Looking at the problem of evil, and how it influences the way that John’s Revelation is understood by Fundamentalists and atheists. Offers a hospital as a better starting point. Truth is the starting point for all healing, so God’s mind must gather truth. Wikipedia may help us understand why, then, John had so much trouble describing his experience in heaven.
In interpreting Revelation, we have to recognize that John visited the mind of God. To aid in understanding his writing, today we’re going to look more deeply at what the mind of God is like.
Arriving from a distant galaxy, imagine that you park your flying saucer in an open lot next to a large building. Wanting to know what kinds of creatures live on earth, you send a small flying drone into the building. Inside, you see people being cut open, their parts removed and thrown away. You see a leaking person, a terrible hole in their leg. On the higher floors, people lie unmoving, connected to tubes and wires. When they wake, moaning, they are fed pills that make them sleep again.
Trembling, you fly back into space, fleeing this thing called “HOSPITAL.”
In our little parable, the imaginary alien flees Earth believing that “HOSPITAL” is evil.
Now imagine that alien is a human baby, coming down to this Earth designed by God. Would the baby grow up believing that “God is Good?”
Let’s consider the evidence for a moment.
Facing the evidence, many caring people become atheists, completely denying God. For them, it is easier to believe that God doesn’t exist than to believe that a loving God would allow people to suffer so much.
Among Evangelists, this problem is addressed by assigning all evil to “The Enemy,” God’s complete opposite. Fundamentalists go further, seeing the struggle against evil as a war. They go so far as to use violence against those that break the laws written in their holy books.
The common interpretations of John’s Revelation take one of those two views. For centuries, religious leaders saw Revelation as a prophesy of the final battle against evil, fought with terrible methods that bring great suffering to all living creatures.
It’s hard to see love in that story.
The atheist counter comes to us from Elaine Pagels of Harvard. Ms. Pagels interprets Revelation not as scripture, but as politics. In her view, John wrote a veiled attack on the Roman elite. She sees John as an ancient version of Lewis Carroll the author of Alice in Wonderland, or perhaps as a hip-hop artist that attacks the establishment using inner-city slang.
I’m going to use the parable of our alien to build a third interpretation. What happens in a hospital appears terrible because people only come to a hospital when they are suffering. To see the good in a hospital, you have to talk to the doctors and understand their goals. They want to heal their patients.
As does God, who loves us unconditionally.
So we start by taking Revelation as exactly what John said it was: he was taken up to heaven where the angels shared their history with God and their experience of Christ.
The fundamentalists start from that same point, but assume certain things about angels – specifically that time is the same for angels as it is for people. So when the angel says John will learn “things of the future,” the fundamentalists assume that everything in Revelation happens after John’s vision.
Elsewhere in the Bible, however, we learn that time affects angels in a different way. Consider the angel that comes to visit Daniel. The angel explains:
Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia.
[NIV Dan. 10:12-13]
What are we to make of this? Michael is one of the archangels, so is the “prince of the Persian kingdom” also an angel? Do the angels fight against each another? And what of the ‘days?’ Daniel set his mind to knowledge when still a child. So the ‘twenty-one days’ spoken of by the angel would be many human years.
This is all pretty mysterious.
To be able to make sense of the sayings of angels, we might be helped by knowing how angels exist. At the center of heaven is Unconditional Love. Unconditional Love draws all true thoughts to it, because only true thoughts can help it heal the world. Some of those thoughts are terrible and frightening, because much of what happens on earth is terrible and frightening. But they are all honored and loved by God. God holds them in his loving embrace.
Can we imagine living in that place for ideas? Well, we have a pretty good example on the internet. It’s called ‘Wikipedia.’ Wikipedia contains all the truth that people can agree on. If you do a search on Google or Bing to learn more about ‘quark,’ for example, you’ll probably find a link to Wikipedia near the top of the results.
But when we follow the link to ‘quark,’ we might discover that the article doesn’t make much sense. It uses words that we don’t know. But look – the words are blue. If we click on them, we find more articles. Once we understand those articles (maybe after reading a lot of other articles), we can use the ‘back’ button to return to the original article.
This is what the mind of God is like, with one important difference. In the mind of God, we can’t even have a thought without drawing its meaning to us. Using Wikipedia as an example, it would be as if even reading the word ‘quark’ caused the article on quarks to appear.
This is the problem the angels faced when they brought John into heaven. He was going to encounter many new thoughts, and would probably become confused. The angels had to keep him focused.
They did a pretty good job, but not a perfect job.
This is why Revelation is so confusing. John wrote down every thought that he met. Some of those thoughts are unnecessary, much as the thought “two plus two equals four” is unhelpful when we are asked to buy two goldfish. Sometimes the thoughts come from different times – we’ll see many examples of that as we move through the story. All this confusion is what gives Pagels the opportunity to interpret Revelation as though it was written in secret code.
But let’s return to John. What would have been thinking about when he went to heaven? For that is what would have called the first thought to him.
Remember that when the rest of the Apostles fled, John witnessed Jesus’ death on Golgotha. He was witness to the proof of healing in the Resurrection.
But against that hope John watched as his friends suffered decades of persecution and martyrdom for choosing a God of Love over the self-serving gods of Rome. Finally, at the time of his vision John was banished to the island of Patmos, separated from both his friends and family.
The question written on John’s heart must have been “Why?” Why does loving hurt so much?
That can only be answered if we understand why God came here. So John is taken back to the very beginning. Revelation starts with the heavenly side of the history given in Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
[NIV Gen. 1:1-2]
Today we’ve talked about the problem of evil, and how both religion and atheism have tried to account for it. Religion often assigns evil to an enemy that must be defeated. Atheists find it easier to believe that God doesn’t exist at all. Another way around the problem is to think of Earth as a hospital of sorts, with God as the head doctor.
If God is a healer, we’ve reasoned that truth should gather in his mind, because truth is the best guide to his work. As those thoughts collect, they gather together, perhaps much in the same way that thoughts gather together on Wikipedia – with many links among them. Trying to find answers in those tangled thoughts can be confusing, and perhaps John’s writing proves that.
In entering the mind of God, John would have been drawn to those thoughts most near to his heart. Given the suffering he experienced for love, it seems that he would have wanted to know “Why?” That leads to the idea that maybe John was shown the whole story of God’s work on Earth, not just what came after Jesus’s resurrection.