1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
The book of Revelation can unnerve even the most mature of Christians. The wild and frightful imagery has inspired much doom and gloom among some interpreters of its words. Many have approached Revelation as a roadmap of the future, a foretelling of horrors to come, especially for those who are “left behind” in the rapture and are subjected to the scheming of the antichrist.
So let me clarify a few misguided assumptions and misinterpretations about Revelation.
There is no antichrist in this book.
There is no rapture in this book.
These are things that certain sects of Christianity, including Darbyism, Dispensationalism, and Christian Fundamentalism, have wrongly imported into Revelation through bad Biblical interpretation.
They are not in Revelation.
Antichrist is only found five times in the Bible, and they’re all in First and Second John (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). And antichrist is not just one person who is coming, but many persons who have already come (c.f. 1 John 2:18). And what John means by antichrist is clearly defined in three ways: Firstly, as someone who denies that Jesus is the Christ; Secondly, as someone who denies the Father and the Son; or Thirdly, as someone who denies that Jesus came in human flesh.
Rapture is a whole other kind of misinterpretation of something Paul mentions in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is definitely NOT rapture as the sects I mentioned describe it.
The powerful imagery of Revelation is actually a common feature the genre of apocalyptic literature. All apocalyptic works contain strange and wild imagery and symbolic numbers and colors. But when we understand how to properly interpret apocalyptic literature, it’s really not so scary. In fact, Revelation was written as a book of consolation to Christians who were under persecution by the Roman state. Revelation is meant to console and reassure us, not cause us to be afraid or worried. It’s meant to strengthen our faith in the present so we can live into God’s future, not to make us afraid of our faith nor afraid of the future.
When Emperor Diocletian tried to enforce worship of the state cult, it was a matter of state control over the populace. John the Seer wrote Revelation to remind his flock that, what was at stake for Christians was their inmost identity. He encouraged Christian not to bow to the Roman state, despite the brutality that state inflicted upon its own people for control of their loyalties: even their souls. Revelation reminded persecuted Christians who and whose they are: where they came from and where they would finally end up whether they died a natural death or were killed in the persecution.
Yet, Revelation has been coopted and misused by some so-called “Christians” to support their hatred of Jews and Catholics, among other groups (as have many other Scripture texts). This misuse of Scripture to support hate is nothing new to Christianity. In light of recent events, including the mass-murder at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I think it’s important that we pay attention to these undercurrents in in our national culture, within the broader church, and do some self-examination within ourselves.
Hateful thoughts lead to hateful speech, which leads to hateful action. Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22 CEB). Why would Jesus say something that sounds so harsh for mere spoken words? Because angry thoughts lead to angry speech, and angry speech quickly leads to angry action. Another wise sage once said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” (Yoda, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace).
When we’re told in Revelation that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that death will be no more. That mourning and crying and pain will be no more, we need to decide what values we want to live into: those of God’s dominion or those of our culture? We need to decide what we’ll allow our thoughts, our speech, and our actions to be. Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause tears, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that dry them? Will we think, speak, and act in ways that cause death and mourning and pain, or will we think, speak, and act in ways that show our love—Christ’s love; God’s love—for the whole of humanity, and our hope for a future that includes everyone?
Because God’s Dominion will include everyone. Revelation describes this more than once by saying, “by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (5:9 CEB) and “there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (7:9 CEB). The gathered host of God’s saints includes people that our culture—and even our government leadership—tells us to fear enough to hate.
Today is All Saints’ Day. In one sense, this is our day of remembrance: our Memorial Day. On this day we remember God’s holy people who have gone before us: those whose names we know and those whose names are known only to God. We remember the saints—the holy ones—because of their noble deeds, their faithful witness, and their martyrdom. These people, fellow members of the body of Christ, have influenced us in many ways whether we know it or not.
It has been said that if we forget the past we’re doomed to repeat it. We know that our world is full of painful and terrible atrocities that we desperately need to remember so that we don’t repeat them. We need to remember them so that we can permanently change our hearts and minds, which is the definition of repentance.
When Joy and I lived in Terre Haute, there was a Holocaust museum called CANDLES. It’s an acronym that stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. The museum was dedicated to remembering what happened to the children at Auschwitz who were tortured in the experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele. In December of 2003, arsonists burned the museum in an attempt to destroy the memory of the Nazi atrocities that the museum existed to preserve, and to silence the stories of both those who were murdered and those who survived Auschwitz.
The burning of the museum outraged many people in Terre Haute, me included. A protest rally was formed, and we marched in silence, holding lighted candles, from the local synagogue to the burned-out museum where we all prayed for an end to violence and hatred.
I remember that, on the way, a little boy ran out of the front door of his house and asked what we were doing. A Jewish man I was walking behind stopped to say, “We are marching because some people have decided to act out in hatred toward others, and all of these marchers are here to say that those who hate and use violence against others will not win. We will not let them win. We are marching because we love peace.” His words stuck with me because he articulated the reason for our silent march so well.
I remember the boy’s reaction, too. He sat down quietly on his porch in the cold December air and watched us walk by. He took it all in, and, though I can’t be sure, I think watching those hundreds of protesters walk silently by his house is something that he’ll always remember: hundreds of people who were marching for peace.
It’s also significant, in light of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, that November 9th and 10th is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. It’s important for us to remember. And it’s important for us to recognize that God’s dominion is one of love. Fear of others and hatred for others will not be tolerated in the future that awaits us. Anti-Semitism cannot exist in the minds or hearts of people who follow a Jewish savior. Hatred for any peoples cannot exist in the minds or hearts of those who follow a Savior who will bring together people from every nation, tribe, language, and people.
As much as All Saints’ Sunday is about remembrance, it’s also about looking forward to where we’re going. “In my beginning is my end,” T.S. Elliot wrote (East Coker in Four Quartets). God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Just as we came from God, God is our final destination. The book of Revelation is eschatology. It’s about the end, but not an end that’s necessarily restricted to chronological or temporal finality. It’s also about the end in the sense of our purpose and goal as people who belong to God.
In that future are a new heaven and a new earth: perhaps pointing to a resurrected heaven and earth since the former heaven and earth will pass away. The sea, which represents the chaos from which evil comes, will be no more. And in John’s vision he saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In early Jewish apocalyptic literature, a heavenly Jerusalem was thought to preexist the earthly Jerusalem (c.f. 4 Ezra 7:26; 8:52, 2 Baruch 4:2-6). Here, John sees New Jerusalem coming down from a restored heaven to a restored earth, where God will dwell among us.
The name of this very Jewish city means city of peace. As a people whose beginning is our end, I encourage us to consider whether peace is truly guiding our hearts. The words of Revelation are trustworthy and true. If we are, indeed, saints—if we are God’s holy ones—then the way we live our everyday lives must be rooted in God’s love and compassion for every human life, not the majority, nor the power-brokers, but every human life: even the most vulnerable and marginalized. Our future home is God’s dominion, and God’s dominion is perfectly cosmopolitan. How we think about other people, how we talk about other people, how we act toward other people: these things matter a great deal. To choose fear, anger, and hatred is to risk finding ourselves on the outside looking in when God’s new reality comes.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay