Finding Jesus in the book of Revelation

This week I am intensely engaged with the book of Revelation. The Adventist Church in Utrecht has organized a series of seminars on the theme: Finding Jesus in the Book of Revelation. The speaker is Dr. Steve Case, the leader of an independent Adventist organization in the United States that focuses primarily on youth activities. But Steve is versatile. He also teaches in the DMin program at Andrews University (Berrien Springs, USA), and, in addition, he conducts at least 3 or 4 times a year a seminar of 8 to 10 lectures on the last book of the Bible. This week such a lecture series takes place in Utrecht. People can attend the lectures physically in the Adventist church building in Utrecht, but the lectures are also streamed and they can be seen afterwards on YouTube. I have translated the material that Steve Case uses into Dutch, and have also been asked to translate the speaker simultaneously during all the sessions. A tough job, I can assure the reader of this blog, because the speaker keeps up a good pace, and each lecture takes at least an hour and a half.

Programs on the book of Revelation are a regular part of the church menu in the Adventist denomination. But Steve Case’s approach differs significantly from what you’ll hear in a typical “Revelation seminar.” This is immediately apparent from the title. The goal is to learn more about Jesus Christ through a study of Revelation. Usually, Revelation seminars focus on explaining how the prophecies of this last book of the Bible have been fulfilled over 20 centuries of history–since the first coming of Christ–and on what the period shortly before Christ’s return will be like. But Steve Case chooses a different angle. He maintains one should first try to understand what Revelation meant to Christians in the first century, when John, under inspiration, wrote down the message he had received from God and sent it to seven Christian congregations in Asia Minor. From that starting point, one must then try to discover what this message might mean for us personally, and for the community of faith of which we are members in the 21st century. Those who come to listen to Case, expecting to hear mostly about the significance of the scary beasts that are portrayed in Revelation, and who want to know more about spectacular predictions for the time of the end, may be disappointed. The next few days will not be about the misdeeds and theological errors of the Roman Catholic Church, nor about America’s role in the end times. Case keeps pointing out that the title of the book of Revelation indicates very clearly what its core is: The last book of the Bible, according to the first verse of the first chapter, is the “revelation of Jesus Christ.” Thereby the word “of” can indicate both that this Revelation comes from Christ, but very definitely also that it is a Revelation about Christ. Hence, the title of this week’s series of lectures is: FINDING JESUS IN THE BOOK OF OPENBARING.

Does Steve Case thereby deviate from the traditional Adventist interpretation of the book of Revelation? Yes, definitely! But he does not do so by shooting at that traditional interpretation. He simply looks at the text. What did it mean to the people at the end of the first century AD and how do those words have meaning for us? It is not primarily about knowing more about history or being able to construct a detailed timeline for the end times, but about whether we may gain a closer relationship with Christ.

I feel very comfortable with this approach. In the course of my working life in the Adventist Church, I have shifted quite a bit with respect to the interpretation of the books of Daniel and Revelation. This is true of many Adventist ministers, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In order not to cause too much of a stir, many prefer to remain silent rather than continue to defend all kinds of aspects of the traditional explanation that they have since left behind.

A number of years ago I took an extensive look at the developments in Adventism with regard to the interpretation of Daniel and Revelation . This resulted in a lecture at a meeting of the European Association of Adventist Theologians in Rumania in April 2011, which I edited into an article for the theological journal SPES CHRISTIANA last year (vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 5-24). I concluded that there is certainly a shift in the interpretation of the two books of the Bible, which from the beginning had such a special place in Adventist thinking and the Church’s proclamation of the faith. While it is true that the official church continues to insist on the so-called historical explanation, and that this approach can still be found in recent church publications, most authors have become much more cautious in their direct applications to historical persons and organizations. (Unfortunately, this is not true of several speakers and organizations on the fringes of the church. Their publications and the power points of their lectures can be immediately recognized by depictions of papal tiaras and hideous many-headed monsters.)

Steve Case has taken an approach with which I wholeheartedly agree. No doubt, however, some will raise an eyebrow. Was everything we said about the book of Revelation in the past wrong? Isn’t there more to say about Revelation than we will hear in the lectures being held this week in Utrecht? Perhaps there is. But finding Jesus in the book of Revelation is the most important thing of all. I hope that many participants this week will discover things in Revelation that will enrich them spiritually. To that goal I am happy to contribute.

