Ted Grimsrud—London, 9/09
Many Christians seem to read the story of Jesus through later New Testament writings, leading often to an affirmation of more retributive oriented views of salvation—be it Paul’s alleged embrace of sacrificial violence in Romans that underwrites a substitutionary view of the atonement or Revelation’s portrayal of bloody divine vengeance at the Battle of Armageddon.
On the one hand, I think we should stand firm on the gospel story and demand that other biblical and later theological motifs be seen as secondary to the message of Jesus. Yet, on the other hand, I want to argue now for a reading of both Romans and Revelation that are fully and explicitly compatible (not in tension with) the peaceable way of Jesus.
The interpreter of the story Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection who has most powerfully shaped the generations since has been the Apostle Paul. Christian theology has, for better and for worse, tended to be Pauline salvation theology. I tend to believe that when things have taken a turn for the worse, it has been because of misreadings of Paul.
Like the prophets and Jesus, Paul understands salvation in terms of God’s merciful intention to bring healing to a broken world. Paul does not present salvation in terms of retributive justice or a mechanistic view of God’s holiness and honor. Salvation is a gift of a relational God who frees humanity from its self-destructive bondage to the powers of death.
Paul’s most extended argument related to salvation comes in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans. So I will look at that passage. This discussion begins and ends with affirmations that justice and salvation go together and their meaning has been revealed to humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In 1:16-17, Paul offers his thesis statement. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the justice of God is revealed from God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness; as it is written, ‘the one who is just will live by faithfulness.”
After setting out the problems to which the gospel speaks, the nature of salvation God provides, and the universality of the human need for salvation, Paul concludes his argument in this section with a sense of resolution—emphasizing the role Jesus plays bringing salvation. “Apart from works of the law, the justice of God has been disclosed and is attested by the law and the prophets, the justice through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; [but] they are now made whole by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:21-31).
So, precisely what problem does Paul believe humanity needs to be saved from? From a careful reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, we see the problem for Paul being idolatry, people giving ultimate loyalty to entities other than God. Paul describes two distinct kinds of idolatry here. The idolatry of the nations and the idolatry of the covenant people—or, we could say using Paul’s language here, the idolatry of the Greeks and the idolatry of the Jews. Both put something in the place of the merciful God Paul has learned to serve and both produce injustice.
Chapter one describes the progression of the idolatry of the nations. Paul analyzes how people move from the rejection of truth to lack of gratitude to trust in created things to out of control lust to injustice and violence. This dynamic itself manifests “wrath”—not direct intervention by God but God “giving them up” to a self-selected spiral of death.
When people worship “created things,” the progression moves inexorably toward injustice—suppression of truth (1:18), refusal to give thanks to God (1:21), darkened minds (1:21), the exchange of God’s glory for images (1:23), being “given up” to degrading lusts (1:24), the worship of the creature rather than creator (1:25), degrading passions (1:26), shameless acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).
The Powers that exploit this progression into idolatry take the place of God as the center of people’s lives. In doing so, they so distort people’s minds so that instead of recognizing that those who practice such injustice deserve judgment people instead “applaud” their unjust Benefactors (1:32). In writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul surely had one particular “Benefactor” in mind—the emperor, the object of veneration and the head of the government that crucified Jesus.
Paul now adds a critique of the way people in the covenant community embrace idolatry in relation to the law. As a zealot for this community, Paul had committed his own acts of violence in the name of the “truth.” However, after he met Jesus he learned that violence is always a sign of falsehood. The truth he thought he served was actually a lie. The works of the law that he defended turned out to be idolatrous.
In his critique of the idolatry of works of the law, Paul does not reject Judaism. He alludes to Abraham and Sarah’s calling when he answers his rhetorical question, “then what advantage has the Jew?” (3:1), with an emphatic “much, in every way” (3:2). They were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:2)—that is, they were given Torah and the calling to bless all the families of the earth. That some of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents have been unfaithful does not annul the faithfulness of God. God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through the people of the covenant remains in effect.
As bad as the idolatry of those who use Torah to justify sacred violence was, Paul makes clear here that this expression of sin is matched by the sin of the idolaters who give their loyalty to the Roman Empire. People in both categories, Jew and Gentile, are all under the power of sin. This bondage creates the basic problem that humanity—Jew and Gentile—need salvation from.
The resolution to the problem of bondage to the power of sin comes “apart from law” (that is, apart from the law idolatry Paul critiques). Salvation will not come based on “works of the law.” It will not be circumcision nor zealotry in defense of the standards of the covenant community nor the proclamation of one’s identity as an Israelite nor ritual purity and over-againstness vis-à-vis Gentiles that will resolve the problem.
