[This is the sixteenth in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly through November 2013.]
Shalom Mennonite Congregation—September 15, 2013—Revelation 20:1-15
I have an idea that as much as any part of the Bible, the book of Revelation works kinds of like a Rorschach test, you know where you look at an inkblot and tell the therapist what you see—with the idea that what you see reveals things about your psychological makeup.
So, we look at this messy blot of images in the last book of the Bible and what we see there reveals a lot about us. Certainly one of the things many see when they look at Revelation is judgment. But what kind of judgment? Maybe what we see when we see scenes of judgment is itself kind of a Rorschach test. What we make of judgment reveals a lot about our psychological makeup—or at least our theological makeup.
A debate about judgment
I have a memory from back in the late 1990s. I went with a number of people from EMU, faculty and students, to hear a prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak at the Eastern Mennonite Mission Board headquarters in Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania.
Volf, who had just begun teaching at Yale University, wrote a well-received book called Exclusion and Embrace. It drew in poignant ways on his experience as a Croatian with the terrible violence in the Balkans conflicts he had lived in the midst of. He powerfully emphasized the need for forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation in face of brokenness.
However, there was a key element of Volf’s argument, about judgment, that some of us felt uneasy with. He suggested that a major reason why Christians might advocate and practice this radical “embrace,” even of enemies, is because of our trust that in the end God will judge evildoers. This judgment will be punitive. We don’t have to do violence against offenders because we count on God’s violence in the end.
I can picture the room where we met. The audience was in a u-shaped set of chairs with the speaker at the open end of the U. I was directly to one of side of him and one of my like-minded students was clear on the other side. During the discussion we started firing questions from both sides, and Professor Volf was kind of whipping his head first clear in one direction and then, right away, clear to the other direction. Back and forth. It was a friendly if intense debate, and we didn’t resolve it.
Certainly, though, Miroslav Volf’s is a common way to read Revelation’s sense of judgment. There is a lot of sin and wrong-doing in human history. We can’t successfully fight against all of it. It may even seem that evil people are going to win. But we have the promise of Revelation—God will have the final say. “Vengeance will be mine, saith the Lord” means that God will ultimately punish those human beings who have so egregiously violated the commandments.
If you have heard my earlier sermons in this series, you wouldn’t be surprised that I would want to argue against that kind of theology. But I go against the grain of interpretations of Revelation. Some see Revelation preaching punitive judgment toward human beings and they rejoice. Others see Revelation preaching punitive judgment toward human beings and they are repulsed.
Our passage for today, Revelation 20, is one of the main “judgment” texts in the book. Let me read it now. As I do so, think about judgment. I will have us take a few moments after I read to brainstorm a little. What comes to your mind when you think of God’s judgment—for better or for worse? What are some words, images, feelings, ideas that pop into your head as you hear this text?
I saw an angel from heaven holding the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, bound him for a 1,000 years, threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it, so he would not deceive the nations until the 1,000 years ended. Then he must be let out for a little while.
Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesusand for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ 1,000 years.
When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. Fire came down from heavenand consumed them. The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; earth and heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. I saw the dead, great and small, stand before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.The sea and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them. All were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. [Rev. 20:1-15]
So, what about “judgment” struck you as you heard this passage read?
Does judgment mean punishment?
I think one of the big problems when we think about judgment in a passage like this is that we tend to assume that “judgment” has to do with “punishment”—the time of judgment is when people get punished. But what if judgment actually has to do with something else? Maybe judgment has to do, not with punishing so much as making things right. God is “judge” not as the Great Punisher but as the Great Healer.
I’ve told this story here before, but it’s been awhile—and it’s a good story. I had an encounter with a kind of “judge” once that I think of as showing a bit of what God is like. When I was in the fifth grade or so, my friend Hank and I tried once to play baseball in the large parking area in front the house of his next door neighbors, the Schmidts. But we were too close to the house and knocked our brand new hard ball through a window. We hated to lose the ball, but we high-tailed it away.
