Some More Thoughts On The Book Of Revelation
What are the large entities which are dominating life on earth for humans at present? In western civilisation they are global warming and climate change, Covid-19, social media, globalisation of businesses, widespread internet information and opinion, the Cloud, cultural wars, artificial intelligence, political empire building, internationalism and nationalism, fake news, entertainment fiction, sport as metaphor for war, addictions to drugs and alcohol, personal morality disestablishment, family and society dissolution and mental health problems. In what were formally called ‘third world’ countries there are more basic issues such as food supply, health, shelter, education, violence, political insecurity, indoctrination, mobile telephony, Chinese totalitarian communism, Hindu nationalism and Muslim expansionism.
Are these the entities which Paul called ‘principalities and powers’? Or are principalities and powers beyond human reach and control, existences hardly to be described as ‘spiritual’ but nevertheless in that dimension of life which we understand is where God lives. Or are they human ‘viral’ energies which begin atomistically and spread rapidly throughout the human community, some by means of electrical connectivity? Is there intelligence behind, beneath and before these entities? Are there identities commensurate with human consciousness and understanding? Is there one controlling influence? We do not know. Science fiction posits these as imagined realities of the future. Some people believe in alien abduction and some that they have been abducted. Futurology offers android humanity, transhumanism (evading death and mind-uploading), one world government, a post nuclear war age, space colonisation, intergalactic travel and secular apocalyptic end of the world scenarios. These secular human constructs in some ways reflect the language of The Book Of Revelation.
The most important aspects of human life and consciousness are unseen to the naked eye. What we see is not what we get. Studies in neurology locate mental activity to visible parts of the physical brain but the sub-atomic connections are not naturally visible and consciousness itself is still not understood or explained. Thus relationship with God, with the divine and with human mystical experience requires another dimension. Here is the location of value and purpose beyond survival and achievement. This is the area of relevance to John’s Revelation. He is describing something that exists and is real to him. It is contextualised in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible of the Jews and in the testimonies of those who knew Jesus of Nazareth and experienced his resurrected life, of whom John is one.
There are many current conversations about future catastrophes on earth. The Guardian on 29th July 2021 published an article which recorded that in a study ‘researchers said human civilisation was “in a perilous state” due to the highly interconnected and energy-intensive society that had developed and the environmental damage this had caused. A collapse could arise from shocks, such as a severe financial crisis, the impacts of the climate crisis, destruction of nature, an even worse pandemic than Covid-19 or a combination of these, the scientists said. Billionaires have been reported to be buying land for bunkers in New Zealand in preparation for an apocalypse. New Zealand was found to have the greatest potential to survive relatively unscathed due to its geothermal and hydroelectric energy, abundant agricultural land and low human population density’. The study continued…‘major global food losses, a financial crisis and a pandemic had all happened in recent years...there’s no real reason why they can’t all happen in the same year’. Someone could interpret Revelation’s plagues and troubles for the present time.
There are three themes from Revelation which find currency in popular culture, the number 666, the Beast and the Antichrist. 666 has been identified with Nero, Roman Emperor from 54 – 68 AD and a significant persecutor of Christians. Identifications later in history involved Muhammad. People have changed business plans, home addresses and family remembrances if there is any coincidental connection with the number 666 (for example 6/6/66). Some have identified the mark of the beast with Covid-19. Mikhail Gorbachev's forehead birth mark was thought by some in America to be the mark of the beast. That was strange because he was a friend of the west, a liberaliser and reformer who helped to bring about the collapse of the Russian Empire. The Antichrist in Revelation has been identified with all sorts of people such as political tyrants and rulers. At the Reformation the Pope was identified as the Antichrist who had set himself up against Jesus Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1648, for long the Church of Scotland’s subordinate Standard of Faith after the Bible, contained this assertion and it was not deleted until the 20th century. Osama Bin Laden was identified as the Antichrist after 9/11 in America as people wondered where God was in all the murder and mayhem. Post Enlightenment European Christianity has been less definitive. A common interpretation is that the beast and the Antichrist are expressions of human characteristics and behaviour and this conforms to the allegorical or idealist category of understanding Revelation.