The resolution has to do with the justice of God, going back to the beginning of Paul’s argument where he proclaims that the justice of God is revealed in the gospel of salvation. God’s justice makes whole, bringing salvation as a gift. God’s justice is God’s initiative to liberate human beings from bondage to the powers of sin.
God has disclosed the truth—the very thing idolaters suppress (1:18). Humanity needs a breakthrough that will enable us to see the truth of God. In seeing this truth, we will be able to understand God truly, the human situation truly, and creation truly.
This disclosure that Paul will describe “is attested by the law and prophets.” Paul fully affirms Torah (when properly understood as a gift from God calling for love of neighbor and not as a basis for sacred violence). The contrast that he has in mind, then, does not center on a contrast between “Judaism” and “Christianity” or a contrast between Torah and mercy. Rather, Paul means to contrast gratitude and wrath, to contrast justice and injustice. Torah as properly understood sides with gratitude and justice over against wrath and injustice.
The “disclosure” that Paul will now turn to does not disclose a new economy of salvation over against the old economy of the Old Testament. Rather, the disclosure reiterates what has been disclosed from the start (this point will be made clear in chapter four when Paul presents pre-circumcision Abraham as the model of saving faithfulness).
The justice of God is seen in Jesus’ faithfulness (3:22), which breaks the illusions that make idolatry possible (both in relation to Empire and in relation to Torah-legalism). God’s justice disclosed through Jesus brings salvation “for all who believe,” those who see Jesus and God for who they are, who see the Powers for what they are, and who commit their lives to the path of healing justice set out in Jesus’ life.
The key point in this passage comes in 3:24: “all…are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul earlier asserted the universality of bondage to sin in order now to assert the universality of liberation from this bondage. Just as God called Abraham and Sarah as a gift, just as God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt as a gift, just God gave Torah as a gift, just as God sustained the promise through exile as a gift, so too now Paul reminds his readers of God’s mercy through the ministry of Jesus Christ as a gift—a gift that brings redemption from bondage to the power of sin.
God puts Jesus forward as a “sacrifice of atonement” (3:25). God is responsible for this saving action, the one who offers the sacrifice (not the one who receives it). How is Jesus a “sacrifice”? Not as a blood offering to appease God’s anger or honor or holiness but as one who freely devoted his own life to persevering in love all the way to the end. Thus, the “sacrifice” should be understood as Jesus’ self-sacrifice expressed in faithful living, his way of being in the world. How does Jesus’ self-sacrifice act as an “atonement”? Jesus’ self-sacrifice reveals God’s saving justice (that is, God’s mercy) that is available to everyone (Jew first and also Gentile) with eyes to see and responsive hearts.
The “atonement” (at-one-ment, reconciliation) is not a sacrifice to God that satisfies God’s neediness. The “atonement” illumines the truth that humanity has suppressed (Romans 1:18), truth that helps (or allows) sinners to see God’s welcoming mercy clearly. This illumination makes “one-ment” with God possible—not from God’s side (God has always welcomed sinners) but from the human side (when we see accurately we will be freed from our fearfulness toward God that leads to ingratitude and trusting in idols instead of God).
The “sacrifice of atonement” is given “by Jesus’ blood” (3:25). What does “blood” signify here? Does God after all need a blood-sacrifice to satisfy God’s anger or honor or retributive justice or sense of “evenness”? Hardly. Since God never did need or even desire such a sacrifice, it is impossible to imagine that Paul has such a sacrifice in mind here. God does not need offerings. Rather, the need for offerings rests on the human side. Offerings are necessary to concretize for the human imagination the reality of God’s mercy and the expectations God has for life lived in light of that mercy.
“Blood” here seems to symbolize Jesus’ life of self-giving, giving to the point of being killed by the Powers. God “did this” (i.e., “put forward Jesus”) to show God’s justice. The revelation of God’s justice in Jesus has to do with God’s healing and restorative work. So, God “put forward Jesus” out of love in order to heal—not out of rigid holiness that requires a violent sacrifice in order to satisfy God’s honor or turn away God’s anger.
Paul makes very clear, in full continuity with the Bible’s salvation story, that the salvation he describes comes to humanity due to God’s initiative. God has no need for appeasement or satisfaction prior to revealing God’s healing mercy—the mercy exists without limit and is given unconditionally. God is the actor in the process of salvation, not the recipient.
So, the “justice of God” that stands at the center of Paul’s theology of salvation clearly from start to finish is restorative justice, not retributive justice. God seeks to help humanity see God’s true nature, creation’s true nature, as merciful. God breaks through idolatry’s blinding dynamics in the witness of Jesus—seeking to convey to any with eyes to see and ears to hear that God’s welcome remains unconditional for all who turn toward it.
