The Great Day of Their Wrath (Revelation 6:12-17)


It has been said that God is slow, but never late. God’s slowness to fulfill his promise of a just world order redounds to the benefit of us sinners, who are given ample time to repent of the error of our ways. But God’s patience is not limitless. As C.S. Lewis somewhere puts it, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Your will be done.” When God determines that more time will not result in another change of heart, then he will usher in his righteous kingdom—not a day late, but at just the right time.
 
Revelation 6.12–17 describes the onset of God’s judgment of the world in terms of natural disasters so great that the cosmos itself is shaken and destroyed: “I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”
 
John intends his description of these great natural disasters to shake our faith in the things we take for granted: a solid earth, a shining sun, a luminous moon, the stars fixed in heaven, and mountains that do not move. The great decision all of us must make in life is whether our hearts are fundamentally oriented toward earth or heaven, toward ourselves or toward God. The seeming permanence of the earth lulls us into thinking that it and our worldly affairs are what matters most. God’s judgment shatters this illusion.
 
No wonder, then, that precisely those most invested in the old world order are terrified by its passing. “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains.” Having lived off the benefits of the earth for so long, with nary a thought of God, heaven, or eternity, they vainly seek earth’s protection from God: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” How very different is this response from the promise John gives those who put God first: “They will see his face” (22.4)! Divine judgment means fearing the face of God; salvation means seeing it and loving it.
 
Does the language of wrath in verses 16–17 make you uncomfortable? I freely admit that I am more comfortable with the abstract nouns “justice” or “righteousness” than with the psychologically provocative “wrath,” even though all three describe the same facet of God’s personality. But John intends to be provocative. He wants to make us uncomfortable. For only if we envision the harrowing effect of God’s judgment can we rightly understand the graciousness of God’s love for us. In the end, there are only two options for us: judgment or salvation, hiding from or seeing God’s face, bad news or good news.
 
Which do you choose?
 
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Hymns


Christianity Today offers two articles on hymns today. The first is actually a slideshow of hymnals and hymn-singing from around the world. The second is an article by my college history professor, Mark Noll: "We Are What We Sing." Here’s the opening paragraph of Noll’s article, with which I heartily agree:

Evangelicalism at its best is the religion displayed in its classic hymns. The classic evangelical hymns contain the clearest, most memorable, cohesive, and widely repeated expressions of what it has meant to be an evangelical.I

I’m a fan of contemporary worship music, but I also think we should keep singing the best of evangelical hymns. Noll’s article helps me explain why.

O Sovereign Lord, How Long? (Revelation 6.9–11)


 Submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality all require patience: Patience with a corrupt government to reform, with the violent to act peaceably, with the poor to move from dependency to productivity, and with the sick to heal. The last two items are borne with comparative ease. The first two items? Not so much.
 
It is fascinating to me that after describing the devastation wrought on earth by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8), John turns again to a scene in the throne room of heaven (6:9-11). There, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” They are martyrs, in other words. (That this altar is a heavenly one rather than an earthly one may be ascertained by comparing 6.9 with 8.3, 5.)
 
What fascinates me is not the heavenly scene, but the cry of the martyrs: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on earth?” Until I read Revelation 6.9–11, I had always thought that those whose souls had entered heaven existed in a state of uninterrupted bliss. This is not the picture John presents. Rather, those souls cry out to God for justice in no uncertain terms. Indeed that absolute certainty of their cries is unnerving. “Avenge our blood” is not a request uttered in polite company, after all. (Perhaps we would think otherwise if we had been martyred.) Whatever the particular terms used, we understand the martyrs’ request. Is it too much to ask God that right be done on earth?
 
What I have written above about submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality may have struck you as, well, a bit unjust. Why should we submit to corrupt politicians? Why should we strive to make peace when our enemies are making war? Because, quite frankly, God commands us to. And because we recognize that we live in between Christ’s first and second coming, when God offers grace to sinners like you, me, and our enemies. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise,” Peter writes, “as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3.9).
 
That reason is why, I think, the martyrs were “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer.” The white robe is a symbol of sins forgiven, of being justified by Christ before God. Just as they had been made right through God’s patience with them, so now the martyrs are asked to exercise patience toward others, even if that patience results in the martyrdom of other believers. Until Christ returns, God asks us to be witnesses through our words and with our lives.
 
