Apocalyptic Violence and Politics: End-Times Fiction for Jews and Christians
The question of religious violence generates great debate in popular culture Christianity and political commentary today, most recently as the thirteenth novel in the all-time best-selling Christian thriller series Left Behind entitled The Rising: Before They Were Left Behind was released on March 1, 2005. From Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to the Left Behind novels, the culture’s portrayals of God and Jesus are increasingly violent and intolerant.
In their best-selling Left Behind novels authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins take biblical violence and bloodshed to a new level, building on the model of Hal Lindsey, who updated Revelation’s weaponry to helicopter gunships and modern thermonuclear war in his 1970 The Late Great Planet Earth. Even New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, usually reticent about criticizing religion, raises concern about how Left Behind’s “bloody Second Coming reflects a shift in American portrayals of Jesus, from a gentle Mister Rogers figure to a martial messiah presiding over a sea of blood.”1
The portrait of Jesus in the book of Revelation is at the center of much of the debate about violence in the Christian Bible. Jesus is the main character in Revelation, but the problem is that Revelation portrays Jesus in different, even conflicting, ways. The Jesus of chapter 19 of Revelation kills his enemies with a two-edged sword coming from his mouth—a sword first introduced in chapter 1 of the book, drawing on the prophet Isaiah (Isa 49:2). Yet by far the most frequent image for Jesus in Revelation is the “Lamb,” who “conquers” not by killing but non-violently, by giving his life. The crucial question is how these images interact—whether the nonviolent Lamb replaces the other images of violence in the book, as I argue along with a number of other scholars, or whether the images of Lion and Lamb are held in tension as Stephen Moyise and others argue,2 or even whether the more violent portraits supersede the Lamb, as fundamentalists such as the Left Behind authors argue.
Closely related to the question of divine violence and the image of Jesus in Revelation is the question of ethics: does the book of Revelation call on followers of Jesus to participate in violence? Some argue that Revelation calls Christian soldiers to prepare to fight God’s end-times war. Others, myself included, insist that the book calls for resistance that is strictly nonviolent, following the nonviolent model of the Lamb.
Politics and also foreign policy come into play, since increasing numbers of U.S. Christians believe that the book of Revelation predicts an end-times battle of Armageddon in the Middle East. For such extreme “Christian Zionists,” including Left Behind authors and millions of others, absolute support for Israel’s sovereignty over the entire Holy Land is necessary, even including demolishing the Dome of the Rock so that the Third Jewish Temple can be rebuilt and the raging warrior Christ can return to earth. Palestinian Christians have no place in their script—and indeed, as Israeli scholars Gershom Gorenberg, Yehezkel Landau, and others have pointed out, it is a very dangerous script for Jews also, since all Jews who do not convert in the end are killed. To quote Gorenberg on 60 Minutes, “If you listen to the drama they’re describing, essentially, it’s a five-act play in which Jews disappear in the fourth act.”3 Gorenberg is critical of Israelis who have been willing to accept financial support from such right-wing Christian groups, including support for settlements in the occupied territories.
Even Christians who do not hold such extreme positions perceive Revelation as overwhelmingly violent, much more so than the rest of the Bible. In a National Public Radio interview, religion scholar Karen Armstrong made the point that Christianity and other religions are nonviolent at their core, but the book of Revelation is problematic because it reflects Christianity’s violent strand that “seeps into the scripture.” She contrasts the book of Revelation with the Jesus of the gospels, arguing that in Revelation “Jesus is leading armies and destroying the enemies in battle with great gusto” (“Speaking of Faith,” Minnesota Public Radio, March 18, 2004).
I want to first tackle this question of apocalyptic violence and politics in Revelation by tracing the theme of “victory” or “conquering” that runs through the book.
Revelation’s word for “victory” is the Greek verb nikan, the same word used in the Roman imperial theology of Nike—a word that can be translated in English as either “victory” or “conquering.” It is precisely this word that allows both proponents of triumphalist violence and proponents of nonviolence to lay claim to Revelation.
In Revelation, both Jesus and the evil beasts claim to be “victors” who “conquer.” Revelation tells the gripping story of a conflict between the forces of the Lamb and the forces of the beast, in which the Lamb wins or “conquers.” Followers of the Lamb also take part in the conflict against the beast and share in the Lamb’s victory or conquering. But in my view Revelation carefully delineates between two very different models of conquering—the beast’s (Rome’s) violent model versus the Lamb’s nonviolent model—and this difference is crucial in the theology and ethics of the book.
