In its introduction to the Book of Revelation, the New American Bible (Revised Edition), currently the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church, states: “The Apocalypse, or Revelation to John, the last book of the Bible, is one of the most difficult to understand…” An understatement to say the least! Its layers of symbolism confound the finest Biblical scholars, not to mention the casual reader.
But this essay will not concern itself with any of that!
We will focus instead on less than a dozen verses that constitute a single thread running through Revelation from the initial greeting to the final Epilogue. In this one thread, we will uncover (aletheia) the very essence of all Christian theology.
After a brief prologue, “John”, the titular author of Revelation, begins with a greeting: “…Grace to you and peace from the one who is and was and is coming (the Lord)…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.”
John’s greeting introduces us to the two main characters in this drama, the Lord and his Christ, Jesus. As we shall see, the nature of God and his role for the world will be revealed through their dialog.
In his initial greeting, John draws a very sharp distinction between the Lord and the Christ. ‘The one who is and was and is coming’ is eternally constant. He stands outside of time and its essential, persistent variability.
Christ, on the other hand, is totally immersed in the temporal world. He is the ‘faithful witness’ reflecting the Lord’s constancy onto the world’s flux and witnessing that flux back to the Lord. Christ testifies to the Lord as he witnesses the world.
He is ‘the first born of the dead’…a curious phrase considering that birth is normally understood as the antithesis of death. John, of course, is not speaking of Jesus’ historical birth in or around the year 6 BCE; John is referring to Jesus’ eternal rebirth, his resurrection.
He is ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’…also curious considering that Jesus was hunted and persecuted by ‘kings’ for most of his 30 odd year history. Once again, John is not commenting on first century politics. John is identifying Christ as the ultimate source of order (Logos in the Gospel of John) and arbiter of justice. Ultimately, there would be no political power without the fundamental order established through Christ. That power exists solely to serve the interests of justice and it derives legitimacy only by serving those interests. Ultimately, all political power, legitimate or otherwise, will bend to the interests of justice. In this sense, Christ is certainly ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’.
The dialog at the core of Revelation begins with the Lord: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one who is and was and is coming, the almighty.” (1:8)
A few verses later Christ answers: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last…the one who lives…” (1:11, 18)
Many chapters further on, the Lord enters the conversation again: “Behold, I make all things new…It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (21: 5, 6)
But the last word belongs to Christ: “Behold I am coming soon…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (21: 12, 13)
This is perhaps the shortest play in all of literature…and yet it is arguably more important than anything Shakespeare (or even Andrew Lloyd Weber) ever wrote!
On a quick read, one is reminded of an elementary school playground: “I’m the man…No I’m the man…” Both the Lord and the Christ seem to claim to be ‘the man’, i.e. the Alpha and the Omega, and, like eight year olds, each maintains his claim persistently throughout their dialog.
But this is no minor boast! Alpha and Omega are of course the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; but combined this way, in the idiom of the day they express the concept of ‘entirety’. In the jargon of the ontological playground, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ translates roughly as ‘I am the entirety, the whole…nothing stands beside me’.
The boasts of an eight year old (“I’m stronger than you…faster than you…smarter than you”) pale in comparison. Our protagonists have upped the ante: “I am everything, so if you are not me, you are nothing…quite literally!” Heady stuff for any schoolyard!
But of course, this is a misreading of Revelation. The Lord and his Christ are not arguing at all; they are mutually affirming a basic metaphysical fact: both are the Alpha and the Omega, both are the entirety…albeit in somewhat different ways.
In the Trinitarian logic of Christianity, “If A, not B; A, therefore not B” does not hold! Even though the Lord and the Christ are independent persons, each can claim ‘entirety’ without annihilating, diminishing or even contradicting the other.
While both the Lord and the Christ share the epithet, ‘the Alpha and the Omega’, there are other epithets that are applied strictly to one and never to the other. For example, the epithet, ‘the one who is and was and is coming’ is reserved for the Lord alone.
The Lord, ‘the one who is’, is Being itself, the pure potentiality that underlies all existence. This is the Lord who said, “I am who am” in Exodus and before that “Let there be light” in Genesis. Therefore, the Lord, the one who is, is also the one who was. So long as the verb ‘is/was/will be’ has meaning, one and the same Lord is present, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Actual entities come, actual entities go; but each of them, whether past, present or future, rises in the same way from the same ground, God. No two actual entities can ever be the same but God, as Being, can never change. Every entity enjoys actuality in its own unique way but every actuality is an entity in precisely the same way…by participation in God as its ground.
