Revelation: Friend or Foe to Nonviolence?
*The following post is adapted from Preston Sprinkle’s forthcoming book: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013). Preston’s book is due to release on August 1.
The book of Revelation stands out as an embarrassment to Christianity. The famed atheist Friedrich Nietzsche described the book as “the most rabid outburst of vindictiveness in all recorded history.” Historian James Carroll said, “In no text of the entire Bible is God’s violence, and the violence of Christ himself, more powerfully on display than in the … book of Revelation.”
Some Christians, however, revel in such violence. Pastor Mark Driscoll celebrates the gore of Revelation since Jesus is depicted as “a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.” And Driscoll finds great comfort in this. “That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”
Whether Driscoll could take Jesus in a cage fight, I cannot say. Ironically, my own view of Revelation used to be close to Driscoll’s. I remember teaching a class on ethics not long ago, and when we talked about the Jesus of the Gospels, I highlighted His nonviolent posture. “However,” I argued, “the Jesus of Revelation will slaughter His enemies, and their blood will soak His garments.” My students smiled with a sigh of relief while muttering heartfelt amens. After all, which American kid wants to worship a hippie, diaper, halo Jesus?
Unfortunately, I assumed I knew about this prizefighting Christ without actually studying the book of Revelation. I simply took it for granted that the Jesus of the Gospels was a pacifist, while the Jesus of Revelation was a UCF warrior.
What do you think of Preston Sprinkle’s second thoughts on Revelation’s depiction of Christ?
But none of these opinions recognize the true beauty of Revelation. Revelation is a violent book, but the violence is not dished out as much as it is absorbed. And although there’s a lot of bloodshed, it often flows from the veins of Christ and His followers, not from His enemies.
In fact, Revelation supports Christian nonviolence more aggressively than any other biblical book. Nowhere does Revelation encourage the church to act violently. Human violence is always condemned, and suffering is exalted. Now, make no mistake: Jesus will return as Judge, and He will pour out His wrath. But the thought of a tatted, buffed out, commando Jesus hacking His enemies to pieces with sadistic pleasure is nowhere to be found in Revelation. Jesus receives authority to judge His enemies because He first suffers by their hands as a slaughtered Lamb.
In Revelation, victory belongs to victims and Lamb-like warriors conquer their enemies by being conquered. That’s the theme of this violent book.
Consider, for instance, the return of Christ in Revelation 19: The source for Driscoll’s prizefighting Messiah. Indeed, Jesus appears “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13), but His attire is bloodied before He wages war against the enemy. The blood, therefore, is probably His own. If the blood were His enemies’, it would splatter on His garments after the fight, not before. Jesus’s crucifixion, in other words, gives Him the authority to conquer, to boldly announce His victory over His foes.
And when Jesus defeats his enemies, He does so with a sword. But contrary to Driscoll, the sword comes “from his mouth,” not His hand (19:15, 21). Everywhere in Revelation, when the sword comes from the mouth, it refers to a word of judgment, not a literal sword (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16; cf. John 12:48; 2 Thess. 2:8; Heb. 4:12). Jesus doesn’t run a carnival. He doesn’t pull rabbits from His hat or swords from His throat. The sword symbolically refers to Jesus’s “death-dealing pronouncement which goes forth like a sharp blade from the lips of Christ” (Mounce, Revelation). Jesus doesn’t need to hack His way through enemy lines like a crazed warrior. He doesn’t need to do anything but declare with cosmic, cruciform authority that He has already won. The Lamb has conquered!
Jesus’s authority to judge His enemies is attained by first being conquered by them. The suffering of Christ, His death on the cross, becomes the means by which Jesus slays the dragon.