The John of the Gospels and Letters — St John the Divine, or John the [Mystical] Theologian, as he is called in Eastern Orthodox Christianity — is said by modern scholars not to be the same John who, on the Greek isle of Patmos, received the visionary revelations known as the ‘Apocalypse.’ Charles Freeman [‘A New History of Early Christianity’, 2009] points out that doubts about the identity of the later seer vis a vis the earlier disciple go back almost to the beginning of the Christian era=
“The receiver of this vision from Jesus Christ calls himself John and in earliest times it was assumed that this was none other than John the apostle and evangelist.. However, even in the third century Christian scholars were noting that the styles [of writing] were so different that they could not come from the same author. The Greek is not nearly as sophisticated as that of John’s gospel” [p 107].
The Greek of the Apocalypse is crude, and vital; the Greek of the Fourth Gospel is exalted, and subtle. Another point sometimes raised is that for the later John to be the same person as the earlier John, he must have been very old indeed when he received the revelations, if their current dating is accurate [parts seem to date from 70 AD, other parts from 95 AD].
But Freeman has a third, and he thinks decisive, reason for believing that there are two different persons who have been called by the same name– and this gripped me, because it has a direct bearing on the distinction between ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption.’
“The clinching argument is that the John of the Gospel always writes of human beings ascending into heaven from a world left untouched by cosmic drama, while the John of Revelation talks of Jerusalem coming down to earth as the culmination of terrible destruction..” [p 107].
Whether this contrast not just in writing styles and dates, but in regard to themes of divine relationship with and activity in the world clinches Freeman’s argument I don’t know, yet it certainly does raise a powerful difference that is radically profound. Putting it simply, what Freeman describes as ‘ascent into heaven from the earth’ is pointing at ‘salvation’ as one way to resolve the human predicament, whilst what he describes as ‘heaven descending to earth’ is pointing at ‘redemption’ as a very different way of resolving the human predicament. The dynamics of salvation — ‘the worst is raised to the best’ — differ fundamentally from the dynamics of redemption — ‘the best is given to the worst.’
It is in terms of the substantial difference between saving and redeeming that the ambiguity of whether there are two Johns, or only one John, younger and older, can be approached. The real point is, the former portrays Christ in salvational terms; the latter portrays Christ in redemptive terms.
The early John refers to human beings ascending into heaven from a world left more or less untouched and undisturbed by divinely driven historical drama.
The later John is either an entirely different person, or he is the same person but has fundamentally changed his mind, and almost reversed his earlier mysticism, because this later John’s visionary story portrays heaven coming down to establish the new Jerusalem on earth: a heavenly city and a ‘heavenly earth’ is created after the most violent, extreme, and intense, divinely driven historical drama seizes and shakes the world.
The early John is other worldly, the later John is this worldly. The former is mystical, the latter is existential; the former rises above imagination to reach what is higher than it, the latter uses imagination to symbolise the higher entering the lower, to destroy and recreate it.
In the early John, there is no drama because the human being climbs up the ladder from the world to heaven, leaving both the natural earth and the humanly built city behind. The world process and the material creation are, if not jettisoned, then left to do their own thing, whatever that might be. This pattern can be called ‘salvation’, because it raises you out of the problem in which you are lost. The greater reaches down, and pulls the one lost in the world out of its snares and poisons, its delusions and destructions. You rise out of the problem, thanks to the merciful compassion of the heavenly power that stands assured and secure above it.
Obviously, this salvational pattern does nothing to change the problematic field of the world, natural and historical. Salvation gets you out of the problem afflicting the supposedly lower level of existence, but it does not do anything at all to change that lower level itself, by transforming its problem. It leaves both the problem, and the world that it distorts, behind.
This is obvious among all fundamentalists — Jewish, Islamic, Christian — who treat sinners and the world full of sin with a dismissive shout of ‘good riddance’, but oddly enough the mystic shares this impulse to get above the threatening deeps of existence, to a better spiritual place where you can no longer be spiritually, psychologically, physically, harmed.
In the later John, there is an extravagantly huge and ultimately meaningful drama played out in this world, because God and Satan contend, clash, fight, for the final fate of precisely the whole world process. There is not going to be any escape, by elevation or transcendence, to a better world. It is this world– or it is nothing. If Satan wins out over the course of the dramatic struggle, then the world process itself becomes worse and worse, ending up ‘in the end’ as a real and all consuming hell; if God is victorious, then this world itself is fundamentally transformed, and heaven ceases to be above it, but is planted in it, and merges with it. Thus the heavenly descends to this world, transfiguring its earthiness, and transfiguring its worldliness. The River Of Life, and Two Trees of Life, grow, signifying an entirely spiritualised Nature, but these are right in the centre of the New Jerusalem, a City of Holiness where God dwells, and because the divine is fully present in the earth and in the world, there is no longer any temple, because it is not needed. This ending of Nature and History, this Ending of everything, is the time promised of old, the time of ‘a new heaven, and a new earth.’ Most crucially, Christ the Warrior King and Lamb of Sacrifice is the key that unlocks this story of dramatic contention and final transfiguration. In this pattern, heaven is incarnate in the earth and in the world; but more moving even than that, in this pattern heaven fights for the world, suffers and undergoes loss, that this world may be preserved for its total turn around, its complete reversal, in which its buried seed will flower and its hidden spark will be kindled. God ceases being untouched and untroubled by the deeps of the world, but dives in, and by his deeds of sacrifice, changes the deeps, and thereby alters the driving engine that makes the world go forward. This pattern is ‘redemption.’