Paul adds no new spin to the Bible’s salvation story. He reiterates what the call of Abraham, the exodus, the gift of Torah, the sustenance of the community in exile, and the message of Jesus have all (in harmony with one another) expressed: God is merciful and offers empowerment for just living for all who embrace that mercy and let it transform their lives.
One way to read the book of Revelation is as an attempt to apply the salvation story the gospels tell to life in the Roman Empire near the close of the first century. John presents two salvation stories locked in mortal conflict—the story of the Lamb and the story of the Beast. At the heart of each story is an account of power. What does it take to conquer? What does it take to achieve salvation? Revelation challenges the Empire’s notions of salvation and power, and presents the Bible’s notions as a viable alternative.
The basic content of Revelation’s revelation concerning salvation is the same as we have seen to be characteristic of the rest of the Bible: God creates and sustains the universe in love, due to choices to turn from God and trust in idols, human hearts have been damage, the message of salvation proclaims simply turn back from the idols and trust in God’s love.
The fifth chapter of Revelation holds the key the book. It begins with a poignant image. In chapter four we read of the throne of God. Then, in chapter five, a shadow falls. John sees a scroll in the right hand of the one on the throne. This scroll, we imagine, contains the completed salvation story. John sees the scroll but is overcome with grief at the thought that it may not be opened. Who can open the scroll and bring salvation? “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” So, how can history be redeemed and redirected from brokenness and alienation toward healing and wholeness?
In Revelation five, John, like most people would, 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.” 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 and bring salvation to all of creation.
How does this claim for the power of the Lamb correspond with the claim that power-as-domination is the only way to achieve salvation? What characterizes “salvation 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” 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 stands at the heart of Revelation’s agenda. The “revelation” of Jesus also reveals the nature of the Empire that demanded Christians’ loyalty. To see through eyes of faith in the Lamb and his way undercuts the Beast’s 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 the Bible’s message concerning salvation.
In John’s view, the Empire depended on a fundamental core of violence and injustice. John feared that Christians’ acceptance of the Empire’s construal of reality would actually separate them from the God of Jesus. The book of Revelation presents “salvation 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 saving power 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 punishment of God’s human enemies. Rather, God intervenes to create and sustain faith communities that stand over against Rome—in this world.
John seeks to foster a sense of crisis, presenting visions and proclamations of impending traumas and great conflicts. From these visions, we get Revelation’s stereotypical “apocalyptic” sense of unimaginable and world-ending catastrophes. However, 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 be no future war needed to bring salvation. The decisive battle is past. When the Empire murdered the Lamb and God raised him back to life, the final revelation of God’s victory was made apparent. The picturing of crises and catastrophes serves a different kind of purpose from predicting some future, wide-open battle. Rather, it portrays the continual struggle to perceive that the Lamb’s victory is genuine and worth shaping Christians’ lives around. It contrasts the Lamb’s claims with the competing claims from the Beast concerning the nature of power, salvation, and the outcome of history.
These visions, this sense of crisis, intend to empower the community of the Lamb to stay resist the powers of the Beast. God’s “apocalyptic” intervention to reveal the presence of salvation through the Lamb’s faithfulness creates and sustains communities of resistance. God empowers these communities for following the Lamb wherever he goes and living as faithful witnesses who “conquer” through suffering love rather than violence and the sword.
(3) A third characteristic of “salvation power” may be seen in how it provides sustenance for those communities of resistance. John writes to encourage the communities he describes in chapters two and three. 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 and witness to God’s saving power, blessing all the families of the earth.
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 encourages the congregations: their suffering love coheres completely with the true saving power of the one seated on the throne who creates, sustains and brings to fulfillment.
Throughout the book John slips in visions of multitudes of the Lamb’s followers worshiping, reiterating their commitments to the Lamb and the one on the throne as true rulers. 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.
(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.
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. Listen to Jesus. Remain faithful unto death in the face of persecution. Reject the teachings of those who advocate giving loyalty to the Beast. Actively commit yourselves to following the Lamb. Chapter five makes the basis for conquering absolutely clear. It is the Lamb’s persevering, self-giving love, validated by God’s bringing him back to life.
In contrast, the Dragon, Beast, and their allies “conquer” with retributive 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 then simply captures the Beast and false prophets without a “battle” and dispatches them to the lake of fire. The “robe dipped in blood” alludes to Jesus’ victory through self-giving love, the only victory needed.
The two kinds of power for conquering (that is, for salvation) 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 that seeks to convert human enemies. Revelation 21 tells us that 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.
Here’s the key question. In which of these two communities will you find your home? Which community embodies God’s salvation? 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.
John does not intend his readers to be passive observers of God’s saving work in creation. 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 bringing salvation and transforming the nations.
The controlling metaphor in Revelation is the Lamb, the one who indeed does open the scroll of Meaning and ultimately moves history toward salvation. In this picture of salvation, even the kings of the earth find healing.