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Finally! How To Understand the Symbols of Revelation

First let me apologize for being absent from the blog for three days.   As you probably know, the South got nailed with a storm on Wednesday evening.   Among other nasty things, it knocked my power out – and I was powerless, so to say, until yesterday (Friday) afternoon.   This wasn’t a *complete* disaster:  I had virtually nothing to do but sit in front of my fireplace and read books, and I read an *unconscionable* amount – more than I’ve read in any two-day period in my life!   That part was good.  But I was without access to email or Internet, and so the blog had to take a hit.

But I’m back now and the future looks good.

Speaking of the future, I wanted to make one more post on the book of Revelation.   Two questions I often get asked about it (including from readers of the blog) are whether the symbolism is meant to keep Roman authorities from understanding what was in the book in order to protect the author from persecution and whether the events that it describes may be coded references to what will happen in our own future.   Here is what I say about each subject in my textbook discussion on the book


Apocalypses as Underground Literature?

Some readers of the book of Revelation have taken its mysterious symbols to suggest that it was “underground” literature.  The symbolic language of the book, according to this interpretation, was used to keep the governing authorities from realizing that they themselves were under attack.

There may be an element of truth in this view, but one might wonder whether a Roman administrator was likely to sit down over the weekend to read a good Christian book.  It seems more plausible that the principal function of the symbolism — whether in Revelation or in other apocalypses — lay elsewhere, namely, in the character of the material itself.  For indeed, the heavenly secrets are by their very nature not straightforward or banal or subject to empirical demonstration; their mystery and splendor virtually require them to be conveyed in unearthly and bizarre symbols of the higher realities of heaven.

(In addition I might point out that talking about the “enemy” of Christ as a beast that is a city “seated on seven hills” that rules the nations of the earth – well, it doesn’t take a genius on the history and geography of Rome to figure out who the enemy is….  This is not a mysterious view that would be puzzling to an outsider.)


Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation

One of the most popular ways to interpret the book of Revelation today is to read its symbolic visions as literal descriptions of what is going to transpire in our own day and age.  But there are problems with this kind of approach.  On the one hand,


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Readers’ Mailbag on Revelation: November 6, 2015
The Book of Revelation as an Apocalypse



  1. Avatar
    sharding4  February 28, 2015

    I find the use of “apocalypse” as the name of a literary genre and “apocalyptic” as a term describing a certain worldview somewhat confusing. The two are sometimes closely related, e.g. in the Book of Revelation which you have been discussing, but apocalypse as literary genre has a life of its own for instance in the Coptic Gnostic Apocalypses discovered in recent years. Many of those works display the hallmarks of the apocalyptic genre but not the millenarian worldview. Maybe to me the more interesting question is the relation of the worldview to elements from the genre, e.g. do our apocalyptic prophets be they John of Patmos or Paul of Ephesus always have to claim visionary experiences (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4) to be apocalyptic prophets? Jesus is often described as an apocalyptic prophet, but what evidence exists connecting the historical Jesus to any of the hallmarks of apocalypse as literary genre or any apocalyptic work? I would suggest Jesus was a millenarian prophet with little or no connection to apocalyptic literature. The “apocalypticism” of Jesus is narrated through the symbols of everyday life not the bizarre symbols of the “apocalyptic” visionary. That must mean something.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2015

      I try to use three different terms: “apocalpyse” for a genre of literature; “apocalypticism” for a world view; and “apocalyptic” only as an adjective, not a noun, again in reference to the world view. For what it’s worth!

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 28, 2015

    Hey, you just made images in one of my favorite TV series clearer to me! (Never read Revelation, never will.) I don’t know whether you’ve ever looked at “Resurrection.” They did have at least one scene where locusts were morphing into helicopters, and/or vice versa. (By the end of Season 2, a back-from-the-dead preacher who’s almost certainly a villain was claiming a baby – whose conception and survival till birth were undoubtedly “odd” – is the Antichrist. And there were locusts swarming outside the baby’s window.)

    Last year, that series aired in the spring. I got a kick out of their *not* airing an episode on Easter Sunday!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2015

      Ah, but you *should* read it! One of antiquity’s classics.

