My final post in the three part “The End is Near” series.
“11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them.12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.13And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:11-15
I have to admit, I have some anxiety when I am reading a suspenseful book or watching a gripping movie. I am not proud of this, but sometimes when a book has a lot of suspense, I will flip to the last chapter and read a bit of it just to make sure everything turns out okay, or at least that one of my favorite characters doesn’t die. I know it’s cheating. When it comes to movies, I have to ask friends about them to make sure that I can handle the suspense. It can be a little bothersome as I ask friends mid-movie if everything is going to be okay. I blame my very active imagination for my inability to withstand suspense for too long. As a creative person, I am capable of suspending my disbelief, and I am able to visualize everything I read. I think that is why the first time I read Revelation, I was more than disturbed. I didn’t understand it, nor did I think it fit the character of God or Jesus that I had read about in other scriptures; or the Jesus that I thought I knew. The idea that there would come a time when Christ would sit as a giant unfeeling judge, choosing who was in and who was out, seemed different than the Jesus that was so gentle with the outsider in the gospels. I liked the imagery of Jesus with the woman who had been accused of adultery, who was facing a crowd that was ready to stone her. Jesus, with his ultimate grace and kindness, saves her saying, “whoever has not sinned, go ahead and throw the first stone.” He seems to be the opposite of this judge who casts people into a fiery lake. Now that I think about it, I am really glad I didn’t flip ahead and read this first; I am not sure I would have kept reading the rest of the book.
So how do we read the book of Revelation and how does it predict or relate to the end times? I cannot pretend that in one blog post I can completely answer this question, but I hope to be able to take away some anxiety and to see Christ’s coming again as a promise and not a threat. What I can tell you is that I have read scripture in its entirety, and it is an amazing book of poetry, narrative, law and symbolism. We must not separate any piece of scripture from the total message of its entirety. The whole of scripture is the story of God and God’s unending, loving pursuit of His people. Revelation, in all of its symbolism and mystical imagery, is no different – it is also the story of God’s pursuit. As confusing as it can seem, Revelation is a book of hope, and not one of judgment.
When we read Revelation we have to remember the atmosphere that it was written in. John was most likely in exile. He is having a vision. This was never meant to be understood as simply as predictions of a future time. They were not just describing an ultimate end; they were also describing a current situation in the city of Babylon, which is Rome. John is offering God’s critique of the current state of Rome. One had a tendency to lose one’s head or worse for critiquing Rome or its citizens. John had to write using common imagery and symbols to help people evaluate the current cultural milieu. The people of Jerusalem as mentioned in Revelation are those who are willing to be set apart from the ruling way of life or the way of Babylon. John wanted to encourage people that in the end the way of the Kingdom wins out, so be patient. According to other scripture (Matthew 28:18, etc) and John’s own writings, Jesus was already reigning. The idea that Jesus would come back to reign for a period of time doesn’t make sense if Christ is already reigning.
Could it be possible that the end times is the time when the Kingdom of God, already enacted, will come into fullness? When earth and heaven will literally combine. Is the end times the time of ultimate redemption and completion of all the places where the kingdom of God has already begun? There isn’t enough room to go into all the places where metaphor and symbolism seem to be at play in scripture, but I would like to share a passage from N.T Wright’s incredibly helpful ‘Revelation for Everyone.’ Wright brilliantly articulates,
“We must hold on to the central things which John has made crystal clear: the victory of the lamb and the call to share his victory through faith and patience. God will do what God will then do. Whether we describe the final events as Revelation 20 has done or as Paul does in Romans 8:18-26 or 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, it is clear that the one who wins the victory is the creator God, who does so to defeat and abolish death itself and so to open the way to the glories of the renewed creation. That is what matters.”
Any scholarship on the end times or what is meant by certain depictions are people’s best guesses, and we cannot base our fears or faith on those guesses. There is a sense of suspense as we think about where all of this is headed, but we must take the entirety of Scripture to remind us that in the end what matters most is that God pursues us and will stop at nothing to bring all things into redemptive relationship with Him. That doesn’t sound threatening to me; instead, I find it promising.