Optimism, positivity and hope

Optimism and positivity are important qualities. But are these concepts fully synonymous? And do they, in fact, mean the same as hope? In publications of the Dutch Adventist Church one finds, in the last decade or so, many articles on optimism and positivity. This was also the case in the most recent issue of ADVENT, which had positivity as its over-all theme. Browsing through recent issues of ADVENT I noticed that optimism and positivity were repeatedly emphasized.

I guess I can place myself in the category of optimists. Whether that optimism is always justified is another matter. A pessimistic attitude toward life does us no good, nor is it pleasant for others around us. Optimism reflects a tendency to see things in a positive light, expecting most things to turn out well. Optimism helps us to be, and remain, motivated.

Positivity may go a step further than optimism. Not everything that defines our lives is positive, but fortunately a lot is not negative either. A predominantly positive outlook undoubtedly promotes happiness in life. However, many people, unfortunately, see everything in a negative light and this feeds dissatisfaction and unhappiness. On the other hand, there are many who often close their eyes to reality. They tend to be “cherry-picking”-i.e., taking into account only the things that fit their positive pictures. (Oddly enough, in the Corona era the term “positive” took on a different connotation: a positive test is, in fact, negative news and indicates that the virus has struck!)

Christians certainly have reason to be optimistic and positive, but optimism and positivity are not uniquely Christian virtues. They have more to do with character than with faith. That is why I rather dislike the heavy emphasis on optimism and positivity in our denominational publications. For Christians, these are rather superficial concepts, and hope is much more meaningful. Optimism and positivity have their roots in ourselves. Christian hope, on the other hand, has Jesus Christ, and what He does for us, as its reference point.

Even when there is no reason for optimism, and we are surrounded by negative circumstances, there is hope. This is the Christian assurance of the gospel that must not be diluted into optimism and positivity–however praiseworthy and pleasant these qualities may be. The hope God gives us goes far beyond this. It is not anchored in our own character traits, in who and what we are ourselves, or in people around us, but in the Person of Christ (Heb. 6:19). Biblical hope is not synonymous with the optimistic notion that everything will eventually work out, but is based on the belief that God will fulfill his promises to us–now and beyond this life. Let us never forget, in our emphasis on optimism and positivity, that Christian hope must prevail.

The “mother of all facts”

Christ’s resurrection is a fact of irrefutable historicity: a group of people, who were totally exasperated after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, became convinced that Jesus had risen and that they should no longer seek the Living One among the dead (Luke 24:5). Some might say, as we mentioned earlier, that this conviction was based on a cleverly concocted conspiracy or a collective hallucination. But another explanation, namely that the resurrection actually happened, sounds far more reasonable and credible. Let me quote a few lines from a book about Jesus by the evangelical author Philip Yancey, who catches the amazing development in a few powerful sentences: “That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went into martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome fierce opposition, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome—this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection.”

N.T. (Tom) Wright put it succinctly in these words: “The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that was not firmly anchored in fact.” Many other authors have stressed the same point. What made a man like Peter who, in Jesus’ darkest hour had avowed that he did not even know the man who was arrested and tried by the Jewish elite, change into the apostle who, only a few weeks later, told a large multinational, multicultural crowd in Jerusalem that Christ was alive? What convinced the doubting Thomas that the Lord was truly risen and gave him the courage to become a missionary to India, where even today some four million “Thomas Christians” are a testimony to his radical conversion? Not all ancient traditions are reliable, but there is good reason to think that most, if not all, of the original apostles, except John (who for a number of years was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos, which in Roman days certainly was not a holiday resort), met a martyr’s death. What propelled them to pursue a career that would end in opposition, torture and ignominious death? How do we explain that James, one of the half-brothers of Jesus, became a prominent leader in the early church, while a little earlier he had flatly rejected Jesus’ ministry? (John 7: 5; Acts 15:14-21). The explanation lies in the extraordinary, undeniable Easter event.

