Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Author: Wesley Sutermeister
In his book Apocalyptic Imagination John J. Collins states that, “nowhere does John of Patmos tell us to love our enemies, and neither does he preach forgiveness. Rather, his themes are justice and judgment, and in this respect he stands fully in the tradition of Jewish apocalypticism.”1 Collins goes on to explain that this lack of Gospel values in the biblical book of Revelation has been a “source of scandal” for Christian theologians, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Rudolf Bultmann, throughout the ages.2 The present study explores this scandal – the apparent incongruity between the book of Revelation and the Gospel traditions concerning Jesus – through a critical examination of some of the implicit features of John’s vision. It is hoped that this exploration will help to explain, on a deeper level and from another interpretive angle, why Revelation might be considered scandalous to so many people. The key questions for what follows are (1) how does ancient apocalyptic literature, especially the book of Revelation, present God as interacting with the world and human beings, and (2) what rhetorical effect does this presentation have on the reader or hearer who enters this highly evocative, symbolic world?
In order to begin answering these questions, I will adopt – and adapt – the critical language of the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), especially the language that appears in his later works.3 The advantages of appropriating Baudrillard for a critical reading of Revelation is that he provides an outside perspective that has the potential to open up new lines of reading and understanding; he devoted a great deal of his intellectual effort to the investigation of systems, reality, technology, power, and questions of good and evil; and he was familiar with all kinds of structuralist and post-structuralist theories that helped to shape his interpretive eye.4 To cast my argument, then, in the language of Baudrillard: the book of Revelation can be understood as a simulation of an integral reality that symbolically generates the very violence and hegemonic influence that it seeks to counter through its message.5 In other words, within the book of Revelation there is contained certain thematic elements and rhetoric that bear a striking resemblance to the very forces of empire it seeks to counter, namely, the simulation of an integral reality through transparency, fatality, and hegemony. To put it rather simplistically, the book of Revelation envisions a God empire that will conquer all other empires; its very critique of empire is cast in terms, themes, and imagery that bear a hegemonic impression. In the very way it reveals its message, the book of Revelation falls victim to a sort of reversibility: its visionary critique only perpetuates the strategies of what it is criticizing, albeit in a symbolic and literary form. I believe this fact is why many people find the book of Revelation scandalous: its totalizing, integrist quality that seems out of step with the message and actions of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels.
Each section of this paper deals with key terms from Baudrillard, explains how I am appropriating and shifting the meaning of these terms to read the apocalypse, and gives examples from the book of Revelation and other ancient apocalyptic literature that disclose the integrist features I observe in John’s vision. It should be noted here that this paper focuses more on the canonical book of Revelation than on other ancient apocalyptic literature because of its hefty influence on subsequent history, cultures, and the formation of Christian beliefs and ethics.6 This decision should not be seen as a denigration of the other literature; these works are of inestimable importance to our understanding of the time period and the development of theological ideas. Nevertheless, examples of what I am attempting to describe through the notions of transparency, fatality, and hegemony can be found in some of this other literature, and they will be referred to throughout this study.
Integral Reality & Simulation
In The Intelligence of Evil, or the Lucidity Pact (2005) Baudrillard defines integral reality as “the perpetrating on the world of an unlimited operational project whereby everything becomes real, everything becomes visible and transparent, everything is ‘liberated,’ everything comes to fruition and has a meaning.”7 For him, integral reality is an “operational project,” meaning that reality itself is technologically produced and functionally organized, especially through various networks, such as information, media, or military networks.8 Such an “unlimited” project – a project tied up with the processes of globalization – strives to make everything real, visible, transparent, and liberated, as well as to ensure that everything in the world, especially events, has meaning. Baudrillard continues, “objective reality – reality related to meaning and representation – gives way to ‘Integral Reality,’ a reality without limits in which everything is realized and technically materialized without reference to any principle or final purpose whatever.”9 Objective reality disappears into an integral reality which thrives on the directionless trajectory of systems, information, and networks increasing exponentially around the world. “Integral Reality,” according to Baudrillard, “involves… the murder of the real, the loss of any imagination of the real.”10 It is “the irreversible movement towards the totalization of the world.”11 It has to do with power on a global scale. For my purposes, integral reality can be defined as an artificial reality characterized by the drive to bring everything to completion, to realize the meaning of all things, to bring to light all that is now hidden, to fix a cause to all phenomena in the world, and to realize all possibilities, whether technological, social, religious, or political.
While this notion of an integral reality is extremely obscure and abstract, Baudrillard’s notion of simulation is closely related and might help to give some clarity to what he is after with these terms. Simulation, related to the Latin simulare meaning “to copy,” is defined by Baudrillard as “to feign to have what one doesn’t have.”12 Simulation “threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’” through the copying, or representing, of the real, objective world.13 According to Baudrillard, an integral reality consists in an unlimited series of simulations, whether in advertising, capitalistic production, and media technology, such as pornography, that all present the objective, real world in such a way that reality becomes “more real than real,” or hyper-real. These simulations as signs have lost their referent in the objective world and point simply to themselves as signs. In the words of one interpreter, William Pawlett, “simulation hyper-realises the real by generating its effect from abstract models and codes,” while “integral reality comes about through the elimination of the sign and its capacity for both representation and simulation.”14 Simulation, then, is considered the first stage which alienates the sign from its referent in the world, while integral reality goes a step further to the elimination of the sign itself. My analysis uses the idea of simulation to refer both to a purified, purged copy or version of something, and to simulation in the sense of running a simulation, in which a series of events that occur in the “real world” are artificially or virtually experienced, as in flight simulation. In this sense, simulation is both a copy and an experienced replication of reality that blurs the line between the “real” and the “imaginary.”
