[From Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin, eds, Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend (Cascade Books, 2011), 3-27]
Eschatology all too often means judgment, vengeance, the bad guys and gals getting their “just desserts.” Probably at least in part because of the titillating allure of violence, and in part because of the attraction of being part of a story when our side wins and the other side loses, eschatology is pretty popular.
But is this kind of eschatology Christian? What might Christian eschatology look like if it is done as if Jesus matters? If we look at Jesus’ own life and teaching, we won’t find a clearer statement of his hierarchy of values than his concise summary of the law and prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul—and, likewise, you shall love your neighbor as you love your own self. This love of God and neighbor is why we are alive. It is what matters the most. The “end” that matters is our purpose for being here, not any knowledge we might think we have about future events. Our purpose is to love—that purpose is the eschatological theme that is central if we do eschatology as if Jesus matters.
To talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to our purpose for living in the world. The word “end” can have two different meanings. (1) “End” means the conclusion, the finish, the last part, the final outcome. In this sense, “the end of the world” is something future and has to do with the world ceasing to exist. (2) “End” also, though, means the purpose, what is desired, the intention. “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for. In this sense of “end,” the “end times” have to do with why we live in time.
The book of Revelation is usually seen as the book of the Bible most concerned with “the end times.” The book of Revelation has always vexed interpreters. Rarely has it been seen as an indispensable source for Christian social ethics; often it has been seen more as an ethical problem. I want to suggest, though, that Revelation has potential to speak powerfully to 21st-century Christians about our purpose in life.
The Bible generally speaks in the future tense only in service of exhortation toward present faithfulness. The Bible’s concern is that the people of God live in such a way that we will be at home in the New Jerusalem—not with predictions about when and how the future will arrive.
How do we relate “eschatology” with “apocalyptic”? Let me suggest that biblical apocalyptic (which I will differentiate from the genre “apocalyptic literature” that modern scholars have developed) actually is best understood similarly to eschatology. The biblical use of apocalyptic language, like the broader use of prophetic and eschatological language, serves the exhortation to faithfulness in present life.
When I take up the issues of eschatology and biblical apocalyptic, I do so from the standpoint of my commitment to the gospel of peace, and more particularly in trying to construct Christian theology that serves this commitment. I believe that the three main sources for theology—the Bible, tradition, and present experience—all give us mixed signals concerning the gospel of peace and its applicability for our world (which, for example, is why so many Christians in this country support American military actions). For the clarity we need, I think it’s important to add a fourth source for constructive theology: hope or vision. Where do we want to go? What do we hope for? And, then, how might we interpret the Bible, tradition, and present experience in ways that serve this hope? That is what I propose to do with the book of Revelation.
My essay will test the following thesis concerning biblical apocalyptic in service of a compassionate eschatology: What biblical apocalyptic reveals may be seen especially in the formation of communities of faith called to resist imperial hegemony. The power that matters most in biblical apocalyptic is the power of love that sustains these communities in the face of empire.
The question of power
The fifth chapter of the book of Revelation begins with a poignant image. The seer, John of Patmos, writes in chapter four of an awe-inspiring vision of the throne of God. Surrounding the throne in John’s vision, the entire animate creation worships the one on the throne. In chapter five, though, a shadow falls. John sees a scroll in the right hand of the one on the throne. From how John describes this scroll (“written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals,” 5:1) and how he regards it (begging for it to be opened), we get the impression that what he’s describing should be understood as, in some sense, history fulfilled, the completion of the project initiated in Genesis one.
The poignancy enters when John sees the scroll but is overcome with grief at the thought that it may not be opened. Who can open the scroll? “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3).
This account provides us with a metaphor that speaks to much of human history. How can history be redeemed? How can the human project be redirected from brokenness and alienation toward healing and wholeness?
Human beings tend to think of power in terms of the ability to control events, to force others to do one’s will even if that means coercing them. Political power is often linked with the ability to use violence. We are most likely to answer the question of how to open the scroll by asserting the need to “force” it open, to open it by our firepower.
In Revelation five, John, like most people, seems to assume the scroll will be opened by firepower, power as domination. He weeps bitterly when he thinks no one can be found to open the scroll. However, John then hears an audacious claim. One of the elders immediately comforts John. “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:4). These images evoke a mighty warrior king (or Messiah) who will open the scroll with the use of force.
John’s vision continues, though, with a shockingly different claim. He may have heard the promise of a warrior king to open the scroll, but he actually sees something altogether different. “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb” (5:6-8).
According to the next few verses, the creatures and elders, and ultimately the rest of creation, worship this Lamb as the one who does have the power to open the scroll.
How does this claim for the power of the Lamb correspond with the claim that power-as-domination is the only way to address the huge problems of human history?
To answer this question, we need to reflect on the message of the biblical materials known as “apocalyptic.” If we focus primarily on the biblical language of “revelation” (from the Greek apokalypsis) and consider this language in the context of the rest of the Christian Bible, we will find that power according to biblical apocalyptic does cohere with John’s vision in Revelation five. The power that biblical apocalyptic understands to be decisive in human history, the power that will “open the scroll,” is the power of suffering love and communal faithfulness, not the power of weapons of war and coercive force.
The term “apocalyptic” as a label for a genre of ancient Jewish and Christian literature comes from the first several words in Revelation: “The revelation (apokalypsis) of Jesus Christ.” The linking together of apocalypse with Jesus Christ provides our first essential clue for understanding power in biblical apocalyptic. The power of biblical apocalyptic is the power of Jesus Christ.
