Normally one would not welcome Armageddon with rejoicing, but in this instance …. My book is published today: Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End. Now this is a book that has, in some sense, been in the works for 50 years, since the first time I started pondering the Apocalypse of John as a 17 year old, about to head off to Moody Bible Institute and realizing I better read the final book of the NT — even though I was scared of it — before taking the first-year Entrance Exam on the Bible possibly whiffing on a question about Revelation.j
It took me a while to start figuring out the book — say, grad school — and about five years ago, as I began to study it really intensely, I changed my views of it. Hence the book.
For reasons I explain in it, of all the books I’ve written I think this is the one most relevant for our world at large. And not because I think the apocalypse will hit next month. Though, given the state of things, maybe it will.
I explain the book and its relevance a *bit* in the Preface:
Many early Christians opposed the book of Revelation and argued it should not be included in the New Testament. The author, they insisted, was not an apostle and the book presented unacceptable views of the future of earth and the people who will inherit it. In the end, of course, they lost the argument. Once the book was widely accepted as Scripture, the followers of Jesus had to figure out how to make sense of it.
Over the long course of Christian history, many readers of the Bible have opted simply not to delve into its mysteries. Even today, most find the book of Revelation bizarre and unapproachable. Those who do read it usually fall into two camps. Since the end of the nineteenth century, most evangelical Christians have taken the book as a blueprint for events soon to come. These readers are convinced that the book’s prophecies are now, at last, being fulfilled. God has begun to intervene in history through a series of foreordained disasters. At a final confrontation of the powers of good and evil, the Battle of Armageddon, Christ will appear from heaven to destroy his enemies. But true believers in Jesus will survive and thrive in a glorious utopia—a city of gold with gates of pearl, from which they will rule the world for all time.
On the other side of the interpretive spectrum, liberal Christian scholars argue the book does not provide a literal description of divinely ordained catastrophes. It is instead a metaphorical narrative meant to provide a message of hope for those who suffer now, much as Christ himself suffered when he was among us. In this view, Revelation seeks to show that while evil is pervasive and misery rampant, the Ruler of all will eventually make right everything that is wrong. The book does not describe the imminent end of history as we know it; it celebrates God as the ultimate source of hope for all who follow him.
I have held both these views at different times in my life, and I now think they are both wrong.
I began my study of Revelation as a teenager in the mid-1970s. As a committed evangelical Christian, I considered every word of the Bible inspired and true, and I heartily embraced a literal reading of the prophecies of Revelation, convinced they showed beyond any doubt that Jesus was soon to return from heaven, and then there would be hell to pay, at least for those who, unlike me, were not true believers.
After some years, as I engaged in a more rigorous study of the Bible, I came to see the difficulties with this view and began to explore the book of Revelation from a more historical perspective. I realized why it was important to understand the work in its own context in relation to other ancient Jewish and Christian books collectively called “apocalypses.” These are endlessly fascinating works that narrate visions of things to come in order to show how the awful realities of earth can be explained by the truths of heaven, with the goal of providing comfort.
This is how I taught the book when I began my university career, as a graphic but nonliteral proclamation of hope for those who are suffering. All will be well in the end. Good will triumph. God will prevail. And he will “wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4).
I eventually had to abandon this understanding of the book. It was difficult for me to do so, just as earlier in life it had been hard to give up on the idea that Revelation was predicting our future. In this book, I show why I think both views are flawed. In the first part I explain how a “futuristic” understanding of the book as a blueprint for what is yet to come evolved and why this reading is almost certainly wrong—even though it continues to be the view of evangelical Christians and of American culture at large.
In the second part, I show why I also don’t think Revelation provides a comforting message for the vast majority of those who suffer in this life. The overwhelming emphasis of Revelation is not about hope but about the wrath and vengeance of God against those who have incurred his displeasure. For the author of Revelation, that entails the vast majority of those who have ever lived, including, perhaps surprisingly, a number of committed Christians. The largest section of Revelation describes God inflicting horrible suffering on the planet: war, starvation, disease, drought, earthquake, torture, and death. The catastrophes end with the Battle of Armageddon, where Christ destroys all the armies of earth and calls on the scavengers of the sky to gorge themselves on their flesh. This is the climax of the history of earth.
But it is not the end of all things. After the slaughter there will be a final judgment, when God’s faithful followers, his “slaves,” will be saved; everyone else who has ever lived will be brought back to life and then thrown, while still alive, into a lake of burning sulfur. Afterward, God will reward his obedient slaves by giving them a glorious new city of gold with gates of pearl. That is indeed a happy ending for some, but not because God loves them deeply—at least the book never says so. The saved are God’s minions who do what he demands. The love of God—for anyone or anything—is never mentioned in the book of Revelation, not once.
At the end of this book, I consider why Revelation was nearly excluded from the New Testament and ponder whether the ancient Christian opponents of the book may in fact have had some valid insights. In particular, I compare the views of its author, John of Patmos, with the teachings of Jesus. John certainly considered himself follower of Jesus—a particularly ardent follower. But are his views actually consistent with those of his Lord? Would Jesus have accepted John’s celebration of violence, quest for vengeance, passion for glory, and hope for world domination? Did he not instead urge his followers to pursue love, non-retaliation, poverty, and service?
Different readers, of course, will answer these questions differently. I would simply urge anyone who wants to pursue them to read, or reread, Revelation to see what it actually says. That is what I have tried to do here.
My book is not, however, meant simply to provide a better interpretation of the Apocalypse of John. I also explain how a literal reading has created disastrous problems, including personal and psychological damage of myriads around us: family members, friends, and neighbors. But there is more than that. The expectation—or, rather, hope—for imminent Armageddon has affected our world in ways you might not expect, involving carnage, US foreign policy, and the welfare of our planet.
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