True religion concerns itself with the giveness of the timeless. An idolatrous religion is one in which time is substituted for eternity … either past time in the form of a rigid tradition or future time in the form of progress toward Utopia … Nationalism, Communism, Fascism, all the social pseudo-religions of the twentieth century are idolatries of future time … And it is only by deliberately paying our attention and our primary allegiance to eternity that we can prevent time for turning our lives into a pointless and diabolical foolery.
Faith is present-oriented; it opens us to growth in Christ’s likeness and encourages us to work here and now for a more humane society for the sake of God’s kingdom. Faith is future-oriented; it gives confidence that, in God’s time, Christ will complete the good work he has begun in us, wipe away all tears, right all wrongs, blot out death with resurrection life, and bring in fully his kingdom of love and righteousness. Faith embraces God’s kingdom as a present possession and a future hope. That is faith’s double vision.
We humans — finite creatures whose spirits yearn for completeness in eternal fellowship with God and his people — can apprehend time and eternity only in tension, and then only as we experience present time and as God reveals past and future time to us. His mind alone has the capacity to contain the gigantic “historical” dimensions of past, present, and future. Only God can share the triple vision of our past, present, and future orientation in the context of eternity. That is precisely what he has done — and still does.
The record of that deed is in the scriptures. They are the handiwork of Spirit-prompted human writers who recorded God’s progressive self-revelation in this present world of time-space-human relations as they apprehended it. From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical story testifies that God has acted and will continue to act in human history until He, acting in His end-time, brings in fully His kingdom of love and righteousness and Christ shares His massive victory with those who have kept faith in Him until the end. It is this assurance of Christ’s final victory and the fulfillment of every Christian’s faith that the last book in the Bible-the Revelation of John-communicates to the faithful in every age.
Getting at the Message in the Book
From the beginning, some Christians, misusing the book, have predicted that the end of the world would occur on this or that particular date. Paul himself, living almost a half century before this “book” was written, expected Christ to return during his lifetime. But no one, Jesus said, knows when he will come in power and glory except the Father. He admitted readily that he did not know the day or hour. He urged his hearers to be ready at all times to welcome him when he returns.
Faith is a relationship with Christ, entered into freely, that matures through intimate involvement with growing dependence on, and obedience to him. Sometimes this growth comes in a quantum leap as it did for Paul on the Damascus road. More often, growth comes imperceptibly and spasmodically in hours of public worship, seasons of prayer, personal and social problem-solving, and anguished brooding over one’s own and others’ needs in the light of God’s grace. The faith-relationship, life itself, is a countinuing gift from God who seeks us through his own pain as well as through our pain. The apocalypse of John is not a time-table of God’s future activities.
Neither is the book a literal description of heaven. Heaven is eternal, not temporal. The cosmos, most physicists agree, had a beginning and it will have an ending. But “heaven” has no spacetime limitations. It lies beyond scientific description. It has no boundaries; it cannot be measured, classified, catalogued. Heaven cannot be described historically or aesthetically as London and San Francisco and Hong Kong can be described, although the most perceptive descriptions of these timespace communities fail to capture their richly-textured ambiance.
Heaven is a relationship grounded in God’s love of people and their love for him and one another. It is a relationship in which his image is restored in all persons who are faithful to Christ to the end. Heaven — the kingdom of God in its full power and glory — is beyond our present range of experience. “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard ….” To describe heaven, therefore, the writer of the Book of Revelation uses metaphoric rather than factual language: a series of symbols that represent realities which the human mind cannot apprehend from human experience.
A good metaphor enables the reader or hearer to perceive the reality behind the appearance, the truth enshrined in the concept. Since metaphor is used appropriately in Revelation, it is not expendable. We cannot tamper with the form of the book without distorting its content. We must learn to read the Revelation of John imaginatively, but in the context of its historical origins, being careful not to confuse symbols with facts. And, as with all scripture, we must interpret its message in the light of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection.
Finally, the book of Revelation is not a postscript tacked on to the Christ-message by a despairing band of second century Christians whistling in the dark. It is a substantive Christian document that applies Jesus’ eschatological teaching (the doctrine of the end-time of history) in a particular situation. It throbs with the glorious message: When Christ comes again (and he will in God’s “time”), every tongue will confess him Lord and every knee will bow before him as the kingdoms of earth fall before God’s kingdom of justice and love. Christus Victor will share his smashing triumph over sin, death, and the demonic with those who stand with him to the end. The apocalypse of John is God’s ringing promise that faith will be fulfilled.
Toward the close of the first Christian century (A.D. 90-100), the government of Rome, losing its resilience and vitality, initiated its second Empirewide effort to stamp out Christianity. Diocletian’s totalitarian government demanded that all the people in the Empire acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. Any Christian could have burned incense, declared publicly that Caesar was god, and continued to worship Christ secretly. Many did. Some did not; they worshiped Christ as King of kings and said so. These bold witnesses, marching to another drumbeat, were searched out by the Roman “Gestapo” as political subversives. They were threatened, imprisoned, slaughtered in the Roman coliseum, or exiled.