Most contemporary writing on biblical apocalyptic in general, and Revelation more particularly, does not generally self-consciously link “apocalyptic” with “Jesus Christ.” We don’t allow “Jesus Christ” to shape our understanding of “apocalyptic.” General approaches to apocalyptic may be divided into three general categories, each of which by and large shares with the others the same general sense of what “apocalyptic” conveys.
To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think in terms of visions of fire from the sky that judge and destroy. The “apocalypse” is a time of catastrophe, of dramatic change, the end of what is and the birth of something drastically new and different. Apocalyptic power, it is implied, is top-down power, the power of might and coercion, vengeance and judgment. As a consequence of God’s exercise of such power, every knee is forced to bow before God – either in joyful submission or in defeated submission.
The three general responses to apocalyptic (all understanding apocalyptic in roughly the same way) include (1) avoidance, (2) historical literalism, and (3) futuristic literalism.
1. Avoidance. Many Christians have simply ignored apocalyptic. It has been seen as the literature of extremists. Many in the early church disputed the acceptance of Revelation into the canon. Much later, John Calvin wrote commentaries on the entire Bible, except Revelation. Martin Luther also considered Revelation to be sub-Christian and taught its avoidance.
More recently, many “mainstream” Christians continue to avoid Revelation, willingly giving over the discussion of this part of the Bible to the prophecy purveyors. Revelation is seen as a book of fear and violent judgment that reinforces many of the most uncivilized tendencies of religious people—and thus is best avoided as much as possible.
2. Historical literalism. Beginning with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), the consensus view for most biblical scholars in the historical-critical vein has been to accept the apocalypse-as-world-catastrophe-and-divine-judgment view as being what Jesus, Revelation, and the rest of earliest Christianity literally expected to come very soon. However, obviously they were wrong. Since Schweitzer, the question of how thoroughly this apocalyptic view should be applied to early Christian thought has been vigorously debated. But the general sense that biblical apocalyptic concerns violent power and judgment has not been contested.
Neither the avoiders nor the historical literalists themselves see biblical apocalyptic as valid for our present. The third approach shares a similar sense of what biblical apocalyptic’s perspective was, but this view affirms that this perspective does remain valid for today.
3. Future literalism. Throughout the past 2,000 years, at least a few Christians have understood the visions of biblical apocalyptic writings, especially Revelation, to be predictive of actual future events in human history. This future prophetic view found powerful expression in the writings of a 19th-century British reformer named John Darby who formulated a thorough system of interpretation called “dispensationalism” that has shaped countless perspectives on biblical apocalyptic.
In recent years, dispensational theology has gained wide currency through the phenomenally popular science fiction novels in the Left Behind series. These books articulate a theology of future judgment, of apocalypse as destruction and recreation, vengeance and reward. Though presented as fiction, in many ways the vision of these books is believed to be an articulation of the kinds of things that their writers (and many of their millions of readers) expect literally to happen.
In all these three approaches, then, the assumption that biblical apocalyptic understands power in terms of force, coercion, and top-down impositions of God’s will has remained unchallenged. However, turning back to Revelation chapter five, we may ask whether these assumptions about power accurately capture the sense of what John the Seer believes allows the Lamb to open the scroll. And, in light of our long history of wars and rumors of wars, we must ask whether all our “myth of redemptive violence” might not be utterly counter-productive in relation to the universal human longing for the scroll to be opened, brokenness to be healed, and wrong-doing to be dealt with in ways that bring genuine redemption.
Apocalyptic power in Revelation
Clearly, the book of Revelation does mean to convey a sense of crisis. It envisions impending catastrophe, along with a polarized view of reality. We see clearly separated forces of good and evil at war with one another and demanding absolute allegiance. Life and death themselves are at stake in relation to the choice of people’s loyalties. However, we need to pay close attention to the way power is construed in the book in order to have a better sense of how John envisions the scroll to be opened and the conflicts to be resolved.
What characterizes “apocalyptic power” according to the book of Revelation? Let’s look at four themes.
(1) First, the book’s self-designation as a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) reminds readers of the gospel message of Jesus’ persevering, self-giving, transforming love is the truly creative power of the universe—in direct contrast with the type of power characteristic of the Roman Empire and all other human empires (signified in Revelation as the “Beast”).
This contrast reflects Revelation’s agenda. The “revelation” of Jesus correspondingly reveals the nature of the Empire that demanded Christians’ loyalty. John’s visions disillusion. To see through eyes of faith in the Lamb and his way undercuts the Beast’s hegemonic demands. The power to perceive the character of the true God and the contrast between that character and the true nature of the Beast stands at the heart of biblical apocalyptic.
The story of Jesus continually portrayed Jesus’ message as a challenge to sight. See the world and your place in it in light of Jesus’ good news of God’s love. In the context of the rest of the New Testament, John’s attempt to convey the message of Jesus as a “revelation” mostly underscores how “correct sight” was at the heart of the Christian message.
Revelation’s urgency stems from John’s concern about the perennial struggle of people of the promise to worship God aright and not trust in idols. Just as the first Hebrews faced the choice between believing in the inevitability of the domination of Pharaoh’s empire or trusting in Yahweh, just as later Israelites faced the choice between the Babylonian and then Persian empires and Yahweh, just as Jesus challenged his followers to choose between God and Caesar, for John of Patmos, a key choice his audience faced was who would be the object of their trust – the God of the Bible or almighty Rome. To respond appropriately to this challenge, John’s audience (he believed) needed to have clear sight. They needed a reminder—a revelation of the true message of Jesus.
