Improving Our Marks in the Apocalypse (1)

Richard E. Cornell

If I had to give the church a grade on its interpretation of the Revelation, I would give it a “D.” The reason for this grade is not just that the church has struggled to make sense of the book, but the grade fits the themes that Christians have made the focal points in the book. In my view, Christians often focus on 3 “D”s in the book – the Devil, Destruction, and Dates. I propose these three focal points misconstrue the meaning of the Bible’s final book and result in unfortunate, if not dangerous, readings.

The church can improve its grade by focusing on 3 “C”s – Christ, Conquering, and Confession. These three “C”s are paired with the three “D”s and are meant to replace them, as follows:

  • Focal Character: Devil → Christ
  • Focal Activity: Destruction → Conquering
  • Focal Response: Dates → Confession

In using the word “focal,” I mean several things: (1) a point of sustained attention, (2) a point given priority or emphasis, and (3) a point that brings into focus other points (i.e., a lens). These three meanings are interrelated. Sustained attention is often given to a point that is thought to be a priority, or, a point given sustained attention will often become a point of priority. When something is given sustained attention or becomes a point of emphasis, we begin to see other things through this point. My contention is that the church has made the 3 “D”s in the Revelation focal in these three ways.

In this first installment of three, I will consider the question of the focal character. In subsequent blogs I will take up the topics of focal activity and focal response. In each installment I will conclude with some suggestions for improving our marks in the reading and living out the Apocalypse.

Focal Character: Devil → Christ

It’s an open secret that evil is alluring, even to those who on principle reject it. A quick perusal of the TV listings for the week, upcoming movie trailers, or the latest bestseller should be enough to prove this point. Scholars of Milton’s Paradise Lost have long suggested that the devil is more inspiring and interesting than God.

I fear Christians feel the same way about the Revelation. Christians tend to fixate on the dark characters of the book. The book contains what some have called “The Unholy Trinity”: the Devil (the dragon), the First Beast (sometimes called the “Antichrist” though the term never appears in the book), and the Second Beast (the False Prophet). Throw in a drunken harlot as a bonus baddie and you’ve got a smorgasbord of evil characters. These characters are painted in vivid terms and have been the source of endless interpretation. The devil and his lot have been perpetually fascinating to Christian readers.

Here’s the problem: these characters have captured our imagination and interest. We’re drawn to them. They become the focal points of our reading. We spend a lot of time on them and thereby give them a kind of priority. Our reading of the Revelation often revolves around them.

This is problematic because the author intended something very different. The author’s purpose was to expose these characters for what they really are (the word “Apocalypse” means “a revealing,” a “pulling back of the curtains”). John shows them to be evil and vile, yet ultimately doomed. The reaction John seeks in his readers is both a sense of revulsion and also a realization that these dark characters will be (and in some sense already are) the losers of the cosmic battle for the world.

The Unholy Trinity seeks to put everyone under a spell, attempting to persuade all that they are powerful and worthy of worship. John wants to break the spell. In chap. 12, we encounter a great red dragon, later identified as the devil. He is described as an accuser and “the deceiver of the world” (12:9). In a ghastly scene, the dragon seeks to devour a child (that is, Christ) right out of his mother’s womb. Failing to kill the child he attempts to kill the mother by vomiting out a flood of water (12:15). Failing a second time to kill his intended victim, the Dragon seeks to kill the woman’s other offspring (12:17). The first beast is portrayed as a vile, blasphemous creature who makes war against God’s people and slays them (13:7-10). The second beast, the false prophet, is a charlatan, a dragon in lamb’s clothing (13:11). It forces all to bear the mark of the first beast and slays those who refuse to worship it. The harlot of chap. 17 is a garish figure, holding a cup that is a cesspool of abominations and sexual sins (17:4). Even worse, she is already drunk on the blood of the saints (17:6). It should go with saying that this deceptive, murderous lot does not inspire admiration!

