Thursday, November 14, 2013

A fate worse than death

9 And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. 2 He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. 3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them (Rev 9:1-6).
In what sense did death elude the unbelievers?
i) Beale thinks they wanted to die, but lacked the willpower to commit suicide. That's possible. Someone may flirt with a death wish, yet he can't screw up the courage to go through with it.
One reason for the psychological tension is that a sufferer doesn't really want to end his life. Rather, he wants to end the pain (be it physical or psychological), and ending his life is the only way of ending the pain. So there's a conflict between unbearable pain and the fear of death. 
On this interpretation, the sufferer is able, but unwilling to die. The decision lies with him. 
ii) But in context, that's not the most likely interpretation. Seems more like they are willing, but unable to die. They were tormented just short of death. If they were free to kill themselves, that would defeat the purpose of the torment. That would be their out. They'd be able to shorten the torment on their own terms. But the context speaks against that. 
In this case, they won't die, not because they exercise self-restraint, but because something or someone restrains them. They won't die, not because they can't bring themselves to end their life, but because they can't bring it about. What they lack is not the resolve, but the ability. 
We can speculate on what that scenario envisions. Captives can be under physical restraints. Chained. Strapped to a table or chair. Or their quarters may have nothing they can use to commit suicide. The proverbial padded cell. 
iii) Another even grimmer possibility is that they can kill themselves, but they can't stay dead. They are revived against their will. A partial parallel would be the Beast, who dies, but returns to life. 
On that scenario, even death is no escape, for even if they succeed in ending their life, they will be brought back to life to suffer again. A vicious  cycle.
iv) This invites a comparison with the "second death," which is John's paradoxical description for eternal punishment. There is a fate worse than death: where life is unbearable, but you just go on existing. If this historical, but temporary punishment (vv5-6), is worse than death, then unending eschatological punishment will exacerbate rather than ameliorate that condition. (BTW, that's a problem for annihilationism.)
v) Finally, what kind of event does this foresee? It's easy to think of examples in which the faithful are tormented by their persecutors. But examples in which the persecutors experience the torment they usually exact on the faithful don't come as readily to mind. Moreover, this isn't just a case of turning the tables. For the persecutors don't merely suffer–they are impotent to end their pain through suicide.
The fall of Rome led to some Romans dying at the hands of the invaders. But that was a quick, violent death. Of course, we must make allowance for the symbolic and hyperbolic nature of apocalyptic language.
In terms of modern analogues, secular regimes begin by rounding up the faithful. Consigning them to gulags. Or resorting mass extermination.
However, having eliminated the faithful (or at least driven the church underground), secular regimes turn on their own. Secular regimes become increasingly oppressive, capricious, and sadistic. In a Kafkaesque scenario which often plays out in real life, no citizen, even a loyal party member, is ever safe. 
But it's also possible that John envisions some as-yet future calamity. Something for which there is no historical precedent.  

1 comment:

  1. Pastorally, how do you recommend addressing people who struggle with the weight of eternal suffering? Both Christians and non-Christians find this troubling. I know some Christians who accept this doctrine as true, but still find it discomforting, especially if they have friends or family who seem to have died without saving faith. (In at least one sense, I assume such discomfort is normal and appropriate, given what eternal condemnation signals about the gravity and nature of sin.)