In an interview several years ago for Relevant Magazine, Mark Driscoll (well known pastor of Mars Hill in Seattle) said,
“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” (You can find the original interview here).
I frankly have trouble understanding how a follower of Jesus could find himself unable to worship a guy he could “beat up” when he already crucified him. I also fail to see what is so worshipful about someone carrying a sword with “a commitment make someone bleed.” But this aside, I’m not at all surprised Driscoll believes the book of Revelation portrays Jesus as a “prize fighter.” This violent picture of Jesus, rooted in a literalistic interpretation of Revelation, is very common among conservative Christians, made especially popular by the remarkably violent Left Behind series.
The most unfortunate aspect of this misreading, as Driscoll’s comment graphically reveals, is that the “prize fighter” portrait of Jesus easily subverts the Jesus of the Gospels who out of love chooses to die for enemies rather than use his power against them and who commands his followers to do the same (see e.g. Mt 5:43-45; Lk 6:27-36). In fact, if you read these passages carefully you’ll notice that Jesus makes loving enemies and refusing all violence the prerequisite for being considered a child of God! Loving enemies like Jesus commands (and like the rest of the NT teaches, e.g. Rom. 12: 14, 17-21; 1 Pet 2:21-23) requires that we crucify our fallen impulse to resort to violence, while the model of Jesus as a “prize fighter” with a “commitment to make someone bleed” allows us to indulge it. If we can dismiss the peace-loving Jesus as a “hippie, diaper, halo Christ,” then we’re free to wish and even inflict vengeance on our enemies all we like — and feel righteous about it!
Now, there’s no denying that the book of Revelation is full of violent imagery. But the literal interpretation of this imagery not only contradicts the Jesus of the Gospels and the non-violent teaching of rest of the NT, it also ignores the genre and historical context of this book. Not only this, but the literalistic approach to Revelation fails to pay close attention to how John uses Old Testament and apocalyptic symbolism.
For example, as a multitude of scholars have noted, it’s significant that the sword Jesus uses isn’t held in his hand, as Driscoll claims. It rather comes out of his mouth (Rev. 1.16 [cf. Heb. 4:12]; 2.16; 19:15, 21), signifying that Jesus defeats enemies simply by speaking the truth. The saints also overcome not with physical weapons but by “the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony” [Rev. 12.11]. Along the same lines, it’s significant that in the climatic battle scene of Revelation 19, the warrior Jesus is clothed with a blood soaked robe before the battle even begins (vss 13ff). The blood is clearly not that of his enemies, whom he has yet to fight. Rather, the symbolism suggests Jesus goes to battle and ultimately reigns victorious by shedding his own blood.
This is directly related to what is arguably the most important imagery of this book. It’s crucial we notice that the blood soaked warrior who fights with words of truth is the slaughtered Lamb of God (e.g. Rev. 5:6-13). The Lamb sits on the throne and is the only one “worthy” to open the scroll that reveals God’s way of ruling the world and defeating evil. In fact, a number of scholars have argued that the whole point of the book of Revelation is to vindicate God’s sacrificial lamb-like way of overcoming evil. That is, God’s way of defeating evil by being willing to die rather than conquer with violence looks like it loses throughout history, but all will see that it triumphs in the end.
At any rate, if we interpret Revelation according to its genre and in its original historical context, and if we pay close attention to the ingenious way John uses traditional symbolism, it becomes clear that John is taking traditional Old Testament and Apocalyptic violent imagery and turning it on its head. Yes there is an aggressive war, and yes there is bloodshed. But its a war in which the Lamb and his followers are victorious because they fight the devil and Babylon (representing all governmental systems) by faithfully laying down their lives for the sake of truth (“the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony”), not by being “prize fighters” with “a commitment to make someone bleed.”
I having been doing a lot of research on the book of Revelation as part of a book I’m writing on the topic of non-violence in the New Testament (tenatatively titled, A Questionable Peace: Responding to Alleged Violence in the New Testament). It will serve as a prequel to my book offering a non-violent theological interpretation of the OT (The Crucifixion of the Warrior God). Because the literalistic, violent misinterpretation of Revelation is so prevalent among evangelicals, I get asked about Revelation frequently. So I thought it might be helpful for me to share with you fine folks a few of the scholarly works I’ve found that support a non-violent interpretation of this book. How I wish Mark Driscoll and others who embrace the “prize fighter” perspective would digest some of this material!
