Comfort and Affliction: The Dual Message of Revelation

I used to be afraid to read Revelation at night. That’s right. What with all the horsemen, bowls, plagues, and beasts, I simply couldn’t read it for fear of being beset with nightmares. Like many, I grew up with a loose pre-millenial dispensationalist undertanding of the Apocalypse, not because I was seriously working in the text (I could barely read it), but because it was simply in the air. I thought the message of Revelation was basically this: you better hope you get raptured before the beast shows up. It wasn’t that I was deeply committed to this reading of the book; I just didn’t know there were options.
About seven years ago, when I began studing the Bible and Church history with significanly increased seriousness, I discovered not only that there were alternative approaches to reading Revelation, but that my default approach was a relatively recent historical development and that it was not firmly based on a careful reading of Revelation (or any part of scripture for that matter). But if Revelation isn’t about flying away to escape the horrors of the coming beast, then what is it about?
Simply put, the message of Revelation is twofold. First, it is a word of encouragement and hope calling persecuted Christians to persevere. Second, it is a warning of judgment for those who would oppress and persecute the Church, and included within this second element is a warning to those within the Church who think they can compromise with the oppressors to maintain their comfort and avoid hardship.
In terms of encouraging the Church, Revelation reminds her that her God is both faithful and sovereign. It declares that the God who created the world is also the God who is in the process of creating it anew. It is a reminder that the people of God are the followers of Jesus Christ, the faithful martyr and the slaughtered lamb who now lives and reigns forever. It is a word of hope that despite every evil effort of the beastly nations to kill off the Church, the people of the lamb are the people of the God who raises the dead. He will vindicate them. And those who conquer, even when conquering means dying, will become the final dwelling place of the Living God and the Lamb. 
It is a word of warning for those who would seek to oppress the people of God and manipulate the world for their own ends. It is a warning to the beastly nations and their leaders who prop themselves up as lords and masters of the world. It is a declaration to them that they are but a parody of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the slaughtered lamb has and will triumph over the regimes of all who oppose him. Included here is a warning for those who think they are faithful followers of the lamb and yet collude with the enemy embracing its values, perspective, and activity. You cannot be a citizen of Fallen Babylon and the New Jerusalem at the same time.
To adapt a well-worn phrase about preaching: the message of Revelation is one of comfort for the afflicted and affliction for the comfortable. To the afflicted faithful: Persevere. Your God will vindicate you. To the comfortable compromisers: Beware. God will undo you.
Reading Revelation is no longer a fear to me. It is now always an experience of joy and hope. I love the Apocalyse, and I turn to it when I need to be encouraged and uplifted. The message of Revelation is not one of fear. No, for the followers of the Lamb, it is a message of hope.

Our Two Mistakes Regarding Jesus

The opening chapters of Revelation provide a stunning picture of Jesus. He is described with lofty language that emphasizes his equality with God (1:12-16), yet he is also immediately present among the churches (1:13). Reflecting on this modulation between images of transcendence and immanence, Robert Mulholland says:
“There is no problem, in the modulation of visionary images, with Jesus being the lamp that the lampstands hold and, at the same time, the one in whose presence they exist. We tend to make two mistakes with respect to Jesus. On the one hand, we make Jesus so transcendent that there is no realization of his living presence in the midst of the church. On the other hand, we often reduce Jesus to a ‘pal’ who accompanies us through life primarily to ensure that things go our way. John saw Jesus as the awesome presence of God in the midst of the churches…this awesome presence did comfort the faithful churches but also confronted those who were falling short of being faithful priests in God’s kingdom” (Revelation, 432).
A good reminder emphasizing the importance of holding in proper balance the double truth of the person of Christ.

