy tradition, etc.). Truth is we don’t know WTF is going on most of the time, and yet in the face of that unknowing many have done extraordinary things and lived profoundly holy lives in the midst of great suffering and tragedy (theology and action from the inside of the cattle car, so to speak). Blessings and much obliged.

    Here is another couple of paragraphs I found on line:

    “And here let us remember that Jewish tradition itself is really not quite so monolithic in the matter of divine sovereignty as official doctrine makes it appear. The mighty undercurrent of the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem in our days has brought to light anew, knows about a divine fate bound up with the coming-to-be of a world. There we meet highly original, very unorthodox speculations in whose company mine would not appear so wayward after all. Thus, for example, my myth at bottom only pushes further the idea of the tzimtzum, that cosmogonic centerconcept of the Lurianic Kabbalah. Tzimtzum means contraction, withdrawal, self-limitation. To make room for the world, the En-Sof (Infinite; literally, No-End) of the beginning had to contract himself so that, vacated by him, empty space could expand outside of him: the, Nothing‟ in which and from which God could then create the world. Without this retreat into himself, there could be no, other‟ outside God, and only his continued holding-himself-in preserves the finite things from losing their separate being again into the divine „all in all.‟

    My myth goes farther still. The contraction is total as far as power is concerned; as a whole has the Infinite ceded his power to the finite and thereby wholly delivered his cause into its hands. Does that still leave anything for a relation to God?

    Let me answer this question with a last quotation from the earlier writing. By forgoing its own inviolateness, the eternal ground allowed the world to be. To this self-denial all creation owes its existence and with it has received all there is to receive from beyond. Having given himself whole to the becoming world, God has no more to give: it is man‟s now to give to him. And he may give by seeing to it in the ways of his life that it does not happen or happen too often, and not on his account, that it, repented the Lord‟ to have made the world. This may well be the secret of the „thirty-six righteous ones‟ whom, according to Jewish lore, the world shall never lack and of whose number in our time were possibly some of those „just of the nations‟ I have mentioned before: their guessed-at secret being that, with the superior valency of good over evil, which (we hope) obtains in the noncausal logic of things there, their hidden holiness can outweigh countless guilt, redress the balance of a generation, and secure the peace of the invisible realm.”

  15. White Flag is up and waving. A small sense of pride welled up when you said something along the idea that if your still reading... You are a nerd. You have humbled that pride. I Love the series and I'm hanging in there with the broader scope of it and will continue reading the detour but man! I'm simply not well read enough, or nerd enough I guess. I'm having to reluctantly tap out of this theological detour. Looking forward to Friday with Benedict! (Which seems nerd enough this week). Cheers.

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