Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation

In case you missed it, Mark Driscoll caused quite a stir yesterday with his comments on Jesus, God, and pacifism.  I’ve already offered my general thoughts on why Driscoll is wrong about Jesus (Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal) as have others (three particularly thoughtful responses can be found herehere, and here).  But, I still think there is more to say.

You see, I understand why people struggle to understand God as consistently nonviolent.

Let’s be honest.  There is a lot of violence directly attributed to God in both the Old and New Testaments.

If you take away Driscoll’s flare for controversial rhetoric, I’ve found that his view represents that of a large amount of Jesus-centered, Kingdom-focused Christians.  They understand Jesus’ ethical priorities in the Gospels and don’t want to dismiss or compromise them, but they have no idea how they could possibly interpret Revelation (and other parts of the Bible) without doing so.  I think it is important to not simply dismiss these concerns, but to instead offer alternative readings of these problematic passages.

How could one possibly read the violent imagery found in Revelation 14:14-20 (cited by Driscoll) without concluding that Jesus will one day shed the blood of his enemies?

I think Michael Gorman, in his excellent book Reading Revelation Responsibly, provides a possible way forward.  He suggests that we take another look at the proper (and intended) function of the violent symbolism in Revelation:

“The language and images of death and destruction (in Revelation) symbolize – in comprehensible, if disturbing, idiom – the universality and finality of God’s ultimate eradication of evil rather than the means by which God brings about that eradication.  As the omnipotent One who spoke creation into existence, God hardly needs to resort to literal violence to effect the cessation of evil… Instead, Revelation should be understood as portraying symbolically what God does actually with a divine performative utterance, an effective word not unlike the word that spoke creation into existence.” (p. 152)

There is an abundance of symbolism in the second “harvest scene” of Revelation 14.  Is anyone really willing to interpret this apocalyptic passage “literally”?  Will there really be a giant angel with a cosmic sickle harvesting grapes and putting them in a divinely-wrathful winepress that produces blood when trodden outside the city?  Is the blood going to literally flow as high as 184 miles?  Will the Guinness Book of World Records be there to measure it?  If not, why must we read the “blood” as real blood being poured out of deceased human bodies that have been ripped apart by Jesus?

What if the symbolism and imagery isn’t mean to communicate the means of judgement but the effect of judgement?  This isn’t just special pleading by the “pansies.”  After all, there are plenty of nonviolent themes in the book of Revelation.  Jesus is declared worthy to rule because of (not in spite of) his nonviolence.  The church is commanded to follow Christ’s example and conquer by their blood (not that of their enemies).

And why do we have to assume that God can’t effectively eradicate evil nonviolently? Gorman points out that Revelation itself provides clues that this might be the case.  For instance, the sword that strikes down Jesus’ enemies comes from his mouth in Revelation 19:11-16, 21.  As Gorman says, “This signifies the effective word of God’s judgement – the wrath of God and the Lamb – that needs no literal sword, and which a literal sword could never accomplish.” (pg. 153)  Likewise, Gorman notes that there is no fighting recorded during the five great “battle scenes” of Revelation.  No blood, no guts, no bombs, no swords, no violence.  When I teach through the book of Revelation, this is always a striking feature of the book to high schoolers – it is anti-climatic.  Revelation never follows through on the expectation it builds in the Western reader for a classic Armageddon battle. Why?  Gorman answers, “Because the images of battle are supposed to suggest to us the promise and reality of God’s defeat of evil, but they are not the means of that defeat… Christ’s only weapon is the ‘sword’ of his word.” (pg. 155)  I think Gorman’s suggestion, that God might eradicate creatures in a way similar to how he created and sustains them, is worth serious consideration.

So then, what is the message of Revelation 14? That God will, because of his desire for a peaceful new creation, fully and finally judge all that is evil.  It is not clear to me that this passage is meant to do anything more or anything less than this.  In particular, I find it hard to accept that it should cause me to radically reinterpret the picture of God we have received in Jesus.

While I don’t imagine this reading will convince everyone (anyone?), it should at least make it obvious that pacifists aren’t ignoring these “violent” texts.  There are real, viable ways to read Revelation that don’t make God into a monster.  Maybe we should try them out.

Do you agree?

9 thoughts on “Interpreting the Violent Imagery in Revelation

  1. Gorman’s book is fantastic, and I wish more folks interested in (or especially teaching) Revelation would engage with it. Additionally, Nelson Kraybill, Loren Johns, and Ted Grimsrud have all done helpful work on Revelation and responsibly interpreting violence in the text.

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  2. their is a good case to be made that Revelation describes evil destroying its self, which is the nature of evil (for an example see what great friends Stalin and Hitler were). I do think that is what was intended at the climatic conclusion, the battle of Megiddo, a conflict between Rome and Persia where both sides would lose (interestingly, such a war paved the way for Islam). Still I can’t help but think that God is working the plagues that afflict the world, but it could be the case that this is just what happens when you set the demons free. I’ll have to check back on the book by farmer to see how he explains all the violence in revelation.

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  3. Recently someone told me a different take on the imagery:

    The Lamb who was slain comes down, stands before all the powers and principalities of the world, and just speaks Words of Truth which melt away all those powers and principalities as if they never were. Truth defeats them, not swords and thermonukes.

    But this still duels in my psyche with the Plain Scriptural(TM) Truths of Hal Lindsay et al.

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