Here, There or in the Air

Here, There or in the Air

Revelation 20

by Daniel Harrell

I celebrated a birthday last week, and as with each passing year, time seems to go by that much more quickly. Perceptually speaking this is true, of course: as we age each year represents a smaller proportion of our overall life. At age ten a year is a tenth of our existence, at 54 it’s a 54th—so sure, time feels like it flies faster each year. Only it it’s not just a feeling. Historically, time was understood to be constant, absolute and objective: sixty minutes to the hour whatever time zone or dimension you’re in. But Albert Einstein showed passing time to be an illusion: relative and contingent on speed and dimension. As it turns out, reality is comprised of many dimensions, classical physics displays three, Einstein added a fourth, string theory posits ten and quantum theory allows for an infinite-dimensional function space, whatever that means. Time behaves differently depending on where you are. As biologist J. B. S. Haldane famously quipped: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Not only does physics rewind our clocks, but so does philosophy. We tend to think of time as propelling us forward, moving from past through the present to the future. But it’s probably more accurate to view time as moving from the future back at us, toward the present. Then again, even to speak of the present presents its own problems since as soon as we say “present,” it’s already past. This leads some philosophers to call everything the present since right now is all that we actually experience. Time is an illusion, so everything is real all at once. Nothing moves in time, it only has yet to be encountered. The future exists as already happened, just not yet met face to face. Theologians get attracted to this idea. It reminds them of how the apostle Paul spoke of reality as now “seeing through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.”

In this scenario, the infinite God, unbound by time, views past, present and future together as now. I like the analogy of reading the funnies on Sunday. The comic characters reside in two-dimensional space, living life a frame at time, from left to right. The reader, in three dimensional space, can see the whole strip all at once, can scan back and forth, left and right, past, present and future, knowing the punchline before anybody gets punched. (As this is just an analogy, we’ll leave aside the cartoonist so to avoid philosophical debates over determinism and free will—we can’t solve that one this morning). [OFF]

I offer this brief contemplation of time to justify my return to Revelation for Palm Sunday and Easter—I want to finish this series before the second coming. To keep with the analogy, Jesus’ passion and resurrection happen in historical time, yet carry cosmic implications. The incarnation—God alive in the flesh of Jesus—is its own multi-dimensional reality, a portal from heaven to earth. The eternal and infinite God humbly squeezes into time and space as only begotten son. Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem as King of the Jews, but signals his true identity as King of the Universe. Christ’s death on the cross appears to be earthly defeat, but from the dimension of eternity, Christ’s death is the gateway to life.

The apostle Paul spoke of Christians having “been raised with Christ,” even as they still lived and breathed on earth. Along with the prophets, he hints at a dual reality, an existence in Christ with a guaranteed future so sure we can live as if it’s happened already. Revelation gives a glimpse of this guaranteed future, a graphic novel-like depiction of eternity itself. Justice reigns, love wins, evil is defeated, beauty and peace and joy pervade, heaven comes to earth compressing time and eternity together forever.

“Stranger than we suppose, and stranger than we can suppose.” As I’ve said over and over, everybody wants to study Revelation until they actually read it. Still, a couple of you suggested returning to these last chapters for Easter as they do provide the crescendo for the whole arc of Scripture. The Hallelujah Chorus we sing next Sunday derives from Revelation’s victory celebration.

Tradition holds Revelation was envisioned by an exiled apostle John toward the close of the first century AD, particularly to give courage to Christians suffering Roman persecution. Revelation’s is expressly apocalyptic, ancient sci-fi, borrowing heavily from Old Testament sources to show, as with the rest of the New Testament, how the promises of God find their fulfillment in Christ. Revelation’s dramatic assurances of final victory embolden Christians to stay faithful to Jesus, even unto death. Justice will roll down like a river. All things will be made new by God. The dead will be raised. But in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the sovereign God suffers injustice and death alongside his people.