A Model for Theological Debate

The debate between Arminians and Calvinists is commonly (and unfortunately) marked by lack of charity and abundance of vitriol. For one reason or another, this disagreement seems particularly ripe for attracting harsh and unhelpful words. In light of this, I was pleased to see this interview from John Starke, of The Gospel Coalition, with Fred Sanders (pictured), a systematic theologian and associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University. The discussion between Starke, a Calvinist, and Sanders, a Wesleyan-Arminian, is full of grace and respect. Sanders acknowledges what he finds to be the weaknesses of Calvinism with care avoiding unfair and mean-spirited criticisms. He is even willing to admit that he has felt the draw of the Calvinist perspective. Starke conducts the interview demonstrating immense respect for Sanders despite their theological differences.
I call attention to this interview because I take it to be a model for fruitful Christian dialogue and even debate over those matters on which the faithful disagree. If we could strive to see the strengths of the other side and attempt to discover what might have in common, then our differences (real as they are) would be set in their proper context. Let’s take a cue from Sanders and Starke. We will undoubtedly be increasingly faithful representatives both of our common faith and the particular theological traditions we claim.

Hell in the Presence of the Lamb?

Hell is always a hot topic. And in studying Revelation in recent weeks, I’ve come across a passage that challenges the way I’ve commonly thought about the reality of eternal punishment. Like many, I suspect, I’ve tended to think of hell as unending removal from the presence of Christ. Add whatever imagery you care to that; nothing significantly increases the horror of banishment from the presence of the glorious beauty of the resurrected and conquering king of all. But the Apocalypse of John is challenging my thoughts about this to some degree. Consider these words:
“…they will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:10).
What? Did you catch that? They will be tormented forever in the presence of the Lamb? John seems to be suggesting that those who oppose Jesus in the present life by worshipping the beast (14:9) exist forever in some proximity to Jesus. Stunning. Simply stunning. There go my preconceived notions about hell. But how could this be? And what could it mean? Here are some helpful thoughts on this passage from Robert Mulholland, one of my own teachers, in his most recent commentary on Revelation:
“This seems an uncharacteristically cruel picture of heaven, where the Lamb is seated on the throne surrounded by the holy angels (7:11, 17). The operative term here is “holy.” An noted above, the holiness of God burns against all that is unholy, not in a vindictive, retributive, vengeful, punitive manner, but simply as the reality of holiness. John seems to have seen that those who are unholy spend eternity in the presence of the holiness of heaven. To spend eternity in the presence of holiness when one is, to the core of one’s being, unholy, would be an endless torment. The same image of fallen Babylon in proximity to New Jerusalem is seen by John in chapters 21-22. There John sees that the gates of New Jerusalem are never closed (21:25), that outside is fallen Babylon (22:15), but nothing unclean is allowed to enter (21:27). It seems that fallen Babylon exists forever in the presence of the holiness of New Jerusalem. Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is another image of heaven and hell being in close proximity to one another, but nothing of hell could enter heaven (cf. 1 Enoch 48:9, which says, ‘as straw in the fire so shall they [the wicked] burn before the face of the holy’)” (543-534).
So, the idea in Revelation that those who experience the unending torment of hell exist in proximity to the presence of Christ in heaven is not an isolated and unique text. Jesus himself seemed to work with a similar idea and apparently assumed that his audience did as well. Perhaps the concept could be summarized by saying that those who despise Christ in the present life will be unable to enjoy his presence in the next. For those who hate him, his presence is a torment. This is certainly one place where the text is pressing me to rethink some things I’ve traditionally thought.
What do you think? Does this passage in Revelation cause you to reconsider the way you think about hell? What do you think about Mulholland’s comments? About the idea that those who despise Christ in the present will be unable to enjoy him in eternity?

Book Note: Hermeneutics by Porter and Robinson

I’ve recently had the chance to review Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory by Stanley Porter and Jason Robinson, and wanted to call attention to it here, because I’ve found it to be an altogether helpful book. Many readers of this blog will have had a course in theological method which surveyed Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theories of critical interpretation, and they will know that it’s not easy to get a handle on the major figures and the schools of thought they represent, not to mention their relationship and attitudes to one another. Porter and Robinson have provided an outstanding tool intended for students in advanced undergraduate and graduate studies that maps out the major players in modern hermeneutics, introduces their contribution, and provides a solid critical analysis of their method. If you are in seminary or graduate school in theology or biblical studies, this book will help you understand why your discipline is where it is today.