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Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation

Now that my book The Triumph of Christianity has come out, I’m thinking about my future books.  The one I’m working on now is The Invention of the Afterlife, where I explore the origins of the idea that when you die, your soul goes to heaven or hell (it’s not in the Old Testament and it’s not what Jesus taught — so where did it come from??).  But I always like to think two or three books in the future, and so I’m contemplating what I might do after this.

One idea is to deal with the belief that the world is soon to come to an end, a book that would, among other things, take on the book of Revelation.   I’ve dealt with the issue before, of course, but not broadly.  One of the things I’m interested in is how people interpret Revelation as referring to things about to happen in our own future.  Here’s something I say about the topic in my textbook on the Bible.

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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 one hand, we should be suspicious of interpretations that are blatantly narcissistic; this way of understanding the book maintains that the entire course of human history has now culminated with us! An even larger problem, however, is that this approach inevitably has to ignore certain features of the text in order to make its interpretations fit.

Consider, as just one example, an interpretation sometimes given of the “locusts” that emerge from the smoke of the bottomless pit in order to wreak havoc on earth in chapter 9.  The seer describes the appearance of these dread creatures as follows:

Does the Bible talk about what is soon to happen?  To find out, you need to read the rest of this post, and to read the rest of his post you have to belong to the blog.  Hey, isn’t it worth it?  It won’t cost much, you’ll discover the secrets of the universe, and every dime you pay goes to charity!

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    mkahn1977  March 1, 2018

    Weren’t you considering a book on Christian appropriation of Jewish scripture?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      Still am!

      • Avatar
        doug  March 2, 2018

        That would be very interesting, since early Christians twisted Jewish scripture to support the belief that Jesus was the messiah (a distortion which continues to this day). I never realized until I was in my 50s that Jewish people of Jesus’ time did not interpret their scripture in that way (and still do not).

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  2. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  March 1, 2018

    I’m sure you will explain in your coming book. But if Jesus did not taught heaven and hell in the New Testament then why is he speaking numerous of times about ‘furnaces of fire’ and a place where will be ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’? Like in Matthew 13:40-42. I mean, he keeps coming with this type of language over and over again. Isn’t it obvious that he is warning about something? And isn’t that something a place of punishment?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      Two points: 1) I’m talking about the historical Jesus, not the Jesus portrayed, for exmaple, by Matthew 50 years later and 2) If Jesus did hold to future punishment, it was after the resurrection of the body; it wasn’t a punishment of souls at the point of death.

      • ronaldus67
        ronaldus67  March 2, 2018

        So the historical Jesus (most probably) wasn’t teaching any of this, but the doctrine that evolved after him did?
        ‘Jesus misquoted’…. again 😉
        Thanks for your clear answer Bart.

    • Avatar
      fishician  March 2, 2018

      Fire consumes and destroys, so why use that description if you actually mean eternal torment? Throw me in a fire and I’ll wail and gnash my teeth, but not for long.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

        No, they had read modern sadistic crime novels. Death would be too kind, so I’ll prolong the agony with torture. The good people really hated the bad people, the people who abused their power. That was half the fun of apocalyptic literature. Sure, the good people get rewarded. But the bad people are tortured and finally receive their just rewards.

  3. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  March 1, 2018

    Will your tentative book take the format of Now v. Then as you did in this excerpt from your textbook? I think such a format would add suspense if you layout the “Futuristic” interpretation first and then explain how it is lacking.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      Haven’t decided how I’m going to approach it yet — or if I’ll even write it! But that would be a sensible way to do it.

  4. Avatar
    Eric  March 1, 2018

    Perhaps deal with prophecy in general, including treating non-biblical situations. My understanding tis that there has been, from time to time, a genre that writes “prophecy” about what has already happened, not really as forgery but as interpretation of the meaning of events (or political disguise for writer safety).

    Broad survey leading to focus on Revelation.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      A good and valuable point! Most prophetic literature was explanatory, not predictive.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  March 1, 2018

    It is an inherent trait in the human mind to seek patterns–and where they don’t exist, to imagine them. As children, with no religious training at all, will see patterns in clouds floating overhead. We can’t help it.

    Put me down for the book about the afterlife. At present, the end of the world seems less like something we’re imagining than something we’re actively encouraging. Theists, atheists, agnostics. Everybody but men and women of good will, who can be any of the above.

    Famous graffiti in a Belfast slum–“Is there life before death?”