The book of Revelation came into being in the late first century. Though traditionally, Revelation has been seen as set in the context of intense persecution from the Roman Empire, more recent scholarship has tended toward understanding overt, widespread persecution not to be the likely environment. Certainly, the book indicates spots of persecution among the seven churches, though only one direct case of martyrdom is mentioned. However, among the seven churches, John fears the conformity of his fellow Christians to the surrounding culture much more than immediate persecution.
John seems mostly concerned with emphasizing choices between following the way of Jesus and seeking to fit in comfortably with the imperial Asia Minor environment. The vehemence of John’s rhetoric and the drama of his visions challenge the imaginations of his readers to recognize the deep-seated dangers of making wrong choices more than speak to obvious and extreme cases of overt persecution.
The power of the Roman Empire stemmed from its control over cultural religious practices that reinforced the popular sense of the Empire’s status as blessed by the gods, inevitable, and all dominating. Dissent from these practices would lead to the threat of sanctions, including overt violence. These cultural religious practices lent legitimacy to the entire socio-historical arrangement of the first-century Roman Empire. The empire had a strong presence in each of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation two and three; several of these cities, in particular, were centers of imperial religion, hosting major temples.
The key “revelation” in John’s text is not actually about particular events that literally are to come. The key “revelation” has to do with perceiving the importance of this fundamental choice of loyalties.
Why would John have been so certain that Rome’s vision for human life was incompatible with Jesus’? Obviously, many of the achievements of the Empire served human well-being—the cessation of the many civil wars and other violent conflicts that had plagued the Mediterranean world, the development of secure transportation routes that allowed commerce to flourish, the development of a common language that allowed people from all over the Empire fruitfully to share life together.
Yet, in John’s view, the order of the Empire rested on a fundamental core of violence and injustice (the word for “injustice,” adikia, is also translated “wickedness”). John feared that Christians’ acceptance of the Empire’s construal of reality would actually separate them from the God of Jesus. He refers to the Empire’s dependence upon violence and coercion as its bases for authority. He understood the expansion of the practices of commerce to be resting on oppression, even trafficking in the exploitation of human souls (18:13). The Empire ultimately links with the spiritual reality of the powers of evil that in some sense held responsibility for all the murders of authentic prophets and saints throughout the years (18:24).
So, the book of Revelation presents “apocalyptic power” as directly linked with the revelation of Jesus Christ, whose way stands in direct contrast with the empire’s way.
(2) The second characteristic of power according to biblical apocalyptic may be seen in the fruit of God’s “apocalyptic intervention.” This intervention does not turn out to lead to the catastrophic end of human history nor the massive and violent punishment of God’s human enemies. Rather, God intervenes to create and sustain faith communities that stand over against Rome—in this world, not in some “after-world.”
John seeks to foster a sense of crisis, presenting visions and proclamations of impending traumas and great conflicts. Chapter 12 conveys first a war in heaven. “Michael and his angels [fighting] against the dragon” (12:7). Then the dragon is thrown out of heaven and takes the war to earth, making war on the children of the woman, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). The surrounding chapters contain many more images of conflict, trauma, intense struggle, and suffering.
From these visions, we get Revelation’s stereotypical “apocalyptic” sense of unimaginable and world-ending catastrophes. However, when we read more carefully, we will see something else actually going on. These visions do not mean to predict literal events. Rather, they clarify the importance of the churches for God’s purposes in the world, and they push those churches to embody a genuine social alternative to Rome.
Chapter five has already made clear (as, indeed, have comments from the very beginning of the book) that there will in reality be no future war. The decisive battle is past. When the Lamb was slain and rose back to life, the victory was won.
The pictures of crises and catastrophes serve a different kind of purpose than predicting some future, wide-open battle. They portray the continual struggle to perceive that the Lamb’s victory is genuine and worth shaping Christians’ lives around. They contrast the Lamb’s claims with the competing claims from Babylon concerning the nature of power and the outcome of history.
These visions, this sense of crisis, intend at their heart to empower the community of the followers of the Lamb to stay together and resist the powers of Babylon. God’s “apocalyptic” intervention to bring salvation through the Lamb’s faithfulness creates and sustains communities of resistance. God’s apocalypse (revelation) empowers these communities for the long haul of following the Lamb wherever he goes and living as faithful witnesses who “conquer” through suffering love rather than violence and the sword.
The revelation of Jesus Christ that constitutes this book most of all reveals that those who worship the Lamb embody within their common life and faithful witness the same kind of power that enables the Lamb to open the scroll. “Apocalyptic power” finds its paradigmatic expression in the formation and sustenance of these communities. In making this point, Revelation continues in the biblical apocalyptic tradition as seen in Paul’s writing, Jesus’ proclamation, the visions of Daniel, the prophesies we call Second Isaiah, and the exodus story: God intervenes in the midst of catastrophic events most fundamentally by creating and sustaining communities of resistance.
So, God’s apocalyptic intervention bears fruit: communities of resistance empowered to follow the Lamb wherever he goes and witness to the ultimacy of suffering love as the fundamental rule of the universe.
