by Daniel Harrell
I appreciate those who last Sunday challenged my assertion that the often bizarre language of Revelation is mostly figurative. Dragons and monsters and weird-looking creatures, not to mention the gaudily dressed and drunken strumpet of Babylon riding a larger-than-life beast in chapter 17; these may be surreal but that doesn’t mean they can’t happen. Sure enough, no sooner than last Sunday night, with 114 million other Americans, I saw with my own eyes, a gaudily dressed pop-diva riding her own larger-than-life golden monster with glowing-red satanic eyes.
According to Now The End Begins: The Magazine of Record for the Last Days, if you listened to the songs she sang, it was clearly the devil talking. Using catchy lyrics and a non-stop droning drumbeat with overwhelming power chords, the love of sin “is being hammered into our children at a feverish rate,” the article warned. “Parents, protect your children if you love them.” As in Revelation, the Harlot’s halftime show bedazzled multitudes too, including the apostle John himself. “Run for your lives” warns an angel here, “Get away as fast as you can, so you don’t get mixed up in her sins,so you don’t get caught in her doom.”
Mercifully for John too, an accompanying angel snapped him out of his bedazzlement so he could see how what he thought to be so glamorous was truly ridiculous, that what seemed so desirous was actually ludicrous. Thankfully here in chapter 18, the harlot’s seductions cause no more dread because (ding dong) the witch is now dead. She was consumed by her own pernicious accomplice, the notorious 666 beast on which she rode. The beast turned on her and devoured her, testifying to evil’s own proclivity for self-destruction. The harlot now lies fallen, her carcass a haunt for every detestable demon and spirit.
“All the nations had drunk the maddening wine of her fornication, For all the nations have drunk and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.” Climbing into bed with Babylon brought power and wealth, dangers labeled as deadly throughout Scripture. Jesus said you cannot love both God and Money.
Babylon was that ancient empire that ransacked Israel and deported God’s chosen people out of their promised land. The Harlot of Babylon, with her excessive greed and exploitive power, gets tagged here as the Roman Empire. But Rome was only the current and best example of mythic Babylon and her evil. Rome fell too, but in its place would arise ever more sinister manifestations of Babylonian whoredom, time and time again throughout history. Every arrogant overreach of power has served as a worthy candidate, whatever political or institutional shape it takes. Back in Revelation 3, the risen Christ dressed down the church at Laodicea, chastising them for loving too much the buzz of economic prosperity: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ Don’t you realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked? Take my advice and buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Behold I stand at the door and knock.”
The knock is not necessarily some gentle tap. In chapter 18, an alarm sounds from heaven warning that judgment against injustice and oppression stands at the door to knock it down. The haughty harlot refused to see herself as vulnerable. “I rule as queen; not a widow. I will never see grief.” We hear Old Testament echoes here. In Isaiah, the Lord said to historic Babylon: “You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’” Likewise in Jeremiah: “I am against you, O arrogant one, for your day has come, the time for you to be punished. The arrogant one will stumble and fall and no one will help her up; I will light a fire in her towns that will consume all who are around her.” As in Jeremiah, Revelation inserts an object lesson for an exclamation point. Jeremiah tied his prophecy scroll to a stone and sank it in the Euphrates river as a sign of historic Babylon’s plummet. In Revelation, a mighty angel lifts an enormous millstone, evoking the historic culmination of all evil, and hurls it into the chaotic sea from which it came.
Babylon sank. Rome fell. Every empire’s days are numbered. Our President cautioned the same for ourselves at the National Prayer Breakfast this week. “While condemning the religious violence perpetrated by the Islamic State, he urged Westerners not to “get on our high horse,” because such violence is part of our own past too. Plenty disagreed, irately so. Obama’s words mimicked as they often do the critiques of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Writing during the Cold War, Niebuhr said, “Democracy requires something more than a religious devotion to moral ideals. It requires religious humility. Every absolute devotion to relative political ends (and all political ends are relative) is a threat to communal peace. But religious humility is no simple moral or political achievement. It springs only from the depth of a religion which confronts the individual with a more ultimate majesty and purity than all human majesties and values, and persuades him to confess: ‘Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is, God alone.” (from The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness)
Niebuhr quoted Jesus who ascribed goodness only to God, and yet we view the horrific atrocities committed by the Islamic State, not to mention the butchering in Nigeria done by Boko Haram, and we rightly ask why, if God is so good and so great, why do these bad things still happen? We call this “the problem of evil,” but it’s not really a problem if by problem you mean a puzzle to be rationally solved. Evil defies reason. It makes no sense. Its illogic is part of what makes evil so evil. Even if you blame the devil, you still have to ask what made the devil decide to become the devil? Adam and Eve, created as good, had no good reason for choosing badly. They just did it. We do it too. By choosing wrong, we prove free will exists, but the tyranny of evil is that as soon as we choose it we are no longer free. As the apostle Paul made clear in Romans, our choices set boundaries, our unavoidably bad choices set inescapably tight boundaries that affect our futures not only in finite time and space but for eternity too. Our freedom constrains to such a severe extent that Paul could only speak of it in terms of enslavement.
