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The earth's ethos, logos, and pathos: an ecological reading of revelation.

This essay will advance an ecological reading of Revelation that encourages interpretations that other traditional theologies often ignore. The purpose of such a reading is to recover the voice of earth and the role it plays in the unfolding of ecological and cosmological events in Revelation, and to discuss how these events may have impacted the hearers/readers in Asia. Even though ecocatastrophes will ensue in Revelation, the earth will nevertheless succumb to a renewal of the heaven and earth in the new ecological reality of the New Jerusalem. It is our primary motif, however, to use rhetoric to interpret ecology from the earth's ethos (Rev 4-5; 5; 13; 12:15-16), logos (Rev 4:11; 16:5), and pathos (Rev 12; 22:1-2).

Ecology in Revelation

An ecological reading of Revelation is critical, given the many indications of the earth's devastation described there. Tire earth's surface is denuded with earthquakes (6:12), the mountains and the landmass of islands extirpated (6:14; 16:20). Plagues of epidemic proportions are polluting the biosphere (8:7-9:21), famine is sequestering one-fourth of the earth (6:8), portions of the water supply are compromised with blood and wormwood (8:8, 11). Rivers and fountains are deluged with blood (16:3-4), causing cessation of life for humanity, marine life, flora and fauna. A close analysis suggest that these plagues revisit the plague accounts in Exodus (9:13-35; Rev 8:7-9:21; 16:1-21), when the worst storm in Egyptian history destroyed all vegetation life. (1) As Fretheim aptly indicates, "plagues are signs of ecological disaster," (2) leaving behind the wounds to show for it. (3) One-third of the woods are deforested and all the green grass scorched by hail and fire decimating agricultural life (8:7), leading to forest fires (killing living species and organisms) and global warming. As Hughes concludes, with the removal of forests, local precipitation changes when "deforested tracts become more arid and windy." (4) In addition, the forests that generate oxygen that is necessary for human existence will be depleted. (5) One-third of the cosmos (sun, moon, stars) is struck with darkness as not to give a third part light (8:12). The sun turned black as sackcloth, the moon turned to blood, the stars dropped from heaven to earth (6:12-13) inducing "global dimming"--utterly changing the landscape of geology. (6)

Events of such catalytic foray are prominent in apocalyptic literature where cosmological and ecological degradation is known to be an archetypical agent of judgment (the dream vision in 1 Enoch 83:1-10). As Stephens points out, the presence of chaos and ecological violence is a testimony to the disorderly and polluting effects of idolatrous human rule which occurred in the Roman Empire. (7)

These cataclysmic events presuppose further crises: first, when vegetation and trees do not bear fruit, and when animal life as a source of food is curtailed, destitution, deprivation, and starvation are imminent. Since the water system (seas, rivers, springs, reservoirs, wells) are polluted with acid rain and plagues of different sorts, the contaminated water system would be deadly to plant, animal, and human life. Such ecological devastation would engender a plethora of human pandemics and environmental dissolutions unprecedented in human history.

Second, since the welfare of Rome's economy relied heavily on crop production to generate finances, the food epidemic would collapse food sources debilitating Rome's pecuniary growth (6:5-6). Along with this, the sea lanes that carried both food and commerce that produced mass profits for Rome's economy would be arrested because of the bloody seas (16:3). (8) Travel would therefore be aborted, crippling the available resources locally and abroad (apparel, natural resources, and slave trade). (9) And so, whether in rural lands or urban cites, the plagues and the judgments upon the earth and seas would inevitably cause an ecological holocaust to agricultural life and marine life, paralyzing economic sustainability.

It is important to note that these ecocatastrophes are not self-inflicted because of earth's rebellion against God, or the earth's neglect, or lack of dutifulness for the created order, but these eco-calamities have a direct correlation with Rome's self-indulgence and intolerable arrogance, and certain congregants in the churches in Asia living in league with Rome's way of life and worship (2-3). As a consequence of such behavior the earth is an unfortunate victim that is in the midst of the conflict between God and Satan and therefore has to suffer from the crossfire and arsenal attack of God's cosmic judgment on earth (16-18), coupled with the fact that the earth is subjugated to numerous plagues that infest the earth. And not to mention, the earth has to concede to, and tolerate Satan's presence and temporary abode on earth (12:3-11) until the day of redemption.

