Two questions I often get asked about the book of Revelation (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,
THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY. If you don’t belong yet, YOU DON’T KNOW (LITERALLY) WHAT YOU’RE MISSING! JOIN!!!
On the 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, though, 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).ｮLM0ｯｮTW60ｯｮIP4ｯ
According to one futuristic interpretation (by that great scholar of all things biblical – well, not really, Hal Lindsay), these locusts are 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 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.
The problem is that the interpretation simply doesn’t work, because it overlooks some of 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).
Now it may be that the Pentagon has designed a secret weapon, an attack helicopter that can harm people but not trees or vegetation, and that can inflict pain but not kill. But it seems somewhat unlikely. These locusts simply 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 are to 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 probably much better 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.