The last time we were in Revelation, the bloodied Lamb from chapter 4 had morphed into the galloping White Rider of chapter 19, his eyes ablaze and his head crowned in glory. With a sword protruding from his mouth, he struck down his enemies, most notably the notorious beast of 666 fame, along with his sidekick the false prophet, both of whom were pitched into a burning lake of fire. The rest of the wicked became a grim buffet on which the vultures of the air feasted. Yet despite this consumption of evil, others remained to be duped by the devil—which was odd given the totality of the white rider’s offensive. How was there any wickedness left?

Remember that Revelation, like eternity, is unfettered by time. It recycles itself, going over and over the same information again and again even as its imagery varies. Revelation repeats its warnings and blessings seven times (seven being the Biblical number for completion) driving home the complete hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.

In chapters 1-3, Jesus called upon seven churches with forecasts of woe and weal, readying them for the apocalypse proper which commenced in chapter 4. Chapters 4-7 revealed seven seals of God’s justice, which rewound and repeated as seven trumpets in chapters 8-11. In chapters 12-14, a woman gave birth to a son whom a dragon awaited to devour, a kind of Christmas story that never makes it to greeting cards. The dragon turned out to be Satan, of course, who with two other demons, the 666 beast and false prophet, made for an unholy trinity of doom. Next came seven bowls of vengeance in chapters 15-16, which rid the world of its evil, epitomized this time by the wicked witch of Babylon. She falls in chapters 17-19, along with her two beastly escorts and the rest of the world’s villainy. All that remains is Satan himself, taking us to chapter 20, which along with chapters 21 and 22, comprise the last of the seven cycles, just in time for Easter.

An angel descends to take out Satan, but rather than toss him into the fiery lake, he sentences the dragon to a thousand years in prison. Given the devil’s monstrous record of depravity, why not the death penalty? We read how after a thousand years, Satan “must be set free for a little while.” But why? Is Revelation anticipating some sort of repentance and rehabilitation? During this thousand year reprieve, those beheaded for their faith, like the 21 Coptic Christians butchered by ISIS last month in Libya, rise up and take their seats alongside Jesus. We read that these headless souls “have been given authority to judge,” but that’s not quite right. A more accurate rendering would be “judgment has been given to them” meaning that justice has been handed down in their favor. They enjoy “the first resurrection”—not to imply that people rise to heaven in bits and pieces. We assume these martyrs are raised as whole people. Christian theology affirms the resurrection of the body, based upon Jesus’ own resurrection after whose ours is patterned. Jesus rose from the grave not as a disembodied soul that gets a better body later.

This may be disappointing to those counting on better bodies, or at least younger bodies, in heaven. And wings and halos, let’s not forget. Near-death narrations notwithstanding, we’re not exactly sure what happens after we die. Advances in biology and neuroscience do suggest, however, that whatever we mean by soul, we don’t mean some separate entity totally disconnected from the brain. This isn’t to say that our souls are our brains, just that its complicated, and certainly mysterious.

I was sharing with the staff over lunch about my stint on a Harvard hospital community ethics committee years ago. Among the many issues we addressed was pediatric organ donation after cardiac death. When is it OK to remove organs for consented transplant from a child whose heart has stopped beating irreversibly? Harvard policy was to wait five minutes, though most hospitals wait only two minutes since two minutes is sufficient time to ensure actual death has occurred. Why the extra three minutes for Harvard? The reason was to provide the deceased with something called “spiritual wiggle room.” Wanting to be sensitive to various religious views, the hospital reasoned that if there is such a thing as a disembodied soul, five minutes should provide sufficient time for a soul to depart its body without any threat of desecration on religious grounds.

While there are many sticky wickets concerning the practice of pediatric organ donation (the ethics of organ procurement itself among them), this particular conflict between soul survival and organ donation was new to me. Nonreligious members of the committee were naturally nonplussed. With hundreds of children desperately awaiting organ donation, why risk organ viability by taking extra time for something that, scientifically speaking, we’re not even sure happens? Was this a hospital or a church? The ethics committee turned to me (the minister) for advice.“Reverend,” they asked, “how long does it take for a soul to depart the body?”

