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Reclaiming the rainbow

The misappropriation of a religious symbol

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commons.wikimedia.org, Ludovic Bertron, NY USA CC 2.0rainbow-flag
Rainbow, or pride flag with six stripes.

Over recent years one particular social and political movement has appropriated common words and symbols to its own cause. This has been done by LGBT+ campaign groups, and the organisers of the pride marches. The word gay has changed its meaning from the historical sense; and now the rainbow has been adopted on to the so-called ‘pride flag’; more commonly known as the rainbow flag. Although still professing to be a discriminated minority, the LGBT+ movement has become politically dominant in most Western nations, with pride marches often supported by corporations, the police, and government agencies. As such, the rainbow flag has become widely recognised as a symbol of gay pride, but biblically, God promised that the rainbow would be a symbol of something completely different.

While society can live with a few misappropriated words and phrases, the adoption of the rainbow by a small group of people causes disquiet or even consternation to many Christian believers. The reason is that it is the traditional, biblical symbol of God’s mercy to all humanity—not just Christians. But, in a secular climate, it is now hard for people outside the LGBT+ community to use the rainbow as a symbol without the risk of giving a false impression. It has also become a symbol of support for the National Health Service in the UK; this was a deliberate move, “created to be a way for NHS staff to demonstrate that they are aware of the issues that LGBT+ people can face when accessing healthcare.”1

A brief history

The first gay pride rainbow flags were produced for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, held on 25 June 1978. The original flag, designed by Gilbert Baker, had eight stripes, where each colour had a different meaning. Baker stated that: “Pink is for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun. … Green for nature, turquoise for magic, blue for serenity and purple for the spirit”.2 Later this morphed into the six-striped flag, which is often used today in pride marches around the world, although flags with many more colours are appearing. The flag is portrayed as a symbol of sexual love and diversity, but it misrepresents the true form of Christian agapē love, which is self-less and giving, and where sexual love is confined to monogamous marriage between one man and one woman (see: 1 Corinthians 13:4–7).

“Love [agapē] is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Instead, the pride flag associates love with sexual diversity and selfish pleasure seeking. The term gay changed its meaning during the 1960s and 1970s from that of happy and carefree, to that of homosexual, or more specifically male homosexual. The more traditional understanding is exemplified in a once popular children’s saying: “The child that is born on the Sabbath day is blithe and bonny, and good and gay.” As I was born on a Sunday, at a young age I recall being taught this stanza from the rhyme with approval. Of course, to think our birth day has any influence on our lives is really superstitious nonsense, but it does show how the word gay long had a different meaning unrelated to sexual orientation or activity.3,4

pixabay.comrainbow
Rainbow showing primary and secondary bows, plus the Alexander band.

God’s promise

So, along with certain words, the rainbow has become a social and political symbol in recent years, one that is in opposition to Christian values (and on rare occasions used to vandalize Christian memorials). This has occurred even though it has been a religious symbol for several millennia. Within Jewish and Christian teaching, the rainbow has been, and continues to be, a symbol of God’s promise to humankind, never to flood the earth again. Following the judgment of the great Flood (Genesis 6–8) God said to Noah that (Genesis 9:11):

“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow [qesheth קֶשֶׁת] in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

The word qesheth in this passage is that of an archer’s bow, whether for hunting or war. God is saying in these verses that His bow is established in the sky as a sign of mercy, that “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). The rainbow, then, is a symbol of God’s covenantal promise to all mankind, and of God’s grace—it also symbolically points to the glory of the ascended Messiah.

In the Genesis account, Noah passed through the flood waters, secure in the Ark, in order to rescue mankind and animal life. Then he was shown the rainbow as a covenant promise. Likewise, Christ experienced death, spending three days in the grave, before his resurrection and ascension into heaven through clouds into glory (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). While the Acts and Luke accounts do not mention a rainbow, the image of a rainbow forms part of a vision of the glorified Jesus in John’s Revelation (Revelation 4:2–6). Christ is seen seated in the midst of glory surrounded by angels:

“… and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. … From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.”

