Is the Book of Revelation a Metaphor?
Written by: Robert D Brinsmead
I understand that the word “resist”, when used in the context of crime and punishment, is all about responding to the evil doer in kind – retaliatory violence. I suggest that even in the secular, political and international relations sphere, responding to acts of hostility with retaliatory violence, or payback, does not work, and never will work. In fact, it only serves to exacerbate the problem. I have read some good accounts of the treatment of convicts on Norfolk Island and Port Arthur in Tasmania. They did nothing to heal the estrangement and disaffection of the convicts. You cannot overcome violence with sheer violence. On the other hand, Mandela practiced the art of turning his enemies into friends. He did not do this by threatening them, or retaliating against them. There is no situation wherein we are not obligated to treat all human beings with unconditional regard (Ellens). The best civil authorities in the world already have progressed a long way toward implementing that principle by the humane treatment of prisoners of war, incarceration of only the most violent criminals and by abolishing the death penalty.
It was Christianity which created the Church. The Church was the natural fruit of that religion. The people who believed that God was going to punish those who did not believe what they believed, ended up thinking they could be God’s rod to punish unbelievers and heretics. ISIS is simply repeating this history. If we think God is really angry with certain people, we will be angry with them too. There is no loving attitude to any of the differing others in the book of Revelation. The righteous little remnant not only lust for their punishment and destruction, but gloat about it. That’s why the righteous are no better than their opponents.
Of course, this is all implied in the teaching that Jesus was the Messiah. He clearly did not fulfill the victory over the enemies of the people of God at his first Advent, so the teaching that he was the Christ created the necessity of having a doctrine of a Second Coming.
The book of Revelation is the old god of religious violence in full regalia. The “righteous” lust for the comeuppance of all their opponents which is virtually the whole human race as in the myth of Noah and the Ark. Even if you had the nose of a Labrador Dog you can’t find anything of “love your enemies, do good to them that hate you,” “forgive them, for they know not what they do…” in the Revelation. The holy little suffering remnant are not a whit better than those who are oppressing them. It is just the old case of the oppressed waiting for their turn to become the oppressors. This is the very worst of the old hateful Jewish apocalyptic dressed up, sexed up, in all the finery of Christology.
The Revelation is not saying anything different to 2 Peter 3 notwithstanding the colourful and fanciful figures of speech. The destruction of the world is real: “On that day the heavens will pass away with great noise, the elements will disintegrate with flames and the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up…looking for and earnestly desiring its coming wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat..” Notice the outlook: eagerly awaiting for this to come!
The expectation of the early church was the same as the expectation of the Millerite Adventists – waiting, praying, hoping for Christ to come and punish all their neighbours as “wicked” – who got to the point in their Shut Door fanaticism that they thought to pray down the Seven Last Plagues on all who rejected their fanaticism. Reading EG White’s earliest writings you can easily see that this little holy remnant were suffering from religious paranoia and severe persecution complex (the whole wicked world is after us) – and the reality was that most of their sensible neighbours pitied their condition and even went to their aid to feed them after the “Great Disappointment.”
Paul ends with the final victory achieved through massive violence. The description of the Messiah coming in flaming fire to take vengeance on all that do not obey Paul’s gospel, (Thessalonian letters), will re-pay with utter destruction those who trouble the Christians. Statements in 2 Peter refer to the world which was once destroyed by flood, will this time be destroyed by fire as all the elements melt with fervent heat. Being tormented with fire and brimstone (Revelation) are not metaphors of conquest through love and forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Could the seven last plagues be a metaphor, and what could the meaning be that people gnawed their tongues in pain, and the sun’s power ratcheted up to scorch people with great heat? Whatever these images mean, they are violent images of unimaginable suffering. If they are metaphors, they are metaphors because the violence and destruction is so out of the ordinary that ordinary language cannot suffice to portray the utter carnage and desolation.
Remember, that in the little apocalypse of Mark 13 and Matthew 24 (which is like a mini book of Revelation) the Holocaust of the Second Coming is foreshadowed by the Great Flood of Genesis – “as it was in the days of Noah. The people ate and drank and married until the Flood came and swept them all away. So it will be at the end of the world…” Was the destruction of Noah’s flood only a metaphor of being punished with a feather duster? According to the NT, the fire that destroys the world and all of its inhabitants will be as real as the water that drowned the world of people in the days of Noah.
According to the Revelation, besides the salvation of the 144,000, there is also depicted a great multitude from every nation, people and tongue who accept the salvation God has provided. It seems clear to me that these are the nations of the healed and saved at the end of the story, and not the same group as the wicked inhabitants of the earth who have not “come out” of great Babylon.
With respect to the damage that evil-doers inflict on others, it is difficult to find one instance in history where it can be verified that God directly intervened in human affairs to rescue the wronged and to punish the wrongdoers. Man’s expulsion from Eden did not happen. The great Flood that destroyed mankind except for Noah’s family, was a very old myth that pre-dated the Hebrew version. God making atonement for the sins of the world by the violence of the cross, also did not happen. God did no more than God did when confronted with the Holocaust. This is because the earth has been given over to humanity and God does not take over the task of the human jurisdiction. To protect the weak, to deliver others from oppression, to restrain evil-doers is therefore a human task, and there is nothing that affirms that we humans can opt out of the task of doing what we can to improve the human condition – even restraining violence and the violent offenders if the jurisdiction of love and unconditional regard for others, demands it. The so-called miraculous interventions of God are just religious myths and they have no basis in real history. So as well as working through the issues of love on a personal level, we have to work through the issues of civil and political love which I understand to be the unconditional respect for human life. I don’t suggest that resolving every issue in this human domain is easy. We have not been given a road map; only a compass.
As I said in my essay 17 years ago (The Divinity of Jesus), the divinity of Jesus (aka the Christ) is the Great Holy in the Christian religion. It has been traditionally said, that anyone denying this is not a Christian, is outside the Church out of which none can be saved. This was my Christian Rubicon which I crossed 17 years ago. I took a Sabbatical of 10 years of silence, starting from when I first confronted doubts about Jesus being the Deity, until I was ready to cross that Rubicon. It is now difficult to find a single scholar in the field of the historical Jesus who still believes that the Jesus of history was the Christ of faith. They all seem to tell you the same story of how a humble Jewish prophet was turned into a Gentile God. It might help some readers to face up to what might seem startling realities if they were informed of the simple fact that the first church, that later came to be called “Jewish Christians”, never did accept these Gentile claims about the divinity of Jesus. Nor did they accept the doctrine of his blood atonement. These doctrines could not have developed among Jewish people, but could have only developed among Gentile believers who applied no breaks to this process of hero worship until they had Jesus installed as the highest of divinities.
The main issue in the Revelation is worship- what the writer considers true worship and what he considers false worship. The most extreme threats in the Revelation are not made for ill-treating the saints. It is about failure re worship. God threatens to beat the crap out of people who fail to worship him as they should, but instead, worship the beast and his image and receive his mark in their right hands or forehead. Read Revelation 14 again and the three angel messages. Ever heard about the Third Angel’s message, Noel? Whose smoke of torment goes up for ever and ever and have no rest day or night? It is those who do not render true worship to God. And what about the First Angel’s Message,” Fear God…worship him that made heaven and earth….” Unlike the true teaching of Jesus where the real test is how we treat our fellow humans (“the least of these my brethren”), a teaching which is all about respecting and loving the differing others, the focus on Revelation is whether one worships God correctly.
Sometimes the skeptical scientists have endured a lonely road of “heresy,” but every advance in human knowledge has been made by someone who dared to be skeptical of conventional science. The field of theology is no different.