Thursday, March 05, 2009
Here, There or In The Air
by Daniel Harrell
Growing up in church, if I ever heard anything from the book of Revelation, it was either Jesus saying, “behold I stand at the door and knock” from chapter 3, or a sermon on the promise of “no more pain” from chapter 21. As fortunes fall and jobs dissolve in our plummeting economy, God’s promise of “no more crying or pain” remains welcome. What wasn’t so welcome, at least in my church, was anything from the rest of Revelation since either a] it was way too weird and nobody had any idea what it meant; or b] it mostly led to arguments about whether you were a pre-millennialist, a postmillennialist or an amillennialist (pre-mill, post-mill and a-mill for short). Each of these latter designations has to do with one’s understanding of Revelation 20’s thousand years in relation to the second coming of Christ. Will Jesus return to set up a heavenly millennial reign on earth (pre-mill)? Or does he come afterward, with the millennium representing the entirety of church history since Constantine (post-mill)? Maybe the millennium, like so much else in Revelation; works as a figure of apocalyptic speech (a-mill)? If we are in the millennium now, Christ’s reign comes off as rather ordinary, a position we might better label run-of-the-mill. But since there is no way to know precisely when Christ will return (Jesus himself being famous for saying that not even he knows), any speculation (which we should probably call rumor-mill) is always inadvisable.
This being the case, I was startled one Sunday in a church many years ago when the preacher unfurled this long chart depicting in detail how the end of the world would unfold. He’d performed all the apocalyptic math and pegged the return of Jesus for 1989; a year that like every other year, simply came and went. I will admit that when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I did wonder whether something was up. Had Satan indeed been bound for a thousand years after all? Ronald Reagan had labeled Soviet Communism as the Evil Empire. But if the past decade has been any indication, it would appear that the ancient serpent is still on the loose.
It seems like a thousand years since last we were in Revelation, so it might be helpful to remember that tradition holds Revelation to have been written by an exiled John towards the close of the first century AD. He wrote just as the Roman emperor Domitian commenced his brutal persecution of the church. More than most, Emperor Domitian was enamored by the whole emperor worship thing, such that Christians who refused to go along were charged with treason. For them, taking up crosses to follow Jesus got as literal as it gets. Revelation’s dramatic assurances of final victory and vengeance emboldened these Christians to remain faithful to Christ, even unto death. In time, the God who rules in sublime majesty would ultimately triumph in perfect justice. But in the meantime, as the crucified Lamb, the sovereign God would suffer injustice alongside his people.
The last time we were in Revelation (on the first Sunday of Advent) the bloodied Lamb from chapter 4 had morphed into the galloping White Rider of chapter 19, his eyes ablaze and his head crowned in glory. With the sword of his mouth he struck down the oppressors of his people. Included in his crosshairs were the notorious beast of 666 fame, along with his sidekick the false prophet, both of whom were pitched into a burning lake of fire. The rest of the wicked became a grim buffet on which the vultures of the air feasted. Despite this total annihilation of evil, there somehow remain others here in chapter 20 still to be duped by the devil—which is odd given the totality of the white rider’s offensive. How can there be any wickedness left? One of the interesting things to note about Revelation, literarily speaking, is that it seems to repeat itself, going over and over the same information again and again even as its imagery varies. Seven times in fact (seven being a good apocalyptic number) Revelation reiterates its warnings and blessings, driving home the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.
In chapters 1-3, Jesus called upon existing churches with forecasts of woe and weal, readying them for the apocalypse proper which commenced in chapter 4. Chapters 4-7 described seven seals of God’s judgment, which effectively rewound and repeated as seven trumpets in chapters 8-11. After that, in chapters 12-14, came a woman giving birth to a son whom a dragon awaited to devour, the kind of Christmas story that never makes it onto most greeting cards. The dragon turned out to be Satan, of course, who introduced two beasts to the drama for an unholy trinity, one from the sea (the 666 antichrist) and another from the earth (also known as the false prophet). Next came seven bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16, which rid the world of its evil, epitomized this time by the wicked witch of Babylon. She falls again in chapters 17-19, along with her two beastly escorts and the rest of the world’s perniciousness. All that remains of evil is Satan, which brings us (on this first Sunday of Lent) to chapter 20, which along with chapters 21 and 22 comprise the last of the seven cycles.
