A Cruciform Hermeneutic for reading Revelation

My previous post was critical of the “Left Behind” series–certainly not new news, but worth repeating, I think. But after deconstruction there must be reconstruction. So here is what I would offer as an alternative set of principles–a cruciform hermeneutic–for reading Revelation.

  1. Recognize that the central and centering image of Revelation is the lamb that was slaughtered. In Revelation, Christ dies for our sins, but he dies also, even primarily, as the incarnation and paradigm of faithfulness to God in the face of anti-God powers. Christ is lord, Christ is victorious, Christ conquers by cruciform faithful resistance: not by inflicting but by absorbing violence; by speaking his powerful word, not by actually killing. Revelation is counter-imperial, challenging Rome’s theology of Victory and Power with what many have called “Lamb power” (among others, Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation,103-22, three great chapters). We are victorious by following the Lamb, not Babylon/Rome/analogous imperial powers. 
  2. Remember that Revelation was first of all written by a first-century Christian for first-century Christians using first-century literary devices and images. These images reflect certain first-century realities; they do not predict 21st-century realities. However, like other powerful images, these images in Revelation naturally evoke connections to similar realities at other times, including our own—which leads to the next principle.
  3. Abandon so-called literal, linear approaches to the book as if it were history written in advance, and use an interpretive strategy of analogy rather than correlation. Revelation is image, metaphor, poetry (Eugene Peterson: “a theological poem”), political cartooning. Revelation imaginatively reveals the nature of any and all systems that oppose the ways of God in the world, especially as revealed in Christ the lamb who was slaughtered. Those systems are not limited to particular future powers but are found in all places and times. We should therefore be examining our ideologies and -isms for manifestations of idolatry and immorality as expressed in imperialism, militarism, and  nationalism (the worship of the state and its power), racism and classism (the worship of the corporate self and the degradation of the corporate other), consumerism and hedonism (the worship of things and pleasure). This means we must especially look at our own Western and American and even Christian systems and values, not at some future one-world government, for evidences of that which is antichrist.
  4. Focus on the book’s call to discipleship. Revelation calls Christians to a difficult discipleship of discernment—a nonconformist cruciform faithfulness—that may lead to marginalization or even persecution now, but which leads ultimately to a place in God’s new heaven and new earth. Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence and not to a literal war of any sort, present or future. By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from those of the status quo.
  5. Place the images of death and destruction in Revelation within the larger framework of hope. The death and destruction in Revelation are symbolic of the judgment and cleansing of God that is necessary for the realization of the hope offered in Christ for a new heaven and new earth in which God and the Lamb alone reign forever among a redeemed, reconciled humanity from all tribes, peoples, and nations. The church bears witness in word and deed to this future reality, but it knows that only God can bring that final, future reality to earth, so it constantly prays, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

3 Responses to “A Cruciform Hermeneutic for reading Revelation”

  1. Thanks for articulating these guidelines, Michael. I’ve been wrestling with how to read this book lately, convinced that the old-school dispensationalist reading is awkward and fanciful, not handling the genre appropriately.

    You mentioned, the close ties to the first century. I agree whole heartedly. Here’s my question: The reading you’ve advocated seems quite eclectic. What chapters, if any, do you see having an original meaning that primarily portrays the future? I want to have Chapters 21-22 stay future, I think. But I’m not sure about the rest.

    Also, have I understood you correctly that the text of Revelation has an “original meaning” that is set primarily in the first century, but remains a viable model of resistance for all ages to follow? Have I articulated this accurately?

    Thanks for any comments you might have!

    - Michael

  2. MJG says:

    Hi, Michael,

    Thanks for your response. If my reading is eclectic, it is governed by a conviction that aspects of the book that can be correlated to specific historical events and personnages are either prior to or contemporary with the writing, and that future correlations are by analogy (thus our situation is analogous, not forecast).

    In some sense, then, until the parousia the book of Revelation is always both present and future, but clearly the final victoy of God over evil and empire, and thus the new heavens and earth, are future–eschatologically so. I would not subscribe to the idea that the future new heaven and new earth (chaps. 21-22) is within history as we know it or achieved by human effort. There are some who believe that, but not many–and I think that view is both unrealistic and contradictory to the rest of the NT and to the theological tradition.

    And yes, “the text of Revelation has an “original meaning” that is set primarily in the first century, but remains a viable model of resistance for all ages to follow”–great restatement.

    Hope this helps. Look out for my book on this by the end of the year (I hope), and probably a few more posts.

  3. Michael (MJG),

    Thank you so much for your clarification. Very interesting, indeed. I’ll keep an eye out for your book and for further posting. Thanks again.


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