Jesus and Hell

I preach the good news of Jesus, including Jesus’ way of radical, nonviolent love. As one might expect, I get some pushback on this. “What about sin?” I hear frequently. “What about God’s judgment?” “What about God’s wrath?”

“What about hell?”

Yes, what about hell? After all, Jesus mentions hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. There’s this handy bit of practical advice, for example: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Or this lovely bit of encouragement: “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?”

I’ll admit that my first thought when I hear these kinds of questions is that if anyone thinks my idea of love doesn’t include ideas of sin and its consequences, they aren’t listening. More on point, though, is this: if we want to understand Jesus on hell, we need to read these Gospel teachings carefully, in context, across the Testaments.

Most of the time in the Gospels, the “hell” Jesus mentions is “Gehenna.” The other times when Jesus refers to a hellish judgment, ideas of “Gehenna” are probably still in the background.

“Gehenna” is a reference to a very particular place—and it’s not some location under the earth run by the devil and staffed by his demons. “Ge-henna” refers to the “valley of Hinnom,” a small valley running along the south and west of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Gehenna today

I’ve been there—there’s nothing hellish about it at all. Nor was there in Jesus’ day.

Sometimes you’ll hear that in Jesus’ day there was a perpetually burning garbage dump in the Hinnom valley. But that’s not the case. This idea seems to have originated from a Rabbi centuries after Jesus. In Jesus’ day there was nothing hellish about Gehenna at all.

What was hellish about the valley of Hinnom was its history. There are several Old Testament passages that describe the hellish history of Gehenna. They’re all similar, but to get a taste of hell let’s focus in on one of these—Jeremiah 7, starting with 7:31:

And they [the people of Judah] go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I [Yahweh, the Lord] did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

Here we learn three key points about Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom.

1) The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.

In fact, 2) God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.

And why did God so despise the fires of Gehenna? Because 3) they were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.

But there’s more to the story of Jeremiah 7. The people of Judah are appealing to their own special status before God, hoping this will save them from foreign invasion. “The temple of Yahweh is here!” they cry—as if that will help them. “Look,” they say, “we offer all the proper sacrifices!”—as if that will make a difference.

But any special status they think they have is an illusion, all their acts of righteousness are irrelevant, because they are “oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow, and shedding innocent blood.” They are committing grave injustices against the most vulnerable among them—of which burning their sons and daughters in the fires of Gehenna was the most horrific.

All this explains why the tables turn at the end of the chapter:

Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.

Gehenna back in Moloch’s day

It’s a soul-shuddering reference to Jerusalem’s impending doom, the city’s destruction at the hands of the ruthless Babylonian armies. The people’s religiously righteous acts and supposed special status aren’t going to save them.

And all their injustice, all their oppression, all their senseless violence against the most vulnerable? It’s going to rebound against them in equally horrific fashion, until the valley of Hinnom becomes an enduring symbol of God’s judgment on the self-righteous strong who oppress the marginalized weak.

To our three points about Gehenna’s fires above we can now add three more:

4) Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.

It’s a 5) “reap what you sow” judgment—if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, very natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.

It’s a 6) judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarchies.

With this background on Gehenna in mind, we can now fully appreciate Jesus’ words on hell in the Gospels.

Jesus isn’t talking about a “literal hell” where unrepentant unbelievers go after they die to be tortured in God’s inferno for all eternity.

He’s talking about the violent consequences of our own violent actions, right here in our lived lives, right here in human history.

He’s talking about such consequences especially for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grave injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized.

And he’s talking in particular to the uber-religious, the people who think they’re on God’s side because they believe the right things or do the right rituals—but they burden others with moral demands while doing nothing to help them, they focus on minor moral issues while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy and allegiance to God above all other powers that be.

These are sobering words, serious warnings, for every age and certainly our own. But all this is right in line with the good news of Jesus and Jesus’ way of love.

After all, there’s nothing more loving, nothing more like Jesus, than standing in solidarity with the powerless, the stepped-upon, the pushed-to-the-side, and standing up to the oppressive powers that be—whatever the cost to ourselves.

And it is this hell of our own harmful actions and their destructive consequences—our sin and all its death—that Jesus has come to save us from. Jesus calls us to leave behind our damaging, violent ways and follow him in his path of compassionate, inclusive, forgiving, self-giving love. If we don’t do this the result will only be death for ourselves, for others, for the world. But if we do this we will find life, full and flourishing life for all.