We were afraid of Mrs. Schmidt. We barely knew her, but she was a German immigrant who seemed pretty gruff and unfriendly. Hank’s mom saw what happened, though, and tracked us down. She said we had to go back, apologize, and pay for the window. Whoa! But we were afraid of Hank’s mom, too, and with shaky knees we knocked on the neighbors’ door—ready to face her wrathful judgment.
But she shocked us. She was shy, not mean. She greeted us warmly, said she loved to watch us play—we reminded her of her grandkids far away. She laughed when we offered to pay—she could afford to fix the window and knew it was an accident. Our “judge” became our friend, not our punisher.
The book of Revelation ends with a similar surprise. The kings of the earth surely were terrified of God after God sent their bosses (the Beast and the Dragon) into the lake of fire. They thought they would be next, expecting God to rule with the same kind of brute, retributive force the Beast and Dragon used. But it doesn’t turn out that way.
There are two types of judgment going on in Revelation 20—the judgment of the Dragon and the judgment of human beings. It seems important to see them as separate. The Dragon’s judgment results in its destruction. But what happens to the people? It’s actually something quite different than punitive destruction—even for those who had trusted in the Dragon.
What the Dragon metaphor means for John
Let’s focus on the Dragon first. To understand the Dragon, we must first understand the agenda of John, the writer of Revelation. John’s concern is that people get sucked into beliefs and practices that usurp God. For example, people trust in their nation as the lynchpin of their identity and hence are seduced into violence and exploitation—for him the Roman Empire, for us the American empire. With this trust, people see the world through the eyes of those in power—the False Prophet in Revelation is the master of propaganda, for us right now it’s the corporate media and pundits pushing us toward war in Syria.
There was lots of self-destructive trust in power and wealth in ancient Rome—trust that John perceives even among those in the churches. And we certainly see that around today. I just read a frightening article about how jellyfish are taking over the oceans of the world. For millions of years they have been held in check—essentially by the health of oceanic ecosystems. But the modern world’s mad trust in economic growth at all costs has created unhealth in the oceans—and turned them into the gathering point of the poisons and ecological degradation of modern civilization. The continued idolatry of economic growth and the inability of societies to resist corporate obsession with profits make it hard to imagine the tide being turned (so to speak).
Why is this? What is it that pulls cultures into this spiral of death? A crucial factor is that we have belief systems and world views that act on us, that shape us, that pull us into the spiral.
Here’s another example. Kathleen and I have started reading out loud the novels of John Grisham. We just finished our second one. The Chamber tells the story of a Klu Klux Klan terrorist on death row. One of the plot lines is the family of this convict, how his brothers, his father, his grandfathers, were all klansmen. He grew up surrounded by racism; it was a force that shaped him from the outside as soon as he entered his racist culture. He made his own choices as well, for sure. The main story line is how he gradually does recover his humanity, but he had to go against a strong current to do so.
It is this “current” toward dehumanization that concerns John in Revelation. He uses the metaphor of the Beast to characterize a culture that shapes people toward domination—providing cultural myths (such as the belief in the redemptive power of violence). And he goes deeper. Behind the culture of domination is another force. Behind the Beast is the Dragon.
This is a fascinating and appropriate image. What are dragons? They are mythological creatures. They are not exactly real. But they can seem real—they exist, we could say, in our collective and individual subconscious. The “Dragon” is an image for the deep-seated sense that the universe is dangerous, malevolent, hostile, a hierarchy of power. The Dragon, in Revelation, is the force that cultivates fearfulness that makes us vulnerable to trust in idols for our security—even idols that ultimately devour us. The beliefs, traditions, structures that act on us from the time we are born and that alienate us—the dynamics of racism, sexism, nationalism, exploiting creation.
There is something real about idols—but they have little or no power over those who are not deceived by them. Hence, the visions in Revelation 19 and 20 imagine them actually to be easily “bound” and “conquered” by those who aren’t afraid, who trust in the God of love—most notably the Lamb but also his followers.
