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Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation
with an Annotated Bibliography
There are sixty-six books in the Christian Bible, none of which has provoked more controversy, esoteric speculation, or misunderstanding than the very last one — Revelation. In the fourth century notable scholars like Chrysostom and Eusebius hesitated to include Revelation in the canon. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther described it as “neither apostolic nor prophetic. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament except Revelation. Today, among Eastern Orthodox believers Revelation is the only book that they don’t read in their public liturgy.
Not in the mainstream of the Christian faith, Revelation has, however, been the favorite book of the Bible of many marginal Christian groups. Sects like David Koresh’s Branch Dividians have used its violent imagery to support its own violent actions. The two churches most common for sending its members knocking on doors to ‘evangelize,’ Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, nearly always begin their proselytization with Revelation (at least in my experience of conversations on porches).
More troubling is the extent to which Revelation is fascinating larger numbers of contemporary “evangelical” Christians, especially in the United States, who have made the “Premillennial Dispensationalism” of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882; British preacher) a central part of their faith — as manifested, for example, in the popularity (over 50 million books sold) of a fictionalized version of dispensationalism, the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (For more on the Left Behind series from the perspective of mimetic theory, see the webpage “Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books.”) With much of mainline Christianity seemingly doing its best to ignore the Book of Revelation, there has not been a strong enough voice to challenge the increasing acceptance of the dispensationalist way of reading it.
Is it time for other Christians to wake up and add their voices to the mix? If that would happen, they would find that there is a more recent trend in the interpretation of this mystifying book that may be even the most surprising yet: seeing Revelation as a call to nonviolence — a 180 degree turn from the Left Behind version. The Book of Revelation, I believe, shows us a picture of the beastly powers of violence finally collapsing into their own hell-hole of violence, together with a plea to the faithful to maintain their faith. In the midst of relating his vision, John the Seer pauses to speak directly to those faithful:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Rev. 13:9-10)
Could the call to nonviolence be any more clear? Yet the images of violence, including the possibility of divine vengeance, seem to overpower such a call to nonviolence. How does one sort through this barrage of images that are rather foreign to our modern worldview? For those who see the New Testament as a call to nonviolence, being able to interpret the Book of Revelation as part of that overall message depends primarily on a strategy of seeing how Revelation takes violent apocalyptic imagery from the Hebrew tradition and means to subvert it from within, primarily through the dominant actor in Revelation, the Lamb slain. Laboring to offer a thorough-going interpretation from the perspective of nonviolence is admittedly not an easy chore, but it is one that has been taken up in recent years. What I aim to do here is to give a brief introduction to such a reading and then follow it with an annotated bibliography.
Again, the point of Revelation that I think it is conveying to us 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. And God’s defeat of that violence is not one of superior firepower, of simply having more of the same kind of violence to subdue that of the empires. No, God’s defeat of violence is to expose it through the love of the Lamb slain whose self-giving love lets itself be slaughtered by the violence, and the Lamb’s resurrection shows its power of life to be victorious. Disciples of the Lamb follow not in a hope that there would be a different kind of victory someday, a victory in which the Lamb became a Lion and devoured all its enemies. But followers of the Lamb believe that his slaughter and resurrection have already won the victory, such that we wait with endurance and hope, following in the Lamb’s loving nonviolence if we must, until the day when Satan’s violence finally becomes its own defeat, collapsing in on itself.
Let’s take a quick look at the most relevant passages. The first pivotal point in the drama comes with John the Seer’s despairing over no one being worthy to open a sacred scoll with seven seals. We pick up the drama at 5:4:
And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. (Rev. 5:4-7)
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 evil-doers in their appropriate place, a hellish place of God’s condemnation. But Revelation begins to subvert this hope right from the very beginning with the one who has truly won God’s victory on the cross, the Lamb slain. And the Lamb is never portrayed as someday coming back like a lion. No, the emphasis is not on the future but on the continuing present. The Greek for “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” uses participles in the perfect tense: arnion hestekos hos esphagmenon. It is something that has already happened and is continuing on into the future.