Such incarnating in and fighting for ‘this world’ is dynamically attained by God through Christ, son of heaven and son of earth. The Christ does not raise people out of the depth of the problem gripping the world process, and affecting both Nature and History, but joins them there, and by being subject to what they are subject to, transforms this suffering from the inside.
Salvation is easily termed a ‘pattern’, because it doesn’t tell much of a story. As story, it is all too calm, not on edge, all too easily at peace, separating itself from the tumults of existence as it scales the heights toward God. It also completely lacks anything that would move your heart. In redemption, what we have to give of the heart to the world process, and the heart’s resistance against and struggle with so doing, seizes the heart as nothing else. Christ gave all, to redeem all. Consequently, redemption is not so much a pattern, and much more just a ‘story’, an extraordinary story, an unbelievable, gut wrenching and heart stretching story. The story of redeeming the entire world in all its ontological fertility and existential risk is a story of stories, the ur-drama, the drama of dramas, the drama all other dramas point to and ultimately partake of, even if they do not realise it. The story of the giving, and fighting, involved in redeeming all things, all creatures, all persons, is full of pathos; it has grief and terrible despair, it has the exulting of temporary victories that forestall imminent debacle, but must remain on edge to the very end, because it is all open to ruination or coming through until it is truly all over. The tenderness, the hurting heart ache, in the story of redemption is tremendous. Everyone, God and us, in Christ, gets their heart broken, as the price of entry and seeing it through to the last gasp.
Clearly, those on the path of salvation will have to sorrow in the process of letting go of their ego and false attachments to the world; but those on the path of redemption will mourn in a different way, hoping and despairing by turns as the world goes through ups and downs that bear painfully on the question of whether God is really committed to, and ‘with’, its horrendous suffering, or he is done with the whole venture, and has retreated into the bliss and inviolate serenity of heaven.
Dostoyevsky has Ivan, in the Brothers Karamazov, say that the suffering in the world is so tragic and indeed obscene, whether deserved or innocent, as to make the whole world process from beginning to end simply not worth it. This sense of each life, and all lives, being in vain, not worth the candle, is the deep pain in the heart that the person on the path of ‘ascent by the human to the divine’ escapes, but which the person on the path of ‘descent by the divine to the human’ embraces. It dogs every step in this world, every deed, every breath. It is real, and authentic. This is why only those who mourn for the fate of the world, deep in the heart, are on the road of redemption.
Salvation= the mystical way of light, and joy; redemption= the existential way of dark, and suffering.
In salvation, God is above us, reaching down, benevolently, to heighten us. In redemption, God is beneath us, dragging us down, violently, to deepen us.
Salvation allows us to put all our hopes in what God will do to elevate humanity; humanity is saved from something bringing it down.
Redemption forces us to put all our hopes in some risk God is taking with humanity, which requires both that the human share the risk, and that the human rise to its summons through self-giving; humanity is redeemed for something fruitful that can only emerge from going through the mire.
We need to amplify the account of salvation, by nuancing the illumination of the early John.
This John was certainly a contemplative, and there is something sublime in all his written statements, but he is a mystic of love; his sublimeness captures God’s love, as it pours out on humans, and raises them to its divine fullness. Thus it is not surprising that the early John was also the most clear sighted, and indeed mystically sighted, in experiencing the divinity of Christ as the Logos of God taking on flesh, ‘the Light that enlighteneth every man who cometh into the world.’ To claim the early John asserts Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity would be a gross distortion of John’s majestic and luminous statements. None the less, the early John realises that ‘Void and Form’ are one in Christ, and this paradox expresses not some inbuilt ontological oneness between Uncreated and created, but rather, a dynamic movement of the love of God towards humanity. No one in Christian tradition, arguably no one in all the world before or since, has mystically described love, as did the early John. The Pantocrator of Greek tradition in the domes of Orthodox churches, like the Jewish Hasidic Master of the Universe’, is not divine instead of being human, but is the divine facilitating the human to ascend to the stature of the divine. The way Christ ‘pulls the human up’ to the divine is possible for all humans, thus the doctrine of ‘divinisation’ in Eastern Christianity= “God became human, so that the human might become God.” This is the mysticism of John, a mysticism of love. It grants to the human a divine-like dignity, freedom, lovingness. It exalts the human.
Salvation can be regarded as in three degrees, like three rungs of a ladder. They are called, purification, illumination, and deification.
