“These Things Must Be”
The essays included in this volume of the Bowdoin Agathos are the result of a yearlong inquiry by college students into the meaning of the “Apocalypse.” In these studies we examined the purposes of God in human history, the fulfillment of which appears as divine necessity, or as John writes, things that “must be.” How are Bowdoin College students to understand the clash in both moral and historical terms between the forces of evil that will play out to their necessary end, and the purposes of God for humanity which will necessarily triumph over every earthly power challenging the divine order for social life?
The following observation from Oliver O’Donovan guided our thoughts about divine necessity within the Revelation of John:
“Necessity is an appropriate term, because it has traditionally been used by philosophers in an ambivalent way, to point to a distinctive coincidence of good and evil. Necessity is, on the one hand, constraint, which deprives us of the freedom in which our fulfillment in the good is achieved. On the other hand, it is order, which ensures the sovereignty of the good by ruling out randomness and arbitrary meaninglessness.” (O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation”, 75)
The choice to study John’s Apocalypse, made three years ago, did not anticipate the events surrounding the election of the 45th president in the fall of 2016. The New York Times ran a story about the former First Lady titled: “I’m the Last Thing Standing Between You and the Apocalypse” (NYT, October 11, 2016 by Mark Leibovich). The Editorial Board of the Washington Post in similar fashion titled one of its opinion pieces, “The Candidate of the Apocalypse” (WP, July 21, 2016). The journalistic sense of the “political-apocalyptic” in each instance is one of surprise, concealment and despair. The “theological-apocalyptic” suggested by John, however, does not share that view. The Bowdoin students who gathered at the Joseph and Alice McKeen Study Center examined the Apocalypse of John with expectations from the prologue that we would discover more about necessity than uncertainty, more revealed than concealed, and that it would bless those who read it aloud and keep its message, rather than plant fears of despair and doom (Revelation 1:3).
We read in the opening prologue to this Letter:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw (1:1-2; emphasis added).
The Apocalypse is a vision given to an Apostle of Jesus to show what must take place, and we read this Letter with that necessity in mind. The words “must soon take place” act as an inclusio in this Letter to the Seven Churches, and appear in the final chapter as well: “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (22:6).
Here are some of the questions we considered:
- Will God’s purposes be frustrated by history, or revealed in history?
- Is there a necessary trajectory to human history, and if so what is its course?
- Does the Christ event (the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus) provide an interpretation of the problem of evil and the apparent purposelessness of history?
Bowdoin students have shown a strong interest in whether there is a connection between the beliefs and convictions of students, and the governing institutions of the political order which restrain the evil that is an undeniable feature of social life. The Apocalypse is an example of theo-political literature which combines in the prophetic narrative the realism of a suffering church in first century, and the idealism of a hopeful church. John is given to see in symbolic imagery the outworking of evil according to its intrinsic structures against the outworking of God’s divine purpose in governance with Him of a new creation which replaces the one that is passing away. The vision of Jesus Christ given to John appears to have had as part of its purpose to disclose the irony of the final resolution of these “out workings” in time.
John describes a vision of a passing age which acknowledges the realism of human evil necessarily disclosed in history. All human pretensions to temporal sovereignty and governance from a place of judgment detached from the throne of divine rule will fall. All attempts to construct orders of justice which publicly assault the order of God’s creation, and the purposes of God in history, will be judged as unsustainable posturing of a Babylon that is fallen. At the same time, John sees an emerging age, the hopeful idealism of a world under the governance of divine rule and a heavenly kingdom. The disappearing kingdom of the world, disappearing as it is, becomes the king of our Lord and King. All of this is taking place in history, or “in time.”
Richard Bauckham calls the problem of evil the “problem of delay”, which we might rename the “problem of time”. The predicament of time follows from the seemingly passive attitude of God toward the continuance of evil and suffering between the Advent of Christ, and his death, resurrection and ascension, and his promised second coming in final judgment. To the piteous calls for God to vindicate the earthly suffering of the martyrs in Revelation 6 in less time (“how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”) John’s vision from Jesus contains no satisfactory answer of immediacy for such vindication. Instead we read of a rather disappointing “half hour of silence in heaven” (Revelation 8).