A Brief Bibliography of Scholarly Works Defending a Non-Violent Interpretation of Revelation
(FYI, the following works, listed in no particular order, by no means defend the non-violent interpretation of Revelation the same way, or to the same degree. But they all point in this general direction).
* R. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University Press, 1993). One of the best works defending Revelation as a “manual for non-violent warfare.” A must read for all who want to take seriously the non-violent interpretation of Revelation.
* R. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (T&T Clark, 1993). A very scholarly collection of essays, some of which defend the non-violent interpretation of Revelation. Chapter 6, “The Lion, the Lamb and the Dragon,” and especially Chapter 8, “The Apocalypse as a Christian War Scroll,” are particularly illuminating.
* J. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdman’s. 1972). One of the best theological books of all time. Chapter 12 is on “The War of the Lamb.” A good ground level intro to a non-violent interpretation of Revelation.
* J.D. Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Eerdman’s, 2001). Chapter 2 contains another good ground level intro to a non-violent interpretation of Revelation.
* S.K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narrative of Revelation (T&T Clark, 2006). Best book I’ve read arguing that the central message of Revelation surrounds the vindication of God’s lamb-like character and way of running the universe. I also appreciate that Tonstad emphasizes the centrality of God’s conflict with Satan and demonic forces in Revelation (and throughout Scripture as a whole).
* T. Grimsrud, “Scapegoating No More: Christian Pacifism and New Testament Views of Jesus’ Death,” in W. M. Swartley, ed. Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies and Peacemaking (Pandora Press, 200), 49-69. Argues along Girardian lines that Jesus’ death throughout the NT, including in Revelation, subverts the scapegoating cycle of violence.
* L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John (Mohr Seibacl. 2003). Excellent academic resource on the historical background to Revelation’s lamb symbolism and the novel use John makes of this symbolism.
* W. Klassen, “Vengeance in the Apocalypse of John,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966), 300-11. Shows that the martyred saints in Revelation are not crying out for the “prize fighter” to avenge them, but for God’s lamb-like, sacrificial character to be vindicated.
* W. Harrington, Revelation, Sacra Pagina 16 (The Liturgical Press, 1993). I found this commentary helpful in noticing some aspects of God’s way of punishing in Revelation I hadn’t noticed before. E.g. God allows forces of evil to have their way and therefore ultimately self-destruct.
* M. Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation (Paternoster, 2003). Poorly written and organized, but Bredin brings together a wealth of scholarly support for the non-violent reading of Revelation.
* Hanson, A. T. The Wrath of the Lamb (London: SCM, 1957). A classic work showing that the concept of divine wrath in Revelation (and, to a significant degree, throughout the Bible) is not about God’s rage, but rather refers to the God-ordained natural consequences of sin. It is an “effective,” not an “affective” concept.
* L. Morris, Revelation. (Tyndale Press, 1979). One of the most accessible commentaries for laypeople. I disagree with some of Morris’ interpretations, but he gets the importance of John’s unique subversion of traditional violent imagery.
* G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (A & C Black, 2nd ed. 1984). Doesn’t take the devil in Revelation seriously enough, in my opinion, but is good on the lamb-like nature of God’s war on evil. Also insightful on divine punishment being a matter of turning evil back on itself.
* R. Schwager, Must there be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. tran. M.L. Assad (Crossroad Publishing Comp./ Gracewing, 2000). An intriguing Girardian reading of the Bible that includes some keen insights into John’s subversion of violent imagery in Revelation.
* J. Sweet, Revelation (SCM, 1979). Full of insights pertaining to the violence in Revelation being symbolic, not literal.
* M.E. Boring, Revelation, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, J. L. Mays, ed. (John Knox, 1989). Has a particularly good section on how John transforms the image of Jesus as a “lion” into a sacrificial “lamb.”
Finally, if you’re looking for some excellent insights on the non-violence of Revelation written at a popular level, check on the series of blogs on this topic written by my friend Brad Cole on his always-insightful website God’s Character. You can find the first of that series of blogs here.
May you live as a prize servant of peace, not a prize fighter!