Justice and patience. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew both in equal measure, rightly said that while the arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice. So, as we wait for God to do the right thing at the last, let us do what God is doing now, and patiently extend to sinners his gracious love.
 
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“The Conservative Mind” by Peter Berkowitz


The featured article in today’s Opinion Journal is "The Conservative Mind" by Peter Berkowitz, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Here are the opening paragraphs.

The left prides itself on, and frequently boasts of, its superior appreciation of the complexity and depth of moral and political life. But political debate in America today tells a different story.

On a variety of issues that currently divide the nation, those to the left of center seem to be converging, their ranks increasingly untroubled by debate or dissent, except on daily tactics and long-term strategy. Meanwhile, those to the right of center are engaged in an intense intra-party struggle to balance competing principles and goods.

One source of the divisions evident today is the tension in modern conservatism between its commitment to individual liberty, and its lively appreciation of the need to preserve the beliefs, practices, associations and institutions that form citizens capable of preserving liberty. The conservative reflex to resist change must often be overcome, because prudent change is necessary to defend liberty. Yet the tension within often compels conservatives to wrestle with the consequences of change more fully than progressives–for whom change itself is often seen as good, and change that contributes to the equalization of social conditions as a very important good.

To be sure, some standard-order issues remain easy for both sides. Democrats instinctively want to repeal the Bush tax cuts, establish government supervised universal healthcare, and impose greater regulation on trade. Just as instinctively Republicans wish to extend the Bush tax cuts, find market mechanisms to broaden health care coverage and reduce limitations on trade.

But on non-standard issues–involving dramatic changes in national security and foreign affairs, the power of medicine and technology to intervene at the early stages of life, and the social meaning of marriage and family, the partisans show a clear difference: the left is more and more of one mind while divisions on the right deepen.

Read the whole thing to see what roils the right, and why.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (6.1–8)


If there is a great tribulation, how shall we then live?
 
The answer to this question depends on “then.” It depends, in other words, on the environment we are called by God to inhabit. As we read Revelation 6.1–8, it becomes quite clear that God calls us to live in an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, famine, pestilence, and death—or at least to be prepared to do so.
 
(Some futurists, such as Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, deny that Christians will go through the great tribulation, and perhaps they are right. But consider three facts: First, conquest, war, scarcity, and the like describe the actual conditions of many Christians around the world at the present time. Surely, they are justified in reading Revelation in such a way that helps them live godly lives in their environment. Second, futurists such as LaHaye and Jenkins admit that some Christians will endure the great tribulation, namely, those who convert after the rapture. Third, other futurists and all preterists, idealists, and historicists teach that Christians will go through the great tribulation. So perhaps an interpretation such as LaHaye and Jenkins’ is wrong. Whatever the case, some—if not all—Christians must learn how to live in a time of conquest, war, scarcity, and the like.)
 
Now I know that the mention of these evils—which John portrays as four horsemen—is not the kind of thing that will brighten your day. It is not supposed to. John reports his vision of the four horsemen in order to stiffen our spines, not bring a smile to our faces. His is a realistic counsel: Whatever good we might expect in the future, we must prepare for the worst in the present.
 
How? By cultivating the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality, among others. The rider on the white horse, we are told, “came out conquering and to conquer.” His sole purpose was domination. We might meet this rider with resistance, but Scripture tacks the opposite way. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus taught us, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). Christians can be good citizens even when their state is corrupt.
 
The rider on the red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth,” and war ensued. In such an environment, the Christian who makes peace is blessed (Matt. 5.9). Peace, in the Bible, is never merely the absence of conflict. It is also always the presence of the harmony that results from justice. To make peace, then, we must act justly at all times.
 
The rider on the black horse brings economic scarcity and inflated prices. In the great tribulation, a day’s ration of wheat costs a day’s wage. One can hardly get ahead with prices so high. While the natural tendency under such circumstances might be to hoard and save, the truly Christian response is to share. In the early days of the Jerusalem church, believers pooled their resources so that none would be left behind economically (Acts 2.44–45, 4.32–37).
 
Death, which rides a pale horse, is followed by Hades and brings famine, pestilence, and cruelty in its train. Confronted by the horrors of disease, we often retreat into safe enclaves, excluding from our midst those who might be infected. The proper Christian response is hospitality, the welcoming of strangers into our midst. Such is a distinguishing mark of the disciple (Matt. 25.31–46).
 
In an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, and death, Christians are called to exhibit the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality. That, then, is how we should live.
 
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Is Religion Dangerous?