 The first rung is practical, ascetical, moral. The divine lifts you out of sins, fallen passions, delusive cravings, unreal fantasies. This is like taking a fish drowning in toxic waters out of them, to dry out in order to expel the poison. It may seem counter intuitive to raise the fish onto land, but without this, the fish dies in its own element. Ascetic and moral yokes, such as the monastics assume, typify this earliest rising up. Greater self-discipline in eschewing what drowns and kills us, and the emergence of virtues that reflect this abstinence and its struggle for truer values, arise at this point. Such is a person of a certain ‘uprightness.’ It does not mean they cannot fall again, but the struggle between going through life flat on their back and standing up is energised in them, and bears fruit of self-restraint, insight, care and kindness.
 The second rung is contemplative, and mystical. Here consciousness itself is raised out of the doldrums of illusion, and thus is awakened, and enlightened, ‘seeing it like it is’ for the first time. A certain stability in the first rung, praktiki, is necessary to attain reliable clarity in the second rung, physiki. If you don’t tackle motive, your ‘consciousness expansion’ can be deceptive, or unreliable. In fact, there are a host of different kinds of contemplative seeing, from seeing the creation in the Light of God, to rising still higher and entering and confronting ‘face to face’ the very Light of God in its Uncreated glory and splendour.
For Evagrios, the direct vision of God who is above and beyond all is the end of the journey, and thus he regards it as the third rung, and names it theologia. The Orthodox monastic tradition does not always stop where Evagrios finishes, but his approach clarifies an important point. All real theology is not speculative, nor rational, but illumined. It has to come from the horse’s mouth. John of the Fourth Gospel was a genuine theologian, but the claims of mere scholars and intellectual philosophers to be theologians should be rejected. Some of these people have not even put a foot on the first rung, much less been transformed in the manner of the second, or the third, rungs. Only the enlightened can talk about the Light and what it lights up. We behold, and bear witness to, what we see with opened eyes.
John Chryssavgis sums up the first and second rungs thus= “Praktiki is the practice of virtues, beginning with repentance. It is the struggle itself against sin in the journey toward purity.. Physiki is the contemplation of nature or the world after perception is sharpened through praktiki. This is the discernment and discovery of God in all creation.”
 The third rung is more often in Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition called the [truly] mystical, to distinguish it from the [merely] contemplative. The divine darkness, and formlessness, of ‘unknowing’ is regarded as the highest mystic experience. The Apophatic is more ultimate than the Cataphatic. That may well be so, but the highest rung on this ladder of ascent is better described as ‘ontological.’ This is where the early John’s vision of Christ becomes realised: by joining our humanity with God, it is ontologically changed from merely human into divine-human. This is not something a human ‘attains’ by necessary and genuine effort, but something God bestows as free grace. Yet, the highest to which salvation can reach is the human Christification, and this is what the Pantocrator on the dome of Orthodox churches depicts. Few mystics will have done more than glimpsed, or touched, this new reality in their experience; it is a reality of the kingdom to come, when all humans will be divine-human, after the pattern of the Christ. St Maximos goes so far as to contend that everything in the creation, human and natural, was created by the divine-human image in God’s heart, and will itself become divinised, after its own manner. The Christ is Alpha and Omega.
This vision of divine love which the early John saw in Christ is almost unparalleled in all the world. Mystics who experience God are certainly rendered ecstatically on fire with God, but such ecstasy is not an ontological change of being in which humanity itself burns with divinity. The ontological change that generates the ‘divine-humanity’ is therefore the crown of the mystical, which exceeds the mystical. This is why Orthodoxy respects God, but also feels on affectionate terms with him, vividly aware of and feeling God’s warmth toward humans, including forbearance toward our ‘failure to hit the mark’ [what ‘sin’ means in Greek]. God calls us paltry humans ‘friends’, co-workers, heirs of his kingdom, inheritors of sonship from the father. But this child comes to share the same nature and energy as the parent, rather than just being a servant under authority. This is mysticism, in a sense, but a mysticism so radicalised, it remains a scandal to Jews and Muslims, who insist on God’s ontological gulf with humans. In the Orient, in contradistinction, merging with God becomes too easy, just a melting, absorbing, fusion, the drop of water going back to the ocean, and this signifies the human disappearing into the divine. What the early John saw in Christ, and participated in, is divinity itself crossing the uncrossable gulf separating it from humanity, in order to give the abundance of the divine to the poverty of the human, but at the same time preserving the human, despite changing its ontology. This is far beyond mercy, or compassion. It is love, the love that raises an inferior to equality with a superior. This is early John’s mysticism, and it remains the highest level of salvation in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Can salvation go farther?
The mysticism of human ontological joining with God is nothing to do with any abstract principle, or impersonal beingness, as ‘deity.’ It is about Someone who loves us so much, he is prepared to bestow upon us ‘as gift’ what only he has ‘by nature.’
The early John was no ordinary mystic, but was given by God to see and taste what lies beyond mysticism, yet completes the whole salvational ascent of the human to the divine.
None the less, when all this is acknowledged, and respected, as it merits, there remains a core truth in Freeman’s differentiation. There is still an ascent in this love, as the divine lifts the human out of its doldrums, pollutions, distortions, and places it in the clasp of divine heights, charismas, clarities, which transform its state of being.