The other crucial passage comes in chapter 12 describing the war in heaven:
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world– he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Rev. 12:7-12)
I believe this passage elaborates the idea behind Jesus’ words (used by René Girard in giving title to one of his books, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning) in Luke 10:18: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” In the nonviolent ministry of Jesus and his disciples, culminating and coming to power through his death as the Lamb slaughtered and his resurrection, the Satanic powers of violence are thrown out of heaven. In short, they lose their transcendence. Exposed by the greater power of loving self-giving, human beings need no longer look to the Satanic powers of violence as heavenly powers. Duped by the beastly deception, we will continue to be led astray for a time. But the battle has already been fought and won, signified by Michael and the angels throwing Satan out of heaven. And was this victory won by superior divine firepower? No, the nature of the victory is made crystal clear: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” It is a continuation of the ministry begun on this earth by Jesus Christ and furthered through his disciples — his witnesses (martyrs in the Greek) — who continue in his way of loving self-giving instead of hate-filled vengeance.
Is this way of discipleship an easy choice? Obviously not! It requires great faith, the kind of faith that says to the sacrificial system — represented by Mt. Zion (“this mountain” made obvious by the context) in Jesus’ synoptic version of the saying — “Be taken up and thrown into the sea” (Mark 11:23). The hope for sacred, divine violence to vanquish evil-doers, represented by symbols such as the Lion of Judah, is a hope deeply engrained in our anthropology of creating gods to justify our own violent actions against enemies. The Satanic powers of violence have been our heavenly powers since the foundations of our human worlds. But the revelation from the heavenly Father of Jesus Christ — in giving over his Son into the human hands of sacrificial, sacred violence and then raising him up to new Life on Easter — has begun to unveil that violence as less than the heavenly power of unconditional love and forgiveness, a revelation that continues to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit of Truth (the Paraclete) as partly manifested in the witnesses who do not “cling to life even in the face of death.”
At the beginning of the 21st Century, I believe the principle witness to this way of nonviolence has been a Hindu follower of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, who has inspired a revival of Jesus’ way of nonviolence. Gandhi is named as a model for many, many subsequent movements, perhaps the most significant of which has been the Civil Rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Gandhi has become a new symbol who for many who need to distance themselves from the many so-called followers of Christ, “Christians,” who have fallen back into the Satanic ways of violence and remain duped along with the “kings and nations” by the deceptions of the dragon — making it all that much more important for a Christian voice to strongly put forward a more faithful reading of the Book of Revelation. Gandhi’s way of nonviolence follows in the way of the Lamb slaughtered.
When I wrote the first draft of this page (May 2007), I was wondering if one of the most popular phenomenons of our time would be on the side of this way of nonviolent love. I believed J. K. Rowling to be presenting us with the choice between Lord Voldemort’s Satanic ways of death and Dumbledore’s way of self-giving love. Dumbledore never shrinks from the fact that one must stand against such evil ways as Voldemort’s. But he also persists in teaching Harry that the most powerful force in the world is that of love, the kind of self-giving love which his mother showed in dying for him. And the end of Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, leaves readers with the question: Is Snape’s murder of Dumbledore just a senseless murder that needs to be made meaningful by an age-old act of vengeance? Or is it a staged murder that is, in reality, an act of self-giving love? I argued for the latter in a paper entitled “Harry Potter and the Power of Love” (which was written between Book 6 and 7, with some rather accurate anticipations of what happens in Book 7).
Book 7 has arrived and we now know that Rowling stayed true to the end with a Christian theme of nonviolent love. Even in the showdown with Voldemort, Harry offers him a last chance to repent and then attempts to disarm him rather than kill him. It is Voldemort’s own killing curse which rebounds on himself and leads to his finish — which is what I think the book of Revelation offers us, namely, violence bringing about its own end. C. S. Lewis, by contrast in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, gives us a Christ figure Aslan who sacrifices himself on the witch’s altar, but then the risen Aslan leads a violent assault to final defeat of the enemy. I believe that Christians have, in the wildly popular Harry Potter series, a Revelation-like tale of fantastic creatures and events that champions the true power of life in this world that can stand “even in the face of death.” (For a full bibliography see my webpage “Harry Potter and the Christian Faith.”)
