Then I saw "a new heaven and a new earth," for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
I was teaching English at a Catholic high school in the suburbs of St. Paul, Minnesota, starting a unit with my juniors on how to write a research paper. We were at the point of approving topics and Megan, one of my students, handed in a topic that utterly confused me. All I could make out was that she wanted to write her research paper on the Rapture, a word I had not heard of, but about which she confidently assured me there were lots of reputable academic resources. In the spirit of assuming that there are many important things I have never heard of, I initially gave her a green light to proceed. "Sure, Megan. Let's meet next week and you can bring in some of the books and articles you'd like to cite in your paper". When she submitted her outline the following week, I was even more baffled than before and I called her in to meet with me. Our conversation went something like this: "So, Megan, this looks like it's about Armageddon. Judgment Day. Do you want to do a theological or historical research on Judgment Day? You keep mentioning this October date. I'm not sure what that refers to." Megan, wide-eyed and well-mannered, patiently explained to me that she wanted to write a paper on the Rapture, which was scheduled to come in mid-October, which was about six weeks away. We looked at each other for a long time, I trying to think of what to say, and she manifestly excited about the occasion.
It was a defining moment for me, one of those times when, as a Unitarian Universalist who had been raised to respect all people's religious beliefs, everything in me rebelled against our much-vaunted tolerance and acceptance. I could not think of what to say, because I could not continue the conversation from a place of respect. What I now saw on Megan's face was not just her habitually shining, somewhat over-eager expression: I saw a religious fanatic, a kid with her hair in a long braid who was being raised by maniacs and fed this terrifying doctrine that the world was going to end within months, Jesus come again to judge all souls and to cast the unbelievers into Hell, and I quote from the book of Revelation, "they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man." (And that's the fate for those who are getting off easy.)
I wanted to hold her to me. I wanted to erase those thoughts from her head. I wanted to say, "Megan, you're wonderful, bright, talented kid. The world needs you to invest in your future. The world needs you to be engaged with reality. The world does not need another bitter, ex-fundamentalist Christian 20-something who realizes that her parents and her church have been lying to her and scaring all her life and goes off to have a self-destructive rebellion." I wanted to say, "Megan, if you really think the world is going to end in October and you're going to be Raptured up to heaven, maybe writing a research paper isn't the best use of your time, you know what I mean? Aren't there other things you'd rather be doing?"
I went to the school administration. I have a problem, I told them. They were unperturbed. They knew about Megan's family, living in a kind of farm compound in strict evangelical separatism. I don't know why the family sent Megan to a Catholic school (where, of course, she would not only be exposed to Catholic doctrine but to Unitarian Universalist teachers); perhaps it was better to have her in a religious school than in a public school. I did not want to get caught up in accusations of religious discrimination, so with a very unhappy heart I accepted her proposed research paper topic and she proceeded. I kept a wide berth around her in class, I'm ashamed to admit, observing her from a concerned distance.
I soon noticed that Megan seemed a bit manic and more wide-eyed and shiny-faced than ever, and suspected that the fervor of awaiting the Rapture was affecting her mental and physical health. I called her in again to talk with her, and learned that she and her family had been fasting to prepare for the big day. Again, I went to the school administrators. We shared concern, but there was nothing we could do, no action we could take. When Megan's parents withdrew her from school a week or so later, we all grieved. I wonder to this day what happened to her, how she is doing, where she is. I wonder how she felt when the date for the Rapture came and went and no seven horses of the Apocalypse with it, nor any of the other promises made in the Book of Revelation, a Judgment Day vision authored by an early Christian we know only as John (who also wrote the Gospel of John), written while in exile on the Greek island of Patmos.
You've heard of the Book of Revelation whether you've read it or not. Its imagery has been providing fodder for horror movies since the genre was begun. Do you remember "The Omen?" Probably the scariest movie I've ever seen. The little devil boy, Damien, has the mark of the beast, 666, on his head. I must have been about twelve or so when the movie came out and I still remember my shock of horror when I watched the scene where his mother finds the mark of the beast under his hair on his scalp. Chills! I went home and found a Bible on my parents' bookshelf and I was scared half to death when I turned to Revelation 13:17 and found the citation there. In the real Bible. "Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. ... It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666".
My knees went weak. And like any kid will do, because I was pretty sure my parents -- who let me read anything I wanted -- wouldn't approve, I crawled into bed with the Bible and read the entire book of Revelation. There is nothing scarier or weirder. In a way, I would rather leave it as it is, a masterpiece of terror and grandeur with its zoological cast of characters, its riveting, horrifying imagery of Whores of Babylon and rivers running with blood, the end of the world as we know it, its unparalleled literary power and might.
But you see, we stand in a tradition that strenuously objects to abusive uses of religion-- and to instill paralyzing terror in the hearts of men, women and children is most certainly an abusive use of religion. So it is my responsibility to shed some light on Revelation -- as we have again, anticipation in the broader fundamentalist culture of its arrival on May 21 (they apparently re-scheduled it). There is some disagreement about the date, as per usual. Some think the day is October 21. However, just in case it is either of those dates...
First of all, and I come back to this fact again and again in my own musing about why this Judgment Day idea still has such a fascination for otherwise pretty reasonable people: there is serious question about why and how the Book of Revelation made it into the official canon of books that came to be known as the Bible in the first place. There are many ancient writers who had powerful intense religious revelations that they recorded and that people took seriously in their time, but which did not receive official approval to be included as Holy Scripture. This is true of both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures. Some scholars make a life's work of studying the rejects, which we know as the Apocryphal material, meaning "of questionable authorship and authenticity." Since John was known to Christian tradition and well-respected, that may have a lot to do with its acceptance into the canon. So, we might think of the Book of Revelation as kind of trashy, pop beach reading that made it into the Bible but that does not begin to compare with the other books in terms of its worthiness to guide individual and communal spiritual life. It is certainly an incredible work of symbolism and literary surrealism but it is important for us to understand why it was actually written. And if you are in conversation with people about the legitimacy of the Book of Revelation, I want you to know that it was written to instruct first-century Christians on how to survive their persecution under the Roman Empire.