Key to understanding this dual use of the theme of victory or conquering (nikan) is Revelation’s historical and political context. John wrote the book during a time of tremendous Roman militarism and military conquest, toward the end of the reign of Domitian (probably circa 96 CE). Rome was still glorying in its victory over the Jewish Revolt in 67–70 CE. Rome’s propaganda celebrated that victory with victory processions in the provinces, the minting of “capta” coins depicting Judea as a captive with her hands bound behind her back, and monumental construction projects such as the Arch of Titus and the Temple of Peace in Rome.
More than celebrating victory, Romans worshipped Victory. The Roman goddess of military victory was named Victoria in Latin, or Nike in Greek. Portrayed as a winged goddess, she is the inspiration for the wing-like symbol on running shoes today. In the province of Asia Minor John and the Christians of his churches were confronted daily with images of Rome’s flying Victory goddess emblazoned on monuments and altars in their cities. Provincial cities erected statues of Victory—or Nike—sometimes with her foot on the globe, symbolizing Rome’s conquest of the whole world. Coins portrayed her standing beside the emperor, a daily reminder of Rome’s military success. The message was unmistakable: no one should dare to oppose Rome’s divinely sanctioned dominance and victory over the whole world. Rome’s military victories assured peace and prosperity.
But John, writing only one generation after Rome’s crushing of the Jewish Revolt, declared a prophetic “no” to Rome’s vision of victory and imperial conquest. Indeed, John makes use of the empire’s own word Nike to declare this prophetic “no.” In my view the sixteen references to nikan in Revelation can best be understood as John’s counter-message to the Roman empire’s theology of victory or Nike. The theme of “conquer” or “victory” begins in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, with the seven opening letters to the seven churches, naming the followers of Jesus as “victors” (ho niko-n, literally “the one who conquers”—the Greek verb from Nike, nikan), the same word for Rome’s goddess of Victory. John’s labeling of readers as “victors” or “the one who conquers” right from the outset of the book, using such a politically loaded term, sets up the book’s program of challenging Rome’s imperial theology of Victory or Nike. “To the victor I will give to eat of the fruit of the tree of life that is in the paradise of God,” the letter to Ephesus promises. Six more promises of future blessing are given to “the victor” in Revelation’s opening letters to the churches—promises that come to fulfillment in the final vision of New Jerusalem, at the end of the book, where the “victors” receive their inheritance.
The most important reference to the theme of conquering or nikan comes in Rev 5:5, in the divine throne room vision, a vision that functions to “lay the rhetorical foundation and provide the key symbolic images for all that follows.”4 God holds a sealed scroll that must be opened. The voice from the throne tells John, “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered (enike-sen) so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” But here Revelation pulls off an amazing surprise, a complete reversal of imagery. Instead of the conquering lion that we are led to expect, Revelation brings in a Lamb. That Jesus is a slain Lamb rather than the expected Lion in chapter 5 of Revelation gives us the first and most important image for God’s model of conquering. The Greek word arnion is not just “lamb” but the diminutive form, like “little lamb,” “Fluffy” as one pastor calls it. The Lamb is slaughtered but standing—that is, crucified but risen to life. The image has no precedent in Jewish apocalyptic literature, as Loren Johns has convincingly shown.5 While some scholars have posited that Revelation’s Lamb builds on a militaristic lamb-redeemer figure in the traditions of early Judaism (Test. Jos. 19.8; Test. Ben. 3.8; 1 Enoch 89–90), or on the astrological ram constellation Aries, the image of Jesus as a Lamb is the creation of the author. The goal of the image is to stress Jesus’ vulnerability. At the very heart of God is a slain Lamb, Jesus. And the key to the book is that this slaughtered Lamb has somehow “conquered.”
Revelation next introduces Rome’s imperial model of conquering or Nike, a model very different from that of Jesus. This Roman model of conquering is represented in chapter 6 by the four powerful horses of Roman power—conquest, war, famine, and death. Each of the horses reveals a different and terrifying aspect of Rome, with special attention to the economic injustice unveiled by the third horse. The first horse brings victory or “conquering” (nikan), a term repeated twice for emphasis: “I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer” (Rev 6:1–2).
In subsequent chapters the beasts of Revelation 11 and 13 also represent Rome’s violent conquering. The beast that ascends from the bottomless pit “makes war (polemos) and conquers and kills” God’s two witnesses (Rev 11:7), leaving their dead bodies to lie in the street.