1. For other writings on the Book of Revelation at this website, see:
- the conclusion to Part III of “My Core Convictions“
- a sermon from St. Michael and All Angels Day, “Faith Is Trusting that the Satanic Violence Is Self-Defeating“
- an Easter 4C sermon, “Who Do We Follow, a Lion or a Lamb?“
- an Easter 6C sermon, “Just How Much Does Jesus Heal Us?“
2. Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse, 1949. This is a groundbreaking work in detailing all the Hebrew and Aramaic texts that the Book of Revelation draws upon and in beginning the process of showing the subversion from within of the violent imagery to serve the message of nonviolence in the face of such violence. Farrer followed it with a standard commentary 15 years later: The Revelation of St. John Divine: Commentary on the English Text, 1964.
3. G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Harper’s New Testament Commentaries), 1966 (original; reprinted by Hendrickson, 1993). This is one of those commentaries which has an importance that goes beyond the ordinary commentary — a must for the pastor’s library. (Caird, for example, was a teacher of, and influence on, such N.T. scholars as N. T. Wright.) Building on and extending the work of Farrer, Caird sets the benchmark for a nonviolent reading of Revelation.
4. Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation (Sacra Pagina Series), Liturgical Press, 1993. A more recent, solid addition to the tradition of interpretation begun by Farrer and Caird.
5. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Cambridge UP, 1993; and The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation, T&T Clark, 1993. Important work by a major contemporary N.T. scholar.
6. Mark Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation, Bletchley, England: Paternoster, 2003. This bibliography is primarily based on one that Bredin gives in chapter 4, pages 28-35. Bredin gives an up-to-date synthesis of the above commentaries while mixing in ideas from Gandhi and René Girard. A very capable guide to the enterprise I am encouraging here, namely, a nonviolent reading of Revelation.
7. Stephen Finamore, God, Order, and Chaos: René Girard and the Apocalypse. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. “If the Apocalypse was a book for its times to enable what the Spirit was saying to late first century people, Finamore’s reading of the Apocalypse, through the lens of Girard’s theory, is an equivalent wake up call for a world addicted to violence and coercion in the pursuit of human flourishing and a plea to consider the ‘better way’ of the victim, the story of whose death, supposedly expedient for the wellbeing of the people, is recorded in the New Testament Gospels.” — Christopher Rowland, Oxford
8. Michael Hardin, and Ted Grimsrud, editors, Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as a Friend, Cascade Books, 2011. Wes Howard-Brook writes, “Compassionate Eschatology interweaves close readings of the Bible — with Revelation as its central text — theology and current events to shed light on the ‘times of the end.’ The authors reveal, each from their own angle of vision, how God’s ultimate purpose is not destructive vengeance, but the healing into harmony of all creation.” Contributors include: the editors, Richard Bauckham, Barbara Rossing, Walter Wink, Anthony Bartlett, Stephen Finamore, and Jürgen Moltmann.
9. J. A Jackson and Allen H. Redmon, “‘And They Sang a New Song’: Reading John’s Revelation From the Position of the Lamb” (online version; login required), Contagion (Vol. 12-13, 2006). A paper presented at a COV&R conference and then published in the Girardian journal.
10. Margaret Barker, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: Which God Gave to Him to Show to His Servants What Must Soon Take Place (Revelation 1.1), T&T Clark, 2000. Here is a commentary from an O.T. professor whose work on the Temple for Christian theology is groundbreaking. (Her work is a favorite of Girardian James Alison.)
11. Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, Westview Press, 2004 (paperback, 2005). Not a standard commentary it has a more practical application of both criticizing popular readings of Revelation and putting forward a reading strategy focused on the Lamb. It exposes the Rapture theology behind the Left Behind series which have been wildly popular in America. She lays out the Rapture theology as based on the “dispensationalism” of John Nelson Darby, a nineteenth century preacher, whose interpretation of Scripture has become foundational among many “evangelical” Christians in America — made even more popular by the Left Behind series (which has sold around 50 million copies).
12. Craig R. Koester is a leading, recent interpreter of Revelation from a perspective of nonviolence, with two prominent books: Revelation and the End of All Things, Eerdmans, 2001; and Revelation (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale, 2015.
13. N. T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone, John Knox/Westminster, 2011. An accessible commentary by one of today’s leading scholars, and a student of a trendsetter on Revelation, C. B. Caird (see above).