Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revelation 10: We Do Not Know What the Thunder Said.

For evangelical Christians of all stripes, the book of Revelation isn't just a trippy snippet of apocalyptic fiction--it's a reliable timeline for how the world will end. So reliable, indeed, that it may dictate public policy.

Witness arch-conservative pastor John Hagee's Christians United for Israel--a group that boasts the support of numerous Republican Congressmen and former president George W. Bush. Hagee and many of his coreligionists believe that the end-times scenario played out in Revelation requires that the Jewish people must return to Israel en masse before the final battle between good and evil can get underway. Hoping to start the confrontation as quickly as possible--because who doesn't like a good God-Satan throwdown from time to time?--Hagee's organization looks to assure Israel's long-term security and provide a safe haven for the Jewish people's return.

However, Hagee's lobbying for Israel is based on a faith that his reading of Revelation is not only correct--it's iron-clad. He and the rest of the CUFI hordes believe that their understanding of the Bible's last book is so sure that they may raise literally millions of dollars--with the help of some of the most powerful men and women in the country--to hurry along Biblical history. (To his credit, John McCain eventually rejected the endorsement of Hagee and CUFI, though only after some calculation.)

But how sure of Revelation's message can we be? The poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence famously wrote, "When we read Revelation, we feel at once that there are meanings behind meanings." And even a first-time reader of the text quickly perceives that these meanings are anything but apparent.

But I write today not merely to suggest that simple interpretations of an obscure text like Revelation--like "The Jews must return to Israel"--are folly. I write to remind over-confident readers of a simpler truth: we don't even have all of Revelation. Some of its truths are intentionally withheld--perhaps by God himself.

Revelation is what many call "visionary" literature; in it, an author named John (not the disciple John or the Baptist John) claims to have been visited by a divine messenger who showed him a vivid preview of the end of the world.

But this preview is abstruse, partial, and deeply symbolic. In the first part of the vision, for instance, John sees seven lampstands, seven stars, and "one like the Son of Man" (1:13) standing among them. John has no idea what these symbols mean, and he is so terrified by this "one" that he "fell at his feet as though dead" (1:17).

To understand this first image, though, John needs help, and the "one like the Son of Man" is happy to oblige, saying, "As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw [...] and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." These seven churches, as it turns out, are small proto-parishes (in what is now Turkey) to whom John must write. And if that's an obvious meaning of the image, I'm Bryant Gumbel.

Now, it is worth noting that most readers--even sane ones--think that this "one" who helps John figure out the stars and lampstands is the risen Jesus, and there are plenty of textual clues to back them up. However, the text itself will not confirm: after all, this is only one "like" the "Son of Man," not the "Son of Man" himself. And insofar as the prophet Ezekiel is also referred to as "Son of Man," this mysterious figure could be, um, Ezekiel's crazy cousin Baba.

Kidding. But I want to stress this point: no reading of Revelation is iron-clad, and John's is a thoroughly mysterious vision from start to finish. Further, John will infrequently get the kind of interpretive help he receives in the first chapter.

But again, I'm not just trying to make the point that Revelation is difficult, though it is; I'm trying to tell you that we don't even have all of it. To prove my point, I fast-forward to Revelation 10, when John receives part of the vision aurally:

"And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven [...] And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down'" (10: 1-4)

Let's review: midway through the revelation, a mighty angel speaks, and seven thunders deliver a message so crucial that John wants to record it. However, a voice from on high (God?) commands John to "seal" this part of the message--to make sure that it is neither declared nor recorded.

This "sealing" is a devastating blow for those who claim to have full knowledge of Revelation, because it is textual evidence that part of the message is kept from us as readers. We do not know all of the revelation, so how can we claim to have complete knowledge of it?

The bottom line is that we can't. And we shouldn't. And Hagee shouldn't either. And CUFI is dumb. (Okay, that last one's just me, but I stand by the rest.)
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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mark 9: Where is Hell?

Back from an extended hiatus for turkey and flu-like symptoms (in that order), I'm raring to dive into meaty material, and what could be meatier than hell? (Perhaps the National Cattlemen's Beef Association could pick that up as their new slogan.)

I begin with one of the Bible's earliest mentions of hell, in the ninth chapter of Mark. Today, hell is a robust and functional part of Christianity, especially conservative varieties. It is the lake of eternal fire where bad people go to suffer forever for cheating on their wives with Argentinian mistresses or soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom or paying off a paramour's family to save a political career or passing gay marriage bans while sleeping with male prostitutes or cheating on your cancer-stricken wife. (God bless you, Messrs. Sanford, Craig, Ensign, Haggard, and Edwards.)

But hell is undeniably a vexed concept in the Bible. Hebrew Biblical authors don't have truck with notions of hell. The best they can do is "Sheol," a dreary underworld much more similar to Homer and Virgil's Hades than Dante's Inferno.

Nor is the New Testament hell so simple a term as it might initially seem. It may be a place of punishment, an eschatological end-point about as desirable as a second screening of the new Twilight film. On the other hand , it may not be an actual "place" at all, but instead a clever rhetorical device grounded firmly in Hebrew Biblical ethical geography.

Jesus's hell-talk in Mark 9 goes like this: "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire" (43).

In this text, "hell" is actually the Greek "Gehenna," which my Oxford Bible glosses as "symbolizing the place of eternal punishment by fire." To an extent, I agree, though I also point out that Gehenna has not only a symbolic meaning but a literal one.

Gehenna, in Hebrew, is the Valley of ben-Hinnom, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. This valley is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, most prominently in Jeremiah 7:31, when God speaks, "And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire--which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind."

Topheth, as I mention in a previous column, is a place near Judah where child sacrifice was sanctioned as a form of religious worship. And God, as Jeremiah indicates, will not allow such pagan practices. Thus Topheth--and the Valley of ben-Hinnom--symbolizes not only "eternal punishment," but the worst excesses of extra-Biblical religious practice.

Thus, when Jesus condemns sinners to hell/Gehenna, I suppose it is possible that he is suggesting that God will re-establish a previously abhorrent religious practice in order to inflict a brand new means of punishment on the wicked.

But perhaps not. Because there's always the possibility that Jesus is just exaggerating here. God, as the Hebrew Bible firmly and repeatedly confirms, detests the rituals of Topheth, and it is unlikely that he would actually put sinners through a type of punishment that he so roundly rejects in Jeremiah.

And Jesus may refer to the flames of Gehenna not to establish a new afterlife destination--"hell" being a foreign concept to Hebrew Biblical thought--but instead to hyperbolically suggest that sinning is really bad. And that we should avoid it at all costs. In fact, that's exactly what he's doing in the previous verse of Mark: "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea" (9:42).

And everyone understands this verse as a metaphor. Nowhere in the New Testament does a sinner actually get a big rock put around his neck and tossed into Lake Michigan. It's a figure of speech. So perhaps "Gehenna" is too.

But isn't it interesting that Jesus's "Gehenna" eventually gives us Dante's Inferno and the Pandemonium of Paradise Lost? And isn't it interesting that hell will become such an important part of Christian theology, despite the fact that it might be little more than a melodramatic idiom?

Maybe we just like our damnation fiery, not wet.
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