“I do not understand myself,” he memorably wrote, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How can a person redeemed by Christ still behave so irredeemably? How is it possible to be both lost and found, sinner and saint, old creation and new creation, dead and alive both at the same time? St. Augustine argued that evil and good necessarily go hand in hand. Like cancer that depends upon healthy cells to thrive, so evil gets its energy from the good it perverts. Evil is so inextricably bound to goodness, you can’t destroy evil without destroying the good things too. Illogically, the only real way to dispense with evil without getting rid of the good is to forgive it. This is what Jesus did as he unjust hung to die on the cross. “Father forgive them,” he prayed for his persecutors and all sinners, “they know not what they do.” “I am he who blots out your transgressions and remembers your sins no more,” says the Lord. God not only forgives sin and evil in Christ. He forgets it too.
But doesn’t this amount to a sort of complicity with the perpetrators? If God forgets sin, don’t the wicked in the end just end up off the hook? No. Because the sin God forgets is forgiven sin. As long as anyone earnestly repents, there is no sin God will not forgive. The only unforgivable sin is the sin one refuses to acknowledge. You can’t receive grace if all you do is reject it. The sins God remembers are the ones we won’t let him forget.
Sports media, the Twitter Court of Justice and Seahawks fans aren’t going to let coach Pete Carroll forget the sin he committed by calling that pass play on the goal line last Sunday. Patriots haters and deflaters took particular joy when it seemed the surly Bill Belicheat and his robotic minions were going down once again—in the last seconds at the hands of a miraculous catch with no chance for any salvation. Who knew another miracle catch awaited, this time in the sure hands of a rookie cornerback from West Alabama? All the Hawks had to do was hand the ball off, but in the face of sure victory they got arrogant and overreached, or more to the point, they overthrew. Pete Carroll had been fired by the Patriots 15 years ago to make way for Bill Belichick. “It took 15 years, but Carroll finally delivered a Lombardi trophy to New England.” (Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe)
I mention football again because I am a Patriots fan and couldn’t help but watch last Sunday, despite my public disgust with all the documented downsides of football which compelled me to righteously climb out on my roof last fall and hack down my DirecTV dish. “I do not understand myself. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” The New York Post compared football to a powerful drug with dreadful side effects. We can’t get enough of it. Last Sunday’s Super Bowl was the most watched TV show in history. Gamblers wagered over 116 million on Super Bowl 49 in Las Vegas alone. “We may say that we are terrified of allowing our sons to play football and risk brain damage, that we are wary of the message the NFL’s domestic-abuse cases sends to our daughters. Maybe we tsk-tsk-tsk the way the NFL conducts its business, the way it chooses investigators, the way it seems to print as much money as it could possibly need, then prints a little more. We can’t get enough. It is our drug of choice.”
It is our religion of choice too. In a book I’ve now quoted a couple of times, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse, Marcia Mount Shoop asserts football “captures our imagination and elicits our deepest emotional outpourings much more than any religion.” For years, back in Boston, I’d insist our church hold our evening church services during the Super Bowl, as a matter of principle, while my DVR recorded the game back at home. But nobody ever came to church aside from a few international students and math majors. Over at the Upper Room, lead pastor Joe tells me they shift their 5 and 7 PM services to 3PM on Super Bowl Sunday.
At the same time, Tom Brady assured us that it’s easy to over-exaggerate when it comes to football in America. Facing a ferocious and relentless weeks long wave of Deflategate questions from a throng of reporters, Brady was asked what he says to friends who are concerned about him. “Things are going to be fine,” he replied. “This isn’t ISIS. Nobody’s dying.” Sadly, we were outraged more over air pressure let out of footballs. At the same time, we should resist the temptation to lessen the wrong we do and the hurt we cause by comparing our sins to the truly horrific.
Which brings us back to Revelation 18. The whore of Babylon was “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus,” in her was found “the blood of all who have been slaughtered on earth.” Christians continue to be butchered for their faith across the Middle East and Nigeria. “Her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes.” In the Old Testament and later Jewish writings, being lifted up or piled up was an idiom for the extreme degree of defiant evil. God remembers Babylon because she arrogantly shoves her sins in his face. Therefore in time she will get what she has given, even double for what she has done. She will receive “a like measure of torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself.” “She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
Revelation 18 draws upon Biblical doom-songs, such as in Lamentations and Psalms, directed at the failure of those individuals, societies, governments, institutions, principalities and powers who refuse to acknowledge God’s mercy and yield to his goodness. Those who like the lukewarm Laodiceans of chapter 3, are lulled into complacency by their prosperity. Or the kings, merchants and seafarers here—the power-hungry politicians, profit-hungry businessmen and seasick consumers—who found rejecting the mercies of grace a reasonable price to pay for the favors offered by the harlot. In the end, all mourn the death of their sugar-momma. They stand far off, terrified at her torment, and cry: “Alas, alas, O wonderful city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour it’s over! Your doom has come!” God’s patience with evil may feel like forever, but when it finally does end, the ending is quick. This mention of one hour refers back in chapter 17 where God gave the politicians authority for one hour to do the right thing. But they chose instead to pledge allegiance to the beast. The merchants could have done the right thing with their businesses, good work and good products at fair prices and fair wages, but instead we read mention of human slaves—indicating not only that the merchants traded in human beings but in products manufactured by slave labor. The miserly merchants weep, not for the misery they’ve caused, but only for their own loss of profit. The seafarers and sailors heap dust on their heads, which is often a sure sign of repentance. Only here, as they witness the smoldering ruins of fallen Babylon, there is no change of heart. They don’t want to get their lives on the right track. All they want is their old life back.
“Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus said. If you can still hear me, open and up and I will come in.