CURRENT EVENTS XX
Indecent Exposure I
Indecent Exposure II
Chaining Oregon I
Chaining Oregon II
Chaining Oregon III
Chaining Oregon IV
The Guys at the Gym
Chinese Mastery I
Chinese Mastery II
Chinese Mastery III
More on the Book of Revelation II
Bill Long 3/11/12
The "Big Contradiction" of Chs. 15 and 16
We have more numbers and scenes of judgment in ch. 14, calculated to give hope to the challenging and, in some senses, difficult message of ch. 13, but then we have a new issue or sub-part beginning in Rev. 15. The feature that alerts us to the fact that we are entering a new "scene" is the language of "another portent" in heaven (15:1), which reminds us of the first portent (12:1) that characterized the earlier scene.
In the wake of a sort of "mini-contradiction" presented in ch. 13-14, assuring the saints of safety when it is emphasized that the beast will also be able to conquer the saints, will then appear what I call the big or huge contradiction of chs. 15-16. In its most basic form it is the idea of how God could wreak such massive and utter destruction on all things that He had created. The contradiction is on two levels: first, from the perspective of human understanding, we can't perceive how we would ever destroy things that we love and have created (like our children) no matter how badly they "behave"; second, from the realm of philosophical thought, we have a hard time understanding how the ruler of the Universe could have let things get so out of hand that the only way he had to right things was through these most savage acts of destruction. God doesn't appear to use the "efficiency" principle here--or doesn't appear to do things that are considered the acme of human wisdom--to apply the appropriate level of force to handle a situation. You don't kill the fly with the hammer; you don't burn down the house to get the stray cats out of the living room.
Looking at the Contradictions of Chs. 15-16
We are inclined to see the tone of these chapters as exploring contradiction when we are presented with a few preliminary contradictions or paradoxes in ch. 15. First we are confronted with an interesting and compelling picture:
"And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire," 15:2.
What is this? Perhaps glass-blower artist Dale Chihuly knows, but most of us, I presume, don't. This is a fascinating image on a number of grounds, not the least of which is that earlier in Revelation we had a sea of glass, like crystal, without any indication that any fire was dancing in it (4:6). Now fire, the symbol of moving, uncontrolled fury, is somehow "frozen" in a the most solid of things--glass. This not only warns us that we are now in a new world--the world of contradictions and not simply of destruction or deception--but also encourages creative thinking. Contradictions always encourage thought. Or, in other words, they tend to repel those who are more linear and limited in their thinking, thus giving those who have a mental flexibility the chance to explore and discover. Contradictions entice. For example, one of the most famous lines in Milton's entire Paradise Lost is the contradiction in 1.63 where he defines the darkness of Hell in these words:
"A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible," I. 61-63.
The absolutely impenetrable darkness of Hell has been matched by Milton's impenetrable poetry that, instead of repelling, actually allures. We want to come into this Hell to discover how it can be darkness and can be visible, at the same time.
So, now I am ready to read Rev. 15 with eagerness, letting the brilliant visual contradiction of dancing fire within the frozen transparent substance lead me on. I don't have far to go until I meet the second contradiction: the contrast between the angels dress and their work. The seven angels come out of the temple, and they are completely pure--or they are bearing the accoutrements of purity--clean, shining linen and golden sashes around their chests (v. 6). Yet they are also given the seven plagues to pour out on the earth. Pristine cleanliness and purity, yet doing the most "dirty" work imaginable. The bowls/vials of judgment about to be poured out hold a poison much more baneful than resulted from either the trumpets or the scrolls. Those most involved in the most dirty work of all are the most pure who have just come out of the temple.
This paves the way for the third and greatest paradox--how God, the author of the plagues, can really be behind the kind of massive destruction that they unleash. Make no mistake about it. Whatever restraint was exercised in the earlier plagues or destruction, vast as it was, is completely eliminated here. Here we have full devastation in heavens, earth, fresh and salt waters. Here we have torture and maiming of men. Here we have groanings that are so severe that all the author can say is:
"People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores," Rev. 16:11.
Jesus may have said that the "outer darkness," where many are destined, was a place where people "will wail and gnash their teeth," Matt. 13:50. Never before do we have the picture of people eating their own tongues in agony.
I think the author of Revelation was wise enough to realize that the furious destruction unleashed by God in the book is a sort of paradox or even a contradiction, and so he makes sure, once we are comforted again (in ch. 14), to let us in on the biggest dirty secret of all--not that the dragon or beast will have unfettered access to the people of God (this can be handled by some miraculous works of angels), but that the God of the universe is seemingly smashing to smithereens, using far more power than really is necessary, the beautiful creation that He at once time pronounced very good. That is, for me, the hardest pill to swallow in the whole Book of Revelation. Rather than saying "so be it," I am willing to live and stew in the contradiction. I don't object to the judgment of God; indeed, given the cruelty in the world, cruelty that not only doesn't seem to be diminishing in our day but, if anything, intensifying, the reality of God's ultimate "last word" on things is, to me, a salutary reminder that at least there is SOMEONE, someplace who is interested in some kind of justice in the earth, and can ultimately DO something about it. Thus, I have no difficulty with the concept of the judgment of God. I am, for now, bowled over by the contradiction/paradox of this great God needing or choosing to resort to such agonizing methods to prepare the way for His final triumph. Isn't the final victory a little less sweet when it is attended by such vitriol?
Thus, I close these meditations with great and growing appreciation for the author of Revelation. I am bewitched, indeed, by the vividness and imagination of his prose, the strength of the poetry, the ways, sometimes subtle, that he resolves some deep issues of meaning. Frankly, I admire him more for looking at contradiction and not solving it for us. But, do we have ears to hear it, or are we eager now to rush to God's "defense" on some grounds such as "God can do anything he wants...therefore, shut up, you worm man!"... I, for one, admire the author, who presents and, at least at the end of ch. 16, is still living the contradiction with us.