(3) A third characteristic of “apocalyptic power” may be seen in how it provides sustenance for those communities of resistance. John writes to encourage the actual communities he describes in chapters two and three. And his message is not simply, hang on tight for a short time, the end of history will soon come. Rather, John encourages his readers to establish ways of being that will sustain them over time.
We may list ways Revelation emphasizes the sustenance of the community of faith:
a. The book begins with the affirmation that Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). Given what follows in the book, this affirmation instills in John’s readers a sense that right now the churches’ “ruler” is supreme over all other rulers. John goes on to emphasize the present fruit of Jesus’ work: he “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a kingdom (or, ‘empire’), priests serving his God and Father” (1:6). It is through the common life of the followers of Jesus in their faith communities that they share in Jesus’ rule, exist as an alternative “kingdom” to the Roman Empire, and freely serve God.
b. Later in the first chapter, John relays a vision of Jesus (“one like the Son of Man,” 1:12) walking among the “seven golden lampstands,” that is, among the churches (1:20). This vision encourages John’s readers with Jesus’ presence among them as “the living one” who has come back from the dead and has “the keys of Death and Hades” (1:19).
c. The part of Revelation that most clearly underscores John’s use of apocalyptic exhortation as a means to sustain the life of the communities of faith over time (rather than prepare them for an immediate end of history) may be found in chapters two and three. These seven messages anchor the book as a whole in the world of actual congregations facing actual challenges to faithfulness.
d. The vision of the slain Lamb standing victorious as a present reality based on past action in chapter five underscores that the congregations are challenged to walk faithfully with the one who already holds the outcome of history. This sense of the definitive triumph of the Lamb serves to encourage the congregations that their embodied suffering love coheres completely with the true power of the one seated on the throne who creates, sustains and brings to fulfillment.
e. One of the more ambiguous visions in Revelation comes right after the vision of the triumphant Lamb. Chapter six begins, “then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals…” Then follows the first of several series of catastrophic plagues. Conquering, war, famine, martyrdom, and the like erupt as the seals are broken.
We may understand the vision of the Lamb opening the scrolls as a statement of how even the terrible events of human history are not able to overcome the history-transforming work of the suffering love of the Lamb. The portrayal of the Lamb revealing the contents of the scroll, a revelation that ultimately unveils New Jerusalem as the destination of all who allow themselves to be transformed by the Lamb’s love (including “kings of the earth,” 21:24), means to encourage the congregations with the sense that the traumas they experience and see in the course of human history do not mean that God’s transforming work is null and void.
e. Throughout the book John slips in visions of multitudes of the Lamb’s followers worshiping, offering thanksgiving, reiterating their commitments to the Lamb and the one seated on the throne as the true sovereigns of human existence. These worship visions model for believers the spirit of worship that should continue to characterize their common life. They also remind believers that no matter how overwhelming the plagues may seem, the God of Jesus remains the true God and worthy of their trust.
f. Chapter thirteen gives striking visions of the immense power of the Beast. But rather than intimidating the believer, these visions must be read in the context of the entire book and the triumphant Lamb. When read thus, their role is not so much to fill the reader with fear as to help the reader discern the true character of the Empire. With such discernment, John’s readers will be empowered to clarify their loyalties and resist the tendency to accept the Empire’s claims to be their true “benefactor.”
g. The flip-side to the visions linking Rome with the Beast, the Great Harlot, and Babylon the Great, may be seen in the celebration of the marriage of the Lamb in chapter 19. The “bride” is none other than the community of faith John has been exhorting throughout this book. The possibility of joining this celebration follows from the bride having “made herself ready” (19:7) through her faithfulness.
h. A final example of how Revelation seeks to sustain the life of the community of faith over the long haul may be seen in the final contrast of the book – between two very different communities, Babylon and New Jerusalem.
John begins chapter 17, the vision of Babylon’s downfall, with these words: “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore….” (17:1). Then, in chapter twenty one, the vision of New Jerusalem’s emergence is introduced with the same words: “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls …came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9).
The book reaches its conclusion with the contrast being drawn. In which of these two communities will you all find your home? The answer to this question is not simply a matter of intellectual assent; one’s citizenship follows from the shape of one’s entire life.
So, the apocalyptic power of Revelation serves the purpose of encouraging the faith communities—God will sustain you.
(4) The fourth characteristic of apocalyptic power may be seen in the contrast between the two ways of conquering portrayed in the book. These two ways of conquering characterize the difference between citizens of Babylon and citizens of the New Jerusalem. John does see a spiritual struggle defining human existence. It is either “conquer” or “be conquered.” But, for those who would be conquerors, the question centers on the nature of the conquering.
The ones in the messages to the churches in chapters two and three who will receive rewards are labeled “conquerors.” Most of the rewards in those messages anticipate later visions in the book, underscoring the unity between the exhortations to the actual faith communities and the visions that follow. That is, the purpose of the later visions serves the exhortations to the actual communities.
What kind of power gains one a reward as a “conqueror”? Chapters two and three provide hints. Hold fast to love as definitive of your life as God’s people (2:4). Listen to Jesus (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7,14). Remain faithful unto death in the face of persecution (2:10). Reject the teachings of those who advocate giving loyalty to the Beast (2:14; 2:20). Actively commit yourselves to following the Lamb (3:10). Chapter five makes the basis for conquering absolutely clear. It is the Lamb’s persevering, suffering love, validated by God’s bringing him back to life.