With this brief survey of the Baudrillardian concepts of integral reality and simulation, the next step is to see how they might be helpful in reading the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature. Clearly it is necessary at the outset to acknowledge that with the apocalypse we are dealing with a literary simulation and not with digital technology, media productions, or information systems, and the like. Nevertheless, John’s literary production simulates a reality that is theologically and symbolically purified of all negative elements and is exhausted in a fruition of meaning. His ideas, images, and narrative reveal a mental world, a version of reality, which is meant to be considered more real than the objective world as such. Although this reality is an artificial simulation in that it is literary and symbolic, it is presented as the true reality and the real reality. There is a distinct sense that what John is presenting is meant to describe the really real, the real force behind world history, namely, God.15 Furthermore, there can be no easy separation between the literarily-simulated world and the so-called objective world. In fact, for John, the simulation of objective reality – which results in his integral reality – is meant to push the reader or hearer to live and view the objective world differently as a result of “running” the simulation, that is, by virtually entering its thought world and narrative and thereby experiencing the End. John’s simulation of the objective world is an integral reality that revolves around its divine source and power; the simulation is a copy or version of the objective world purged of unwanted elements, namely, sin, evil, and death.
To further clarify these senses of integral reality and simulation as a purged, perfected, or refined copy of something, I want to draw particular attention to Baudrillard’s two examples of simulation: digitally perfected music and human cloning. He describes what he calls “integral music” as follows:
It is heard in quadraphonic spaces and it can be “composed” on a computer. A music whose sound has been clarified and purged, a music restored in its technical perfection. The sound there is not the result of a form; it is actualized by a programme. A music reduced to a pure wavelength. The final reception, the sensorial impact on the listener is also programmed with precision like that in a closed circuit. A virtual music in other words, flawless, deprived of any imagination, mistaken for its own model, the enjoyment of which is also virtual. Is it still music? Nothing is less certain; it has even been suggested that noise be reintroduced to make it sound more “musical.”16
And in regard to human cloning and the creation of “the Integral Man” (Homme Intégral), which is “the human being… genetically modified and edited for perfection”:
[The human being] is purged of any accident, of any disease, any emotional problem, for genetic manipulation does not aim at reproducing the original human formula but a formula that is the most standardized for efficiency (serial morphing)… It will not even have to face its otherness as it will have straightaway been suppressed by its model. All this relies on a universal process of identification of Evil that, of course, aims at eradicating. While it used to be metaphysical or moral, Evil now is materialized, embodied in the genes. It becomes an objective reality, objectively dispensable.17
In these two examples of integral music and Integral Man, Baudrillard emphasizes that perfection is reached through the destruction or cleaning up of impure or deficient qualities of the original thing and a hyper-materialization of the ‘goodness’ of its parts. He also stresses that what is artificially produced is so real – or, mimicking the original to such a perfect degree – that the line between real and imaginary, true and false, becomes indecipherable.
It should be noted that describing the book of Revelation as a simulation of integral reality is foreign to the thought of Baudrillard, because for him integral reality is a stage beyond simulation. However, there are features of the concepts of integral reality and simulation, as I have described them, which provide for a fruitful reading of apocalyptic texts. First, John envisions an integral reality in that there are no more secrets, everything becomes visible, marked off, clarified, and objectified. James Berger has caught on to this movement in apocalyptic literature: “The apocalypse would be the definitive catastrophe – not only final and complete but absolutely clarifying. It would unmistakably separate good from evil, true from false. The apocalypse would replace the moral and epistemological murkiness of life as it is with a post-apocalyptic world in which all identities and values are clear.”18 Everything is given meaning, especially history, and what is presented is a totalized world in which everything is under divine control. Events and characters in the objective world are given a coded or signed value, and power is fatally exercised in a retributive judgment that is inescapable. Goodness in all its forms is “liberated” from evil in all its forms, and the movement of history reaches its climax. In this way John simulates an integral reality that challenges and ultimately replaces the objective world. When an individual hears or reads his words, and therefore “runs” the simulation – the version of reality purged of what John believes is counter to the way things should be – then that person might shift under the crushing weight of the virtual experience of the End, of God’s exacting justice and judgment. Running the simulation of Revelation is like putting on virtual reality goggles and experiencing visually – and viscerally – the full weight of the really real – God – and its absorption of the negative: evil, sin, and death. Such a dramatic (traumatic?) experience has the potential to shift, both in positive and negative ways, the existential axis of individuals and communities who see, know, and experience John’s integral reality.19
In the book of Revelation, the world that John and the Christian communities of ancient Asia Minor are dealing with, a key feature of which is the dominating Roman Empire, is countered by another world, a more real world, which is envisioned as inevitably conquering the former world. John’s work simulates the End: through hearing or reading his prophecy and entering the narrative, the objective world is called into question and one is challenged to align oneself with the really real world, God’s world. Even more, integral reality leaves nothing out; everything and everyone is dealt with. There are no remainders, no leftovers, and nothing is left to chance. Everything is tied up neatly, all is ordered and properly categorized, and negative forces are swallowed up into the divine system, centered on worship of God – an integral worship.20 Violence, suffering, and war are not left in absurdity, but are given a redemptive meaning. Within an integral reality there is not only exhaustive meaning, but everything is exhausted in meaning. Likewise, everything and everyone retains or are restored to their proper functionality, places, and roles. Ultimately, no one misses a beat in the eschaton.