The writer of the Revelation of John was one of the thousands of non-conforming Christians who had been exiled to the island of Patmos to work the marble quarries there. The political prisoners in the concentration camps on Patmos — which lay southwest of Ephesus where Paul had preached the gospel a half century earlier — were over-worked, ill-fed, and cruelly treated; thousands died. Their desperate situation flattened their faith. The writer of Revelation, like Ezekiel who had shared the lot of his people in their bondage in Babylon, wrote from the depths of his own “hopeless” historical situation. He encouraged his persecuted fellow-Christians on Patmos and in other places throughout the Empire to remain steadfast in the faith in spite of hunger, bodily abuse, separation from loved ones, and premature death because Christ would, when he came again, liberate the faithful beyond history. The book of Revelation assured those who remained loyal to Christ that their faith would be fulfilled.
The soaring promise in Revelation can be summed up in four words: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” No book in the Bible rolls that truth down the center lane of human experience into the libraries of secular history with larger force than the book of Revelation. Everything is the Lord’s. The final victory is his. Jesus Christ is Lord. The twentieth century church needs to hear this message no less than the exiled Christians on Patmos needed to hear it.
Our social institutions, however much we improve them — and we must — cannot save us. Our technology has no more power to liberate us from sin and death than the “golden calf” had to save the Israelites. Ultimate faith in creature-made means is not grounded in reality. They fail and pass away. The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome are gone. The British Empire wasted away after World War I. The “1000-year” Third Reich was a mass of smoldering ruins within twelve terror-filled years.
The only faith that will be fulfilled accepts and honors Christ as Lord, because it grounds itself in his victory over sin, death, and the demonic and in his promise to come again in his full power and glory in God’s “end-time.” Only Christ can save us from lives of pointless and diabolical foolery. The English historian, Herbert Butterfield, understands that: “Hold fast to Christ and loosely to all else.” That is the urgent plea in the book of Revelation.
What the Message Means for Our Faith Today
The book of Revelation is an ethical literature that centers on the character and timeliness of God’s judgment not only of persons, but also of all “principalities and powers.” The Christian philosophy of history is at the center of it.
As long as human beings have reflected critically on good and evil, they have fashioned philosophies of history that reflect their moods and cultures. The cyclical view of history, for example, contends that what happened in Germany in the 1930s had happened essentially scores of times before and would happen again and again in other nations until the end of time. The practical effect of this philosophy is plain: “History is a merry-go-round. Life has no purpose. You only go around once. Get your gusto now.” Some historians summarize this cyclical view in a single sentence that crackles with cynicism: “The only thing man learns from history is that man never learns from history.” History is meaningless because human life does not have purpose or meaning. Hundreds of millions of people — educated and uneducated, poor and rich, old and young — orient consciously and unconsciously to this paralyzing view. It is personally debilitating and socially destructive. The Greek historian Thucydides observed that what people dread will happen, yet do nothing to prevent happening, does happen. The English statesman, Edmund Burke, observed that the only condition needful for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. The cyclical view of history is fatalistic.
An opposite view, framed by humanists, contends that human beings do learn from history. All advances in the present, they point out, root in the past. This philosophy argues specifically that the goal of human life is human freedom. History, therefore, is the meaningful story of humanity’s movement toward that goal. There is a measure of truth in this philosophy, but the over-all view is flawed. It does not reflect human sin in depth, the uncertainties inherent in human freedom, and the ambiguities (“accidents”) of history. It ignores the view that God is at work in human history accomplishing his purposes. World events since 1914 have discredited this philosopy. It is essentially Utopian.
Another philosophy, antithetical to the humanist view, is economic determinism. It takes various forms in modern history — community ownership, capitalism, state socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism. Economic factors are a powerful force in human history, but to make of them a philosophy of history takes too narrow a view of human life. It takes no account of the people in every generation who, exercising their individual freedom of choice, are motivated by values other than material security. History is more complex than the interplay of economic factors. This view of history is ideological; in short, unrealistic.
The current critical re-examination of long-held values and expectations in Western society would be a more productive personal and social experience if it were done in the context of the Christain philosophy of history: Christ is Victor; hold fast to Him and loosely to all else. The final victory belongs to Him and to those who are fortified by faith in Him. God is at work in history accomplishing His purposes. The end of history, consequently, is the full coming of His Kingdom of Justice, love, peace, and creative relationships. It is this affirmation of the Christian philosophy of history that gives the apocalypse of John its primary value for today.