This is love. This is Jesus. This is good news indeed.

You Know, “Love One Another” Really Is Enough

The 4th-century theologian Jerome tells a story about the Apostle John. John was old and frail, unable to walk, so his disciples would carry him into the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day. Every week these were his words to the congregation: “Little children, love one another.”

This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?”

“Because,” John replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”

We have no way of verifying Jerome’s story, but it certainly sounds like John—that is, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Those writings are filled with exhortations to love.

I can sympathize with John in this story. I, too, feel the pressure of this regular question: “Michael, why do you always talk about ‘love’?” Sometimes this is simple curiosity, but often the criticism is plain: this teaching, that we are to “love one another,” is somehow seen as insufficient.

That’s odd, quite frankly. After all, Jesus was emphatic about what the greatest commandments of God were: love God and love others, and you can’t have one without the other. In fact, Jesus says, this love of God/others sums up everything else God commands. All Scripture hangs like a seamless coat on this single hook: love God by loving others.

And Jesus’ first followers were equally clear on this. Loving others is the benchmark of genuine faith, they said—if you don’t love others you’re not a true disciple of Jesusyou don’t even truly know God. You want to fulfill God’s Law? Love others, they said, simple as that. The only thing that matters, in fact, is a faith that works itself out in love. Love is the virtue that binds together all other virtues. It is the most excellent way to live. It’s the one thing that remains always and forever.

According to both Jesus and the Apostles, love is it.

So it’s more than a little odd when Christians, whether back in John’s day or our own, get impatient with those of us who emphasize love above all else.

But why do some Christians react this way? Why is a simple insistence on loving others so wearisome, even so aggravating, to some?

Some insist that “love one another” is too wishy-washy. It’s too soft on sin, not strong enough on holiness. What about God’s judgment of sin seen throughout the Bible, after all, even in Jesus’ own teaching?

Others say that “love one another” is too simplistic, too impractical. The world is far too complicated for mere love, especially once we get beyond one-on-one relationships. What place does “love one another” have in the worlds of bottom-line business or high-stakes politics, or in sovereign countries defending their national interests?

These sound like the criticisms Jesus received, come to think of it. “Soft on sin, weak on holiness,” some of the most religious folks muttered around Jesus. “He sets aside God’s commands!” others among them frowned. “Love our enemies? That will only get us crucified by them!” all the “Make Israel Great Again” zealots exclaimed.

Yes, indeed.

I think much of the problem is that we don’t really know the love that Jesus taught, the love that Jesus lived. And if we know this love, we don’t really trust in this love, not really. This can be true of both “sides,” it seems to me, both those who think love alone is the stairway to a heaven of harmonious society, and those who think “love alone” is the highway to a hell of moral relativism.

Many imagine this love to be mere tolerance. They imagine “love one another” to mean “live and let live,” a sort of “Whatever floats your boat, as long as you let me float mine.”

Others imagine this love to be a kind of affection, good feelings toward others. “Love one another,” then, means “Get rid of all that negativity—good vibes for everyone!”

Still others imagine this love to be basic decency. “Be nice to each other, use your manners, be polite”—this is what “Love one another” means.

Now there’s nothing wrong with tolerance, or affection, or basic decency. In fact, these are a bare minimum for being human together, I would think. They’re bottom-line attitudes and behaviours for a functioning human society.

But these, in themselves, are not the love that Jesus taught, the love he lived. Jesus’ love transcends mere feelings of affection, and it’s exponentially harder than simple kindness or even basic tolerance. People don’t get crucified for being nice.

So what is this love that Jesus says is the be-all and end-all of human living? Thankfully we’ve got a lot to go on in the Gospels, both from Jesus’ teaching and from the way he lived.

Love starts with a stance of openness toward another person. It’s like a father scanning the horizon for a long-lost son. It’s like a holy man embracing a lowly child. It’s like a busy healer stopping in a crowd to find the ill woman who touched him.

Love is freely given, expecting nothing in return. It’s like patiently healing crowds of the world’s poorest, no cost to user. It’s like forgiving the sins of society’s worst offenders, no blood sacrifice required.

