Nonviolence and the Bible: The Book of Revelation from a Nonviolent Perspective

by metacognizant

This entry will be the first in a (probably) 4-part series on nonviolence and the Bible. Enjoy.

Many Christians–myself included at a point–struggle with the book of Revelation. Jesus as presented in the Gospels is a person full of forgiveness and nonviolence rather than retribution; indeed, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). By the time one finishes reading the New Testament, though, Jesus may hardly seem a bringer of grace. The amount of violence apparently attributed to Jesus in the book of Revelation could be and has been used to justify quite a bit of violence in the name of Jesus–the same name that instructed us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Some Christians thus choose to somewhat ignore the book of Revelation; others choose to focus on it. My thesis of this blog is that the book of Revelation is fundamentally in harmony with the picture of Jesus painted in the Gospels–“the face of love” as Matt Hammitt, leader singer of Sanctus Real, puts it.

I’ve always wondered why the early Christian Church took a stance of pacifism when they were both called to be “imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1) and Revelation appears to depict God quite violently. Because the text of Ephesians is quite clear, I wondered if I had been reading Revelation wrong.

It would be easy to take the stance of preterism here–the view that the “Day of the Lord” and Jesus’ second coming occurred in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and Revelation is a prediction of this event alone–as we know from history that no divine judgment occurred here independently of human evil, and we can thus place the violence attributed to God in the book of Revelation into the hands of humans. Whatever the merit of preterism–and it is not without merit, viz.: An Exegetical Basis for a Preterist-Idealist Understanding of the Book of Revelation by John Noe–this blog will assume an interpretation of the book of Revelation with an understanding that its prophecies have not been totally fulfilled yet. The reason for this is that preterism is definitely not without its own difficulties, and it is not the purpose of the blog to explicate one view over against another. Suffice it to say, if preterism is true, then the violence attributed to God in Revelation can be viewed as symbolic and given over entirely to the human hands that executed said violence. We’ll look at Revelation as having a future culmination in this blog.

I’m also not going to take another easy way out and hide behind the veil of apocalyptic literature in ancient Judaism. I’ve heard quite a few people dismiss Revelation by stating that in ancient Judaic apocalyptic writings, violent catastrophes are included in the text to emphasize a certain point. Daniel 9:26, for example, as the focal point of the double chiastic structure in the whole book of Daniel, emphasizes that the Messiah dies alone, and it uses the imagery of a flood, war, and desolation to enhance this emphasis. Nonetheless, if one would try to take the violence out of the book of Revelation entirely, one would be left with a very small book, and it would certainly not convey the same emphases as it does in its original form.

What is left, then? Let’s examine the book itself.

To begin, it’s important to understand the context of this book’s being written. It was written during a period of persecution of Christians by Rome, when Christians felt powerless to effect change in their situation. The literary structure and genre of Revelation serves to help this situation. As Adela Yarbro Collins, the Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School, states,

The book of Revelation takes messianic language about Jesus very seriously and refuses to minimize or eliminate the social and political dimensions of messianic hope. As we have seen, such a preunderstanding made it very difficult if not impossible to make sense of the current sociopolitical situation of Christians….

Nevertheless, the symbols and plot of Revelation, when deeply heard, do affect the actions of the hearers. It is a text that enables hearers and readers to cope in extreme circumstances. In a situation where direct political action is not feasible, it is a text that keeps alive the expectation of a better world. (Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse, pp. 155-156)

Revelation serves to help those facing persecution that there is a good ending to this story: God wins. After the rain, the sun comes. Love never fails. Revelation thus enables hope in situations where hope seems like a fable.

The first account of violent imagery we see in the book of Revelation is a common one in this book, and so it will help to define what the image means. Jesus is described as having a “sharp two-edged sword” protruding from his mouth (Revelation 1:16). When Paul is explicating the “full armor of God,” it is interesting to note that the only offensive weapon mentioned is “the sword of the Spirit,” and Paul immediately defines this, “which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17). This is echoed in the book of Hebrews, which states that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12). It is in this sense that Jesus did not “bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). The word of God proceeds directly from the mouth of Jesus, as depicted in Revelation; further, the word of God creates division: those who follow God, and those who don’t. It is interesting that this division is not one of many, but a division that seeks to repair all divisions–instead of further fragmentation, the word of God divides all of humanity into those seeking to the good of others and thus to repair all social division and exclusion and into those seeking their own good and contributing to further division. Nonetheless, when an individual does choose the way of love and self-giving–the way of Christ–one does depart from the way of this world, and this departure can be both painful for those still engulfed in the way of the world and for those who choose to follow Christ and long for the salvation of the world. In fact, by working for the salvation of the world, followers of Christ using the word of God will necessarily provoke resistance and war: those in power in the world like things the way they are, and most will do what it takes to preserve their own indulgent life that is lived at the expense of others–it is incredibly painful to have our own wickedness exposed. They do indeed war against the followers of Christ, but the more the followers of Christ lay down their own lives for the sake of their enemies, the more it becomes evident that Jesus Christ has already won the battle. When followers of Christ do not repay evil for evil, it only becomes more evident that the power of evil actually has no power over the power of love. Any instance of war that comes from the word of God noted in the book of Revelation is necessarily this kind, because of the nature of the word of God. The word of God is nonviolent opposition in love to the power of evil.

