Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Theology of the Apocalypse

What follows is the basis for a lecture I have given on:

A THEOLOGY OF THE APOCALYPSE

Dualism. The Book of Revelation views the world as evil and alien from the church. It has a worldview that is highly dualistic. Dualistic or antithetical language dominates the book. This dualistic worldview is in large measure the product of the situation of persecution which the writer and his readers were facing. Persecuted, suffering people often view their world in such terms which contrast the ways things are with the way things ought to be and with the way they will be, when the end comes and God intervenes to change things and to judge the world with righteousness.

Implied Readers. The Book of Revelation speaks best to Christians who are too comfortable in and with the world; to them it is a warning against conformity to pagan culture. The Apocalypse also speaks to Christians who are suffering oppression and persecution from the world around them. Christ is already victorious and one day God will save them and judge the world. Third-world Christians suffering oppression from the world economic system or their own governments might resonate well with the themes and descriptions of Revelation.

The State or Empire. It is the official powers, the government of the Roman Empire, which is persecuting the Christians. The State has become the enemy, or rather, the State has become allied with the Enemy, God's enemy, the Devil (Revelation 13). Things have changed since Paul's day, when Paul believed that a Christian could be a good citizen and the Empire would protect you (Romans 13). Paul was still a "Jew" before the split of Christianity from Judaism and Christianity's development as an illegal, and therefore, unprotected religion.

Revelation shows that there are situations in which Christians must say NO to the State in the name of a higher power. There are higher laws than the State's laws. When the State demands that Christians act in ways which are contrary to what is required of us by God, then Christians must refuse, even at the cost of unemployment, exile, imprisonment, suffering, or death.

Interpretation. The Book of Revelation is not primarily, in my view, a forecast of specific events in the future. It uses the language of apocalyptic to assure the readers that God has not forgotten them in their persecution and that God has and will again intervene to save them and judge their enemies. That is a part of God's eschatological plan. The book is cast as an eschatological drama or story, whose moral is "God is faithful and will deliver you, and in the end God will win." It is not "future history," a detailed program of things to come.

Eschatology and Ethics. The extreme futurist or dispensational (Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye) reading of the Book of Revelation, popular in American Christianity, misses the main point of the book (because of its “rapture” theory), mistakes the implications of the genre of Revelation for its interpretation, and continues to have serious negative consequences for Christianity in America, especially in its responsibility to seek justice for the poor and care for God’s creation. We have forgotten that the whole New Testament teaches the rule and reign of God has already begun in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. The Kingdom of God has been inaugurated, and it is the mandate of the church, God's people, to live in the light of the Kingdom, that is, to make disciples of all the nations, to teach all the nations what the King has commanded us, and to live as the light and salt of this Kingdom here and now.

God’s Sovereignty. The Book of Revelation teaches that the Church will not make the Kingdom come or build the Kingdom of God on earth by its own efforts. Evil is such a powerful reality that only God's intervention will ultimately rescue the Church from destruction and bring into human history the blessings of God's full rule and reign. God is sovereign over history, and ultimately God's purposes will be achieved. We can work for the Kingdom, in the firm confidence that we are part of the winning army in the on-going conflict between the forces of light and darkness. Knowing that only God can accomplish the full realization of the Kingdom in history delivers us from naive optimism and utopian expectations.

The Christology of the Book of Revelation

1. Christ is the Lamb throughout the book. It is the most prominent title.

2. Jesus, the Lamb, is one with God. (John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”)

2.1. Christ appears with God, seated on the one throne of God and of the Lamb (22:1). 2.2. Both God and the Lamb are the Alpha and the Omega (1:8; 22:13). 2.3. Both the Lamb and God are called Lord (11:8; 17:14; 22:21). 2.4. Both God and the Lamb are the new Jerusalem’s Temple (21:22). 2.5. The Kingdom of God belongs both to the Lamb and to God (11:15). 2.6. Jesus & God are frequently worshiped together (e.g., 5:8; 15:3-4). 2.7. Many Old Testament descriptions of God are applied to Jesus.

