As we enter into the twelfth chapter of Revelation, a new series of visions are presented to the apostle John. Christ has already revealed the condition of his churches (chs. 1-3) as well as the fate of their enemies (4:1-8:5), and despite the depth of their tribulations he was coming to judge the persecutors of his people (8:6-11:19). But the message had still not sunk into their ears; the faith of the people still wavered and the Lamb’s warnings went unheeded. John therefore draws back the curtain even further to show the church what is going on backstage, and how these trying times fit into God’s grand strategy in the cosmic battle between good and evil.
As always, John indicates this change in function by a slight change in form. Rather than tie the section together by a single symbol (a letter, a seal, or a trumpet), he now presents a flowing narrative to further reveal the causes and consequences of the Lamb’s judgment. Here, in his fourth act (or episode) the apostle’s work parallels Greek drama even closer than before, giving us seven scenes of judgment (including two choruses), each marked by a verbal clue and a change in scenery. Notice the pattern:
As the church soon realizes, God’s conflict with evil began long before Domitian came to power in Rome; it goes back to the beginning and perhaps even before the beginning. It is the story of a damsel in distress, a dragon, and a young prince. The serpent tempted and the woman sinned, but her punishment would also bring about the undoing of her curse (Gen 3). But the woman John sees represents not just Eve, but every woman since: whether suffering from a broken family like Leah and Tamar, fleeing a sinful past like Rahab, mourning the loss of a husband or a child like Ruth and Bathsheba, or enduring the shame of unwed motherhood like Mary, Eve’s daughters share in her pain. But they share in her glory, too, when they see their trials being woven into the plan of God’s glorious grace (Mat 1; 1Ti 2:15). From them a great nation arose (Rev 12:1-2; Gen 37:9-11) and from this people arose the Ruler of all nations (Rev 12:5; Gen 49:10; Psa 2:9). And so the bride of Christ can take strength in the thought that her sufferings, too, will not be forgotten, but will indeed lead to an even greater glory (Eph 5:22-27; Rom 8:18-30).
And though her enemy was old and powerful, God’s plan was too beautiful to be perceived by even one of the dragon’s terrible heads (Isa 27:1; 14:12-15). So he drives the woman to the wilderness to test her there, but God promises that her time will be short (Rev 12:6; 12, 14), and that he himself would be with her, protecting her, providing for her, and calling heaven and earth themselves to her aid (12:6-16; 1Co 10:1-11; Exo 16:13-15). But though Michael and his angels would fight the Devil, Satan’s defeat would come not through a feat of angelic arms, but by God himself coming as a child and being crucified as a criminal (Rev 12:5-11). And though Satan would send many saints to the grave, they would no longer have any fear of death, because Jesus had already been there, paving their way into a life the Devil had forfeited long before (Rev 1:18; 12:11-12; 17). The Lord’s people find shelter under the cross of Christ, because Satan stands before the Judge no longer as the Accuser, but as the Accused (Rev 12:10; Job 1:12, 2:6).
But while Satan has already begun his eternal sentence of suffering, his minions are still at work in the world around us (Rev 9:1-6). John therefore “stood on the sand of the sea” and watches as a beast emerges with seven heads (13:1; see ESV margin and NKJV). But it takes more than just one description of the beast to show how far he has fallen and how unjust his rule has become: he is a human king who has been crowned with the dragon’s own terrible power and authority (Dan 7:17, 23; 1Jo 5:19), he is a small and pompous horn (Dan 7:8, 11, 20), a “man of sin” and “son of perdition” (2Th 2), and the very enemy of Christ himself--the antichrist. John is the only one who uses this description in the New Testament, but intentionally avoids it in Revelation. The Rome of John’s day is one anti-Christian force among many, that denies the full divinity and humanity of Christ, and had even begun to persuade some in the church (1Jo 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2Jo 7).
