Who is this God in Revelation?

I just finished a course at Fuller on Revelation, and had some concluding thoughts on the book, the violence portrayed in it, as well as our images of God, and I wanted to get some feedback. A couple things you should know about me, if you don’t already: I’m firmly committed to nonviolence, because I think that’s what Jesus demonstrates. I don’t think Jesus was a divine ‘fake-out’ who modeled sacrifice the first time he was around, but is waiting to come back, kick ass and take names (which I think is a common, if implicit, understanding). I think there are ways to read the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that are fully consistent with this nonviolent view (but I won’t get into it all here).

 

Here’s what I wrote for the class, in a final reflection paper after a ‘rapid read’ of the entire text of Revelation:

 

The final course lecture pointed out that “threats and warnings of destruction and judgment consistently fail to produce [God’s desired] repentance (9:20-21; 16:9-11)”. In looking over those passages, I would (humbly) offer a correction; in the context of the visions, actual destruction and judgment consistently fail to produce repentance. We as readers recognize the vision’s overall purpose as threats and warnings, but within the vision, people who experience the destruction refuse to repent. I looked closely for more of this during my reading, and only found one instance where, after suffering judgment, the people respond by giving glory to God (11:13).

Amidst my reflection on all of this, I considered the way I understand another scene of great destruction and suffering in the Bible, which is directly executed by God: the Flood of Genesis. As I’ve wrestled with that story, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most critical part of the story is when Noah curses his son Ham (Genesis 9:20-29). God’s initial impetus for bringing the destructive flood was that human thoughts and hearts were only inclined towards evil (Genesis 6:5). Even though Noah is found “righteous” and “blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9), the first thing he does after the covenant with God is get drunk, and then when his son sees him naked, Noah curses him for generations. This curse has had repercussions throughout history, being used as a justification for black slavery even in relatively recent history. The point is, even after God kills almost everyone in order to end their evil, the only righteous man then causes immense suffering. I think this story is a parable that is trying to tell us the seemingly simple message (which humanity has frequently demonstrated themselves incapable of grasping) that genocide doesn’t work, even when ‘God’ does it.

Could we read Revelation in a similar way? With the singular exception I noted above, all of the destruction, judgments, and death that occur in Revelation fail to bring about repentance. If God desires repentance, then this book demonstrates that destruction and death, both threatened and real, will not bring it about. Interestingly, though we’ve spent much time in this course discussing Revelation’s critique of empire in general and Rome in particular, in Revelation, God seems to be acting very much like the Caesars of Rome, causing pain, suffering, and death to those who refuse to worship him. In the end, only the one who is exactly the opposite of Caesar is able to usher in the New Jerusalem. What if the character of ‘God’ in Revelation is actually the parody?

 

I owe a great deal of my thinking regarding the Flood narrative to Brian McLaren, who made this case more fully in A New Kind of Christianity. I read that two years ago, and I’m not sure why I never thought to apply that line of thinking to Revelation.

Thoughts? Questions? For those of you much more knowledgable than I, are there other scholars I should check out to provide further understanding here?

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~ by Joe Paparone on March 26, 2012.

10 Responses to “Who is this God in Revelation?”

  1. Regarding non-violence please check out MIroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace,” especially the last chapter entitled “Violence and Peace.”

    About Noah, the word “righteous” in the OT does not mean complete sinlessness. I think that it is obvious when one considers other OT righteous like the deceiver, Jacob, the murderer, Moses or the adulterer and murderer, David. And yet God brought good things out of each of these sinners. I think that we should trust God’s judgement of people. If God calls them righteous, then who am I to say otherwise?

    He calls me and you “saints.” I know I’m not perfect, are you?

    I have much more to say but I’m afraid that you are unable to receive it. Perhaps over coffee.

  2. Yeah, Volf is on my list.

    Sorry if I suggested anything about ‘sinlessness’. I don’t think I did. The point is, God was mad about sin, and decided to kill lots of people, and it didn’t actually do anything about the sin. Destroying people doesn’t end sin. It doesn’t bring about worship.

