Thursday, November 11, 2010


In “Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation,” Reverend Paul Nuechterlein surveys a nonviolent interpretation of Revelation that he poses as an alternative to dispensationalist formulations currently popular in evangelical traditions. Nuechterlein’s argument is, by intention, not exhaustive. He has provided an annotated bibliography for piqued reader; but for the purposes of this assignment I will respond only to the interpretation he introduces, paying particular attention to (1) the source of violence on earth, (2) the nature of the heavenly response to that violence, and (3) the desired response imagined by the saints and other forces aligned with heaven. Italicized portions are direct quotes from “Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation.”


According to this interpretation, the violence in Revelation is not attributed to God, but to Satan and the empires under his sway. Nuechterlein suggests that the divine vengeance in Revelation is subverted by the image of the slain lamb who answers violence with unconditional love and forgiveness. Human desires for divine vengeance on those who have wronged them is also subverted by the image of the lamb.

The point of Revelation … is that the terrifying violence that we so often face in this world is decidedly not God’s violence but the violence of empires under the deception of Satan, the dragon.

Nuechterlein’s suggestion that worldly violence emerges from empires under Satan’s influence does not account for all the violence portrayed in Revelation.

In Rev 5, John sees a book in the throne room. He cries because no one is able to open the book, until then the lamb arrives. As the lamb breaks the seals in Rev 6, four horsemen are one by one released to cause havoc on earth. The ‘he’ in the following passage is the lamb: “And when he broke the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another … And when he had opened the fourth seal, … I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” (Rev 6.3-4, 7-8). Here, an action by the lamb not only strips peace from the earth, but also causes starvation, death, and even animal attacks.

The seventh seal the lamb breaks open triggers a series of seven angels who one by one blow horns causing various horrors. The fifth angelic trumpter causes a star to fall from heaven to earth, which “is given the key of the bottomless pit” (Rev 9.1) and goes on to unleash a plague of locusts. Some commenters identify this star with Satan; following that interpretation, not only is the lamb the cause of violence in the world but he is the cause of Satan’s violence.

God’s defeat of [Satan’s] violence is not one of superior firepower, of simply having more of the same kind of violence … The lamb is never portrayed as someday coming back like a lion.

In Revelation, violence on earth that can be attributed to Satan or forces of evil are: the locust swarm that tortures humans but does not allow them death (Rev 9.2-11); the killing of the two witnesses in sackcloth (Rev. 11.6-11); the sea beast which wars with and overcomes the saints (Rev 13.1-8); the earth beast that compels humans to worship idols or die (Rev 13.11-16); and the martyred saints who stand in the backdrop like hero ghosts throughout the book. Every other violent image in Revelation, including the blood at high as a horse’s bridle, comes at the hands of the heavenly angels.

For instance, while the earth beast “had the power to give life unto the image of the beast … and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed” (Rev 14.15), a godly angel flying in heaven proclaims in response that “if any man worship the beast and his image … the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God … and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb” (Rev 14.9-10). According to my reading, this is a tit-for-tat exchange which heaven wins by means of literally superior firepower.

In the denouement which confines Satan to prison for a thousand years, a rider called King of Kings and Lord of Lords smites nations with a sword coming from his mouth. He embodies the “fierceness and wrath of almighty God” and rules nations “with a rod of iron.” He comes “to judge and make war.” Before the battle to come, an angel in his entourage encourages carrion to gather “that ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses and all them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great” (Rev 19.11-19).

It is possible to interpret this passage metaphorically, but the language is so precise in it’s intimation of violence that I do not believe that such a reading would match the tone of John’s rhetoric. I contend that the rider is a cohort of the lamb if not the embodiment of the lamb itself, and that even if in the passage summarized above the lamb is not literally “coming back like a lion,” it or one of its servants is certainly coming to earth in a spirit of wrathfulness and punishment that can be characterized as violent.

John looks to see the Lion of Judah, that hoped-for warrior who devours God’s enemies, and instead he sees the Lamb slain. This is the beginning of a subversion from within of the dominant human hopes for a divine violence and vengeance that will someday put all evildoers in their appropriate place, a hellish place of God’s condemnation.

After the lamb opens the seventh seal, there is a period of calm in the throne room while the prayers of the saints mingle with heavenly incense on the altar. The coals are then thrown to earth “and there were peals of thunder, loud noises, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” The six trumpeters blow their horns, one by one, causing on earth hail and fire and blood, a volcano toppling into the sea, the poisoning of waters, a blotting of the sun and stars, the locust plague, and a rampaging mongol horde of 200,000,000 horsemen. (Rev 8-9). Though the nature of the saints’ prayers is not revealed, given the catastrophic heavenly response it seems likely that they were prayers for vengeance.

The blowing of the seventh and final trumpet causes a kind of hubbub in the throne room, in which the 24 elders worship by saying to God that the time is nigh to reward believers and punish evildoers: “thy wrath … shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth” (Rev 11.18). There is no hint of subversion in this yearning of the elders in heaven, nor are they rebuked for their hope to see their enemies destroyed. And not only elders, but angels and even the lamb bask in the vengeance wrought upon their enemies. An angel in heaven announces that “He [who follows the beast] shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God … and he shall be tormented … in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image” (Rev 14.10-11). This angel is not chided for his hope of divine vengeance.

The wish of the saints, the elders, and the angels for divine violence to strike down God’s enemies eventually comes to pass. The armies of white rider capture the animal and his false prophet in a battle and “these both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev 19.20). Satan is bound for a thousand years, but then released, and then defeated again for the last time. “He who is seated upon the throne,” who we may consider God, announces that “the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Rev 21.8). Here is the answer from the mouth of God – a divine vengeance that puts “all evildoers in their appropriate place, a hellish place of God’s condemnation” (Nuechterlein). The human hopes for revenge are not subverted, but accomplished.


So at least a portion of the violence in Revelation stems directly from God; and God’s response to that violence is not limited to either unconditional forgiveness or love; and human desires for divine vengeance are fulfilled. In spite of all this there are strong suggestions of a nonviolent outlook scattered throughout the book.

The case to be made for nonviolence in Revelation is this – that humans must not take justice into their own hands, but should instead overcome wickedness by the force and endurance of their faith. The saints do not fear death at the hands of sinners, because they will be rewarded after death. And even if sinners prosper on earth, after death they will be tortured – forever.

Whether or not any true human transcendence is achieved by allowing God to shoulder the moral burden of revenge is not addressed in Revelation, but it is a question discerning Christians should not shy from.

No comments:

Post a Comment