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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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Early Christology: How I Changed My Mind
My Interview with Michael Shermer

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    andersg89  March 2, 2018

    Some (most?) Christians read the Hebrew bible as containing vast amount of prophecy about Jesus. I would like to hear your thoughts on how Christianity came to reinterper and continue to interper the Hebrew bible in sharp contrast to scholars and if that guides these futuristic readings of Revelations?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      Yes, that would be a nice thread. But I don’t think it affected futuristic interpretations of Revelation.

  2. Avatar
    Silver  March 2, 2018

    In the Old Testament do the titles Son of Man and Messiah refer to the same person, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      Nope.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  April 27, 2018

      In Isaiah, son of man is used to refer to (mortal) humans. In Ezekiel, it refers to the prophet himself (Ezekiel), over and over again. Same for Daniel 8:7. I can’t find a place in Tanakh where it ever applies to a messiah.

  3. Avatar
    frankmelliott3rd  March 2, 2018

    1. Will your Afterlife book examine the origin strictly from the western perspective, or will it fold in Eastern thoughts and traditions?

    2. As you get further into your research, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the UVA School of Medicine’s Division of Perceptual Studies (not that the book — based on the working title — will necessarily take a stance on afterlife itself. Probably best to dodge that no-way-of-knowing subject.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      It will focus on the question of where the Christian views came from.

  4. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 2, 2018

    The late Jacob Milgrom, a prominent Conservative rabbi and commentator on the Torah, held that the monotheism of Leviticus is inconsistent with the notion of demonic forces behind the causes of impurity. I have other reasons for rejecting the idea of demons as conscious entities, but would you agree that Christians who believe demons are active in the world or individuals are not consistently monotheistic?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 2, 2018

      There’s not a right or wrong answer to that. It depends entirely on how you define “monotheistic.”

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      Some at the time made that accusation against Jews. You say you are monotheistic (by at least the first century), yet you believe in angels. We [polytheists] do too, but we have always called them gods.

  5. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 2, 2018

    When NASA engineer’s were designing suits for astronauts to wear in the emptiness of space, they didn’t do so in a vacuum: they modeled their appearance after the costumes of the science fiction films of their childhoods. If there is any relationship between biblical imagery and modern technology, I would guess the relationship is the same. A war machine to that calls up cultural memories of avenging angels or demonic figures are bound to increase the terror of one’s human targets.

  6. Avatar
    ddecker54  March 2, 2018

    One of the points you make in “Triumph” while discussing why pagans found the Christian religion compelling is this idea of eternal damnation if one didn’t believe in Jesus and live life according to his teachings. Am I correct in thinking that this idea of eternal damnation/reward was a new paradigm for many pagans? If so, this concept of afterlife must have developed early in Christianity, despite it being outside of Jesus’ teachings. Of course, I am anxious to read what you say about what Jesus DID think about an afterlife.
    Thanks in advance.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 2, 2018

    Do you think that at any point, you might actually run out of ideas for new books?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      Yeah, I suppose when I’m on my death bed. I have about five ideas now, and I’m not trying even to think very hard about it….

  8. Avatar
    jdh5879  March 2, 2018

    Your Teaching Company colleague Craig Koester has an excellent course on the book of Revelation called “The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History”. He also has a book by the same name. Many people on the blog would probably enjoy the class or the book.

  9. Avatar
    screwtape  March 2, 2018

    Are you going to delve into the possibility that John, or whoever wrote it, might have been smoking something?

  10. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  March 2, 2018

    Biblical prophecy makes a whole lot more sense once you understand the literary genres in which they were written, as well as the Jewish worldviews behind them.

    Covenantal Worldview: If Israel obeyed Torah, they would be blessed (and the converse).

    Prophetic Worldview: If anything bad happens to Israel, it must be because they disobeyed.

    Apocalyptic Worldview: Sometimes the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, sometimes evil gets the upper hand. But in the end, evil will be punished and good rewarded.

    Most prophetic literature was explanatory, not predictive. Written in the form of a prediction by a well-known prophet, it explained why events (like the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities) happened. Later prophetic literature incorporated apocalyptic elements. It’s not hard for scholars to find the dividing line. In the prophetic portion, they can recognize the historical event portrayed. When the language gets bizarre, and nothing historical can be recognized, you’re in the apocalyptic portion.

  11. Avatar
    caesar  March 3, 2018

    There are passages in Revelation that are clearly symbolic–I don’t think anyone thinks that John was watching a literal seven-headed beast come out of the sea in chapter 13, as if beeomsast is actually going to come out of the Mediterranean Sea at some point. Futuristic interpreters must admit that passages like this are not literal. Is it then inconsistent to take some visions like this as figurative, and then to say that passages like the locusts in chapter 9 are visions of literal events?

    • Avatar
      caesar  March 3, 2018

      ‘beeomsast’ is a typo–should say ‘some beast’

      • Avatar
        dagrote  April 25, 2018

        Whew! I was Googling “Beeomsast” and coming up with nothing. It would be a great name for some lurid monster, wouldn’t it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      Yes, that’s always the challenge: what is metaphor and what is literal?

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 15, 2018

        Frankly, I hate to see you wasting your oh-so-valuable time on a pile of dreck like the Book of Revelation.

  12. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  March 3, 2018

    I’m curious if you’ve read N.T. Wright’s summary of Jewish and pagan beliefs about the afterlife which he outlines in the first part of “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” and whether you think his assessments are accurate.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      It’s perfectly fine a summary. Not very nuanced, but basic and to the point.

