Divine Judgement, Moral Formation, and Social Stability in Revelation and Its Historical Context

Readings of Revelation which highlight the ethical problems involved with John’s rhetorical use of divine threat often bring anachronistic critiques and demonstrate little awareness of ancient discussions and perspectives on the role of divine violence in moral formation and social stability. This paper will survey the rhetorical function of divine violence in Greco-Roman literary sources and material culture to show that fear of divine punishment was widely seen as useful and necessary to promote moral formation and stability within society. Many, if not most, people in the first century Greco-Roman world would agree that the moral and social order required fear of the gods. Even many ancient critics of fear recognized the pragmatic and utilitarian value of the fear of gods. Glad (1995) provides a valuable study of the mixing of harshness and gentleness in the Greco-Roman philosophical-moral tradition. He demonstrates this in the work of Dio Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Sextus Empiricus, Plutarch, Quintilian, Maximus of Tyre, Cicero, Seneca, and Philodemus. Moralists demonstrate awareness of the dangers of excessive harshness while also recognizing that fear and pain were often necessary instruments to promote moral formation. This paper will build on Glad (1995) by focusing more closely on 1) widespread positive perspectives on fear in moral formation and 2) the relationship of divine violence to fear in Greco-Roman moral philosophers. Henning (2014) describes the function of descriptions of Hell in Greco-Roman paideia. She demonstrates from the Odyssy, Frogs, and the Aeneid that descriptions of future punishment were widely utilized to promote social stability by forming model Athenian and Roman citizens while depictions of Hades in Plato, Lucian, and Plutarch are more explicitly utilized as paideia in the service of moral formation. This section will present and expand Henning’s research with its implications for John’s descriptions of divine violence. Finally, the practical results of the fear of the gods in everyday life can be observed in the practice of making treaties, oaths, judicial curses, propitiatory inscriptions, funerary imprecations, and cultic regulations.

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