Christ’s redemption might build on, as well as invert, salvation [as Dogen built on, and inverted, the Buddha]; in his earlier mission, Christ teaches, heals, does miracles, in the old salvational pattern which is evident in Buddha but in fact goes back far beyond the enlightened teachers of the Orient to the dawn of humanity. However, in the latter part of his life, Christ enters ‘the room of no exit’, as a Greek described the root meaning of ‘passion’ to me, and his options to save anything or anybody rapidly run out, and more and more he confronts, and is confronted by, the impossible story of redemption. Even Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River prefigures this, but Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem confirms it; the resulting tests and trials, consequent to his challenges to worldly authority [Romans] and to religious authority [Jews], their accusation and the judgement passed on him, torture, and crucifixion, plunge him into the struggle for redemption. Suddenly, the spiritual issue is not about ascent into exaltation, but descent into dereliction; and what is ‘really happening’ changes to what really is at stake for the redemption or loss of the entire world. Christ is suddenly staked to what is at stake for redeeming, he is not rising above anything, and he accepts to be vulnerable to this process of immersion, giving and fighting, and final sacrifice, rather than calling upon his spiritual powers to get him out of it, or to suppress it by force. He rejects ‘power over the other’, and allows himself to become the seed that must die to join the earth, and bring fruition out of the earth. Thus, Christ’s Cross, Descent into Hell, and Resurrection, enacts the new pattern, the almost heyoka clown or holy fool’s reversed pattern of redemption.
Suddenly, the story we were all waiting for actually is real, and we are all on the edge of our seats to see how it will come out. In fact, this story, if you follow Christ’s strange and irrational road through it, invites you off the edge of your seat and into it. In your own context, in your own way, you will walk this road of redemption, becoming the sacrifice that allows others to come through. It will not make sense to you, nor will you be able to do what the philosophers invariably do, subjecting reality to their view on it and deciding what they will accept and what they will repudiate; no, it will be nothing like the philosopher’s picking and choosing, because you will be like the fish that, once dried out and aerated just a bit, is thrown back in to troubled waters, and deeps of existence, where you will be totally in over your head, and so you will proceed by faith– or not at all, as Kierkegaard makes clear. The world does not add up, but redeeming the world adds up even less, and so you will have to make the leap of passion that is true faith. Nothing else will keep you afloat, keep you treading on hard ground. Before, you were moved when you heard about the story; even witnessing it as a concerned bystander is not enough. Now, you are in it, living it, walking its way, and this is not a road that will please any fundamentalist or any mystic. You have faith in Christ, that he went to its farthest reaches, drank its bitter-most dregs to the bottom, and confronted its difficulties and challenges truthfully, from within, and overcame them truthfully, from within. Christ will be with us, in the terror and suffering of the heart, as it plunges down and boldly steps forward; he will help us challenge the worldly and religious authorities, fight for the poor, assert justice for all humans against the wealthy power elites; but he will also help us die on the Cross, and Descend into Hell. This is the only ‘mysticism’ that redemption allows, a mysticism of heart, a mysticism allied with the horrendous battle and journey of the world towards hell, or redemption.
In the ultimate, and as the ultimate, redemption opposes salvation as ‘the final word’ on the human possibility, and its genuine, and final, loss.
Despite the revelations of the later John being a playground for nut cases down the ages, I prefer him to the earlier John, in this one but decisive respect: that he was given to comprehend, in story form, that Christ is not like the Buddha, or other salvational figures; rather he is the crucial player, indeed the long sought for but unknown key to the story of redemption in which everything and everyone is caught up, like it or not. Yes, we can come out on dry land for a spell, but sooner or later we are going to be thrown back in, to deep waters and abysmal fires, and then it is sink or swim. In that extreme position, you will find no mean hearted fundamentalist, nor arrogant mystic, anywhere near you, and certainly not prepared to join hands with you in your predicament, and certainly not prepared to go down all the way with you as you sink, and even die for you, that from this place of ultimate defeat, you can receive the turn around, and rise again with the one who has redeemed you, the Christ.
I would prefer to think, or just to hope, that the earlier John and the later John are indeed one and the same person, but a person whose mind went down into the heart, a person who trod Christ’s peculiar path from the heights offered by salvation into the depths embraced by redemption. It could have been the same John even if the dates are wrong, because maybe he had the vision and did not write it down, but told it to a follower, who wrote it down in his name. Given how oral cultures work, the one and only St John could have had the revelation experience, related it to a follower, who related it to his follower, and so on, until it was written down very much later. It would still have been written in John’s name. That would render the date and style of its writing irrelevant. In that case, the revelations may have been God’s final gift to the disciple who loved Christ, and whom Christ loved– and decided to spare for a reason= to receive this final, and corrective, illuminatory story of redemption.