An angel descends to take out Satan, but rather than toss him into the fiery lake, he sentences the dragon to a thousand years. Why not the death penalty? Especially given his record? And why the mandatory work release program? We read that after a thousand years, Satan “must be set free for a short time.” Is Revelation anticipating some sort of repentance and rehabilitation? A thousand years is a very long time, especially by Revelation’s reckoning. So far the longest time span mentioned has been the three and a half years in chapters 11 and 12. The thousand years gives time for the souls of beheaded martyrs to rise up and take their seats alongside Jesus. We read that these headless souls “have been given authority to judge,” but that’s not quite right. A more accurate rendering would be “judgment has been given to them” meaning that the verdict has been handed down in their favor. These saints are the same as those murdered for their faith in chapter 6, the same who had huddled under the heavenly altar begging God to avenge their blood. In chapter 19 vengeance was depicted as the rider’s slaying their oppressors along with the beast whose mark they spurned. In this cycle, justice comes with Satan’s imprisonment and their enthronement. As Jesus promised back in chapter 3: “To those who overcome, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne.”
Does this imply that those who die for their faith get the best seats at the gala? Not necessarily. At this past Friday’s festivities (which were wonderful, by the way), I noticed that while some of our long-suffering members got tables near the front, others were by the back doors proving once again that there is no favoritism in the Kingdom of God. Indeed, martyrs refers to all faithful believers who one day reign with Christ. There is no hierarchy in heaven. We all stand on level ground at the foot of the cross. Besides, the martyrs’ reward is not for their fatality, but for their faithfulness. Martyr is merely the Greek word for witness. Martyrs don’t go around looking for ways to die, they just fearlessly follow the Lamb wherever he goes, the rest is out of their hands.
Verses 5 and 6 describe the martyrs reign with Christ as “the first resurrection.” If the martyrs do represent all faithful people and not some elite subset, does this mean we all go to heaven in pieces? Our souls float into the sky and our bodies catch up later? This is what many of us were taught. And it seems to be what Revelation is teaching too. Verse 4 speaks of the souls of the martyrs seated with Christ. And yet there is no subsequent mention of bodies being seated. Actually, there’s no mention of a “second resurrection” either, only a second death. John does insert a parentheses regarding “the rest of the dead coming to life,” but surely he’s not talking about the rest of the dead as in the remaining bodily parts of the dead. It’s very confusing. The bigger problem is that Christian theology has always affirmed the resurrection of the body, based upon Jesus’ own resurrection after whose our resurrection is patterned. And Jesus rose from the grave all in one piece.
Science affirms this reality too. Not that science supports any resurrection from the dead (that miracle defies scientific explanation). Yet advances in biology, genetics and neuroscience do suggest that whatever we mean by soul (or mind or sentience), it’s not some separate, disembodied entity disconnected from the brain. Humans exist as singular, integrated persons. Nevertheless, I serve on a community ethics committee for a local hospital where we recently debated the issue of pediatric organ donation after cardiac death. The question we tried to answer is: When is it OK to remove organs for consented transplant from a child whose heart has stopped beating irreversibly? Current hospital policy is to wait five minutes, though many hospitals only wait two minutes since two minutes is sufficient time to ensure actual death has occurred. So then why the extra three minutes? Among the reasons this hospital gives is to provide the deceased with something called “spiritual wiggle room.” Wanting to be sensitive to various religious views, the hospital reasoned that if there is such a thing as a disembodied soul, five minutes should provide sufficient time for a soul to depart its body without any threat of desecration on religious grounds.
While there are many sticky wickets concerning the practice of pediatric organ donation (the ethics of organ procurement itself among them), this particular conflict between soul survival and organ donation was new to me. As you’d expect, the ethics committee devoted a good deal of time to discussing it. Nonreligious members of the committee were naturally nonplussed. With hundreds of children desperately awaiting organ donation, why risk organ viability by taking extra time for something that, scientifically speaking, we’re not even sure occurs? Is this a hospital or a church? The ethics committee turned to me (the minister) for advice. They asked, “Reverend, how long does it take for a soul to leave a body?”
Now for those of you who’ve read Nature’s Witness (my faith and science book that came out last fall――available for a measly $12.25 on Amazon.com), then you know how I answered the ethics committee. Suffice to say for this morning, the separation of body and soul is not only scientifically suspect, but theologically suspect too. In the Bible, soul is a multi-faceted word that literally means a living being as opposed to a dead one. Sure, Paul draws the distinction between a natural body and a spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15, but that distinction should be read as the distinction we make between a corpse (a buried body or what Paul calls a sown body) and a living body (that is, a raised or resurrected body). There’s no warrant for thinking that spiritual always means nonphysical. Thus the souls of martyrs seated with Jesus are the resurrected bodies of the martyrs, the very spiritual bodies Paul says we all will inhabit. But how does this happen? Our resurrected bodies can’t be identical to our current bodies. These bodies, sinful as they are, decompose in the ground once we die. So what does “resurrection of the body” mean? If there’s no immaterial soul, do I just lie in the ground until the last day? But then if that takes too long, what resurrects? If to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, where exactly am I after I die?
