Revelationary politics

Teaching the Book of Revelation, as I am at the moment to a home group, always raises interesting questions of the type “Things I always wondered about, but was afraid to ask”. In the context of Revelation it’s not surprising, because being cryptic and aimed at providing insights to 1st century persecuted Christians with a Jewish background, rather than to twenty-first century Gentiles, it tends to get left on the shelf, and the questions it raises in people’s minds left unaddressed too.

One such question was raised after I’d dealt with one of the early passages in the book mentioning the fact that the resurrection-life is to be lived bodily on earth, rather than in a diembodied platonic heaven. I was pleasantly surprised to find that concept both familiar and acceptable to the “ordinary person in the pew” – Richard Middleton can take great comfort at that instance of the state of British evangelicalism.

Indeed the idea was familiar enough to have raised the niggling question in one person’s mind: won’t the earthly age to come need all the organisational institutions familiar to us here, like local government, taxes and banks? And isn’t it a bit counter-intuitive if it does, when it’s those institutions that are responsible for so much of the world’s muddle?

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs - #1

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs – #1

I’m not surprised that particular person was troubled by that – he’s a retired accountant. But then I’m a retired doctor, and don’t expect to find employment in that field in the age to come. But it is actually a good question, because it’s hard to imagine any society involving real, physical human beings that doesn’t breed some kind of institutional life. And yet it’s a bit odd to imagine living in eternal bliss and paying Eternal Income Tax to fund essential services. That’s particuarly so because although some of the Bible’s eschatological imagery is based on the idyllic pastoral model of an ideal Israel – each in his own inheritance with his own vine and fig tree – the predominant imagery in Revelation is of the New Jerusalem – πολις την ἁγιαν – the City of Holiness. Since that term “city” refers to the people more than to anything like buildings, it’s essentially a social term implying, therefore, the existence of social structures.

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs - #2

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs – #2

As it happened we got on to a good discussion about the “earthiness” of the biblical vision of the future. A British humorous writer called Adrian Plass has found it hard to imagine enjoying a resurrection-life that lacked cricket or English ale. Someone in our group stipulated cats. I offered rock-and-roll, but suggested that for others it would be the very absence of those things that made for eternal happiness. We all agreed, though, that such foolish notions were preferable to the idea of some everlasting church service (a secret fear of many believers, I know!) in reminding us that what is promised is a whole new world, at least as rich and varied as the present, damaged, one. At the same time, we recognised that the living presence of God and the Lamb in this new world makes any specific hopes or expectations – especially of beer, cats or rock and roll – appear very naive indeed. The coming to earth of heaven alters everything and causes imaginative failure.

And this, I guess, is where my friend’s concern about a possible lack of decent banking facilities and so on, whilst by no means foolish, is hardly worth taxing oneself about. I’ve heard of, and even come across, staunch premillennialists (those expecting a thousand year political reign of Christ before the Judgement) actually preparing themselves for their chosen career in that kingdom, for example by surveying the land from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea in order to oversee the hydraulic engineering necessary to get the eschatological river of life to flow from the temple to the Dead Sea. Apart from the sheer hubris of assuming you’d be given the job rather than some guy who died in the second century, such ideas really do assume far too much about the age to come.

The truth is we are told rather little about it apart from symbols, and the fact that no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind has conceived it. One of the few clear and dominical teachings rather forces us to admit the impossibility of even speculative reconstructions of the literal future age, such as those with which the Lord’s opponents were testing him, to whom he answered:

You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.

Now as I’ve written in the recent past marriage is the fundamental basis of all our social institutions here, and one that Scripture tells us is modelled on the relationship of Christ and his Church. We might reasonably  consider that the Lord’s teaching suggests that the primary relationship with Christ becomes the direct foundation of everything in the coming “political order”, but I challenge you to make any watertight predictions about the banking system, business models or even refuse collection from that.

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs - #3

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs – #3

So once again (as we agreed in our group) we are to gain encouragement and guidance for now from the hints given for us in Scripture, and even hope for the future – but speculation from our fallen state about what it will be like when are no longer in it is bound to end in failure, if not farce. You can’t project the present on to a Creation that will have been remade on an entirely new basis. Deuteronomy 29.29 is therefore sound advice:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Living now is the issue – and the issue that Revelation, contra too many interpretations, addresses. I was thinking along these lines before our Revelation Bible study, though. I’m currently reading a book about the world of Jesus and the early Church, which is quite instructive but depressingly dependent on the reflexly skeptical scholarship that has plagued us for too long now. So in describing the significance of Jesus’s ministry in its Jewish setting, scholarly speculation on Christ’s entirely human reactions to political and religious issues of his situation is the only consideration. It’s not just that Roman occupation or corruption in the Temple cult informs our understanding of Jesus’s message, but that it defines it, leaving very little that’s of universal significance or, most importantly, of divine origin.

