Excerpts from Upside Down Apocalypse. Herald Press 2022

Another book on Revelation? I know. I know. Everyone from Isaac Newton — yes, the guy who discovered gravity — to Nicholas Cage has taken a stab at interpreting this letter, often with disastrous consequences. Revelation, it seems, gives us an opportunity to exchange the peaceful Jesus of the Gospels for one we might prefer in a jam. A Jesus more like John Wayne, perhaps. After all, doesn’t Revelation tell us that the Jesus of Sunday worship will one day return on a white horse, splattered Rambo-like in blood, wielding a claymore against his enemies? It’s true, the writer of Revelation does employ violent imagery in all kinds of provocative ways, but to what end? To overturn the Jesus of the Gospels? To replace the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with one remade in the image of John Wick? If the Jesus of our future hope bears little resemblance to the Jesus who walked through ancient Palestine, then we should at least question whom it is we really call Lord.

Of late, however, there seems to be a sort of renaissance of Jesus-centered interpretation. A recapturing of Jesus as the Word of God in history that helps us make sense of the words of God in the pages of Scripture. And this is particularly helpful when it comes to Revelation. If we can assume that the writer John has encountered the same Jesus that we have in the Gospels, and has discovered no other Jesus along the way, then we can choose intentionally and deliberately to read Revelation through the lens of Jesus’ life and teachings. This is what opens us up to properly understanding the nonviolent apocalypse.

All of this is more than just a question of biblical interpretation, though. There is practical importance to how we understand a book like Revelation. The lens we choose to read the Scriptures through informs our imagination of God, and our imagination of God shapes how we act in the world.

Will we take up the challenge of climate change and work to repair the damage we have done to the environment, or will we instead give in to apocalyptic fantasies of a world abandoned to despair? Will we choose to vote for a politic that seeks to lift the oppressed and addresses structural sin, or will we prefer to train ourselves to look for enemies behind every corner? Will we place our hope in a world where all nations maintain diverse identities and worship together equally, or will we choose foreign policy that dominates, exploits, and continues our colonial legacy? Will we face down global challenges with courage and solidarity, acting in our neighbor’s best interest, or will we dive into speculative resignation, misinterpreting signs and symbols that hint at sinister ulterior motives? In each of these scenarios, what we believe about God will lead us to choices that either continue the story of Jesus — or betray his legacy in the world. My contention is that Revelation, when read through the lens of the Gospels, will help us uncover the prophetic hope that saves us from nihilistic despair. The Apocalypse will reveal a God so deeply invested in the renewal of all things that the story will push us back into the world with new eyes to uncover the divine in our neighborhoods, our politics, and even the cosmos. As Jesus once said, you are the salt of the ground beneath your feet, and the light of the cosmos above your head (Matthew 5:13 – 14). That’s the heart, and scope, of the upside-down apocalypse, but it begins by rooting our reading of Revelation in the gospel of peace.

So how does a book about a red dragon, a lamb covered in blood, and a beast with seven horns and ten crowns speak to the divine love we see so clearly in Jesus? That’s where the community of Christ comes in. Interpreting Revelation alone, you and I will probably come up with readings as diverse as the two of us. Add in more people, get more interpretations. But together, sharing the wisdom and insight of the larger community, the historic collection of people who have followed the way of Jesus and studied the book of Revelation, we can find our way back to the clarity of good news, even in this difficult text. I spent a couple of years studying Revelation in grad school. I even wrote a (long, boring) thesis about it that serves as the backbone of this book. In that research, I discovered academic after scholar after mystic who saw in Revelation a vision of the peace of Christ, not in contrast to the Gospels, but in tension with the violence of the world that surrounds us. There may not be much perspicuity in Revelation, but in holding tight to the clarity of the Gospels paired with research that illuminates the context of this ancient apocalypse, I think we can see Christ clearly here as well. This unveiling of the world was written to church communities under immense pressure — economic, social, political, and religious — and some of the people reading this letter in the first century were acutely aware of all that pressure. They saw what was happening around them, the way the empire wanted them to conform to a counterfeit version of peace. And they fought to hold on to their imagination of the peace of Christ. Others, though, didn’t feel the weight at all. They didn’t see it or perceive it. They didn’t realize how they were being shaped by a story different from the way of Jesus. And John works creatively and deliberately to wake them up to what really was. To unveil it all to them. And maybe also to us.

Jeremy Duncan

Jeremy Duncan is founding pastor of Commons Church in Calgary, Alberta, one of the fastest growing church plants in Canada. He lives in Calgary with his partner Rachel, their two adopted kids, and their dog. Jeremy holds a Bachelor of Theology and received a Master of Arts in Biblical/​Theological Studies, for which he wrote about nonviolence and the work of René Girard.