This is echoed by a rather unexpected voice, namely that of the Jewish theologian and Israeli historian Pinchas Lapide (1922-1997). He did not become a Christian, but he did firmly believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. It is, he said, the only explanation for the origin and further rise of Christianity. He confronts his readers with these pressing questions: “How can it be explained that, against all plausibility, his adherents did not finally scatter, were not forgotten, and that the cause of Jesus did not reach its infamous end at the cross?” In other words: “How did it nevertheless come about that the adherents of Jesus were able to conquer the most horrible of disappointments, that Jesus, despite everything, became the Savior of the Church, although the predictions were not fulfilled and the longed-for Parousia did not take place?”

Lapide concluded that the explanations of many resurrection-denying theologians fail miserably to explain “the fact that the solid hillbillies from Galilee . . . were changed within a short period of time into a jubilant community of believers.” He continued: “When this scared, frightened band of the apostles, which was just about to throw everything away in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when the shepherds, peasants, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their Master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”

Philip Yancey totally agrees: “Surely the disciples would not lay down their lives for the sake of a cobble-together conspiracy theory.”

The above paragraphs are talken from my book about the resurrection: I Have a Future: Christo’s resurrection and mine (Grantham, UK: Stanborough Press,2019, pp. 79-81.

100 zetabytes

The inhabitants of Zeewolde (the place in the Netherlands where I have now lived for about 13 years) realize more than ever that they are part of a digital world. The recent municipal elections have everything to do with that. Meta–the parent company of Facebook–made a deal with the Zeewolde administration to build in our town the largest data center in Europe. Part of the more than 160 hectares of land needed for this purpose is already in Meta’s possession. In the recent municipal elections the construction of this gigantic data center was the main issue. The two parties which were strongly opposed to it emerged as the glorious winners of the elections, and they are now doing all they can to reverse the deal with Meta. It remains to be seen how this will develop. Meta has called for a pause in the process.

Data centers have a lot in common with airports, wind turbines and large fields of solar panels. Most of us realize that they are part of our current world. These things have to be somewhere, but we don’t want them in our back yard. However, data centers are here to stay and most of us, whether we realize it or not, use them on a daily basis.

I got my first computer in 1987. It was a desktop IBM clone from the Far East. The church office in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, where I was working at the time, had bought a load of these devices. To say that they were high-maintenance would be a formidable understatement. At first, they did not yet have a hard disk and all data had to be stored on separate 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. The next version, that soon came along, had a storage capacity of (if I remember correctly) 2 megabytes (2 million bytes). I am writing this blog on a MacBook Air that is over three years old. This already somewhat outdated device has a storage capacity of 250 GB (equal to 250,000 megabytes). That may seem like a lot, but I recently had to deal with a serious lack of space and decided to reduce the number of emails that is stored on my hard disk from about 35,000 to “only” 8,000.

We have become accustomed to producing a lot of data. Our i-phones hold hundreds or even thousands of photos. We constantly watch YouTube videos, which of course have to be stored “somewhere”. Often without knowing exactly what they mean, people talk about the “cloud,” where they keep most of their data. Many people (probably also in Zeewolde) do not realize that this “cloud” is not above us in the atmosphere, but has the form of big warehouses full of computers: the so-called data centers.

Perhaps the politicians in my hometown can postpone the arrival of the data center for a while, but we are dealing with a global development that is no longer under our control. In total there are now about eight thousand data centers worldwide, which together consume a gigantic amount of electricity and produce huge amounts of heat. The latter is, in particular, a problem that my hometown has not yet thought through properly. The administration of our town does not yet know what they are going to do with all that heat.

The amount of digital info that needs to be stored somewhere is rapidly increasing every year. In 2010 it amounted to 2 zetabytes. Now–just a dozen years later–the amount of data to be stored has grown to about 100 zetabytes. I was shocked when I tried to get an idea via Google of how much that is. A zetabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. One zetabyte is equal to 1,000 exabytes, one billion terabytes, or one trillion gigabytes.

The amount of data to be stored continues to grow exponentially. Every day in our world we send over 300 billion emails and 500 million tweets. Within a few years, it will be twice what it is today. The number of data centers will also continue to grow at a steady pace. Human beings have unleashed something that is out of their control. We do know that much of these data has, in fact, no value, and that we–to put it bluntly–are storing an infinite amount of garbage.