The accomplishment of divine purpose, it seems, requires the unwelcome ensemble of time, conflict, and suffering. Time is an element in the revelation of God’s judgments withheld as the four winds of God’s judgment are restrained until the full number of the servants of God are sealed (7:1-3). The accomplishment of divine purpose, it seems, will also require a dramatic conflict between the dragon, who is evicted from his original habitat in heaven to earth, so that there he might make “war on the rest of [the] offspring, on those who keep the commandment of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). Lastly, the accomplishment of divine purpose, it seems, will require human suffering, as the faithful disciples overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” These are those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).
During the course of our reading, we examined the paradox of evil which “appears” to triumph over God’s purpose. The Lamb (Jesus) is standing “as though it had been slain.” The message to the Church in Smyrna from the one who “died and came to life” is: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).
Throughout the Apocalypse of John, we confront a conspiracy of the nations and their kings who will act in concert to reject the rule of God on earth. This is the Psalmist’s theme in Psalm 2, and we read that text every week to remind ourselves of the reasons that the nations rage. The certainty of a divine response to this fruitless conspiracy of man (the peoples plot in vain) is the divine appointment of a son who would be enthroned as king (“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill”) as the expression of divine judgment which is served at the same time as the invitation to reconciliation and salvation (“Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”).
The other essays in this volume will offer clues to a better understanding of the apocalyptic from students who have read it through their other-journalistic lens. We discovered both a meaning for history and the mystery of evil as we fixed our eyes on the Lamb of God. Worship, Follow, and Resist were the words we posted on the wall reminding campus disciples of Jesus of the need for conscientious resistance to every false order of earthly rule, including the one that occupies our inner being.
God is patient. That is in his character as a disposition toward measurements of time. He will permit the righteous to suffer longer than they hope, until he has accomplished his purpose in time to seal all those who are to take refuge in him: “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3).
The faithful witness of those who follow the lamb will require of them patient endurance in time as they participate in the divine battle with evil. Necessity demands that they follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Those who follow in discipleship acknowledge the judgments of God revealed in human history as the only means by which God has demonstrated the true social order that he will bring about in the New Jerusalem: And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (21:2).
The disciples that follow the Lamb will either suffer martyrdom or must be prepared to do so. This disciple is a “partner in the tribulation” (ÿ.ć) in the face of the rage and disbelief of the nations. The church will realize its privilege of ruling with Christ in his administration of divine justice only inside of his promise to “the one who conquers… as I also conquered.”
John sees a glorious vision of the end of history. It is a marvelous resolution of the problem of evil. Babylon is fallen. A new heaven and earth appear. The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord. It is the plausible accounting for the delay in the second coming of Jesus. Though he delays, Jesus is coming . . . soon:
I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown (3:11)
And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book (22:7)
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (22:20)
In the face of necessity and delay, God has given to Christian students at Bowdoin College the specific task of giving testimony. For those who bear witness, as for all who are subpoenaed to testify in any forensic setting, the issue is one of verbal testimony that is faithful and true. This summons to speak implies a certain subjective freedom within God’s divine necessity, a freedom which reconciles the apparent tension between the freedom and constraint of necessity which began this essay.
Accepting the challenge of temporal delay while evil demonstrates its ontological inadequacy to support institutions of government, including and especially the institutions of justice, is a discipleship obligation and calling for all Christians, including Bowdoin College students. What makes that task joyful is the certainty that God will complete the purposes that he has disclosed, both dramatically in the apocalyptic, as well as undramatically in the reliable patterns and practices of God’s judgments which are given to tell us how we ought to live in real time. These governing patterns and practices, first given to Israel, are for all the nations who will take refuge in the one who is the true Israel – Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Christian students at Bowdoin College are bearing witness to that message. The Apocalypse of John echoes in that regard the words of the Psalmist who said:
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:12).
Robert B. Gregory, Esq. Director to the Joseph and Alice McKeen Study
Center, InterVarsity Volunteer. Damariscotta ME.
Rob’s preparations for the end of the world include a 20-gallon paella pan and swimming laps with his grandkids.