Monday, June 9, 2008

McLaren and Revelation 19:15-part 5

Reworking Apocalyptic
In this post we want to interact just briefly with the genre of apocalyptic literature. In his book Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren says the following:
I believer that many of our current eschatologies, intoxicated by dubious interpretations of John’s Apocalypse, are not only ignorant and wrong, but dangerous and immoral. By way of ignorance, they are oblivious to the conventions of Jewish Apocalyptic literature in particular, and literature, of the oppressed in general. As a result, they wrongly—one might even say ridiculously—interpret obviously metaphorical language as literal. For example, they misread Revelation 19:15, where Jesus, in a blood-stained robe, “strikes down the nations” using a sword; they fail to notice that the sword comes out of his mouth—a rather unmistakable case of symbolism to a reasoned adult reader, I would think, unless he imagines Jesus actually thrashing his head around, slinging a sword between his teeth like a giant cigar of mass destruction.

In light of the literary conventions of both literature of the oppressed in general and Jewish apocalyptic in particular, and assuming that Jesus' coming as told in the Gospels was not a fake-me-out coming...Jesus' "striking down the nations" with a sword "coming out of his mouth" has a very different meaning. (pp144-145, emphasis added)
He adds later:

"The Jesus of one reading of the Apocalypse brings us to a grim resignation: the world will get worse and worse, and finally this jihadist Jesus will return to use force, domination, violence, and even torture--the ultimate imperial tools--to vanquish evil and bring peace." (p146).

Now this is more than ironic because one can find numerous commentaries by people who are experts in apocalyptic literature and they do not deny the theme of what McLaren has pejoratively dubbed 'the jihadist Jesus'. I, for one, would be interested in knowing if McLaren has found any seasoned commentators who so reverse Revelation 19 so that it is a peaceful non-violent second coming.

What's more even if the blood on the robe of Jesus symbolizes something other than the blood of his enemies, which is a distinct possibility--for example Caird argues it is the blood of the martyrs (The Revelation of Saint John, 243)--there is nothing in the context that suggests the Word of God coming from the Lord's mouth must be a Word of reconciliation. Numerous times in Revelation we see the Lamb opening up judgment on the earth:

Revelation 6:15-17 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?"

So for example, in chapter 6 the Lamb breaks the seal and judgment is poured out against the earth. Or in the letter to the churches in chapter 2 to Thyatira the Lord wages war against the 'Jezebel':

Revelation 2:21-23 21 'I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. 22 'Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. 23 'And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.
Revelation 11:15-19:

Revelation 11:15-19 15 Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever." 16 And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying, "We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. 18 "And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth." 19 And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm.
Of course, this is symbolism. 'Heaven opening' and 'lightening and thunder' 'earthquakes and hailstorms' is stock language of apocalyptic imagery there is a cataclysmic upheaval that comes from heaven itself as holy war breaks out. Yet the symbolism is designed not to point to a pacifist God but wrath a God who sets things right against the wicked because He does not show partiality. The great hope of apocalyptic literature is that the oppressed will be vindicated from their oppressors. They do not look for the hippy god of the twentieth century who is more like a jolly Santa Claus--they look for the Lord Sabbaoth. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

So for example in Revelation, we have the beast making war against the saints, yet is the Lamb who returns to make war against the beast--that war is much more than just the cross of Christ, although that is integral since the Lamb is worthy to open the Danielic scroll of judgment because he has been slayed (Rev. 5):

Revelation 13:7-10 7 It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. 8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. 9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear. 10 If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.

But there is doom, from what McLaren labels the jihadist Jesus, for those who worship this beast:

Revelation 14:9-11 9 Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name."
In good apocalyptic literature style the faithful are told of their coming vindication (Rev. 14:12-13) if they stand firm but for those who worship 'the beast' (obviously symbolic) there is wrath. The rich symbolism and vivid language is not to 'deconstruct warrior language into weakness language' the rich imagery is designed to convey the fullness of this onslaught. In apocalyptic literature, we are to see a cosmic war behind everyday events. Instead of being coded for pacifism, as McLaren suggests, we are to see a deeper war behind our daily struggles--a war that originates in heaven itself and spills over.

We have numerous imagery and pictures of wrath, the language flowing from the OT itself.