While these vague pronouncements will hopefully gain further clarity in the next few sections of the paper, a few comments are necessary now to demonstrate how these features just mentioned are also features of an imperialistic mindset. First, empires attempt to bring everything under their sway, whether through territorial acquisition, population control through forced migration, identification, surveillance, violence, economic integration and system-building, or cultural hegemony. The negative elements arrayed against an imperialistic system are quelled and absorbed back into the system: they are used as a pretext to spread the goodness and benefits of the system. These benefits are usually propagandized as peace, security, and prosperity: a true pax imperium. As will be seen, God and God’s agents are presented by John as using similar strategies to create a new world order, and John’s rhetoric echoes imperial ambitions. So, while it might be correct to say that Revelation is – to use the title of a recent book on the matter – an “apocalypse against empire,” it is itself imperial in its envisioning.21 To further explore this contention, I turn in the following sections to three distinct but interrelated characteristics of integral reality that lay just under the surface of John’s vision: transparency, fatality, and hegemony.
A key feature of integral reality, and of John’s vision, is that of transparency, in which everything becomes visible. In one sense transparency can be defined as a seeing through, an unmasking of sorts. Everything comes to the surface, so to speak, in order to be dealt with by the one(s) seeing. There are no more hidden elements and no more mysteries that might counteract the integral reality that is simulated.22 The logic is simple: no more secrets, no more challenge.23 If God is the inevitable victor over evil, and we all know this because John has seen it, then we should place ourselves on God’s side. This is, after all, a crucial characteristic of a vision. Sight is direct knowledge; the things hidden in the darkness, or in the future, are brought to light and perceived in the transparency of an integral reality. Of course, the Greek word apokalypsis even means a “revealing,” or even an “unveiling.”24 Appearances are stripped so that the really real, the true forces behind the world and history, might come to light. The naked truth is revealed for all to see. Meaning is uncovered everywhere. In the case of the book of Revelation, the reign and kingdom of God is revealed in all its splendor and control over the world and history, especially as God’s holy despotism is related to the meaning of the present and the future.25
One of the ways to bring something or someone to light, to achieve a transparent reality, is first through objectification and then identification.26 Those aspects of reality which are unstable or undefinable must be marked out and defined with certainty.27 For example, evil in the book of Revelation, and in Christian theology in general, ceases to be a nebulous presence in the world. Rather, it is given form or objectification in the person of Satan and the fallen angels. In the same way, a beast comes up from the sea of chaos and is given form (11:7; 13:1). The evil of the Roman Empire is similarly objectified in the form of the great harlot in ch. 17. Evil, however, cannot conquer as a form, for in this way it secures its own destruction. Taking on form, it becomes visible. If it becomes something, then it can be identified and disposed of accordingly. Likewise, the complexities and characters of the Roman Empire are simplified in the form of beasts and harlots. Such caricatures are always easier to deal with than formless evil itself. Even the erratic forces of violence, war, judgment, and death are objectified in Revelation as four different colored horses who obey the action of “the Lamb” breaking open the first four seals (6:1-8). To objectify such forces and to give them a familiar form, namely, horses, is to already claim that the envisioned reality – a God reality – has control over these forces.
Numbering, measuring, and naming are also crucial in making the world transparent, in providing it with meaning and order in the creation of an integral reality. Adela Yarbro Collins has rightly pointed out that, “the frequent numbering of people, objects and events in Revelation makes the point by repetition that nothing is random or accidental. Everything is measured and counted. There is a divine plan, all is in God’s control, and the outcome will be advantageous to those loyal to God’s will as revealed in the book.”28 Numbers are vital to establishing a sense of control over the world, especially as it relates to both time and space.29 Revelation 7 presents the 144,000 who are marked with “the seal” and are not harmed by God’s judgments.30 These numbered, elect people are in contradistinction to those who receive the mark of the beast.31 Again, humanity is split into two groups, the wicked and the elect, and there is no grey area.32 All are marked, labeled, identified, categorized, and all receive the fate that such an identification entails. Even the beast is given a number for calculation, “six hundred and sixty-six” (Rev. 13:18). The same calculating, bureaucratic logic is also found in penal systems, ancient census practices, and was notorious as a way for Nazi Germany to label Jews and other “intolerables” in ghettoes or concentration camps.33 John’s angel presents his enigmatic signs and characters as one who has been initiated into the mysteries and possesses knowledge of the really real, giving “clues” and putting things into code for the wise to decipher.34
Along with numbering, measuring and naming also demonstrate a similar control over space, over reality, as is found in Rev. 11:1-2 where John measures the temple of God and the altar but not the “outer court,” which will be trampled by the Gentiles. Again, the measurement demonstrates God’s control over reality, and the division of space into two – the temple and outer court – mirrors the division of humanity into the wicked and elect. The examples could be repeated endlessly: the measurement of heavenly Jerusalem in 21:15-21, the symbolic names of “Sodom,” “Egypt,” and “Babylon” in 11:8, 14:8, and 17:5, the names of the twelve tribes and apostles in ch. 21, the “new names” that God’s people receive in 22:4 and earlier, and special designations of time: 1,000 years (ch. 20), 1,260 days (12:6), forty-two months (11:2), and the like. All give the impression that events, characters, and time are all under the control of God’s plan. It remains true that when something is objectified and identified, it can then be manipulated and dealt with according to one’s own good pleasure.
The same movement towards transparency via objectification and identification can be seen in the drive in contemporary American intelligence agencies to identify known terrorists. This is because “terrorism” is a vague, unhelpful term; it is not practical. It identifies no one and tells us really nothing about specific people or events. In response, American intelligence agencies attempt to put a face to this perceived threat or evil. There must be a most wanted list to objectify the enemy, the negative elements in the system. Similarly, the rise of drone technology reveals a similar drive for surveillance and identification. With this technology, the United States is not only able to increase its pseudo-omniscience over the world, but to make visible those hidden elements in the world which might threaten its peace and stability. Satellites, drones, and spies are all features of a quest to make the whole world both visible and knowable so that it can be dealt with either through integration into the system or removal from it. Quite expectedly, this enterprise toward a victorious completion of the mission of instilling Western values and systems elsewhere has a fatal edge to it.