In contrast, the Dragon, Beast, and their allies “conquer” with violence, force, deception, intimidation, and domination. This kind of conquering seems overwhelming, “who can stand against it?” Even as John asks that question, though, he supplies the answer. Those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4) conquer, celebrating their victory with worship of the true God even amidst their trials and tribulations.
The ultimate “battle” scene underscores the nature of the conquering of the Lamb and how that contrasts with the power of the Beast that seeks to conquer through force. Chapter nineteen provides the denouement to the scene set up at the end of chapter sixteen. The allies of the Dragon gather “for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (16:16). However, in chapter nineteen, when this “battle” is described, it turns out not to be a battle at all.
The rider on the white horse comes forth for battle, the imagery clearly identifying this rider as Jesus. Crucially, prior to any engagement with the enemy, we read of the rider being “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13). The rider simply captures the Beast and false prophets and dispatches them to the lake of fire without an actual battle. The “robe dipped in blood” alludes to Jesus’ victory through suffering love, the only victory needed.
The two kinds of power for conquering in Revelation correspond with the two cities, the two objects of loyalty vying for adherents. The Beast’s power for conquering, characteristic of Babylon, rests on violence and domination, top-down power that enforces its will by crushing its enemies. The Lamb’s power for conquering, characteristic of New Jerusalem, rests on resistance through love and adherence to peace that seeks to convert its human enemies. According to Revelation twenty-one, the very “kings of the earth” who join the Beast in facing the white rider at the great “battle” end up bringing their glory into New Jerusalem, as transformed people.
John does not intend his readers to be passive observers of God’s transformative work in creation. In fact, he portrays God’s expectations of them as being quite rigorous and demanding. Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Live in the Lamb’s empire right now; his type of power is authentic. Turn from the trust in idols and idolatrous ways of exercising power. And in doing so, you will actually play a crucial role in God’s work of transforming the nations.
John’s visions, in their imaginative power, reveal both that the establishment of the promised transformed heaven and transformed earth will be God’s work without obvious cause and effect in relation to human efforts and that human faithfulness nonetheless plays a crucial role in this transformation. That is, we can not say precisely how following the Lamb will turn the Beast’s domain into the Lamb’s, but we are shown that such following is important.
The fruit of faithfulness in following the Lamb is genuine “victory.” This victory contributes both to the destruction of the personified powers of evil (the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet) and, correspondingly, to the healing of the nations and the transformation of the kings of the earth. The power of apocalyptic in Revelation is much, much bigger than simply the power to destroy or coerce. It is actually the power to heal.
The Lamb’s war
The controlling metaphor in Revelation is the Lamb, the one who indeed does open the scroll of Meaning and ultimately moves history toward a peaceable resolution. In this resolution, even the kings of the earth find healing. Revelation five powerfully portrays the Lamb’s power when it evokes messianic hopes for an all-powerful savior and answers those hopes with a slain and now standing Lamb, worthy to be worshiped by all creation.
Revelation portrays the Lamb’s love manifesting God’s power bringing victory and ultimate salvation. We need to hold on to the first part of Revelation five’s vision, though, as we discern the relevance of its answer to John’s lament about how the scroll will be opened. It is love, indeed, but it is still powerful. The Lamb is one with the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” The messianic, or kingly, element of his identity remains.
The way the Quaker tradition has emphasized the Lion-ness of the Lamb is through the term, “the Lamb’s War.” This Lamb is a fighter. This Lamb does take on the Beast and his minions. This Lamb does conquer, does win victories, is a royal figure. Two elements must be held together—suffering love and genuine, conquering power.
In two key places near the end of the book, Revelation holds together the images of the Lamb and of warfare—the Lamb’s War—chapters 17 and 19.
In chapter 17, John sees one of the most striking of his visions of the Beast, here portrayed as a “great whore” who “is drunk with the blood of the saints” (17:6). The vision goes on to allude to ten kings who “are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb.” But this war will result in their defeat. “The Lamb will conquer them, for he is the Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (17:14).
How does the Lamb do his conquering, how does he and “those with him” win this war? We have already been given the answer back in chapter 12: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah [his king], for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:10-11).
We need to keep these words in mind when we look at the second allusion to the war of the Lamb. In chapter 19, the stage is set for the final battle. Our images switch and we see here a great rider on a white horse. But this is clearly the same character as the one symbolized by the Lamb. He is “called Faithful and True” (19:11). He “judges and makes war.” But what kind of war? He rides forth “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (the “blood of the Lamb”) and “from his mouth comes a sharp sword” (the “word of testimony”). This rider “wages war” with no other weapon than his willingness to die and the word of his testimony. But these weapons are enough. The forces arrayed against him are simply captured and judged—and in the end, the kings find healing as they are freed from the powers of evil that hold them in bondage.
So, this is the Lamb’s War: the followers of the Lamb banding together, forming communities of resistance, following the Lamb’s way of self-giving love and sharing in the Lamb’s word of testimony—the gospel of God’s healing mercy for all the nations, even for the kings of the earth.
The Bible in light of the Lamb’s war
This Lamb’s War constitutes the central revelation of the Christian Bible’s paradigmatic apocalypse. The book of Revelation shows us and tells us in wild and crazy ways something very simple: trust in Jesus and follow in his ways, do this together in communities of resistance. In doing so, you work with God in healing creation, in bringing in the eschaton. Compassionate eschatology indeed.
