One of questions raised in the previous vision, wherein the Church was likened to a tower being built, was what sort of end-times belief was in place with regards to the completion of the Church. Two of the biggest concepts from biblical apocalyptic literature get particular attention in this fourth vision: tribulation (suffering), and a great beast.
The vision starts with Hermas walking down a road, and suddenly God sends him a warning: “doubt not, Hermas.” He continues down the road, wondering why he should hear such a message, and sees a dust cloud ahead in the distance, as if a herd of cattle is on the move nearby. But as he approaches, it turn out to be a whale-sized beast spewing locusts from its mouth, big enough and strong enough to smash a whole city to pieces. Hermas remembers the warning not to doubt, so he shores himself up, faces the beast, and continues to walk towards it. Sure enough, the monster curled up and let him walk right by it, completely untouched. As he went, he observed the colors of the stripes on its head: black, blood & fire red, gold, and white.
After passing by he meets up with a virgin dressed in white, as if for a wedding. Sure enough, it’s the Church lady again, clearly reflecting the bride of Christ image, emphasizing the fact that this is an end-times vision. She asks him if he had a safe journey and he says yes. Then she asks about the beast, and he confirms he passed it, to which she explains:
You did escape from it because you cast your care on God and opened your heart to the Lord, believe that you can be saved by no other than by his great and glorious Name. On this account the Lord has sent his angel, who has rule over the beasts, and whose name is Thegri, and has shut up its mouth so that it cannot tear you. You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast.
She goes on to say that this is a type of the tribulation that is to come, given so that Christians may prepare for it by repenting of their sins and turn to God more sincerely.
So it seems that doubt is one of the major teachings here – insofar as doubt is a lack of trust in God, it needs to be healed and defeated. There is another form of doubt: asking questions, scrutinizing everything you hear, making sure everything makes sense with what you already know, and so on, but that’s not the type of doubt that’s being addressed in this vision. When doubt is a lack of faith, that needs to be dealt with. And the ways suggested to combat it aren’t all too different from what Paul said.
Lastly, Hermas asks about the colored stripes on the beast’s head. Lady Church explains:
- Black is the sinful world in which we dwell
- Fire and blood is how the world will perish
- Gold is the Christians tested by fire who escape the world
- White is the endless age to come where all will have been made perfect
Putting together exactly what is being taught about the end of the world is still a little difficult. There is a tribulation at the end, where Christian suffering is particularly great, and the world is destroyed by blood and fire. The very fire that destroys the world is the fire that removes the dross from the gold of the Church, so it’s pretty clear that these weren’t written to be literal, but allegories (not to mention the lady saying twice that these are types of the tribulation to come). As such, I’d say that the fire and blood and the destruction are symbols of judgment – for it is in judgment that the righteous will be made pure & vindicated and the unrighteous destroyed. There is language of the church “escaping” the world, which at first glance suggested something akin to Darby’s novel doctrine of the secret rapture of the Church, but when you read on, you find that the Church is refined by the tribulational fires, and comes out purified and clean. So the language of escape is not a matter of dodging the tribulation altogether, but escaping the destructive fate that the world receives.
So as we approach this day of judgment, we Christians don’t have a “get out of tribulation free” card, so when suffering comes, don’t doubt, but trust in God. There’s a lot of biblical attention given to suffering, and I Peter has some of my favorite material:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.