Revelation and the “alter-empire” of Christ

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This monograph addresses the question, “How does Revelation interact with the Roman Empire?” As the subtitle suggests, it contributes especially to empire studies, which have typically offered the response that Revelation is anti-Rome or anti-imperial. However, Shane J. Wood argues that, although Revelation draws on the “sovereign narrative” of the Roman Empire, it does so to construct an “alter-empire.” By “alter-empire,” Wood seems to have in mind (although this is never stated explicitly) an empire centered upon Christ and his death, constructed over against an enemy far greater than Rome: the Dragon, Satan.

This is the opening paragraph of a recent review of a book which I haven’t read. The book is The Alter-Imperial Paradigm: Empire Studies and the Book of Revelation, by Shane J. Wood (Leiden: Brill, 2016). The review is by Joshua J. Coutts and is published in the SBL Review of Biblical Literature. You have to be a subscriber to read the whole thing.

I highlight it because it lends support (albeit limited support) to one of the more controversial aspects of the general argument that I am putting forward here—that a significant part of New Testament eschatology aims at the “second horizon” of the overthrow of classical paganism, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of Greek-Roman world, and the inauguration of a new empire. Here are a few thoughts on the matter, by way of clarification.

1. The anti-pagan, and ultimately anti-Roman, message is not confined to the book of Revelation. It is evident (probably) in Mark 1:1, in Acts 17, Romans 1, the Christ “hymn” of Philippians 2, the parousia motif, the apocalyptic collision envisaged between Christ and the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2, and elsewhere.

2. I argue in The Coming of the Son of Man that the apocalyptic narrative of Revelation follows the conventional pattern of judgment on Israel (chapters 6-10), which is the first horizon of New Testament eschatology, followed by judgment on the enemies of God’s people (chapters 13-19). The vision is not just anti-imperial.

It is the prediction that the God of Israel would set up his own rule over the old pagan empire that binds the New Testament to the real political existence of the church in the age to come—as opposed to the ideal fiction of modern theologies.

3. The “alter-empire” (“alter” is Latin for “other”; cf. “alter ego”) thesis is important because it assists the construction of a hermeneutical causeway between scripture and the subsequent history of the church. The church has traditionally deferred eschatological outcomes, on the assumption that what Jesus and the apostles had in view were not in-history events but end-of-history events. I think that approach is regrettable for our understanding both of scripture and of (the God of) history. It is the prediction that the God of Israel would set up his own rule over the old pagan empire, which has its roots in the Old Testament, that binds the New Testament to the real political existence of the church in the age to come—as opposed to the ideal fiction of modern theologies.

4. The anti-imperialism of Revelation is not primarily socio-political but theological. It is the blasphemous character of the beast of Roman imperialism that is so offensive. As Paul argues in Romans 1:18-32, everything else—first, sexual immorality, then the wider spectrum of relational hurts and social injustices—stems from the original idolatry of the Greeks, on account of which the wrath of God was coming on that world.

5. How Wood develops the “alter-empire” theme is unclear from the review. I suspect that he does not pursue the historical application very far. My argument, however, would be that the biblical narrative leads us to expect an empire of YHWH, with Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords, to replace the supreme imperial oppressor of God’s people. This, finally, would be the establishment of the kingdom of God.

6. The idea that the alter-empire is “centered upon Christ and his death”, if that is what Wood thinks, seems to me to be wrong. The suffering of Christ and of his followers constitutes the method by which the coming rule of YHWH over the nations would be achieved. But that rule, when it came, would be centred on the reign of the resurrected, exalted and glorified Christ at the right hand of God in the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Rev. 20:6).

7. I think that the separation of Rome from the far greater enemy which is “the Dragon, Satan” is misleading. Yes, Rome was inspired by Satan, but Satan’s operations were terminated immediately after the downfall of Rome and the victory of the Word over the hostile nations:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev. 20:1–3)

This removes the option of universalizing “empire” as a necessarily destructive form of government. It is the particular clash between pagan Rome and the community that bore faithful witness to a new political future that is at issue. Such terms as “empire of Christ” or “empire of God” are theologically acceptable. The early church could not have opposed Constantinianism on the basis of the book of Revelation.

As I said, a controversial aspect of the narrative-historical thesis….

If anyone has actually read the book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Samuel Conner | Fri, 06/07/2019 - 11:29 | Permalink

Thanks; this is helpful.

Am curious whether, the “reign for a thousand years”  vision is amenable to the interpretation that the author of Revelation anticipated that the socio-political triumph of the people of God envisioned in the “2nd horizon” would not be be of unlimited duration.

Like Israel, the Church in the end needs rescue (to some extent, from itself)?

The thousand year period somewhat relativizes and circumscribes the rule of Christ over the nations, and it’s an attractive option to equate that with the limited duration (1500 years or so) of western Christendom. But then it breaks down. The rise of secular humanism really was beyond the historical purview even of New Testament apocalyptic.

Thanks Andrew. 

What might have compelled John the Seer to so decisively distinguish between the first resurrection and the second resurrection, between the parousia/kingdom and the new creation? 

Is this distinction latent elsewhere in the New Testament or did it develop out of the realization that the nations were not judged immediately after the destruction of the Temple?


The distinction may have derived from Jewish apocalyptic thought—for example, the Apocalypse of Weeks (1 En. 93:1-10; 91:11-17).

It may have seemed theologically necessary if resurrection begins as the resurrection of moribund Israel or of the martyrs. It would be logical to extend the more limited idea once the role of YHWH as creator is taken into account.

I argued in The Coming of the Son of Man that the distinction is paralleled in Paul’s ordering of the resurrection:

(1) Christ the firstfruits, (2) then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (3) Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:23–24).

I think that we have a distinction here between the resurrection of the dead in Christ at the parousia and the resurrection of all the dead at the end once the final enemy has been destroyed (cf. Rev. 20:13-14). But it is admittedly not as clear-cut as John’s first and second resurrections.

And that’s probably a sound reading of 1 Thess 4:16-17. Christ descends, the dead in Christ rise [to heaven], and then those who are left escort Christ to earth, to his kingdom, from which they await the final resurrection of all the dead…? Paul has seemingly abandonded the political-historical symbolism of the coming son of man for a more personal return of Christ. 

Going back and reviewing some of your posts on Revelation again, and I would add to those New Testament passages you cite about an anti-imperial message that Alan Streett has argued in two volumes that both the Lord’s Supper and baptism include anti-imperial elements. See his books “Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper Under Roman Domination During the First Century,” and “Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance.”