The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “You have been raised with Christ.” He wrote this to them even as they still lived and breathed on earth. He said, “Set your heart where it already is, seated with Christ at the right hand of God.” Paul hints at a dual reality, an already-not-yet existence, with further affirmation from science here too. According to some physicists, our experience of time as the constant tick-tock move toward the future is for the most part just an illusion. Instead, what exists is what these physicists hypothesize as a “block universe,” a greater reality beyond the speed of light where no time passes and everything occurs in the conceptual present—whether past, present or future. Unbound by time, God abides in this block universe dimension interacting with all events of history simultaneously (sort of like a comic strip reader reading the comics). In the tick-tock of “flowing time” (or earth time), our bodies and our selves return to the dust from whence they came. Yet in the dimension of “block universe” time, we are seated with Christ in heaven already, just like Paul said. It’s as if the time between now and the end of time has already transpired, since in the eternal present tense of heaven it already has. The day of resurrection has already happened on God’s clock; we participate in it as we die until that day when the final new creation finally comes down from heaven, and eternity and time compress together forever.
What Revelation describes is not, I think, a resurrection of the righteous in two parts, body and soul, but simply the resurrection of the righteous first. Who, then, are “the rest of the dead due to come to life once the thousand years were ended”? In chapter 21 they are described as “the cowardly, the faithless, the vile, the murderers, the whoremongers, the sorcerers, the idolaters and all liars―whose place will be in the lake of fire and brimstone. This is the second death.” The first death is the death we all must die. The second death is that eternal death that separates evil from good forever. Likewise the first resurrection is the resurrection of the righteous, over whom the second death has no power, while the implied second resurrection is the resurrection of the wicked. “A time is coming,” Jesus said, “when all who are in their graves will hear my voice and come out―those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
In verse 11, a great white throne splits earth and sky and all of the dead, great and small, stand before the throne as books are opened. The dead are judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. I remember being told how on Judgment Day, God replays our lives as movies for everybody to watch. I think the purpose for telling me this was to get me to get my life into Oscar-winning form, but all it really did was scare me silly. I knew how my movie played. The Psalmist asks, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” And according to Revelation, God does keep a record of sins. Right? Well, not exactly. In Jeremiah, God promised that through the new covenant in Christ, “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more.” So much so that the Psalmist could answer his own question: “With you, O Lord, there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Revelation’s record book is not the book of good behavior as much as it is the book of corroborating evidence. It’s “anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life who was thrown into the lake of fire.” The book of life is the record of faith, the names of those who believe. The rest of the books corroborate that faith. As Jesus often said, “you can only know a tree by its fruit.”
We wrapped up a New Members’ class at our house this past week where we had the privilege to hear people share their stories of faith, which is always inspiring—though years ago it used to downright intimidating. When I first arrived at Park Street, you didn’t share your faith story to an intimate, small group of new friends, but to a committee of some 40 people, called the Conference Committee. The Conference Committee sat in this huge circle, facing you as you told your story. Afterwards, they were primed to ask questions so as to determine your spiritual fitness for church membership. Then they’d vote as to your faith’s authenticity before allowing you to join. Now in all fairness, I should say that the experience was never quite as daunting as I’m making it sound; yet it was enough that I remember having to calm many a nervous new member candidate before Conference Committee meetings. I told them how it used to be worse. It used to be you had to haul along witnesses who could vouch they’d seen your faith in action. It’s sort of what’s going on here. Jesus said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do what I say?” What good is faith if nobody can see it do anything? “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” he said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 7:16-20). Oh well.
Which brings us at last back to the devil himself. When Satan’s thousand year jail term is over, he’s released from prison only to go out and wreak the same havoc he’d always done. Satanic evil, it seems, is beyond any hope of rehabilitation. The dragon gathers all who stubbornly refuse the lure of grace, all who refuse to acknowledge their sin and their need for forgiveness―“Gog and Magog” for short, rebellious names gleaned from the prophet Ezekiel. Energized by the dragon, they make one last vain attempt to topple God’s kingdom, only to end up burned up, along with Death and the Grave as well. Satan’s release was solely for the sake of his doom. It is finished. “Where O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Death’s sting is sin, but thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The table is now set. All that awaits is the coming feast of the Lamb, a gala full of faithful witnesses who have all lost their heads for Jesus. I wonder if it will be anything like our Gala this past Friday night? How great was it for our whole church to be together in one place, feasting on God’s goodness――past, present and future――as we ate and laughed in one place with those with whom we share a promised eternity. I loved how the festivities embraced both 50-year stalwarts of the church as well as new comers, including Ritchie, one of our friends we’ve met through our Thursday night outreach on Boston Common. It was a genuine taste of heaven. I know some were bothered by what seemed like too much extravagance in such dire economic times, but if Revelation is right, the best time to celebrate is always in the face of adversity. Therefore let us keep the feast.