The next violent image in the book of Revelation is the action taken against Jezebel in 2:20-2:21. The use of Jezebel here, according to Vincent’s Word Studies (p. 1264), is a symbolic reference to the notorious historic Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31). No action is taken against the church that has committed immoral deeds with her except a tribulation that is given unless they repent of Jezebel’s works. In other words, a process of purification that is necessarily self-inflicted. Possibly the tribulation is simply the extreme grief that will be experienced by those who realize they have pursued anything besides the truth of God. This interpretation is consistent with the destruction of Jezebel’s children: God will not let false teaching continue past this generation, and so any teaching that is not God’s truth will be corrected–at the pain of those who turned from God.

After a bit of an introduction to the throne room, we begin to reach the meat of Revelation. The seven seals are about to be broken. The significance here is the one who breaks them. No one was able to open the scroll except the Lamb, that looked “as though it had been slain.” That is, the only way that the scroll could have been opened was by the Lamb that bore the marks of death without being dead. The Lamb had the form of death without its content. The Lamb had beaten death. Moreover, the Lamb was a spotless, innocent Lamb, and through his victory over death we came to see that. The slaughtered, innocent victim is a perfect portrait of how Jesus was unjustly killed, but by beating death Jesus undid the cultural mechanism of scapegoating and thus saved humanity from the sacred, sacrifice, secrecy, and potentially from violence. The Lamb that looked as if it had been slain is indeed the only one able to break the seals that Revelation lists, as these occurrences only have the possibility of unfolding once the sacred no longer has a restraining hold on reality. By nullifying the outlet of scapegoating, violence simultaneously has the real possibility of ending and is fully unleashed.

The first five seals are rather self-explanatory once violence and corruption can go on unrestrained. Conquest and war reach ever-greater heights. Economic injustice creates an impossibility for some to even eat. Death is no longer sacred and death itself gets unleashed and goes unrestrained. For those who spoke out against violence, they become martyrs, and yet do not get vindicated by divine retaliation.

To understand the essential divine nonviolence of the sixth seal, we need to understand how the “wrath of God” is understood in the New Testament. We can get a glimpse of the fact that in this seal God must be nonviolent by the fact that it is the wrath of one who chose nonviolence to the point of death. God’s “wrath” in the New Testament is quite a bit different than how contemporary Christians have come to portray it. Rather than an act of divine violence, it is quite a bit different. To quote the theologian James Alison,

In the first place we can see that for Paul the Gospel is the Gospel of the righteousness of God. This is what the death and resurrection of Jesus has revealed for him. That is shown in Romans 1:17, and again in Romans 3:25. What has happened in between these two references is that Paul, because of the necessity of clarifying the question of the exact theological nature of the Law, has gone in for a long explanation of the inverse consequence of the same revelation of the righteousness of God: the revelation of what he calls the wrath of God. The content of this revelation is exactly the same as what I suggested above: that all humans are constitutionally wrong (we all have a “debased mind,” 1:28), and constitutionally idolaters, as is demonstrated by our not knowing the righteousness of God. It would be as well to examine this notion of the wrath of God because of the easy misunderstanding to which it is prone.