John's rhetorical proofs

Scholars have recognized that classical rhetorical handbooks can be a helpful medium in interpreting and analyzing John's apocalypse. They also acknowledge that his acumen for rhetoric was probably not under the guise of Aristotle's systematic approach (classical argumentation-enthymemes or complete syllogisms) or Sophistic stylish (eloquence of speech) rhetoric, or even Hellenistic rhetoric. But what we can gather from his rhetoric is his innate rhetorical ability to draw upon what he "sees and hears" and to express his vision to his audience/readers through symbolic representation and apocalyptic imagery.

In order for John's rhetoric to be effective, though, his audience must be acquainted or at least familiar in part with his proofs (plagues in Egypt), the meaning of the various symbols (dragon, beast, and harlot) that capture Rome's ideology, and the apocalyptic imagery (war between Michael and the dragon) that is documented in Revelation. If not, John's entire persuasiveness weakens and/ or crumbles under the lack of attestation the audience has with the sources he uses. Undoubtedly, John's rhetoric would lose its luster if his listening audience and readers did not perceive that the actuality or potentiality for cosmological and ecological devastation in the future was possible.

A close reading also suggests that many of John's allusions and proofs are a by product of the Hebrew Bible that he adopts and reinterprets for his own rhetorical purpose. As aforementioned, his audience was probably cognizant of the Exodus experience and apocalyptic events that are described in Daniel, Ezekiel, and other prophetic books. The rhetorical purpose for John's usage of this material is that "historical precedents were especially useful and effective since the audience could 'see' in the past the outcome of the course they are contemplating for the future." (10)

Such evidence as the plagues in Egypt serve to remind the churches in Asia and the entire audience in Rome that refusal to turn from their nefarious behavior and idolatrous practices warrants judgment (signified by the opening of the bowls and trumpets). His message was not only to condemn the Roman Imperial System, but also to warn the churches in Asia not to compromise their faith, to remove their sense of complacency, and to instruct the congregations not to acculturate into Rome's ideology.

The rhetoric of ecology

Seeing that John amalgamates eschatology, prophetic visions, cosmology and apocalyptic events to transform the reader's or hearer's perception of reality, one can also surmise that the seer advances ecology and ecocatastrophe as an interlocutor of persuasion for similar purposes. To illustrate this point, the language of ecology and ecocatastrophe in Revelation has a rhetorical objective to persuade the audience to alter their perspective about the value of agriculture, natural resources, non-human creatures, their relationship with God, and their relationship with the earth. Even more so, John reveals how humanity's actions directly affect the productivity of the earth to humanity's detriment.

Once the seer or any biblical author evokes ecological discourse (or ecology is associated with the primary or even the secondary meaning of a text), the text becomes rhetorical for ecology, that is, it illuminates meaning and purpose, and therefore ecological potential. (11) In this way, the rhetoric in Revelation can be read under the contours of a rhetoric of ecology or an ecological rhetoric. Moreover, ecology becomes rhetorical when the earth's creature/systems begin to speak or act, explicitly or implicitly in the text. Under this exegetical perspective, ecology can exegete the earth and its eco-systems' ethos, logos, and pathos. Or we can say that this frame of reference expresses the earth's side of the story, that is, the earth joins God and the biblical author in the dialogue.

The ethos of creation

In ancient rhetorical speeches, ethos is often characterized by the ethical character of the speaker, the speaker's astute knowledge of the subject, as well as to establish credibility with the audience. In other words, ethos in its various forms attempts to gain trust and adherence and leave a favorable impression on the audience in order to assure that the hearer's actions and beliefs are bent toward the speaker's speech and/ or character. So, what does ethos mean in the context of God's earth and creatures? And how is ethos associated with ecology? Simply speaking, the earth has character and is a living entity, a biological and spiritual being, (12) and a "subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustices," (13) and therefore it flourishes in ethos.