    I actually think both of these instances (the Flood and Revelation) are exactly the points we should question the judgment of ‘God’ (at least as God is portrayed in these texts). It’s my desire to follow Jesus faithfully that leads me to do so. I’m pretty sure God can handle our critical thinking. If a violent God fails at eradicating sin (which is what the Bible portrays here), does that God deserve our worship?

    I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re not being condescending in your last line. Please be aware that it certainly sounds that way. Feel free to critique the ideas, but not my ability to handle a differing view.

  3. Great post. Thanks for sharing. I’ve long thought about the Flood story. God pretty much says the whole “flood project” failed when, right after he has killed everyone but Noah and his family, he says, ““Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”

    So, if violence didn’t work in Genesis, and yet, God tries it again in Revelation, what kind of a “god” is this? God fails to learn his lesson. His commitment to violence seems to be the only thing that can match his commitment to love.

    In fact, God seems to have a penchant for violence…perhaps we are more his image than he likes. One doesn’t often like what one sees in the mirror.

  4. Who are we to decide whether God measures up to being worshiped?

    Doesn’t our Creator and Redeemer deserve our worship in any case?

  5. I’ve always enjoyed following your spiritual inquiries. This one is no different. Keep up the good work!

    One key might appear in Revelation 5 where kings and rulers bemoan that no one is worthy to open the Book of Life until the slain Lamb appears–who is introduced as the Lion of Judah. So a recognizable sign of abject weakness (a sacrificial lamb, literally) becomes the symbol of power by which God accomplishes something new. The antitrumphal character is different from the Noahide flood but fits within the Gospel’s–especially Mark’s–emphasis on the suffering Savior…and your focus on non-violence.

  6. @Franklin, I think you’re getting at a lot of the concerns. What kind of a ‘god’ is this? And this then moves to my response for @thinkingoutloudinsarajevo – This is only an issue of deciding whether God measures up to our worship IF we start with the assumption that every mention of ‘God’ in the Bible is perfectly equal and 100% representative of God. BUT – I think we can be faithful readers of the Bible, while taking into account critical scholarship, and recognize that there are different images of ‘God’ presented. This means we have to discern which are accurate – and we use Christ as a hermeneutical lens. The disciples consistently expected the Messiah to be like the violent, judging, (imperial perhaps?) God that is sometimes (though certainly not always) portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. Over and over again, Jesus confounded them. I think “fulfilling the Law and the Prophets” or “when you see me you see the Father” can be understood as demonstrating Jesus AS the hermeneutic of God – NOT an affirmation of every image of God that had previously been written down. Of course, IF you start with the assumption that EVERY mention of ‘God’ in the Bible is equal – we’ll always have differing opinions.

    I feel it’s important to point out that the decisions we make about these kinds of things aren’t arbitrary or simply subject to our whims, though we should always be wary of that. We make the best decisions with all of the information that we have. We have cultural and textual evidence that many Christians throughout history did not have, which give us great insight into the nature of Ancient Near East texts, flood myths, etc. Therefore we will probably come to different conclusions than our predecessors in the faith. This is not to say they were ‘wrong’, exactly – we can recognize that they were faithfully doing the best with what they had as well, in their contexts. I would say we stand in the most faithful tradition when we utilize all of the information available to us.

    @followingtheway – I’m so glad you commented! It’s great to hear from you. The course on Revelation I took used Michael Gorman’s text “Reading Revelation Responsibly” and he certainly emphasizes the slain Lamb as a key metaphor for interpreting the book. I’ve been studying Mark’s Gospel with my small group recently, and noticing some connections in themes, as you mentioned. We’ve been using NT Wright’s excellent “For Everyone” series (which is a devotional/commentary) and I’ve also been making use of Ched Myers’ commentaries on Mark which are FANTASTIC.

  7. I like the idea of using Christ as a hermeneutical lens. But we must use his words and his actions, not his actions alone.

    The idea that the life of Christ is an overarching hermeneutic is fascinating. We use his life, that he did not retaliate, that he surrendered to the authorities, etc. and we therefore conclude that we must interpret everything that Scripture says about God through that lens. But we do so by ignoring what Jesus said about God and about himself.

    Why is Jesus’ lifestyle a more important interpretive lens than his words? Few doubt that Jesus came in weakness but does Jesus say that his return will be that way? I don’t think so.