Now, I want to suggest that the revelation of the last book of the Bible is best understood in full continuity with the rest of the Bible. We don’t have anything new here, just a new kind of packaging. But in this new kind of packaging, I think we may be given a special urgency and sense of inspiration that can stimulate us to look back at the rest of the Bible with some new insights. So, I suggest a reading strategy for the Bible as a whole in light of the Lamb’s war. Understanding what is revealed in the book of Revelation may help us better understand what is being revealed in the rest of the Bible.
One way to read the Bible in light of the Lamb’s war is to recognize how times of conflict and crisis, even near extinction, are times of revelation. What is revealed in such times? In Revelation, we have an almost overwhelming sense of crisis. However, we too easily let this sense of crisis obscure the actual content of Revelation’s revelation. The revelation is not about cataclysms, the chronological end of history, raptures, Armageddon, and unprecedented future trauma. The ultimate message is simply this: band together, hold fast to the way of Jesus, cultivate communities of faith that will sustain the way of the Lamb over time. God creates communities of people who will know God’s transforming love and by their testimony to that love transform the world.
So, let’s consider some other times of crisis in the Bible and reflect on what is revealed in those contexts.
The Calling of Abraham and Sarah. At the end of Genesis 11, we are introduced to the genealogy of the descendents of Noah’s son. Shem. At the end of the list, without fanfare we first see the name Abram, one of the three sons of Terah. We meet Abram’s wife, Sarai, and we are told, “Sarai is barren, she had no child” (Gen. 11:30).
This short statement belies a major crisis in the lives of this now elderly couple. Without children, their footprints will fade away at the time of their deaths. The fate of Abram and Sarai seem to symbolize the dead end of the human project at the end of the eventful first eleven chapters of Genesis—creation, fall, brotherly murder, the judgment of the Flood, the scattering at the tower of Babel, then Sarai’s barrenness.
Out of this time of crisis, comes a new revelation directly from God. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing….In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3).
This foundational revelation makes large claims. The childless couple will, via God’s gift, bear children and become the parents of “a great nation.” This nation will ultimately bless “all the families of the earth.” God has not given up on the human project. Sarai’s barrenness does not symbolize a dead end; rather, it symbolizes the revelation of God’s healing strategy.
God will enter history and bring forth a people who will serve as agents of God’s healing love. The old strategy of punitive judgment seen in the story of Noah and the flood will be replaced by a new strategy. This gift of a future to Abram and Sariah stands as the paradigmatic biblical revelation. This unveiling of God’s transformative work in a broken world governs all the future unveilings revealed in the biblical story.
We see a great deal of continuity between this revelation in Genesis 12:1-3 and the “revelation of Jesus Christ” described in the final book of the Christian Bible. We have God entering human history in a time of crisis and providing a direct word, a word of comfort, of transformation, of hope. This new revelation results in the formation and empowerment of a community of peace—meant to transform the nations and their kings with their witness.
Might we not see this pattern as the paradigm for reading the biblical story as a whole? “Biblical apocalyptic” does not have to do with catastrophic interventions of drastic change and judgment and an end of history nearly so much as God’s creation of communities of faith that will know shalom, witness to this knowledge, and help transform the world. Let’s look at several other key biblical moments.
Exodus. As with other contexts that brought forth divine revelations, in the time of exodus the community of faith found itself in crisis. The story tells of God’s direct intervention—to sustain a faith community.
Abraham’s descendents find themselves enslaved in Egypt, with little sense of identity and certainly little sense of shalom. The Pharaoh seeks to eliminate the Israelites by murdering every newborn boy. Then comes the crucial moment. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked down upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Ex. 2:23-25).
We go on to read of the consequences of God taking notice of the Israelites’ plight—an extended dance with Pharaoh that ultimately results in the liberation of the Israelites, their escape through the Red Sea to new possibilities of life together as the newly invigorated community of God’s chosen people.
The basic responsibility of the Hebrews was to be still and see the victory of God. The exodus story directly repudiates the imperial coercive power of Egypt. The Hebrew community does not include militarism in any sense. The effect of the liberating work of God was to establish a counter-cultural community that witnesses against the ways of empire.
If we extend the exodus story to include the gift of Torah (beginning with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20), we see even more clearly the counter-cultural nature of the new community intended by God to resist. God intervenes in order to provide for the long-term sustenance of the community. Torah, as presented in Exodus through Deuteronomy, self-consciously counters Egypt’s politics. Torah places priority on care for the vulnerable members of the community and places God’s justice as mediated through the weaponless prophet at the center, not the human emperor or general.
Second Isaiah. The central catastrophe of the Old Testament story for the children of Israel came when the Babylonian empire conquered the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple, exiling the ruling class, and bringing an end to Judah as a nation-state. In the rubble of the destruction a new vision found expression in the prophecies of Isaiah 40–55 (“Second Isaiah”). The bearer of salvific power here is the “suffering servant,” a community that brings light to the world through the vocation of power as persevering love.
The fruit of God’s intervention that Second Isaiah emphasizes is the emergence and sustenance of the servant community. And this community will carry on the saving work of God in the world (Isa. 42:4—the servant “will not grow fain or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth”). The saving work of the servant community does not share in Babylon’s conquering coercive tactics but conquers through suffering love and God’s vindication of that love. The vision of the suffering servant definitively delinks the revelatory community from the nation-state—a delinking crucially essential for the on-going revelation of God’s shalom community, especially as seen in Jesus.
