Allowing God to Rage

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.

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.”
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 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:

“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.”
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:
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..."
Again, 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."

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.

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27 thoughts on “Allowing God to Rage”

  1. Another passage in Revelation that helps make this point is 19:11-15-- 11 I saw heaven standing
    open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called
    Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12
    His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has
    a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.

    Some interpret the blood and sword as evidence of violence, ignoring the possibility that the blood is Jesus' own and ignoring alternate interpretations suggested by the the sword coming out of his mouth.  On the other hand, you are right to point out that there is definitely something going on here that speaks of rage and judgment.

    On a different note, does Gorman address the issue of the literary genre of Revelation?  Some have suggested that Revelation, like much Jewish apocalyptic literature, is something akin to an imprecatory prayer again the Roman perscutors, with the strange imagery required to keep the writer off the Roman radar.

  2. He does talk about genre. His main take is that Revelation is offering up a counter-mythology to the imperial mythology of Empire, Rome in particular. In this he calls Revelation "resistance literature."

  3. Excellent post, Richard!  Thanks.  I just posted some similar thoughts about the larger phenomena of the problem of evil and God;s involvement with violence and war, esp. in the OT entitled "Open Season on God" at my blog "God's Word, Our Words, and the World."

  4. Psalm 42 has always been one of my favourites (in fact all the Psalms in the 42 times table make a rather good triptych IMHO).

    I hear the tumult of the raging seas as your waves and surging tides sweep over me. (Ps 42:7 NLT)

    There is something that rings profoundly true of my experience of God here - of encoutering the grace and greatness of God in the most difficult of experiences.

    Interestingly, MacDonald describes the atonement in similar language:

    “Did he not foil and slay evil by letting all the waves and billows of its horrid sea break upon him, go over him, and die without rebound—spend their rage, fall defeated, and cease? Verily, he made atonement."

    There is an eerie parallel here between the language used to describe the frustrated work of evil and the inexorable work of grace.  The crucial difference seems to be in the response to evil and suffering.  The divine response is without rebound.  Is this simply a description of passivity?

    What then is this rage of God?  It must be something qualitatively different to the raging of evil in our world.  The evil that is rooted in fear and seizes any advantage of power to damage all relationships within reach.

    The rage of God must be an expression of his love.  For love loves unto purity.  And our God is a ... a raging sea, perhaps?

    Is this the victory of Christ in us - to meet evil with good, not passively, but transformatively?

    Evil's most destructive blow becomes transformed into decisive victory.  Now that's what I call hope.

  5. Richard,

    Not to promote myself, here, but I wrote a detailed blog entry that is incredibly relevant to your entry. I actually view the book of Revelation as depicting God as nonviolent. If you care to see my thoughts, they're here:

  6. Richard,

    We might well remember that the "anger of man worketh not the righteousness of God."  God is Spirit but sometimes our effort to "spiritualize" the LORD of Hosts is little but sheer sentiment.  

  7. Oh, and one more thing: Revelation is best when read aloud.  Maybe with Brahm's "Requiem" as background.


    George Cooper

  8. > The rage of God worries us because it is so often misappropriated and used to justify other forms of violence.

    Also, it worries us because the idea of the rage of God makes no sense. If God can set things right (as Revelation implies), God can only rage against Godself for not having already done so.

  9. "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." Agreed, that is well as the fact that many conservatives are not enraged enough.

  10. I guess Revelation is my least favourite Biblical book.   I've never found much benefit in it.  Of course my tradition has played down the silliness that much of the rest of conservative Christianity finds in it.  I will have to check out Gorman some more. 

  11. I think you really nailed it when you mentioned how this overt violence in the book has often been used to justify such things as crusades.  For more progressive Christians, as myself, I find these images to be alarming.  Yet, I hesitate to tame the text.  It is violent, it is bloody, it is justice in the most literal form.  I think that this is something that we need to be honest about when doing our exegesis.  The justice that is portrayed here is overt judgement upon the evil in the world.  Now, I think that when we, as communities of faith are reading early Christian documents such as these need to keep in mind is that we need to do good Hermeneutics.  In other words, knowing the nature of the text, how do we live as faithful members of the kingdom of God and of the world in which we live.   

  12. "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."

    Secular Humanism requires a phony kindness and hypocritical compassion.  This is how those who "care" instill worth in themselves, and it is why they are so quick to fling charges such as "racism" against others. Pure projection.  It is also why they demonize those who would counsel "tough love" for many of the ills of humanity -- both for individuals as well as society at large.

    Liberalism rebells against that which it knows to be true.  It ignores the fundamental facts of human nature.  Sadly for all, this mindset does not help anyone, and in the end is itself destructive.  In the name of compassion, people often end up suffering more, not less.

  13. Excellent synopsis.  Seems to be an issue with identity.  When people form Christ into the image of their "just cause", it makes Christ easier to control and we can subdue him.  Scary to think that this has always been an issue, but most American Christians don't know what happened before yesterday.  People need to let go of the liberal/conservative divide.  There are too many negative issues that go along with it in the U.S. It's like the Ba'al of old.  Of course, Ba'al was a just a word, but the value and power of the word caused huge amounts of problems.