A second enduring value of the book of Revelation is that it is the only book in the New Testament that sets forth the judgment that Christians should keep all political states under critical surveillance. It argues implicity that every political state becomes the anti-Christ unless its power is limited deliberately by the governed. Paul, who taught that political societies are ordained by God to establish order with justice, did not suggest or imply that any single political society is sacred or eternal. It is also true that he did not spell out the specific dangers inherent in all political states. He may have placed larger confidence in the Roman government than he should have done. His appeal to be tried as a Roman citizen in the court of Rome appears to have cost him his life. Relatively just political states fail to dispense full justice to all their citizens.
The Spirit-prompted author of Revelation, writing in an era when the Roman government was exiling and killing those who violated its decrees, identified that particular government as the anti-Christ. The obvious theological implication of this view is that any sovereign political state in any historical era that insists on uncritical allegiance to all its demands, silences dissenters covertly or overtly, attempts to impose its will on other sovereign states, and risks vainglorious wars is the anti-Christ.
Another enduring value of the book of Revelation for our faith comes into focus when its message is linked with Jesus’ teaching and demonstration that God’s kingdom came into this world in His person. Calling His followers salt, leaven, and light, He encourages and empowers us to work with Him in building a more humane society in our historical situation for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This task involves us in politics as well as in prayer and worship.
The message in Revelation is that the Kingdom yet to come in its full power has already come into history in the person and message of Christ. It is, therefore, not only an event that we wait for but an event that we work with here and now. The beatitudes are mundane as well as eschatological. Peace, social-economic justice, human dignity, and the care of the earth are Christian tasks to be taken up now. The Book of Revelation keeps before us the reality that while we cannot create the Kingdom of God on earth, we can make our human societies more just.
Revelation provides the perspective and the dynamic for the followers of Christ to think the best of thoughts and “do the best of deeds in the worst of times,” and — while defeated in this work as often as not — to continue doing good, confident that they are on the winning side with God who is at work in and with them here and now. Faith crusades against evil in one’s self, other selves, and in all social institutions. In this immediate sense (no less than in the ultimate sense) faith is the victory that overcomes the world.
President Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, applied this Christian truth magnificently after his stroke and subsequent failure to get the United States to take its place in the League of Nations: “I would rather fail immediately in a cause that will ultimately succeed than succeed immediately in a cause that will ultimately fail.”
A fourth value of John’s vision on Patmos resides in its soaring assurance that Christ will complete the good work he has begun in each faithful person. The resurrection-life begins in faith-commitment to Christ (
Even so, Christ enables us to love life here and now without illusions about ourselves, others, or the power of our institutions and technologies to save us; to love life now in spite of its incompleteness; and to love life beyond death because in our “end-time” he will complete the good work He has begun in us. Our death is not the annihilation of our personalities but the fulfillment of them in Christ and His community of love.
All faithful persons — flawed by sins of the spirit; shamed by dark deeds; mishapen by physical handicaps; warped by mental defects; crippled by emotional traumas; embittered Ly the lovelessness of others; cut down before “their time” by disease, poverty, hunger, miscarriages of justice, pestilence, and war — will be made whole. The sufferings of this present time are “slight” when they are compared with the “weight of glory” Christ bestows on the redeemed in His Kingdom.
The book of Revelation assures us that the sovereign God who will appear in the end-time with a spectacular display of His dazzling power is the same loving God who created us, sought us out and shared our common lot in Jesus, and judges us as mercifully as the resurrection-Christ when we meet Him face-to-face. In that “hour beyond history, the omnipotent, righteous God will act toward the faithful in the same loving way that He acted in Jesus of Narareth: “Fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” While the faithful experience degrees of blessedness in doing God’s will in history, their true destiny “lies in the eternal order, and eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things the Lord has prepared for them that love him.”
Revelation’s message is the ground of our hope; faith in Christ will be fulfilled. We twentieth century pilgrims need to hear again and again on our lonely isles of Patmos that Christ will “wipe away all tears.” We need to hear in the humiliation of our earthly defeats that His victory will banish the tyranny of sin, shatter the shackles of death, and cast into outer darkness the demons that terrorize us. When the heavens and earth pass away, when the cosmos disappears with one last gasp for an exhausted energy, Christ’s little “flock,” the faithful, will live as whole persons in His Kingdom of love. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.
Meantime, our faith in Christ — darkened by our doubts, shaken by our defeats, marred by our defections yet renewed daily by the Holy Spirit — transports us beyond grim survival into luminous moments of shared life with Christ and His followers here and now and, at the same time, works in us the energizing confidence that He who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion in that realm where His reign endures forever.
Faith in Christ is the bright, open road to Victory. It is God’s own Son who promises, “Yes, indeed! I am coming soon!” And we, faltering yet faithful, respond, “So be it. Come, Lord Jesus” (
So we look to that glorious day when our battered faith, finished and fulfilled, will pass away, and with it our realized hope, while God’s love for and in us and others will abide forever (