Similarly, although apparently the author himself believes in the resurrection, he’ll account for the emphasis on the empty tomb in the gospels (contrasted with its alleged absence from Paul’s writing) by (a) setting the gospels at the end of the first century or later, (b) presenting Docetism (ie that Jesus only seemed to be a man) as “the” issue facing the Church and (c) concluding that the “Jesus community” or the gospel writers reasoned that the empty tomb story would be one in the eye for the Docetists, so made it up.

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs - #4

Unlikely eschatological carry-overs – #4

Now all this, though citing the worthiest scholars, is actually based on the same kind of shortsightedness that besets the fundamentalist pre-planning eschatological watercourses in the Israeli desert. It’s an attempt to project the norms of the present Creation on to an entirely new one. For the clever business of exploring first century geopolitics and applying them to what a Galilean artisan with a Messiah-complex would most naturally do ignores the fact that in Christ, uniquely in all history, God became man. And that immediately makes what “ought” to happen beyond our human capacity to say. What humans in hypostatic union with the second Person of the Godhead “usually” do is a question not even worth asking. We can only, with any confidence, seek to understand what the God-man actually said and did, in his context, and trust in it by faith for ours.

Likewise, it’s pretty futile to ask how the early Church “ought” to have dealt with the physical Resurrection of Christ, given how things normally happen. Because resurrection doesn’t normally happen. In fact, it has never happened, except in this one instance. I can no more judge what is legendary, polemical or wishful in the biblical accounts than I can describe how “normal” people would react to the beatific vision. If I was pushed, I’d say that the last thing that would happen is the embellishment of the events of Easter – the central assertion for all early evangelism – in order to spin things against second century heretics. How do you make the Resurrection a better story than it was in itself? And why would you want to, unless you didn’t believe it in the first place?

But the truth is I don’t know how the early Church processed what they had witnessed – in the end I either believe the testimony of the gospel – in which case the empty tomb, and even the non-dovetailing of the accounts, are not a problem.

Or I don’t believe it, in which case spending time in speculation would be better spent in the here and now – running a bank, maybe.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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15 Responses to Revelationary politics

  1. Cath Olic says:

    “I can no more judge what is legendary, polemical or wishful in the biblical accounts than I can describe how “normal” people would react to the beatific vision…
    But the truth is I don’t know how the early Church processed what they had witnessed – in the end I either believe the testimony of the gospel – in which case the empty tomb, and even the non-dovetailing of the accounts, are not a problem.”

    But you wouldn’t say the same about the biblical account in Genesis, would you?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      But you wouldn’t say the same about the biblical account in Genesis, would you?

      Ah yes, but then I would. Just as I seek to understand the gospel teaching in the light of understanding its context, but without doubting its truth, I seek to understand the torah teaching in its context, but without doubting its truth.

      The parallel is particularly true for the Book of Revelation, where the (welter of) wacky interpretations has been fuelled by lack of the deep knowledge of Scripture that the Asian churches had, their historical setting, the language of Jewish apocalyptic, the temple ritual that informs so much of the symbolism and the true purpose and function of prophecy.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    The book of revelation is ‘something else’ – a couple of points that I would make. One, there is a lot of activity described in that book, so the notion that everyone would sit around looking at this or that is an unlikely proposal. Secondly, God is the ultimate creator and all who are in Christ will be endowed with such creative power is – this means imo lots of creative activity. One of the wonders of the Universe and man’s place in it, is the sheer creativity displayed when we study it on any level, be it a scientific or artistic aspect.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Quite right – the Kingdom is a very active “institution” both for men and angels! It may be accompanied by trouble and patient endurance now (a central theme of the prophecy) but is no less active in the new age, though it’s pretty hard to pin down any specific human activity amidst the symbolism other than worship.

      There are enough resonances with the Genesis creation, though, to see that, at least for starters, the intention is that we fulfil the original role we messed up in Eden (“they shall reign on the earth”). So, although it’s not much easier to imagine how civilization might have played out apart from sin, it’s a good place to start since it’s our world, rather than a new one, that’s in view.

  3. I’m interested that your study group agreed that certain ‘foolish notions’ were ‘preferable to the idea of some everlasting church service’ – ‘a secret fear of many believers’.
    Maybe you were being a little tongue in cheek, but I suspect that such sentiments would be widely expressed if solicited.