There is a contrast between Paul’s teaching on justification by faith and Revelation’s accent on faithfulness, perseverance and witness. In Romans 3 : 21 – 24 Paul writes ‘But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’. In Revelation 7 : 13 – 14 John writes ‘Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.
Revelation 14 : 13 – 14 reads ‘Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.” Further, in Revelation 20 : 11- 12 and 15 John writes ‘Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books….Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire’. And in Revelation 21 : 6 – 8 we read ‘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 water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death’.
Paul never justified continual wrong-doing. Romans 6 : 1 – 4 reads ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life’. But there is a broader application of the love of God than in the judgemental God of Revelation. There is a lot of good versus bad and election versus damnation in Revelation. There is dichotomy and divergence, discrimination and ultimate separation.
The Christian Church as it became was for many centuries characterised as an in or out salvation or damned institution. Some parts of the Christian Church today maintain that stance. The Roman Catholic Church supremely held that ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ – ‘outside the church there is no salvation’. This became untenable in the middle ages when the Roman Catholic Church became so corrupted that reform was necessary and essential. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, grievous wrong-doing within the Roman Catholic Church been exposed in connection with paedophilia, sexual abuse of minors, harsh treatment of single mothers (particularly in Ireland), communist like re-education residential schools for first nation children in Canada, immorality among clergy and hierarchy and significant central financial corruption. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian Churches were associated with colonial expansion, the African slave trade and the practices of slavery in South America, the United States of America and in the West Indies. The Protestant Gospel was so corrupted and so acculturated that it was worthy of Revelation’s judgements rather than the gracious application of justification by faith. Today ne’er a word of judgement upon behaviour is uttered from the public pulpits of the land. Neither is there heard the confident sound of the Gospel message of forgiveness. But on death rows in America, some prisoners are converted to Jesus Christ on the promise of eternal life in his presence.
The only thing that Jesus of Nazareth killed was a fig tree. ‘The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it….In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”’ (Mark 11 : 12 14 and 20 – 21). How then can this Jesus become the genocidal destroyer of much of humanity in Revelation chapter 14? ‘I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Then another angel came out of the temple and called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, “Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe.” So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.” The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great wine press of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the wine press outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia’. What difference is there between this and the mass murderers of the empires of history, Mao, Stalin, Hitler? Is this truly the Son of God who said on earth ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3 : 16 - 17). Is the sharp cutting edge of the Christian Gospel divisive and leading to the condemnation of many? Is this humanitarian? After Noah’s flood did not God say ‘I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth’ (Genesis (9 : 15 – 16). Did God show mercy on earth to express its opposite in heaven? But Jesus is recorded as having said in Matthew 25 : 46 ending the parable of the sheep and the goats, a parable contrasting good works and neglect, ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’. In Matthew 13 : 30, in the parable of the good seeds and the weeds Jesus acknowledges the ongoing presence of evil in the human community and says ‘Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn’. There is no escaping the fact that Jesus expected a final judgement of God upon humanity. However the Christian Gospel invites all of humanity to believe in Jesus and receive the forgiveness and eternal salvation won for us by Him on Calvary. He said ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (John 3 : 18). Nominal church goers do not like this language. They resist and oppose it. That is telling.
