Wednesday, December 17, 2008

December 17, 2008 - Revelation

This evening I teach an adult-education class on the book of Revelation. It’s the concluding session of a mini-series we’ve been doing this Advent.

Revelation may not seem, to some, like appropriate subject-matter for the jolly weeks leading up to Christmas – but, in fact, Advent is traditionally a time for reflecting on the promise of Christ’s return and the final consummation of all things.

As I teach the class, I take pains to distance my own views from those who see in Revelation definitive signs that Christ is coming soon - preceded by various cataclysmic events, hints of which can be seen in today’s news. (The most cataclysmic event in this way of thinking – something called “the Rapture,” when the faithful will be bodily taken up into heaven – doesn’t come from Revelation at all, but from a decidedly odd interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.) Such an interpretation of the Bible – made wildly popular by Hal Lindsay’s 1970 bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, and the more recent Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins – is based on a total misreading of the scriptures, as far as I’m concerned.

Few of the Christians who gleefully advance such views realize they’re built on a minority biblical inter- pretation, dreamed up as late as the mid-19th century, that only became popular in the 20th. Rapture Theology – known to theologians by its technical term, dispensationalism – is an artificially-created interpretative grid laid over top of the scriptures, that’s out of sync with historic Christianity. It’s based on anything but a literal reading of the Bible – although most proponents will protest till they’re blue in the face that they’re not interpreting at all, but are simply reporting what scripture plainly says.

Beware of any Bible teachers who claim they never interpret the text, I always say. They’ve probably got a fifth ace up their sleeve.

Anyway, as our little group opens Revelation this evening, I’m struck yet again by how powerful is its imagery, how deep its spirituality. It truly is a difficult book to understand, but for those who persist, it yields rich treasures. It’s an especially powerful book for those who are suffering in one way or another, who have been forced by life’s hard knocks to contemplate death and the life to come.

“Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.” (Revelation 14:17-20)

Unless I miss my guess, that passage is the source of the iconic image of Death wielding a sickle. Is this passage unnecessarily maudlin, reveling in gory details that better belong to some teen slasher movie? Not really, considering that Revelation was written for churches undergoing severe persecution. (OK, a river of blood deep as a horse’s bridle is obvious hyperbole, but its poetic imagery would have spoken to the persecuted, all the same.)

Most people with only a superficial understanding of Revelation think the book is all about shocking imagery like this. Yet, those who persist in reading the entire book soon realize its intention is not to incite fear. No, the deep message of Revelation – a drumbeat that begins softly in the first chapters, slowly swelling to crescendo by the book’s triumphant conclusion – is that of hope, hope for those who have suffered much:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
'See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.'”
(Revelation 21:3-4)

Revelation frankly acknowledges the agonies and heartaches of life, but at the end of the day, its message is deeply healing:

“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. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-2)

Every time I reach into the baptismal font and scoop up some water to pour over a baby’s head, the bright drops that drip from my cupped palm are the water of life. Such a vision is what keeps me going, despite the inescapable signs of death and suffering I’ve seen. It’s what keep us all going, we who have sensed the touch of God in our lives.

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
(Revelation 22:17)


lecoop said...

Dear Carl,

You are right. We protest!!! But I must ask: how else can you interpret such clear words: Please read them in every translation you can find - for they all give the same message: we are to be caught up.

"For the dead in Christ shall rise first..."

"Then we which are alive [and] remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air..."

Carl, it matters little what previous generations believed. They did not have the resources we have such as this:

Please read these verses in each translation: they all say the same thing! If we believe this is the inspired word of God, then we must believe what this verse is telling us; one day soon we will be caught up!

Carl said...


It's a question of context. I always believe it's more faithful to the biblical text to read it in the larger context, understanding the book of which it's a part, rather than cherry-picking individual scripture verses from vastly different parts of the Bible - which is exactly what John Nelson Darby, who popularized dispensationalism in the 19th century, did. The larger context of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is clear from verses 13-14a that precede it: "But we do not want you to be informed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope." It's also clear in v. 18 that follows it: "Therefore encourage one another with these words."

The apostle's goal is not to frighten people with fears of being "left behind," but rather to encourage believers who are seeing their fellow Christians dying all around them, and who are hearing discouraging messages from Greco-Roman culture that there is no life after death. He wants them to know that, by grace, "we will be with the Lord forever."

He writes within the worldview of his time: a flat earth, with heaven physically "up there," above the clouds. Of course Paul would envision believers being "caught up to meet the Lord in the air." It's where he thought heaven was! I think we can buy his theology, without buying his scientific worldview.

This is good news, not the scary news that forms the heart of much dispensationalist teaching I've seen. Where, in 1 Thessalonians 4, does Paul speak about people being "left behind" after a "rapture"? Paul never mentions people being left behind, and the word "rapture" doesn't occur anywhere in the New Testament. It's based on a Latin, not a Greek word, and it's from the same root as the word for "rape."

Is it being faithful to the text to take a message of consolation and comfort about believers who will one day "be with the Lord forever," and to focus instead on others who are "left behind"? It's using the text in a way precisely opposite to what the author intended.

Dispensationalism is based on a theory of interpreting scripture that assumes God has scattered little hidden gems of meaning throughout the many biblical books, and that only those who are in the know about which random verses to pick up and analyze will get the hidden meaning. Well, that's not the understanding of scripture I operate from. I believe the Bible is a library of many different books, each having their own distinctive message. The gospel comes from the whole, more than the individual parts. By careful study, taking into account the authors who wrote the individual books and the communities for which they were originally intended, we can discern how the earliest Christians read them. Take all of these together, as a whole, and we can begin to discern what God is continuing to say to us today: a progression of meaning, based on the original understanding - not a radically new understanding that's a complete break with (and sometimes even a contradiction of) the original.

Dispensationalism, by contrast, begins with an interpretative grid (that framework of the various "dispensations" throughout history), superimposes it on the Bible, and then pulls individual verses from here, there and everywhere to try to justify it. A book as vast and complex as the Bible (which is really not a book at all, but a library) offers almost endless possibilities for those who are so minded.

If God's plan truly was to divide history into a series of dispensations, and this is important for people to know, then why wouldn't God inspire a biblical writer to tell the faithful about it directly, from the beginning? Why hide it as secret knowledge, scattering scavenger-hunt clues all over the Bible, and not revealing it until the 19th century? Did God dislike the Christians of all previous centuries, so as to hide this so-called saving knowledge from them? What kind of God hides such important information, anyway? Isn't the overall message of the New Testament that God sent Jesus to make the good news clear, rather than to obscure it?

Those are my thoughts, anyway. You may differ, and that's your privilege. My intention is not to question or undermine anyone's faith, but rather to focus faith on the good news at the heart of the Christian proclamation, not marginal theories.


Anonymous said...

Hi Carl,
This is the second time in a few days that I read what you wrote. The other is from Fr. Sean Wales, C.Ss.R. in his booklet titled, "What You Should Know About the 'End Times'". He basically says the same thing but puts it in the context of a suffering Christianity at the time of the persecutions and the glory that awaits them in Heaven. Persecution/cancer suffering in different ways.

Take care,