Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Realized Eschatology, Revelation and Repentance

I must confess that when it comes to eschatology I am most convinced by the “realized” approach. Realized eschatology interprets apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Revelation, etc.) not so much as predicting the future (although that is there too), but as revealing through symbols the way things are, the nature of reality. This approach to reading apocalyptic literature does not sell books. There is no immediate sense of urgency (usually playing on fear) that offers those who have the “Key of Interpretation” [available today only for three easy payments of $29.95] insight into what the newspaper headlines “really” mean. Realized eschatology doesn’t even have a key. There is no rational certainty about it because it is all based on interpreting symbols that can mean different things in different contexts. The number seven, for example, can refer to completion or blessing or rest, depending on the context—-not only the context in the text, but also the context of the life of the reader.
Some might decry, “Of what use is a biblical interpretation that offers no certainty?” My answer is that such a reading of the Bible has very little use, if by “use” one means the ability to build on the knowledge, as on a logical foundation, syllogisms and discursive arguments that justify one course of action over another or declare whose side God is on in a land dispute in some corner of the world. If, however, I am looking to make sense of my own suffering and the suffering of the world around me; if I am longing for hope that God is still the King of the Universe, in spite of my struggle and often failure to do good; if want to see that my own little battles to be my better self are really and truly a participation in the Battle of the Ages, then realized eschatology is of great use.
After the Apostle John wrote Revelation, toward the end of the first century, it was the terribly persecuted church in Rome that found most comfort in it. In fact, the relatively less persecuted church in the East found the Revelation to be a rather troublesome book, largely because some charismatic preachers used it to stir up fear with false predictions of the future which distracted the faithful from the peace in Christ and the work of their salvation: repentance, love of God, love of neighbor. But in Rome, the Revelation of St. John was life and comfort. It did not predict the future for them, it symbolically explained their experience now.
I have provided this little introduction to the interpretation of apocalyptic literature because I want to share a little bit of interpretation with you: Revelation 9:1-11, the plague of locusts. Please keep in mind that the events in the Revelation are not in chronological order. The third trumpet does not refer to something that happens after the second trumpet. We may experience any or all of the plagues, trumpets or bowls at the same time. These are symbols referring to the way the universe is.
The first four trumpets (end of Ch. 8) announce partial destruction, “a third of… was destroyed.” These are in a sense shots across the bow of our ship, warnings to repent. Whenever we experience tragedy and loss and yet survive it, it becomes for us an opportunity to think about our life and death and final judgment. The fifth trumpet refers to the fall of Satan and his attack on mankind through passionate temptations of various kinds. These are the locusts with faces of men and hair of women and bodies of horses. That is, these are the temptations for men and women to act as animals. The smoke refers to the temporary blindness and insanity that keeps us from seeing clearly our calling in Christ and the deceptive temptations that beset us. Those with the Seal on their foreheads are protected in as much as they are crucifying the passions and living the new life in Christ. They are not stung by the locusts, the swarm of thoughts that are the seed of sin, because they have learned to be more than natural men; they have become spiritual men (see 1 Cor. 2:13-15). However the temptations are real. The sting is in the tail, not in the face. What feels so good and looks so natural, so merely human, so understandable, has its sting in the tail.
Bishops Joseph has often said that “I am only human” is not an excuse for our failure to live godly lives. We are not “only” human. We are humans sealed by the Holy Spirit, called to become gods in Christ. We are granted the gift of repentance, the ability to change, to see our sin and hate it, not excuse it. And even the bitter pain of the consequences of a passionate life (the sting like a scorpion), in God’s mercy, lasts only five months. Repentance and forgiveness are always possible. Are you breathing? Then God has left open for you the door of repentance. Have you failed repeatedly in previous repentances? Are you still breathing? Then the door is still open, repent again—don’t give up on yourself before God gives up on you. Have you been stung by sin. Are you and those around you suffering from the painful consequences of the scorpions’ sting? Are you still breathing? Repent, the suffering will not last forever; God has limited the power of evil.
The persecution by passionate temptations—-laziness, faint heartedness, lust of power, idle talk—-is a fiery trial, if we will enter the lists. And for those in combat, the Revelation of St. John speaks of “our now” just as much as it spoke of the “now” of every generation of Christians.


Barbara said...

Thank you, Father. This post is very encouraging. God's mercy is eternal and now. Having lived most of my life with an "unrealized" eschatology, I am struck with how it goes hand in hand with fear, judgment and a wrath-filled view of God...leading to great despair. I could never handle the thought of anyone being "left behind". That the door was only open once was terrifying. I am very grateful for the peace and ongoing challenge of a "realized" eschatology. Also, although I don't have a "key", I have the Mysteries and the Church to help me understand and struggle.

You start off your post by saying YOU are more convinced by the "realized" approach. Would there be an alternative orthodox approach or do all of the orthodox fathers agree on this "realized" approach?

savas_02 said...

This is powerful stuff. I'm struck by what you said about the "use" of eschatology; we don't ever read Revelation during the Divine Liturgy, and yet there is evidence all around referencing it, like the bowls, the "Holy, Holy, Holy," the angelic icons, and a host of other things I'm sure I don't even key in on. If interpreting eschatological Biblical passages can help us make sense of suffering, and to see our place in participating with the "Battle of the Ages", that it seems to me to hold similar implications to attending Liturgy: both leading to repentance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Father! The Orthodox Church, in its wisdom, constantly amazes me. It doesn't enter into the frenzied wisdom of the world, but shows a path that is one step after the other towards salvation. It's hard not to get caught up in the frenzy, so thank you for this encouraging post.

Fr. Michael said...

Dear Barbara and Savas,
Reading apocalyptic literature is like deep calling to deep (Psalm 41:8). If the "deep" is not already in you, then all you see is a confusing mix of symbols. But if (to follow the theme of Psalm 41) "my soul within me is troubled" and "All your waves and billows went over me" ; then the deep within our hearts resonates with the Deep One who speaks. As far as Revelation influencing the Liturgy, I posit that it is the other way around. St. John had spent his (considerably long) adult life at the Altar. How else would he describe the mysteries that he sees but in the metaphors and symbols that he had been praying for maybe sixty or seventy years?

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it