The fate of “those who destroy the Earth”: Revelation 11:18

The fate of “those who destroy the Earth”: Revelation 11:18 May 26, 2013

While I’m down here in the Dominican Republic, I’ve been reading some theology books in Spanish to improve my fluency. One of them is called La Palabra No Está Encadenada (“The word is not enchained”) by Xavier Alegre. He has a chapter on the book of Revelation that interprets it as “Christian resistance and prophetic hope.” Revelation is usually the anti-environmentalist prooftext par excellence. If God’s going to destroy the world anyway, why should we care about driving SUV’s (as Mark Driscoll jokingly tweeted)? But what the twenty four elders around the throne say to God in Revelation 11:18 ought to give the Al Gore-haters and climate change-deniers some pause:

The nations raged,
But your wrath has come,
And the time for judging the dead,
For rewarding your servants, the prophets,
and the saints and all who fear your name,
Both small and great;
And for destroying those who destroy the Earth.

That is how John, the writer of Revelation, casts the two sides of humanity. Prophets and saints on one side and those who destroy the Earth on the other. He doesn’t use kosmos, the word for world in a social/spiritual sense, but ges, the word for the physicality of the planet we live on. In John’s pre-industrial context, those who destroy the Earth wouldn’t be polluting factories so much as ravaging armies that burned crops and razed cities to the ground. Presumably he’s talking about the Roman army in particular since most scholars date the book to just after the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion in 70 AD and decimated the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding landscape.

It is true that the ancient Israelites lacked the Greek duality between the physical and spiritual. So for them, all sin cursed the land in a very concrete physical sense. For example, we read in Numbers 35:33: “You shall not pollute the land where you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land in which blood is shed except the blood of the person who shed it.” So for an ancient Israelite, it’s far to say that bloodshed destroys the Earth just as much as salting your neighbor’s field.

I would say in an even broader sense that we are destroyers of the Earth whenever we participate in what Spanish theologian Jon Sobrino calls the “culture of death.”The most common way that people die unjustly in our world does not involve a clearly culpable murderer, because it’s through hidden complex economic forces that increase the likelihood of disease, malnutrition, or workplace injuries and fatalities. The land is polluted by the bloodshed of our economic order even if no single person has a clear and obvious trace of blood on their hands. Even though everyone in the economic chain feels like they have their hands tied from the consumer who needs to save money by buying sweatshop products to the corporate executive who’s under pressure to yield a certain profit margin for the investors who are anxious themselves (rightly or wrongly) about their retirement, the people at the bottom of the food chain die sooner than they ought to after living a dismal life that is less than the joyful worship God created us for, and thus the Earth is polluted by their blood.

In any case, even if we expand the meaning of “destroying the Earth” to include more than the literal physical destruction of the planet, the literal meaning of course still applies. It’s quite remarkable that “destroyers of the Earth” is how John has defined the enemies of God. One of the curses of the modern theology of sin post-Anselm is that we have defined sin abstractly as offenses against God’s honor rather than defining sin in terms of the harm that it causes. The result of this is that we only recognize sins spelled out explicitly in the Bible, rather than understanding sin to be any willful act of selfishness that harms the ecosystem, other people, or ourselves. Just because the Bible doesn’t say not to throw plastic bottles in the ocean doesn’t make it not sinful for us to do so even if we’re in a country where there’s no law against it.

Irregardless of the details in how we interpret what it means to “destroy the Earth,” we can conclude from Revelation 11:18 that God cares about His creation. It is yet another Biblical witness (I’ve found many) that God’s wrath expresses His loving solidarity with His beautiful creation that has been harmed rather than His effrontery at the abstract violation of His honor. God does not see creation as something that can be casually flushed down the toilet and rebooted. All of the plagues in Revelation, however we interpret their symbolism, represent God purging the Earth of the human cancer that destroys it.

There’s an image from God’s whirlwind speech in the book of Job that provides a good one-verse summary of what is happening in Revelation. God says to Job, “Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth and shake the wicked from it?” (Job 38:12-13). God doesn’t want to destroy the Earth; He wants to shake the wicked out of it so that His creation can enjoy His perfect shalom. We live in a time of darkness when self-professing Christians who have contempt for their fellow human beings and the Earth in which they live feel justified in a theology of otherworldliness. But the light of the coming dawn will reveal all truth and the wicked who hide behind Jesus masks will be shaken from the Earth along with the rest of those who destroy what God loves.

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