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A recent spate of books argues that it is. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusions, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation, and now Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great all extol the virtues of atheism and excoriate the vices of faith.
 
Keith Ward begs to differ. A professing Christian, Ward is Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London, and the author of numerous works of theology and philosophy.
 
At the outset of Is Religion Dangerous? Ward argues that flat-out denunciations of religion are “absurd.” “Worse than that,” he writes, “they ignore the available evidence from history, from psychology and sociology, and from philosophy. They refuse to investigate the question in a properly rigorous way, and substitute rhetoric for analysis.”
 
Lack of rigor and overabundance of rhetoric are displayed in the question itself. Is religion dangerous? That’s about as absurd as asking whether politics is dangerous, or big business, or science. The answer depends on which religion you’re talking about and when. (Or which form of politics, which big company, or which scientific enterprise.) At present, extremist Islam poses a danger to others in some part of the world. But is anyone even remotely afraid of the Amish? Of course not! But that means flat-out denunciations of religion fail to take into account the variety and complexity of religion.
 
Even if flat-out denunciations of religion are absurd, perhaps it’s the case that, on balance, religion does more harm than good. To answer that question, Ward divides the remainder of the book into four sections:
 
  • Religion and violence
  • Are religious beliefs irrational?
  • Are religious beliefs immoral?
  • And, by way of summarizing his conclusions, does religion do more harm than good?
 
A standard atheist argument against religion is that it promotes violence. “Look at the Crusades,” atheists say, “or the Spanish Inquisition, or the religious wars of the 17th Century!”
Two responses come quickly to mind: (1) Yes, but look also at the hospitals, charitable organizations, abolitionist and civil rights movements—all inspired by religious ideals! And (2) look at the 20th Century, during which officially atheistic communist governments killed upward of 100 million people! Surveying the historical evidence, Ward writes powerfully of “the corruptibility of all things human,” and shows how the texts of the great religions actually denounce violent behavior.
 
Another standard atheistic argument is that faith contradicts scientific method? But as Ward points out, “Many of the most important beliefs we have in life are not scientifically testable, but we still live our lives by them.” Indeed, one of the beliefs that cannot be tested by scientific method is the very belief that only the scientific method produces knowledge! Many intelligent people believe in God and practice their faith humanely. More than that, they offer reasons for their beliefs. They may or may not be scientific reasons, but they should be taken seriously nonetheless.
 
Is religion immoral? Atheists delight in pointing out the horror stories of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Are these stories hard for Christians to explain? Frankly, yes. But what atheists fail to note is that hard cases make bad law. Jesus enunciated the main thrust of biblical ethics in Matthew 22:37-40 when he summarized Christian duty as love God and love your neighbor as yourself. What, precisely, is dangerous about love?
 
Even if religion is not violent, irrational, or immoral, perhaps it is simply not psychologically healthy. Ward considers this argument in the final part of his book. Citing numerous psychological, sociologically, and medical studies, he concludes: “As far as the data show, the influence of religion on personal life, while it may in many cases be bad, is overall and in general good.”
 
I have a few quibbles with Ward here and there. Although he is a Christian, Ward offers a general defense of religion rather than a specific defense of Christian faith. This leads him to defend Islam, for example, on a couple of points where I don’t think such a defense is warranted. Also, here and there, he makes a political remark with which I disagree (but then, Christians don’t need to be monolithic when it comes to politics!). But overall, I’m impressed by this readable and intelligent defense of faith against unreasonable atheistic attacks.
 

Four Views of the Great Tribulation (Revelation 6:1-8:5)


In Revelation 6.1–8.5, John turns our attention from heaven to earth, from the Lamb to the seven seals that he alone is worthy to open. The turn is abrupt and unpleasant, for the earthly scene John portrays is the polar opposite of the heavenly scene he has just revealed. Instead of the unending worship of heaven, we see unceasing warfare on earth, as successively greater disasters—manmade, natural, and divine—befall the planet upon the opening of each seal. This is “the great tribulation” (7.14; cf. 2.22, Matt. 24.21) whose intensity forces the question: “And who can stand?” (6.17).
 
When Will This Take Place?
 
Obviously, we would like to know when this great tribulation takes place.
 
Many American Protestants believe that it lies in the future, just after Jesus Christ secretly returns to earth to rapture believers to heaven. Those left behind endure the depredations of the Antichrist and False Prophet for seven years. During that period, many convert, including Jews who acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. At the end of the seven years, Christ publicly returns, subdues the devil, and inaugurates a one-thousand-year reign of peace. This is the end-times scenario popularized by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series, Left Behind.
 