And Being? Well Being is just Being. It is one, it is simple (Aquinas); it has no parts. While actual entities exhibit qualities that they adopt, God is those qualities or, even more to the point, God is Quality per se, i.e. the Good. Things that exist exhibit qualities in various combinations and with varying degrees of intensity. Like the mythical snow flake, their patterns are infinitely varied. But God is Quality and Quality, the Good, albeit variously manifested, never varies. To rephrase, the essence of Good is immutable while the manifestations of Good are, at least potentially, infinitely varied and always unique.
Throughout Revelation, ‘the Alpha and the Omega’ applies both to the Lord and to the Christ. ‘Who is and was and is coming’ applies only to the Lord. Symmetrically, there is one epithet in this drama that applies only to the Christ: ‘the first (protos) and the last (eschatos), the one who lives’.
Jesus of Nazareth was born sometime around 6 BCE and died roughly 30 years later. How then can the Christ possibly be called ‘the first’ or ‘the last’ or ‘the one who lives’?
Christ is first because he precedes ontologically, not historically, every other actual entity. Later in this essay we’ll discover how this can be true. For now, it is sufficient to note that in Christian cosmology, space and time are not primary categories; they are subservient to the more important, more fundamental ordering of ontology. Amazingly, 2000 years later, many modern cosmologists are coming to this same conclusion, though from a very different perspective, of course.
Christ is last because through him and in him every actual entity will ultimately participate in a harmonious synthesis of actual entities. Literally, eschatos means to hold all things together. That is Christ in his final role as Prince of Peace.
Finally, Christ is the one who lives because all life comes to be through him, runs its course with him, and ultimately resolves itself in him.
We will return to this important epithet later in this essay.
But there is still one final epithet for us to address: “the beginning (arche) and the end (telos)”. Initially, this phrase is applied only to the Lord, seemingly in contrast to Christ being ‘the first and the last’; but in the final couplet, the denouement of our great drama, the Christ brings both epithets together in a single statement of identity:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega (of course), the first and the last (expectedly), the beginning and the end (surprisingly).”
The migration of this last epithet from the Lord to the Christ is what this play is all about. It’s the plot…and a spine tingling one at that! Now at last we are ready to unpack the cosmic sea change that is Revelation.
Initially, the Lord alone is the beginning and the end: beginning (arche), not in the temporal sense of priority but in the architectural sense of foundation; and end (telos), not in the temporal sense of finality but in the sense of lure.
In his function as ‘the one who is and was and is coming’, the Lord appears to be passive, even inert. Now, as ‘the beginning and the end’, the Lord reveals himself to be the source of creative unrest in the world. When he refers to himself as “the almighty”, it is not in the sense of “all powerful”. The Greek word translated as ‘almighty’ literally means ‘all vigor’. God is almighty in the sense that he is the source of all generation, all change, even all motion.
The Lord is not only the ontological foundation (arche) on which all things depend for their existence but he is the lure (telos) which calls all things into existence. Nothing could come to be were it not for the potentiality of Being which is its foundation (arche); but nothing would emerge from that potentiality into actuality without an end (telos).
There can only be one ultimate end and that end can be nothing other than the Good which is God. The accidental details of that end are entirely unconditioned. This is the freedom, the ‘life’, that is Christ. But the ontological essence of that end, the Good, is totally determined.
No entity would emerge from potentiality into actuality other than to answer the call of the Good. Obviously, entities lose their way but the initial impulse to become is always an impulse toward the Good. Since Good is the essence of God, the initial impulse to become is always the lure of God’s goodness. Without foundation, no potentiality; without lure, no actuality; without the Lord, nothing!
Initially, Revelation contrasts the Lord (foundation and lure) with the Christ (first and last). Christ, the Incarnation of God, exists within the world, both historically in the person of Jesus and cosmologically in a way captured by the epithet ‘first (protos) and last (eschatos)’.
As ‘first and last’, Christ is essentially ‘foundation and lure’ turned inside out. Foundation and lure are eternal concepts, standing outside the universal flow of actual entities; first and last are temporal concepts, participating essentially in that flow. The eternal foundation becomes effective in the temporal world when it enters that world (ontologically, not historically) as its ‘first’ entity. Likewise, the eternal lure becomes effective in the world when it enters that world (ontologically, not historically) as its ‘last entity’.
Incarnation is the phenomenon that inverts the cosmic order, that makes the eternal relevant to the temporal and the temporal relevant to the eternal. Incarnation is the concept that Parmenides was missing when, in his great ontological poem, On Nature, he contrasted the immutable ‘way of truth’ (aletheia) with the every changing ‘way of appearing’ (doxa). He left us no clue how to connect these two equally valid, but apparently contradictory, realities. 500 years later, the early Christians filled in the missing piece.