  3. Avatar
    Ini  February 28, 2015

    Hi Bart, welcome back, just checking if you have some research already on some topics related to Jesus for example, – that Nazareth never existed at the time of Jesus, are you aware of this claim? That Jesus may not have actually died on the cross, i.e. he died much earlier than normally should , and the mixtures he was given to drink could have sustained him?

    thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2015

      See today’s post! for the “drugged Jesus” hypothesis — I deal with that in my book Forged. No one buys it.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 28, 2015

    I was also without electricity in Durham for 2 days and chose to read “Power Forward” by Reggie Love in which Reggie describes his experiences with both Coach K and President Obama. It’s a good book and I especially like how Reggie makes some big mistakes, like we all do, and is able to forgive himself for these mistakes and not get completely derailed by them.

    I like your description of the helicopters created by Hal Lindsay. Very creative to make locusts into helicopters. I have read the dozen or so “Left Behind” novels. They were okay for awhile, but eventually got way too farfetched…

    Have you read “Reading Back” by Dr. Richard Hays? .

  5. Avatar
    smackemyackem  February 28, 2015

    Please do more stuff like this on Revelations and Daniel! Please, please, please!

  6. Avatar
    jgranade  February 28, 2015

    Hal Lindsay’s interpretation of the locusts reminds me of “Ancient Alien Theorists” who suggest that biblical accounts of strange flying things or strange beings were really describing ancient aliens and spacecraft, in the best way they knew how (e.g., Ezekiel’s flying chariot, the Nephilim). Bart, I’m guessing you find these interpretations no more convincing than Lindsay’s.

  7. Avatar
    doug  February 28, 2015

    I wonder how many Christians today realize that most first century Christians (and Jesus) believed the Kingdom of God on Earth was coming during *their* lifetime, and that they believed this, in part, because they believed their God was too good to allow the evils of the world to continue much longer. Well, the evil rolls on, over 1,900 years later…

  8. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 28, 2015

    I have asked a question on the readers blog what the word ‘evil’ means? Surely anyone that really believes in Christianity must assume whatever happens in the world has God’s tacit acceptance, even any Satan/Devil presence among us. When its far more easier and simpler and actually more just for God to destroy ONE evil entity which he could have even before the Garden of Eden and tempation of Eve. So God sets a trap, humans fall into it and they are punished for doing so, even though it could have been prevented etc? Would God want to destroy the whole of mankind for spite? Surely it should have been Satan that should have been crucified, not Jesus?

    I just wish all these doomsters would put a timescale on all these prophetic events because that’s another sleepless nignt I will have worrying about it all. 😉

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  July 2, 2015

      Why have any sleepless nights? The apocalyptic prediction is not something that is going to happen. Also, the evil in this world is man created, not a product of the devil. Natural disasters are just that—natural disasters—the devil has nothing to do with those—-science is quite clear about that.

  9. Avatar
    Kevin  March 1, 2015

    Clearly these ‘locusts’ are modern AI controlled flying torture microdrones. Who could conclude any different?

  10. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  March 1, 2015

    On the other hand, you can think some parts of the book were intended literally without trying to apply them to the world of 2015. If the Book of Revelation fell within an established genre of apocalyptic literature, how do you think the author interpreted other apocalypses? For example, Isaiah speaks of the earth being torn asunder. That could hardly be a metaphor for the destruction of the Roman Empire, which didn’t exist yet. It seems more likely to me that the author of Revelation took such prophecies literally, and tried to expand on them.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what the destruction of the whole earth could be a symbol for! I’ll buy the woman on the beast as Rome, but symbolizing Rome as the whole earth seems like major overkill.

    An unrelated question: I know you don’t think the author was John son of Zebedee, but do you think he actually was named “John”? It was a pretty common name, then as now.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2015

      Yes, my guess is that is was written by some fellow named John, who was a known figure to the original audience.

  11. Avatar
    Gerald Smith  March 1, 2015

    Thanks for this post. How would you interpret the event with the locusts in context of John’s revelation in 100 AD? What did the Romans have that would afflict man, but not harm plants? Real locusts would destroy plant life, and leave the humans.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2015

      They are not meant to be a literal description of something that was actually going to happen. The world is going to experience unbelievable suffering, and this is one symbolic representation of it.