Flushed with the heat of Hell’s fire, the beast wears “blasphemous names” and utters “haughty and blasphemous words” (Rev 13:1, 5). Domitian doubled-down on the blasphemies of his pagan forebears and called himself Deus (God), Tyrannus (Ruler), Despotes (Master), Ktistes (Creator) and Eirenopoios (Peacemaker). And so what he viewed as a story of triumph would sound the death knell of the Flavian dynasty:
The beast falsely imitates the Lamb, “standing, as though it had been slain” [Rev 5:6]. . . . Rome, the manifestation of the beast in John’s day, seemed to have been mortally wounded by Nero’s suicide (A.D. 68) and the civil chaos that followed, but experienced a “resurrection” in the reigns of Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian [17:8]. Then in Domitian’s reign (A.D. 81-96), Nero’s beastly persecution of the church also revived. (The ESV Study Bible)
Regardless of any good he did on the throne, Domitian’s fate would be the same as that of Nero: an ignoble death and an infamous legacy. But he would not act alone. In fact, others would usually initiate the atrocities in his name, seeking his favor by compelling others to worship him. And there were many paths down which this twisted loyalty flowed: from the shameless deluding of the people in pagan temples (13:13, 15; 2Th 2:9-12), to the pressure in the marketplace (Rev 13:16-17), at times even resorting to force (13:15; 11:9-10). And like Domitian, these provincial leaders in Asia (the concilia in Latin, the koinon in Greek) would act like animals, so they are depicted as such: having “two horns like a lamb,” but speaking “like a dragon” (13:11) and deceiving even some of God’s own people to wear the name of the emperor rather than the name of Christ (13:14, 18; see NKJV margin).
But God had never tolerated such blasphemy: Sodom had fallen, Egypt had fallen, Babylon had fallen, Jerusalem had fallen, and now Rome too would fall (11:8; 14:8; Isa 21:9-10). In life they had become slaves to their passion (Greek thumos) and so in death they would become subject to his wrath (thumos; 14:8, 10). They would be crushed as grapes, and then forced to drain the cup of their own blood (14:17-19; Isa 63:1-6). By the time the messengers of God’s providence were finished, their suffering would stand as an eternal warning for all to see and repent (14:11, 20; Mat 13:41-42).
But for those who remain faithful during these times of persecution, the Judge of the earth promises a different verdict. The dragon may be the bane of the church, but the Lord is her balm, dwelling and walking among them (13:6; 1:12, 16, 20). They wear an eternal name that cannot be removed by any man or angel (14:1; 7:1-4; 9:4). And even if death separates them from their loved ones, they will be gathered into the barn of the bounty of the Lord (14:13-16; Mat 13:30), where they will sing “a new song,” “of Moses . . . and. . . the Lamb,” which not even angels can sing (14:3; 15:3-4).
These saints, wearied from their earthly sojourn, therefore walk on water toward their Savior under a sky radiating his own beauty, as heaven and earth prepare to unleash the judgment of the Lamb (4:1-6; 15:2-8 NKJV; Exo 40:34-35; 1Ki 8:10-11). These are those, “who have not defiled themselves . . . who follow the Lamb wherever he goes . . . redeemed from mankind . . . and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless” (Rev 14:4-5). In other words, those who lived like Jesus: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pe 2:21-23).
And as John himself writes, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Rev 13:10).
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Albert Einstein is the quintessential scientist, at least in the eyes of most scientific laymen. We continue to be impressed with the sheer brilliance and originality of his work, while at the same time reminding ourselves that in the end he was just another guy who could care less about his reflection in the mirror. For those of us outside scientific circles, we remember him primarily for his famous equation, E=mc2, but the deeper we dig, we realize that this is only a glimpse at the depth of his thought, and not even the labor of love that won him his Nobel Prize in Physics. And for all these reasons (and others) we feel drawn to him both as an individual and as a thinker.
Of particular interest to many of Einstein’s students are his views on God, religion, and the relationship these maintain with the natural world and our study of it. Unfortunately, as with most treatments of another’s faith, specific interpretations reveal as much about us as they do about the thinker in question. More often than not, Einstein is painted as a militant atheist who disdained faith and preferred instead the certainty of cold, hard facts, and many would prefer us to maintain this view. As one writer points out, Einstein referred to the idea of a personal God as “an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously” (quoted in Brooke 946). And in a letter Einstein wrote a year before his death, he “described belief in God as ‘childish superstition,’ and ridiculed the belief that Jews are ‘the chosen people,’” a claim that as an ethnic Jew he had heard throughout his life (quoted in Natarajan 661).
So, according to this view, while some have sought to prove Einstein’s belief, “Nothing could be further from the truth; indeed, Einstein can be described more accurately as an outright atheist” (Natarajan 655). So while Einstein used the words ‘God’ and ‘religion’ frequently, he did so as a conventional way to express the orderliness of nature. So when he says things like, “God does not play dice” or “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” we should not read these as confessions of faith.