3. The Lamb possesses ruling authority over all things. He is King of kings and Lord of Lords. 3.1. His authority extends to the spirit world where he conquers Satan, Satan’s representatives, death, and all evil (1:5; 2:27; 11:15; 12:10; 17:14; 19:15-16; 20:4). 3.2. This is like Jesus’ statement in Matthew 28:18: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.”

4. The Lamb died for those who belong to him; their sins are forgiven, and they are redeemed because of him and what he has done for them (1:5; 5:9).

5. He is their shepherd and he guides them to the water of life (7:17).

6. He is the Davidic Messiah (5:5; 22:16).

7. He is the Word of God, and God’s agent in creation as in John 1:1-18 (3:14; 19:13).

8. The Lamb controls the future: he is coming quickly as the eschatological judge; he unleashes catastrophic, world-ending events; the names of the redeemed are in his book of life.

9. The Lamb is closely related to his people, his bride, whom he loves and has redeemed. They believe in him, follow and worship him, suffer and die for him, and are honored in heaven with him.

The Message of Revelation in Seven Points - Michael Gorman

The Message of Revelation (in 7 points, naturally) by Michael Gorman:M

1. God the creator reigns! Jesus the redeemer, the slaughtered Lamb, is Lord! The reign of God is not merely future or past but present. God in Christ both demands all and offers all.

2. Evil is real. Empire is now—not merely future or past but present. Empire, by nature, makes seductive blasphemous and immoral claims and engages in corollary practices that bring disorder to both vertical (people-God) and horizontal (people-people) human relations, promising life but delivering death—both physical and spiritual.

3. The Christian church is easily seduced by Empire’s idolatry and immorality because these claims and practices are often invested with religious meaning and authority.

4. In the midst of Empire, the church is called to resistance as the inevitable corollary of faithfulness to God, a call that requires prophetic spiritual discernment and may result in various kinds of suffering.

5. The spiritual discernment required of the church, in turn, requires an alternative vision of God and of reality that unveils and challenges Empire, a vision in need of the Spirit’s wisdom to see and apply.

6. Christian resistance to Empire conforms to the pattern of Jesus Christ and of his apostles and saints: faithful, true, courageous, just, and nonviolent. It is not passive but active, consisting of the formation of communities and individuals who pledge allegiance to God alone, who live in nonviolent love toward friends and enemies alike, who leave vengeance to God, and who, by God’s Spirit, create mini-cultures of life as alternatives to Empire’s culture of death.

7. God the creator and Christ the redeemer take evil and injustice seriously and are about both to judge humanity and to renew the cosmos. The will of God is for all to follow the Lamb and participate in the life of God-with-us forever.

Michael wrote this on 7/4/2007. He is also the author of the excellent Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness, Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.

Interpreting the Book of Revelation

Approaches to Interpreting the Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation)

1. The Preterist View (L., praeteritus, past) 1.1. The book applies literally to the actual situation of the author's time and to no other time. 1.2. What is related is the conflict between the Roman emperor Domitian and the Church. 1.3. The predictions are not meant to be taken literally as predictions; they are part of the literary form of apocalyptic. 1.4. The book shows the hope of God's people during a time of persecution. 1.5. One should interpret this apocalypse as one interprets all apocalypses, with the same hermeneutical principles.

2. The Church History View 2.1. The book is a prophecy of the course of church history. 2.2. Different characters and events are identified with known past people and events. 2.3. No agreement exists among the proponents of this view as to the identity of these people and events. E.g., who is the anti-Christ? Nero? Papacy? Hitler? Kissinger? Gorbachev? Obama? 2.4. The author's own time is always thought to be the end time. 2.5. This view has a problem seeing the significance of the book for its original readers, the seven churches of Asia Minor.