    Undoubtedly meeting together for fellowship, mutual encouragement and edification has an important function – and Scripture enjoins us to do so.
    I wonder, however, if it is not only the idea that a meeting might go on for ever that is at the root of this ‘secret fear’, but also the structure and content of our church services. Perhaps we should be doing things differently.

    I’m not worried about it myself – I think we know enough about our God to justify looking forward to an eternity of joyful creativity.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Not really tongue in cheek, but even people who rejoice in the fellowship and praise that comprise our meetings don’t relish being there to the exclusion of all else forever! I first heard the secret fear aired by a speaker at a Spring Harvest conference, and you could see the “I thought I was the only one” looks around the room!

      The “lost in wonder, love and praise” motif that, I suppose, comprises the concept of the “beatific vision” would surely exclude such negative notions if that’s what God indeed planned. When God says we’ll be happy, he knows how to make it happen. But one would hardly need bodies and a new creation for that, so I doubt it. FWIW I think the “worship” scenes in Revelation represent more the atmosphere through the whole of the new creation – the perfect cosmic templem filled with the presence of God and the Lamb – than a description of any particular “meeting”. I don’t deny there will be meetings, mind – maybe long ones, too!

      But as I wrote those comments, I remembered a song by the jazz fusion group The Yellowjackets, whose keyboardist is a Christian. It’s all about how knowledge of God colours everything, and especially the experience of church services. Nice YouTube link here, and in case you can’t catch the lyrics:

      I can remember the time
      When I was at church all day
      And I wondered what my friends used to think
      Used to think about me

      Can you remember the time
      When service it seemed like it lasted so very long
      If I knew what I know now
      I would have stayed all day

      Come take me back
      To the one place where I come from
      Haven’t you heard that
      Revelation is here

      I’m so glad this revelation is here


  4. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    Jon, Peter:

    I can’t help but smile when I hear the reaction of some others to the notion of heaven as one long church service! I’ve often had a similar reaction. The single English word that captures the experience of 90% of the church services I’ve attended in my life — no matter what the denomination — is “dull.” I’m reminded of the Shaw play where people can move freely back and forth between heaven and hell, and one of the characters who drops in on hell says something to the effect that he can never stay too long in heaven because of the endless choirs singing the same old thing, and comes to hell for stimulation because all the really interesting people and conversations are there!

    Of course, one could argue that Shaw was likely to present a one-sided and negative view. But one must remember that, if reports are correct, C.S. Lewis also disliked church services. This gives me heart.

    It seems to me that, at least in North America, most church services have not been aimed at the spiritually thoughtful individuals in the church, but at the person who wants a comfortable weekly routine that does not demand much emotional or intellectual attention, or even in-tune singing. Thus, those who go to Church every week in hopes of finding the spiritual equivalent of a fine French dinner most often find themselves sitting in a McDonald’s. And just as the thought of an eternity eating at McDonald’s is more horrifying than anything Dante could have imagined, so is the thought of an eternity listening to cloying, fruity-voiced Presbyterian male soloists, or to off-key Anglican congregational singing that is out of time with the organist, or to old Rev. Smith’s recycled and platitudinous sermons. If that is to be the heavenly menu, I’d follow Shaw’s character to the nether regions on a regular basis!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Shaw’s error, of course, was in thinking that the people who end up in Hell take their creativity and vigour with them – they’re the bits that come from God, and which (it seems) he will claim back! “Dullsville” is the infernal trademark, not the heavenly one!

      I find myself quite divided on the “church service” question. Born an Anglican, I always admired the liturgy for its richness, but I found I couldn’t participate in it for more than a few months without beginning to go into autopilot mode. That contrasts with no less a Christian than C S Lewis, for whom the unvarnished C of E prayer book was an anchor for his faith.

      And though I lead services on guitar (which lends itself to upbeat modern stuff) I often hanker after the “boring old hymns” my non-com brethren eschew, and stick them in anyway. Likewise I’ve heard preaching by the likes of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and in more recent times Chris Wright and other leading theologs, but week by week one is going to get the local village pastor, assistants and guests and (occasionally) oneself. Even Lloyd-Jones said he wouldn’t go across the road to hear himself preach. And the other participants will ineviotably be people as boring as oneself.

      In ancient times the sheer spectacle of Orthodox services was intended to wow the pagans into the kingdom by embodying heaven. Nowadays the Charismatic churches seek to out-do the world in multi-media experiences.

      The truth is that in all cases meetings are a discipline in which Christ’s motley people share their experience of God, and forbearance is as much its function as ectasy (read 1 Corinthians!). Come the new age, forbearance will have no place, and God will be all in all. That probably makes teaching redundant (we shall all know him). Music might take any form – but I suggest that even singing some weary old hymn would be a very different thing when the truths it contains are before your eyes.