Love is given whether we feel the recipient deserves it or notneighbours, strangers, sinners, even enemies. It’s like someone welcoming the least among us: clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. It’s like a despised enemy-of-us compassionately tending the wounds of one-of-us.

Love is giving one’s very self for the other, even when it hurts the giver. It’s like someone standing up to injustice on behalf of the over-burdened, shifting the target to their own back. It’s like a king giving himself to be crucified by an oppressive power in order to save his people from annihilation.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing: giver and receiver, all people, experiencing abundant life together. It’s like a final banquet where the lost and found, the last and first, the least and greatest, all feast together with food enough for all who want to be there.

This is the love Jesus taught. This is the love Jesus lived, all the way to the cross. This is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.

Make no mistake: there’s nothing wishy-washy about this love. It’s damned hard (sorry, but it is). Seriously, think about the people you know. Think about the people you fear. Think about the people you despise. Think about the people you condemn. Then imagine loving them like that.

This love is in no way soft on sin—but it can turn our “sin lists” upside down. Yes, Jesus speaks God’s judgment on human sin. But it is the most religious who earn Jesus’ harshest criticism, especially religious people with power, because they wield their religion like a club instead of spreading it like a salve. Injustice of all kinds gets roundly condemned by Jesus, including injustice masquerading as justice. Jesus stands alongside the most vulnerable in society: the poor, children, foreigners in an ethnocentric world, women in a patriarchal world. Those who abuse their religion, or abuse their power, or otherwise cause harm to the vulnerable—these are the ones who get threatened by Jesus with divine judgment.

In a world of Jesus-love, then, sin and evil still exist—if anything they are even sharper, more pungent. In a world of Jesus-love, sin and evil are things to be actively, albeit non-violently, resisted, even if this demands your very life. In a world of Jesus-love, your own personal sins are for you to repent of, others’ personal sins are for you to forgive, and the world’s public sins are for you to resist.

This love is, in fact, what holiness is really all about. Jesus overturns common conceptions of “clean” and “unclean,” “pure” and “impure,” “holy” and “profane.” Compassion trumps purity, every time. Heal on a holy day? Touch an unclean leper? Share a meal with impure sinners? In all these ways and more, Jesus agrees with the more liberal of his fellow Jews—liberal with love, that is. Mercy is the new holiness.

And this love is the most practical, the most necessary thing in the world.Eye for an eye” is still the norm in our world, whether in our private vendettas, our societal notions of justice, or our national defense strategies. In fact, “eye for an eye” might actually be better than what we often see, which is more about “pre-emptive strikes” and “total war”—both as nations and as individuals (think about that a moment). How long until the whole world is blind?

I’m reminded here of a quote by G. K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That’s how I hear criticisms that love is simplistic or impractical. We prefer our sanctified greed and justified violence to the narrow path of loving in the way of Jesus. How long until we’re really willing to trust in Jesus alone for our salvation?

I’m with the Apostle John in this: “love one another” really is enough. Who’s with me?

Some Observations on Doing Bad Things

homerOkay, forget the theological jargon. Here are a few observations about doing bad things that most people should be able to agree with:

1) Everyone makes mistakes throughout their life. Some seem more prone to this than others. Some of these mistakes are harmless, others cause relatively mild harm.

2) Everyone does something bad at some point in their life—something truly harmful, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most people do several of these bad things in their lifetime. Some seem to do them frequently.

3) Some people—thankfully very few—do something really bad at some point in their life. One might even call this “evil”—we’re talking intentionally malicious with great damage done.

These three observations are true whether you’re talking about Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists or any other religion or non-religion. They are true whether you’re talking about North Americans or South Americans or Africans or Asians or Europeans or any other region. They are true whether you’re talking about refugees or immigrants or settlers or indigenous people or citizens or any other land-status. They are true whether you’re talking about people of European or African or Asian descent or any other ethnic category. They are true whether you’re talking about men or women, gay or straight, or any other orientation or gender. They are true whether you’re talking about rich or poor or middle-class or any economic status.

These things are true of humans—all humans, everywhere.

This might seem so obvious as to be trivial. But if these things are true, then they have some significant implications.

Yes, some refugees will do bad things. At some point a refugee will even do a truly evil thing. But so do native-born citizens—probably at a higher rate, actually, since these aren’t “vetted” at all.