In the classic tale, “The Juniper Tree,” found in Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, we read a story that has, perhaps surprisingly, many apocalyptic features. The primary feature that I want to draw out is that of fatality: that which deals with both fate – the inescapable, fixed, or determined nature of something, and the fatal – that which has to do with judgment and death.35 In “The Juniper Tree” we are told the story of a rich man who loses his first, pious wife only to get married to a second, devious woman. The man has a son with his first wife and a daughter with his second, and the latter wife eventually murders her son-in-law to secure an inheritance for her daughter. The wife, in order to cover up the wicked deed, cooks and feeds the son to her husband in a Hannibal-like tactic. However, the bones of the son that are buried under a juniper tree are transformed into a beautiful bird of fire who enchants the whole region with its beautiful voice. As the bird approaches its former home, the husband and daughter feel increasing peace, joy, and light-heartedness, while the wife begins to tremble and go increasingly mad, thinking their house is on fire. The husband and daughter both go outside their house to greet the bird and hear its beautiful singing, receiving a reward in turn, while the wife, utterly terrified, falls to the ground wishing to be a “thousand fathoms” underground.36 Eventually the wife exclaims, “Even if the world is coming to an end, I must go out for a little relief,” and she heads outside only to be crushed by a millstone dropped by the bird.37 After this, the bird transforms back into the boy and he enters the house with his sister and father and they sit down at table and have dinner together.
This tale is memorable for its senseless brutality, the moral of retribution, but also because it is infused with Christian motifs and imagery: a juniper tree, apples, blood from the ground being avenged, a phoenix-like bird, singing, and a final banquet. All these point to traditional Christian ideas such as the tree of life, the Fall, the innocent and suffering Christ, the resurrection, the coming judgment, and the eschatological banquet in heaven. However, what is most interesting about the tale is the way it portrays the retributive judgment of the bird and the different reactions of its characters, especially the wife and the husband, to its coming. The husband becomes increasingly joyful as the bird arrives and the wife grows ever more despondent. The husband experiences freedom and light-heartedness, while the wife experiences compression, weight, and suffocation. The bird’s melody is rapturous for the husband and tortuous for the wife. There is also a kind of determinism to the judgment, like there is no place for the wife to hide and no way for her to escape; this experience is what I call apocalyptic fatality.
Apocalyptic fatality presents judgment as inevitable and inescapable, as something due that cannot be eluded. John presents in Revelation a distinctly fatal proclamation: “Anyone destined for captivity goes into captivity. Anyone destined to be slain by the sword shall be slain by the sword (13:10).”38 Just like the wife’s desire to hide underground in “The Juniper Tree,” the “kings of the earth, the nobles, the military officers, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid themselves in cave and among mountain crags” from “the wrath of the Lamb” (6:16-17). Those humans who are lacking the seal of God on their foreheads also experience the fatality of apocalyptic judgment: “During that time these people will seek death but will not find it, and they will long to die but death will escape them” (9:6). The punishment is inescapable; death is closed off to them, and they did not repent (9:20). The description of the “book of life” and the deeds of people “written in the scrolls” gives a similar fatalistic impression, a finality to deeds performed and the justice being ratified (20:12-15).39 This brings up a further issue: repentance is the only way out. Perhaps what seemed to be fated and fatal is meant to box us in, force us to make a choice. This is the rhetoric of the apocalyptic: it is symbolically holding catastrophe to your head and forcing you to stand there and take a hit, which no one would want to do, or to duck, to change, to repent.
To add to these comments, John’s Revelation depicts God’s justice as fatal and retributive: “You are just, O Holy One, who are and who were, in passing this sentence. For they have shed the blood of the holy ones and the prophets, and you [have] given them blood to drink; it is what they deserve” (16:6).40 The concern for justice, for dispensing what is due or deserved, is a characteristic feature of an “eye for an eye” mentality in which mercy, forgiveness, and love of enemies has no place. The judgment oracles on “Babylon the great” have a similar ring to them: “Pay her back as she has paid other. Pay her back double for her deeds. Into her cup pour double what she poured” (18:6). An exacting justice is the content of John’s vision, and such a vision evokes both hope in those wishing the death of empire, but also fear, and possibly even repentance, on the part of those who are sinners. Vengeance and retribution are a part of God’s justice as portrayed by John: “[God] has avenged on [Babylon] the blood of his servants” (19:2).41 The words of Jesus ring at the end of Revelation: “Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds” (22:12). Virtually experiencing this fatality via simulation is meant to force someone to fear its inevitable (and real?) arrival and to live differently as a result.
This fear-inspiring aspect of apocalyptic fatality can also be seen in The Book of Watchers, where Enoch, led by the angel Urael on a tour of places of judgment, experiences dread as a result of his vision of “a great fire that was burning and flaming… pouring out great pillars of fire.”42 The angel asks, “Enoch, why are you afraid like this?” to which Enoch responds, “I am frightened because of this terrible place and the spectacle of this painful thing.” The notion of the spectacle of judgment – related to the Latin verb spectare, meaning ‘to observe’ or ‘watch’ – is crucial in this literature, as judgment is seen, witnessed, and thus made more believable, authoritative, and rhetorically weightier.43 In a sense, then, the fatality of apocalypticism is deeply related to transparency, as the fact of something being seen increases the sense that what is seen is fated, or bound to happen. Later in 1 Enoch 27, Enoch sees an “accursed valley” which the angel Uriel explains as follows: “… here will gather together all (those) accursed ones / those who speak with their mouth unbecoming words against the Lord… There will be upon them the spectacle of the righteous judgment, in the presence of the righteous forever.”44 The fatality of judgment is forcefully made present in these apocalyptic visions, adding a sense of inescapability to the outcome of human history, of the End.