With the fall of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, the temple, kingship, and the possession of the land all end—three pillars of the community’s identity. But a fourth pillar remains—Torah. Stemming from Torah, Jeremiah calls to the scattered communities separated from Zion: seek the peace of your new homes—while also sustaining your sense of peoplehood. Torah was just the ticket. And, as we see in Second Isaiah, Torah consciousness provides the amazing insight that this peoplehood may still fulfill the promise to Abraham of descendants who will bless all the families of the earth. The catastrophe leads to the intervention of God with a new revelation. This new revelation sustains this community of the promise in history.
Daniel. The book of Daniel emerged out of trauma and ferment faced by second-century BCE Israel. The community struggled to sustain its identity in face of the battle for the domination of Palestine among the Egyptian empire, the remnants of Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic empire, and the emerging Roman empire. In this battle, all interests converged in seeking to eliminate the Jewish nation as a distinct faith-based community.
Revolutionary Jews took up arms to resist the empires, with significant short-term success. They saw the chaos as an opportunity to gain political autonomy. The book of Daniel articulates a different option for the sustenance of the faith community: not absorption into the Hellenistic culture—nor into the Roman nor Egyptian ones; and not violent revolution. Either absorption or violent revolution inevitably would lead to the loss of the core of Torah. Such a loss would negate the reason for Israel’s existence as elected by God to be a light to the nations.
Israel’s peoplehood has been sustained even through great trauma. This sustenance was not to be based on violence but on God’s persevering love, and the embodiment of that love in Torah-centered faith communities. To fight the empires with violence, even if successful, would transform the Hebrew community into something just like the empires. It is impossible to fight monsters with monstrous means and not become monsters oneself.
The book of Daniel challenges the either/or of absorption versus violent revolution by drawing on folk tales (such as Daniel in the lion’s den) in the first part of the book and describing dramatic and highly symbolic visions in the second part of the book. The book of Daniel as a whole is united on the theme of portraying God’s court in conflict with human courts. “God as sovereign is an idea intended to challenge the idea of the emperor as sovereign. Daniel the visionary in chapters 7–12 is also a courtier of the true king; the tales in chapters 1–6 serve to highlight the difference in loyalties between one who lives in one court, serving one king, while actually being obedient to the other king, his God.”
The book of Daniel as a whole advocates cultivation of knowledge of the truth as its central strategy of resistance and sustenance. “The most revolutionary act under Antiochus IV, according to Daniel, was for one to be Jews and to teach others to be Jews.” Seeking truth must be done nonviolently. “The revolution of truth must arise from education and conviction by the truth, and never by coercion. Coercion always demands empty exercises in false discipleship and obedience to idols, because both are necessary to the rule of the armed few.”
The ultimate weapon for followers of God (called the “wise”) according to Daniel is their knowledge of the truth. The wise indeed are “warriors,” not warriors using the sword to kill but warriors wielding the sword of the truth of God. They trust in God, counting on God’s vindication of their faithfulness. The wise sustain their faith and peoplehood by resting in this trust. They turn from both the assimilation that giving loyalty to one of the empires would involve and from the assimilation that making violence central to their identity would involve.
Daniel shows that indeed the people do live in times of profound crisis and trauma. The revelation here sustains resistance in the here and now, trusting in God’s truth in communities of resistance and in this way keeping the promise alive. The world will change, God will vindicate the wise, and healing will come. So remain strong, remain loyal to Torah.
Jesus. The accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching in the gospels support the account of apocalyptic power we have found in the rest of the Bible. Jesus, like the others, saw himself living in a time of crisis, days that were “trying people’s souls.” However, his response to the time of crisis was not to seek to escape history but to change it—over the long haul.
Jesus proclaimed, and then embodied, a message that the kingdom of God is entering history, effecting the transformation of the here and now. I quote a summary from John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, the book that shapes my thought in significant ways:
The Kingdom of God is a social order and not a hidden one. It is not a universal catastrophe independent of the will of human beings; it is that concrete jubilary obedience, in pardon and repentance, the possibility of which is proclaimed beginning right now, opening up the real accessibility of a new order in which grace and justice are linked, which people have only to accept. It does not assume that time will end tomorrow; it reveals why it is meaningful that history should go on at all.
The community Jesus established reflected an intent to work for change in the world, over time—not an expectation that the world will end. This community included: “a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship have been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life-style distinct from that of the crowd.” Jesus’ community sought to exist as a counter-cultural alternative within history to the politics of empire.
Jesus’ proclamation of God’s kingdom would not have been understood “as pointing ‘off the map’ of human experience, off the scale of time” in announcing “an end to history.” Jesus would have been understood in continuity with past deliverances of Israel that happened in history and centered on sustaining the faith community.
Understood in this way, Jesus apocalyptic message makes all the points we have seen elsewhere in the Bible. God’s “empire” stands in stark contrast with domination-based empires such as Rome. Followers of Jesus must choose one or the other to give their loyalty to. God’s “empire” has revealed in new ways the nature of God’s own rule—and established communities meant to live according to that rule. These communities live as “lights on a hill” witnessing to God’s rule for all with eyes to see. For members of these communities, life lived in coherence with the rule of God takes the shape of suffering love, nonviolence, and restorative justice.