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  March 1, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, may I suggest broading the topic of your book to not just Revelation but how, in general, just about every generation interprets “prophecies” as being fulfilled in their own times, and the subsequent apocalyptic literature that results. This is a topic that I myself have considered writing about. There’s something in the human psyche that likes to believe that everything happens for a reason, and if everything happens for a reason that means everything is predestined. And if everything is predestined, that means it’s possible for human beings to “know” the future.

    Now, for my own work, I tie this psychological need into my theories of power and control — i.e. the belief that the future is knowable gives us a sense of power and control over our destiny. For example, I distinguish between the “Priest,” the “Prophet,” the “God,” and the “King,” in both the literal and metaphorical senses, and their roles and relationships in the social power structure. (Indeed, the working title of my outline is “Priest, Prophet, God and King”.) Briefly, it works like this: The King is the person in power who needs to know the future, to guide his decisions and actions as king; the God, of course, directs and knows the future; the Priest appeases and coaxes the God so as to make the God amenable to giving up his secrets; the Prophet is the conduit through which the God informs the King as to the future. That’s why, in the Bible, God is always called a “counselor,” because the king saw God as a literal advisor, who would advise the king on the future consequences of his actions and decisions as king. We have analogous structures in our current society. The King has been replaced by democratically elected leaders. The God who knows the future has been replaced by “Nature,” as America’s founders liked to say. The people who appease and coax “Nature’s God” to reveal its secrets are the researchers, scientists, scholars, etc. The Prophets of today are the pundits, intellectuals and advisors who counsel, advise, admonish and strategize for those in power.

    Anyway, not to get too deep into the weeds, what I’m suggesting is giving your readers a way to connect the dots between, say, Revelation and Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. The very same human psychology unlies both works — the need to feel like we have a handle on the immediate future. In fact, I would recommend you don’t even open your book with Revelation, but, rather, the Habakkuk Pesher, which I would argue was really the Dead Sea Scroll equivalent of Edgar Whisenant’s “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988”! Really draw the readers’ attention to how Revelation and Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth are similar specimens of what the late great Christopher Hitchens liked to call eschatological porn. If people really saw, red pill style, how this eschatological hamster wheel has lulled them into a false certainty about the immediate future — as it has done for every generation, for thousands of years — then you might do an important service to humanity.

    Not to overstate the case, of course.

  7. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 1, 2018

    There is great interest in end times/ apocalyptic ideas, seen for example in popular movies situated in post apocalyptic world’s, and the left behind novels that sold something like 60 million copies?

  8. Avatar
    wostraub  March 1, 2018

    Bart — I just finished reading your Triumph of Christianity book, and I think it’s your best to date. I can’t wait to see your next one on the afterlife, but it looks like I’ll just have to!

    I always believed that heaven, hell and purgatory were Christian inventions, and that the promise (or threat) of an eternal hereafter is what made Christianity the world’s most dominant faith. You touch on this in “The Terrors of the Afterlife” heading of your book, but could you address the question a little more?

  9. Avatar
    anthonygale  March 1, 2018

    What are your thoughts on the idea that the events depicted in Revelation are predictions about what will happen over the course of time? The seven seals, and the events associated with their breaking, are said to occur over the course of centuries or even millenia. I don’t believe this, but it is an interesting idea.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      I think that line of interpretation originated when the events to happen “soon” didn’t in fact happen as planned….

      • Avatar
        truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

        Soon to God can be a 1,000 or 2000 years because from His perspective a 1000 years can be a day to how he sees it as “soon” but from humans perspective it seems like a long time.

      • Avatar
        truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

        Is “soon” according to YHWH’s
        perspective of soon or according to man’s?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 4, 2018

          For 2 Peter it is God’s calendar. Which makes one wonder what the actual point is of telling people that it will be soon….

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      Nope. The very first verse of Revelation refutes that. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.”

      • Avatar
        truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

        World peace talks coming soon, a sign that the great tribulation is near?

  10. Avatar
    fishician  March 1, 2018

    I think the very first verse of Revelation tells us it is not about some distant future, but these fanciful modern interpretations are much more fun, and profitable. Just ask Hal Lindsey.

  11. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  March 1, 2018

    Please don’t waste your talents on Revelations. It’s a tiny audience of people who believe the fundamentalist stuff and yet are willing to read anything you’ll ever write. And you have so much to offer in areas that matter.

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  March 1, 2018

    A book I would really like to read from a critical scholar such as yourself is THE HOLY SPIRIT: HOW HE(?) BECAME THE THIRD MEMBER OF THE TRINITY.