      But I repeat that since God and the Lamb are the Temple in the City, then even more than now our “spiritual worship” will be everything we do, and not something in a liturgical strait-jacket. It’s George Herbert in spades: “Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws/ makes that and the action fine.”

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Hi, Jon. Of course, Shaw was a humorist, and his jibe about the liveliness of hell and the boringness of heaven was not meant to teach anything actual about the afterlife (which I doubt Shaw believed in), but to take a swipe at the defects of Christian life as he saw it in this world. So the line of thought is: “If the kingdom of heaven is going to be something like an extended Protestant church service, the kingdom of heaven is going to be very boring to live in.” And it seems to me the way to respond to that is not to defend current Protestant church services, but to say that in the kingdom of heaven people will know God directly and therefore won’t require unsatisfactory arrangements like those of our current church services; life itself will be worship and “church services” won’t any longer be necessary.

        I can imagine Lewis very much admiring the language of the Book of Common Prayer, and its theology. I can imagine him reading it privately for spiritual reinforcement and edification. None of that in itself makes it impossible that he disliked attending church services. I’m not saying definitely that he did dislike church services, as I’m not a Lewis scholar; but that’s what has been said about him, and given what I know of his writing, I can quite believe it.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Eddie – here’s a Lewis quote from “God in the Dock” that may illuminate his attitude:

          When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

            Hi, Jon.

            I agree with the spirit of Lewis’s statement. I agree that it is good for Christians to get together and learn from Christians who think differently. I agree that it is possible to sing a piece of bad church music with great personal devotion and that the personal devotion gives the singing of the hymn value. But it doesn’t follow that Christian life is actually improved by the existence of bad church music. And it seems to me that Lewis is not saying, “I used to find much of the contents of church services boring, but now find it all very interesting”; it seems to me that he is saying, “Despite the fact that much of the contents of church services is very uninteresting, there is still a spiritual value in going to such services.”

            And in any case, my experience of many of the mainline churches is that the hymns are often *not* sung with devotion, nor sung by “old saints”; the more normal patterns is medium to low enthusiasm, with the congregation (containing few “saints,” old or young) rushing the organist in order to get the hymn over with faster.

            And it’s not just hymns, it’s liturgy generally. I love the words in the Book of Common Prayer, and when I read them, I try to read them with conscious attention to their contents, and with feeling; but often the congregation is dragging through the words, not even trying to fall into rhythmic step with even the minister, let alone the others in the congregation, the overall effect produced being that of an army using several different marching steps. It sounds ugly and clumsy — anything but reverent.

            Once, to my great joy, an Anglican minister did something I had never seen done before, and have never seen done since. The young minister dared to brave the wrath of the mostly much older congregation, and interrupt the service! He chastised everyone for reading so poorly, and made them go back to the beginning of the section, and do it again! I thought that was just wonderful. Every week I was listening to these lazy old folks drag through the service, and it was irritating me; I wasn’t thinking about the glory of God but about how indolent and sloppy my fellow churchgoers were. But now they snapped up the pace and were in better time. It sounded better; it felt better; it was more reverent; and my irritation abated. But it took guts on the part of the minister to challenge lazy habits.

            The Anglican words can be quite stirring, but they have to be *meant* when they are said. When people say that Anglican church services are boring, I know exactly what they mean; but it doesn’t have to be that way. A congregation of people saying the words rhythmically and with conviction produces an experience of great power.

            Anyhow, the point is that church services often are, in fact, events without much “spark,” and not a high point of Christian life for many Christians. The coffee hour afterwards; the Wednesday evening Bible study; young people’s groups; the Sunday school for the kids; the Sunday evening theological lecture (in the few remaining churches where the minister isn’t too lazy to do a second service on a Sunday evening, and the congregation isn’t too lazy to come out to such a service); the charitable activities in the community, etc., are in many people’s minds more important than the “three hymns plus a sermon” routine. Thus, I suspect that a good number of people come to church in spite of their experience of the Sunday service, not because of it.

            Does it need to be that way? No. But that’s the way it is. And that’s what’s in the minds of those who hope that heaven isn’t like their Sunday services. 🙂

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    The discussion on church services got me thinking – when I was young, Sunday was always special and attending the church was central but still one of a number of Sunday events. The service (Eastern Orthodox) has always been a splendid affair because, in addition to the priest and others, someone we knew would be asked to participate. But the entire thing included dressing up, meeting with people, catching up on various things, and afterwards enjoying a good meal when we got home. All this made the day ‘out of the ordinary’; the actual church service also added what I now regard as a ‘presence’ to our understanding.

