Oh the relief I found first studying apocalyptic literature as a 20-something undergrad theology student. The role it had played in my youth, when I knew nothing of symbolism, numerology, the veiled anti-languages of the beleaguered, was to drive me from my childhood bed in tears, fearing the figurative lapping flames, the “sign of the beast,” and epochs of war. As an adult, being able to hear in the language of apocalypse defiant notes of resistance, empowerment, optimism, resilience, and to appreciate the messages encoded in the bizarre “revelations” is refreshing.
Yet there’s no doubt, apocalypses are written when times are bad. They are not upbeat. In fact, they are always the code-language of the oppressed when times are worst. But the very fact that we have them, that apocalypses were enshrouded one day as sacred scripture, tells us who was vindicated. In the backward glance of history, the brutal Roman Emperor Nero (symbolized in Revelation by the number six-hundred sixty-six, the numerical value of his name) is not the hero. The writer defiant enough to portray him as a beast is.
Contrary to my childhood fears, apocalyptic literature can be oddly comforting during hard times, when one is not winning. This is what I remembered this week, reading the conclusion of Revelation following the 2016 presidential election that did not go my way, or the way of my friends of color, friends whose religious freedom is threatened, friends who are vulnerable in a number of ways. In the hopeful imagery of Revelation 21:22, the holy city is permeated with the presence of God, and everyone honors God’s reign of love—led by the victor, a vulnerable lamb. This has always been the good news of John’s Apocalypse for those who can’t seem to catch a break, especially at a time when bullies have taken the earthly throne.
The New Testament is “war literature,” we must remember—all of it written amidst the unspeakable slaughter of Jews by the behemoth of Rome. Almost every word of it is written to inculcate hope in people who see brutality meted out around them. In the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was reported that 10,000 Jews were crucified by the Romans. This was in a single year, in a single city. In the decades and years preceding and following this, there were thousands more crucifixions (though only one is widely remembered), not to mention innumerable imprisonments and sexual assaults, which always accompany war. Written documents that formed the basis of the canonized gospels were taking shape during this period and in response to it. Though the New Testament writings do not make explicit reference to Rome’s war against the Jews (who got on the wrong side of empire for defending their identity, faith, and worldview), the lack of references hints at the vulnerability of the writers. They were forced to speak about the war using mostly symbolic, apocalyptic tones.
So if the New Testament doesn’t speak explicitly about what Jews and those who loved them were experiencing in the period of its formation, what does it speak of? In a thousand ways, it speaks of God’s faithfulness and prompts readers to remain faithful in return. This is not a cop-out. It is written in hope, which Mary Oliver describes as “a fighter and a screamer”—hope that liberation and justice are more powerful than domination. That despite set-backs, liberation and justice grow. The texts written between the first Pauline letter (around 50 CE) and the Gospel of John (likely the latest New Testament document), were written during a time when war atrocities at the hands of Rome touched everyone with ties to Palestine. And in this context, the consistent message was that God’s way prevails, and God is restoring and healing creation even when that restoration is hard to see. In the imagery of Revelation, God is building a “holy city” of peace. During dark times, it can be hard to give one’s heart to this message, to live as if it is true. But to do so is to live by faith. Faith does not mean we don’t doubt; it is not about intellectual assent. Faith means we choose to live minute by minute, day by day, as if God’s creativity, God’s ever-expanding love force, is bigger than humanity’s most rotten and gnarled debacles, and we choose to live as participants with God.
Faith affirms that our hope is not in political systems, but simultaneously in God’s faithfulness and the incarnation of Love and Grace we honor in Jesus, and/or in nature, and aspire to in ourselves. To use Paul’s language, we too are invited to be the incarnation. God is not on the side of those who abuse power, but of those who are vulnerable: the black and brown children taunted by racist chants on the playground, the women harassed because they wear hijabs, the parents taken away from children because they lack standing in a biased immigration system, the person beaten for their ideology, whatever its stripe. The hope and imperative of the Christian scriptures is 1) that we are invited to be the hands of feet of God, which is costly and at times difficult; and 2) that God is faithful to the co-creators.
What faithfulness does God ask of us now?