This will be my next-to-last TIMEOUT. It has three concerns. First, does history — and history as Revelation presents it — have a punitive logic? This seems to be a big item in the Sabbath School lessons Seventh-day Adventists study this quarter all over the world. Does retribution operate the way presented in our study guide? If the scenes of violence are not instigated by God, what are they?
Second, the lessons push the view known as “historicism.” I shall not revisit the merits of the historicist approach again, but I want to assess the priorities. Does the interest in history compromise theology? Two elements stand out in the historicist version found in the lessons. One is preoccupation with the Roman Catholic Church, the “Beast from the Sea” (Revelation 13:1). The other is an unsubtle wish to see the Seventh-day Adventist Church featured in the last book in the Canon (10:5-7; 12:17; 14:6-12; 19:10). When I ask whether our interest in history compromises theology, I have two pitfalls in mind. With respect to the evil depicted in Revelation, there is a tendency to make an alleged instrument of evil, notably the papacy, eclipse the Dragon, the instigator of evil. With respect to the good described in Revelation, there is a corresponding tendency to allow the witness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to encroach on God — as God is revealed in the testimony of Jesus. If these impressions are correct, we are short-selling the message of this book, and we could be in deep, deep trouble.
Third, one of the most intriguing elements in the book is “the thousand years,” mentioned six times in Revelation 20. “The Millennium” gets one page in the lessons (March 26). It deserves more than that.
According to the Quarterly, we travel through territory replete with retribution by the time we get to the millennium. There is soft retribution in the red, black, and sickly green horses in the seal sequence — described as “the consequences of rejecting the gospel.” There is harder retribution in the trumpet sequence: “the trumpets herald judgments against the inhabitants of the earth.” With the seven bowls, there is retribution without restraint.
With the cessation of Christ’s intercession in the heavenly sanctuary, the destiny of each individual is forever determined. The time has come for those who have spurned the gospel to experience God’s wrath in its fullness.
The unbearable pain inflicted by the plagues does not soften the hearts of unrighteous humanity so as to change their rebellious attitudes. Instead, they curse and blaspheme God, who executes these plagues. Nor do any of them repent.
The proposed scenario is stark. 1) The door of mercy closes. The last train pulls out of the station. Those who are left behind no longer have the option of changing their minds. 2) God’s wrath is poured out, resulting in “unbearable pain.” Who is doing it? God — that is who. 3) The plagues do not “soften the hearts of unrighteous humanity so as to change their rebellious attitudes.” Why don’t they change their minds? They can’t, of course, because it is a premise of the plague sequence that a change of heart is not on offer. Why should we even say that they don’t change their mind when change is not an option? Those who see God-ordained cruelty in this view, may have a point.
Why then is the execution of the last plagues necessary? The reason is found in the underlying theme of the book of Revelation: the wicked must face the righteous judgments of God. In the scene of the opening of the fifth seal, the martyred saints cry out for vindication. Their cry symbolizes the perennial plea of God’s people throughout history for deliverance from rebellious humanity. It is now in the pouring out of God’s final wrath that the prayers of God’s oppressed people are being answered. The wicked must experience the righteous judgments which are appropriate to their sins (cf. Revelation 16:5-7).
Is this really the case? Is this what our church wants to say to the world? Another option lies at hand — that God is not doing it. The attribution in the bowl sequence misses the slander that takes place in the text (16:10-11) and its interpretation. It misses the conflict aspect — what the other side is doing. It misses the theme of revelation as exposé that runs through the seals, the trumpets, the bowls — all the way to the end of the millennium. It compromises “the climax of prophecy” — God revealed in the Lamb that was killed with violence (5:6). It makes it seem like “an eye for an eye” is the teaching of the last book of the Bible, recalling that it is not the teaching of the hard-fought corrective in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-49; cf. Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21).
It restores lex talionis as the logic of Revelation, against the emphatic teaching to the contrary in the Book of Job. This point matters greatly. If Revelation’s concern is to show how the wicked “must face the righteous judgments of God” because of what they do to the righteous, Job’s concern is the opposite: how can it be that the righteous man suffers? Like Job, Revelation takes the harder question seriously, carrying on where Job left off. It takes Job’s theodicy question a notch higher by making it the reason for the crisis in the heavenly council. (I have explored this at length in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense. To those who have tagged along in this series and don’t have the book, I hereby offer it to you for free. Send me your address at [email protected], and I will send you a copy. You will owe me nothing, but you will be obligated to read chapter 14 in the book. If you able, I encourage you to put $25 in the offering plate [the Amazon price] for the church budget of your local church. Or buy a subscription to Spectrum).