The word wrath (orgé) appears ten times in Romans. Only once does it appear as the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). On the one occasion where it appears to be something inflicted by God on people as a result of our wickedness (Rom. 3:5) Paul expressly indicates the mythical nature of the terminology (“I speak in a human way”). On all the other occasions where the term appears (2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:4, 5) it is impersonal. Even in the first case, where the orgé is linked to theou the content of the wrath of God is itself a demythification of a vindictive account of God (whose righteousness has just been declared). For the content of the wrath is the handing over by God of us to ourselves. Three times in the following verses the content of the wrath is described in terms of handing over: 1:24; 1:26; and 1:28. That is to say that the wrath, rather than being an act of divine vengeance is a divine non-resistance to human evil [Alison’s note: As Hamerton-Kelly indicates, Sacred Violence, 101]. However, I would suggest that it is more than that. The word “handed over” (paredoken) has, in primitive Christian sources a particularly subtle set of resonances [Alison’s note: This word is vital and recurrent in all the Gospels, where much is made of the irony of God handing over Jesus, Judas handing over Jesus, and Jesus handing over himself.]. For God is described as handing over (paredoken) his own son to us in a text no further from our own than Romans 8:32. The handing over of the son to us, and the handing over of ourselves to sin appear to be at the very least parallel. The same verb (paredothé) is used in 4:25 where Jesus was handed over for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. I would suggest that it is the handing over of the son to our killing him that is in fact the same thing as handing us over to our own sins. Thus wrath is life in the sort of world which kills the son of God (The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, pp. 126-127)

I would suggest that the wrath of God could go a bit further than Alison puts it, too. As the wrath of God is a divine non-resistance to human evil, it would include divine non-resistance to evil human desires. One of those desires that fallen humans naturally possess is a desire to live as a god in a sense: to rule over our own destiny. God may in his wrath give us that, and take his protective, graceful hand away from us. In this, we would truly be left to fend for ourselves against the might of nature as God has set it up. No longer would we have God to intervene (through natural or supernatural means) and prevent a natural disaster from occurring; instead, we would face said disaster through human means alone. Now, clearly, the imagery surrounding the sixth seal is figurative–if every mountain was removed from its place (6:14), how could the kings of the earth hide themselves in the mountains (6:15)? Nonetheless, this giving humanity over to a world without God’s protection may help us to understand later judgments. The seventh seal is a heavenly sign of the utter chaos in the world; for the first time in all eternity, praise to God ceases for half an hour, and solemness takes its place.

The seven trumpets should be understood in the context of the sixth seal; no indication has been given of it ending–the wrath of God is still very much upon the earth. Before the wrath of God gets any worse, God hears the prayers of the saints. After that, even the container of the prayers gets thrown to Earth. This is the point of this part of Revelation, as the fire that the container is filled with itself causes no damage. The point is this: we have been utterly given over to ourselves. The trumpets sound and no judgment is actively carried out; instead, they are warnings of disasters that are about to occur because God is not restraining human evil and evil human desires. Indeed, as in the sixth seal, God removes his protective restraints on what kills humanity. Nevertheless, murder continues even after all the damage humanity has done to itself.

In Revelation 12 we have yet another reminder of the essential nonviolence of this book. The war against pure evil was won solely because “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). Only pure love can conquer evil.

There are more references to the wrath of God throughout Revelation–especially the bowls of wrath. Notice how each seemingly violent act of God is not described as violence done by God, but by the wrath of God. War is made against Jesus and heavens armies, but no war is had. Instead, the sources of opposition to God–worldly power, false teaching, and Satan, death, and the grave–are utterly destroyed (19:20, 20:10, 20:14) and all human opposition to God is immediately corrected simply by the word of God (19:21). Those who continue refuse God do so knowing full well that life without God is death (21:14), as they have just seen all opposition to God abandoned to the lake of fire. Those who refuse God thus choose death for themselves (21:14-15).

The only question left, then, is why does God allow so much violence? Or, why does God pour out so much wrath on humanity? When God broke open human culture and laid bare the mechanism that humanity used to keep violence in check, God did so to allow the real possibility of total forgiveness and nonviolence. By doing this, we have a true choice of liberation from the fear of death here on Earth, but we also have a real choice to allow violence to escalate uncontrollably. Remember that God’s wrath is giving us what we want. We choose violence, and God allows us to continue in that choice so we see where it ultimately leads–that is, destruction–and thus choose God on our own will. Once we do, though, our joy in God’s goodness becomes ever-greater: we have seen the face of evil in ourselves, and the beauty of God stands in ever-clearer contrast to it.

I’ve probably missed something in this entry, as Revelation is a huge book and this blog entry is not. Nonetheless, I think I’ve shown how Revelation can be seen as the apocalypse of a nonviolent God. For me, because the early Church chose pacifism, I attempted to see if Revelation could be read in a way that promoted that. I think I’ve shown that it can, and all the concepts that I outlined would have been understood by a first century Christian audience. The beauty of Revelation, though, isn’t that it shows human evil and the escalation it brings for what it is; rather, the beauty of Revelation is in the book’s ending:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son…. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 21:1-5; 22:1-5)