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David Cowles

Jun 1, 2023

“This is possibly the shortest ‘play’ in all of literature…and yet it is arguably more important than anything Shakespeare (or even Andrew Lloyd Weber) ever wrote!

In its introduction to the Book of Revelation, the New American Bible (Revised Edition), the translation currently in use in 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, if ever there was one! Its layers of symbolism confound Biblical scholars, not to mention the casual reader. But this essay will not concern itself with any of that! You will not learn the exact date of the end of the world here. Sorry about that!

But don’t go away mad! Can I tempt you with a totally transparent, 45-second synopsis of the entire book? Beats Cliffs Notes…and it’s free! 

Many things are going on in Revelation, but all of them occur in the context of an ongoing, cosmic dialog between the Lord (YHWH, the Father) and his Christ (Jesus, the Son). It’s short and sweet. Here’s the full script:

Lord: “I am the Alpha and the Omega…the one who is and was and is to come, the almighty.” (1: 8)

Christ: “I am the first and the last…the one who lives.” (1: 17b – 18a)

Lord: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” (21: 6)

Christ: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (22: 13)

This is possibly the shortest ‘play’ in all of literature…and yet it is arguably more important than anything Shakespeare (or even Andrew Lloyd Weber) ever wrote! The entire dialog consists of just four divine epithets, cited by multiple actors in multiple contexts.

Wait! Did you just say, “So what? What’s the difference? Aren’t these all just different ways of saying the same thing?”

Don’t be shy. It’s a good question, and the answer is, “Yes and No.” We’ll spend some time on this later on. But first, R U satisfied with my synopsis? Did you get your money’s worth ($0)? Will you come again? Tell your friends? 

Now back to your question: 

The author begins with a greeting: “…Grace to you and peace from him who is and was and is to come (the Lord)…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.”

This 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.

He is ‘the firstborn of the dead.’ John, of course, is not speaking of Jesus’ historical birth c. 6 BCE; John is referring to Jesus’ eternal rebirth, his resurrection.

He is ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’…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 therefore the arbiter of justice. 

There could be no civil power without the fundamental order established through Christ. Legitimate power exists solely to serve the interests of justice, and it is legitimate only so long as it is serving those interests. Ultimately, all political power, legitimate or otherwise, must bend to the demands of justice. 

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. 

But that’s not what’s going on here at all! We’re not hearing competing claims of divinity; we’re hearing complementary claims. This is not a rumble! This is a pep rally! 

Let’s focus on the epithets themselves:

The Alpha and the Omega.

The one who is and was and is to come,

the almighty.

The first and the last,

the one who lives.

The beginning and the end.

The first two epithets are initially applied only to the Lord. 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,’ a fitting epithet for YHWH. 

And what of ‘the almighty?’ Often, that stands by itself as a divine epithet. Not here. Here, it is part of the Lord’s introductory ‘profile’ and it is meant to emphasize the Lord’s role as the source of pure potentiality.

The third epithet is applied only to the Christ: “the first and the last, the one who lives.” The final epithet, “the beginning and the end,” is initially applied to the Lord.

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 (or part of me), you are nothing…quite literally!” 

Heady stuff for a 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 entirety, but in somewhat different ways.

In the Trinitarian logic of Christianity, if A, ~ B; then A, so ~ 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.

Alfred North Whitehead offered a similar model. His Primordial & Consequent Natures of God, distinct in themselves, both represent the ‘entirety,’ albeit in radically different ways.

There are epithets that are applied strictly to one and never to the other. For example, ‘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, infinite potentiality that underlies all existence. This is the Lord who said, “I am who am” in Exodus and “Let there be light” in Genesis. Therefore, the Lord, the one who is, is also the one who was. One and the same Lord is present - yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The world consists of nothing but ‘Actual Entities’ (aka events). No two actual entities are the same and yet every one of them, past, present or future, rises in the same way from the same ground as God’s Consequent Nature. 

According to the logic of Christianity, A ≠ B but A = C and B = C. God is Being itself. Being is just Being. It is one, it is simple: it has no parts. God is not just Being. God is Good. As Good, God is also Beauty, Truth and Justice, the spatio-temporal manifestations of Good. These characterizations are denotatively synonymous but connotatively distinct.

As the Good Ground of all that is, God must embody all the qualities that they adopt. In fact, 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 snowflake, 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.

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. 

Christ is last because through him and in him every actual entity will ultimately participate in a harmonious synthesis of actual entities (Parousia). Literally, Eschaton means to hold all things together. That is Christ’s 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 dénouement 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.

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. 

The Lord is not only the ontological foundation (arche) on which all things depend for their existence, but he is the lure (telos) that calls these things to be. 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 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!

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 as the ‘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; so is ‘beginning and end’. First and last is a temporal concept, participating essentially in the flow of events. 

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 precisely the concept Parmenides was missing when, in his great ontological poem, On Nature, he contrasted the immutable ‘way of truth’ (aletheia) with the ever-changing ‘way of appearance’ (doxa). 

Parmenides 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 a specific actual entity. 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 - this is what makes an entity actual (Dasein) and it 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

The fact that there is a universe of existing things at all requires even more than just the foundation and lure of 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 manifest as qualities.

From foundation and lure comes existence, what Martin Heidegger called ‘Dasein,’ that-it-is. From relatedness comes essence, which he called ‘Wassein,’ what-it-is. Dasein 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, essential 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 of being’ within that entirety. But that quantum is also the entirety, also ‘the Alpha and the Omega’…just inside out!

Being, then, is the superposition of ‘inside out’ and ‘outside in’.

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…the Logos

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 ‘Eschaton’: 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 (living) entities evolve (live) in Christ, Christ is the source of all life (John 1:  2) and therefore ‘the one who lives’.

Fast-forward now to the final chapter, 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 (kaos in Genesis) is no more. Instead, a holy city, a new Jerusalem (aka Kingdom of God) where God dwells with us (Emmanuel)! 

What is coming? It is Jesus, the Christ, the Eschaton in which all things hold together. All things are saved in Jesus. All conflicts have been resolved into harmonies. Arche & telos = proton & Eschaton! The Lord, who stands outside the world, and the Christ, who stands inside the world, act together “…so that God may be all in all.” (I Cor 15:28).


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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