Finally, it should be mentioned regarding the fatal quality of an integral reality that the judgment in Revelation is inscribed into space, written into the very cosmological counters of the universe, thus adding a sense of inescapability or finality to it. If one were simply to say, “The wicked will be judged someday,” this may not cause someone to change their behavior or outlook, as this statement seems rather bland, uncertain, or abstract. However, if one describes the place and event of judgment as actually having been seen, and describes in evocative and brutal details this space or place of judgment, then one might be moved by such rhetoric to repent.45 John describes “the fiery pool burning with sulfur” (19:20) and the fearsome effects of God’s judgment on a sinful and evil world. The virtually portrayed fatality is meant to press in on an individual who runs the simulation, psychologically suffocating them, forcing them to “go outside” or get off the existential path to judgment that they are currently on.
The notion of hegemony is perhaps the most easily understood of the three features of integral reality that I believe are present in the book of Revelation and other ancient apocalyptic literature. Hegemony, of course, has to do with a certain kind, or exercise, of power, and in this sense it should be said that an integral reality is hegemonic in its very drive for transparency and its espousal and use of fatality. In other words, the three notions of integral reality are inseparable; we have already encountered what hegemonic power looks like in describing transparency and fatality. However, the notion of hegemony can be described even more clearly. Baudrillard captured one major aspect of the notion of hegemony when he stated that, “we have entered a hegemonic form of total reality, of closed-circuit global power that has even captured the negative.”46 This capturing of the negative through hegemonic power is a characteristic feature of both the book of Revelation, in a symbolic manner, and of imperialistic nations in their historical forms.47 The power of the system, of the integral reality, sucks up like a vacuum all disparate elements and can no longer be overcome through direct confrontation. Satan and his army of fallen angels fail in their open rebellion and become a spectacle used to increase the power, prestige, and glory of the divine integral reality.
Moreover, Baudrillard makes a distinction between domination and hegemony, for “hegemony is the ultimate stage of domination and its terminal phase.”48 On the one hand, domination is characterized by the dialectic, or dual relation, between master/slave and oppressor/oppressed which has a violent history of oppression and liberation.49 On the other hand, hegemony moves beyond this dialectical relationship “in the disappearance of the dual, personal, agonistic domination for the sake of integral reality – the reality of networks, of the virtual and total exchange where there are no longer dominators or dominated.”50 Domination can be overthrown from the outside, while hegemony can “only be inverted or reversed from the inside.”51 Hegemonic power brings everyone and everything into the integral reality, for “… the hegemonic form tends quite simply to liquidate its opponents, regarding them as worthless, eccentric and residual. A style not of oppression and alienation, but of excommunication of everything that doesn’t fall within this sphere of integral performance and exchange. A style of foreclosure of a delinquent minority.”52 In the case of John’s apocalypse, the “delinquent minority” are the fallen angels and sinners.
In the End, after integral reality has been achieved in Revelation, God becomes all and negative forces are subsumed into the divine system of control. Even depictions of space, such as the New Jerusalem, becomes God’s presence. God is the New Jerusalem: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb” (21:22).53 God is the center of all, as hinted at by John earlier in the book of Revelation in ch. 4. There is no more duality, or two sides, between good and evil, wicked and saints, because God is all.54 God has eliminated one side completely through justice and judgment: the elimination from or absorption into the divine integral reality. Baudrillard talked about a kind of hegemonic power that is the “profusion” and “unconditional care” given by “the Empire of the Good,” whereby individuals no longer make “sovereign decisions about our well-being” because others are making decisions for them.55 While Revelation depicts people responding freely to God’s rule, one has to question whether or not John’s depiction of the victory of total goodness must be had at the cost of becoming complicit with evil. In his narrative the agents of God are symbolically depicted as using violent and forceful means to achieve the end goal of integral reality. It seems that it is the spread of violence and terror that is meant to move people to repentance in Revelation, not love.
In order to achieve a complete realization of good, or the kingdom of God, in the world, what we would call evil – such as violent judgment or coercive population control in cosmic space – is resorted to throughout John’s literary narrative. God, or the good, is used as justification for the evils committed. Certain questions then arise: can these acts even be considered evil if God has approved them, if they have divine authority and sanction? Haven’t the wicked, after all, deserved their being judged and tortured by failure to repent? However, after the End, once justice and judgment has been dispensed and integral worship attains, the hangover of enacted justice remains – the potential for power through violence and coercion lingers, as well as the reminder of the effects of this judgment; after all, fallen angels and humans are eternally tortured in God’s presence. Others remain “outside” the gates (22:15). After running John’s simulation of integral reality, is one now afraid of God or drawn to love God? Has one experienced forgiveness or the absolutism of integral reality through transparency, fatality, and hegemony? It is not my intention to answer these difficult questions here, but only to point out certain features of John’s apocalypse that thrust these issues to the forefront of many peoples’ minds, my own included.
It should also be said that there is a tension within the book of Revelation between a hegemonic integral reality and the image of the slain Lamb. It is almost as though this figure is out of place in the messianic holy war depictions of God’s hosts thrashing evil forces in the world and the heavens. Jesus in the Gospels does not bring down the apocalypse on others by killing them or judging them, but rather by dying for them. He refuses to exercise power in violent ways, although he hints at the fact that he could have done so if he had wanted to.56 Perhaps Jesus, as Collins thinks Revelation depicts him, will come back again to finish what he did not start.57 This view is difficult to reconcile with the practical actions and teachings of Jesus, who proclaimed, among other things, that mercy triumphs over judgment. Is the kingdom of God an integral reality, and if so, what are its main features? Is it possible to avoid complicity with evil in how this kingdom is being ushered into the world and brought to fulfillment?