Yet Einstein’s own statements concerning atheism and revealed religion seem to militate against this dominant narrative. In his writings he refers to “fanatical atheists” as “slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle . . . who—in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’—cannot hear the music of the spheres” (Einstein, quoted in Rose). Though Einstein certainly had reservations about what he viewed as the mythical elements in revealed religion, it was not a wholesale rejection. So while he could never bring himself to see revelation as the antidote to “intellectual ignorance” (Bussey 20), he was not unimpressed with biblical ethics, as he himself pointed out: “If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions . . . one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity” (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 952).
Thus while it is important to remember his “dismissal of religion and of a belief in a personal God,” we should also recognize that this is not the whole story (Jaki 31). In fact, though Einstein did not refer to himself as a theist, he did think of himself as religious in his own way, identifying with the views of Spinoza: “admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly” (Brooke 947). He even described this admiration as a “cosmic religious feeling,” which served as the primary inspiration and motivation for doing good science (Brooke 948).
Einstein began working this out in what became the special theory of relativity, which taught him to look for the order behind the seemingly random phenomena he studied. Taken together, these efforts taught him to see the universe as a unified whole accessible through theories that connected as many ‘dots’ in our understanding as possible, and which led ultimately to his work in unified field theory (Brooke 950). And so, as he expanded relativity to the more general form we recognize today, he developed a vision of the cosmos, “fully coherent, unified and simple, existing independently of the observer, that is, not relative to him, and yielding its secrets in the measure in which the mathematical formulae through which it was investigated, embodied unifying power and simplicity” (Jaki 33). In other words, though our perceptions of nature are relative, nature itself is not, and is accessible through sound reasoning and good math.
To Einstein, then, science was more than pure rationalism; his childlike sense of awe led him to value “the role of aesthetic judgment in the evaluation of scientific theories”—quite simply, if a view seemed ugly or quirky, it didn’t pass muster (Brooke 950). As even his more dogmatic disciples concur, then, Einstein “saw the hand of God in the precise nature of physical laws, in their mathematical beauty and elegance, and in their simplicity” and took our recognition of such laws as “evidence of a God, not a God who superseded these laws but one who created them” (Natarajan 656).
And in this regard, Einstein found himself in good company, following in the footsteps of others, “such as Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, who were devoutly religious and saw themselves as uncovering these ordinances of divine reason” (though Einstein and Newton were by no means orthodox Christians; Barr, “God”). Einstein, then, was not an atheist (God certainly exists), a theist (he did not see Him as a personal being), or an agnostic (His laws imply His existence), but a deist (witnessing design but denying revelation and divine intervention). To Einstein religion was not ruled out, but was interpreted as a sense of awe in the face of the natural order rather than a personal relationship with a personal deity.
Understanding Einstein’s deistic views raises two important questions. First, can religious faith coexist with rational science? And, if so, how does a faith in God inform our efforts to seek natural causes for natural phenomenon—what scientists refer to as methodological naturalism? Einstein’s example is instructive in both cases, and relies on an appreciation of the concept of mystery. In an age dominated by various forms of rationalism, this is not a word that we use frequently, much less take seriously. To our modern minds, mystery is merely a synonym for ignorance, stupidity or irrationality. We live in a world that denies any “reliance on intuition, tradition, faith, authority or mystery,” and especially when these are informed by religion (Bussey 8). Thus mystery is viewed as manifestly ridiculous. But this may say more about the modern conception of reason than anything else.
Our modern view of things misses an important distinction: ignorance “is an absence of knowledge where knowledge can in principle be obtained,” while mystery (rightly understood) refers to “something that is not amenable to intellectual knowledge or is inexpressible in words” (Bussey 3). This means that one is ignorant when one doesn’t know but can, while a mystery is not merely unknown but unknowable. Mystery affects us in two very similar but nonetheless distinct ways. In the course of our everyday lives we are forever experiencing new things, and though they occasionally amaze us, we do not seek to understand them. This weaker, ordinary sense of mystery may interest us for a time, but our mind soon moves on to other things.
Yet the strong (one may even say transcendent) sense of mystery is much more than this. It is not merely interested in a new phenomenon, but brings us to question how it works. “Overall, one might say that strong mystery tends to lie ‘beyond’ our rational understandings, while everyday mystery lies in and around them, although the two categories are not completely separate” (Bussey 7). It is not what we know that motivates us, but what we don’t. “Mystery is not opposed to reason and should not be despised as ‘unreason’. It extends beyond and around human reason” (Bussey 10). So while the realm of ignorance shrinks by increases in knowledge, each new discovery poses as many questions as it answers. Discovery does not destroy mystery; discovery requires it and deepens it.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that it is this ‘strong’ sense in which Einstein understood and employed the word:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science . . . . A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. (Einstein in Bussey 4)
Natural beauty and understanding are therefore integrally connected both with one another and the personal wonder we experience as participants in them. “Like all other aspects of the created order, laws of nature are capable of evoking wonder and a sense of mystery, while being at the same time supremely rational” (Bussey 20).