So does that mean that “conquering” for followers of the Lamb will also involve “making war” (polemos), as Left Behind and others want to claim? No, Rev 12:11 describes a very different model for the way God’s people conquer: “They have conquered him (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (martyria), for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
This verse from chapter 12 is crucial for determining readers’ role in Revelation’s entire argument. In a highly mythic scene of war in heaven, Satan has just been thrown out of heaven. In anger Satan then goes off to try to make war on God’s other followers on earth. Revelation attributes the origin of evil in our world to this temporary period of Satan’s presence on earth. We live in the time between his expulsion from heaven and the time when he is thrown into the abyss in chapter 20. Because this verse is so central, we must look at each part in turn.
The first way God’s people conquer is “by the blood of the Lamb.” Blood is a strong theme in Revelation, a fact that Left Behind and Hal Lindsey’s works capitalize on with an almost ghoulish fixation. The fourth Left Behind novel, for example, Soul Harvest, closes with the image of hail turning to blood (based on Rev 8:7) and a readiness to welcome God’s war: “Following God’s shower of hail, fire,
and blood, remaining skeptics were few. There was no longer any ambiguity about the war.”6
But do Revelation’s blood and the blood of the Lamb really prove the unambiguous necessity of war and bloodshed, as Left Behind claims? Not if the Lamb’s way of conquering is the model. If the slain Lamb is the model it means that the blood of Revelation is first of all the Lamb’s own blood, shed for the world. Even the blood staining Jesus’ garments in Rev 19:13 must be presumed to be his own blood, not anyone else’s—despite echoes of Isa 63:1–6, the winepress of God’s wrath and the staining of garments with the juice of enemies.7 To follow the model of Jesus the Lamb means that God’s people conquer not by attacking anyone or shedding others’ blood—but rather by identifying with Jesus’ own blood that was shed when he was crucified by the Romans. This point has been convincingly argued by some of the great advocates of peace who have written on Revelation—Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder8 and most recently Lee Griffith in his The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, and it is supported by the best New Testament scholars on Revelation. While “Revelation has acquired the reputation of being a book of considerable blood and terror,” Griffith argues, this reputation “may not be so well deserved.” Revelation does not advocate the use of violence or bloodshed. Revelation is more a book about terror defeated than terror inflicted, “which is why worship and liturgy are such a central feature of the book.”9
The second way that God’s people “conquer” over Satan in Rev 12:11 is by giving their word of testimony and being willing even to give their lives. Testimony or witness (the Greek word martyria) has amazing power both for Jesus and for his followers in the book of Revelation. The term comes from a courtroom context, as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Pablo Richard, and others have noted. The idea is that Christians conquer by putting the unjust empire on trial and telling the truth about it. The story of the two witnesses in chapter 11 shows the power of testimony, as does Jesus’ own testimony (Rev 1:2). Chilean scholar Pablo Richard draws an analogy to the power of testimony in oppressive contexts today: “In Revelation, testimony always has a power to change history, both in heaven and on earth.…John believes that the faith of the holy ones is what is going to make the empire tremble.”10
Revelation thus promotes an ethic of resistance to empire, but nonviolent resistance, through the power of martyria or testimony—which has the dual meaning of martyria as martyrdom as well as testimony. I like Pablo Richard’s argument that the Greek word hypomone- should be translated not as “patient endurance” but as “resistance” in 1:9 and other references throughout the book.11 John shares with his readers the “tribulation, the empire, and resistance” (Rev 1:9). The resistance the book envisions is not a violent resistance, but what Ward Ewing calls “Lamb Power.”12 Revelation aims to convince readers that Jesus’ model of “Lamb power” is a model of victory more powerful than Rome’s model of Nike or military conquering.
Throughout the middle chapters of Revelation, the words “conquering” and “make war” (polemeo-) continue to appear in close association, fueling the impression that the book is pro-war. There is no question that the book is full of conflict. But even in terms of the words themselves, there is a crucial difference between the words “conquer” and “make war”(polemeo-) in Revelation. Evil rulers “make war” on the Lamb one final time in Rev 17:14, but the Lamb “conquers” them—a typical use of the two words.
The key to a nonviolent reading of Revelation is to see that the book carefully redefines the word “conquer” to make clear that the Lamb and his followers conquer only by their testimony and faithfulness — not by war or killing. War is something done against God’s people by evil beasts and by Rome, not something that God’s saints or the Lamb practice in this book. The Lamb never “makes war.” Two verses of Revelation do indeed refer to Jesus as “making war” — Rev 2:16 and 19:11 — but even here, the way he makes war is crucial. Jesus makes war not with a sword of battle but “by the sword of my mouth”— that is, his word. Jesus’ word is his only weapon. This is a reversal almost as unexpected as the substitution of a Lamb instead of a Lion, and it undercuts violence by emphasizing Jesus’ testimony and the word of God.
