Thursday, 24 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 20: The millennium, the lake of fire, and existential angst

This is the fourteenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 19, Hallelujah, and a white horse. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading.

This chapter (20) is the last one where we'll see the reign of evil forces on the earth. It begins with another big event, following the battle of the previous chapter - an angel comes along captures the dragon (Satan), binds him for a thousand years and throws him into the bottomless pit. Hooray for the angel! And it reminds me of the binding of Loki in Norse mythology (very possibly reformulated in the light of Christian theology, as was the case with various Norse tales).

Image: William Blake, Angel Michael binding Satan (Harvard Art Museums)
However, as with Loki, there's a snag - it's not for ever. After a thousand years "he must be let out for a little while". Because, erm, John's not saying. Presumably it's a mystery. Or a necessary force of nature. (Loki escaped through cunning - Satan seems just to have been released.)

But until that time: those who were "beheaded for their testimony to Jesus" will come to live and reign with him for a thousand years. I've been reading NT Wright's commentary on this piece, and he observes that beheading was considered a kind death in the ancient world, one given to citizens of Rome being executed, while others who were condemned had nastier deaths. So maybe the beheading is metaphorical - but it's not wholly clear of what it's a metaphor.

The thousand years (as Wright goes on to say) is probably also a symbolic figure. Most other numbers in Revelation are symbolic (seven, three and a half etc). I'd be inclined to agree, rather than treating it as an accurate round number, for whatever we're supposed to do with it. This needs care: for much of church history, this idea of the millennium has been a captivating one. Many para-Christian groups (variously called sects or cults in their time, sometimes ruder names) have sought to establish the time when the reign of Christ for those thousand years (whether literal or symbolic) would begin. Evangelicals have desperate debates over the time of the millennium and its sequencing.

This might sound like the worst sort of obscure logic-chopping, and it resembles it. But it derives from a real existential fear: the text says that "blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power". The question of when & how this will happen is really, in my view, hiding a deeper question: will I be part of this resurrection? Will my loved ones be part of this resurrection? Or put more crudely, am I going to be ok?

Revelation is frustratingly obscure on this subject. It tells us that Christ will reign over the earth for a long time, with the help of those who have suffered for their faith; but that's about all. If one cares about one's ultimate future, that's a big worry. There's a respectable alternative, which is not to worry - but people do worry, that's human nature. I did enjoy the start of the Inter Varsity Press commentary - a generally evangelical publisher whose readers care about these things - which begins: "Nine times out of ten, when people ask, 'How do you interpret the book of Revelation?' what they mean is, 'How do you interpret Revelation 20:1-10?'"

On with the story. The thousand years are up, Satan-the-dragon is out. He goes off on a recruitment drive, with deception (that's Satan the subtle tempter not the dragon) to bring the nations of the earth on his side, and gather them into a great army. When I was a student in Cambridge I used to wonder about the sole hills thereabouts, the Gog and Magog hills - they're named after this passage, and in turn after king Gog of the land of Magog, who fought the armies of God in a story in the book of Ezekiel. As with that story, fire comes from heaven and destroys the armies.

Satan is at last in turn destroyed, thrown into the same lake of fire where the beast & prophet met their fate in the previous chapter. No way out for him, "and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever". Nice. Something to avoid.

Except that, to add to that existential angst, we have a scene of great judgement to come. God comes to his throne and in the process "earth and heaven fled from his presence" - anything left is finally wiped out. But the dead come before the throne in turn to "be judged according to their works" according to records in "the book of life". If you're in the book of life, you're ok, if you're not, you get thrown into the same lake of fire, presumably with the same eternal torment. There's plenty of other parts of the New Testament about what these works are, their relationship to grace, faith etc (though sufficiently much that there is room for much argument, as the history of the church over 2000 years have proved, perhaps especially the past 500 years since the Protestant Reformation).

But still - lake of fire, eternal torment, the second death - we don't want that, no thank you. Please tell us, church people, how to avoid this. Me? As a follower of the words of Jesus, I might gently point to a not dissimilar symbolic tale of judgement that he told, where those judged favourably had helped "the least of these who are members of my family" who were hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison etc.

But with the strength of this chapter, I really can understand the level of angst and sheer panic they create, especially if taken even slightly literally.

Next reading: ch 21, new heaven and new earth

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