  12. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 1, 2015

    Bart, a minor edit; it’s Hal Lindsey, not Lindsay. … But your message prompted me to discover and purchase his paperback on e-bay entitled “The Late, Great Planet Earth” (1981). … I heard him today on an unnamed cable network debunking climate change. … Two days without power here in Caribou, Maine would be Hell on Earth!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      It was the best selling book in the English language of the 1970s! (Really)

  13. Avatar
    silvertime  March 1, 2015

    In the small town in Kentucky that I live in, recently there was a heavily advertised event sponsored by a local non denominational church. It featured a a traveling preaher/speaker giving his version of the meaning of Revelation and its importance and impact on modern era events and times. Among the general public, this sensationalism causes many to think that they might finally understand the mystery

  14. Avatar
    nichael  March 1, 2015

    One last sighting of “666”…

    Purely by chance I happened to be reading Aeschyus’ Oresteia trilogy this sat week and near the beginning of the first play (Agamemnon) the watchman uses a dicing metaphor to celebrate the shining of the long-awaited signal fire from Troy by proclaiming:

    “…yon beacon having thrown me three sixes!” ([TRIS hEX BALOUSHS] –corresponding to ln 34 of Agamemnon in the Loeb Classical edition)

    I presume there’s no reason to assume that this is anything other than coincidence? 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      I’m sure you’re right. But I had never noticed that.

  15. cheito
    cheito  March 2, 2015

    I understand that the Book of revelation is not the inspired word of God…It’s useless. It’s apocryphal! Fictitious! False prophecy!

  16. Avatar
    qaelith2112  March 2, 2015

    Modern fundamentalist interpretation of the symbols can be unintentionally hilarious. Jenkins and LaHaye in the Left Behind books (one of them, at least) makes it a point to suggest that there is no good reason to see much of the book as symbolic and that much of it SHOULD be taken very literally. As a result they have literal giant locusts that look exactly as described which are running around tormenting people.

  17. Avatar
    Eric  March 3, 2015

    Did you do all that reading by candle/firelight? That would be tough on the eyes.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2015

      Luckily I have lots of windows (half the study is glass), and the snow made it bright in here.

      • Avatar
        nichael  March 4, 2015

        If you’ve not done so, you should invest in one of those good quality, battery-powered reading light that clips on to the top of your book (mine have got me through many a powerless evening here in the woods of Vermont).

        Still trying to figure out what the phrase “an unconscionable amount of reading” means, though….

  18. Avatar
    webattorney  March 6, 2015

    Why would God make visions so hard to understand if God wanted as many people to understand what is to come? I guess we just don’t understands ways of God.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2015

      That’s why in the apocalypses there is always an angel to hand to explain the visions!

  19. Avatar
    Msjhnsn  July 24, 2018

    Unfortunately, even the angels’ explanations are a bit cryptic.

  20. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  May 25, 2020

    I believe the text is meant as a personal revelation of the soul, the soul ascends to its source / destiny

    The Gnostics had these thoughts, who seemed to influence the Joanninne community?, and similarities can definitely be found. The symbolism is similar in many ways. THe bizarre images used in the Revelation, can be found in Apocryphon of John and the Gospel of Phillip (among others) that tell their story of the soul decending (creation) and soul ascending, WITHOUT claiming the Revelation is gnostic.

    * The 7 soul garments who are guarded by 7 angles
    * The 4 earthly rebellious kingdoms (4 animals). Earthly attributes
    * The importance of the bridal chamber
    * Christ as a revealer (both for creation and also the soul acend)
    * One must leave the 4 earthly and pass through the 7 soul garments/angels
    * 666 or “He Pren”, the lower mind
    * THE Beast with the Seven Horns (Odes of Solomon – Joannienne community)
    * “I am” sayings in some text just like the Gospel of John

    and many more!.

    The Gnostics used this (decend/ascend) mythology and some similar symbols and ideas which was not strange to the Johanniene community?, so the Revelation could be about the same type of story.

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