We cannot minimise the suffering of the first Christians, their persecution, tortures and deaths. To give your life for Jesus then resulted in our own inheritance of Christian faith. John is entitled to identify with them from his remote fastness on Patmos. They rightly inherited the promise of high eternal life in the presence of the risen Jesus Christ. Nor is there any easy answer to the issue of the destiny of wicked people. But the even more vexed question is that of the future of so many members of the human race who are neither Christian saints nor practitioners of wickedness and evil. Will nominal, half-hearted church goers, the kind of people who say 'I am a good person’ scrape a pass mark into heaven? Will the pass mark be lowered for them? Or will they receive the rebuke of Jesus to the congregation of the church at Laodicea? 'I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! ‘So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth’ (Revelation 3 : 15 – 16). John Calvin distinguished the visible from the invisible church. The former he thought was filled with all manner of sinners. He looked on some of them as he preached in Geneva. He knew they were far from being perfect practising Christians. The latter were the true saints who found eternal salvation in Jesus Christ through faith and faithfulness. (Institutes IV.1.7) Revelation's John most certainly wants to stress the reality of Christian martyrdom in his time and the eternal rewards that will follow. He does not just believe this. He sees it. He described what he sees. Is it a complete picture though? Possibly not. It is an individual portrait, a part of the whole.
Revelation 14 begins ‘Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.... These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as first fruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless’. This is a curious passage. Generally, Christians have either interpreted the 144,000 people literally, or they have believed it to be a definite number to symbolize an indefinite number of people. There were 12 tribes. There were 12 disciples. 12x12x1000 could be taken to represent a perfection of number in Jewish numerology. Christians agree the 144,000 does not denote the total of souls throughout history who will be ultimately be saved from the wrath of eternal damnation.
‘These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins’ may helpfully be passed by but it has strange connotation. The Old Testament nowhere says that men having sex with women defiles them. Menstruating women and men discharging sperm are both held to be temporarily ritually unclean. Is John lauding virginity? Paul recommended celibacy in distressing times (1 Corinthians 7: 25 -35), and Jesus spoke of woes upon those with children and families in that day (Matthew 24 : 19 -21). God might have called these 144,000 to a literal celibacy for the kingdom’s sake during the great tribulation. Jesus’ ‘rock’ Peter was married and took his wife on missionary trips, a point made by Paul. ‘Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? (1 Corinthians 9 : 6). The term ‘virgins’ may denote purity in spiritual terms, including women and men. Israel is referred to in the Old Testament as ‘the virgin the daughter of Zion’ (2 Kings 19 : 21, Isaiah 37 : 22), as ‘the virgin daughter of Zion’ (Lamentations 2 : 13), and as ‘the virgin of Israel’ (Jeremiah 18 : 13; 31 : 34, 21; Amos 5 : 2). The prophets equated unfaithful practices with prostitution distinguishing them from faithfulness in marriage. 'Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land...There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land’ (Hosea 4 : 1, 2). Scholars generally have taken the Revelation verse to be symbolic. It is part of the large puzzle that is Revelation.
There is a cast of unnatural events, freaks and monsters in Revelation. Dr Who and Star-trek are nothing new. The white, red, black and pale horses, hail and fire mixed with blood, a mountain thrown into the sea, the star Wormwood, a third of the sun, moon and stars struck, the plague of locusts, the woman and the dragon, the two beasts, the seven plagues, ugly and painful sores, the sea turns to blood, rivers and springs of water become blood, the sun scorches people with fire, darkness, the Euphrates river dries up, a tremendous earthquake and the great prostitute. It is rational for us to locate these entities within John’s dream state imagination. There is a combination of reality, spiritual vision, metaphorical description and literary creativity in Revelation. The Euphrates still flows but there are many dried up rivers. There are numerous plagues of locusts in Africa, there are tremendous earthquakes and mountains slipping into seas from time to time. Some may say that the huge fires that are occurring in various parts of the world are like the sun scorching people. There have been outbreaks of disease with painful sores in past times. These are part of the human experience. The horses have not appeared except in fictitious novels and films. The woman and the dragon, the two beasts and the great prostitute are surely allegorical.
Parish Christianity is largely social in nature. It is like the local bowling club or the golf club. Revelation’s Christianity is an extreme sport like mountain sky diving or traversing Antarctica. Not for the faint-hearted and not for the amateur.