January 8, 2022
In the Book of Revelation, death is often not death.
Regrettably though, even the best interpreters have failed to notice this twist. Instead, they usually just assume that references to death must mean literal, physical death. But the unquestioned assumption that Apocalyptic death must be the equivalent of physical death results in gross distortions and vast misunderstanding of an important section of the text and thus its message. Many readers conclude that the Book of Revelation is disturbingly macabre and not very New Testament-like because of the mass violence, death, and killing depicted therein. That prima facie impression changes dramatically if “all the death and violence” is not read literally, but understood… baptismally. Apocalyptic death should often be read as a baptismal reference in Revelation. And that dramatically changes things.
Yes, baptismal is the best possible word here. The New Testament teaches that when a convert to Christianity submits to baptism that person dies. Oh my! Does the baptized person physically die? Of course not. Typically, ecclesiastical officiants do their utmost to prevent fatal slips or pours that might result in accidental drowning deaths. A high baptism fatality rate would probably discourage most people from participating in the sacrament.
Nonetheless, the New Testament teaches that someone who submits to baptism somehow dies. Obviously, this cannot be understood as physical death. It must be understood as another kind of death, call it metaphorical or symbolic. Egotistical death, perhaps?
My contention is that the author of Revelation takes this non-physical understanding of death and runs with it imaginatively — and quite counter-intuitively. Consequently, much (or at least some) of the violence, killing, and death in Revelation refers not to the automatically assumed horrors of human history, but instead to the triumph of the Cross through evangelism and conversion. In particular, this observation holds true with the Seven Trumpets series, and especially in the incremental, fractional, twelve-thirds of fire, blood, and violence symbolically presented in Revelation chapters eight and nine.
My guess is that many readers/listeners are thoroughly unconvinced by my proposal at this point. One question I anticipate is rather straightforward and simple: “But why? Why would the author of Revelation present evangelism and conversion as violence and death?”
My initial response to that question involves pointing back to the Old Testament — as the Book of Revelation itself so often does. In the Old Testament God is a militant and sometimes violent God. That is an indisputable claim, as anyone who has read the Old Testament knows. The Old Testament God can and does go to war. The Old Testament God can and does shed blood. But then Jesus arrives. At the beginning of the New Testament Jesus comes along and talks a lot about his Father as a loving, patient, merciful, and forgiving God.
So… which is it? Is God jealous, wrathful, militant, and violent? Or is God gracious, kind, compassionate, and forgiving?
My suggestion here is that much of Revelation’s militant and violent imagery serves as a subversive, radical re-interpretation of “the battle plan” — the modus operandi — of the jealous, wrathful, militant God of the Old Testament.
Paradoxically, this is one and the same God, before the incarnation of Christ and after. Yes, this jealous, gracious God is indeed thoroughly intent on the death of all his enemies; but this jealous, gracious God much prefers that his enemies die baptismally through conversion, rather than die physically and spiritually.
With that said, in this post I have not actually carefully examined particular and relevant verses from the Book of Revelation. What I have done instead is provide a suggested approach — that is, a unique hermeneutic — for reading through Revelation. I suggest you re-read Revelation (especially chapters eight, nine, and eleven) with this hermeneutic of divinely-sanctioned non-physical warfare. This suggested hermeneutic regards some Apocalyptic instances of death as conversion. Here baptismal death is God’s preferred means of bringing an end to human self-idolatry and sinful rebellion.
If you do use that approach, you will find certain passages in Revelation make much more sense than before. But other passages (usually later passages) might remain confusing. Your potential confusion is because in the end, especially with the Seven Bowls of Wrath series, God does deal more heavy-handedly with those human opponents who refuse his provision for repentance and conversion.