Book of Revelation: Friend or Foe to Nonviolence

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.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • tmarsh0307

    Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament has a great discussion on the violent imagery of Revelation and the non-violent resistance of the church in the face of persecution. If read correctly (according to its apocalyptic genre, resisting the popular “Left-Behind” readings), then it is a treasure for Christianity, not an embarrassment!

  • Norman

    First an apology to Scot for another long post but some subjects have to be set up in order to intelligently discuss the issues and scripture is extremely important to set that context.

    This Book does appear to help understand the background and intent of Revelation a little better and rightfully puts Driscoll’s ridiculous statements in unflattering light. Too many Christians do not understand apocalyptic language and take it as a license to revel in sadistic language about God’s vengeance upon the nonbeliever. That in itself is a very troublesome aspect of the left behind mentality of a pervasive American fundamentalist culture.

    However one can’t get away from the facts of Revelation and the NT that Christians who suffered with Christ by shedding their blood and persecution were looking to God and Christ to relieve them within their lifetime/generation. Most Christians, skeptics, scholars and atheist don’t believe what Christ said in Matt 16 ever came about as He says, so he is considered wrong, a fake or a false prophet and is explained away.

    Mat 16:27-28 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

    2 Th 1 reveals this hope of relief from their tormentors and how the faithful were encouraged by Paul to hold on until God’s righteous vengeance would come to relieve them. So retribution is not to be exacted by the faithful but they were to trust that God/Christ would prove their faith was not in vain by the sign of judgment upon their persecutors. Revelation says that the armies of the Beast will surround
    the city and burn her as they would be the agents of God’s purpose. If Rev was written in the mid 60’s AD in anticipation of that coming parousia then Christ indeed was proven true in his words and prophecy. So it depends upon how one reads the timing of the scriptures whether Christ was true to His word.

    2Th 1:5-10 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

    Here is the picture below of God using the armies to fulfill His promise of retribution just as occurred in the OT where other Nations armies were appropriated to exact judgment. This is a common OT method of declaring God’s fulfillment of promises and the NT and Rev use it as well.

    Rev 17:16-17 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.

    Rom 12:19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

  • candeux

    The Revelation 19 passage about the blood-drenched, sword-wielding Jesus is high on my list of “most misinterpreted Scriptures” when used to justify a violent depiction of Jesus (and hence to justify violence done by Christians). Preston’s interpretation seems right to me and it is one that I use often when I see or hear Rev. 19 misinterpreted.

    It’s worth noting that Heb. 12:4 (mentioned above) and Eph. 6:17 both refer to the “word of God” as a sword. While many have tried to use the word of God as an offensive weapon with which to hack away at enemies, I think experience shows that the word of God is a more effective “weapon” when the Holy Spirit is allowed to use it strategically and surgically on those who are inclined to listen to it.

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    I think his second thoughts are headed in the right direction. I’ve often wondered why I’ve not heard more pastors talk about this sword, coming from Jesus’ mouth, as his word, his word of final judgment. And, yes, this is a book that is full of martyrs, and likely for martyrs, revealing the king of martyrs as the king of all, the slain Lamb.

    I’ve often thought of an aspect of the end being the blessing and curse of seeing everything as it actually is, including God, Christ, ourselves and all our choices, etc. Judgment will include saint and sinner alike “knowing fully, even as we are fully known.” No more ability to lie or be in denial about anything at all–just pure, inescapable and total truth. I think this is both glorious and terrifying at various levels for various folks, and matches well with what the author seems to say. I can also see how this would result in every knee bowing and every tongue confessing/agreeing that Jesus is Lord.

  • KentonS

    Preston-

    Are you SURE your views of violence didn’t affect the changes in your view of hell??? I know you said as much earlier, but… WOW. It just seems so obvious to me reading this. It’s practically staring me in the face.

    Consider that question rhetorical if you’d like. The question I’d really like to know is in light of what you wrote there, how would you define the “wrath” of God. In my formative years (before I modified my own views on these matters), the stuff about God pouring out His wrath was all about “commando Jesus hacking His enemies with sadistic pleasure.” Now, I’m looking for a better meaning. I’ve got a sort of working definition, but I’d like to hear yours.

    I hope you’re enjoying the vacation.