A final insight from Baudrillard hints at a need in our world for a lack of power – as I believe is displayed in the cross of Jesus Christ – instead of a power that whips up in a frenzy the whole universe in order to achieve a perfect, harmonious, integral reality: “Power itself must be abolished – and not solely in the refusal to be dominated, which is at the heart of all traditional struggles – but also, just as violently, in the refusal to dominate.”58 The violent refusal to dominate is at the heart of the cross; it is a total inversion of the violence of the hegemonic elimination of the negative. The slain Lamb, as Bauckham argues, points to the fact that “Christ’s sacrificial death belongs to the way God rules the world,” and must be sought after in the midst of a highly visual and symbolic simulation of the End, of perfectly refined justice and judgment.59 Because of the way in which the book of Revelation presents the victory of God’s rule – namely, as the simulation of integral reality – it is easy to lose sight of the slain Lamb and its utter lack of ability to coerce or do violence, but only to love and to die for others.
My intention in this paper has been to explore the scandal of the book of Revelation from another interpretive angle, and for this reason I have avoided a detailed exegetical and historical approach. Rather, I have sought to identify elements within the book’s structure and rhetoric that seem to mitigate against the “power” of the un-power of the cross. What lessens the weight of the cross and the image of the slain Lamb is John’s simulation of reality as cleaned up, purified, integrated, absorbed, totalized, and exposed – an integral reality. The literary presentation of God’s victory over evil, sin, and death is often cast in imperialistic form: transparency, fatality, and hegemony are all elements in the quest for a divine integral reality, for an integral worship. It seems that all these elements in Revelation serve to rhetorically move (to frighten?) individuals and communities to act differently or look at the world in an altered way. Perhaps it gives them hope that the oppressors will get what is due to them in the end. As simulated, God’s perfect justice and judgment comes across as inescapably effective and terribly efficient. There is no escape or hiding, only repentance. However, the slain Lamb lingers, and the Gospels also witness to this other form of persuasion, of influence, that John himself could not lose sight of. Does the cross and love of Christ get lost in Revelation amid violence and the exercise of power? This is a question that I cannot answer fully, but I do think that there are features of John’s vision that often distract our attention from the slain Lamb, to say the least.
About the Author:
Wesley Sutermeister is PhD Candidate in Religious Studies from Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Baudrillard, Jean. Intelligence of Evil, or the Lucidity Pact. Translated by Chris Turner. New York, NY: Berg, 2005.
________. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
________. “Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality.” Translated by Marilyn Lambert Drache. IJBS, Vol. 2, no. 2 (July 2005).
________. Agony of Power. Translated by Ames Hodges. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2010.
________. Carnival and Cannibal; Ventriloquous Evil. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Seagull Books, 2010.
Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
Collins, John J. Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2007.
Pawlett, William. “Integral Reality.” In The Baudrillard Dictionary. Edited by Richard G. Smith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
Wernick, Andrew. “Fatal.” In The Baudrillard Dictionary. Edited by Richard G. Smith. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.
1 – John J. Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 278.
2 – Collins, Apocalyptic Imagination, 278.
3 – The Intelligence of Evil, or the Lucidity Pact (2005); The Agony of Power (2010), and Carnival and Cannibal; Ventriloquous Evil (2010).
4 – Influential thinkers for Baudrillard were Marcel Mauss, Roland Barthes, J.-P. Sartre, Sigmund Freud, Elias Canetti, Friedrich Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Henri Lefebvre, among others. Baudrillard spent time among French Marxists and situationists such as Guy Debord, but ultimately moved beyond their critical perspectives.
5 – Richard Bauckham states, “Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4.” In Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 17. Yet even though John’s vision looks different than the world he lived in, my contention is that hegemonic features still make up a large part of the vision.
6 – Other ancient apocalyptic literature that appear in the body and notes of this paper are: 1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, Ascension of Isaiah, and 11QMelchizedek. Following Charlesworth’s introductions, the Ethiopic Book of Enoch (1 Enoch), produced sometime between 2nd c. BCE – 1st c. CE, “is the oldest of the three pseudepigrapha attributed to Enoch, the seventh descendent of Adam and Eve. According to Genesis 5:24, ‘Enoch walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him.’ This tradition of Enoch’s spiritual relocation gave rise to many haggadic stories, including one that Enoch… when he was taken away by God, saw the secrets of the mysteries of the universe, the future of the world, and the predetermined course of human history” (5). 1 Enoch consists of groups of chapters that have also been given titles, such as Similitudes (chs. 37-71) or The Book of Watchers (chs. 6-36). The Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch (2 Enoch), dated late first century CE, is “basically” a Midrashic “amplification of Genesis 5:21-32, that is, it covers events from the life of Enoch to the onset of the Flood.” The text of 2 Enoch is known only from manuscripts in Old Slavonic. 11QMelchizedek is a fragmentary manuscript found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran and is an apocalyptic commentary on the notion of a Jubilee year found in Leviticus 25. The text is written in Hebrew and can be approximately dated to 1st c. BCE. Finally, although still debated by specialists, the Ascension of Isaiah is considered to be a Christian pseudepigraphal text dated to 1st-4th c. CE. In this narrative the ancient prophet Isaiah has a vision where he is carried up through the seven heavens and, like Enoch, sees the mysteries of the universe revealed.
7 – Jean Baudrillard, Intelligence of Evil, or the Lucidity Pact, trans., Chris Turner (New York: Berg, 2005), 17. French Original Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal (Editions Galilée, 2004).
8 – See Baudrillard, Intelligence of Evil, 23.