These characterizations are featured markedly in biblical and other non-canonical literature, when the earth is given a platform for performance: for instance, in Revelation the earth celebrates God's glory (5:13), defends humanity (12:16), and in Matthew's gospel the earth protects God's servants. (14) The earth also bears witness that Jesus rose from the dead. (15) In second Enoch the earth testifies against humanity. (16) In addition the earth displays spiritual qualities--admirable qualities to be communicated to the human race, and none more so than worshiping God voluntarily as opposed to humanity's involuntary efforts. As Bauckham attests, creation worships God just by being itself, as God made it, existing for God's glory. (17)

A collation of the earth's ethos is described in the throne room vision, where epideictic rhetoric captures the praises of the animated and inanimate world (4-5). As John declares that "every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, (gave praise)... to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, (in whom) blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever (5:13)." This universal praise of God's created beings serves as a witness to the true God as opposed to Caesar, who advocated a universal praise of its subjects in Rome.

The logos (argument) for the earth

In classical rhetoric, there are basically two types of logical arguments. One is inductive (historical examples as recorded earlier) and the other deductive (enthymemes or syllogisms). We are not attempting here to argue or even suggest that the earth can compose fully developed arguments. Our interest is concentrated on ecology and the earth's logos that is the rational discourse of earth, and how the earth and its creatures are personified with the unfolding of ecological events in Revelation. The question becomes, then, how does the earth possess moral predilection to think or behave rationally through the text? Or how can the earth evaluate events that require objective and moral decisions for itself, or against humanity, and in our case, against the violators of the earth (Rev 11:18)? These questions infer that the earth is an intellectual and consciously acute entity that is capable of making decisions.

It may seem imbecilic to use the methods of rhetoric to transcribe and analyze ecology, and to portray the earth as having intellectual capabilities. But this seemingly incompatibility of rhetoric and rationality in regard to earth is illuminated and finds residence in apocalyptic literature where the earth is personified as having anthropomorphic intelligence. In 4 Ezra the earth appears to understand when a heavenly voice speaks of the final judgment and the eschatological transformation of the world (6:13-16). (18) In 2 Bar. 6:6-10 the earth heard the voice of an angel and opened its mouth and swallowed the temple vessels in Jerusalem thus preventing their capture by the Roman army for possession. (19) The authors of these apocalypses have a rhetorical intent when using the earth as a faithful entity in the condemnation of those who resist and are opposed to God's will.

By the same token, the earth is also described as making moral judgments, which is palpable in the exigence between the angel Michael and Satan. When Satan "was cast to the earth" by God as the divine passive indicates,
   He pursued the woman who gave birth
   to the child (12:13). But the two wings
   of the great eagle were given to the
   woman, so that she could fly into the
   wilderness to her place, where she was
   nourished for a time and times and
   half a time, from the presence of the
   serpent. And the serpent poured water
   like a river out of his mouth after the
   woman, so that he might cause her to
   be swept away with the flood, but the
   earth helped the woman, and the earth
   opened its mouth and drank up the
   river which the dragon poured out of
   his mouth (12:14-16).

In this epochal event, the earth does not stand by passively as an onlooker watching salvation history unfold but instead makes a moral and righteous decision (earth's logos is congruent with God's logos) to participate in the overthrow of Satan's kingdom. From this episode, we can gather that creation chooses sides; earth makes its choice and comes to the defense of the woman, by opening its mouth to swallow that which would destroy God's plans for God's people. (20)

An ecological reading of Rev 12:13-17 suggests that if the earth can come to the defense of God's people and display spiritual and ethical responsibility by thwarting off the enemies of God, so can humanity actively engage in eco-friendly discussions and come to the defense of the earth, by protecting the earth from those who needlessly strip creation of its glory for economic gain, and by advocating an ethic that subscribes to living in harmony with creation in redemption and salvation and, as ordained by God, being responsible stewards and caretakers of the earth.