Defeating the Dragon without a battle
Chapter 20 actually repeats the vision of chapter 19—focusing though on the Dragon instead of the Beast—the deepest source of alienation and idolatry. But the story is the same. The Powers of evil and their human minions (led by the kings of the earth) gather to battle against the Lamb.
But there is no battle. Like with the Beast in chapter 19, here in chapter 20 the Dragon is simply captured and thrown into the lake of fire. The weapon that wins is the Lamb’s self-giving love of chapter 5. We learned that in chapter 19—the “white rider” (an image for Jesus) rides forth to the battle that’s not a battle, with blood already on his cloak—an allusion to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death that exposed the Powers for what they are. Peaceable resistance that led to death and then vindication.
So, the judgment of the Dragon is not God using violence to conquer. It is God reveling love that breaks the deception. The weapon that works is persevering love—all the way down. To try to crush the Dragon (or anything else) with brute force only empowers the Dragon. It is that people see and trust in the way of the Lamb that breaks the hold of the Dragon and sends it into the lake of fire. This is the first kind of judgment—God’s condemnation of the idolatry of death for the sake of liberating humanity. When the militarism/nationalism/economic exploitation are disbelieved they lose their power and are “destroyed.”
The second kind of judgment—of human beings
What about the second kind of judgment? What happens to people in this story of judgment? Let’s notice that the “great white throne” judgment comes after the Dragon’s destruction. And to what effect? The scene that depicts the judgment of humanity focuses on two kinds of books. The first books, that contain record of human beings’ “works,” are not named. They serve the second kind of book that is named: “the book of life.” The book of life is about God’s generosity and abundance. We have been told already in Revelation that the default stance of God is to welcome everyone who wants to be there to be in God’s presence. John assumes everyone is in the book of life. So when some are warned about identifying too closely with the Dragon, they are told that their names—already in this book—may be “blotted out.” A threat, not a certainty.
So we should not see the first books that focus on human deeds as suggesting that God keeps track of our good deeds and if we do enough we might earn our salvation that otherwise would not be offered. Rather, the “works” here are more likely the evil deeds that reflect hearts in harmony with the Dragon. They are works of hostility to peace, compassion, and restorative justice. They are the ways of life that blind people to God’s love and in that way lead toward the blotting out of names from the book of life. It is dangerous to trust in idols because you may become just like them—lifeless.
Still, though, let’s remember the strong message of Revelation that such lives of hostility to love are shaped by the deceptions of the Dragon and his minions. We surely best understand this picture of final judgment as reflecting God’s awareness of the true status of human hearts once the deceiver’s deceptions have been taken away. We may hope that when the deceiver is taken away, when the deceptions end, when the powers that try to separate us from God’s love are truly conquered, people might find the freedom to see God and the Lamb for who they truly are.
We also need to think of the notion of “judgment” here in light of the overall trajectory of the book. “Judgment” is a term that links with justice. We could say that God’s judgment is to bring true justice to bear on the human condition. God’s intent in Revelation is to bring about healing for all creation, even including—as we will see in the final vision of the book of the New Jerusalem—the kings of the earth.
The judgment of the destruction of the Dragon is part of the process of the judgment of human beings that provides for healing even for those people most deceived by the Dragon. So, contrary to Miroslav Volf’s view, I believe that the story is about mercy all the way down. Those who maim and murder and oppress need healing too. Our task is to follow the Lamb wherever he goes—to help that healing happen because all of life is precious.
The real message of Revelation is not certainty that no matter what healing will come—though we should hope for that. But the real message is about the means, the method, about how healing comes. The only way that healing will come is through consistent, persevering love. All of life is precious. As followers of the Lamb, our task it to embody that conviction.
To conclude: I see two big lessons here. (1) To quote the letter to the Ephesians, our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with the powers and principalities. We are not to hate and seek to kill human kings and their human servants—though we certainly must resist their actions and their lies. Rather, we are to resist the Dragon, the ideologies, the structures of violence for the sake even of the kings themselves.
(2) The means for such a struggle remain the way of the Lamb. Amen.