Q & R: Revelation 21

Q: A reader of A New Kind of Christianity writes …

I hope you are enjoying and soaking up your trip to Asia! What a wonderful experience it must be.
I know you are busy, so I understand if you don’t have time to respond to this, or maybe you could even jot me a quick place to look for more thoughts on this.
I know Revelation is a different sort of text and difficult to interpret. But I am wondering about Revelation 21. What do you do with the verses about a lake of burning sulfur that the cowardly, vile, liars etc go to in the second death? This just sounds so much like the “theos” form of God.
I loved what you said about 1)giving myself permission to not like a verse and then 2) to see if there is another way this could be understood. I am stuck with this one though…
I want to scratch it away.

Here’s the R:

Thanks for the question. First, it’s probably best to take Rev. 20:11- 21:27 together for context’s sake. And you’re right – it’s a difficult text – but for different reasons, I think, than many assume.
First, it’s important to notice what this passage doesn’t say:
1. It doesn’t say “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their beliefs and religious affiliation. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, homosexuals, and liberals were thrown into the lake of fire … Christians were spared.” Nothing like that at all! The judgment occurs according to works … “what they had done.” (Now I belief in justification by grace alone through faith alone – but I don’t believe in “justification by believing in the doctrine of justification alone by faith alone through grace alone.”) So what some Christians commonly say about judgment is quite different from what this text itself says.
2. Interestingly, when “the devil who had deceived them” is thrown into the “lake of fire and sulphur” in 20:10, along with “the beast and the false prophet,” it says “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” When human beings are judged in 20:11-15, it says they are plunged into “the second death.” Nothing about torment, etc., is mentioned beyond being judged.
Now even with those provisos, I don’t read these passages as descriptions of the afterlife. As I explain in a few of my books, Revelation is a genre piece – it fits in the genre of “Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.” This genre is in turn part of a larger genre called “Literature of the Oppressed.” In literature of the oppressed, an oppressed group tells the truth about the powers that be, but they do it in a “slant” or indirect way so that they won’t be arrested, tortured, and killed for doing so.
So, I think the Beast represents the Roman Empire (and by extension – recalling Daniel 7 – all oppressive, violence/fear-based domination systems). I think the false prophet represents religious establishments that baptize those powerful violent, heartless, inhuman (hence “beastly”) systems. And I think the point of Revelation is that the powerful people who did the killing will ultimately be judged as the villains of history, and the powerless people who got killed for their witness against the beastly systems will be judged the heroes in God’s eyes. It says God is on the side of the marginalized and oppressed (remember Exodus and Pharaoh?), not on the side of the powerful who control the status quo.
I hope that helps a little!