John clearly takes the side of earth when he indicts Rome's treatment of the earth, as Rome attempted to conquer, exploit, and drain the earth of all its natural resources for its own glory (Rev 18). As the seer informs us, this was a costly mistake, for God shall "destroy the destroyers of the earth" (11:18). Bauckham sees the destroyers of the earth as "the powers of evil: the dragon, the beast, and the harlot of Babylon ... with their violence, oppression, and idolatrous religion they are ruining God's creation." (21) It is not an exegetical mistake to conclude that God not only holds humanity responsible for personal transgression, as John astutely points out, but also holds humanity accountable for our violations against the earth.

The earth's pathos

Ancient rhetoricians recognized that people are just as likely to be moved to action by pathos as they are by ethos and logos (11: 22) This artificial proof that the orator evokes is to ignite certain emotions that are apropos to the speech/case that is with the intent of getting the audience to express pathos, for the purpose of embracing his/her proposition. Some of these emotions include fear, indignation, pity, hate, anger, laughter, sorrow, amazement, sympathy and compassion, etc. Aristotle believes that most emotions are conjugated with pain and pleasure, for example, he maintains that "anger is a feeling of annoyance mixed with a portion of pleasure because it anticipates revenge." (23) Likewise, fear can be a source of terror (pain) because of real or perceived danger either in the present or future; fear can also change color once the fear is removed, and therefore transform the pathos into a source of hope/assurance either in the present or future (pleasure or confidence). To illustrate this point, terror is initiated because of the cosmological and ecological dilapidations that are forecasted in Revelation. Some of the recipients of these devastating events are clearly seen as the "earth-dwellers" are terrified when everything that seems most fixed--the sun, stars, mountains, and sea--vanishes like the fog at noon." (24) The dissolution of these natural fixtures will unquestionably inflame fear and pathetic stability (6:15-17). These visible features are not for those who experience the terrifying events per se, but for the individuals who hear and read John's apocalypse presently, and can picture what it is like to fall under such terror.

At the same time, fear can transmogrify and become a caricature of hope and assurance (pleasure and confidence) to those who realign their alliance with God instead of cooperating with Rome's imperial system. This twofold description of fear and hope is evident when we revisit Jesus' words to the church in Ephesus; unless they "repent and do the first works... I will come and ... will remove your lampstand" (2:5). Here the church is faced with the fearful consequence of losing its place among other churches and more importantly its eschatological relationship with God in eternity, which serves as a necessary incentive to repent. (25) There are also words that impart encouragement and hope when Jesus offered an everlasting opportunity to the same church to participate in the new ecological reality, that is, to those who overcome will he give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (2:7).

The call to repent and to overcome the powerful forces of the dragon and beast, and their minions, does not motivate by offering riches of silver and gold, although the city is assembled externally with precious stone. The reward that Jesus offered comes from the blessing of the earth via drinking from the "pure river of water of life (22:1), and [eating from] the tree of life bearing fruits ... and leaves for the healing of the nations" (22:2). These ecological driven texts evoke adhortatio and incentive to "come out of her" (18:4), not only for the church in Philadelphia but also other churches that face similar challenges, as John intends to arouse his hearers/readers to participate in a new ecological reality in the splendiferous New Jerusalem.