Christ is ‘first’ because all entities emerging from the foundation of potentiality initially relate to the Christ. It is through Christ that the Good that is God enters the world as specific, differentiated ‘qualities’. It is through Christ that these qualities are made available to emerging entities. The Lord is pure potential and pure appetition. Christ is an actual entity among actual entities.
Responding to the lure of the Lord, entities emerge out of pure potentiality into actuality by appropriating for themselves various qualities made available to them through the Christ. The organic process of selecting and rejecting qualities, incorporating those qualities with various degrees of intensity, and harmonizing those qualities into a whole is what makes an entity actual and is what constitutes each actual entity as what it is (Wassein).
Just as actual entities incorporate qualities and harmonize them into a whole, so Christ incorporates all actual entities and harmonizes them in himself. The primal quest of every actual entity for God’s Goodness is ultimately satisfied by its inclusion in the harmonious community of actual entities that constitutes Christ as the ‘last’, eschatos.
The fact that there is a universe of existing things at all requires even more than the foundation and lure that is the Lord. Standing outside of spacetime, arche and telos are necessary, but not sufficient by themselves, to give rise to an existentially free universe of existing things. Something else is required and that something is “relatedness”. Philosophers from Anaximander to Martin Buber have agreed on this point: without relation, nothing!
For what is an actual entity but a network of relationships? Scratch any entity and you will find a web of relations that make it up. Actual entities derive their existence from arche and telos, the Lord; but they derive their essence from their network of relations with other entities, including God, and these relations are manifested as qualities.
From foundation and lure comes existence, what Martin Heidegger called ‘Dassein’, that-it-is. From relatedness comes essence, which he called ‘Wassein’, what-it-is. The nature of actual entities in our world is that they are caught up in a perpetual process of becoming. Dassein does not become, it is; Wassein, never really is, it only becomes. Dassein springs from the Lord, Wassein from the Christ.
While the Lord, Being and Good, supplies the potentiality for existence, Christ, the Incarnation, supplies the potentiality for relatedness. Only now do we have the necessary and sufficient conditions for the emergence of an actual world like ours.
The Lord, ‘the Alpha and the Omega’, is the entirety. The Christ, Jesus, is a quantum entity within that entirety. But that quantum entity is also the entirety, also ‘the Alpha and the Omega’…just inside out!
Christ is the potentiality for all relation and therefore ontologically prior to all relations. Every entity that comes to be comes to be in primal relation with Christ.
Christ is the destination of all relation and therefore ontologically subsequent to all other entities. But every entity that comes to be gains its ultimate identity in Christ. Ultimately, all actual entities form a single harmonious web of relations and that web is the Christ.
Logically speaking, Christ is the initial term in the series known as universe and also the one common element of each other term in the series. Likewise, Christ is the final term in the series known as universe and also the sum of all its other terms. This is the full meaning of the term ‘eschatos’: all things hold together in Christ.
Finally, Christ is ‘the one who lives’. Life is the process through which relations emerge and mutually modify one another until a coherent entity appears. Because all evolving entities evolve in Christ, Christ is the one who lives.
Fast forward now to the final chapter to Revelation, the so-called Epilogue! Jesus Christ speaks again (through John, of course) but now the vocabulary has shifted, “Behold I am coming soon…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” But what exactly is it that is coming?
Beginning at the end of Chapter 20, Revelation tells us:
“Next I saw a large white throne and one who was sitting on it (the Lord). The earth and the sky fled from his presence and there was no place for them…Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and earth had passed away and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people…the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold I make all things new.’”
The two realms, one of eternal being, the Lord, one of existing things, the world, are now one. The earth and the sky (spacetime) have fled; there is no place for them. The old order has passed away. The former heaven and earth have passed away and even the sea (Chaos in Genesis) is no more. Instead, a holy city, a new Jerusalem (aka the Kingdom of God) where God dwells with the human race. All things have been made new by the power of Incarnation, Salvation, Grace and Redemption.
What is coming? It is Jesus, the Christ, the eschatos in which all things hold together. All things are saved in Jesus, who is the Eschaton, saecula saeculorum (the age of ages). All conflict has been resolved into harmony. Apche & telos, protos & eschatos are now one! The Lord who stands outside the world and the Incarnation which constitutes the world are now one “…so that God may be all in all.” (I Cor 15:28).