Is it time to lose the whole judgment part of Christianity -- to consign the Bible passages about God's wrath and retribution to the ash heap of history?
It's tempting to throw off judgment entirely, particularly in the season of joy and peace. Bible readings in Christian worship during December are full of promise and compassion, hope and renewal. That aligns perfectly with some of the Christian Bible's most foundational texts, which identify God -- first, last and foremost -- with love (e.g., Matthew 22:34-40, John 3:16, 1 John 4:8).
How ironic, then, that the Bible readings in November are so different. The Episcopal daily lectionary -- a schedule of readings for prayer, worship and study -- dragged us unremittingly through the Book of Revelation. Much of the book's wild symbolism portrays God's vengeance upon evil: there are plagues and death and torture everywhere.
It's pretty horrible reading for postmodern folks like us. Can we scrap it and just feel the love?
Perhaps. But if we do, we may miss out on the chance to learn something deeper about God. So this past month, rather than dismiss it entirely, I tried to "peer into the text" to suss out something -- anything -- that the judgment passages might say to us.
The Book of Revelation has been interpreted in many ways. Perhaps best known is the literal reading promulgated by certain groups of Christians, some of whom have spent untold time and energy trying to connect specific symbols with current events. More broadly accepted among scholars, and more compelling to me, is the idea that Revelation is a symbolic rendering of first-century concerns, particularly the Roman Empire or a local persecution. The book was, in this view, intended to encourage the Christians of that day. (Professor L. Michael White's exposition of Revelation on the PBS Frontline website is a worthy introduction to the book.)
In any event, I can sympathize with the thinking of John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, who wrote that "if all the copies of the book of Revelation were lost tomorrow, I do not believe much of value would disappear."
Over the days of November, however, something else emerged for me -- something more timeless and more in line with the God I've come to know.
Simply put, I began to see a God with a passionate, all-consuming desire to make things right in the world.
This God aims to overturn the perpetrators of oppression, cruelty and violence that have proliferated on earth since the beginnings of humankind. This God aims to bring about what the Gospels call the "reign of God," in which all are treated with equity, all are valued and all are loved. This God commits entirely to involvement with the world and its peoples. It is the sort of God celebrated toward the end of Revelation (21:3-4):
See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
This "God who makes things right" appears in many of the more violent passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. God threatens Israel's leaders with judgment for rendering injustice to the people; nations surrounding Israel are warned for their unjust dealings; the psalmists seek vengeance on those who have neglected or oppressed the poor. It all plays out in the (to us) painfully graphic, cringe-worthy language of the ancient world.
This "God who makes things right" is not only deeply involved with the world, but committed to bringing justice and healing to the world. This sounds much more aligned with the God who "is love."
I don't pretend that every Bible passage about judgment (and there are many) squares with this interpretation. The notion of divinely inspired genocide, for instance, as described in the Book of Joshua, is impossible for me to swallow. Perhaps, though, this different reading of Revelation provides an alternative way to interpret the judgment of God -- a way that brings justice and love together as two parts of the Whole.
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