Revelation 14:18-20 18 Then another angel, the one who has power over fire, came out from the altar; and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, saying, "Put in your sharp sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, because her grapes are ripe." 19 So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God. 20 And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses' bridles, for a distance of two hundred miles.

Revelation 16:1 Revelation 16:1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, "Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God."

Revelation 16:18-21 18 And there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great an earthquake was it, and so mighty. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. Babylon the great was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of His fierce wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and the mountains were not found. 21 And huge hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, came down from heaven upon men; and men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail, because its plague was extremely severe.

Revelation 20:7-15 7 When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, 8 and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. 9 And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. 11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
There are those who wage war against the Lamb and the Lamb overcomes them (Rev. 17:14). When the book of Revelation does connect the people of God back to the first coming--which is foundational for the war (see Rev. 4-5 and the imagery in Rev 12 especially vv.10-13)--this overcoming is not without a conquering.

McLaren has done us a grave disservice. First, he naively wants us to believe that if we take the symbolism of apocalyptic literature seriously we cannot have a conquering Jesus who destroys his enemies--i.e. 'violence' 'torture' and 'jihadist Jesus'. We wholeheartedly agree we must take apocalyptic literature seriously. There is much that is symbolic--but the symbolism is that of holy war and judgment.

Second, McLaren does not offer any description or definition--no matter how basic--of apocalyptic literature. Granted that is not the topic of the book however if he is going to offer a radical rereading of Revelation based on a 'conception of apocalyptic' then he owes it to his readers to substantiate his claims--even if just briefly.

Third, McLaren dismisses all so-called 'violent readings' as "ignorant and wrong, but dangerous and immoral. By way of ignorance, they are oblivious to the conventions of Jewish Apocalyptic literature in particular, and literature, of the oppressed in general." Obviously there are some inane readings out there running in evangelical circles. But this kind of insults to the reader is rather unbecoming. In fact, McLaren is not just addressing the radical bizarre readings that the apocalyptic experts would agree are flights of fancy but rather he opens it up so that every reading that holds to a 'jihadist Jesus' is now 'ignorant and wrong...dangerous and immoral'. It is a brilliant rhetorical strategy but obviously lacking in substance.

The Nature of Apocalyptic
Richard Bauckham says the following:
"In Jewish eschatological expectation the theme of the holy war plays a prominent role. The future will bring the final victory of the divine Warrior over his people's and his own enemies. But the tradition of an eschatological or holy war can be divided into two forms, in one of which the victory was won by God alone or by God and his heavenly armies and in the other of which his people play an active part in physical warfare against their enemies. The former tradition has a kind of precedent in the Old Testament holy war tradition...In the proto-apocalyptic passages of the Old Testament it is this kind of holy war which seems to emerge as the expectation for the future: God fights alone (Isa. 59:16; 63:3) or with his heavenly armies (Joel 3:11b; Zech. 14:5b)... (The Climax of Prophecy, p.210-11).

Bauckham argues that the book of Revelation is a Christian War Scroll (Climax, 212). He rightly states:
"Revelation makes lavish uses of holy war language while transferring its meaning to non-military means of triumph over evil. Even the vision of the parousia while sharing with 4 Ezra 13 the concept of the Messiah's victory by his word ('the sword that issues from his mouth': Rev. 19:15,21; cf. 1:!6; 2:12,16: the common source is Isa. 11:14), nevertheless depicts the parousia in military terms as a theophany of the Divine Warrior (19:11-16). As we have seen, human participation in the eschatological war is not rejected in Revelation, but emphasized and, again, depicted in terms drawn from traditions of holy war, which are then carefully reinterpreted in terms of faithful witness to the point of death. The distinctive feature of Revelation seems to be, not its repudiation of apocalyptic militarism, but its lavish use of militaristic language in a non-militaristic sense. In the eschatological destruction of evil in Revelation there is no place for real armed violence, but there is ample space of the imagery of violence." (The Climax of Prophecy, p233, emphasis original)
What is helpful to understand is that the genre of apocalyptic is diverse at points. Some Jewish apocalyptic books are covert calls to action. In other words to employ the kind of earthly violence McLaren rightly decries. When one couldn't say "Kill the Romans" one would right a book with symbolism saying "Kill Babylon" or "Kill the beasts". Revelation taps into this but to encourage the reader to stand firm in their testimony--not to take up violence. In fact, John taps into a 'martyrology' (cf. Bauckham The Climax of Prophecy, pp.235-37).