Moreover, in terms of ethics, there is no reason for thinking that any Christians take part in the war in Revelation 19. The authors of Left Behind and others who follow John Darby’s nineteenth-century “dispensationalist” theology claim that raptured saints are part of the “army of heaven” that returns to earth with Jesus after seven years to fight in Rev 19:14 in what they call the “Glorious Appearing.” But the fact that the army is said to be clothed in white linen does not make it equivalent to Christians, as dispensationalists try to argue on the basis of Rev 19:8.13 It is clearly identified as a heavenly army— and amazingly, no actual attack or war is ever pictured. The war is over as soon as it begins. This is because the victory has already been won in Jesus’ crucifixion — and is not to be fought in a final cataclysmic war.
The message of the book of Revelation becomes thus a reframing of the whole concept of “victory,” giving victory first to the Lamb and then to us. Nowhere in Revelation do God’s people “wage war.” What they do is “conquer” or “become victors” (the same word in Greek)—and they do that by the Lamb’s own blood and by their courageous testimony, not through Armageddon or war. In contrast to Rome’s theology that defined victory as military conquest, Revelation develops a counter-theology of the victory (nike) of Jesus, God’s slain Lamb, in which “evil is overcome by suffering love,” not by superior power.14
David Barr argues convincingly that the narrative of Revelation “turns the popular American understanding of the Apocalypse on its head. For in the popular imagination, God conquers by power and the violence of holy war is justified.” It is crucial to recall that at key points Revelation transforms or even subverts violent stories with the image of the Lamb:
It is poor reading to overlook this inversion and to read as if the Lamb has not replaced the Lion in this story. Similar inversions occur at every point in the story—even in the climactic scene in which the heaven Warrior kills all his enemies, for his conquest is by means of a sword that comes from his mouth, not by the power of his arm.15
Because the central image of Revelation is the slain Lamb—not the Lion—“John’s story stands firmly against violence and domination.” For all its holy war imagery, Revelation does not promote war.
Hijacking the Lamb: Jews, Christians, and Middle East Politics
What does this reading have to say to Jews and Christians reading apocalyptic texts today? First of all there is the question of the divine warrior in Revelation, and how this portrait draws on the Hebrew scriptures. The argument I am trying to make for the blood of the Lamb as the Lamb’s own blood in Rev 19:13 becomes more difficult if this image draws on Isaiah 63, where the blood on the warrior’s garments is that of Edom, the enemy of God. I believe that Revelation deliberately transforms divine warrior imagery from the Hebrew Bible in a more nonviolent direction—but that argument can be problematic if Christians set up the Hebrew Bible as a kind of violent “foil” over against which the New Testament is made to look nonviolent. This kind of characterizing of the Hebrew Bible as more violent than the New Testament is prevalent among some Christians, and we need to speak against any such tendency, while also underscoring the ethics of nonviolence that is at the heart of biblical tradition.
Second, we must address the question how the book of Revelation —especially the warrior Jesus in Revelation 19—gets used by American fundamentalist Christians to justify war and conquest, whether in Iraq or in Israel. In my view, today’s Christian fundamentalists have hijacked the nonviolent Lamb of Revelation as the predominant image of Jesus and replaced him with the fierce Lion, a move that has terrifying and violent consequences for both Jews and Christians—especially when followers seek to influence U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Drawing on the interpretation invented by British preacher John Nelson Darby in the 1830s, pre-millennial dispensationalists split the traditional second coming of Jesus into two parts—first a so-called “Rapture,” when born-again Christians get to escape up to heaven, then seven years of tribulation and wars, followed by the so-called Glorious Appearing seven years later, when Jesus returns for what ends up being a third time. They claim that this scenario—including the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple and its desecration by the Antichrist—is laid out in Daniel 9:25–27. For them, the world is now counting down for a series of ever-worsening disasters and wars, leading up to the end.
Dispensationalist Left Behind theology is dangerous for the Middle East. Israeli theologian Yehezkel Landau calls it a “perverse parody of John 3:16: God so loved the world that he sent it World War III.”16 Some Israelis have been willing to accept American fundamentalists’ financial and political support because their theology promotes a very pro-Israel foreign policy in the short term. But as Landau and others point out, dialogue among Jews and Christians working for peace in the Middle East is ill served by such problematic alliances.
