Sunday, November 13, 2011

Re-Reading Revelation: Joy and Judgment (Chs. 19-20)

Judgment is something of a frightening theme throughout the book of Revelation. The theme is constant throughout the text. In the prologue, John warns that "the time is near" and, in his greeting, goes farther by warning that "every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail[a] on account of him." While John adds the resignation, "Even so, let it be" there is a certain sense in which you can expect the churches not to want to put their own "amen" on that particular sentiment. In the letters which launch the book, the prospect of judgment for the clearly flawed kingdom of God is frightening. The insinuations included in those letters are given teeth as God acts on His promise of judgment for the rest of the book. Stars fall from the heaven, rivers dry up, monstrous locusts torture humanity, and they are finally harvested into a winepress and crushed to death. Judgment is ugly business.

It would stand to reason then that when the time for final judgment actually rolled around that the Christians in the narrative of Revelation would respond to the prospect of judgment much in the same way we do, with fear, trembling, and uncertainty. It is curious to find that just the opposite is true. After looking on to chapters of the terrible outpouring of God's wrath, the Christians approaching final judgment are positively exuberant. In the course of a single chapter there is a cluster of three of the most exultant hymns of the entire text. First the great multitude sings:

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for his judgments are true and just;
for he has judged the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth with her immorality,
and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.

And the elders answer, "Amen. Hallelujah." Then a voice from the throne says:

Praise our God,
all you his servants,
you who fear him,
small and great.

Then the multitude begins again:

Hallelujah!For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure.

Given that the final roll call is about to be taken, we might expect a great deal more trepidation on the part of the multitude. Instead, they are praising God specifically for the truth and justice of His judgment. Too often, we take away from the text of Revelation just how frightening is the wrath of God, and that is, as far as it goes, an appropriate message. That is not, however, the primary message that the multitude in heaven seems to be taking away from the cosmic judgment drama that it has seen unfold. Quite the contrary, they seem to take note of just how righteously God has dispensed His justice. If you think back on the recipients of divine wrath, they are the sexually libertine, the idolatrous, the apostates, the murderous, and the avaricious. More than anything, however, it is the unrepentant. Quietly, subtly, John issues in Revelation no less than ten different calls to repentance or rebukes for being unrepentant. Faced with the continuous experience of divine rebuke and a constant stream of witnesses to the Gospel--including John, those beheaded for Christ, anyone who reads the text of Revelation, the squatters living under the altar, and other notables--the most notorious targets of God's wrath are those obstinate members of the human race who would still rather debauch, murder, and steal than direct their worship to its appropriate object.

It is no wonder then that the church, clothed in the pure white linen which is "the righteous deeds of the saints," should welcome God's judgment. They have correctly understood the Gospel, that salvation is for all who would turn from sin and to God. Wrath, in contrast, is reserve for those who stubbornly and in spite of all divine prompting prefer sin and death to righteousness and life. This disposition of the church is vindicated as judgment finally plays out. The righteous rule with Christ, heavenly fire consumes the enemies of the church, Satan is cast into the eternal fire with the beast and the prophet, Death follows shortly after into the pit of fire, and all humanity is fairly "judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done."

Judgment should scare us. Clearly Jesus expects it to when he invokes it during the course of his ministry and when he employs the prospect of it to inspire repentance among the churches in Revelation. On the other hand, the fear of the prospect of judgment is certainly only a means to an end. In the final reckoning of things, judgment is not something to be feared but something to delight in, not because we relish the prospect of punishment but because we delight in our service of a just God. Judgment, as much as it is an expression of wrath against evil, is first and foremost the moment our salvation is actualized. It is the moment when, after a life of service and devotion, we come before the throne to hear that our names are written in the Lamb's book of life. All too often, our collective Christian imagination sees final judgment as a moment of intense fear as we stand before a stern judicial figure rescued only by a last minute intercession of Christ as our advocate. The image Revelation gives us is different. It is one of joyous anticipation, in which we can cry out confidently in advance "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just."


For a full list of "Re-reading Revelation" posts, see Re-reading Revelation: Statement of Purpose.

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