According to the piece by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite published yesterday on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, the current weather-related disasters are fulfillments of apocalyptic imagery found in the Book of Revelation. She argues that the judgment of fire being wrought across the U.S. is a result of a “climate weirding” that is, in reality, judgment on those who would hinder the forward movement of climate policy around the world.
While I applaud her desire to think theologically about current events, I find her interpretation disturbing even if taken as artful dalliance, which would be the most favorable way to take it. When dealing with ancient apocalyptic literature, readers do well to remember that this type of literature is largely figurative and symbolic, and so strictly literal readings tend to miss the point. I had hoped that President Thistlethwaite was writing in a similarly figurative manner, though by the end of her piece it became obvious that she was not.
Setting aside the literary features of biblical apocalypse, I was more profoundly disturbed by how President Thistlethwaite applied her interpretation of the Book of Revelation to our contemporary context. For her, the heat waves of Colorado and the East Coast are not only fulfillments of the Book of Revelation, they are judgments on humanity for the specific sin of ignoring climate change warnings.
Let’s grant for a moment Thistlethwaite’s premise that climate change skeptics are guilty of a serious moral failure, a sin in fact that demands divine wrath (as do all sins in the biblical worldview). The question remains: to what extent can we identify particular events as divine judgment on those sins? Jesus himself was not willing to participate in this sort of inquiry. In one instance from the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is asked whether certain people who died in a local disaster were being judged for sin, he replied, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish likewise” (Luke 14:5). Jesus was notoriously harsh on those who would use human suffering to argue self-righteously against their opponents (see John 9 for a similar exchange).
Of course, others have participated in this line of reasoning.
There was an appropriate national outrage against Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell when they claimed that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were a direct judgment on America due to the actions of the American Civil Liberties Union. Such statements are theologically baseless and dangerous to those they impugn. With all due respect, the same can be said of President Thistlethwaite’s comments. In fact, the only sin mentioned as a cause for judgment in the passage from Revelation 14, which she cites, is the sin of “sexual immorality” (Rev 14:8), but that does not fit in with the argument for climate policy that she is making.
For Christians, the Book of Revelation speaks of a time when between Christ’s first and second comings, and the events described therein represent great global upheaval, but they are also a cause of great hope. The message of hope flows out of the central figure of the book, the Lamb who was slain and yet lives (Rev. 5:12), and those who cast their fears and failures upon him are the ones who have something solid on which to place their hope.
Policy discussions about climate change are important, to be sure, but no one is served when we appropriate the teaching of Scripture while exchanging the hope in Christ for a hope in public policy. We forget the character of Christ when we take something as unpredictable as the weekend’s weather, dress it in biblical imagery, and use it as a weapon against our political opponents.
President Thistlethwaite ends her piece with a quote from Rev. 22:11-2 about the river of life that flows in the new heavens and the new earth. She unfortunately removes by ellipsis the source of that river. The full quote reads:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:1-2; ESV)
That vision of global healing, which flows from God and the Lamb, is what the Book of Revelation is really about. Our hope is founded on nothing less.