Another ecological feature is the snykrisis between the four rivers flowing out of Eden (Gen 2:10-14) and the "rivers of life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb." As Barbara Rossing notes, this offers "the invitation to drink from the springs of water of life in Jerusalem functioning as a healing imagery (21:6; 22:17), an ecological contrast to the deadly springs of waters turned to blood and become undrinkable (16:4)." (26) A gloss is also made between "the tree of knowledge" that was forbidden to eat by the first family in (Gen 3:17), and to those whose robes are washed having a right to the "tree of life" (22:14) in the larger family of God. David DeSilva describes "these earth symbols as powerful forces inducing enjoyment and a quality of life that cannot be interrupted by death and a never ending food supply nurturing confidence in the future." (27)

The essential point is that just as the followers of the Lamb look forward to a new ecological reality in the New Jerusalem the earth does not fall short of the same expectation, by waiting to be redeemed from captivity and the polluting and corrupting effects of human sin. After the earth's redemption the earth will then prosper ecologically and genetically without interference of the subjugating forces that created such groaning and travail in the first place. One must not theorize, however, that John is casting the current earth into oblivion or a garbage dump, and categorizing it as worthless and degenerative in favor of a new one--this is far from the truth. The earth has value, and is part of the hope and vision for this life, along with humanity, in John's prophetic utterance to the churches in Asia.

John's apocalyptic and prophetic vision aims first and foremost to change the current exigency and stimulate repentance in the churches in Asia, and to expose Rome for its true identity, and reclaim any plagiarism and infringement on the honor and glory of God that Rome fraudulently attained. Richard Woods makes an interesting point that the events depicted in Revelation have less to do with the end of the world and therefore the end of the earth than the ultimate and inevitable conflict between the kingdom of God and imperialistic forces. (28)

Pathos is also fomented by God's affinity for earth, as Rossing documents that God laments over the earth's pain in Revelation despite the sending of the plagues, but as she concludes, it is for the earth's liberation (12:12). (29) These plagues nevertheless remind all that when God sends judgment on the recipients of such judgment, all humanity suffers in the process, even the innocent, including the ecological systems of the earth and the entire community of creation. If God, who is characterized as an infinite and transcendent being who brings life into existence, can have solidarity with creation, by stooping down demonstrating pathos juxtaposed with ethos, most certainly humanity can carry out the same comparative sympathies and solidarity with creation. To validate the valuableness of the earth's community even further, Peter Perry maintains that the sea creatures are not meaningless immolations or empty vessels without souls, but they have life, and therefore have established a relationship with their creator, making the enormity of Rome's and humanity's sins the more tragic (8:9). (30)


Scholars have often danced around ecology in Revelation in favor of more amplified theologies. This misstep overlooks John's ecological rhetoric that permeates throughout his apocalypse, although caution is warranted that John was not an ecologist in the modern sense of the term as Rossing rightly noted. It is nonetheless difficult to read Revelation without ratifying that ecocatastrophe is intrinsically associated with the opening of the seals, bowls, and trumpets. Even though these events are driven by eschatological and apocalyptic imagery, I am persuaded that ecological degradation is the main protagonist. For one, these events as John describes them unfold not in the cosmos (12:9) nor the underworld (19:20), but the devastating events materialize on earth, where the entire ecosystem is manipulated into chaos.

We have also tried to articulate the voice of the earth through ethos, logos, and pathos, with the intent to capture and recover the voice of the earth through rhetoric. Using rhetoric to interpret ecology opens up possibilities--at least from this writer's perspective--to hear the multiple expressions of earth's voice, and how the earth can communicate to humanity things about which we were once unaware, and need so urgently to learn.

(1.) Grant R. Osborne, Revelation: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 351.

(2.) Terrence E. Fretheim, "The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster," JBL 110/3 (1991): 385-396.

(3.) Richard Woods, "Seven Bowls of Wrath: The Ecological Relevance of Revelation," Biblical Theology vol 38: 64-75.

(4.) J. Donald Hughes, Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 85.

(5.) Norman C. Habel, Reading from the Perspective of Earth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 25.

(6.) Richard Woods, "Seven Bowls of Wrath," 64-75.

(7.) Mark B. Stephens, Destroying the Destroyer of the Earth: The Meaning and Function of New Creation in the Book of Revelation (Dissertation: April, 2009), 258.

(8.) Osborne, Revelation, 353. The seas they travel will now be filled with their own blood.

(9.) Craig R. Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 98.

