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Bible Study, Conclusion: …Those Who Destroy the Earth

Posted on Monday, August 28, 2006 at 10:52AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments4 Comments

ew cameo.jpg On the final day, we finished our Bible study by turning to the book of the Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation.

Friends, this is a book about which I have dubious feelings. It’s not just that it feels to me personally like the ravings of a schizophrenic — although that is a part of my problem with it. There’s also the fact that two of the oldest, best-informed, most highly respected Christian communities in the world — the Greek Orthodox community and the Syrian Christian community — have had public reservations about this book from the beginning. And these are communities that, because of their locations, were in a pretty good position to know where the book came from. Both of them originally resisted the inclusion of the Apocalypse in the Bible. And while both eventually caved in to pressure from the West, and allowed the inclusion of the Apocalypse in the standard Greek Bible, the Greek Orthodox church, still, to this very day, does not allow John’s Apocalypse in its liturgy, while the Syrian church has never included it in its native-language Bible, the Peshitta.

So if I’m dubious about the Apocalypse, I’m in fairly good company.

Moreover, historically, the Apocalypse’s vision of the end of Creation seems to have done people more harm than good, leading to a long series of basically hysterical movements, from the Münsterites, down through the Millerites, to Jonestown. The current rather one-sided involvement of “End Times” Christians in Middle East politics, largely inspired by the book of the Apocalypse, is of grave concern to many Friends — as is the widespread view that “we don’t need to be worrying about environmental matters since God means to bring the world to an end pretty soon in any case.”

For all these reasons combined, I am very hesitant about the idea of basing a Biblical environmentalism on quotations from the Apocalypse.

Nevertheless, several Friends in our study group had asked for suggestions as to how they might respond to folks who cite the coming “End Times” as a reason not to care about the destruction of the natural world. And I think that’s a fairly reasonable request! So I suggested they consider drawing such people’s attention to verse 11:18 of Apocalypse/Revelation, which is part of the section devoted to the Seventh Trumpet.

Once again, this is a verse that needs to be taken in context. Where it appears in the Apocalypse narrative, the conclusion of the current æon is already far advanced; God has made His intentions to bring the Earthly drama to an end, absolutely clear. So in this verse, as the seventh and final trumpet is sounded, the twenty-four elders who sit on thrones before God pray to Him and give thanks that the time has come —

…The time of the dead, for them to be judged,
and of Your servants, the prophets and saints, for You to reward them,
and all who fear Your name, both small and great,
for You to destroy those who destroy the earth.

What I see here is the conclusion of a reasoning process on the author’s, John of Patmos’s, part. His logic appears to me to be that, since

  1. God desires a complete and total shâlôm between humans and the natural world — and, as we have seen, Hosea, Isaiah, and Paul have all affirmed that God does desire such a shâlôm — and since
  2. Christ taught in his parables that we shall be treated by God as we ourselves have treated others — we humans can therefore rightly expect that
  3. God, at the end of time, will destroy those who destroy others — including those who destroy his creatures. And so his twenty-four elders, sitting on thrones before God, express this expectation.

I think, if anyone is going to get seriously into the expectation of an apocalypse, as End Times Christians certainly do, then she or he had better give some careful thought to the implications of this passage!

Now, all in all, I’d actually prefer that we Friends simply not quarrel with End Times Christians. My heart tells me that, if we wish to draw the End Times folks into good environmental behavior, we will do better to appeal to their compassion and their sense of responsibility, rather than to cite proof texts and argue theology with them.

It’s maybe worth remembering that, in the Apocalypse itself, when the Seventh Seal is opened, and it becomes clear that the seven trumpets are going to be handed out at last, there is no sudden producing of proof texts in Heaven, nor any “I warned yous” to the sinners on Earth. Rather, all of Heaven falls silent “for the space of about half an hour”. (Apo./Rev. 8:1)


Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “The Silence in Heaven”, from Die Bibel in Bildern (“The Bible in Pictures”, 1852-1860)

I think that Heaven falls silent because those who dwell there are guided by feelings, not by theologies or ideologies. They are silenced by compassionate sorrow, not moved to speak by their convictions. And so, I hope, it may also be with us.

This concluded our Bible study. And on reflection, what do I think of it?

— I think it shows that Biblical environmental theology provides a truly radical perspective on how we humans are required to change in relation to the natural world: a perspective as radical as “deep ecology”, though in a different way. To embrace it is as taxing as embracing Christian pacifism, the pacifism of absolute nonresistance to evil.

— I also think that the group’s reaction to the more difficult parts of the vision was a fair hint of how unready we Friends in general are to embrace such a radical perspective at this present time.

As I said a couple of postings back, this Bible study gave me much to chew on, in the remaining hours before I stood and spoke to the yearly meeting as a whole. Frankly, it drove me even deeper into prayer than I’d been before.

I would welcome comments from thoughtful readers as to what conclusions you are inclined to draw.

And in my next posting, I’ll move on to the workshop I led on witness.

