Part 2 (You can find Part 1 here.)
There are a handful of liberal theologians who are applying an eco-theology lens to the Book of Revelation, stretching to find in the text inspiration for care of the earth, rather than its destruction. I was skeptical of this approach before reading some of this scholarship, but found pieces of it, particularly Barbara Rossing’s work, to be compelling and insightful.
Their conclusion can be summed up by saying that the god of Revelation does not seek to destroy the earth, but to rescue the earth from the powers that are doing the destroying and that are interfering with the culmination of creation’s fulfillment. Revelation 11:18 say, “The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for…destroying those who destroy the earth” (emphasis mine). Rossing sees the plagues sent by god to wage destruction as part of the book’s liberating vision; she sees them not as punishments for sinners, but as nature participating in its own liberation.
Which reminds me of one of my son’s favorite movies. It didn’t do so well in the box office, but The Happening (2008), by M. Night Shyamalan is the story of the earth resisting our destruction of it. This resistance comes in the form of trees creating a new pollen that is toxic to humans, disabling our biological self protection mechanism, causing us to kill ourselves in the most heinous of ways (see the lawnmower-eats-human image below). Not kill each other, but kill ourselves. (Yes, this is a horror movie and in 2008, my son was an early adolescent boy.)
When I read the Book of Revelation, what I see is not the conservative/ fundamentalist rush to use up the earth so that the apocalypse, and with it, the new heaven, are at hand. When I read the Book of Revelation, I don’t see the text offering much inspiration for environmental activists who are trying to dissuade that bring-it-on point of view.
What I do see is that god and earth are once again (remember that whole Noah and the flood thing?), and perhaps finally, done with us humans – not just done with the humans of the Empire and its oppressive ways, but with all of humanity. God and the earth are joining forces to rid the planet of the cancer that is threatening the health and very survival of it.
In fact, what I think is that god is an oncologist, the earth is sick, and we humans…we are the cancer.
Consider this, just for a moment, before you disregard this interpretation. In Rev 8:6-13, there is the destruction by thirds of much of the earth. This is not unlike a surgeon who must first remove a cancerous tumor – not the whole organ or affected region, but a portion of it, before continuing the healing treatment.
Then in Rev 16:1-21, the angels are told to pour out seven bowls of god’s wrath onto the earth. I think anyone who has experienced the fire of chemotherapy might consider calling that mean medicine god’s wrath, given how horrible one feels in its aftermath. We all have come to learn that the medicine that kills cancer is actually a poison, used carefully, desperately, and purposefully.
The purpose of chemotherapy is to extend the survival of someone – some person, sometimes a beloved pet. The purpose is to eradicate that which is killing a living creature. In the Book of Revelation, the purpose of these seven bowls is by using destructive forces, destroy that which is destroying the earth.
Given what is happening with climate change, I have found it impossible to not preach about the end of the world. The possibility is at hand. The latest United Nations reports tell us that there is no more prevention of climate change, just adaptation to what is, at this point, inevitable. Recycle that plastic grocery bag all you want or even ban them from use in your municipality, but really, we are talking about how to be human with each other on a climate constricted globe.
It is not an easy topic to preach. Part of my job as a minister is to preach hope and responsibility, justice and persistence. In case you didn’t notice, this vision of humanity as a cancer is not particularly hopeful. Rather than a source of hope, Revelation is a source of prophesy, which is supposed to have some dram of hope in it somewhere, though often clothed in other emotions like fear and atonement. A Biblical prophesy, in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian scriptures, though cloaked in language that speaks of the future, is always about the present. It is always a last line of rescue for a people headed towards doom.
So many of the Hebrew Bible’s prophets, even with their doom and gloom, offered the solution of repentance to get back in god’s good graces. The Book of Revelation demands that we stop accommodating Babylon. In its day, Babylon was the Roman Empire. In our day, it is insatiable material consumption (particularly, but not solely, in developing and industrialized nations). John’s prophetic solution echoes what modern-day environmental activists, climate scientists, and everyday thoughtful people say: stop exploiting the earth and maybe, just maybe, we can get out of this whole mess alive.
I am not sure that we can do it. I am not sure that we humans, across the globe, cooperating across our constructed high walls and barriers of nationhood and class, can stop our rapacious consumption of the earth’s resources. Or that we can do it before the earth’s survival is truly past the tipping point as a life-giving planet. I’m thinking that Hosea and Jeremiah and Moses and Micah and Isaiah — maybe they weren’t too confident, either.
Maybe that’s the nature of the prophetic voice: speak the truth, not because you have hope, but in order to create it.
Or maybe it is time for the trees to develop pollen that kills their killers, spread on the breeze that touches the air we humans breathe. Maybe it is time for the divine oncologist to remove the tumor and let loose the chemotherapy in hopes of eradicating the cancer so that the patient can be healed.