In undertaking such dialogue I appreciate Jews’ insistence on recognition of the importance of the state of Israel as a prerequisite for any Jewish-Christian conversation. I support Israel’s existence within pre-1967 borders and condemn suicide bombings and all violence. I also believe that we must constantly be working to repudiate anti-Semitism as my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did in the case of Martin Luther’s writings. But given the precarious existence of Palestinian Christians today, and their precipitously dwindling numbers especially in Jerusalem, I hope Jews and Christians can also together agree to support the presence of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, and particularly in Jerusalem. These Christians trace their origins, date back to the first century and feel their very existence is threatened by current policies, including checkpoints, land confiscations, and Israel’s separation wall.
Such support for Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land would run counter to the program of Left Behind Christian fundamentalists, of course, who want Jerusalem to become a completely Jewish city and invoke the biblical vision of Revelation and other texts to support their position. But I think we must repudiate such a misreading of the biblical text for the current situation. Our vision for Jerusalem must be that of a shared city for both Israel and Palestine, a city of peace.17
I draw on Revelation’s image of New Jerusalem as a shared multinational city with open gates, a vision that itself draws on Ezekiel 40–48. In my view, the tree of life with its leaves for healing (Rev 22:2; Ezek 47) can be an important shared image of healing for the Middle East. The tree of life is also an important image in Islamic tradition. The heart of Revelation’s final chapters is not Armageddon or end-times war, but rather a wonderful vision of a shared city of Jerusalem, with gates open to all “nations” (ethne-, Rev 21:24–26), where God comes down to dwell in our midst—God’s city of justice and well-being for all.
1 Nicholas D. Kristof, “Jesus and Jihad,” New York Times, July 17, 2004; see also David Kirkpatrick, “Wrath and Mercy: The Return of the Warrior Jesus,” New York Times, April 4, 2004. Both were critiquing the twelvth Left Behind novel, The Glorious Appearing (Tyndale, 2004).
2 Stephen Moyise, “Does the Lion Lie Down with the Lamb?” in Stephen Moyise, ed., Studies in the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh and New York: T & T Clark, 2001), 181–194.
3 “Zion’s Christian Soldiers,” CBS 60 Minutes, October 6, 2002.
4 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 58.
5 Loren L. Johns, “The Lamb in the Rhetorical Program of the Apocalypse of John,” Society of Biblical Literature 1998 Seminar Papers (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1998), 775–777; Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John (Mohr Siebeck, 2003). Similarly, David Aune argues that “the Messiah is never symbolized as a lamb in Judaism” and that Revelation’s lamb is an original creation of the author. See Aune, Revelation 1–5 (World Biblical Commentary 52a; Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1997), 353.
6 Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998), 414.
7 Scholars divide on whether the blood that stains Jesus’ garments in Rev 19:13 is his own blood or that of his enemies. Jurgen Roloff argues, for example, that “the blood is not the actual blood of Jesus which he poured out for sinners, but rather the blood of God’s enemies: ‘Their juice [lifeblood] spattered my garments, and stained all my robes’ (Isa. 63:3).” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993], 218). Similarly, Frederick Murphy, in Fallen Is Babylon: The Revelation to John (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International,1998), 389. But for the counter-argument see for example Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Maryknoll: Orbis,1998), 147; Steven Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 190.
8 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); see especially chapter 12, “The War of the Lamb.”
9 Lee Griffith, The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 205. For nonviolence in Revelation see also Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse (JSNTSup 132; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,
1996); Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (The Powers, vol. 3; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); Steven Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
10 Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 1995), 33; 74.
11 Ibid., 50.
12 Ward Ewing, The Power of the Lamb: Revelation’s Theology of Liberation for You (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Press, 1990), 199.
13 See for example Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1970), 173–74.
14 David Barr, “Towards an Ethical Reading of the Apocalypse,” Society of Biblical Literature 1997 Seminar Papers (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1997), 362.
15 Ibid, 361.
16 Yehezkel Landau, “The President and the Prophets,” The Jerusalem Post, November 1983; re-printed as “The President and the Bible,” Christianity and Crisis, December 12, 1963.
17 See the positions of Churches for Middle East Peace, www.cmep.org.
Barbara Rossing (81M.Div.) holds a doctorate from Harvard University and teaches New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is the author of several books, most recently The Rapture Exposed. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she lives in Chicago.