I can picture the old man on the Greek isle of Patmos, still hoping in salvational dynamics, but knowing from all that he had seen that salvation was not going to work, and in any event was too small and too familiar a scenario to encompass the horror and beauty of the real story he had witnessed. I can picture the heart of the boy who had followed Christ being broken in the old man, because nothing the boy had hoped in from God and his ‘miracle worker’ had come to pass. Yet in old age he would have still remembered the pathos and passion of Christ, piercing his heart as nothing else spiritual or worldly ever could, and I see the older John giving up his boyhood Eros and at last fully taking in the Daemonic truth of God which had played out the decisive act in its story through Christ; and the old man would have tears rolling down his face as he accepted this, creating those deep rents in the faces of the Christlike. In his own tears of reconciliation with the Daemonic, he would have known a little of what Christ went through when he wept blood.
It would have been John’s greatest repentance, like Job’s, for resisting the Way of God that is not our human way, not the way we want it, just the way it is. And then John would realise that the Christ who had so moved him in youth was the Messiah promised to the Jews of old. This is why the revelations which John received, as a final blessing on his love for Christ, came in the old Jewish style of cosmic and world-shaking ‘apocalyptic.’ The Old Testament is punctuated by this highly charged, richly imaginative and densely symbolic, style of storytelling. An ‘apocalypse’ in Hebrew just means a stirring tale in which some aspect of the divine story God is weaving in with the created story of the world’s evolution and history is disclosed to the visionary faculty of the prophet. It is usually a prophet, not simply a mystic, who is the ‘seer’ involved in getting this sort of vision [like the Book of Daniel]. Why is that so? This kind of vision, and the literature it generates, is prophetic because it reveals some fate, or destiny, that is part and parcel of the divine-human story of the world. In these sort of visions the focus is totally on the world, and what heaven is ‘doing’ in and for the world, not on heaven as such; moreover, the world is seen as captive to and hence sunk in evil, but elemental and spirit forces of God violently fight the evil forces, in order to free the world, and to allow the world to come to its full potential.
This is the perfectly serviceable business meaning of ‘redeeming’= you invest in someone and something they are doing, and then you redeem the investment when that person and that action ‘come good’, ‘bear fruit’, or ‘multiply’ the investment. Since the God of the Old Testament is blatantly and unarguably anti-Capitalist, forbidding any sort of usury, all his talk about wanting his investment in humanity to bear yet more, and newer, fruits is very significant, and very ultimate. This is not the language of salvation; it refers to redeeming, to bringing to flowering, and making good on, what God put into humanity. Redemption means that God will not give up on that original investment of potential in us, but will journey and fight, and pay terrible costs, for that potential to come to its full realisation ‘in the end.’
Hence, the old John, coming to terms with the failure and ending of both Jewish fundamentalism and Greek mysticism — Christ was a stumbling block to Jew, and unnecessary to Greek — weeps tears, and in this holy sorrowing, God has mercy, and blesses his visionary capacity, and the revelations come.
The revelation of the story of redemption, which is what Christ’s suffering was geared toward, comes in a cave, to underline the planting of God’s seed and God’s fire in the womb of the earth, to flow and flame from the ground up, going outward. The revelations tell the old John a different story to that which he had originally hoped in when, as a youth, he first met Christ; yet he is comforted, even in the tears making rents down his old face, because the stranger and more complicated, long drawn out, gambling, story is more moving, certainly more dramatic, than anything he had expected when he saw Christ as divinity incarnate in humanity, and thus as the pinnacle of aspiration for all those pressed down under the dark and heavy oppression of the world.
Christ is neither another light on the hill, or helper, of humanity, even the mountain peak of that lineage; he is something stranger, and more terrible. Christ is the Jewish ‘Messiah’; he is the one who does the deed that is needed to shift the game, to bring redemption back on track, and give us all the fighting chance we so desperately need. This is the wild card in the pack.
The old man who as a youth had tried to see into the mystery of love at last, in the weight of old age, is given that vision which he always sought. It comes differently to what he thought he would find, and yet in coming differently, it also reaches back into the old Jewish prophetic vision of the Messiah, ‘the man of deep heart who is coming.’ In Christ, the older John realises through the revelations granted to him, the deep heart has come to the world, binding divine and human together as never before, and as never since.
In the Apocalypse of John, Christ is the sword through whom God brings evil to task, really challenging it and not letting it hide away in the shadowy recesses, but calling it out, and taking it on, especially in its most worldly and powerful manifestations in politics and economics; but Christ is also the Cross that suffers the failure of all humans, and forgives this failure and pays its un-measureable cost, and by this, transmutes failure into truth in the mysterious depths of heart. The depth is the place where hell dwells, but in Christ heaven is planted in, and overcomes hell, in the thick of hell, changing hell itself into the only heaven we humans will ever rejoice in: the heaven born of hell.
Christ becomes the road to the redemption of everything and everyone. He had said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, the Life’, and this refers to the way, the truth, the life, of redeeming the world process, by your own sacrifice, offered in the spirit and by the power of his. Christ’s sacrifice is so everyone, and everything, gets through the narrow gate, the immoveable wall, in the end.
The real victory of Christ in the deep is this inversion of judgement, of good and evil, through the suffering power and vulnerability of love.
