Resisting Evil: An Apocalyptic Model

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Resisting Evil: An Apocalyptic Model

Friday, 23 March 2018  | Robyn Whitaker




The Book of Revelation is perhaps most famous for its vivid personification of evil: the Whore of Babylon, the satanic Dragon and the beast, who is given the number 666, loom large in the Christian tradition, and in the art and literature it has influenced. If people know nothing else about Revelation, they have heard that 666 is the devil’s number!
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The problem with the efficacious nature of these images is that it is all too easy to imagine evil as something located in an individual human or spiritual being (such as Satan or a devil figure) – scores of movies have done just that. Yet, to interpret Revelation in this way is to miss its main point: that Revelation is unveiling evil as an ancient, communal, systematic force found primarily in unjust institutions.

Philosophers usually distinguish between natural evil (hurricanes, disease) and moral evil (human activity). Institutional evil relates to the second of these categories, referring to any structure or system, rather than individual human behaviour, that is unjust. Classic examples of institutional evil include slavery or apartheid. As apocalyptic literature, Revelation’s primary purpose is to ‘unveil’ a truth about its own time and place. Yet, because it addresses institutional evil, I suggest it might be the most relevant book of the Bible for informing how Christians today might uncover, name and respond to the evil around us.

Evil in Revelation is associated with abuse of power, economic injustice, violence, death and oppression – things all too common in our modern world. Revelation also reveals that evil can be seductive and hard to resist. It can appear in extremely attractive forms and can be difficult to distinguish from Christian institutions and forms of power. Theologian Thomas Torrance put it this way in a post-WW2 sermon: ‘It is one of the deep hypnotic mysteries of human history, that evil can become “incarnate” in apparently Christian form’ (The Apocalypse Today, 1961, 102). He was alluding to the fact that numerous Christians had supported the Nazi regime and had even claimed that it was aligned with Christian values.

From prophetic to apocalyptic theology

Let’s look at Revelation in its biblical context. One of the significant shifts that occurs when we move from the prophetic to the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament is the location of sin and evil. In the prophetic tradition the common theological response to suffering is a call for the people to examine their sin and to repent. The logic is that if you are suffering you must have done something wrong. We see this theology evoked in simplistic ways whenever Christian leaders point to human sin as the reason for a natural disaster.

Amos, for instance, introduces the idea that foreign nations can be God’s instrument for disciplining the people (see also Isa. 10:5-10, Jer. 21:4-5). Note that, in Amos’s theological worldview, the sin lies within the Israelite community: they must look within to understand why they face violence and terror. Similarly, when Judah is under threat of total destruction from the Babylonians, the prophet Ezekiel is charged with warning the people about the consequence of their sins (Ezek. 3:17-21). In the prophetic worldview these sins were both cultic (idolatry and misuse of the temple) and social (economic injustice and failure to care for the vulnerable), a combination that can be summarised as failing to live in accordance with the covenant.

The prophetic tradition thus locates sin and evil within the individual or community who, therefore, has the power to repent and behave differently. Judgments are usually accompanied by a call to repentance (Hos. 14:1) and an affirmation that God will take away iniquity and save the people. Hope is found in the possibility of a new covenant and a restored community. Hence, individual and communal sin is contrasted with God’s mercy, but the locus of sin (and the evil it creates) is within the community itself.

When we turn to the apocalyptic literature of the Bible we discover that sin and evil are now located outside the community of God’s people. Evil has been externalised. The hallmarks of God’s people are that they are faithful and righteous but facing suffering due to the evil of those who are not God’s people (usually the people with power).

While traces of this theology appear in certain prophetic texts, the first Old Testament book to convey this theological worldview is Daniel. It reflects a changed circumstance: faithful Jews are now living under a foreign regime that does not respect their religion. When this foreign power starts to behave in tyrannical ways - by banning Judaism and forcing worship of a statue - the faithfulness of God’s people is tested. Daniel becomes the exemplar of a righteous man who faces suffering precisely because of his allegiance to God. That is, he suffers because of his righteousness, not because of his sin.

This apocalyptic worldview and the accompanying examples of righteous martyrs continue in the Maccabean and Enochnic Second Temple literature and dominate New Testament theology. It undergirds the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus. A crucified messiah does not make theological sense without the tradition of a righteous suffering man. Without an apocalyptic worldview, a crucified man is simply an unrepentant sinner getting his due punishment. But a righteous Jew being killed by the oppressive, anti-Jewish power of Rome is theologically plausible and deeply apocalyptic.

