Apocalypse now

The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John on the Island of Patmos is one of the most untameable texts of the church’s history. As a work to which fantasy fiction will forever aspire, this colourful array of horses, dragons, many-eyed beasts and angelic destroyers has birthed interpretations more ludicrous than our wildest delusions and more powerful than our mightiest weapons.

As a child my Christianity was influenced by the American Right and I grew up with (serious) suggestions that former Soviet President Gorbachev’s famous birthmark could be the mark of the beast, that the UN was the emerging beast of global government, and that it was only a matter of time before we would be required to be marked with barcodes (either as tattoos or inserted chips – the theories were diverse) or face starvation at the hands of the dragon’s all-pervasive empire. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised I’d been party to a special kind of political lobbying. Small-government, anti-Communist, go-it-alone America saw in John’s Apocalypse the very end of the world they most desperately feared and their appeal to biblical authority gave it power.

This approach to reading Revelation has all but died out in the UK church (though it is still alive and well in the US) as the evangelical quarter has mellowed, routinely checking over its shoulder with embarrassed glances to make sure nobody noticed that season of madness. Revelation is not about predicting things, is the convenient line now usually spun – or at least not things we should ever presume to understand. Instead the value of this book is to tell us important things about Jesus; it is the broad themes it contains we can be sure about.

It is undoubtedly true that the readings of my childhood were a serious case of straining gnats, to borrow Jesus’ famous critique. But our contemporary readings have been so focussed on not getting caught up in the intricate details of predicting the end of the world that we’re swallowing the camel. We are still missing the whopping great reason that Revelation is such a big deal!

In the chronology of the Bible, Revelation is the final instalment. In storyline terms, it details the end of the age. In real-time terms, it was almost certainly one of the last works to be written. As such it draws together many of the themes that have fought their way through to this point, and provides a chilling conclusion.

But if this is the end, it will only make sense in light of the story so far. This is the forgotten journey to Revelation, and it begins, well, in the beginning.

The dream that just won’t die

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). It was an act of bold creativity which entrusted humanity with the responsibilities of curating creation and its flourishing. Then, goes the story, God destroyed the earth in a great flood. This barbaric act was a response to human evil – a betrayal of the trust given by the Creator – and a chance to start afresh. With that new hope enters a man called Abram, who leaves his father’s city to journey into an unknown future, armed only with faith in an unknown God.

From this man Abram comes a family that will shape the earth. A son Isaac, and a grandson Jacob, from whom come twelve tribes, known under his other name: Israel. Circumstances force this family into slavery in Egypt and centuries pass before their liberation arrives with an unlikely hero – a Midianite shepherd called Moses. In an apocalyptic showdown, the God of Abraham, who reveals his name as Yahweh, takes on the might of the Egyptian pretenders and squashes them flat. The family of Israel escape and begin their journey to the Promised Land.

On the way to the Promised Land the people of Israel make their journey via Mount Sinai and Moses is given the Law – a national constitution by which Israel could become a workable nation and a covenant with Yahweh. And though centuries pass after the Promised Land is captured, a king eventually emerges and Israel the state is formed.

The story of King David is one in which, according to Samuel-Kings, he consolidates Jerusalem as a capital and prepares the way for the building of the Temple there. And in the Chronicles this Temple is visited by the very presence of Yahweh himself. The Monarchy and the covenant made between Yahweh and David for an everlasting kingly line makes, by association, Jerusalem its centre and the Temple its pinnacle.

After the nation splits, the northern capital Samaria has far more power than its southern sister. But when finally the Assyrian invasion annexes Israel, Judah, with Jerusalem as her heart-beat, somehow survives. And so David’s capital becomes the focus of legend. One that will not fade easily.

Of course Judah does eventually fall, though to the Babylonians a century and half later. And this time the destruction is final. There begins the period of Exile in which the Jewish people till their history, and their identity, for understanding and hope. Yahweh has left his Temple, Jerusalem lies ruined, but the covenant with Yahweh still stands. Under the painful reality of oppressive foreign rule Israel dreams, of national glory, of religious supremacy, and of ethnic purity. And it is Jerusalem – with the possibility of a rebuilt Temple on the sacred mountain of Zion – which captures those dreams most fully.

Once the exiles return, however, Jerusalem’s future is not the glorious experience they had hoped. Rebuilding the Temple is slow work, the walls lie ruined, and life is hard. There is no Empire of Yahweh. Jerusalem is just another backwater city, without any future to boast.

Except in dreams that is. For the words of the prophets run deep. And Israel cannot let them die.