    Whatever I remember, boring is not included in this – I think nowadays, with our modernity, we are poorer because when we do attend a church, it is for the service, and not to enjoy a special day of the week.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      A very good point, GD. Have within the hour been talking with my pastor on the theme of how evening services are no longer compatible with our culture – the same could be said of “special Sunday” overall.

      Once more, attitude counts for a lot – the excuse for secularising Sunday was that nothing was open except church. I remember my cousins, part of an overly pious Methodist family, hating Sundays in between church services, dinner on best-behaviour and singing hymns round Granny’s piano in the evening.

      My family was less po-faced, and I actually enjoyed church, Sunday roast and conversations about cosmology (yes, really!) over the meal table. That was even before I was converted – after that (like the Yellowjackets lyric) Sundays were a high point of the week. That, however, was before I got a job which involved working over weekends.

  6. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I go back and forth about music quality in church. I remember Lewis writing somewhere about how he resented some ambitious song leaders (Anglican pastors?) for thinking that the congregation always needed to be learning some new music. Lewis went on to explain that he couldn’t very well be worshiping in his thoughts if he was busy trying to attend to new words or tunes, and so he apparently relished when that part of his brain could attend to all these mechanics on autopilot so that he could get on about attending to worship. I hope I haven’t misrepresented his thoughts too badly, but (in my own words) that is what I remember getting from what he wrote.

    I attend a church that actually prides itself (spiritual problem there?) on enjoying and vocalizing our music fairly well, given our small numbers. We enjoy singing hymns, especially familiar ones, with gusto and hopefully with more than a dash of quality so that the experience is musically pleasurable. But with respect to some of your concerns about being distracted by perceived “low quality”, I think that any perceived “high quality” or the conceit that we may have occasionally reached that, is also a distractor. There are Amish who, so I’ve heard –but not first hand, practically chant rather than sing, and certainly without harmony. Hardly fun to listen to, but then again, they would remind us that we aren’t there to be having fun, much less have fun pridefully trying to sound better than your neighbor. So with an eye out for avoiding occasions for pride, they avoid having music leaders or any other invested parties who then might get a little too good for their spiritual britches.

    While I certainly can’t argue with their concern to avoid pride, there has to be a different solution. Acts and gifts of quality should not be checked at the church doors, and I agree that enjoyment and devotion towards providing the best that we can provide has to somehow be a part of our worship too. But I do think it is our own loss when we are distracted by our assessment of mechanical quality either way (by pride or by embarrassment). Joining that old saint across the pew in rapt devotion, whether that devotion means we ourselves sing more quietly, or more loudly, — our devotion is probably the key either way. It (or its “object” rather) is, or should be the centerpiece of the whole experience. To me a good song leader takes just enough initiative of leadership and decision making so as to relieve all congregants of any of the mechanical worries so that they can just attend to the Spirit. The leader/instrumentalists may not have that particular luxury (or ignoring mechanics), and precisely so that the others don’t have to so much. And that all takes a lot of preparatory work as I’m sure Jon can attest. It really seems like impoverished thinking that would leave beauty and enthusiastically embraced liturgy aside. As long as we realize that the Spirit works with us all, whatever our skill levels may be.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Church music is a microcosm of the “rubbing along together” factor of communal life. There is a proverbial situation here (maybe in America too?) of the “Pro” organist/choirmaster seeing his role as fighting the congregation and leadership for pre-eminence (presumably with the excuse of quality). And yet the same role and skills can be put at the service of others.

      The same is true of the modern “worship leader”, either trying to get people on trend with what is of the moment, or to be invisible and (as you describe) stop the people having to struggle over technicalities.

      Our congregation, though beginning to diversify in our new building, is predominantly elderly. In fact we have one new (but octogenarian) member who’s a stonkingly good sax player (likes playing Stockhausen in his spare time), but who has toured with various “known” songwriters/leaders. Though he played at his last place, he just found the music too loud and obtrusive.

      The policy I’ve now consciously adopted is to do the music like home cooking – simple food prepared well. We just do the songs, but musicianship kind of infiltrates the reult, we hope, without pushing it. Subtle sax improvisation can fit well into that!

      I’m always checked, though, by remembering the “best singing” I ever heard, at a Festival of the Holy Spirit at Guildford Cathedral, where in a huge congregation the bloke in front of me was bellowing out the songs with no discernible tune but 100% energy. Heaven was pleased, I’m sure – and the total aesthetic of the music was augmented rather than anything.

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