    The epithet or title, if you will, that Jesus uses to describe himself most often is “Son of Man.” This comes from the Old Testament and is loaded with Old Testament ideas about power, justice, etc..

    Rather than change these ideas, Jesus emphasizes them. When Jesus describes his second coming he uses words like power and glory. He talks about punishment and reward. This is not sarcasm or snark or parody. No literary clues exist to lead us to this sort of interpretation.

    Of whom was Jesus speaking when he said, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” This is scary because in many places in his parables when he talks about the coming of the Son of Man he uses these terms, “cast” “hell,” etc.

    So, as the writers of the New Testament tell us, the incarnate Jesus clearly says that he “the Son of Man” will own this authority.

    After his resurrection, the risen Jesus iterates this truth, “all authority has been given to me…”

    The rest of the NT reiterates the truth about the ascended Christ, that he is Lord of the living and the dead. That he reigns now and that it is his parousia in power and glory that the church and creation expectantly await.

    To ignore this dynamic, powerful, oft repeated theme in the New Testament because it is not consistent with “the life of Christ” can only be done at the expense of the understanding that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful…”

    When I approach scripture my first approach question is, “How has God revealed self to mankind in these pages throughout the ages?”

    I believe other’s approach to scripture is, “How has man understood God throughout the ages.”

    The former question I believe is more appropriate for hermeneutics. The latter is more appropriate for sociology, anthropology, comparative religions classes and religious studies.

    You are right to say that there are many pictures of God throughout the scriptures. But scripture doesn’t ask us to pick and choose which we prefer. Rather it asks us to receive all that it tells us about God. To do otherwise would do violence to the text. But alas, that sort of violence is encouraged in our age.

  8. We’ve been around this block before, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t think the questions “How has God revealed self…” and “How has man understood God…” could be separated.

  9. I’m not sure that I am comfortable with your assertion that we cannot separate what God reveals about self through scripture and what mankind believes about him?

    I think in Job we have handed down to us a classic example, a case study. Based on their understanding of God, Job’s interlocutors question Job’s faithfulness. After all, in their opinion, God blesses those who are righteous and curses those who are not. (Incidentally, the OT says this many times in many places and in many ways, so they are not completely wrong. As you are aware this idea is even found in the New Testament, especially in The Revelation.)

    The book of Job comes to us as a “tweak” from God on understanding God’s nature. After reading the book one can still conclude that God blesses the righteous, that God will curse the unrepentant unrighteous, but it adds that there are occasions when the righteous suffer. So the “moral” from the book of Job is “Be careful not to judge people when you see that they are suffering. Really, you don’t have all the facts. This difficulty that this person is experiencing may just be temporary, it only seems that God is not with him (Job).”

    And so we see that God has revealed a new wrinkle in our our understanding of who God is. God allows suffering. God allows even the righteous to suffer, for a time.

    You have said in the past that the writers of scripture were sinful, bound by their cultural understandings and, therefore, we must assume then that scripture is flawed. I think you gave the example like this: the writers of scripture grew up in patriarchal societies, then of course the scripture would be full of stuff that perpetuates that worldview.

    But that fails to take into account that Holy Spirit inspiring the writers can change their world view. Isn’t the book of Jonah another case in point? The Jews were ethnocentric in that they knew God was “with them” and against their enemies. But Job proves that God is compassionate even to their enemies! The book flies in the face of their Jewishness.

    If your view of scripture, as I have understood it, is true then the book of Jonah would never have been written or passed down to us. Neither would Job and neither would the OT occurrences of women who are judges, women who take initiative, etc. But these accounts were written down and they are preserved in the OT and passed down to us.

    I would love to sit down over coffee with you and explore this further, really.

    • Whoa, this response concerns me @thinkingoutloud…Previously I’ve felt that we’ve had these kinds of conversations and ended up at an impasse…but your response here suggests that we may have never actually communicated. While your description of what I’ve previously said is broadly accurate, I don’t think your conclusion is warranted, and it in fact goes against much of my thoughts about the Bible, including the kind of ideas I’m arguing for in this blog post. It’s actually quite the opposite of what I think of the Bible.

      Coffee it is!

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