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

    And we must remember that Revelation sets the non-violent tone early in chapter 5, when in v. 5 one of the elders comforts John telling him that the Lion of Judah will be able to open the scroll (the Lion who willl presumably devour his enemies). But in v. 6 John looks and see the Lamb our had been slain.

    It is is the same with us, we may hear of the Lion, but when we see Jesus it must always be as the Lamb who was slain.

  • http://redmarkedward.com/ Mark Edward

    I don’t have time at the moment to write my own long response to Scot’s blog, so I’ll just cast a vote here that I completely agree with you. Revelation is vehemently anti-violence. John takes the messianic war apocalypticism of his era and redefines it through Jesus’ death as the means of achieving victory. Chapter 12 provides an excellent example of this.

  • danaames

    Indeed.

    (Nice to see what you look like after all these years, T!)

    Dana

  • http://pauldouglaswalker.blogspot.ca/ Paul Walker

    I have always marvelled at those who quote the ‘prize fighter’ Jesus as a justification for violence/ violent picture of God. It seems hermeneutically desperate to me. Yet, I find it increasingly hard to convince someone out of the ‘prize fighter’ view of Revelation. I usually end up saying something like this to the unconvinced:

    “If, hypothetically, Jesus come does come back with a literal sword (which I doubt); there is still no indication within the text that humanity will do any fighting. Nope. We will trust in Jesus as the deliverer. The question that should haunt us in the appeal to Revelation 19: Why should a veiled appeal to an eschatological event from apocalyptic literature get you out of following Jesus’ direct and plain teaching on enemy love right now?”

  • candeux

    I was thinking the same thing (although I failed to connect this with the Chan & Sprinkle book). You notice that Preston says that the sword is a “word of judgment” and a “death-dealing pronouncement”, but these interpretations are more violent and final than other sword=word images elsewhere (see my comment on Heb. 4:12 and Eph. 6:17 above).

  • Matt Edwards

    While I think that Revelation as a whole encourages nonviolent resistance, there is also an element in which those beheaded for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus cry out “how long before you judge and avenge our blood?” (6:10). This seems to be what is going on in chapter 19, when Babylon is thrown down “with violence” (18:21).

    I don’t know about Driscoll’s depiction, but there is no indication that the blood on Jesus’ robe in 19:13 is his own; more likely it is an allusion to Isa 63:3, especially since the winepress imagery is explicitly brought up in Rev 14:17–20. And regardless of what the sword is an image for, it is a sword. John could have chosen anything to represent the judgment coming from Jesus, but he chose a sword. And afterwards the birds devour the flesh of Jesus’ enemies, a common OT image for coming to a violent, shameful death.

    All that to say that while the message of Revelation is nonviolent resistance (faithfulness in the face of persecution, really), we can’t escape the fact that Jesus acts with violence at the end.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    I agree with brother Matt and echo his observations.

    Revelation can be a great encouragement for the non-relaliation of the faithful in the face of persecution. But I’ve always taken our position of no vengeance is based on the Lord’s appropriate vengeance at the end. Miroslav Volf hit it out of the park with this point in his final chapter of ‘Exclusion and Embrace’. Christ’s retribution in the future frees His followers from retribution here and now as they follow Him. Its Romans 12:19 acted out on a big stage. That’s Volf’s point as I read him. And just because the sword comes from his mouth doesn’t dodge this: ‘The violence of the divine word is no less lethal than the violence of the literal sword.’ (page 296)

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    Thanks, Dana. That’s a picture of my wife, Kim, and I on vacation this past year. I put that picture on my profile mainly to share a little more of myself with so many people I’ve gotten to know and appreciate here at JC. Hope you are having a great summer.

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    Jesus Creed – keeping the Driscoll-hatin’ runnin’ since…

  • KentonS

    Really???

    You’re characterizing that paragraph as “Driscoll-hatin’”???

    Is MD untouchable? Should that remark about Jesus “having a commitment to make someone bleed” go unchallenged? What about his “Some of you, God hates you” remark? Are we supposed to play nice in the name of unity? Where do we draw the line? Is Westboro Baptist off limits too?

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    Really.

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    Tiago, I didn’t read this as bashing Driscoll. Driscoll is quoted and an alternative presented. Unfortunately for Driscoll his quotes contain the most extreme language language in the post.

