Like a Thief in the Night

Like a Thief in the Night

Revelation 16

by Daniel Harrell

My daughter Violet broke her leg before she learned to walk—and it was mostly my fault. Soon after she learned to pull herself up to standing at 9 months, she was doing just that using an ottoman that sat in our living room. She used the ottoman because I’d irresponsibly left our TV remote sitting on it. Violet pulled up on the ottoman to grab the remote, but in reaching for it, let go of her hand, lost her balance and fell back onto her leg—and fractured it. I knew better than to leave the remote lying where she could get it since no matter how many toys we surrounded her with, invariably she wanted the remote, further evidence, perhaps, of humanity’s innate draw toward flashy bright screens. Our TV remote was taboo mostly because Violet liked to chew it, but Dawn and I also wanted to keep her away from TV as long as we could, what with all of the violence that fills that flashy bright screen. We’re still trying, as I narrated last Sunday, having chopped our DirecTV dish off the roof. But that’s only got rid of the sports. (By the way, thanks to so many of you for excusing my hypocrisy and inviting me over to watch the Ducks get beat on Monday.) As for keeping Violet from violence, if I was more deeply concerned, I’d pitch our TV and disconnect the Internet. Shoot, if I really cared, I’d get rid of the Bible too.

You heard what was read from Revelation 16 this morning: Malignant boils covering the skin! Oceans and rivers turned to blood! Demonic frogs! Epic hailstones pile-driving people into the dirt! Global war! Environmental cataclysm! 2014 was the hottest year on earth in recorded climate history, but according to Revelation, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Granted, with Revelation, violent scorched-earth scenarios are standard fare. Seven bowls of serious hot dish stoke the fury already fueled by seven vehement trumpets and seven seals. On this Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday devoted to Christian non-violence, you have to wonder when all the Christian violence will end. We got a bit of reprieve last Sunday, a victory hymn thrown in the mix, but this week it’s back to calamity. Nevertheless, the end is in sight: As a seventh angel spews ruin into the air, the thunderous voice of the Lord booms from above and declares (with a nod to Jesus’ last words on the cross), “it is finished,” though three chapters of grisly detail remain.

These last seven bowls do finally exhaust God’s raging anger, but in doing so they exhaust the entirety of creation. Human sin has environmental consequences. A dead sea destroys aquatic life. Coagulated rivers poison drinking water. The sun’s intensified heat cooks the planet to a char. Desiccated and well done, inhabitants look to the Antichrist for deliverance, but the Beast is nowhere to be found, his throne plunged into darkness by God. Smoldering wretches are left to writhe in agony and gnaw on their tongues. The sixth bowl unloads burning asphalt over the great river to pave the way for a last gasp invasion against God. With their own final breaths, the dragon, the beast and false prophet—the counter-Trinity of devilry—each yak up frogs, demonic spirits capable of mobilizing armies for world war. Lightning and thunder crash, as the Lord arms himself for Armageddon with vengeance on the menu. Jesus who stood at the door and knocked back in chapter 3 now readies to blast the door off its hinges.

And yet we see surprising restraint. The vile enemies of God who shed the blood of his saints do not lose their own blood. Though they murdered the faithful who refused to worship the beast, these villains refusing to worship the Lord only suffer severe skin infections. It’s as if God who punishes their villainy still wants them back. The door blown from its hinges remains open to a change of heart. There remains, however, only hardness of heart. Despite blistering sores and blistering heat, unquenchable thirst and impenetrable darkness, despite personal devastation and natural disaster, these who rejected grace refuse to budge. Not only do they stubbornly resist, but they lash out, cursing God in a perverse display of defiance.

Can repentance be coerced? Does contrition even count if it’s forced? If God’s ultimate desire is reconciliation, why resort to violence to achieve it? The scriptures define the Lord as “not wanting that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” God holds out even for the hold out, ferociously twisting their arms that they might see the absurdity of the swine slop they’re eating, come to their senses and come home. But is bullied reconciliation ever truly reconciliation? Sometimes. Attitudes shape actions to be sure, but it also works the other way around. Force enemies to shake hands or else and that simple gesture of reconciliation can sometimes result in the real thing.

Five years ago in Tallahassee, Florida, a 19-year-old boy named Connor, confessed to murdering his girlfriend, Ann. In the heat of a furious row, Conor took his father’s gun, pointed and pulled the trigger as Ann knelt on the floor pleading to live. As Ann’s father stood over his dying daughter’s hospital bed and prayed for a miracle, he sensed his daughter say,“forgive him.” Her father’s response was “Absolutely not. It’s impossible.” But he kept hearing his daughter’s voice: “Forgive him. Forgive him.”

According to the New York Times story, Ann’s parents work hard to model their lives after Christ. The will to forgive runs deep in their creed. Ann’s father realized it was not just Ann asking him to forgive her killer, but Jesus too. Ann’s father admitted, “I hadn’t said no to Jesus before, and I wasn’t going to start then. So I told Ann, “I will. I will forgive. Jesus or no Jesus, what father can say no to his daughter?”

The State of Florida was another matter. With the focus on crime and punishment, justice for murder is swift and harsh—either mandatory life without parole or death. But a concept called “restorative justice” strives to engage victims as well as perpetrators for the sake of making amends. With restorative justice, if both are willing to meet face to face without animosity, and the offender is deemed willing and able to complete restitution, then the case shifts out of adversarial legal mode into a parallel process. All affected parties—the offender, victims, law enforcement, prosecution and a facilitator—come together in a forum called a restorative-community conference. Each person speaks about the crime and its effects, one at a time and without interruption, and then together work toward consensus about how to repair the damage done.