Yes, some Muslims will do bad things, even a very few will do thoroughly evil things. But so will Christians, and atheists, and even peace-loving Buddhists. We Christians, in fact, have our own set of favourite bad things—self-righteousness being arguably top of the list.

Yes, some African Americans or Indigenous Canadians will do bad things. Sometimes one will even do an evil thing. But so do white Americans and Canadians—in fact, white folks commit certain crimes at far higher rates.

Yes, some gay people will do bad things, even occasionally a truly evil thing. But so do straight men and women—men in particular, as most violent crimes are committed by men, by far.

Yes, some poor people will do bad things. Every once in a while one will even do an evil thing. But so do the rich and the middle-class—and they have the resources to hide it or to evade the punishment.

Most importantly, if we all make mistakes, if we all sometimes do bad things, even occasionally evil things—if this is a human problem, not a problem confined to any particular religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or class—then we should be able to look deep into the disorder of our own hearts, and find empathy and compassion and forgiveness and a desire for the other’s wholeness and wellbeing, regardless of what they have done. We should also be able to come together as human beings and find better ways to nurture the good among us while reducing the bad.

Are we up for the challenge? Each of us? All of us together?

(By the way, Christians, this is Sin and Salvation 101. We should be leading the way in empathy and compassion and forgiveness and seeking the wellbeing of others and nurturing the good among us. Faith, hope, and love, you know?)

The Horrors of the Apocalypse

Revelation 6, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: domination, war, economic injustice, and death.

Revelation 8-9, the Seven Trumpets and Three Woes: volcanoes, earthquakes, plagues of insects and disease, and war, always more war.

Revelation 12-13, the Dragon and his Two Beasts: persecution, suffering, martyrdom for those who follow Jesus.

Revelation 15-16, the Seven Bowls of Wrath: the earth, the rivers, the seas, the skies, all touched with degradation and devastation, and death, always more death.

Awful, terrible, horrific things. Things almost too monstrous to mention.

War. Poverty. Drought. Famine. Disease. Climate catastrophes. Natural disasters. Religious persecution. Overwhelming death.

It’s only in the White West where we have had the luxury of being able to imagine these horrors as something still future, some future seven-year tribulation. But tell that to the 40 million who died in ancient China’s Three Kingdoms War, or the tens of millions—half Europe’s population—who succumbed to the Black Death in the Middle Ages, or the millions of indigenous persons swept under the first waves of conquering Europeans, or the millions who perished in the Bengal Famine of 1770, or the tens of thousands of Christians killed for their faith each year around the world.

There is no need to imagine all this as some future tribulation. This has been the human experience throughout our history. It was, it is, and it is to come.

This can be hard to accept on its own, but there’s something else that makes all this even more difficult to accept for us as Christians: Revelation, and indeed several passages in the Bible, describe many of these horrific realities as divine judgment.

But does God, in righteous wrath against sin, actually employ violence and destruction and death to exact judgment, to bring about justice? If so, how do we reconcile that with Jesus’ call to nonviolence, to love our enemies, to forgive seventy times seven times? And if not, how do we make sense of this kind of language in Revelation, or even elsewhere in the Bible?

There are several things in Revelation that suggest that all this is more complex than it first seems, and that notions of God seeking “retributive justice” or using “redemptive violence” are missing the point of Revelation’s language of divine judgment.

Yes, God judges human sin—but not by zapping us with lightning bolts of violence, not by doling out destruction with one hand and death with the other.

Lion-Lamb 2Let’s start with the first major vision of Revelation, Revelation 4-5. This vision sets the stage for everything else that follows in Revelation. It sets the tone for how we should imagine Jesus and God. And there God reigns through Jesus, and Jesus is the Lion of Judah—Israel’s Messiah—who reigns as the Lamb who has been slain.

Jesus does not reign as a tyrant, as a bully, as a cruel and violent despot. Jesus reigns as the one who is willing to die rather than kill, who rejects violence and coercion as the path to justice and peace.

This should sit like a burr in our brain, making us uncomfortable with connecting all these horrific things on earth with God’s reign from heaven.

