Dragons and Holiness
by Tony Reinke
The incredible imaginative power of the human mind connects us. If I mention standing ankle deep in the ocean, many of you can picture this image (and maybe feel the dizziness as you watch the water rush past your feet and back). Or if I mention the feeling of floating free under water in a swimming pool with eyes open, many of you know this feeling, too. Or if I mention the muffled silence that blankets a neighborhood in a thick snowstorm, you can probably imagine it. Thousands of other scenarios we can enjoy together. This is the work of our imagination.
The imagination is a necessary component for reading fiction books, nonfiction books, and, of course, for reading the Bible. God’s book engages our imaginations by the parables of Jesus, the poetry of the Psalms, the adages of the Proverbs, and, of course, the apocalyptic language of the prophets. But what makes human imagination even more incredible is how we experience in our minds things we did not, have not, or cannot experience ourselves. The book of Revelation is one example.
In Revelation, we read about the Son of Man dressed in a robe, with a voice like the great falls, and a two-edged sword for a tongue, with a face bright as the sun. Then we see a throne in heaven, surrounded by a rainbow of brilliant color, with lightning and thunder pealing off the throne. On each side of the throne are six-winged angelic creatures in flight, ceaselessly singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8). Bowls are filled with the prayers of the saints. And a Lamb stands as though it had been slain, whose blood makes white.
Can you see all this in your imagination?
Then behold the dragons, full of power and rage. A red dragon with seven heads is followed by another beast that has a nasty scar on one of its seven heads and a mouth full of blasphemies calling forth for idolatrous worship on earth. And then there’s another beast that speaks like a dragon, with the power to command fire from heaven. Finally, there’s a scarlet beast on whom rides a woman, the mother of all prostitutes and sexual sin, carrying a cup of sexual immorality.
Late in the story, one breaks in on a white horse. The rider’s name is Faithful and True, and the Word of God, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He makes war. Under His crown blaze eyes like a furnace. His robe drips with blood, and from His mouth He bears a sword to strike down beasts and rebels. He treads the winepress of God’s fury. The images of Christ permeate the book.
So why all this imagery?
Imagination is what one theologian calls “the power of synoptic vision” (Vanhoozer). It allows us to order the world, and to see things collected together as opposed to the fragmented way we typically perceive the world. Dragons embody evil. He who is called Faithful and True embodies holiness and justice. Revelation engages our imaginations until we see reality through radical images, images that push us past the dominant worldly ideologies we simply assume and naturally ingest daily just like the air we breathe.
The images in Revelation expose us to the world again, but they stun us in new and shocking ways. They break into our imaginations (sometimes with violence), but they also give to us new and alien ways of looking at the world that enable us to transcend our loud cultural environment. This cultural transcendence is possible because God has given us imaginations. Revelation works to purge and refurbish those imaginations, providing us with a profoundly fresh theological angle on the world that we have grown comfortable with. Here in Revelation, our imaginations are engaged to see the evil in this world, not as a scattered random acts of evil, but as a collective whole. By collecting the evil, we see the superiority of Christ over all. And we see that all victories of Christ over evil are tied directly to his death.
How do we respond to such imaginative literature? We read and heed. This is called forth at the beginning and end of the book (1:3; 22:7). Through the imagination, we are called to wake up and to put off lukewarmness. Revelation invites us to see ultimate reality through our imaginations in breathtaking, earth-scorching, mind-stretching, sin-defeating, dragon-slaying, Christ-centered, God-glorifying images intended to change the way we think, act, and speak.
Irrespective of the literal meaning of these imaginative dramas in Revelation, and irrespective of their literal timing and prophetic fulfillment, they remind us in stark images that the times are too evil and time is too short for us to slumber lazily. Our imaginations are stretched, awakened, and shocked from spiritual lethargy. Such is the life-altering power of imaginative imagery for those perceptive readers who understand our desperate need to see dragons.