  • NathanMichael

    One of the better more accessible resources I’ve seen on Revelation is “Discipleship on the Edge” by Darrell W Johnson from Regent in Vancouver. He deals with this issue an the imagery quite well. Essentially, I agree that we see a non-violent response by believers who are rather called to self-sacrifice and patient endurance in the face of persecution.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Norman, you’re a smart guy, but you are espousing a view (preterist view of Revelation) which has basically ZERO backing by any nonfringe historians or biblical scholars, as the multitude of internal and external evidence points to a post 70 AD date for that work. None of the early Church fathers saw Revelation as having already occurred, or even claimed it was written earlier than the reign of Domitian circa 90 AD.
    Your view seems to arise from you wanting to allay the concerns that the NT brings forth when encompassing Apocalyptic literature, but they are there, and claiming they all already happened (which brings forth many more problems) won’t put them to rest.

  • KentonS

    “See, it’s the highest honor they can give you. It means you belong to a family and crew. It means that nobody can #&(< around with you. It also means you could #&(< around with anybody just as long as they aren't also a member. It's like a license to steal. It's a license to do anything."

    -Herny Hill (Ray Liotta) in "Goodfellas"

  • Norman

    Andrew,

    Sorry but your status quo is not what I’m interested in placating. My work revolves around what 2nd Temple Jews and the First Christians were looking for from a messianic understanding not what we moderns are comfortable with.;-)

    By the way you might want to research what N. T. Wright has said about Revelations Dating.

  • Tiago de Oliveira Cavaco

    Fellas, in brief:
    1. I am portuguese. I grew up in an evangelical home and stayed in church all my life. These days you could say I’m a GoCo type, Piper-Driscoll-Keller-Chandler-loving, and I pastor a Baptist Church in Lisbon.
    2. I studied Communication Sciences in the most secular and left-leaning University in Lisbon. Only after I went to the Seminary and I never concluded it. So the bulk of my academic preparation is pretty wordly. I generally say that my theological studies came from contemporary continental-european plilosophers.
    3. This is very a broad generalization but when it comes to language, America is getting more European. In part I think that’s fair. Maybe there was a kind of anglo-saxon epistemological self-assurance that needed to be challenged. And Nietzsche and his legacy did it. So, making another broad generalization, you’re getting European while I already am one.
    4. Lots of times my patience is small and I feel you’re not getting the whole picture because I feel you, as americans, don’t grasp totally where things come from. An example: you try to be fair and avoid cynicism. This is an american thing. But Europeans dwell in it. We can be very apparently philosophically humble about language because we’re cynics. It’s outrageous for us to think that we can discuss this things fairly because fairness is something that we dispute. Another example: Europe loves Obama but Europe tolerates Obama in every speech where he talks candidly about stuff he believes. Our thing is disbelief. Yours is belief.
    5. Why do I keep coming here if lots of times Scot gets on my nerves? Because lots of times Scot doesn’t get on my nerves. And because I believe that even when Scot is getting on my nerves is sincerely looking to be fair and christian. I’ve been learning lots of things with Scot, even when I disagree. He’s a good brother in Christ.
    6. Having said that, I reaaly believe that you don’t practice all of that you preach. When it comes to Driscoll (and I aknowledge my soft spot with him) why don’t you use any kind of contextualization or, at least, sense of humor? As an european I felt uncomfortable the first time I read something about Driscoll (because he seemed american in all kinds of the wrong ways) but it was easy to feel in that declarations you deplore that he was getting a point across. Maybe you’ll find this ridiculous but if you read Zizek thare’s a lot of provocation that I find very similar. It’s called pathos, my friends. And it’s no surprise for me that post-modern kids find Driscoll hot because they can empathize with him. Why are you so modern with the post-modern soundbites of Driscoll? (And linking Driscoll to Westboro is so unreasonable that I will not add anything.) When Driscoll is talking about blood and tattoos he’s talking about a lot more than blood and tattoos. For the same reason Tarantino is a god in Europe. It’s more than shooting brains exploding. There’s more than meets the eye.
    7. Keep up the good work here, Scot. And let’s try the same thing as we comment. Thanks for your comments. I hope that you can read this in a brotherly way (and forgive my poor english).
    Um abraço!

  • JoeyS

    I really like that book.

  • Michael Snow

    Re: Driscoll’s ‘ take’…Would that Calvinists were as careful with military metaphors as was Charles Spurgeon. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/spurgeon-christian-soldiers-war-peace-pacifist/


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