Detractors of Christian nonviolence often point to one of the central images of
Revelation as a counterpoint to the straightforward commands of Jesus to his followers to love even their enemies and do good to those who would harm them. In one of its most extreme permutations, we have Mark Driscoll saying,
“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”
But Revelation consistently relates depicts Christ’s beat-up form as normative, as it refers to him over and over as the lamb, the lamb that was slain. As Richard Hays has said, “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion.” Revelation, taken as a whole, seems to depict a pacifist church seeing its members killed off by an oppressive tyrant, while singing hymns to a God who was himself tortured to death by an oppressive tyrant. The task of the church seems to be to wait and hope.
So what do we do with the sword and the rider? Even when we notice that the followers of the Lamb do not participate in any kind of battle but are simply to remain faithful, are we left with the idea that Jesus will do our dirty work for us? It’s not so clear.
Notice that it is specifically the “the Word of God” being depicted in chapter 19 as the rider, and that the sword is not held in his hand (contra Driscoll), but comes from his mouth. Notice also that the phrase sharp (double-edged) sword is the same one used elsewhere to refer specifically to scripture, which is also called the Word of God. It seems that the tyrant is overthrown not by steel but by truth, truth so powerful the author can only depict it in martial imagery.
As Willard Swartley summarizes,
Christian resistance – not returning evil for evil, but a willingness to suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ – echoes the central theology of other parts of the NT. What Revelation adds is the central figure of the slain Lamb. The paradoxical image of victory through suffering love forms the heart and soul of Revelation’s christology. Suffering love marks the authentic followers of the Lamb.
Swartley then cites with approval a passage from Walter Pilgrim,
The Apocalypse adopts a stance toward the state that is radically different from the two other New Testament traditions. Here we find an understanding of the political structures as d
ising resistance. emonic, historical embodiments of injustice and evil. In response, the church is encouraged toward an ethic of uncomprom
What do you think? Does Revelation depict a pacifist churc
h, waiting and hoping for God’s action? Does Revelation depict a military Jesus, whipping up support for a grassroots militia? What is the central message of what is likely the most political book of the New Testament?