The Contemporary Relevance of the Book of Revelation for the Church (Part 2)

*Throughout Revelation there is a cosmic focus. The world in terms of nature and cultural achievements is never forgotten. And the cosmos is understood to be participating in the painful and destructive consequences of sin as well as being promised inclusion in the ultimate redemption and transformation. John is not content to see God’s great salvation in terms of the rescue of a faithful remnant of souls. Like Paul and other writers of the New Testament, he sees the entire cosmos destined for “resurrection” as everything is made new.                                                           
As we become increasingly tuned to the ecological vulnerability of our planet, we desperately need an ethic to guide us. Many have turned their backs on the Bible for guidance, feeling that Genesis 1 served in the past as a theological rationale for raping and exploiting creation. Consequently, many look elsewhere for ethical guidance when considering how we should relate to the earth (the Native American tradition, New Age thinking, Eastern religions). What we need to do as the church is to rediscover what the Bible really says about who we are and what creation is. Creation is not something to be worshiped. Neither is it our savior. It too is in need of healing (mostly because of how we humans have marred it). Creation is our sacred companion in time and eternity. Like St. Francis, we can speak of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. They are our eternal companions on the road to redemption and transformation. (I understand the word “redemption” in the same sense that the Bible does. Redemption means liberation. If the word “redemption” has negative connotations for you, simply substitute the word “liberation.”)  Thus, we are kept from the idolatry of worshiping nature as well as from the sin of exploiting creation. We must realize that this creation is precious to God and that we are a part of that creation. We are not saved from creation but with creation. And just as how we treat one another indicates what we really believe about God, so how we treat God’s creation demonstrates what we believe about (as well as how much we love) our Creator. This realization could give us the ethical perspective to treat our earth not as merchandise but rather as being as much the recipient of God’s grace and love as we ourselves are. With such an understanding, our exploitation of the earth would end as creation and we (as a part of that creation) journey together toward our final destiny in God’s Peaceable Realm. 

*Revelation presents faithfulness as an indispensable component of the Christian faith. We live in an age where success, not faithfulness, is the measure of a person or an institution. How many and how much are the key questions as we calculate God’s blessings. John would remind us that God would rather have a remnant of the faithful than a multitude of “compromised” proponents of success. It is through the sacrificial offerings of the faithful that God chooses to redeem/liberate this world. It is by the cost of their discipleship in concert with the “blood of the Lamb” that the whole world is healed. Anything less than that from the church serves neither God nor humanity well. 

*Disciples New Testament scholar Eugene Boring in his excellent commentary on Revelation maintains that there are fundamental ways in which John’s time and our own are much alike. He writes:

John lived in a pre-Christendom situation, before there was a Christian culture with momentum to transmit Christian perspectives and values as part of the cultural heritage. The Christian communities to which he wrote were minorities, in a pluralistic world, without legality, respectability, impressive size, or institutions, who could not depend on the culture to present the Christian option. They were not a reflection of the religiosity of the culture, but within the culture they offered a different option for the meaning of life and its values. To be a Christian meant to be a witness to this Christian message. This is why the language of witness and testimony plays such a large role in Revelation. We too live in a situation without Christendom, in which the church is once again a minority in a pluralistic world. Even in Western countries, where the remnants of Christendom persist, the church is but one voice in a competing pluralistic society. Revelation has an appropriate message for a church. . . Study of Revelation can help to equip Christians to be disciples of Christ in a pluralistic world.”        

We live not only in a post-modern age—we also live in a post-Christendom age. And that is not all bad. Christendom has never assured a faithful living of the Christian faith. As we move from majority status (whereby we had a vested interest in the status quo) to that of being a faithful minority, perhaps we can live and proclaim Christ’s alternative to the world instead of trying to paint a thin veneer of Christianity over a status quo ruled by “principalities and powers” alien to the message and Spirit of Christ. 

*Revelation reminds us of the importance of eschatology. Very little attention has been given to eschatology by both scholars and ministers in mainline denominations. Much of the thinking of the twentieth century has dismissed a transcendent eschatology as part of the outdated “mythology” of the Christian faith we need to dispense with to live authentically in our age. However, the experience of the post-modern world tells us that we may not want “to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”                                                                                                                           
Beginning in the 1970s we saw, through the work of theologians like Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, a recovery of eschatology in what was called the “Theology of Hope” movement. These theologians took the resurrection of Jesus as the clue for God’s ultimate redemption and transformation of humankind and creation. There is still much work to be done in this area, but there are some promising signs that we can have an eschatology which transcends the boundaries of purely materialistic, positivistic thinking and which provides hope for all, both in this age and in the “time” of God’s final act of healing and liberation. It’s exciting for me to see a second-generation group of scholars continuing and expanding the efforts of those early “theologians of hope.” Even some Process and Neo-Process theologians are speaking of a transcendent hope that is necessary if God is to bring about justice, peace, forgiveness, and fulfillment.                                                                                                                                                                  
Much of this thinking has not filtered down to the pulpit, much less the pew. Tragically, we mainline Protestants have little to embrace as an alternative to the pessimistic and exclusivistic thinking of the “modern” world. We mainline Christians know better than to accept the ridiculous claims in some of the conservative churches who believe in and promote ideas like “the Rapture” and an eternal and punitive hell. But for the most part, we don’t know what to believe or hope for when it comes to transcendent eschatology.

We must remember that John speaks in metaphors, symbols, and poetry. He is an artist who paints truth with powerful but symbolic images.

However, there is an alternative being voiced, and the Book of Revelation plays its part in the development of that theology (not as prediction but as universal and creation-affirming hope). We must remember that John speaks in metaphors, symbols, and poetry. He is an artist who paints truth with powerful but symbolic images. But he reminds us that God’s ultimate salvation encompasses this universe. Not even the power of death can ultimately frustrate God’s intention to guide this creation to its transformation into a “new heaven and a new earth.” Slowly we are learning that only such an eschatology makes any sense if God is Creator, Redeemer (Liberator), and Abba. We understand that when Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19), he was not just pleading for “pie in the sky when we die.” He was plumbing the depths of the gospel itself which proclaims that “God so loves the world.” Anything less than an eschatology which involves the redemption and transformation of that world contradicts all that Jesus was and means for the church, humanity, and creation itself. 

[The quote from Eugene Boring can be found in Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. For those Christians who reject any need for a transcendent eschatology, I recommend Disciples theologian Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of life: A Christian Theology. In less than three pages of print (pp. 310-312), he succinctly and convincingly writes why a transcendent theology is indispensable for authentic Christian theology.]

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