It is not the only scenario, however.
 
The first is the preterist school of interpretation. For preterists, according to Steve Gregg, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the judgment of God upon Jerusalem (A.D. 66–70); 144,000 Judean Christians escape to Pella [in modern-day Jordan].”[i] Thus, in the preterist interpretation, the events of Revelation 6.1–8.5 are basically past.
 
The second school of interpretation is the futurist one. Obviously, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and others like them are students of this school. It should be noted, however, that not all futurists subscribe to the rapture of the church. A basic issue that divides futurists is whether Christians who converted prior to the great tribulation will be spared its violence entirely (by means of the rapture) or given sufficient strength to endure it utterly (through the sealing of the Holy Spirit).
 
Idealism, or spiritualism, is a third school of interpretation. Whereas preterists interpret the seals as describing past events and futurists as events yet to come, idealists interpret them in terms of the ongoing present. “The scroll and its unsealing represent God’s dealings with mankind, seen in cycles of war, martyrdom, and judgment recurring repeatedly throughout history.”[ii]
 
Historicism is the fourth school of interpretation. Although not common today, it is “the historic Protestant interpretation” of Revelation and sees the book as “a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of the apostle to the end of the world.”[iii] For historicists, the “unsealing of the scroll represents the beginning of the fall of the Roman empire.”[iv] The seven trumpets (8.6–11.19) and seven bowls (15.1–16.21) unfold the remaining events of end-times history.
 
We return to our initial question: When will the great tribulation take place? Church history provides at least four answers: it is past, future, present, and unfolding. But which should we believe? I am not sure we must come to a definitive conclusion one way or another. Rather, it seems to me that John reveals these events to inspire the appropriate response in us. “How shall we then live?”—rather than “When will this take place?”—is the most important question for us to ask.
 
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[i] Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 83.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid, 2.
[iv] Ibid, 83.

Mitt Romney and the Kennedy Mistake


Over at First Things, Francis J. Beckwith reviews Hugh Hewitt’s new book about Mitt Romney: A Mormon in the White House? He argues that American Christians considering Romney’s candidacy for the presidency should not make "the Creedal Mistake," i.e., believing that "the planks of his [religious] creed are the best standard by which to judge the suitability of a political candidate." By the same token, however, he cautions Romney not to make "the Kennedy mistake." Citing Kennedy’s September 12, 1960, speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Beckwith writes:

Kennedy’s speech reads like a complete acquiescence to American mainline Protestant notions of privatized faith and anti-clericalism, as well as its stereotypical, outdated, and uncharitable ideas about the Catholic hierarchy and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Kennedy could have argued that his Catholicism informs him of certain theological and moral doctrines that will make him a thoughtful and principled president. He could have consulted and mined from the works of Catholic scholars who were able defenders of liberal democracy and the natural law that grounds it. But he did not. Kennedy’s speech was a terrible concession. For it played to his audience’s anti-Catholic prejudices while saying that his religious beliefs are so trivial that he would govern exactly the same if they were absent.

Beckwith applies these lessons directly to Romney:

Romney, in order to pacify secularists and traditional Christians, may be tempted to emulate Kennedy and claim that his theology and church do not influence or shape his politics. But this would be a mistake. For it would signal to traditional Christians that Romney does not believe that theology could, in principle, count as knowledge; but this is precisely the view of the secularist who believes that religion, like matters of taste, should remain private. Yet if a citizen has good reason to believe her theological tradition offers real insights into the nature of humanity and the common good—insights that could be defended on grounds that even a secularist cannot easily dismiss—why should she remain mute simply because the secularist stipulates a definition of religion that requires her silence? Why should she accept the secularist’s limitations on her religious liberty based on what appears to many of us as a capricious and politically convenient understanding of “religion”? If Romney commits the Kennedy Mistake, it would give tacit permission to secularists to call into question the political legitimacy of not only Romney’s fellow religionists (including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) but also conservative Catholics and evangelicals.

Then he wraps up his discussion with this conclusion:

If one does not support Romney’s candidacy, it should not be because he is a Mormon. It should be because one has good reason to believe he is not the best candidate for the office. That is the message of Hewitt’s book. It is one that would resonate with Martin Luther, who once tersely said, “I’d rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.”

Precisely!

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