  13. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 3, 2018

    Did the Pharisees believe in resurrection and eternal life while the Sadducees Did not?
    If true, Then believing in Jesus’resurrection would have been consistent with his training Since Paul was a devoted pharisee.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2018

      Yes, Paul interpreted his vision precisely in line with the views he already had that at the end of time there would be a resurrection of the dead.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 4, 2018

      I wouldn’t call Paul a devoted Pharisee. He never expresses any of their ideas, even when they support his positions. No Pharisee would have persecuted Christians as the stories said he did. Jewish apocalypticism was extremely popular there and then, and I think not just with Jews. We know Christians later synchretized the ideas into their worldview, but I don’t know how popular the view was among polytheists.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 6, 2018

        “No Pharisee would have persecuted Christians as the stories said he did.”

        Can’t disagree more. The majority of Pharisees would have almost certainly thought the claim that the Messiah was ignominiously crucified to be a thoroughly repugnant idea. Of course, this didn’t go for all Pharisees, because it seems some Pharisees, such as Paul, were drawn to the novel idea of a martyred Messiah. Think of it this way. Pharisees had been used to being martyred (i.e. persecuted and tortured for their beliefs) for at least a century up to that point. Therefore, the only mental leap necessary for a Pharisee to make was to combine the martyred Jewish saint with the sanctified Messiah, and, voila, you have a sanctified martyred Messiah. A handful of Pharisees, including Paul, appeared to have connected those dots and not only stopped criticizing the Christians, but ended up joining them. And, for my money, I think that Jesus and his disciples had themselves been influenced by Pharisaic ideas, which allowed them to speak the Pharisees’ language, if you know what I mean.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

          Pharisees were passionate about Judaism but didn’t care about any other religions or the people who practiced them. They were about teaching Torah, not about persecuting anyone. They weren’t persecuted or martyred.

          Per the synoptic gospels, the teachings of Jesus were the teachings of Pharisees, notably Hillel. So yes, he was definitely influenced by Pharisees, and is portrayed as participating in typical rabbinic debate. Except for his claim, we have little or no evidence that Paul was ever a Pharisee.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 15, 2018

        The idea that Paul persecuted early proto-christians is pure invention. There is no evidence of it whatsoever except Paul’s claims, and the story he tells is simply preposterous. The Washington Post would have given him 5 Pinocchios

        • Avatar
          dagrote  April 25, 2018

          The Pharisees hound Jesus and his followers in all the gospels. In Acts 5:34-, the Pharisee Gamaliel refers to two other revolutionaries who were put to death, presumably with the blessing of the Pharisees. Surely, Paul and others, being on the receiving end, would have emphasized it, but it strikes me as a little strong to say the hostility and persecution of the Pharisees was pure invention.

  14. Avatar
    deputydog  March 22, 2018

    Bart, what are your thoughts on the way many evangelist in fundamental circles combine revelations and New world order conspiracy theories? They also try to make the mark of the beast a computer code. I believe it is a dishonest way of getting people to join their church!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2018

      Every generation of Christians has had “experts” claiming that the signs of the book of Revelation were coming true in their own day. And so it will be, world without end.

  15. Avatar
    11thStory  May 2, 2018

    In the book of Joel the locusts are described as God’s army sent to purge or dry up the land. This land is eventually promised to be restored. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the gospel writers state the John both ate locusts and wild honey. One the purge and the other the promise.

    Can one interpret the book of Revelation as an Essenic (Spiritual Jew) form of transformation or overcoming? All seven churches are going through some sort of a trial or overcoming that leads to a reward. John is also a companion in both the tribulation (purging) and the kingdom (promise) of Jesus Christ.

    The epistle of John, if written by a similar author, does breakdown the levels of maturity as little children, young men and fathers.

    1 John 2:18 “Little CHILDREN, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.”

    Thus the directive or teaching is not some futuristic event but an experience or understanding pertaining to the level of maturity. Which is, which was and which is to come.

  16. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

    I am one of those who learned that the inherent immoral soul doctrine is false.

    If it were true than why would Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 say “the dead are conscious of nothing at all.”

    Why would Psalms 146:4 say: “His spirit goes out, in that day his thoughts do perish.”

    Why would Job say if a man dies can he live again? Job 14:14.

    Why did Jesus and Paul and other apostles compare death to sleep as in the case of Lazarus, Dorcas, Stephen and others in Scripture?

    Why did Lazarus sister
    say he would rise in the resurrection on the “last day” , meaning during the 1, 000 year reign

    A day can be a 1,000 years in scripture, can’t it?

    • Avatar
      truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

      Sometimes in Scripture “soul” can refer to the life of the person.

  17. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

    There are two resurrections one is during our time for those who go to heaven and the other is in the future in the “new earth” during the 1,000 year reign of Christ after Armageddon.

  18. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 3, 2018

    In the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures do you agree that some prophecies have multiple fulfillments for both their time that foreshadows a later Scriptural
    ante-type for our time?

    Is Origen-s systematic theology and systematic
    hermeneutics similar?

  19. Avatar
    truthseekerofallthings  June 4, 2018

    If the beasts in Daniel symbolize political powers then why can’t the Book of Revelation have the same symbolic scriptural meaning

    the beast emerging from the sea ‘of wicked mankind’

    One of the Scriptural meanings for ‘sea’ is found in Isaiah 57:20

  20. Avatar
    tjjohnson61@yahoo.com  July 10, 2018

    Have you commented about the guy Faithful and True who rides on a white horse and from his mouth issues a sword by which he shall smite the nations in Revelations 19? The guy with a name on his thigh that only he knows? In the context of scholarly thought, who is this person or persons supposed to be? Jesus? Triumpant Judaism which somehow overthrows or outlasts the Romans? Please consider doing a blog post on this question and generally a book on Revelations if you can.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 10, 2018

      Yes, it’s definitely Christ. I’m debating whether to make my next trade book (after the one on the afterlife) about the book of Revelation.

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