    But alas, you might want to think about doing the book on Anti-Semitism you discussed a while back.

    https://www.adl.org/education/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents

    “In its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, ADL found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017 – the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.”
    .

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 1, 2018

    I worked by way through all, about a dozen, of the “Left Behind” novels. It’s enough to scare you to death. They do, however, give a glimpse of one view of what a literal interpretation of the book of “Revelation” seems to predict.

  14. tompicard
    tompicard  March 1, 2018

    I agree its a mistake to interpret literally apocalyptic writings/sayings like those in book of Revelation (ch9) or book of Daniel (ch7) or words of Jesus (Mt ch24).
    in ALL these cases it is obvious to me that the words are best understood as you say “as metaphorical statement[s] of the ultimate sovereignty of God over a world that is plagued by evil”

    Some may think each of the above are literal, that is a view I disagree with, but I appreciate it as at least consistent. On the other hand, if you hold some of the above are to be best understood literally and others metaphorically then that is quite an inconsistent point of view, and hard for me to understand the reasoning for.

  15. Avatar
    doug  March 1, 2018

    Something about the Gospels that people today don’t always realize is that Jesus was giving his message to people *of his own time*. So when Jesus told people in the 1st century that the Kingdom of God was coming soon, he was speaking of their time, not ours almost 2,000 years in the future. Nor did he write a book to pass down to us.

  16. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  March 1, 2018

    It was very revelatory (pun intended) to learn that the book of Revelation was not a blue print for the future but a book full of symbolism directed toward the people alive at the time it was written. I understand that the teaching of the Rapture began with John Nelson Darby, the father of modern Dispensationalism and Futurism, however, with many early Christians believing Christ’s return to be extremely imminent, did those early Christians believe in a type of rapture for a select few or did they simply believe that Christ was returning to establish God’s kingdom on Earth for all?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      I imagine it depends on which early Christians you were to ask! But see 1 Thess. 4:13-18.

  17. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 1, 2018

    With the Book of Revelation, you almost have a built-in captive audience already. I think there is a lot of public interest in this topic (and even more crazy ideas about it), so any chance to throw the clear light of scholarship on it I believe performs a much needed public service. Other scholars have been here before (most notably Elaine Pagels in her 2012 book “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation”), but with your name recognition, I believe there would be a lot of interest in what you would have to say on it.

  18. Avatar
    doug  March 1, 2018

    A book about how Jesus taught in the 1st century that the Kingdom of God on Earth was coming soon (not many years later) and how that was also a 1st century Christian belief would be very interesting to me. That was a central teaching of Jesus, yet few people today are aware of that. Jesus’ teaching on that subject has been terribly distorted. The early process of how that belief morphed from the imminent Earthly Kingdom into heaven or a personal relationship with God or an earthly Kingdom many years off would be very interesting, too.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      Ah, I wrote that book already! It’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 15, 2018

        As much as I admire Bart Ehrman, I don’t agree that Jesus was expecting and teaching the imminence of the last days and the final judgment. I believe the apocalypse Jesus feared was the rebellion of his people against the brutal Roman Empire and his belief the Romans would overwhelm and destroy them, which is what inevitably happened. The vast majority of scholars agree with Dr. Ehrman but I strongly believe otherwise. I’m referring to the historical Jesus, not the fantasy Jesus in the gospels.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  April 27, 2018

          Why do you think Jesus feared that? If you wanted to think of Jesus as a Zealot, you could find plenty in the gospels to identify with. The cost of following Jesus is described as the cost of being a Zealot. The synoptic authors say Jesus was accused of being a Zealot, but was acquitted by both Pilate and Herod. The early teaching of Jesus was the teaching of John the Baptist, himself an apocalyptic preacher.

  19. Avatar
    ardeare  March 1, 2018

    A proper view of John’s Revelation consists of understanding a time before before this earth, a view of earth life, and an afterlife for residents of this earth. How anyone could read this book and come away with the idea that there is no judgement, separation, and eternal life is just bizarre.

  20. Avatar
    Deva758  March 1, 2018

    Bart, I would be happy to read a book you write on Revelation! I grew up in a fundamentalist church where all kinds of interpretations of Revelation were preached as facts. As a young teenager I could not resolve this in my mind. I read the books 666 and Your Last Goodbye by Salem Kirban with fascination at the time (early 70s). This whole emphasis on interpreting the Bible as if its prophecy of the near future is probably one reason I am not a Christian today, but I am still a bit fascinated by the imagery in that book.

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