While this in and of itself is probably not difficult to accept, Einstein goes further: human thought (including science itself) is impossible without this strong sense of mystery. So while our potential for knowledge is ever-increasing due to progress in both technology and observation, the likelihood of figuring it all it out remains slim. We simply don’t know what we don’t know; and the more we discover, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Even more discomfiting for many, is that Einstein identifies this as “the truly religious attitude,” and claims it as his own.
When one speaks of the supernatural these days, he is bound to get one of three reactions: skepticism, shock, or scoffing. The skeptic points to the supremacy of reason and science and is dismayed that anyone still believes in all that other stuff. Meanwhile, the shocked (after recovering her breath) asks with a hint of fear, “Do you think they really exist?” And the scoffer (whom we encounter more often than not these days) merely chuckles and shakes his head.
And these responses are not limited to those outside the Christian faith. Many otherwise Bible-believing, church-going folk simply don’t think much about the supernatural. So when we come across passages like Deuteronomy 18 (and even that means getting past Leviticus and Numbers), we really don’t know what to make of it:
When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this. (Deu 18:9-14 ESV)
If I were to teach through this passage on a Sunday morning, I can only begin to imagine the litany of questions: Do the stars know the future? Are we able to understand what they tell us? Does God give us other signs outside of Scripture that reveal his will for us? Does magic exist, and if so, what is the power behind it? Are the dead able to communicate with the living, perhaps even being visible to them?
This, too, would only be the beginning. Since Israel’s day the number of issues relating to the world of spirits has only grown: Are miracles possible? Can man initiate them? What about angels and demons (and possessions and exorcisms)? Or about shapeshifting, vampires, ghosts, poltergeists, or hauntings (all of which I hope to address in the coming weeks)? Both the increasing influence of spiritual beliefs in the modern world (especially in the Global South, postmodernism and Pentecostalism) and the broader world of pop culture (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and Twilight) point to the persistence of the spiritual in the human imagination.
But there is also a word of caution. What C.S. Lewis once wrote about demons could easily be expanded to other aspects of our discussion: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight” (Screwtape ix). Or as Chesterton once wrote, “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own” (103). To understand the supernatural, then, we must strike a biblical balance between the unbiblical extremes of blind faith and rationalistic materialism so common in our age.
The first step toward maintaining this balance comes by immersing ourselves in the literary, historical and theological context of the Bible. The task will be difficult, but as Oden points out, it is only when we step out of our modern mindset and into the biblical world that we begin to transform our own view of things into God’s—to adopt God’s worldview (Rom 12:1-2). Oden continues,
Christianity has passed through many worldviews. It still requires some empathic effort for the modern worldview to enter into the worldview of those who make known to us the revelation of God that both transcends and penetrates all particular worldviews. Even within the frame of contemporary scientific worldviews . . . it is hardly reasonable to rule out superpersonal intelligences in this vast cosmos that we still know so incompletely. (1.6.2)
This sort of contextualization will also involve changing our ideas on what reason is and what it means to be reasonable. Chesterton points out that there are really two types of insanity: “The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else . . . . have both locked themselves up . . . they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven, the other even to the health and happiness of earth” (Chesterton 22). We must retrain ourselves, then, to open our eyes to the rationality of faith evident in the very words of God himself (Heb 11:1; Isa 6:9-10). So here is what we hope to discuss in the coming weeks:
But since it will take us quite some time to work out all these issues, I want to give you the key to these mysteries upfront. In fact, it is the very same key Moses gave in Deuteronomy 18: “And the LORD said to me, ‘ . . . I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him’” (Deu 18:17-19). Centuries later, Peter tells us that this prophet is not merely the human successor of Moses, but “the Holy and Righteous One,” the very “Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14-23).
The key to understanding mysteries of the supernatural, then, is the resurrected Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. In him, all mysteries are revealed (Rom 16:25; Luke 8:10), that we might understand the eternal plan of God made known through his apostles, to equip us for the spiritual battles to come (Eph 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; 6:19). This is, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints,” “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:26-27, emphasis added). The only way to examine these subjects fully and in the right perspective, is to address these subjects from the foot of the cross, where the mysteries that surround the supernatural fade away in the vibrant glory of the Son of God. And, Lord willing, we’ll begin that journey together next week.