Thus, if any go down to the pit, all go down to the pit. Both fundamentalists and mystics need to take to heart this apocalyptic warning, which is the real, and radical, implication of the Revelation that fittingly comes at the end of the Old and New Testaments, ending the Bible.
I like the paradox that the younger John writes Greek sophisticated enough to shame the philosophers, but it is the older John, or his messenger, who writes Greek with a verve and aliveness that recalls the old Jewish heart people, always trapped in hard and impossible situations which can never be mystically escaped and transcended, nor fundamentalist-wise fixed and set right, but must be endured patiently, with fortitude and persistence, yet always in the hope that the Messiah would confirm the point of so much suffering, so much ambiguity, so much conflict, so much non resolution, worldly or spiritual — but just the endless, ongoing struggle. The endless hard slog, the endless fights and the endless journeys, and always some cry and prayer of the deeper heart haunting the attempt to raise the voice of exaltation to the God on high. The old Jews were forced to go deep, even as they tried to ascend; thus, always the perplexity and division over what to follow — Moses or David, the Law or the prophets who took into heart and soul the poetry and grief of existence, and knew God would never judge, or abandon, it finally, but against the odds, would bring it through to a new land of heart.
It is this old yearning, and almost forlorn hope, that the Apocalypse of John answers.
The younger John speaks repeatedly of the fertility of the earth as a symbol of divine life, and it is this divine aliveness coming to full fruition in us, and bearing ‘fruit that will last’, which links the older back to the younger John.
Seven is the mystical number used in the older John’s revelations, to signify completion. The 7 churches of Asia Minor are like the 7 directions of the Sacred Circle– south, north, west, east, earth, sky, centre. Each church is likened to a lamp, and has a protective spirit, likened to a star. A spirit sent by Christ, and conveying his message about ‘what must happen’ in the future, comes to John, so that he can ‘tell all that he saw’ to those who will ‘happily’ receive the prophecy, and ‘heed’ what is revealed in it. Later, as the vision unfolds, Christ appears to John not as priest or prophet, nor wise person, nor healer and miracle worker, nor wandering holy person, but as a warrior chieftain, or warrior king– the main figure of redemption in its fight with the world, for the sake of what heart rules the world. His resurrection is linked to his rulership, for he is described as the ‘first begotten of the dead’, and ‘the prince of all the kings of the earth.’ Resurrection is not about going to heaven after death, it is about being restored to the spiritual passion needed to fight for the redeeming of the world. This resurrected fighting man whom Christ has become is terrifying to John, his hair white like snow, his eyes and feet full of fire, his face bright as the sun, the sound of his words like rushing waters, and a two-edged sword pointedly coming from his mouth. This is the sword of truth, heart truth, which will call to account everyone and everything in the world as to where they stand in relation to it.
The 7 churches get the first blast. Christ speaks of good points but also severe failings. He commends 2 of the churches, including that in Smyrna. He takes to task 5 other churches for betraying their calling to Christ, through things like getting too comfortable in the world by virtue of wealth, and sitting on the fence, ‘neither hot nor cold.’
The blast in these revelations comes from the Daemonic, and tells the churches to step up, and shows them how their non stepping up, and fatally weakened hearts, are seen by the eyes of God. What judgement could be more harsh than that which falls on peoples purporting to follow God? If you follow the Daemonic, you have to stop messing about, and start to stand up. In the fight with evil forces ruling this world, you are needed. ‘Wickedness in high places’ dominates the world, and if you love Christ, you have to be part of his sword that challenges ‘the way the world is run.’
Yes, what happened to him will happen to you.
Yes, to follow him, you will have to go where he went and do what he did.
Yes, when you get to that place, you will experience in fullest impact your inability to rise to the mark, your wasting of life, your failure to do anything of significance for redemption at all. This truth will be bitter to bear, and if you can mourn your incapacity to serve God and humanity, your tears will pour out. Yet, in the place where you can do nothing, where it is check mate, you will be given by the Christ whom you love the power to do the one thing needful, the one thing you must do to make the difference that redemption needs from you, in order to ‘keep on rolling’ ahead. You will be allowed, even in the midst of the ruin of all your fertility and the burning out of all your spark, to make your Give Away, to make your sacrifice, to carry and die on your Cross. You will realise, as you leap into the abyss, this is your life’s great gift, to let it go for Christ. But most people do not follow Christ, and so they don’t test his promise: I will be with you, all the way to the end.
Love is coming, love’s fight and love’s suffering, are coming. In the truth of this, where do any of us stand?
Would God weep over the churches today, as Christ wept over Jerusalem? Or would he laugh? It is not funny that the followers of God are so insincere. Why are the idiots and evil doers making all the noise and all the running?
Yet redemption continues with or without those purportedly its vanguard. It works with whomever wants to work with it, religious or non-religious; in one religion or in a different religion; with realisation or with no realisation of the deep stakes, and deep deeds, being done.
Redemption is not controlled by the churches, nor is it in their power to say yea or nay to it; this is why Christ belongs to all humanity. He is given to us, for the sake of the human predicament. Anyone in that predicament turning to him, knowingly or unknowingly, is his follower. The Christ can be unnamed, or called by many other names; it is the heart relationship in the depth of affliction that matters. Christ is the only one who goes to the dark and abysmal place into which no one else ventures.