The remarkable theological shift from prophetic to apocalyptic provided Christians with a set of texts that function as resistance literature (Daniel, Maccabees, Revelation). These texts helped faithful Jews and Christians know how to identify evil, name it and resist it. They provided models of behaviour and theological perspectives for navigating a potentially hostile world.

Beasts, dragons, whores and the number 666

One tactic that the author of Revelation uses to unmask evil is symbolic personification. Imperial Rome is portrayed as a woman called the ‘Whore of Babylon’ (Rev. 17:1-6). This woman is elegantly and lavishly adorned in purple and scarlet, and covered with gold, jewels and pearls. Purple represents power and royalty in antiquity, whereas scarlet is thought to represent wealth. As Richard Bauckham writes, ‘she is a rich courtesan, whose expensive clothes and jewellery indicate the luxurious lifestyle she maintains at her lover’s expense’ (The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation, 1993, 347). She rides a scarlet beast and is drunk on the blood of the saints, referring to her part in killing Christians.

This woman is referred to as a whore three times, a reference to her religious infidelity rather than a comment about her sexual activities. More important though is her identification as Babylon, that ancient Empire responsible for the demise of Israel and the destruction of God’s temple in 587 BCE. The Roman Empire acted similarly in John’s era, waging war on Jerusalem and levelling the second Jewish temple in 70 CE. By portraying imperial Rome in such terms, John undermines its power. While wealthy and rather seductive, she is a whore, a sexual slave with her name tattooed on her forehead: ‘Babylon, Mother of Whores’ (Rev. 17:6).

In the narrative that follows, her crimes are exposed along with her judgment. She has killed Christians, she has grown extremely wealthy on the backs of slaves and the poor, and she opposes God and Christianity. These claims, whilst rhetorically powerful, are also supported by what we know historically about the way the Roman Empire functioned. The enormous success and acclaimed Pax Romana (Rome Peace), which benefitted some, was reinforced through military might, a slave-based economy, commandeered property and sharp class divisions.

The three laments in Revelation 18 (vv. 9-10, 11-17a and 17b-19) give further insight into the nature of Babylon’s socio-political status, particularly in relation to wealth. The voices of lament come from those who gained from her trade and luxury: the kings of the earth, merchants and seafarers. Thus John connects Rome’s economic affluence to her idolatry, self-glorification and military violence.

The number of the beast, 666, also links God’s judgement of evil to the Roman Empire (Rev. 13:18). John was using the ancient practice of gematria in asserting the ‘number of the beast’. The languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew assigned numerical value to each letter of the alphabet. The sum of the letters in the name ‘Nero Caesar’, transliterated into Hebrew, equals 666. John wants his readers to know that Nero is not a king, son of god and saviour (all titles used for the Emperor at the time) but rather a beast who acts violently and unjustly.

Both the beast and the Whore of Babylon serve the dragon in Revelation’s narrative. The dragon is given four names: ancient serpent, the Devil, Satan and deceiver of the whole world. This hybrid character transcends historical referents to represent an evil force that has long opposed God and that seeks to draw humans away from God. Whether as the snake in the Garden of Eden or the Satan figure who tested Job, the dragon has taken many forms, symbolising all that oppose God’s way. However, for John, this figure has become manifest most strikingly in the very Empire in which he lives. It has become incarnated in human form with real-world consequences for God’s people.

For readers familiar with the TV show The Simpsons, another way to say this is that, according to Revelation, the one to be afraid of is not the red guy running around with horns, tail and pitchfork, but the Monty Burns character who runs the local power plant. The difference is that Mr Burns is an obvious caricature of an evil CEO in The Simpsons, whereas real evil is often far more complex and difficult to identify.

Resisting Evil

If we think our world is vastly different to these aspects of life in the Roman Empire, let’s think again. Our world is increasing run by superpowers and corporations – empires under a different name. We live in a world where the divide between the rich and poor is widening, where the world’s richest 1% own just over 50% of the world’s wealth (R. Neate, ‘Richest 1% own half the world's wealth, study finds’, theguardian.com, 14/11/17), where many of us enjoy products (from diamonds to running shoes) produced by forced labour or made in factories where the working conditions are appalling. Economic injustice is one of the greatest evils of our current world and one that the Bible consistently condemns.