“Give back to her as she herself has given, and double to her double for her deeds; in the cup she mixed mix double,” we read in the judgment on Babylon (18:6, translation mine). As a measure of fairness, giving back double is dubious. The premise of lex talionis in the Old Testament is proportionality: the punishment must fit the crime (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). In Revelation, the exclamation conveys seriousness as well as certainty, and the dis-proportionality makes a non-legal point that reflects the way things work in the real world. The cry to “double to her double” is the cry of the mob in the street as it bears down on the victim. What Babylon dished out will come back to her, and it might come back in double measure because the cycle of terror escalates, spinning out of control.
What is the logic of history, then, if it is not punitive? Revelation knows what it is and bears a title to match it. The logic is revelatory. This option is thrown at us from the first word, and it is repeated over and over in all the openings (4:1; 11:19) and disclosures throughout the book. A similar logic of exposé is highlighted by Ellen G. White in a meditation on the meaning of the death of Jesus. “Yet Satan was not then destroyed,” she says. “The angels did not even then understand all that was involved in the great controversy. And for the sake of man Satan’s existence must be continued. The principles at stake were to be more fully revealed.” This view of God’s disposition resonates well with the notion of necessity in Revelation (1:3; 20:3). Time continues not because of a punitive yearning but because revelation has yet to run its course.
History and Theology
Above, I have hinted that the Quarterly’s interest in history puts theology at risk. Let me review two examples of how this works on the bad side of the conflict. 1) In the trumpet sequence, we have a logic of retribution, and we have dubious claims about historical referents: the first two trumpets “herald judgments upon the nations that crucified Christ and persecuted the early church: rebellious Jerusalem and the Roman Empire”; the third and fourth trumpets “portray heaven’s judgment against the apostasy of the Christian church in the medieval period”; the fifth and sixth “describe the warring factions in the religious world during the late medieval and post-Reformation periods.” I don’t mean to be malicious when I call this a sweeping and speculative connection between the text and history. But this is the lesser sin. The greater sin is to emasculate the most head-spinning, bizarre rhetoric in the book for a shallow purpose. Please read Revelation 9:1-21 again — of the fallen star, its descent into the abyss, the darkness that arises from the abyss only to become locusts, the locusts that become scorpions, the scorpions that become horses with heads in the front and at the rear end, heads that look like lions and have women’s hair. I know I am repeating myself, but I hope to see better days for this book. The bizarre imagery in the trumpets is Revelation’s representation of the demonic reality at work in the world. Our lesson and its historicist tenor compromise the theology of these symbols for an utterly unsatisfactory lesson on history.
2) This week we have the woman and the scarlet beast in Revelation 17 as our lesson. In the preterist interpretation, this beast represents the Roman Empire and the return of the emperor Nero. Josephine Massynberge Ford faults this interpretation for making it appear that “Rome sits upon Rome.” In the historicist application of these images, we are hard pressed to distinguish between the woman and the beast. Historicists, too, have “Rome seated upon Rome” and a time period to match it.
Revelation 17:3 describes the scarlet beast in terms similar to the sea beast of Revelation 13, which made war with, and overcame, God’s people (Rev. 13:5–7). It was this earlier period of persecution that caused the pure woman to flee into the wilderness during the prophetic period of 1,260 days/years, from a.d. 538 to 1798 (Rev. 12:13, 14). Though living in an age of ecumenism, Protestants would do well to remember the terrible persecution of the past, because, according to prophecy, something similar, but only worse, will happen again.
What is the theological and historical counterpoint to God? Our lesson is now in an all-in mode to put the Roman Catholic Church at the center.
The scarlet beast is identified as the one that was, and is not, and will ascend out of the bottomless pit and go to perdition. This tripartite phrase is, first of all, a counterfeit of the divine name, Yahweh — “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4, NKJV; see also Rev. 4:8). It also further points to the three phases of existence through which the beast has passed:
(1) The beast “was.” It existed in the past. Its prior activities lasted for the prophetic period of 42 months, also known as 1,260 days/years (see Rev. 13:5 and Lesson 9, Sunday).
(2) “Is not.” With its deadly wound (see Rev. 13:3), the beast went into its nonexistence phase, at least, as a persecutor, in 1798. It vanished for some time from the world scene; yet it survived.
(3) Finally, with the healing of the deadly wound, the beast will regain its power and exert it in full satanic rage.