(10.) David A. Desilva, Seeing Things John's Way (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2009), 23. John does this effectively with the use Ken eLSov "I saw" (1:12, 17; 5:1-2; 6:1; 7:1,2; 8:2; 9:1; 17:1 ...). He not only saw cosmological chaos but ecological destruction as well.

(11.) According to Lloyd F. Bizer, the event invites discourse and therefore it creates utterance. The Rhetorical Situation," Philosophy and Rhetoric. 1968, 1-14. See Rev 12 for example.

(12.) Habel, Reading From the Perspective of Earth, 46. It is also of note that the earth currently yields natural resources such as water, heat, natural gases, coal, mineral ores ... for humanity's use. Even after the eschatological reality is finally realized for Christ's followers, the earth will continue to provide the believing community with the water of life that flows from the throne of God, as well as the tree of life that bears fruits of different kinds (22:1-2).

(13.) Ibid.

(14.) Two cases are worthy of note: the prophet Jonah (saved by the great whale Jonah 2) and Jesus of Nazareth (his body laid in the heart of the earth--Matt 12:20). Both narratives describe the "three days and three nights" motif, the narratives also recount how the earth played a vital role in protecting the body of these historical figures. The earth protected the body of Jesus (from thieves and the disciples) until the resurrection. In the gospel accounts, none of the evangelists speak about seeing Jesus' body before the resurrection (John 20:5).

Janet Howe Gaines sees the sea monster as a sea craft providing shelter for Jonah, Forgiveness in a Wounded World Jonah's Dilemma (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 57. In 1 Enoch 10:1-13, as cited by David M. Russell, "Michael is to bind Semyaz and his associates for seventy generations in the belly of the earth until judgment where they also will be confined for all time to the fiery abyss in torment." The New Fleavens and New Earth: Elope for the creation in Jewish Apocalyptic and the New Testament, (Philadelphia: Visionary Press, 1996), 92.

(15.) The earth is a living witness that Jesus died and was buried in the heart of the earth. As indicated in Matt 27:51, when the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth shook and the rocks were split. This provides evidence that not only did the disciples bear testimony to the death and resurrection of Jesus but the earth also testified to his death.

(16.) Harry Alan Hahne, The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Nature in Romans 8:19-22 and Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 166. In 2 Enoch the animals and inanimate objects testify in judgment against humans for the sins they committed against them.

(17.) Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 12.

(18.) Hahne, The Corruption and Redemption of Creation, 12 4. He also indicates that intellectual understanding of the earth is a sign of an eschatological event, 126.

(19.) Rossing, Alas for Earth! Lament and Resistance in Revelation 12, 181-211.

(20.) Brian K. Blount, Revelation a Commentary (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2009), 241.

(21.) Richard Bauckham, New Testament Theology: The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 52. The allusion to the destroyers of the earth is also found in Jer. 51:25; 1 Enoch. 7:1-6.

(22.) Thomas H, Olricht, "Pathos as Proof in Greco Roman Rhetoric," Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001,7-22.

(23.) Ibid, 7-22.

(24.) Lee, Snyder. "Arguments as Intervention in the Revelation of John: A Rhetorical Analysis, Stone Campbell Journal 8, no 2, 2005: 245-259.

(25.) Blount, Revelation, 51.

(26.) Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities, 152.

(27.) DeSilva, Seeing Things John's Way, 221.

(28.) Woods, Seven Bowls of Wrath, 64-75.

(29.) Rossing, Alas for Earth! 181-211. She stresses the grammatical deficiencies in translating ouai as "woe," or judgment, she prefers to translate it as "alas" ... The alas (lament) gives voice to the grief that God has for the earth and sea and other elements of creation that suffer.

(30.) Peter Perry, "Things Having Lives: Ecology, Allusion, and Performance in Revelation 8:9," Currents in Theology and Mission, 37 no 2 April 2010, 105-113.

Curtis Johnson

Ph.D. Student, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
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Author:Johnson, Curtis
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
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Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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