There are, of course, other evils unmasked in Revelation as well. The Emperor who seeks to be worshipped is portrayed as idolatrous (Rev. 13). Similarly, his persecution of Christ followers is harshly judged. A similar religious oppression and lack of freedom to worship continue to be the most obvious forms of evil for Christians in many parts of the world such as North Korea, Bhutan and many parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Context matters. The kind of Christian witness required in one part of the world might look quite different to that required in another. Revelation indicates that evil takes many and various forms, hence the need for divine guidance in identifying it. Without theological nuance, biblical knowledge, a sense of history and prayer, we risk missing the evil in our midst or too easily naming our pet peeves. The fact that Christians for centuries have thought they have identified 666 (everyone from the Pope to Mohammed to President Obama) should be a sobering reminder that we don’t always get it right.

If discernment is the first step, the second is naming and exposing evil. This takes a variety of forms and a few examples spring to mind – the #metoo movement, the survivors of child abuse who have spoken out and demanded justice, those who march or write letters demanding justice for asylum seekers, journalists who uncover abuse or corruption from those in power. The #metoo movement is a particularly pertinent example of how publicly naming abuse has exposed the systemic and communal nature of the misuse of power to enable violence and maintain secrecy.

Lastly, there is resistance. In Revelation the key call to Christ followers is found in 18:4: ’Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins’. This one verse might best summarise an apocalyptic approach to evil: resistance to evil through non-participation, non-conformity and non-compliance.

This resistance speaks to our ethical and spiritual obligations. It requires us to think about how we spend our money, to not add to the profits of those we deem unjust or to actively resist anyone acting wrongly. One way I try to fulfill this obligation is by not shopping at certain stores and not buying certain brands that contribute to gambling, child labour, environmental destruction or corporate monopolies (it can make food shopping hard work!). In broader terms it might mean choosing how we participate in the political process or even where we work. Good individuals often work for some of the most unjust corporations on the planet. Or it might mean peacefully marching or performing a sit-in in some politician’s office to protest an unjust policy. This is not passive resistance; it is in fact highly active, but it is non-violent.

Non-violence is essential and it is noteworthy that at no point in Revelation are Christians called to take up arms or render the judgement themselves. While there is violence in Revelation, this is left to God. Christians are called to witness, to remain faithful and to resist participating in (and benefitting from) unjust and evil institutions.

The Book of Revelation brings together the concerns usually aligned with the so-called left and right, or with liberal Christianity and evangelical Christianity (unhelpful labels, but ones I suspect readers are familiar with). On the one hand, Revelation reveals a God who has profound concern for the lives of anyone oppressed by those in power. It unveils a God concerned with justice here and now on earth, a God who opposes wealth gained at another’s cost.

On the other hand, evil is taken very seriously as a genuine threat to salvation. Whom one worships and how one remains faithful to God is the very definition of what makes one worthy of God’s mercy and salvation. Discipleship, prayer, worship and witness to the Lamb are the hallmarks of God’s faithful people. Revelation reminds us that social and cultic responsibilities cannot be divorced from one another for those seeking to be followers of Christ. Christians cannot spiritually worship on Sunday while ignoring injustice in the world around them, nor can they be social justice advocates if such action is divorced from witness to and worship of God.

God’s response to evil is described in John’s final vision of the binding of Satan (Rev. 20:1-3) and the coming of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1ff). These visions convey to readers the powerful truth: that they have been liberated from the power of evil to enable them to embrace the way of Jesus Christ. Evil still lurks, but we have the power to choose not to participate in evil systems and regimes, and instead to live the way of Christ.

Robyn Whitaker is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Trinity College Theological School, University of Divinity, and a Uniting Church minister.

This article will also appear in the forthcoming Zadok issue on ‘Engaging Evil’ (No. 138, Autumn 2018). You can subscribe to Zadok here.


[1] Contrary to popular Christian opinion, Revelation does not depict a rapture nor is there any explicit reference to an antichrist. (The ‘antichrist(s)’ appears in 1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3 and 2 John 7.) Also, in Revelation the end is symbolised by God creating a new Jerusalem, a perfect garden-city, on earth. Earth is transformed, not escaped.


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