Let me ask this: Is the Roman Catholic Church the ontological counterpoint to the one “who is and who was and who is to come”? Is there no better candidate? There is surely a better one — the star who fell from heaven to earth (Revelation 9:1-11; Isaiah 14:12-20). Just as Nero is too small for the force and range of these symbols in the preterist fallacy, the pope is, too. In the eyes of the heavenly council, before whom all this takes place, there can be no doubt who is who.
“Is not.” We have heard it said in our time that it matters what “is” is. It matters here, too. Whatever “is” is, it is present tense. We have a phenomenon that “is not” at the time when Revelation was written. Revelation was not written in the eighteenth century. “Is not” — in the present tense and from the vantage point of John — is by this criterion not 1798 when “the beast went into its nonexistence phase,” as the lesson seems to envision. “Is not” in present tense works for the Dragon, who stages a vanishing act that fits the story line in John (12:17; 13:1).
In our lesson, it is all about the papacy.
The seventh kingdom that “has not yet come” is the sea beast of Revelation 13 — the papacy, which dominated and harmed God’s people — that was to come after the time of John and after the fall of the pagan Roman Empire. History has powerfully attested to the truth of this prophecy, written many centuries before the events unfolded.
John is further told that the scarlet beast is an eighth world power, although it is one of the seven heads (world powers). Which of the seven? Because these heads are sequential in time, the eighth must be the seventh head that received the deadly wound. It is at the time of this eighth world power that the scarlet beast appears, carrying and advancing the goals of the harlot Babylon. Today, we live at the time of the healing of the deadly wound. This eighth world power will appear on the scene right before the end and will go to perdition.
If I were the Devil, I would be offended to see myself marginalized and overshadowed by lesser phenomena like Nero or the pope. But I would mostly be happy because my kind thrives on anonymity and concealment. Our interpretation compromises the force of the symbols in this chapter just as it does in the trumpet sequence, assigning a role to the Roman Catholic Church where Revelation has Satan in its sight. The one “who was and is not” works as a contrast between God and Satan; it works as a representation of Satan because he ascends from the abyss; it works for the present tense “is not”; it works for the Dragon that staged a vanishing act (12:17); it works by the fact that “he is an eighth but also of the seven” (all of them); it works marvelously by twice echoing the prediction that “he goes to self-destruction” (Revelation 17:8, 11; Isaiah 14:20). Most of all, it works because the heavenly council is more interested in this character than in Rome or America.
We have prioritized a historical concern (and prediction) that has made us less interested in the theological core issue in the cosmic conflict. Our field of vision is narrowed into a preoccupation with the papacy and Rome at the expense of other things in history. Try as we do to make 1798 an important event, the date did not change much. Try as we do to make Mussolini’s concordat with the Roman Catholic Church in 1929 a landmark in history, it is at best a small bump in the road. Meanwhile (back at the farm), Satan fired off other manifestations of the demonic in history, such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and he is not done. Against our narrow prophetic horizon, history is an offense simply by continuing without regard for our belief that it should end. Here I am, writing this TIMEOUT on a sunny Friday morning in Weimar, Germany, the home town of Goethe and Schiller, and the town where Nietzsche spent the last three years of his life. That, too, is an offense because Nietzsche was born in 1844.
Just as the Roman Catholic Church eclipses Satan with respect to the activity on the bad side in the conflict, the Seventh-day Adventist Church competes with God for space on the good side. We have written ourselves into Revelation’s timeline and cast of characters (10:5-7; 14:6-12; 12:17; 19:10). On Revelation 12:17, we still make the following claim:
Therefore, “the testimony of Jesus” refers to Jesus testifying to the truth through His prophets, just as He did through John (Rev. 1:2). Revelation shows that at the time of the end, God’s people will have the “spirit of prophecy” in their midst to guide them through those difficult times, as Satan will make every effort to deceive and destroy them. As Adventists, we have been given that gift of prophetic insight in the ministry and writings of Ellen G. White.
This text is not about our witness to Jesus or a prescient technical term for an inspired writer in the nineteenth century. Instead, it speaks of the constancy of God that was demonstrated in the costly testimony of Jesus. That testimony, in turn, has the Lamb that was “killed with violence” as its focal image (5:6). That testimony solves the crisis in the heavenly council. As noted in a previous submission, it belongs to a set of paired phrases scattered throughout Revelation.
the word of God as explained by the testimony of Jesus Christ (1:2)
the word of God as explained by the testimony of Jesus (1:9)
the commandments of God as explained by the testimony of Jesus (12:17)
the commandments of God as explained by the faithfulness of Jesus (14:12)
the testimony of Jesus as it explains the word of God (20:4).