Then look ahead to one of the last major visions of Revelation, the judgment scene in Revelation 20. There we have another clue that things are not as they seem. There, at the end of God’s judgment of all things, we are told that “Death and Hades” are themselves condemned and eradicated. To put this into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

God does not deal in death; God is out to destroy it.

In short, both the first major vision of Revelation and one of the last visions highlight one crucial fact: violence and injustice and suffering and death are not the way of God, but they are the very enemies of God which God is seeking to eliminate.

So how do we make sense of all the visions in between that seem to say the opposite?

Think of those Four Horsemen of Revelation 6: domination, war, economic injustice, and death. Although these are portrayed as coming at the call of heaven, they are thoroughly human evils, originating in our own human greed and cruelty and reflecting a pattern seen throughout human history.

The same assessment could be made of all the expressions of “God’s wrath” in Revelation. Not just the killing and wars, but even the famines and diseases and degradations of the earth, the sea, and the skies—these are caused by human action, human harm, human sin. These are not “God directly inflicting punishment,” but rather “God giving people up to the consequences of their sinful actions.”

This is exactly how Paul describes “God’s wrath” in Romans 1. Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” And how is that “wrath of God” revealed? Paul goes on: by God “giving us over” to our sins, to experience the full impact of our own destructive attitudes and actions.

No wonder Revelation repeatedly calls on humans to repent.

Then take a look at the two beasts of Revelation 13. Revelation scholars agree that these beasts do not represent specific human leaders (e.g. Nicolae Carpathia) but rather the Roman empire and its imperial cult. These beasts, in other words, are human structures and systems of power gone wrong.

Our human structures for organizing society—our political structures, our economic systems, our religious structures—these can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. At that point, these “powers that be” become “evil powers.” They become beasts.

These beasts, then, and the diabolical ethos that animates them, are not God’s creation. God does not make them. They are not God’s instruments. God does not use them. They are God’s enemies. In fact, we discover by the end of Revelation that the devil and his beasts, all these evil “powers that be,” face the same fate as “Death and Hades”: they are condemned and eradicated.

Evil is not God’s instrument; it is God’s enemy.

God does not deal in death and destruction. God does not stand behind oppressive governments and unjust economic systems. All these things—all the horrors depicted in Revelation, all the horrors experienced in human history—all these things are the very things God condemns, the very things Jesus came to deliver us from.

This way of understanding Revelation is both comforting and disturbing.

It is comforting to know that God does not use violence and destruction and death at all, even to bring about good. As John 10 says, it is the thief who seeks to steal and kill and destroy, not Jesus—Jesus brings life. If there is anything that brings hurt or harm, damage or devastation or death, that thing is decidedly not-God.

SeraphAnd this means there is more than meets the eye in Revelation. All those depictions of God’s judgment being a sort of violent vengeance, a kind of retribution, cannot mean what we think they mean at first glance. God is out to eliminate human sin, evil powers, even death itself—but not human persons. As Ephesians 6 puts it, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

Yet in another way, all this is very disturbing. For it means that we are our own worst enemy. Our selfishness, our self-indulgence, our unbridled aggression, our prejudice, our capacity for cruelty, our political oppression, our corporate greed—this is what lies behind so much of the violence and death our world experiences, the degradation and devastation even of the earth itself.

This is the judgment of God. This is God’s assessment of the human predicament.

Hear, then, what the Spirit is saying to us. Hear the call of God for us to repent, to “come out of Babylon and not take part in her sins,” to resist the lure of our world’s “powers that be” gone wrong, to say a firm “No!” to the corruption and injustice and oppression of human structures of power gone bad. Hear the call of Jesus the Lamb to follow him in his cross-shaped footsteps, his footsteps of selfless self-giving for the good of the other, for the good of all, even in the face of death.

In this is the salvation of God. This is the path to the kingdom of God, God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The (S)Word-Wielder”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 17, 2016. The first image is a painting by Viktor Vasnetsov. All other images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Entering the Apocalypse

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Revelation,” as in the last book in the Bible?

Chances are pretty good you think about “end times prophecy” in some way, Revelation as depicting the end of the world at the end of human history. Probably a “rapture” comes to mind, with all the Christians being snatched up to heaven. There’s likely an “Antichrist” in the mix along with some “tribulation”—you know, with the “mark of the beast” inscribed on people’s foreheads (or micro-chipped under their skin). Almost certainly there’s an all-out “Armageddon” of war and a cataclysmic destruction of the world or “apocalypse” involved.