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Reader Comments (4)

I like this perspective very much, and it’s good to know that Quakers are thinking about and perhaps even prepared to talk about environmental issues with those focused on the End Times in all their premillenial dispensationalist visions. (And variations on those themes.)

Revelation certainly has a checkered history, and while I knew that the Eastern Orthodox kept it out of their liturgy, I didn’t know that the Syrians kept it out of the Peshitta. Thank you for the extra background.

One question though - Revelation seemed to be among Fox’s favorite books, and Douglas Gwyn among others has pointed out that Quaker eschatology is more important than many Quakers seem to realize. Tillich makes similar points in his historical works, drawing loose affinity lines back to groups like the Montanists, Spiritual Franciscans, Joachim of Fiore, and others who take the Holy Spirit seriously enough to frighten the authorities.

Fox does seem to have been a genius at taking books I find difficult to square with Quakerism based on the interpretations I first had, and making them part of his story. Re-reading these books, including Revelation (but also Romans, Hebrews, and a number of others) in the light of what Fox had to say is fascinating, though it’s a journey I’m just starting.

Anyway, you provide excellent food for thought, and I’ll be contemplating it a long while.

-- comment posted by Simon St. Laurent, http://lightandsilence.org/
August 29th, 2006 at 10:51 p.m.
Sep 4, 2006 at 03:24PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
There were plenty of End Times Christians in George Fox’s time, and though Fox seems to have wanted to avoid entering into protracted quarrels with them, he did sometimes provide them with answers. One such answer is described briefly in Fox’s Journal. A pamphlet seems to have been published at the time (1671): its authors are named but its title is not given.

“Whilst I was in my travails and sufferings I saw the state of the city New Jerusalem which comes out of heaven. And I and Richard Richardson and John Stubbs cast it up according to the account as it is written in the Revelations. According to the world’s account of the measure of the earth, it was ten times bigger than the earth. Yet the professors had looked upon it to be like an outward city or some town that had come out of the elements….” (Journal, Nickalls ed., Religious Society of Friends, Philadelphia, 1985, p. 575)

Fox seems to say here not only that there is another way of seeing scriptural texts, but also that there is another way of seeing scientific measurements. The Earth is as flat as the day is long!

-- comment posted by Brian Treadway
September 1st, 2006 at 9:09 a.m.
Sep 4, 2006 at 03:25PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Some of us over at Friendly Skripture Study were uneasy about dragging this old book out into the light.

There are too many ways to use it for self-congratulation; we need to watch ourselves for that.

I wanted us to do it; we'd taken it up at our weekly study group and reduced our numbers from 'maybe five' to 'maybe three,' because we'd all been afraid of it at one time or another and some were still afraid to think about why.

What I'd found, researching for this, was that some pretty bright people had entirely different interpretations of, most of them (unlike the rapture rabbits) making good sense. It doesn't look like God's schedule for anything, but it's meaningful in a great many ways. Like a big collective dream, as one Jungian analyst was treating it.

We've gone through the letters to the churches; I don't know if the others will want to continue, as I do--but thoughtful commenters are quite welcome.

Sep 21, 2006 at 05:16PM | Unregistered Commenterforrest curo
Well, it seems way past time to respond to these comments! For courtesy's sake, Simon and Brian, I will send copies of this response to you by e-mail as well as posting them here on the blog site.

Brian's quite right that there were plenty of End Times Christians in Fox's day; and indeed, Fox himself appears to have been one such, especially before the Restoration. Check these quotes:

-- "In fairs also, and in markets, I was made to declare against their deceitful merchandise and cheating and cozening, warning all to deal justly, to speak the truth, to let their 'yea' be 'yea', and their 'nay' be 'nay'; and to do unto others as they would have others do unto them, and forewarning them of the great and terrible day of the Lord which would come upon them all." (George Fox, *Journal*, entry for 1649)

-- "Repent ye tradesmen of London, repent ye merchants and great men of the city, the day of the Lord's hand is coming upon you, the day of the Lord's wrath is to be poured upon you...." (George Fox, *A Cry for Repentance, Unto the inhabitants of London, Chiefly, And unto all those whose Fruits do shame their Profession... [n.d.])

-- "O ye earthly-minded men! give over oppressing the poor; exalt not yourselves above your fellow-creatures, for ye are all of one mould, and blood; you that set your nests on high, join house to house, field to field, till there be no place for the poor, woe is your portion. The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. ...The righteous God is coming to give to every one of you according to your works...." (George Fox, *The Vision of the Wrath of God poured forth upon the Man of Sin, and upon all Professors of the World, who deny the Light of Christ...* [n.d.])

The early-to-mid-1650s were a time when the general public had no easy access to sophisticated works of Biblical analysis and criticism. Consequently it seemed quite reasonable to most of them to regard the Bible as a true and exact account of history. And so it was natural for them, looking about them at the religiously-driven turmoil of their time, to conclude that the End Times were upon them, and the prophecies in the process of being fulfilled.

Simon, Brian and Forrest, thank you for stopping by. Forrest, I wish you and your little group well with your study of the *Apocalypse*.
Sep 21, 2006 at 09:36PM | Unregistered CommenterMarshall Massey

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