If the devil’s coterie is vile, they are, thankfully, doomed. The dragon is bested by the archangel Michael and his angels and expelled from heaven (12:7). John shows his readers that the ferocity of the devil on earth is the ferocity of a defeated, mortally wounded foe, who has already been kicked out of heaven. John shines a spotlight on the self-destructive nature of evil in chap. 17 as the beast, who hates the prostitute despite being on her side, strips her naked before devouring her flesh and burning her with fire (17:16). The epic battle in 19:11-21, towards which the whole book builds, is over before it begins because it’s nothing like a fair fight. Before Christ on the white horse, the beast and false prophet have no chance. They are captured and cast into the lake of fire. In chap. 20, the devil is locked up 1000 years (subjugated by a single angel!). On his release, the deceiver attempts one more offensive against God only to be vanished so suddenly the reader almost misses it (20:9b-10). With the harlot devoured by her own allies and the Unholy Trinity cast into the lake of fire, the reader’s reaction is supposed to be “good riddance!”

To focus on the evil characters is to misread the Revelation. This is, after all, “the Revelation of the Christ” (1:1) not “the Antichrist.” In a book full of visions, the first vision of Christ (1:12-16) sets the tone for the book and is meant to be “focal” in the three ways mentioned above. John sees Christ in his stunning glory, painted in fantastic hues culled from the OT. Adorned in regal attire, eyes flaming, voice roaring, and face shining like the sun, the vision of Christ overwhelms John who falls at his feet in worship and awe. The reader should react this way, too, and carry this vision in their memory through the rest of the book.

John’s visions of the divine continue in the throne rooms scenes in heaven found in chaps. 4 and 5. These chapters, the real heart of the book, have been called the “centering” vision. The description is apt. God is in the center of all creation. In this heavenly vision, John sees God the Father in his glory in a scene that is truly worthy of the word awesome. All of creation, symbolized by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, are arrayed around their creator and God. This is the world as it was meant to be, as it is in heaven right now, and as it will one day be on earth. God is the object of unending worship.

In chap. 5, the attention shifts to Christ. In vv. 5-6, we find the center of the center, the most important revelation of the book – the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is shown to be the Lamb who was slain. His dying was no failure. Rather it was a “conquest” by which he ransomed people for God, making them a kingdom of priests to God. It is this conquest by death that makes him the only one worthy to open the scroll in God’s hand. At his taking of the scroll, the heavenly host again erupts in worship, singing praises to the Lion who is the Lamb, the one worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing!

The throne scenes of chaps. 4-5 foreshadow the final scenes in the Revelation, scenes of the new heaven and new earth (chaps. 21-22). These final scenes show life lived in God’s very presence. Evil has been completely and utterly eradicated. Every tear is wiped away. Death itself has died. The New Jerusalem is described in stunning detail meant to take one’s breath away. The inhabitants are bathed in the light of God’s glory (21:23) and see the face of the One who is their creator, sustainer, and redeemer. In an allusion to Eden, the “river of the water of life” flows through the city and the “tree of life” produces fruit and its leaves are agents of healing. As in the heavenly vision of Rev 4-5, God’s people worship God and Lamb on the throne (22:3). In fact, the unifying theme of all three visions is worship in the awesome presence of God.

These three visions of Christ and the Father frame the book and bracket evil. These are the visions that should capture and refine our imaginations. These visions are meant to inspire awe, adoration, and worship. These are the visions that John means to be focal – given primary attention, given privileged status, and serving as the lens through which we read the rest of the book. Seen through the lens of these three visions and the splendor, glory, and power of the Holy Trinity, the Unholy Trinity is exposed as the fraudulent, disgusting, and pathetic thing that it is.

So my suggestion for improving our grade in the Revelation is this: the church needs to focus more time and attention on chaps. 1, 4-5, and 21-22, and less on chaps. 12-13, and 17. Better still, the church needs to read the latter through the lens of the former. We need to find a way to help people see and feel what John felt in Revelation 1, 4-5, and 21-22.

Historically speaking, art and music have been used to help convey the majesty of the Holy Trinity and the horror of the Unholy Trinity. We can reclaim these powerful tools by using images, artwork, and music (classic or contemporary) to bring alive these focal chapters. In cases where the OT imagery in the visions is lost on many Christians (such as the description of Christ in chap. 1 and the description of the temple in chap. 21), we need to engage in imaginative preaching and teaching that creatively updates the language for a modern audience. However, we do this, we must do it. It would be a cruel irony indeed if in a book designed to teach us to bow the knee to the Christ (1:17) we spend too much time at the altar of the enemy.

Next time we’ll consider the second focal point, the focal activity. In that installment I’ll suggest that the church shift its attention from destruction (the primary activity of the Devil) to conquering (the primary activity of Lamb and those who follow in his steps).

[See part two.]

[See part three.]

Posted Mar 21, 2016

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