  14. Back when I was even younger and more stupider(er) than I am right now, I used to rack my brain to try to make literal sense of the (obviously) very literal book of Revelation. An admission of metaphor was an admission of Deception, so I just had to suck it up and accept that God was all the violence and overpowering rage and abuse that I hated in the world, love and the cross be danged. 

    Oh, that someone had told me then that I could read the whole frickin' thing in the light of Love. Oh, that I'd been allowed to believe in stories instead of formulas.

  15. This is kind of silly. Here, let's play this game:

    Evangelical Christianity requires a phony kindness and hypocritical
    compassion.  This is how those who "care" instill worth in themselves,
    and it is why they are so quick to fling charges such as "pride"
    against others. Pure projection.  It is also why they demonize those who
    would counsel compassion for many of the ills of humanity -- both for
    individuals as well as society at large.

    Conservatism rebels
    against that which it knows to be true.  It ignores the fundamental
    facts of human nature.  Sadly for all, this mindset does not help
    anyone, and in the end is itself destructive.  In the name of "tough love", people often end up suffering more, not less.

  16. Matthew -- the point of your reply eludes me.  I began my comments with a quote from Richard.  Nowhere in my post did a speak of Evangelical Christianity -- not even by inference.  I was affirming something I believed Richard to be saying, and speaking of humanism as religion. 

    You will also note that Richard -- not I -- spoke first of the potential for Christianity to morph into a "bland form of liberal humanism".  I therefore have no idea what the relevance of your word-play is vis-a-vis the comment I made.

  17. My point is that I can take your mini-screed against liberals, change a few words, and produce a standard mini-screed against conservatives ... implying that such comments are uninteresting and unhelpful. I'm glad to have my liberal beliefs critiqued, particularly in ways that are on-topic, but your snotty, blanket dismissal of "liberalism" teaches me nothing.

  18. The more I fall in love with Christ, the more I become content with God's rage.  Seeing just a mere sliver of the heart of Jesus can throw us into some serious ontological shock.  Lately I read the parable of the sheep and the goats and if you read it in the light of the irrepressible love of Christ, you can pray with passion, "Oh God, please deal me be it ever so severely if I ever drop the ball on the least of these that you've called me to take care of."  I hope that God rages on the evil of this world - including my own (especially my own) - and the reconcile all things to him. 

  19. How dare you revise the words of MacDonald!  :)  Of course, I'm sure even he wouldn't mind.  "Raging sea" works there rather well.  Raging sea and consuming fire...nice paradoxical poetry. 

  20. I put this comment in another spot in the wrong place so I'll repost it here.

    In arguing about the problem of evil and suffering I use to try to place God in a human category and say He must behave a certain way. What I failed to take into consideration is the holiness of God. God is set apart from His creation and transcendent. He's distinct. We are to imitate God in His holiness in certain ways but there are also ways we are not to imitate God. We cannot be like God in every way. He alone is God and He therefore has rights and prerogatives that we don't have. Just to name a few ways I'm not like God: God is infinite in wisdom, God is all-powerful, God is sovereign, God is self-sufficient, God is all-knowing. When I try to be like God in every way it leads to pride and arrogance. He is the Creator and I am the creature.The Bible tells us that God is love. It doesn't say He is ONLY love. And while God is love it's a holy love. For the Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not only this but the Bible also speaks of a holy hatred that God has. So, it's my contention that the problem of evil and suffering doesn't even get started. For God's love isn't merely a human love but a holy love. This isn't the same omnibenevolence that we try to ascribe to God. For God has a holy hatred as well. Nonetheless, He is completely holy and deserves our worship.

  21. Well-spotted that man!  And thanks for the vicarious forgiveness.  Yes - a triple paradox: consuming fire and raging water used to describe both grace and judgement as exercised for both good and evil.  And a fourth layer of paradox (and hence my post): that God is depicted both as suffering the raging of evil without rebound and as the source of a similar power - I guess he doesn't deal with that which is destined for destruction (evil) and focusses instead on those who are destined for glory (all of us perpetrators of evil).


  22. The word holy is commonly understood to mean moral perfection.  And when it is applied to God's relationship to "sinners" it suggests that God has such a high standard of holiness (moral perfection) that he will not tolerate or forgive sinners until they are sanctified and made holy (morally clean).

    But this is not what the Hebrew prophets had in mind when they cried, "Holy! holy! holy is YHWH Sabaoth."   The Hebrew kaddosh, has nothing to do with morality but means "otherness,"-- Wholly Other.   "YHWH is other! other! other!"

    YHWH does not conform to, or fit into our concepts of deity.  He can not be defined by our abstract theistic characterizations (omnipotent, omniscient, impassible...).  YHWH is  radically, transcendentally different (other) then the gods made in our own image: the autocratic and domineering gods that are the projections of our primate animal nature.

    God is radical, uncompromising, unconditional, self-emptying love for the other--us and all of creation.  It is this love that defines His holiness.  A love so completely open to the pain and need of the other; so inexhaustible in its selflessness; so broad and deep in its scope; that is could never be defined by any abstract philosophical/theological propositions.  It could only be expressed and made real in a living person.  Only in one who is the fulness of the humane and compassionate Abba.  Only in the Crucified One: Jesus Christ.

  23. His holiness defines His love. It's the only attribute that is repeated three times to stress it's importance. And I agree with what you said about God's otherness as you can see in what I wrote above.

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