by Daniel Harrell
Having visited friends in both England and Scotland this past summer, I watched with added interest the Scottish independence vote that took place on Thursday. Pollsters labeled it too close to call, much to delight of separatists. In the end, however, both pollsters and separatists were left with a bit of egg on their faces, or perhaps we should make that a bit of haggis on their tartan, once all the ballots were tally-hoed. Unionists cheered a convincing victory. The optimism of the separatists had been energetic, but as one St. Andrews merchant told me when I asked her about the vote: “People have been watching too much Braveheart.”
In Revelation 5, it seems John, the writer, had been watching a lot of Braveheart too. He envisioned triumph over tyranny and injustice by way of a valiant Savior, a warrior King, loaded with enough righteous firepower to blow the oppressive Roman empire to bits. But rather than a mighty lionized King of beasts to bring justice, God sends in a little baby of beasts, a lamb having been slaughtered, still beaten and bloodied in heaven no less, utterly defeated. It wasn’t a pretty picture of salvation, nor does it make a good movie, but such is the irony of the gospel. Defeat is victory. Least-ness is greatness. Weakness is strength. Failure is success. Death is life.
Revelation was likely written toward the close of the 1st century AD as Christians died at the hands of Roman persecutors. In chapter 4, that start of the apocalypse proper, a heavenly throne room featured the Lord God Himself enthroned and surrounded by four bizarre-looking creatures representing all animate life on earth. They praise the Lord day and night, joined by a chorus of twenty-four robed and crowned elders who represent the redeemed of the earth and bow before God. It’s clear who’s in charge.
In chapter 5, focus shifted to a scroll sealed with seven seals. It presumably contained the final tally of the redeemed along with details on how things go down in the end. The scroll could only be unsealed by one worthy to execute its contents—none other than the executed Lamb. For Christians disgraced and doomed under Roman oppression, whose faithfulness looked like failure and their success more like suicide, the empathy was welcome. The Lamb of God suffered in solidarity with them.
Still, while solidarity may be sweet, vengeance is sweeter. Here in chapter 6, Christians martyred for their faithfulness huddle in heaven and apparently complain that God hasn’t yet done enough. Saved by grace; they want justice. They cry out in a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood?”
Given how the crucified Jesus prayed for his persecutors’ pardon, it is surprising that these faithful saints desire retribution. Having suffered for Jesus, you think they’d act a little more like him. Not that they’re being unbiblical. Their cry echoes that of the Psalmist who likewise wailed in Psalm 94, “How long will the wicked be jubilant, O LORD? They pour out arrogant words; all evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless. They taunt you, saying, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.’” Good is supposed to win out over evil. God has a reputation to protect. The Lord is tardy with bringing desserts. And so the Psalmist shouts, “God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve! … You will pay them back for their evil, and destroy them because of their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out.”
Admittedly, such a vindictive visage is a bit embarrassing; not the kind reputation we really want to protect these days. Apocalyptic doom and gloom make God look bad. It’s offensive and unloving that the Lord would ever get angry. Thankfully we’ve moved on from primitive depictions of divinity, having talked the Lord down from his harsh and holy high horse and rebranded his image into something more civilized, acceptable and marketable. A gentle Savior, meek and mild, never harming a fly, never passing judgment, never losing his temper—so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he’s too late to save. Jesus suffered the little children to come unto him to be sure, but let’s not forget he also said their abusers would be better off drowned with a millstone tied to their necks.
A member of our church recently back from northern Iraq shared the horrifying account of a friend on a bus with about 50-60 other Christians who escaped Mosul in June. This friend had his 2-year-old grandson in his arms.Their bus was stopped by ISIS fighters and a verbal confrontation ensued. In his rage, one of the fighters pulled the 2-year-old from his grandfather’s arms and shot him.
Mosul traces its roots back to Nineveh and the ancient evangelism of Jonah. A Christian church emerged there no later than the second century, and became a key center for churches that spoke Syriac, a language close to that of the apostles and still spoken in Mosul. The Mosul church survived onslaught and persecution from the Persians and Arabs, and later the Mongols and the Ottoman Turks and Saddam Hussein too. A little more than a decade ago, Mosul was home to 60,000 Christians, but no more. ISIS has virtually cleaned them out.
The Arab spring has become the Christian winter. In a desert region of Eritrea near the African coast of the Red Sea, a military camp interns 2,000-3,000 Christians that Eritrea’s rulers, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, consider subversive. The captives’ lot consists of blistering desert heat, frigid nights, bodies crammed into unventilated metal shipping containers, mindless tasks like counting grains of sand, death from heatstroke and dehydration, sexual abuse, and brutal beatings.
Whether perpetrated by Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, dictatorial regimes in Eritrea as well as Belarus, Cuba, China, Vietnam, North Korea, and elsewhere; radical Hindu nationalists in India; and not excluding violent attacks by Christians on other Christians in Russia, Mexico, Colombia, and a few other places—whether by torture, rape, solitary confinement, decapitation, fatal beatings, gunshot, car bombs, and more—the blood of the victims cries out.
“How long, O Lord will the wicked be jubilant?” Not only the monstrously vicious, but petty offenders too. So many lie, cheat, steal, rationalize and schmooze their way to power and privilege without consequence—widening an already yawning gap of inequity and economic exploitation. Something needs to be done. How long O Lord? Philosophers, skeptics and antagonists continually cite the persistence of evil and injustice as proof of God’s absence. The horrors humans commit and endure constitute a moral emergency. Yet theologically speaking, the moral emergency is not that evil persists and God does nothing. The real moral emergency, the truly disturbing revelation of Revelation—is that God has intervened.