Involuntarily, while writing this blog, I was reminded of a text in Psalm 147, where God is described as the Administrator of the perfect data center of the universe. “Great is our Lord and supreme, his understanding is beyond measure.” (vs. 5). “He determines the number of the stars; He calls them all by their names” (vs. 4). An Australian study concluded that the number of stars in the universe is 70,000 million million million (that is: 70 with 22 zeros). God alone knows the exact number, and He knows them all by name. People often think that human technology and knowledge has no limit. But it doesn’t amount to much, compared to the “unmeasurable insight” of the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.

Migrants as missionaries

The Netherlands is preparing for the arrival of at least 50,000 Ukrainians, and possibly even double or multiple that number. Meanwhile, people of other nationalities continue to come to our country, hoping to be recognized as asylum seekers and to get the opportunity to build a new existence here. The movement of large groups of immigrants, and all the challenges associated with this, is a worldwide phenomenon of all ages. In the past the Netherlands had to deal, time and time again, with the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. One of the largest groups that ever had to be accommodated were the Belgians who fled to the Netherlands during the First World War, when their country was at war while The Netherlands had remained neutral. Their number was more than one million, while our country had “only” about five million inhabitants at the time.

Large-scale migration changes the demographics of a region or a country. This has been the case in the Netherlands since the Germanic tribes “invaded” our country via the Rhine two thousand years ago. Over the centuries, all kinds of new groups followed, including significant numbers of Jews and Huguenots. In the last half century, people from the former colonies (Indonesia, Suriname and the Antilles) arrived, along with hundreds of thousands of guest workers from southern Europe. The fact that there are two Polish supermarkets in the place where I presently live indicates that the migration phenomenon has not by-passed my hometown, with a population of about 22,000.

I am currently writing a review of a book in which migration plays a very important role. It emphasizes that, worldwide, migration has been a major factor in shaping the course of history. However, the author (see below) of this fascinating, but rather complicated and detailed, book is mainly concerned with one particular aspect of migration. His thesis is that the spread of Christianity owes more to migration than to the formal mission activities of churches and religious organizations, and to political and military factors. When people–alone or (usually) in groups or as a whole nation–move to another region, they take their religious beliefs with them. In ancient times, it was often Christian slaves or prisoners of war who ensured that the gospel reached places where it had not penetrated before. Constant migration ensured that the Christian faith did not assume the same form everywhere and that theological differences could also spread. Migration, according to this book, therefore had consequences not only for the geographical distribution of the Christian faith, but also for a growing diversity of rites and theological views.

In the Netherlands we have seen how in many places migration has altered the religious landscape of an area. The Bijlmer (South-East Amsterdam) is perhaps the most striking example of this. When Joop den Uyl, as one of the aldermen of Amsterdam, was in charge of planning for this new district, he believed that no land needed to be reserved for church buildings. After all, we were on the eve of a totally secularized world, in which people would no longer go to church. But now, some sixty years later, this part of Amsterdam is the most religious place in the entire country! The immigrants who came mainly from Suriname and the Antilles, but also from Africa and elsewhere, made sure of that.

What religious impact the arrival of large numbers of Ukrainians cannot be predicted. It is possible that this will at least strengthen the Greek Orthodox element in our religiously diverse country. Much will depend on whether many Ukrainians will live among us for the long term or even permanently.

For the worldwide Adventist community, migration is undoubtedly a determining factor. In many countries, members who have come from outside the country’s borders are in the majority. This is particularly the case in the United States, and this trend is likely to continue. In many European countries, the Adventist Church would have declined in membership had it not been for migration. Tp say yhat this has not created any problems would be a denial of the facts, but the arrival of church members from other areas has allowed the church to still grow a little or at least remain stable in terms of its membership. Moreover, this migration has resulted in greater diversity and in many places also in a new vitality of church life. The thesis of the author of the book I am to review, that the spread and the growth of the church owes more to migration than to institutionally directed missionary actions, has, at least for some decades, also been true for Adventismin the Netherlands.

Jehu J. Hanciles, Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI (USA): Eerdmans, 2021)