For those of you who’ve read my science and faith book (still available on Amazon for a measly $16), then you know how I answered the ethics committee. Suffice to say the separation of body and soul is not only scientifically suspect, but theologically suspect too. In the Bible, soul is a multi-faceted word that literally means a living being as opposed to a dead one. Paul draws the distinction between a natural body and a spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15, but that distinction should be read as the distinction we make between a corpse (a buried body or what Paul calls a sown body in the ground) and a living body (that is, a raised or resurrected body). Spiritual does not equal nonphysical. The souls of martyrs seated with Jesus are the resurrected bodies of the martyrs, heads intact, the very spiritual live bodies Paul says we all will inhabit. How does this happen? How do I know? I do know that our resurrected bodies can’t be biologically identical to our current bodies which decompose back to the dust—something definitely has to be different. Paul says we will change. What does “resurrection of the body” mean? Without a separate soul, do I just lie in the ground until the last day? That takes too long, so what resurrects?

Paul writes that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” as if the experience is one and the same. At funerals we find comfort knowing our loved ones are with Christ. “We are already seated with Christ,” Scripture assures us, even before we die on earth. If time is an illusion and the future is already now; if earth is but a different dimension from heaven, and we’re characters on the page for the moment, “seeing through a glass, darkly; but then face to face,” if eternity and time do one day compress and all comes together in the present that has always been present, then we can imagine occupying the future and present simultaneously. “Stranger than we suppose, stranger than we can suppose.” Dead to the world but alive to Christ, both at the same time.

The first resurrection raises the righteous. The rest of the dead come to life once the thousand years are ended and Satan is let out of jail. In chapter 21 they’ll be labeled “the cowardly, the faithless, the corrupt, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars.” Unrepentant, their place will be “in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” The first death is the death we all die. The second death separates the chaff from the wheat, the goats from the sheep, the bad fruit from the good fruit, the ruinous from the righteous forever. “Do not be astonished at this,” Jesus said in John’s gospel, “the hour is coming when when all who are in their graves will hear my voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

The resurrected dead, great and small, stand before God’s throne as books open to show us our deeds. Speaking of cartoons, this image from Revelation has provided an eternity of source material. I recall being told at a Young Life camp how God replays our lives as movies instead of books for everybody to see. I think this was supposed to motivate me to be a good boy and get my life into Oscar-winning form, but mostly it just gave me nightmares. The Psalmist rhetorically asks, “If you kept a record of sins, O LORD, who could stand?” According to Revelation, God does keep a record—but not of our sins. The Psalmist answers his own question: “There is forgiveness with you,so that you may be revered.” In Christ, the Lord has forgiven our wickedness and remembers our sins no more. Rather than a rap sheet, Revelation opens a book of life—corroborating evidence, if you will, to God’s mercy and love. Our lives are Oscar-worthy already, produced and directed by Christ. All that’s left to us is to follow the script. There’s nothing you can do to earn God’s grace, but you have to do something to show you’ve received it. Love your enemies. Give your shirt to the one who takes your coat. Give to the poor. Don’t worry about your life. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” All that good stuff Jesus commands. Over and over he said you can tell a tree by its fruit. Grace begets grace. Righteousness begets righteousness. Love begets love.

Which returns us finally to the devil himself. When Satan’s thousand year jail term is over, he’s released from prison only to go out and wreak the same havoc as ever. Satanic evil, it seems, is beyond any hope of rehabilitation. The dragon gathers all who stubbornly refuse the lure of grace, all who refuse to acknowledge their sin and their need for forgiveness―“Gog and Magog” for short, rebellious names gleaned from the prophet Ezekiel. Energized by the dragon, they make one last vain attempt to topple God’s kingdom, only to end up burned up, along with Death and the Grave too. Satan’s released solely for the sake of his doom. It is finished. “Where O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Death’s sting is sin, but thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just in time for Easter. Always on time for us.