Scholars tend to argue that the revelations refer to dramatic events in the Roman Empire at the time. A good case for this interpretation can be made. Insane people, especially those whose insanity has a religious bent, read into this story various dualistic, and escapist, scenarios that have nothing to do with redemption in its heart, its spirit, its power and way of proceeding; and they always try to connect it to whatever present day they are living through. It might be agreed that we should steer clear of this last vision in the Bible, because it is too open to misreading by people of ill will. The imagery is too open to lunatic fantasy.
The story of a final showdown between good and evil is particularly open to misinterpretation. Until these dramatic times, the greater and lesser hearts both co-exist in every person and in the world, mixed up and confused. People don’t know what heart is operative in them, and so easily become paralysed, or deceived, in action. In the apocalyptic time of the end of days, this confusion melts away like the morning mist in the rays of the sun. ‘What is what’ inside us becomes inescapably clear; and even more amazing, the way evil hides behind masks of respectability, lurks in shadows of obscurity, pretends to be what it is not, in worldly affairs, is fully exposed. The mask is ripped away, the shadows pierced by light, the pretence blown to bits, and for almost the first time in the long struggle of history, what is true in heart, and what is at stake for the world, in the battle of divine Truth with the Evil One’s Lie is rendered plain as day. There are no more excuses for us of not knowing what outer forces, and inner impulses, hold the heart in thrall. We know the truth that governs the life of the heart, and so we can make a stand from the heart. In this climate, the Evil One’s game plan, his whispers and seductions, as well as his bullying and tyranny, is also clearly ‘on show’; thus he redoubles his efforts, increases his ferocity, and makes a last ditch fight to prove to God that human beings cannot be redeemed. The crucial factor is not that human hearts have good and evil in them, or greater and lesser standings, which is true for all of us, for no person is without sin, and in this life sin never wholly departs any person. Rather, what matters in the end-fight is that the attraction of, indeed addiction to, the Satanic way is broken in the human heart, individually [inwardly] and collectively [outwardly]. This is achieved by turning to the way of Christ, who is both Sword and Cross, Warrior and Lamb of Sacrifice.
Christ is the Advocate of the Human before God, and his way vindicates the human, warts and all. Satan is the Accuser of the Human, despite his tricks and delusions which seem to flatter and falsely empower us; it is in reality Satan who ‘condemns mankind day and night before God.’
Thus, there is something in the Apocalypse that is significant. We can quibble over the riot of symbolic images which includes harlots, beasts with the number 666, dragons, a woman clothed in the sun, white robes, pits, seven seals of non-permitted knowledge, disasters like plagues and earthquakes to come, white horses, and the rest, but the climax of the narrative provides the key image of redemption, after all the storms. The divinely transfigured earth, the divinely fulfilled history, is ‘the end’; given only in hints and subtle allusions, so we cannot get lazy and smug, the conclusion is that redemption will come through after all.
Yet if you sit back and watch, it may all go to hell in the end, because you did not do enough. Tears flow when we realise how little we have done, and that we can never do enough.
In this sense, the visionary revelation that ends the Bible, Old and New, also ends Vision, even prophetic vision, because it sounds an alarm call, the call to get involved, and do what you are called to do, which is what you will be empowered to do. Everything else you try to do will come to naught. The one thing you find hardest to do, but are called to, you will do.
The Apocalypse of the old visionary ends Vision and begins Action. Now it is the Action of redemption that counts… We have sufficient Vision; what we lack is Action.
What we all lack is passion.
Use this vision of passion’s sufferings and raptures in the world; but also forget it so you can do it, in your own time and place, in your own circumstances and with your personal contribution that is required just there and just then.
Our prayer to God is for a second chance, a final chance, to make what we trust about redemption really tell in our life.
For there are no worse tears than to see, but not act.
Why is salvation not sufficient?
It does not tell a good enough story, and God is a story teller, and a story maker. Salvation does not test God, or humanity, enough, as Satan rightly points out to God in the Book of Job: ‘up the ante, make it more edgy, put it all on the line, and they will repudiate you, and in fact, in their last gasp spit the very adventure of creation back in your face.’ God does not suppress Satan’s challenge, but takes it on, agreeing with its trial. What Christ adds to the story is that God has to be part of this trial, not just humanity.
The Book of Job is the true start point of the Jewish Bible, older than Genesis. Redemption’s story starts with a wager between God and the devil, the Satanic Accuser who condemns, and puts to an arduous test, both God and humanity, expecting their mutual folly to fail. What God is doing with humanity, in redemption, is futile, because humanity is futile. This is the Satanic judgement. God’s trick on the devil is to use human futility as the building block everyone rejects.
Salvation is insufficient for many reasons. Here is a sample.
