I have been arguing that if we want to understand the book of Revelation, we need to situate it in its own historical context in the Roman Empire of the first century rather than assume it is talking about our own world in the twenty-first. Very few people read it that way, of course (or are interested in reading it that way). It’s far more intriguing to think the author was predicting what would happen in our own future. It’s ALL COMING TRUE! God has REVEALED IT TO US! We can NOW SEE THE SIGNS OF THE END!
But, alas, like every other book of the Bible, Revelation was written to address an ancient audience in a different context, and its bizarre symbols need to be read with their own context front and center in mind. Here is how I sometimes try to illustrate the problem. (Parts of this are taken from my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings; Oxford University Press; 7th ed.)
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, we should be suspicious of interpretations that make everything about our own world or our own lives; 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:
On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth; they had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails like scorpions, with stingers, and in their tails is their power to harm people. . . . (Rev 9:7–10)
One of the most popular interpretations today of this passage comes to us from
Want to see why this kind of interpretation simply doesn’t work? It’s easy to join the blog, and you get five posts a week on this kind of thing. And every dime of the small fee you pay goes to charity! Click here for membership options “prophecy writer” non-pareille, Hal Lindsay. Lindsay is one of the best selling authors of modern times that (ironically) most people apart from evangelical Christians have never heard of. His most famous book is the incredibly well-selling Late Great Planet Earth. Have you heard of it? It was apparently THE best selling work of non-fiction (speaking loosely) in the entire decade of the 1970s.
The book explained how the end of history as we know it was going to happen soon, by the end of the 1980s, when Jesus returned in judgment on the earth. But that would come only after all hell breaks out down here (as if it’s not already…). And Revelation predicts it. Often in detail. For example, in this passage I’ve just quoted. For Lindsay this is not a description of locusts coming up out of the bottomless pit but a vision of modern attack helicopters flying forth through the smoke of battle.
The seer, living many centuries before the advent of modern warfare, had no way of knowing what these machines really were, and so he described them as best he could. They fly like locusts but are shaped like huge scorpions. The rotors on top appear like crowns; they seem to have human faces as their pilots peer through their windshields; they are draped with camouflage that from a distance looks like hair; they have fierce teeth painted on their fronts; they are made of steel and so appear to have iron breastplates; the beating of their rotors sounds like chariots rushing to battle; and they have machine guns attached to their tails, like scorpions’ stingers.
What could be more plausible? The prophet has glimpsed into the future and seen what he could not understand. We, however, living in the age in which his predictions will come to pass, understand them full well.
As captivating as the idea might be, one of the major problem is that the interpretation simply doesn’t work when you actually look carefully at the most important details of the passage. Consider, for example, what these locusts are actually said to do. The text is quite emphatic: they are not allowed to harm any grass or trees, but only people; moreover, and most significantly, they are given the power to torture people for five months, but not to kill them (9:4–5). Those who are attacked by the locusts will long to die but will not be able to do so (9:6). These locusts can’t be modern instruments of war designed for mass destruction because they are explicitly said to be unable to destroy anything.
The same problems occur with virtually every interpretation of the book that takes its visions as literal descriptions of events that will transpire in our own imminent future. These approaches simply cannot account for the details of the text, which is to say that they don’t take the text itself seriously enough. It is more reasonable to interpret the text within its own historical context, not as a literal description of the future of the earth, but as a metaphorical statement of the ultimate sovereignty of God over a world that is plagued by evil.
Too bad! It would indeed be nice if we had a blueprint for our future. But alas, it does not come to us in the book of Revelation.