October 19, 2015 Robby Waddell

The Book of Revelation and Hope for the Earth

Going to the movies is a popular pastime in our culture. Millions of people flock to see the newest releases, which in turn become hot topics of conversation in coffee shops and break rooms. Social media sites light up with commentary on the most recent blockbuster or the most disappointing flop. A film does not have to have a big budget in order to generate a lot of buzz. Critically acclaimed independent films are as likely to garner a cult following as are the movies produced by the big studios.

Dominating at the box office and populating the best-seller lists, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives have captured the attention and imagination of our present culture. One part fantasy and one part science fiction, these storylines share in common a pessimistic assessment of late modernity, rooted in the assumption that humanity’s present trajectory will lead to an inevitable destruction of the environment and a collapse of civilization. Various causes of the apocalyptic catastrophe include the usual suspects: global pandemic, overpopulation, climate change, nuclear holocaust, and so on. The secular eschatologies (ideas on the “end” of all things) undergirding these plots combine a mixture of both despair and hope. Created by the threat of a looming apocalypse or the gargantuan challenges of trying to live in the aftermath of such an event, despair usually serves as a subtext in the story. On the other hand, hope provides the primary arc in the narrative, inviting the audience to identify with the trials and triumphs of the protagonists. The frequency of these hopeful apocalypses reflects Hollywood’s penchant for happy endings, but moreover, it points to the basic human need for some level of positive resolution at the end of a story. Hope, however, comes in a variety of forms.

In the various ways hope is displayed in Revelation, ecological hope is often overlooked.

From an ecological perspective it is important to note that the presupposed environmental tragedy, which serves as a backdrop to the story, may have severely altered the planet’s ecosystems but rarely has it annihilated altogether. In fact, normally what happens is that the apocalyptic catastrophe neutralizes the ecological threats that were the original catalysts for the devastation. In these stories, nature survives the apocalypse and receives an opportunity to rebound once its abusers face their judgment. In other words, the planet may get beaten black-and-blue, yet the final effect is a “green apocalypse”—an event that rids the ecosystem of its destructive inhabitants or at least counterbalances their negative effects, giving the planet a chance to renew. Films illustrate this phenomenon by showing urbanized areas being reclaimed by natural landscapes and animal life. One of the earliest examples of a green apocalypse is the biblical flood story in which the penultimate event may have been devastation on Earth but the ultimate outcome was a renewal of Earth.

The alternative outlook, which envisages an annihilation of the world, continues to be widespread in both secular and religious circles. Several factors contribute to this ongoing popularity, including the late-modern fear of a nuclear holocaust, the increased public awareness of our ecological crisis, and last but not least the interpretation of the apocalyptic language used in religious texts. The doctrine of inevitable global annihilation raises serious ethical concerns.

From an anthropocentric perspective, if all of creation is going to be burned then what value is there in environmental conservation? Of course, there is a case to be made: care of the environment is not illogical, even with the expectation of obliteration, if conservation is framed as stewardship of the natural resources which are necessary for the future of humanity. However, if the expectation of the total destruction of Earth is coupled with a belief in the imminent end of space-and-time, then all reasonable support for creation care is lost. According to Miroslav Volf, the doctrine of annihilation presumes that Earth “must be either so bad that it is not possible to redeem it or so insignificant that it is not worth being redeemed.”[1] This doctrine of annihilation undermines the divine pronouncement in Genesis that the creation is good.

Vivid imagery of the destruction of Earth fills the Book of Revelation. The four horsemen of the apocalypse bring in turn conquest, war, economic disaster, famine, and disease. Trumpets are blown, resulting in the burning of the grass and trees. Volcanoes erupt and a giant asteroid falls from the sky. These disasters are repeated as bowls filled with plagues are poured out all over the ground, the sea, the rivers, and the sky. The devastation is so severe that it’s no wonder these images have inspired fictional end-of-the-world scenarios. However, in one description of the final judgment suggests. . .

. . .that it is not Earth that gets destroyed but rather the destroyers of Earth.

“The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small—and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Rev 11:18, NIV). If the apocalyptic judgments are not meant for Earth but for its destroyers, then the question that needs to be answered is: “Who are the destroyers of Earth?” One way to find to the answer to this question is to flip to the end of the book and see which characters in the story are thrown into the lake of fire and utterly destroyed. The answer comes in John’s most detailed telling of the final judgment in Rev 20:7–15. It is here that we learn that destruction comes to the Devil, the Beast, the False Prophet, and those who had sided with them.

At the final judgment, even Death and Hades will be thrown into the lake fire (20:14). It is significant that neither Earth nor Heaven are thrown into the lake, rather John sees them flee from the great white throne, as though they had been dismissed from the court proceedings altogether (20:11). It would be a mistake to interpret their dismissal as their destruction because the very next story tells of their renewal. In John’s depiction of the new Heaven and the new Earth, it is important to note that John did not say that God is making all new things but making all things new. The coming of the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ does not result in the annihilation of Earth but in the annihilation of the destroyers of Earth (Rev 11:18). This is a story of transformation rather than annihilation.


 

[1] Miroslav Volf, “Loving with Hope: Eschatology and Social Responsibility,” Transformation 7 (July-September 1990): 28–31, citation from p. 30.

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About the Author

Robby Waddell

Dr. Robby Waddell is the author and editor of multiple books and numerous academic articles on the New Testament. He is on the board of directors for PEACE (the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment) and regularly speaks at local venues on the topic of peace and justice. He is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Society for Pentecostal Studies, and Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice.