A Theology of the Apocalypse

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


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.


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