Diana Butler Bass says it better than I could, so I’ll just let her lead off.
I’m one of those who grew up under exactly what you just read. So, when President Trump announced the new policy of the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, I knew exactly the work and the players moving behind the scenes.
(By the way, before we go any further, I’m under no illusion that President Two Corinthians Trump has any knowledge or passion for Jerusalem, let alone the nuances in the book of Revelation that we’ll be addressing today. However, what he is acutely aware of is that he is slowly losing support of the white evangelical voting base that single-handedly got him into office and got me started on this blog series.)
From a distance, this discussion to many nonreligious people seems trivial at best, and really kind of odd. But, as Bass correctly asserted, President Trump’s decision is the sad result of assenting to a very small evangelical Christian community who are absolutely terrible at reading the book of Revelation. I say that, and will not apologize for it. They are terrible.
And that’s tragic. This is a more obvious example of something that happens more often than religious and nonreligious people are usually aware: bad theology puts lives in the balance. In fact, most of the problems in our world really do start with, or at least continue because of, the terrible ideas of southern evangelical Christians.
Which is why I tell nonreligious people all the time that the real battle to make our world less violent, make our societies more just, afford opportunity to all, and protect our environment is not on the streets or in political parties but in churches. The rich and the powerful have found great use in churches, and the progressive, forward thinking, and truly compassionate have wondered why their efforts elsewhere have been so fruitless. When nonreligious people advocate for the poor, protest war, and organize for community justice, we evangelicals call their work “worldly”. On the other hand, when religious people vote and act to all but ensure that the most vulnerable among us remain so, but nevertheless get someone baptized, theirs is “kingdom” work.
(I’m angry as I write this.)
So, lets go to Revelation.
First of all, we would be better off if preachers were required to obtain a special license before they could preach from that book. In the hands of people who still operate under a simplistic and flat reading of the Bible, it is truly a dangerous book. And that is a major shame.
Revelation is a triumph of literature. Of ingenuity. Of courage.
And 21st century American Christians are apt to claim that it is the most relevant book in our time. But, the fact that I agree with them is rich in irony.
Revelation is a political book.
Yes, that’s right.
Eugene Peterson, in speaking about Revelation, says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Revelation is almost always used to talk about the afterlife and where your soul will go for eternity. But Revelation has virtually nothing to do with the afterlife and everything to do with the inevitable destruction that comes to nations that understand greatness to mean military superiority.
Know any nations like that?
I know of one.
The images you see in Revelation are not images of what Heaven looks like. In Part 6 of the Bible that Borrows, I wrote extensively on how the author of Revelation brilliantly borrowed specific and identifiable military and cultic propaganda devices from the Roman Empire. His purpose? Not to describe what Heaven looks like, but to shame them. If you never read that post, I highly recommend doing so. It’s long, but I’ve probably received more positive feedback from that post than any other.
Almost everything you read about in Revelation is either (1) a propaganda device from the Roman empire, which the author uses to mock the Roman empire, or (2) one of the wild images from the Old Testament book of Daniel that its author used to denounce the beastly, exploitative empires of his day.
If I had to summarize the book of Revelation, it is the story of the world ruled by and in the image of the Beasts (the Caesars and their military, exploitative might), but is coming to be made more in the image of the vulnerable slaughtered lamb (Jesus). John uses a lot of wild imagery to tell that story, but that’s basically the story. At the end of the persecution from the mighty, scary monsters of the Empire, the followers of the Lamb win. Not by warring back, but by following the moral arc of the universe that is being made in the image of Jesus.
There’s one word in Revelation that you need to not miss: down.
At the end of the battle, a city—the New Jerusalem—comes DOWN to earth. This is because this is the big story of the Bible. Not going up to Heaven when we die, but Heaven coming down to Earth while we live. This is the New Jerusalem, where all are invited to come, even those outside in the lake of fire—those who cling to the ways of Caesar. We see lots of people in the gospels and in Acts who left allegiance to Caesar and formed their allegiance to Jesus Christ. This is what you are reading in Acts 10.
After all, we are told, the gates to the city are never shut.
The differences in these modern readings of this ancient book from Patmos are not small. They are the difference in whether you think investing in the well-being of this world is important. Whether the “new Earth” is actually a place in the clouds or the renewing of this Earth. Whether you believe this earth is being renewed—as Paul once said, that God would “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”—or whether everything on earth is simply going to be destroyed one day and who cares what happens here.
What I’m saying is that the way you read Revelation is more or less the difference in whether you are the type of Christian who makes the world better or the type of Christian who doesn’t give a literal damn about the world.
Few passages of the book of Revelation get so toxically abused and yet advance the point I’m trying to make than an obscure passage in chapter 16 about Armageddon. If you’ve spent much time at all in conservative Christian circles, you’ve probably been taught that before the end of time, there will first be a massive war at some place called Armageddon and all evil will be destroyed. In fact, as I was taught, Jesus cannot come until a series of global cataclysms make way for a final megawar.
“And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.”
Then comes the “fury of God’s wrath”, which sounds pretty scary. In fact, it has provided the substance of untold numbers of bad fiction books. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was the best-selling novel of the 1970s, and by a wide margin.
But what’s actually happening here?
Does Jesus renounce the Sermon on the Mount and go on to kill billions of people in the Middle East?
It turns out that Armageddon, like the lake of fire, is another potent image that the author uses to describe the fate of empire that I’ve been talking about in all of AD 2017. “Armageddon” is a Hebrew word that literally means “valley of Megiddo.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is located in northern Israel and today is called Tel Megiddo (a “tell” is an archeological mound).
Okay, so why is that important and why is this location an archeological mound?
Because the city has been destroyed and rebuilt twenty-six times.
You read that correctly.
Now do you see why the anti-empire book, Revelation, in the anti-empire collection of books, the Bible, might have found poor Megiddo as the perfect illustration of what comes when we worship the Beast?
Megiddo’s location in the land bridge between the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires to the north and the Egyptian Empire to the south made it all but inevitable that it would suffer the worst at the hands of the world’s most powerful and ambitious. It’s important that you not let your mind simply make in this number, twenty-six, just some new historical trivia to recite.
This is about people.
This is about communities.
Twenty-six communities of real people who lost everything they had because of empire and military conquest. Because of what Revelation calls the Beast. Megiddo is a brilliant and heartbreaking symbol for what the author of Revelation is trying to convey. God cares about people and the work that people put into the bonds of their communities. He cares about how we work and live and struggle and solve problems together for the common good. And yet, the ambition of the Beast always leaves the most vulnerable and hard-working communities to suffer the fate of Megiddo.
That brings us to today.
You won’t hear any of this in your typical church service. What we’re about is positioning ourselves to leave this world—to belittle and snicker at those who have “too much” concern with rebuilding the Megiddos as just “obsessed with worldly concerns”. When the author of Revelation wrote that the rulers and their armies would meet in a place called Armageddon, of course what he had in mind was the fate of Rome. But don’t assume that prophetic message from exile in Patmos doesn’t apply today. Don’t assume that our United States of America turns out to be the New Jerusalem in the end.
We might instead be aligned with the Beast in the story. And our fate might be with those on the outside, thirsty from their proximity to the lake of fire. Fortunately, we hear those on the inside who have aligned themselves with the Gospel of Peace calling out to us:
Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.