Not Your Everyday Apocalypse?

Not Your Everyday Apocalypse? September 27, 2018

In a recent post, Vance Morgan shared his experience of growing up steeped in the end times speculations of Hal Lindsey and the Evangelical culture that fed into and was fostered by his work. He writes:

Revelation has been called the most controversial book in the Bible, for good reason. The author’s nightmarish prophecies and visions of natural disasters, violence, bloodshed, revenge, and retribution have spawned countless movements, predictions, and crackpots—many of them violent and dangerous in their own right. But what particularly struck me this time around is that the author’s world view is remarkably familiar and contemporary.

The author, for instance, is highly paranoid. He assumes that those who believe as he does are under constant threat and are subject to persecution at any time—even when they aren’t being persecuted. The rhetoric of Revelation is no less compelling to those who imagine themselves to be persecuted than it is to those who actually are persecuted. The author of Revelation is a relentless hater who embraces the simple principle that anyone who is not with him is against him…

More than any analysis or punditry over the past two or three years, returning to Revelation has helped me understand why evangelical Christians voted in mass numbers for Donald Trump in November 2016 and continue to support him in droves. Trump’s rhetoric exhibits many of the apocalyptic features that evangelical Christians are obsessed with in the Book of Revelation—winners vs. losers, aggression turned against those with whom one does not agree, a self-righteous but unearned confidence in one’s beliefs, paranoia laced with suspicion, and metaphors filled with violence and hatred. A certain brand of Christianity not only is comfortable with this rhetoric, but also defines itself in precisely the same terms while adding God into the mix. Revelation provides potent rhetorical weaponry in the types of culture wars that have swept over our country in the past few decades, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith.

As apocalyptic energies infect our political and religious discourse, we would do well to remember that the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one’s enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. Persons of Christian faith have many resources to push back against this moral calculus, but we need to remember that these resources are to be found in the first few books of the New Testament—not in the last one.

This last claim (and really the overall tenor of the entire post) connected directly with something that came up in my Sunday school class the weekend before reading Vance’s post. To what extent does the Book of Revelation use typical apocalyptic and warfare imagery in a subversive manner? The lion of Judah appears – as a lamb that had been slain. The followers of Jesus are victorious – by being faithful unto death. Jesus fights with a sword that comes out of his mouth that represents the word of God, bringing the penultimate battle between good and evil by Megiddo (Armageddon) to a swift end. Should any of that be understood to involve conquest by Jesus and or Christians in a military sense? At the heart of this is a question that relates to the whole of Jesus’ ethical teaching and Christian views of the future (including but not limited to afterlife): Do the teachings of Jesus about humility and love for enemies merely represent something Christians have to do in order to see their enemies get what’s coming to them, or are they an end in themselves? Is Jesus to be thought of as getting to the status of military conqueror by means of humility, suffering, and death, or is his kingship to be thought of as inherently and thoroughly different from start to finish?

Even if one adopts the former view as a better fit to what one finds in the New Testament, I still think that Vance’s view requires qualification. I’ve blogged before about what is different between reading the Book of Revelation from a position of privilege vs. one of genuine persecution. I’m not sure that Vance adequately imagines himself out of the situation from which he grew up reading the book, and into that of likely first century readers. Even if one views the text as genuinely hoping for the destruction of enemies in a manner that Christians may and should balk at, the power or lack thereof of the author and readers does not cease to be relevant. The desire for one’s persecutors to get what is coming from them is, to my thinking, simply not the same as a desire for one’s victims to suffer.

And of course, it may be that the Book of Revelation embeds both views and leaves them in tension, perhaps because it started out as a more typical apocalypse, and was subsequently redacted.

Of related interest on other blogs, see Ian Paul’s post about where the cross is to be found in the Book of Revelation, and Bart Ehrman’s overview of the Book of Revelation.

You’ll also want to listen to the future episode of the ReligionProf Podcast featuring Eric Cline, in which we talk about his work excavating Megiddo (from which Armageddon gets its name) as well as apocalyptic imagery more generally.

See also some of my other previous posts about the Book of Revelation.

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  • Morgan says “but we need to remember that these resources are to be found in the first few books of the New Testament—not in the last one.”

    He seems to have overlooked the apocalypses found in the synoptic gospels, most notable in Mark 14, Matthew 24, and Luke 21.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Thanks for those thoughts, James. My initial reaction was that Vance’s reading of Revelation was a little zealous in its hostility, but it’s certainly a reading I’ve heard other people espouse and certainly enough ingredients are there to justify it.

    But I agree with you that the subversive imagery as something to say here, too. While the author portrays the fall of pagan Rome in very graphic terms, again, this is an allegory. When we look at OT prophetic imagery for the fall of nations, much of that language is riotously overblown as well, but that’s the point – apocalyptic imagery not meant to specify what is literally going to happen to them, but to portray the great impact of events.

    Historically speaking, pagan Rome does fall in favor of a Rome that at least institutionally professes Jesus as Lord – however consistent or not everyone might have been with that. And when we read Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, it’s hard not to come away with the idea that Eusebius found in Constantine a fulfillment of some of those apocalyptic expectations. Whether he was right to do so or not is another story, of course, but it at least bears testimony to a reading that the oppressed Christians would overcome the evil empire at least initially through conversion. Although there was certainly an amount of sword stuff there, too.

  • John MacDonald

    I bought (on Kindle) Elaine Pagel’s book on “Revelations” a number of years ago, although I never got around to finishing it. One interesting point she makes is that she thinks the historical Jesus did predict the destruction of the Temple – which I guess would make sense (him being an apocalyptic prophet and all).

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Just speaking for myself, I think this sort of concrete historical outcome better represents the kind of thing envisioned by NT apocalypse than a fiery end of the world. That would make it commensurate with OT apocalypse.