Nevertheless, McLaren seems to decry the whole notion of an eschatological holy war--God/Jesus cannot come back and 'punish' 'torture' and 'vindicate' and yet it is precisely this divine Warrior motif in the defeat of evil that Revelation presents. The Lamb triumphs, of course not by picking up earthly swords and guns, but he does defeat and even destroy. If we look at things from the earthly realm--the beast seems to be winning. If we look at things from the perspective of the heavenly realm, the deeper war is eschatological and has been won in the first coming but the full triumph will be ushered in the second coming when 'Babylon' is destroyed. Of course, Babylon is symbolic both of Rome but also a larger symbol of idolatry and all that sands against God.

In short, one can agree with McLaren when he decries Christians taking up violence and arms against the world, imposing 'Christian sharia law' (p.147) and even assume that God blesses our military conflict "blow them all away in the name of the Lord" (p.184). Yet, we cannot remove the Divine Warrior motif--the Christ does conquer. Certainly Christ conquerors by laying down his life in the first coming. But out of that he is giving the kingdom and he brings all things to under his feet--he even pours out the just wrath of God.

"Apocalypticism or apocalyptic eschatology centers on the belief that the present world order, which is both evil and oppressive, is under temporary control of Satan and his human accomplices. This present evil world order will shortly be destroyed by God and replaced with a new perfect order corresponding to Eden. During this present evil age, the people of God are an oppressed minority who fervently await the intervention of God or his special chosen agent, the Messiah. The transition between the old age and the new ages, the end of the old age and the beginning of the new, will be introduced by a final series of battles fought by the people of God against the human allies of Satan. The outcome is never in question, however, for the enemies of God are predestined to be defeated and destroyed. The inauguration of the new age will begin with the arrival of God or his accredited agent to judge the wicked and reward the righteous and will be concluded by the re-creation or transformation of the universe." (Dictionary of New Testament Background, p.48-49).

Of course, there is symbolism in Revelation. G.K. Beale has shown that John himself tells us we should interpret these things symbolically (Revelation, 49-55). Must commentators then incorporate a historical approach with a futurist approach and an 'idealist/symbolic approach'. Commentators disagree over which aspects should receive more weight, nevertheless they acknowledge all aspect. However, the symbolic aspects in no way midigate the distinction of the wicked vs. the righteous which is common to apocalyptic. The wicked are vanquished and the righteous vindicated (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development, p. 66).

Thus, "the book of Revelation employs parabolic pictures setting forth its representation of the past, present, and future of history" (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development, p. 1026). So that we do not have to be 'literalistic' to the point that locust must be real bugs (or helicopters)--e.g. Rev. 9:7-11. But avoiding this crass literalism is not to say this things point to 'reality' whether past, present or future.

We fundamentaly misunderstand the symbolism of Revelation 19 if we take the sword and turn it into a pacificistic Jesus. This is the Divine Warrior who returns. There is a culminating eschatological battle where the king who secured the kingdom in weakness now ushers in the might of that kingdom against the enemies of God. It is McLaren reworks apocalyptic images away from there plainly intended point because he ignores "a rather unmistakable case of symbolism to a reasoned adult reader."

The book of Revelation is obviously in the style of apocalyptic literature (it is also a letter and a prophecy). We must take seriously the nature of apocalyptic literature. However, the symbolism of apocalyptic literature points to a Jesus who does triumph, defeat and usher in God's wrath against God's enemies while he vindicates God's people and establishes the new creation. McLaren would have us believe that if we understand apocalyptic literature and the literature of the oppressed the symbolism must be non-violent and pacifistic. While Revelation is symbolic, McLaren's reading is entirerly inaccurate, unhelpful and wholly unwarranted. Certainly Revelation does not champion Christian to engage in jihad--just the opposite it condemns the supremacy of martyrdom for those who stand firm even unto death. Yet the saints oppressed cry out for relief and vindication when Satan, the Beast and the armies who align with them are destroyed.

No comments:

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...