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Revelations vs the Gospel of Jesus


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On the Bart Erhman blog (https://ehrmanblog.org/member-landing-page/), Bart has been discussing the ideology of domination in the book of Revelation.  Although the bulk of his posts are only fully available with a subscription ($30/yr), his summary around this topic has been posted in its entirety for free, so I have taken the opportunity to replicate it here for people to read if interested.  

Over to Bart:

The Apocalypse of John and the Gospel of Jesus: My Final Thoughts

April 9, 2022

Here now is the conclusion to my lecture on the ideology of domination in the book of Revelation.

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I conclude with several more focused reflections on whether the Revelation of John represents the Gospel of Jesus.  To sum up what I have been emphasizing: there is not a single word in all of Revelation about God loving others and no instruction to the followers of Christ to do so either.  Instead, they are called to be “conquerors” – and once they overwhelm the rest of the earth with divine military might, they become its rulers, kings who control “the nations with a rod of iron.”  Whether John meant this literally is beside the point.   This is how he sees God, Christ, his followers, and the rest of the human race: powerful rulers and abject subjects.

Is this what Jesus meant when he told his followers to abandon all desire for greatness?  To live lives of service to others?  To become slaves?   In the book of Revelation Christ’s followers are slaves, but only to God.  They despise everyone outside their rank and want their blood to spill, just as Christ himself is explicitly said to hate those who are not true believers – even members of his own churches. The slaves of God are not instructed to love, serve, or help anyone – even when they have the power to do so. They live in the new Jerusalem, a city constructed of gold, jewels, and pearls, where their every need is met and life is so good that they no longer ever shed a tear, for all eternity.  Do they use the city’s wealth to help those outside?  No. Those outside don’t matter, except to the extent that they bring their own wealth into the city.  But no one who engages in abomination or falsehood can do so, because no sinners could possibly set foot in the golden city where Christ resides.  Was that Jesus’ view?  Did he shun sinners?  In Revelation, Jesus and his followers do not come to serve and to give their lives for others.  They come to destroy the lives of others and to be served.  It is difficult indeed to see how Jesus would countenance such a view.

John of Patmos is certainly a committed Christian.  He is a passionate follower of the Lamb who wreaks vengeance on earth, a slave of God to the very end.  But is he the kind of Christian that Jesus would recognize?

In his Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer famously argued that each generation of scholars has painted Jesus in their own image.  That is to say, the historical and cultural contexts of biblical scholars affect how they understand Jesus; they invariably portray him as a person of their own time who proclaimed their own perspectives.  Enlightenment scholars who rejected the supernatural wrote accounts of a non-miraculous Jesus, where his alleged “miracles” were simply misunderstood by the pre-Enlightenment authors of the Gospels, and so on.

Schweitzer’s view has been borne out with a vengeance over the past forty years, including, ironically, among scholars who read and cite his analysis.  More than ever, it has become de rigueur to portray Jesus according to one’s own ideological perspectives.  And so we have scholars (not to mention preachers) who celebrate the Capitalist Jesus, the Marxist Jesus, the Feminist Jesus, the Counter-cultural Jesus, and the Political Revolutionary Jesus.  The Nazis had an Aryan Jesus.  Among us today there is a White Nationalist Jesus.  Name your ideological preference and write your book.

This phenomenon has real-life consequences. Not only do people interested in Jesus paint him in their own image, they also model their lives on the image of Jesus they have painted. Those who see Jesus as a pacifist tend to oppose war and work for peace.  Those who see Jesus as an advocate for the poor and needy often engage in volunteer work and generously share their own resources.  Those who take to heart Jesus’ teaching, “Judge not lest you be judged” are often open to the opinions and perspectives of others – not to mention their gender identity, race, nationality, religion, and everything else about them that makes them human. Those who see Jesus as one who loves and saves all people equally often work to bring justice and equality to the world.  Scriptural portraits of Jesus in these modes can and do make the Christian message a beneficial reality.

But what about a portrait of Jesus that shows him as vengeful?  Filled with wrath against those who do not believe in him?  Infinitely powerful and determined to use his almighty force to dominate those he disapproves of – to harm them, torture them, and massacre them?   The Jesus who once suffered and is now out to destroy his persecutors?  The Jesus who is interested in material wealth, whose followers will be rewarded with power and domination and allowed to rule the peoples of earth with “a rod of iron”?

This is not the Jesus of the Gospels, but it is the wrathful Lamb of the Apocalypse. It is also the portrait of Christ many people prefer today.  It is a portrait that enables and encourages Jesus’ followers to embrace violence, vengeance, domination, and exploitation — to do whatever it takes to assert their will on others.   Some of these people have been our neighbors.  Some of them have been our leaders.  Some of them very much want to be our leaders.

What would the Jesus of the Gospels make of them?

For those of us who choose to follow Jesus –  whatever kind of Christian we are or even if we do not identify as Christian — whether we are fundamentalist Christians, evangelicals, liberal main-line Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, agnostics and/or atheists, or anything else our understanding of Jesus will almost certainly affect how we model our lives.  Is he the loving, peaceful Jesus found in the Gospels, ever attentive to the needs of others?  Or is he the wrathful, vengeful Jesus of the Apocalypse, who seeks to hurt and destroy everyone outside his band?  Each of us has to decide.

 

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