Ann’s mother said, “Conor owed us a debt he could never repay. Releasing him from that debt would release us from expecting that anything in this world could satisfy us.” To the shock of attorneys and judges and the entire Florida judicial system, Ann’s parents, along with Conor’s parents, initiated a restorative-community conference with the prosecutor and Conor, the murderer. Rather than imprisoned for life without parole or the death penalty, everyone agreed to Conor’s choice of twenty years in prison with ten years probation.

Ann’s mother said, “Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor. Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don’t have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it.”

Their forgiveness affected Conor too, and not only in the obvious way of reducing his sentence. “With their forgiveness,” Conor said, “I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but by refusing to become Conor’s enemy, Ann’s parents deprived him of a certain kind of refuge—of feeling abandoned and hated—and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands.”

Restorative justice contrasts with retributive justice, the familiar “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” kind; the grim sort we read about all over Revelation. But here’s the thing, we only read about it. It never actually happens. Though savaging vengeful, the language of Revelation is figurative. To employ Old Testament scholar speak: Revelation “participates in the exaggerated and violent rhetoric of ancient apocalyptic thought.” It works like gratuitous special effects at the movies or in a video game. You know that Batman can’t really fall seven stories, crash off the hood of a car, land standing up and then take out an army of the evil henchmen with one swing—but dang if it doesn’t get your attention when he does it. It’s the same way with the graphic descriptions here.

Trumpets and bowls, oceans of blood and hundred pound hailstones, dragons and frog-demons, fire and brimstone; these are all literary devices. Armageddon, for instance, translates verbatim into “the mount of Megiddo,” except that there’s no mount at Megiddo. Megiddo is a flat plain some two days walk north of Jerusalem (been there myself). In Hebrew, Armageddon could just as well mean any place where armies gather or any “marauding mountain.” Scholars are all over the map. End Times enthusiasts waste inordinate amounts of energy trying to locate it on the map. It’s not on the map because Armageddon is a symbolic battlefield for a war God has already won.

On the other hand, saying Revelation’s language is figurative does not mean it’s untrue. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son was figurative, yet its truth confirms itself countless times over in the lives of those who’ve finally come to see the absurdity of the swine slop, come to their senses and come home. Parables and apocalypse function the same way: as literary devices to drive home literal truth. Evil will meet its doom, the reckoning for wrong occurs, be it at the end of the world or just at the end of your personal world, which may come suddenly “as a thief in the night.” “You do not know what day your Lord will come,” Jesus warned in Matthew’s gospel. “If the (figurative) owner of the (figurative) house had known at what time of night the (figurative) thief was coming, he would have kept watch and been ready and not let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” By using the language of thievery, the Bible is not condoning crime any more that Revelation is condoning war. They’re simply trying to get your attention; to get you to take your grace and take it seriously; not to catch you doing wrong, but to keep you doing right.

Why use violence? Because it works. No matter how much we decry its ferocity and cruelty, we’ll still line up to see Academy Award-nominated movies movies like “American Sniper” and “Foxcatcher,” not to mention more fantastical depictions of barbarity such as “The Hobbit” and the specifically apocalyptic “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Violent visions get to us. Why? No one really knows. Maybe it has something to do with the adrenaline rush vicarious participation in danger provide—even before we can walk. Millions of people relish violent movies, and millions more enjoy violence on TV, and millions more than that joyously play violent video games, a veritable Revelation Xbox proving the power of apocalypse outside of any ancient doom-laden thought. Escapist Magazine reviews a game called The Last of Us, where humanity’s fear and selfishness bring down the planet. Sunset Overdrive makes corporate greed and unthinking consumerism the demons. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare posits its doomsday by way of governments abdicating their civic responsibilities to corporations. The game reviewer noted how “All these scenarios share an element in common: fire consumes us because we ourselves struck the match. Through negligence. Through greed. Through not being ready or able to hold common needs above ourselves. In these games we don’t just see the world fall apart, we know why. [Even aside from Revelation, culture] still conceptualizes Armageddon as a response to human behavior, whether it’s sin, environmental devastation or the atomic bomb, and this narrative pings a response deep in our emotional core.”

I’m not much of gamer, though I used to play one called Civilization 3. A rather tame game by comparison, Civilization 3 pitted your computer-generated culture against others vying for world domination. You’d work your way through history from its beginning, stashing resources and forging industry, building cities and roads, keeping citizens content, doing trade and managing a military, all of which scored you points. You could win the game in various ways. You could score a culture victory, be the first to build a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, corner world economic markets, or simply amass the most land.

Of course the most direct way to win was through war, but war comes at a cost. You have to put up with disorder and instability on the home front, not to mention going into enormous debt to finance it, and all the death—who’d ever choose it? I did manage to stockpile my laptop with an entire arsenal of nuclear weapons for the sake of defensive superiority. I had my civilization beautifully locked and loaded for protection. All that remained was to play out the game peaceably and all other nations would bow before me. But there’s something about having access to a stacked nuclear arsenal. Hit the button and boom. This game had already sapped 30 hours of my life. I hadn’t slept in days. I was ready to be done.

Still, I’d gotten further than I had ever gotten before. Patience and good judgment had paid off. Did I really want to risk blowing it all by blowing up the world? Nuclear war never turns out well. And yet even virtual, figurative power is intoxicating. One night, lying awake and thinking about nothing else, I got up, logged in… and launched. I lit my own little Armageddon and watched with genuine horror as the entire computer-generated earth detonated into oblivion. Everything I’d given hours and hours to accomplish was wasted in minutes. In my thirst to win, I lost. Everything was ruined. I know this sounds silly, but I was so into that game that it became realer than reality. I scared myself with my giddy obsession to win at any cost. What kind of person was I?

Had the programmers designed the game that way on purpose—to use violence as an antidote to violence. Sometimes I wonder that about Revelation too. Either way, I don’t play games anymore.