When it comes to reading the Bible, Genesis might be a good place to stop. The Book of Revelation might make a nice beginning. As contemporary readers of the Scriptures, we may be tempted to read the Bible as we read other modern books, applying our scientific and evolutionary categories to a text that does not share these concerns. While the scientific parts of our minds most comfortably deal with provable facts and figures, the parts of our brains conditioned to think in evolutionary terms like to imagine that “newer” is better, “older” not so much. In misreading the stories of creation and the end times, we run the risk of missing not only what they tell us about our beginning and our end but also what they reveal about our present situation in our ongoing relationship with God.
We have trouble making sense of the way in which Genesis (and the rest of the Old Testament, for that matter) is meant to be taken as a history since much of it cannot be “proven,” and in many places it contradicts itself (e.g., Genesis presents two very different accounts of creation). Moreover, we like to treat the Scriptures like we might treat a history textbook, as a repository of facts (e.g., George Washington was six feet tall.) We get frustrated with Scripture when God, as in Genesis 2, seems considerably less than omniscient. “What do you mean,” we ask the Bible. “How come God did not know the animals would not be adequate companionship for the man?” How could Adam and Eve have hidden from God in the Garden, if God knows all? Perhaps, we conclude, these writers of Genesis were primitive in their understanding of God, and so we dismiss the incongruities.
Additionally, because we are conditioned to think of the passage of time in terms of ever improving, linear progression, we may be tempted to read this assumption about history into our interpretation of Scripture. In other words, we might assume that the beginning of the Bible exclusively treats “the beginning” and, likewise, the end treats “the end.”
I would like to draw two things from these observations: first, the creation stories from the Bible do not work like we want them two, and secondly, the stories about the beginning are also stories about the end, and vice versa. Biblical creation accounts, and there are more than those contained in Genesis, differ from our expectations on four accounts. First, they must be read as a process modeled on human/natural activity. Secondly, the end product must be seen as a fully organized human society, rather than a the material starting point. Thirdly, the dramatic manner of reporting the events of creation (and of the ‘end times,’ for that matter) differs from our fact based accounts of history. Lastly, readers should judge the plausibility of the accounts using a criterion of truth based in dramatic plausibility. In other words, is it an engaging story?
In scripture, the relationship between eschatology (the branch of theology treating the destiny of all things in God) and creation is a close one. Revelation 19 and the creation accounts in the Pentateuch share imagery, motifs, and language. Additionally, it will be helpful to know that any people attempting to understand their present situation will reflect on the past and, at the same time, imagine their future situation. Moreover, a reflection on the past will contain the elements of possible, perfect future. It is in this sense that Genesis can be read as the end, while Revelation makes for a nice beginning. A brief comparison of Revelation 19-22 with the some of the creation accounts from the Pentateuch will bring to the fore some of the concepts noted above.
Considerable lengths of time and intricate processes make up both accounts of creation and the end times. Although there was a beginning and there will be an end, both ‘events’ take place figuratively over long spans of time, encompassing many generations. If we read the entire Pentateuch (Eden to Canaan) as a creation story, we see many genealogical lists enumerating the generations from Adam through Abraham and onward. Genesis 5 delineates those from Adam to Noah with several members of the family living seven, eight, and even nine centuries. Rather than being astonished at Methuselah’s numerical age, we should understand that this list serves, among other purposes, to give a sense of the length of time involved in the creation of the people of Israel. Likewise, in Revelation 20, an angel throws “that ancient serpent” into a pit for a thousand years, beginning the reign of Christ on earth. We are not meant to set our watches by this length of time; we are to understand that the end, much like the beginning, is a process carried out over a long time.
During this expansive length of time, a dramatic process unfolds, a battle of wills between the forces of God and the agents of evil. Both the beginning and the end of the scriptures contain a vivid cast of both sordid and savory characters: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the people of the city with a tower in it, Noah, Abraham, and Lot. The process at the end unfolds, likewise, within a narrative about a battle between an angel on a white horse and a dragon, “who is the Devil and Satan.” In both cases, God is victorious and successful, although there are reasons in the narrative for consternation. Readers are invited to wonder whether or not the people in Genesis 11 will hole up in their tower rather than spread “over the face of all the earth.” Likewise, we are engaged by the battle scene in Revelation 20:7-10, rooting against the wicked Gog and Magog. Being engaged by these dramatic stories, contemporary readers of scripture are more able to place themselves in the expanse of time in a world where good and evil are at odds. More importantly, as readers find themselves in the their present situations in reading about the beginning and the end, they encounter the same God at work, the same God who works to bring Noah to dry ground, the same God who flings Satan into the fiery pit. In other words, we encounter a faithful God who is very active in our current situation.
A final point of comparison will emphasize the nature of the final product of God’s creation. In both the beginning and the end, God creates or provides a world replete with abundant resources and a fully conceived culture. In the case of Genesis, God gives the garden with all manner of living thing for man and woman’s sustenance. In Revelation, God makes a “new heaven and a new earth,” containing within it “the new Jerusalem.” The New Jerusalem is a complete city with walls, streets, and, more importantly, a river, which nourishes the tree of life. The tree of life, an image shared by both Genesis and Revelation, alludes to the life-giving, future oriented nature of the product God has made. The end represented in Revelation is not the end of history, time, and space. In the same way, the beginning represented in Genesis is not merely the setting in motion of the mechanical laws of the universe. Readers who might not be engaged by the cold spinning up and winding down of the universe are certainly drawn to God’s promise that “there will be no more night…for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” In fact, so powerfully do the scriptures engage us with stories about the beginning and the end, we might be tempted to believe that God works even in the here and now.