I say it again: There is a melody in this book, a theme, even a refrain. God has been explained in the world through the witness of Jesus. We will lose nothing if we put ourselves at the periphery in these texts or say with John the Baptist, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). We will lose nothing if we say that “the testimony of Jesus” is the testimony Jesus gave. Not one of the key affirmations of the Seventh-day Adventist witness will suffer if we scale back our claims about ourselves. Conversely, much will be gained. In a world that is perplexed over the sense that God is absent, it matters little what we are. (We saw the house where Nietzsche spent the last three years of his life this morning, and Nietzsche said that God is dead). It matters not what we are, but it matters what God is — as God has explained himself in “the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17).
After the Thousand Years
I grew up in a small inland village in the south of Norway. We were the only Seventh-day Adventists in the village, caught between a sizeable contingent of conservative Lutherans who looked on us with contempt and another sizeable contingent of secular people who were quite nice to us. My father was a colporteur and an activist who did not like to take “no” for an answer. I was no more than eight years old when he bought a large tape recorder and a slide projector. Soon thereafter we received a series of slides and tapes recorded by the president of the West Nordic Union of Seventh-day Adventists, Alf Lohne. He was a gifted speaker and a tireless innovator who later became a division president and a vice-president of the General Conference. In his retirement, I got to know him well.
My parents invited fellow villagers to our home to watch and listen to Lohne’s presentations. A few people came, far fewer than my father had hoped but enough to make it meaningful. I have no clear memory of the topics in the series except for one, on “the thousand years” or, as it says in Norwegian, “Tusenårsriket” (20:1-10).
Perhaps my fascination with the topic says a lot about me, but I remember it well. I can still summon pastor Lohne’s winsome voice and the “pling” of the recording that reminded us to advance to the next slide. Here, sixty years later, nothing has changed. Alf Lohne could have written these lessons, at least the one on “Tusenårsriket.” And all would be fine. No, Satan is not bound by force but by circumstances (20:1-2). Yes, the redeemed are in heaven, as Lohne and our lessons prove by other texts in the New Testament. Yes, the New Jerusalem descends to earth after the thousand years. Yes, the wicked will burn in fire that falls from heaven (20:7-10), but they will not burn forever. This was the hard part for pastor Lohne and for my father, and few in our village were convinced. They had the third angel’s message to prove that it is “forever” (14:9-11), and they had a resilient belief in the immortality of the soul. The series in our living room did not win any converts, but it created a memory for me that I still hold dear.
Our lesson says that after the thousand years, the redeemed “are now ready to witness the administration of God’s justice at the final judgment of the lost.” I take this to mean that we should believe that the redeemed will see and accept that God burns the wicked alive in fire that falls from heaven. The thousand years have prepared them. This was pastor Lohne’s view, too. I cannot remember when it ceased to be my view.
I have reached my self-imposed word limit and will not have space for the seven or eight reasons I have in my forthcoming commentary to counter this entrenched view. Here in Weimar we have had a busy day seeing the houses of Goethe and Schiller, Albert Schweitzer and Franz Liszt, Nietzsche and (for a short time) Hans Christian Andersen. We have also been to Buchenwald, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer served time before he was executed at Flossenburg. The scene that moved us the most was a snippet from the movie that we saw with fifty German school children who were there today. After the camp was liberated by American soldiers, they forced one thousand of the remaining citizens of Weimar to go to the camp to see the horror for themselves — for the revelation, not for the retribution.
If God is not dead, as Nietzsche asserted, God has left evil on a long leash. The most counter-intuitive disclosure in the book we are studying, other than the Lamb that was killed with violence (5:6), is the report that “after the thousand years, Satan must be released for a short time” (20:3). This is not what most responsible law enforcement agencies would do. And yet God does it, and God must have a good reason. I have grappled with this in Saving God’s Reputation and in my forthcoming commentary. In my reading, the plot that culminates in Satan’s release is anchored at the beginning (Isaiah 14:12-20; Genesis 3:1-6). When the voice of the Ancient Serpent was heard in Genesis, it made lack of freedom a characteristic of God’s government (Genesis 3:1). In Revelation, it is the logic of freedom that leads to Satan’s release. Within the logic of freedom — precisely the quality said to be lacking in God — Satan goes forth to work his undoing (Revelation 20:7-9).
This is revelation at work, not retribution.
Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019
Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019
Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019
Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019
Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019
Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019
Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019
Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019
Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019
Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019
Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019
Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019
Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019
Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019
Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019
Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019
God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019
Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” March 8, 2019
Armageddon Retrospect, March 12, 2019
Timeout: Armageddon Prospect, March 15, 2019
The Beast that Is an Eighth, March 20, 2019
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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