But these popular ideas about Revelation—and there is no easy way to say this—are simply wrong.

New Testament scholars have pretty much come to consensus on this: while Revelation may well culminate in a vision of a future new creation, the book for the most part is describing realities that were present at the time it was written in the first century Roman Empire. How do they know this?

Lion-Lamb 2First, Revelation is written as a letter: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace…” A man named John wrote this as a letter to seven actual churches, seven ancient churches in Asia Minor or what is now western Turkey (1:4). It is, in other words, much like all the other letters we have in the New Testament—written as a message for specific people at a specific time long past.

And Revelation directly says as much. In describing what John “has seen” in his visions it is portraying both “what is”—realities during the time he was writing at the end of the first century—and “what will happen after this”—in the time that immediately followed (1:19).

Second, Revelation is a kind of ancient literature that historians now know quite a bit about, what is called “apocalyptic literature.” These ancient Jewish writings have similar kinds of images in them: terrifying multi-headed beasts, unusual heavenly creatures, and significant numbers like 3 and 4 and 7 and 12. And all of these are symbolic. This doesn’t mean they are not true—they point to something real, something true, but they do so through symbol and metaphor. All these images and numbers mean something.

And in all these ancient Jewish apocalyptic writings—whether it’s 1 Enoch or 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch or Revelation itself—what these images and numbers point to are realities before or during the time the particular apocalypse was written, with at most a glorious glimpse of an anticipated final future.

So if Revelation is not about some future end-time tribulation and antichrist world leader and total cataclysmic world destruction, what is it all about? What can we expect to find when we read Revelation responsibly? Here are three broad themes that tie in to the original purpose of the book and have profound relevance to us today.

Revelation gives us a critique of power and evil in the world. Structures and systems of power—political, economic, religious, and more—can become inhuman, corrupt and cruel, perpetuating injustice and bringing more death than life. (That’s what the “beasts” are all about.) And we can ourselves participate in these “evil powers” by turning a blind eye to their corruption and injustice in order to maintain our way of life. (That’s what the “mark of the beast” is all about.)

Elder 1Revelation gives us a vision of God’s reign over all things. God reigns as Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer, working out God’s purposes even through all the chaos and conflict on earth. God’s reign of justice and peace through the crucified and risen Jesus is the alternative to the evil powers of our world. (That’s what the “divine throne” and “Lion/Lamb” stuff is all about.)

And so Revelation invites us to worship God, to be devoted to God and God’s ways, and not to swear allegiance to the ways of the world. Revelation calls us to live under the reign of God, seeking justice and mercy even if it means our own suffering, even as we live in a world of human rulers and authorities and powers that often go astray. And Revelation calls us to trust in God, even through our own suffering, even through our own death, that God will bring about true life.

Revelation gives us a unique encounter with Jesus. The word “apocalypse” actually means “revelation,” an “unveiling” of something previously concealed, and this is what the book’s opening statement announces it is: “A revelation of Jesus Christ.” From this opening declaration to the book’s closing benediction, Revelation shows us Jesus—in ways unlike any other portrait of Jesus we find in the New Testament.

We see Jesus as a majestic Lion that rules as a slaughtered Lamb. We see Jesus born as a child-king on earth while all hell breaks loose in the heavens. We see Jesus as a terrifying warrior on his warhorse, wielding a sword which turns out to be a word. We see Jesus as the light of heaven come down to earth, illuminating the nations in a never-ending festival of celebration.

It is Jesus who shows us who God is. It is Jesus who brings about God’s kingdom on earth, who shows us what it means to say “our God reigns.” Jesus, as Revelation states at its beginning and repeats at its end, is “the first and the last.”

Join us at Morden Mennonite over the coming Sundays as we dive into a few key chapters of Revelation, drawing these three threads together: the evil powers of the world, replaced by God’s reign of justice and peace, through Jesus the crucified Lamb and risen Lord. Join us as we join heaven and all creation in worshiping God and the Lamb, who are worthy of our praise. And join us as we seek to follow Jesus more faithfully, witnessing in word and deed to the Lamb who has been slain.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “Why Worship? Why Worship Together?”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 3, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.