Last week we started looking at the “real” meaning of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. Frankly, we’re bombarded with so much information it’s hard to tell what to believe any more. So it is even more important that we spend time checking things out for our self – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
One way to do your own research is to actually read what the Bible and other supposed “evidence” says. As we do our own discernment, we find ourselves embracing a spiritual journey that includes a deepening reflective nature. We discover new insights and we find ourselves challenged to bring even more awareness and depth to our relationship with the Divine.
Each of the world’s great wisdom traditions suggest truths about the qualities of God/Goddess. For those of us who follow the lineage of Jesus Christ, we do not discover a murderous warrior, but a God of mercy and grace immersed in a mystery we cannot fully comprehend.
We do not find a get out of jail free card that allows us to escape the pain of this life while others stay and suffer. Instead we are given the promise of hope and healing for all of God’s creation. We do not watch on as others cry out in anguish. Instead we know the reality of Christ joining us in the midst of our suffering. We do not walk away from the uneasy questions of this life with a pat set of easy black and white answers. Instead we find ourselves awed by mystery and motivated by love to engage in the struggle for God’s new world of salvation with justice.
In researching the rapture, I came upon a 2001 news item. According to press reports in Arkansas City, Georgann Williams was killed after leaping through her moving car’s sunroof during an incident best described as a “mistaken rapture.” Apparently Mrs. Williams was convinced that the rapture was occurring when she saw twelve people floating up into the air as she passed a man on the side of the road who looked like Jesus. Her husband said, “She started screaming, ‘He’s back! He’s back!’ and climbed right out of the sunroof and jumped off the back of the car.” He said, “She was convinced Jesus was gonna lift her up into the sky.”
It seems Ernie Jenkins was on his way to a toga party dressed up like Jesus, when the tarp covering the bed of his pickup truck came loose and released twelve blowup sex dolls filled with helium. He pulled over to the side of the road and lifted his arms in the air in frustration shouting, “Come back here!” just as Mr. and Mrs. Williams drove by. Mrs. Williams was sure it was Jesus lifting people up into the sky. When asked for comment, truck driver Ernie Jenkins replied, “This is just too weird for me. I never expected anything like this!”
Well, you can’t believe everything you hear – even if it comes to you over the Almighty Internet – and neither the story nor the Rapture are true. Amusing perhaps, entertaining, but entirely fabricated.
So if the book of Revelation is used to support the idea of the Rapture and if there is no Rapture to be found there – then just what is the book of Revelation all about? In a nutshell, the message of Revelation is something like this: Things are bad. Things are going to get worse. But in the end everything will be okay.
The Book of Revelation is what we call “Apocalyptic” literature. Apocalyptic literature arises out of the tiniest bit of hope that remains at the point of despair. Despair is certainly not a new development in this world. People of all generations have always wondered whether they were living in the end times. An Assyrian inscription carved in stone in about 1500 BC reads: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book; indeed, the end of the world is approaching.”
Faced with times of despair, the prophets call for reform and write about looking forward to God balancing the scales of justice within history. But apocalyptic writers have given up on history. Things are so bad that they can only be made right by God bringing a radical end to history itself, destroying all evil and beginning again with a whole new world. What we need now, they say, is a great big super-size God who will break in and shake things up so that they’ll never be the same again.
The Book of Revelation was probably written around the year 90 AD, the same time period as the Gospel of Matthew, when the Christian churches in Asia (now the western part of modern day Turkey) were experiencing severe oppression. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Jesus had not returned. His followers continued to be martyred. The Roman Empire had such vast political and economic power that it was now contending with God in trying to secure the allegiance of its people. Against such a backdrop, John uses this cryptic form of writing – complete with bizarre visions, weird dreams and mysterious symbols – to tell his readers to hold on and to stand firm in their faith.
Resistance While Staying Alive
You might notice that John never speaks of Rome directly. There’s an obvious reason for this. If you’re going to criticize your own government, it just might be safer to talk about an earlier time so that the politicians who aren’t so smart anyway won’t know that you’re really talking about them. John can easily recall the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem some 600 years before – so in Revelation Rome is referred to as Babylon. Think of the movie M*a*s*h. The film was about the Korean War – but it was written during the Vietnam War which allowed it to make some pretty pointed remarks that really hit home in the time it was written.
Revelation was written for 1st Century Christians. Its symbols and the assumptions behind them were not taken from the 21st century to be interpreted 2000 years later. Instead they were drawn from the language, experience and culture of the time – written to a particular set of people in a particular set of circumstances. So just what are we who are living in this time and place to make of this book?
The answer varies. For those who continue to live in a state of severe oppression and persecution the book continues to offer the same encouragement to endure in the faith in the certain hope that God will prevail.
But I think it’s a difficult stretch for us who live in the United States today, who worship in any way we choose, who consume far more than our share of this earth’s resources, to make a hard case for persecution. And I say that in spite of all of the emails I receive every year from people who are mightily oppressed because their sales clerk said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” to them while they were at the check out counter engaging in rampant consumerism.
The New Roman Empire
In fact, I think a much more cogent case can be made that as a nation we are not the oppressed at all, but have instead become the new Rome, the embodiment of a new global empire. We are not only the most powerful nation in the world; we are also the most formidable military power that has EVER existed. There are 800 US military bases that span around the globe and that reach from the depths of the ocean to the vastness of space.
On the basis of our own military strength we grant ourselves permission to launch wars, torture enemies, gain control over resources like oil, and produce nuclear weapons that can literally destroy the world. Meanwhile our economic ideology has led to widening economic and social disparities both here at home and abroad. In fact, our own survival at this point seems to be dependent upon the war machine and the industrial military complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about as he left office in 1961.
If Revelation is only supposed to address the persecuted, we might be hard pressed to find a reason to resonate with the book at all. But what if the author had more than that in mind? What if he also wanted to reveal an alternative to living in empire? What if he wanted us to think beyond our cultural conditioning and embrace a way of life consistent with a God of peace and justice?
If we read it from this direction then we find a vision that exposes the empire for what it is in such a way that we have no choice but to oppose the way things are, even as we know we will suffer persecution as a result. In discovering a God of healing and wholeness, the fractured sickness of Rome – the violence, the corruption, the ecological destruction – becomes apparent. As we are swept up in the drama, two contrasting images become clear before our eyes and we decide we must embrace a new vision and withdraw our allegiance to the status quo.
Today and through time the Book of Revelation presents a cosmic drama of conflict between God and the Empire. It is a struggle against domination, economic exploitation and political idolatry. It is a call to political protest and to resolute resistance in the face of injustice. And John, two steps ahead of us, already knows and tells us, too, that this will get us into a lot of trouble.
According to New Testament Professor David Rhoads, apocalyptic literature challenges readers to question the core values that make the society work and dares its readers to imagine a different world. The Roman Empire with its wealth, power, and glory certainly looked as if it were blessed by God. But John urges his readers to see it as an idolatrous, oppressive and destructive empire. John gives his readers the hope to struggle, the courage to resist, and the faith to endure.
So why has such a large segment of the US population come to view this book as a wrathful testament of God’s punishment of unbelievers? How could Christians in this country have come to believe that they are the victims that will at last be saved from the evil forces around them? How can we as a culture read this book today and fail to notice any resemblance to the old Roman Empire?
More next week…