9 – Baudrillard, Intelligence of Evil, 18. In this regard, John’s vision of an integral reality in Revelation differs from Baudrillard’s integral reality, for John’s vision refers to the “principle” or “final purpose” that is God. However, even God is notoriously difficult to pin down as an object of purpose or the direction toward which something (like history) is headed, for God transcends objectification. Therefore, John must refer to God throughout the apocalypse by means of the image of God’s “throne.” God transcends categorical descriptions or visual depictions.
10 – Baudrillard, Intelligence of Evil, 18.
11 – Baudrillard, Intelligence of Evil, 21.
12 – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans., Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 3. In one sense John of Patmos’ vision is of what he “doesn’t have,” namely, a world and humanity directed completely and totally by the reign of God. John “feigns” it through literary depictions.
13 – Baudrillard, Simulacra, 3. It should be noted that, for Baudrillard, the “objective world” as such never exists in a pure state due to the layering of human interpretation and meaning. However, what is meant by “objective world” throughout this paper is the world we live in; it is more of a linguistic marker than anything technical.
14 – William Pawlett, “Integral Reality,” in The Baudrillard Dictionary, ed., Richard G. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 109.
15 – Bauckham puts the matter more theologically: “The bounds which Roman power and ideology set to the readers’ world are broken open and that world is seen as open to the greater purpose of its transcendent Creator and Lord.” See Theology of Revelation, 7. Again in the same work we read: “John is taken up into heaven to see that God’s throne is the ultimate reality behind all earthly appearances” (31). John’s simulated reality as integral reality is the truer than reality, the more real than reality.
16 – See Jean Baudrillard, “Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality,” trans., Marilyn Lambert-Drache, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (July 2005). Baudrillard describes digital images in a similar vein: “The same can be said about synthesized and digital images, images that are pure creations, with no real reference, and from where the negative itself has disappeared – we are not only talking about the negative of the photograph but about the negative moment at the core of the image, an absence that makes the image vibrate. A digital image is technically perfect. There is no room there for fuzziness, no tremor either, or any space left for chance. Is it still an image then?”
17 – Baudrillard, “Violence of the Virtual.”
18 – James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 8. In the same work he claims, “The apocalyptic event, in order to be properly apocalyptic, must in its destructive moment clarify and illuminate the true nature of what has been brought to an end” (5). The post-apocalyptic could be defined as what I am calling an integral reality.
19 – Bauckham claims that “part of the strategy of Revelation, in creating a symbolic world for its readers to enter, was to redirect their imaginative response to the world” (Theology of Revelation, 129). Adela Yarbro Collins even uses the word “virtual” to describe entering the symbolic reality of Revelation, although this word is never really defined in her work: “… it is clear that the narratives represent a revelatory experience to the audience in such a way that the audience has a virtual revelatory experience.” See Adela Yarbro Collins, Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 7. Later in the same work she claims that “… the virtual experience provided by the apocalypses had cross-cultural plausibility” (11), and again, more vaguely: “The virtual mystical experience of the audience lured them to accept the interpretation of their historical situation offered and to shape their lives in accordance with it” (15). Among other things, this paper hopes to delineate more clearly what this “virtual” aspect of Revelation actually is and does; the virtual is an artificial experience that is at the same time more real than real. The English word “virtual” is also related to the Latin virtualis, “of or relating to power or potency,” or “the power to produce an effect.” Revelation is virtual in this latter sense as well: it produces an effect on the reader/hearer.
20 – In this sense one could speak of an integral worship that is a central – and centralizing – feature of John’s simulation of an integral reality. It is a worship that is perfected, ordered, and gradually “drowns out” the worship of the beast; a worship purged of all negative qualities and challenges.
21 – See Anathea Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011).
22 – The angel who accompanies John in his visionary journey promises him that “I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns” (17:7). In the Ascension of Isaiah 7:22-23 we read: “And I [Isaiah] said to him [the angel] what I had asked him in the third heaven, ‘[Show me how everything] which is done in that world is known here.’ And while I was still speaking to him, behold one of the angels who were standing by, more glorious than that angel who had brought me up from the world, showed me (some) books, but not like the books of this world / and he opened them, and the books had writing in them, but not like the books of this world. And they were given to me, and I read them, and behold the deeds of the children of Israel were written there, their deeds which you know, my son Josab. And I said, ‘Truly, nothing which is done in this world is hidden in the seventh heaven.’”
23 – This dynamic can be seen in The Book of the Similitudes (1 Enoch 41): “And after that, I [Enoch] saw all the secrets in heaven, and how a kingdom breaks up, and how the actions of the people are weighed in the balance. And there I saw the dwelling place of the sinners and the company of the holy ones; and my eyes saw the sinners – those who deny the name of the Lord of the Spirits – being expelled from there and being dragged off.” The secrets and mysteries of the cosmos, of judgment, and of history are revealed throughout 1 Enoch (especially in The Book of Heavenly Luminaries (1 Enoch 72-82) and The Dream Visions (1 Enoch 83-90).
24 – The Greek word is used to open the book of Revelation: see Rev. 1:1.
25 – In Rev. 6:9-11 the souls underneath the altar who had been slaughtered cry out to the “holy and true master (despotes, δεσπότης)” to avenge their deaths.
26 – This is, of course, related to Baudrillard’s comments about the genetic manipulation of a human being: “Evil,” such as sickness or weakness, is objectified in genes so that it can be eradicated more easily and effectively.
27 – For Baudrillard, “despairing of confronting uncertainty and radical illusion, we invent the easiest solution: reality. First, objective reality, then Integral Reality – the highest stage of reality” (Intelligence of Evil, 48).
28 – Collins, Cosmology, 137.
29 – Adela Yarbro Collins states that, “numerical symbolism creates order in two basic ways. First, it is used to order the experience of time… Numerical symbolism also expresses order in the experience of space” (Cosmology, 56). Her entire work is a great introduction to the order of space and time in apocalyptic literature.
