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Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation

My apologies for being “absent” from the blog for a few days. As I pointed out in my last posting, I’m in lovely Chantilly VA just now, doing a series of lectures for the Teaching Company. The schedule is a real killer and I have virtually no time on my hands.

In any event, right before I came, my textbook on the Bible was finally completed and sent off to the publisher to be entered into production. As it turns out, one of the passages from the Intro coincides with one of the lectures I gave yesterday on the book of Revelation. For the undergraduate reader of the text, I try to show, as succinctly as I can, why Revelation is best not interpreted as referring to future events to transpire in our own day. Here’s what I say in the textbook.


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:

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  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 28, 2013

    Really good post. Carry on.

  2. Avatar
    Adam0685  February 28, 2013

    Thanks to the Left Behind novels (which sold 65 MILLION copies!!) alot of people think Revelation should be interepreted literally and as something predicting the future.

  3. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  February 28, 2013

    Can’t wait to see your new teaching through the, “Teaching Company” Have listened to a couple already and really enjoyed them, when will they be available..do you knw? Also, when will the above mentioned, Textbook On The Bible be available to the public? Will it be similiar to your book, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings? Thanks for the post, very interesting.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 2, 2013

      I’m not sure of the release date of the course. Maybe late spring/early summer? The Introduction to the Bible should be available in the Fall. It is similar in conception and execution and appearance and tone etc. to the NT textbook. It was a fun, but tough, one to write!

  4. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  February 28, 2013

    I remember in the early 70’s a guy by the name of Hal Lindsey wrote a book called “The late great plant earth” that put a big scare into people. He claimed then that the antichrist was alive and walking among us. Well lets see, its been over 40 years and satan hasn’t made his move yet, he’s getting older, probably 50 plus years. I understand Lindsey, around 83 has started a new ministry, still selling his drivel and unfortunately a new generation is buying into it. I guess he feels no shame in taking peoples money. I hope he gives thanks for John of Patmos.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 2, 2013

      Yup, I was a big devotee of Lindsey back in the 1970s! He thought the end would come by 1988.

  5. Avatar
    Yentyl  February 28, 2013

    Good point. And points out that we need to read the context before jumping to conclusions. Thanks!

  6. Avatar
    seeker_of_truth  February 28, 2013

    Off Topic

    Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are doing a 10 hour mini-series on “The Bible” for the History Channel. Were you one of the scholars they consulted?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 2, 2013

      No, I don’t think so. But, odd as it might seem, I often forget which programs I’ve done! (And I never ever watch any of them; when I used ot watch I would always get frustrated at *which* sound bites they would take!

  7. Avatar
    Jim  February 28, 2013

    I’m surprised that the Book of Revelation made it into the canon. It symbolically refers to Rome as a beast/whore/false prophet capitol, however by the time of canonization Rome was the center of Christianity. I suppose they didn’t do any addendum’s in those days. But more pressing, does anyone know where John of Patmos got his mushrooms from?

  8. Avatar
    KungFuJoe  February 28, 2013

    The locusts of Revelation as helicopters has been one of my father’s favorite images for a long, long time.

    How much of Revelation do you believe was written as an allegory for the times the author, himself, lived in, and how much do you think he intended to be taken as visions of the future? There are definitely things which seem to point to Rome, in the context of the text. A city on seven hills, a seven headed dragon, parallels to Babylon, the possible 666/616 gematria, et cetera. What was the aim of John of Patmos in writing Revelation?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 2, 2013

      Well, it’s a long story, and I jsut devoted a full lecture to the question, but I think he was trying to comfort Christians who were suffering in his own day, and he had no idea at all that people in 2000 years would think that his predictions were still to come true.

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    ZachET  March 1, 2013

    don’t you think jesus is called God in Mark 1:24?

  10. Avatar
    CaseyDayton  March 2, 2013

    you mean the locust are not helicopters? hahahaha, thanks for that being untrue! you should write a book on this topic more in depth.

  11. Robertus
    Robertus  March 2, 2013

    Years ago, I was asked to lecture on the Book of Revelation in the very heart of the Bible Belt. Like most nonfundamentalists, I never paid any attention to this book of the bible so it was a challenge to try and get a handle on the book in preparation, but I grew to appreciate the challenge of this book. To illustrate the capriciousness of modernizing interpretations, I used Hebrew numerology and to prove that 666 referred to ‘Vice President Dan Quale’. Even my conservative audience had to laugh.

  12. Avatar
    stephena  March 20, 2013

    As a Preterist, I find the modern-day prophesy business to be all nonsense. To see these as purely symbolic is a step in the right direction.

    Do you deal with the DATING of this book in any posts? The majority seem to go for late AD 90s, but isn’t mid-60s a good fit, too, making Nero the more fitting “Antichrist”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 20, 2013

      Yup, it’s debated. But experts think there are allusions to Domitian, so taht parts may have been Neronic. He’s certainly 666.

  13. Avatar
    Jen  November 12, 2014

    In reference to your statement above (concerning ‘the book of’ Revelation) “Well, it’s a long story, and I just devoted a full lecture to the question, but I think he was trying to comfort Christians who were suffering in his own day, and he had no idea at all that people in 2000 years would think that his predictions were still to come true.” Would this lecture or one similar be available online?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 14, 2014

      No, probably not. It’s just one lecture in my Teaching Company course on the New Testament.

  14. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  December 19, 2014

    Jen–I just downloaded Bart’s “The New Testament” lectures, including the one on “Revelation” from audible.com for 1 credit. So that is a possible online resource for you. If you’re not a member already, I think they give you a free credit when you sign up. I’m looking forward to listening to the series.

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