There have been many saviour figures at work down the ages, all over the world. But the Jews were chosen by God to prepare the way for the one, and only, redeemer figure, the Messiah. Yet it is redemption that is universal, including all persons, creatures, and things, in their singularity and in their togetherness, over the whole span of time, or it has failed. Salvation, by contrast, is inevitably elitist and exclusive, because it can only ever reach a few humans, and this is true whether salvation is crassly stated in fundamentalist terms, or stated in much more enlightened mystical terms.
This creates a paradox rarely noticed. Redemption: from the unique to the all-inclusive. Salvation: from the widespread to the divisive, with some in, and many out.
Because salvation is a common pattern, the uniqueness of Christ is not down to his offering salvation to the world. He is not the best, or the sole, saviour that you must turn to, or be forever jettisoned by God. Christ’s uniqueness belongs only to his mission as Redeemer of the entire world process, from Paradisiacal Garden through Fallen City, to New Garden and New City. If even one person, creature, or thing, is lost to redemption, then God has lost his wager with Satan. God is going for broke, and seeking the redemption of all. Salvation is satisfied with too little, raising only an elect few, or a select band, out of the worldly ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’; redemption transforms that sound and fury into a poetry of grief and fire.
There is something in God mysteriously deep, not just gloriously exalted, and God has elected to make deep, not exalted, the ultimate linchpin, and engine, for what happens to God and happens to his creation ‘in the end.’ The mystical God has height unsurpassable, the existential God has depth unfathomable. A follower of Christ is advised– bow to the exalted, but lean on the deep.
The early John demonstrates that salvational dynamics are not loveless. However, redemptive dynamics ‘cost’ more, and thus require not only God, but also human beings, to love more. Passion is not needed to save and to be saved. Saving requires the letting go of the error that drags us down, and in so far as we are identified with it, this hurts. But redemption pays a greater price, carries a heavier burden, accepts a more severe loss, takes on a greater hardship, suffers a deeper wound, in order to embrace the world process and undergo everything involved in it, as the precondition of having any redemptive impact on it. You must be affected by the world to affect the world. You must be afflicted by what afflicts the world to contribute to it redemptively. Passion is needed to redeem and be redeemed. The mystical God does not need to be at all passionate, the existential God needs to be essentially passionate.
Both salvation, and redemption, manifest God’s love, but it is not salvation, only redemption, that manifests ‘the love supreme.’ Redemption costs more, but gives more.
The extent of what God will do to redeem the world process, and the extent of human co-action to participate in this, is radical.
This generates another paradox rarely noticed. The divine-humanity of Christ, the ontologically changed being of humanness, will not be given to human beings as the climax of salvational ascent; rather, it will be ‘tested and proved’ in redemptive descent, and therefore will be the ‘crown’ bestowed upon the humanity that has been existentially searched out in depth, tested and put on trial, but has come good over the long haul, proved worthy of God’s trust.
The highest of the ontological will only be attained through the deepest of the existential.
Jacob, in his vision, saw a ladder connecting earth and heaven, and he noticed upon it, spirits not only ascending but also descending. Maybe some people are destined to come to God through the path of salvation. Why object to that? This however I will stake my life on= for the vast majority of people who have lived, are alive, and will live, redemption is the only hope. As well as more costly, redemption is far less believable, indeed crazy, irrational, impossible. But it embraces all persons, and it reaches everyone at their point of nadir, from which they cannot rise, morally, ascetically, contemplatively. For those who are stuck, defeated, futile, it is redemption, or nothing.
A pop song once chirped about ‘reasons to be cheerful.’ Here are two.
When Christ said that he came for sinners, not the righteous, he was referring to redemption. The already saved do not need a redeemer. The lost are more clear about the human condition than the saved; they know from their unrelieved and unrelievable suffering that they need a redeemer, and if he does not come, they are truly abandoned to their brokenness, because no salvation of any degree or kind can reach them where they really are, or change them in that place.
Christ, in his action of redemption on the Cross, went to that place where we cry, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Christ goes even to that place. And the ultimate mystery of redemption becomes: out of defeat, the real victory; in the place of final ruin, the real turn around.
Was God ever in two minds?
In Isaiah [62, 1-5], God promises the two aspects of redemption= “You will no more be termed Forsaken, and your land will no more be termed Desolate.” God says “you will be vindicated”, and “your land married” [to divine indwelling].
In another part of Isaiah [43, 1-7], the God who is betting on humanity coming through speaks very directly to us, of the love he bears us, and the passion he has for us that we will, against all the odds, win through, and win for everybody and for everything, for all time. It is fitting this statement is addressed to Jacob, who fought with God, both losing and winning the night long battle by the fast flowing river of time. This forged Jacob to father all the people who will fight the world, for the sake of the world’s good outcome.
But now thus says Yahweh, he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you: they will not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame will not consume you.
For I am Yahweh your God.”
In Psalm 65, 10-12 [Septuagint], David declares=
“For Thou, O God, hast proved us;
Thou hast tried us as silver is tried.
Thou didst bring us in to the trap;
Thou didst lay afflictions on our backs;
We passed through fire and water,
But Thou hast brought us to revival.”
Revelation, 21, 1, 4-5=
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth..
And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat on the throne said, behold, I make all things new.”