30 – See also Rev. 14:1.
31 – See Rev. 13:16-17; 14:9.
32 – There is a dragon versus a woman figure in Rev. 12. Again, two camps. I agree with Bauckham’s observation: “It is part and parcel of the apocalyptic outlook to portray the present and the eschatological future in starkly black and white terms” (Theology of Revelation, 47).
33 – The crucial difference, however, is that God marks God’s own while the mark of the beast does not come from God, rather it comes from the force of evil in Revelation. The main point is that numbering and marking establishes control over reality and gives meaning to ambiguous forces in the world.
34 – See Rev. 17:9.
35 – One interpreter of Baudrillard states, “…the fatal is that which is both mortally destructive and pertaining to fate.” See Andrew Wernick, “Fatal,” in The Baudrillard Dictionary, ed., Richard G. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 71.
36 – “The Juniper Tree,” in Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales (Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday), 275.
37 – “The Juniper Tree,” 275.
38 – Emphasis mine. Elsewhere we read, “The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and to recompense your servants… and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18).
39 – The feature of “inscribing” judgment in books or space to add to its sense of fatality is prominent in 2 Enoch as well: “I wrote down the height from the earth to the seventh heaven, and the depth to the lowermost hell, and the place of condemnation, and the supremely large hell, open and weeping. And I saw how the prisoners were in pain, looking forward to endless punishment; and I recorded all those who have been condemned by the judge, and all their sentences and all their corresponding deeds (2 Enoch 40:12-13, emphasis mine).” The appendix to 2 Enoch also demonstrates this feature: “I arrived at the place of judgment, and I saw hell open. And I saw there something more, like a prison, judgment unmeasured. And I descended, and I wrote down all the judgments of the judged, and all their accusations I knew.” The rhetoric is simple: the deeds and judgment of the wicked have been noted, written down, and if they are destined to this fatality, then don’t follow them in their ways.
40 – Emphasis mine.
41 – Retribution is a crucial element in depictions of judgment in apocalyptic literature. For one small example, see 11QMelchizedek (11Q13) 13-14: “Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d’s] judgments, [and on that day he will fr]e[e them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the sp[irits of his lot.] To his aid (shall come) all ‘the gods of [justice.’”
42 – See 1 Enoch 21, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. Charlesworth.
43 – John Collins argues that, “It is of the essence of the apocalyptic vision in both Judaism and Christianity that the defeat of evil and the wicked is a real, public event that only takes place at the end of history” (Apocalyptic Imagination, 278). The publicness of this judgment makes it a spectacle.
44 – Emphasis mine. In 2 Enoch the main character Enoch views a similar spectacle in his tour of the heavens: “Here they [angels] showed Enoch the frightful place and various tortures… they showed me there a very frightful place; and all kinds of torture and torment are in that place, cruel darkness and lightless gloom. And there is no light there, and a black fire blazes up perpetually, with a river of fire that comes out over the whole place, fire here/ freezing ice there, and it dries up and it freezes; and very cruel places of detention and dark and merciless angels, carrying instruments of atrocities torturing without pity. And I said, “Woe, woe! How very frightful this place is!”
45 – Such is the psychological force of something like the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, in which the retreatant is encouraged to meditate on hell as part of their regimen.
46 – Jean Baudrillard, Agony of Power, trans., Ames Hodges (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2010), 41.
47 – Bauckham claims that “the absolute sovereignty which should be attributed to the Creator, the source of all value, who is truth and righteousness in his very being, is not at all the same thing as the absolute sovereignty claimed by finite creatures on earth. No writer of Scripture shows himself more aware of this difference than John” (Theology of Revelation, 43; emphasis mine). However, I have argued throughout this study that this so-called “difference” between the exercise of “finite” absolute sovereignty and God’s exercise of absolute sovereignty as portrayed by John is not at all as clear as both Bauckham and John seem to think. God’s exercise of power seems quite imperial, hegemonic, coercive, violent, transparent, fatal, and so on. This is precisely why Revelation is a scandal to so many, even if John does construct the powerful image of the slain Lamb and a non-violent martyr army. As John Dominic Crossan puts it in his book God and Empire: “… any alternative universe that presumes the normalcy of violence is not other at all.” In John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2007), 202. Even if John of Patmos does not presume the “normalcy” of violence in his alternative universe, he has chosen to cast his vision of God’s victory and reign in violent imagery.
48 – Baudrillard, Agony of Power, 33.
49 – This stage is characterized in Revelation by direct battles between forces of evil (Satan, fallen angels, evil nations) and the forces of God (angels, martyr armies, etc.) before the battles end and hegemonic power reigns in everything.
50 – Baudrillard, Agony of Power, 33.
51 – Baudrillard, Agony of Power, 34.
52 – Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal; Ventriloquous Evil, trans., Chris Turner (New York: Seagull Books, 2010), 38.
53 – See Rev. 21:22-27; 22:3-5.
54 – It should be mentioned that the duality between good and evil in Revelation is tilted in God’s direction from the beginning – Satan does not battle God but Michael the Archangel. God and the side of the good always have the upper hand, so to speak.
55 – Baudrillard, Agony of Power, 88.
56 – See Luke 9:51-56 and Matthew 26:51-53.
57 – “Jesus did not destroy the wicked in his earthly life, but he would return with supernatural power to complete the task. The picture of Christ that we get in Revelation 19 is at variance with any account of the historical Jesus, but it conforms perfectly to the expectations of the apocalyptic genre,” in Apocalyptic Imagination, 278.
58 – Baudrillard, Agony of Power, 48.
59 – Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 64. We read elsewhere in the same book: “All that is opposed to God’s rule, we are to understand, has been defeated by the Lamb” (74).