Among the mistakes people make in trying to decipher Revelation is to read its predictions as future tense. Here in chapter 6, as with chapter 5, the tense is more accurately past perfect: the Lamb having broken the seals, the living creatures having roared and the storied Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse having been already let loose to furiously gallop through every generation.
The white color scheme and crown of the first rider out of the gate confuses this horseman with the white rider who storms forth in chapter 19. There the white rider will be identified as King of kings and Lord of Lords. The butchered Lamb will mount his horse with a sword. Here, however, the white rider is not yet the Lord— Satan at times gets confused as an angel of light. This rider, an archer, is bent on violent conquest and war. Behind the white rider comes a fiery red warhorse whose rider “was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another.” What our pew Bible describes as permission other versions label as power given to make people destroy each other.
This is daily news. Casualties from the three year long Syrian civil war approach 200,000. The total number of refugees has surpassed three million with at least another 6.5 million displaced within Syria. Now controlling up to a third of the country, the Islamic State, or ISIS, runs a ruthless, self-sustaining economy across its ravaged territory, a third of Syria and Iraq, pirating oil while exacting tribute from a population of at least eight million. Sunni radicals from the group administer iron-handed extortion of business and farm tributes, public-transport fees and protection payments from Christians and other religious minorities who choose to live under the militants rather than flee. Here in Revelation, John hears a voice cry out from among the four living creatures, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay!” It might as well read a gallon of fuel or a loaf of bread. The scales in the hand of a third barren black horse are not for meting out justice but for parceling our rations.
The last rider rides out on the pale green of Death, empowered with the Grave to affix further violence, famine, disease and persecution to the miseries of war, strife and scarcity already holding sway. Open Apocalypse insert crisis: This week the Ebola spreads exponentially across West Africa. Associate professor of environmental health Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia University ran models on the epidemic that spit out numbers so high he was afraid to make them public. “I don’t want to scare people,” Professor Shaman said, “But we’re really in uncharted territory here. We’ve never had a sustained outbreak of Ebola like this, certainly nothing of this magnitude.” Worry over Scottish independence was a piddling Spot of weak tea by comparison.
Four riders means misery reaches all four corners of earth. Together they shatter any illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a empire or the defenses of an army, in a flourishing economy or in their own personal health. Not even faith in sweet Jesus suffices. The horse-mounted misery rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Behold the moral emergency: It is the Lamb of God who opens the seals to unleash the destruction.
Though we rebrand and refine so to release the Lord from any fault for disaster and death in the world, Revelation keeps the connection as a strange kind of encouragement, an improbable silver lining. No matter what happens and however bad it gets, God sits on his throne and the Lamb remains slain for the sins of the world. We find comfort that justice and mercy are God’s to dispense. The Sovereign Lord sets limits on evil and redeems for his purposes even the most horrific fallout of human transgression. Wisdom is gained through suffering, loss is the way to life, defeat is victory, Christ’s power is made perfect through weakness, the humble do in fact get exalted and the dead do get raised. God permits suffering and loss and defeat and death—even to the extreme of suffering and losing and dying in defeat on a cross.
Author and journalist Rupert Shortt, in his recent book, Christianophobia, interviewed Afghans who after converting to Christianity had been forced to flee for refuge to Europe or India. One of them, who had been taught to view all non-Muslims as satanic, was eventually drawn to Jesus. For him, he said, the attraction was “God’s self-offering in Christ, the characteristically Christian notion that victory can be won through apparent defeat, and that Christians have the status of adoptive children through the Spirit of Jesus.” Despite ostracism, mortal threat, and forced immigration, this Afghan believer did not regret his conversion. Instead he affirmed that “the gospel had freed his conscience and imagination … especially in its emphasis on the core principle that forgiveness precedes repentance, not vice versa.”
It killed the martyrs to confess this. It kills every Christian who genuinely believes it. Jesus said you have to lose your life to save it. Still, the martyrs cry out, “How long, O Lord, before you judge and avenge our blood?” With the fifth seal, they’re each given a white robe and told to hold their horses, so to speak. The tardiness of God is not an abdication of justice, but a determination to save. As St. Peter put it, “The Lord is not slow about his justice, as some think of slowness, but is patient, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” In this same spirit, the martyrs are told to wait “until the number of their fellow servants should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been killed.” Losing your life for Jesus’ sake is first the loss of your old, sinful self (though you may need to die a lot of little deaths to accomplish this). In time, to faithfully live out the implications of the gospel—going last, loving the least, giving to the needy, forgiving enemies—shows weakness and brings loss of status and standing, loss of position and possessions, loss of power and control. Do as Jesus teaches and you will get singled out, set aside, walked over and in some countries, butchered and buried. Grace that saves is deadly.
Deadly grace is embedded even within the dreaded sixth seal that opens and inundates with familiar portents of doom: a great earthquake, the blackened sun, the bloodied moon, shaking heavens with stars that fall like fruit in a hurricane, the clouds rolled back like a scroll. Justice is done by Nature itself instead of by cobbled coalitions dropping politically aimed bombs, dubious allies armed to the hilt with modern weaponry to crush an elusive enemy, another detonating blast of world peace. Enough will be enough one day. One day, in God’s time, kings and caliphates, armies and generals, the rich and powerful and everyone else will dive for cover, we read, pleading to be buried by falling rocks and mountains, screaming “hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
The wrath of the Lamb. With this single, unique, and paradoxical phrase John instills in the Biblical imagination both apocalyptic terror and glad tidings of great joy. “Who shall stand on the great day of his wrath?” Whoever stands in Christ—covered not by falling rocks but with his shed blood, his deadly grace—a grace that rides out in order to draw in—so that none may perish, but that all may come to repentance. So determined is God to save that he does whatever it takes—even if it kills him.