To give you a quick sketch of the history of this book: the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were not popular people in the first-century Roman Empire. They were considered crazy Jewish fanatics, followers of a man the Romans felt they had properly and permanently done away with as a common criminal and religious agitator, and that should be that. So to the Romans it was like, "Shut up about it already. Your guy lost. Your team lost." The Caesars, who were considered to be the gods' representatives on earth, were offended by the Christians and so they had them persecuted. Sometimes the persecutions were fairly mild, like refusing them permission to worship and breaking up their church meetings (which initially were all held in people's houses) or smashing their sacred objects (communion chalices and crosses and such). Sometimes, under certain emperors (like Domition, who reigned in John's time) the persecutions were violent and persistent and awful, like being thrown to the lions or being burned or beheaded. So life was really scary for these people, but they embraced the opportunity to die for their beliefs. The word martyr comes from the Greek word for "witness." Because what these people had, you see, was not just a total faith in a beautiful afterlife, but they also had a rock-solid belief that their Lord, Jesus, had triumphed over death with his own martyrdom. They considered it therefore a high honor to share that fate with Jesus, that spiritual battle: "do I choose life that would be compromised and therefore meaningless, or do I suffer the temporary agonies of martyrdom and hold onto the integrity of my soul and have a beautiful afterlife?" That, of course is a poignant question, one I think we can certainly find resonance in for ourselves, even though we do not have a Roman centurion pointing a sword at our throats when it gets asked.
Would you go to Dachau for speaking out against Hitler? Would you risk the gulag for publishing poetry that expresses your pain about the corruption of your government? Would you be willing to spend 27 years on Robbin Island prison for organizing your people to protest apartheid? Would you be so devoted to gathering images that tell the truth of war, that you would risk getting blown up by a land mine in Afghanistan? Would you speak out publicly for civil rights knowing that your house might be firebombed or your children hurt or killed? These are the martyrdoms that we are more familiar with, martyrdoms of our time. We can certainly read Revelation with great respect as an encounter between evil and justice, which is nothing to scoff at. As anyone knows who is fighting the "powers and principalities," there is monstrous evil in the world that can feel supernatural, and perhaps is. Science in conversation with religion has not conclusively determined if human evil is merely biological or ontological (part of the essence of being). Whether or not evil has a transcendent element to it, is a question for the ages. We haven't answered it yet.
But, there was another important belief driving the early Christians for whom Revelation was authored. They thought, because of their interpretation of some of Jesus's sayings and because the Apostle Paul had said it so often, that the world was going to end soon anyway. Existence was a deeply shaky proposition, what with the constant threat of having a soldier bust into their meetings to round everyone up to become Fancy Feast for a starved lion in the Colosseum, and feeling very sure that Jesus was going to come back to Earth in a blaze of glory to judge the living and release the dead from their sleep. The early Christians lived in this immediate expectation, for which the fancy theological name is "eschatological," or "study of last things." They awaited the eschaton, the total destruction of the world and the coming of the reign of God. Some of their great-great-grandchildren are still waiting. Like Megan.
I wanted to call this sermon "Jesus is Coming: Look Busy," but then I stopped myself for fear of being too snarky. I don't want to make open fun of people's beliefs. But when I said so, my friend Tim Cravens challenged me on this, however. Why not make fun, he asked? Here is what he wrote, "I was raised in a fundamentalist household, my father a minister, with a strong belief in this, and I had lots of nightmares about being left behind, and panic attacks when I was in the house alone and didn't know where my parents were. This doctrine is evil, and deserves nothing whatsoever but mockery and ridicule, and I for one will be offended if you stop mocking [it]! Reading the snark you and others write about this (and writing some of my own) is very healing for me." Scott, another friend, writes, "Rapture belief has real negative consequences. Mocking the belief is a high calling."
That's a fun indulgence to consider, but I think we can do better in a more mature way. We can remind those who believe in the Judgment Day -- or even who worry about it-- that Revelation is about the total destruction not of the world itself but of the world of empire: the world of Caesar's justice, the world of corruption reigning and running rampant, the world of domination, the world of violent oppression of all kinds of freedoms. And we can tell those people, hey, don't forget to read the whole thing: the book of Revelation does not stop at destruction and judgment but describes the coming of the reign of God, the reign of holiness of a reign of peace and the utter transformation of all evil into love. "And I saw a new heaven and a new Earth."
My God, Megan, don't you see? For every year that we turn our eyes to the heavens waiting for God to come destroy the sinful Earth, we are turning our eyes away from humanity, who is doing just that - destroying the Earth - without any divine help. Megan, stop waiting for Jesus to judge. We are capable of judging this together, all of us, assessing and discerning and taking mutual responsibility for who we are as a species and what we have done to ourselves, each other, and our planet. Megan, May 21st is not going to be the end of the world. It is going to be another beautiful, blessed day on this amazing planet, populated with amazing creatures, one amazing species to which you and I both belong. What are you going to do with that day, Megan? I hope that wherever you are, you will wake that morning not with expectations of fiery Armageddon, but with a quieter and more peaceful and hopeful faith. Because Megan, don't forget these words that are also from the book of Revelation, "Behold, I make all things new." The New Jerusalem is not going to be inflicted on us by a vengeful God, Megan. It's a place that you and I and all of us will have to make together. Let us turn our eyes from heaven back to Earth, and begin.