John’s vision continues in Revelation 10:1–6 where he sees a mighty angel with “a rainbow over his head”. Some Bible commentators see this as another picture of Christ, with the voice described to be like that of a lion’s roar, and the message as the sound of thunder.5 Similarly, in the first chapter of Ezekiel (1:26–28), a messianic vision is recorded by the prophet in which he observes a “likeness with a human appearance” seated upon a glorious throne of fiery sapphire. In verse 28 we read, “Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.”

So, in the Bible the rainbow is seen as a sign of the covenant promise of mercy and peace following the Flood, and it is also used symbolically to describe the glory of the soon-coming Messiah. Clearly, then, it is a sacred symbol for Christians, a universal symbol of God’s mercy, and of hope for all of mankind. Its appropriation by a pressure group profanes this divinely ordained symbol. While the rainbow is a symbol of mercy, God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7)—the visions outlined above are of One seated as judge over the affairs of mankind; one who will ultimately bring judgment and holy fire to the earth (2 Peter 3:9–10).

God’s design of the rainbow

commons.wikimedia.org, Wing-Chi Poon CCA SA 2.5 Genericwhere-rainbow-rises
Colours of the rainbow, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Whereas the most common pride flag has six colours, seventeenth century scientist Isaac Newton claimed that the rainbow actually contained seven colours, mirroring the musical scale, which has seven major notes,6 although in reality the colours of the rainbow are continuous; see: Rainbows, the Flood, and the Covenant. The rainbow is evidence of God’s design and wonder in the world, which adds to the beauty of creation, and human existence, and should lead to praise and worship.7

The primary rainbow is produced by the refraction and reflection of white light inside many raindrops. The light is separated into a distinct band by the water droplets because of the slightly different wavelengths of each colour. Sometimes, a secondary weaker bow is visible, produced by a double reflection within the raindrops; therefore, it is reversed and observed higher in the sky. There is also a dark band between the two bows, called the Alexander band (named after Alexander of Aphrodisias who first described it around AD 200). In this band (region of sky) all reflected light is directed away from the observer.

Summary

As Christian believers we should not be afraid to actively promote the rainbow as a universal symbol of God’s love and mercy towards mankind, and not allow it be captured by single issue pressure groups. Such mis-appropriation undermines the ability of others to use the symbol for sacred purposes. The image of Christ, who is pictured in several biblical visions seated in judgement over the affairs of men, is tempered by the adornment of the rainbow as an ongoing symbol of peace and mercy to those who repent and turn to him.

Published: 3 November 2022

References and notes

  1. History of NHS Rainbow Badge, lgbt.foundation; accessed 7 Oct 2022. Return to text.
  2. Melendez L., LGBTQ Pride: Gilbert Baker, creator of rainbow flag, shares story of strength and pride, abc7news.com, 2 March 2017. Return to text.
  3. Dodge, M.M., St Nicholas: Scribner’s illustrated magazine for boys and girls, Vol. IV, Scribner & Co. NY., November 1876, p. 58. Return to text.
  4. In 2008, some residents of the Greek island of Lesbos argued in court that the term lesbian should not be used by gay women because it undermined their island identity. This usage came about because of the love poems of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho (6th century BC), who was born and lived on Lesbos, although it is not even clear whether or not Sappho had same-sex lovers. Reuters, Greek court rules lesbians not just from lesbos, nbcnews.com, 22 July 2008. Return to text.
  5. See, for example, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (on Revelation 10:1–7), Chester, 1706–1721, ccel.org, studylight.org; the exposition of Revelation was completed by others after his death using Henry’s notes. Return to text.
  6. Newton, I., Opticks: or a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections and colours of Light, 3rd ed., William and John Innys, London, Obs. 14, pp. 186–186, 1721. Return to text.
  7. The Wisdom of Sirach, 43:11–12, or Ecclesiasticus (KJV) comments: “Look upon the rainbow, and praise him that made it; very beautiful it is in the brightness thereof. It compasseth the heaven about with a glorious circle, and the hands of the most High have bended it” (this book is not accepted as Scripture by most evangelical Christians). Return to text.

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