3. The Idealist View 3.1. The book teaches us basic moral and spiritual principles and timeless truths, such as God's ultimate victory over evil and the need for faithfulness and endurance. There are lessons in it for every age. 3.2. Revelation portrays symbolically the cosmic conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Satanic powers of evil. 3.3. It does not portray real events, either in the past or in the future.

4. The Dispensational-Futurist View 4.1. The book is primarily a record in advance of events, not only future to the original writer and readers but also future to us today. 4.2. Chapters two and three prophesy the progressive stages of church history. 4.3. The rapture occurs at 4:1, when John is taken up to heaven in a vision. 4.4. Chapters 6-18 refer not to Christians but to Israel during a time of great tribulation as prophesied in the book of Daniel. 4.5. Many of the events take place in Israel, in a restored Jerusalem, with the temple rebuilt (Rev. 11:1-3). 4.6. There will be a revived Roman Empire, the Beast, and an apostate world church, the false prophet. 4.7. There will be a literal millennium on earth.

5. The Classical-Futurist View 5.1. The book is primarily a record in advance of events, not only future to the original writer and readers but also future to us today. 5.2. Chapters 2-3 are letters to actual churches, not a prophecy of the course of church history. 5.3. Rev. 4:1 is not a reference to the catching away of the church out of the world before the great tribulation. 5.4. Chapters 6-18 are about the Church, not Israel, and about the persecution of Christians during a period of tribulation before Christ returns. 5.4.1. From 7:1f on, it is about the great tribulation as in Matthew 24:29-30. 5.5. Problem: How could a book which deals with events which are still future to us today be relevant for the first-century Christians to whom it was originally written? 5.6. Solution: Although the Book of Revelation was primarily written to tell the seven churches of Asia Minor that some day in the future God's eschatological salvation and judgment will occur, this also was relevant to their immediate situation, because the same demonic powers will be manifested in the great tribulation that were behind the persecution by Rome of their time. The future is described in terms of the present, and the present is described in terms of the future. 5.7. Apocalyptic is concerned with future events and the book claims to be a true prophecy. 5.8. There will be a literal millennium on earth.

6. My Eclectic View 6.1. Each of the previously cited positions has some value and preserves some genuine truth that had been taken to an extreme in that view. We should avoid the extremes and extract the truth. 6.2. The Preterist View convinces us that we should read the Book of Revelation in the light of its own historical situation. The entire book must be understood as relevant to the original writer and his readers. We are also well advised to interpret the book as apocalyptic literature not as "future history." 6.3. While the Book of Revelation is not a prophecy of the course of church history, the book is relevant to the Church in every age. The letters of chapters two and three and the events of chapters 6-18 tell of challenges and struggles that face the church perennially. 6.4. With the Idealist view, we see that there are lasting moral and spiritual principles, as well as theological truths, which are taught in Revelation. To convey this teaching was definitely part of the author's purpose in writing the book. 6.5. The Dispensational and Classical Futurists Views remind us that many of the events in the Apocalypse are future, such as persecution of God's people, Christ's return, God's judgment, and the life of the age to come. Both views are mistaken, however, in viewing Revelation as prophesying "future history." This view overlooks the nature of apocalyptic literature as a dramatic portrayal of God's victory over evil and God's rescue of his persecuted saints. Chapters 6-18 do not foretell either the future history of Israel or the Church. 6.6. A Christian theologian's eschatology is formed best, not from the most symbolic and obscure books of apocalyptic literature, such as Daniel, Ezekiel, the Book of Revelation, but from the clearer, didactic passages of the New Testament, such as the teaching of Jesus, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, 2 Thessalonians 2, I Corinthians 15, Romans 8 and 11. 6.7. There is not in the New Testament, neither in these teaching passages, nor in the Book of Revelation, properly interpreted, anything like a detailed chart of pre-determined future events. What we can say is that the people of God will suffer tribulation, God will deliver them, Christ will come again, there will be a resurrection of the dead, God will judge the world, and there will be eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

These approaches have been drawn from many books and a few websites. I must especially give credit to the good work of Dennis Bratcher at www.crivoice.org/therevelation.html.