It is from this dark experience that the dream of a Messiah emerges. One who would lead Israel to national glory and establish the kingdom of God on behalf of Yahweh. The Messiah is cast as Elijah, who on Mount Carmel rid the land of the contamination within, or as Moses, who from Mount Sinai brought the Law that made Israel great through her Temple.

So when the four Gospels record Jesus challenging the Temple-centric world of modern Jerusalem, with its rapt collusion in the Roman oppression of Judea; when they have Jesus dismantling the divisions between Jew and Gentile, between clean and unclean; when Jesus speaks of a kingdom that is not of this world, and then chooses a path of non-violence and peace – even more, when he deliberately eschews association with both Elijah and Moses – we witness nothing less than the radical recasting of Israel’s life; a challenge to dreams of domination, revenge and exclusivity and a call to a kingdom whose rules are entirely new. The Gospels follow on from the Old Testament, no doubt. But they are about as revolutionary a sequel as could be imagined!

And yet here, right at the very end, the story changes.

The Balrog’s whip

It’s the very end of the first century. Jews and Christians alike are suffering the horrendous persecution of the Emperor Domitian. Martyrdom is real – for many people faith in Jesus is a matter of life and death. And the future of the church looks bleak.

But Jesus is revealed to John on Patmos. With messages of encouragement and challenge to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Ch 2-3). With greater reward for the martyrs (20:4–6). With a story not of the creation of the world, but its destruction. The sky is peeled back and fire obliterates vast swathes of people. Through the turmoil of this dissolution another apocalyptic showdown takes place, this time with the whore, Babylon and her dragon, Satan. For the Israelites, Babylon was synonymous with Egypt, just as she was synonymous with Rome. This is an account of the end which turns the tables on the Roman persecution and enacts for those living in daily fear a story of their oppressors’ destruction.

And it is violent. And it is vengeful. And it is exclusive.

Unlike the gospels, Revelation does not fundamentally break with the obsessions of first century Judaism. Instead it presses forward with the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic but reshapes it to include the ‘Christ’ – the Messiah of ancient legend, endorsed by no less than Elijah and Moses (11:1–6, referenced through ‘shutting up the skies’ and the ‘river of blood’). Using its elaborate language and evocative imagery a subtle refocusing happens; in countless careful ways the progressive revolution of Jesus the Messiah and his fast-spreading church is anesthetised, even as it holds out hope in the face of persecution.

Revelation is like the Balrog’s whip that pulls Gandalf into the abyss. Having taken on these destructive traits with the Gospels the New Testament is felled with its final mark. No challenge to its message is permitted. No grace is shown. This is like a re-enactment of the works of Exile through the lens of Jesus as the very Jewish Christ. In this apocalyptic vision, Jerusalem comes down from heaven to take its place as the centre of the new world. The earthly Jerusalem was already destroyed (by the Romans in AD 70), but the prophets’ dreams are kept alive. The city of God – the heavenly, purer, version on which the earthly copy was based – will become all that they dreamed it could be, and more. And in this new kingdom, just as with the old visions of Yahweh’s empire, there will be no war, or injustice, or evil within its walls.

Outside the walls is another story, of course.

A distant dream

Reading Revelation and reacting in this way, I feel keenly aware of my distance from its context. I live in an astonishing level of relative safety. Oppression and discrimination are so far from my door that the nearest I can get is to imagine myself in the shoes of another. All I do know is that the Christ of destruction and judgement became – in what is surely history’s most spectacular and cruellest irony – the symbol of the very Roman Empire that Revelation would see undone. And through that legacy, ruled the world with an iron rod (cf. 2:26-28, 12:5, 19:14-16).

Which is why I haven’t written of Revelation’s many subtleties; of its reframed vision of Jerusalem (chapter 21); of the sword from Jesus’ mouth and not his hands (19:15); of the relationship between economics and justice (chapter 18). It seems to me that these are not enough to stem the tide of violence and destruction that oozes from its pages. If we are to keep Revelation in our churches we should read it cautiously. Not because we risk getting caught up in its predictions – as if first century predictions are going to come to pass in the twenty-first century! But because we risk getting caught up in those general themes about Jesus we now believe we should celebrate.

For those of us living in the rich Western world, at least, it is the Gospels’ message of powerlessness that we need to hear. Because there is a time for a theology of suffering. But you need to be suffering for it to work. Otherwise it just becomes a new excuse for domination.

The final question

This is the very end of the Bible. And it faces us with what I believe is the single most important question for the Western church today. It is the central question of our faith, which we are hell-bent on performing every available form of intellectual gymnastics in our attempts to not have to answer.

The question is simply this: Who is Jesus? Is he the Lamb that has been slain (5:6-14) or the violent warrior king (19:11-21)? We need to make up our minds.

Our history demands it.