Matthew’s Gospel concludes with a clear statement of Jesus’ purposes with his apocalyptic message. He meets with his disciples, the core of the new community he has formed to embody his vision for humanity. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Jesus reveals not that history will soon end. No, Jesus reveals why history continues and why history is meaningful. The end of history is the fulfillment of the task given to Abraham’s descendents—bless all the families of the earth, make disciples of all nations, know God’s shalom and witness to that shalom to all the ends of the earth.
Finally, let’s look at Paul’s apocalyptic message in the book of Romans.
Romans. Paul also writes in a time of crisis—addressing Christians living in the belly of the Beast. At two key points in Paul’s portrayal of the gospel in Romans, he writes of saving work of God being revealed (“apokalypsed”) or “disclosed” to human beings.
In introducing the message of his book, he writes: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:16-17). Then as the culmination of the argument he develops in chapters one through three, Paul writes, “Now, apart from law, the justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22).
Paul says that the work of God to bring salvation to the world has been disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s apocalyptic power is the power to bring salvation—through the “revelation of Jesus Christ.”
The nature of the world-defining character of the gospel as revealed in Jesus requires that those who trust in him reject trusting in idols (Romans one); that is, reject the call to loyalty to Caesar instead of Jesus. At the heart of Paul’s gospel, he reiterates the Bible’s call to trust in God and God’s mercy in contrast to trusting empires, coercive power, and human constructs that vie with the true God for our loyalty.
For Paul, a central fruit of the revelation of the justice of God is the formation of a new kind of community bringing together Jew with Gentile. God’s “apocalyptic” action brings forth not an end of history but the establishment of a community of faith charged with embodying a transformed way of life, a “kingdom of priests” (or, an alternative “empire”) that serves to counter the way of life characteristic of the mighty human-centered empires such as Rome.
Let’s conclude by turning back to Revelation. The “War of the Lamb” in that book has to do with people of faith striving against Rome’s hegemony as communities of resistance, who understand their identity as God’s people, who know God’s transforming mercy themselves, and who witness to that mercy even in the face of hostility and rejection. This “war” is not limited to the book of Revelation. We have seen it throughout the Bible. In fact, the war of the Lamb is a useful rubric for characterizing the entire plot from Genesis through Revelation.
Revelation uses the language of warfare, conflict, victory, and conquering to characterize consistent, persevering love—even for enemies. Conquering happens as a consequence of a quality of life that follows the same pattern that Jesus’ life followed: visible and concrete acts of mercy and rejection of power politics, leading to conflict with the powers that be, leading to suffering (even in Jesus’ case death), leading to vindication through God’s on-going commitment, resurrection and transformation in history.
When we understand biblical apocalyptic as the revelation of this pattern of communal life, symbolized in Revelation as celebration and worship amidst the slings and arrows of historical living, then we may see that biblical apocalyptic and compassionate eschatology refer to the same kinds of things. Apocalyptic and eschatology both have most centrally to do with clarity of purpose, perceptive vision about what matters to God and in life, and trust in God’s ongoing intervention through the social healing effected within faith communities (the dividing wall of hostility broken down) and the social healing the flows out to the nations as a consequence of the witness of the faithful.
So, wherein lies our hope? According to biblical apocalyptic (and compassionate eschatology), it lies in the inherent meaningfulness of life lived in the Lamb’s way (not in blueprints about the future). The Lamb shows us the way into God’s heart—to life that truly rests in God’s hands.
 Grimsrud, Theology, especially chapter 12: “The End Times are Now.”
 Grimsrud, “Why are We Here? Two Meditations on an Ethical Eschatology,” in Embodying, 179-89.
 For a full-blown critique of Revelation and its role in the history of Christianity, see Kirsch, History.
 I develop this fourfold approach to theological method more fully in Grimsrud, Embodying, 37-53.
 In what follows I will be drawing on an ever-expanding school of peaceable interpretations of Revelation. The founding text for this school was Caird, Commentary. Some of the other important contributions to this approach to Revelation include: Bauckham, Theology; Blount, Revelation; Boring, Revelation; Bredin, Jesus; Ellul, Apocalypse; Kraybill, Apocalypse; Maier, Apocalypse; Rossing, Rapture; Rowland, “Book”; Sweet, Revelation; and Yeatts, Revelation.
 Schweitzer, Quest.
 For two contemporary Schweitzerian interpretations, see Ehrman, Jesus and Allison, Jesus.
 The authoritative history of this movement is Boyer, When.
 The by now classic text on popular dispensational theology and likely still the best introduction is Lindsey, Late. For just a sample of many volumes introducing critiquing this popular movement see Guyatt, Have; Rossing, Rapture; Shuck, Marks; and Standaert, Skipping.
 This term was coined by Walter Wink to refer to the essentially religious belief people have in the efficacy of violence—Wink, Engaging.
 For what follows, I draw heavily on an excellent study of Revelation’s historical context: Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling.
 “What John sees, for the first time, is that the primordial Dragon has come to represent the spiritual power behind empire….Now evil is represented, not as the threat of anarchy, but as the system of order that institutionalizes violence as the foundation of international relations” (Wink, Engaging, 90).
 See Rossing, Choice.
 On the Lamb as a peaceable metaphor, see Johns, Lamb.
 For more detail on my reading of the Bible as a whole, see Grimsrud, God’s.
 Smith-Christopher, “Book,”150.
 Smith-Christopher, “Book,” 151-52.
 Yoder, Politics, 105.
 Yoder, Politics, 39.
 Yoder, Politics, 85.
 For a more detailed discussion, Grimsrud, “Against.”