The Apocalypse of John is a book many people revere, many dread, and few actually read. Most who do read it approach it like every other book of the Bible – they’ll read a few verses here or there when someone says something about them but do not read the whole thing from beginning to end. I do find this a bit irritating as a rule, at least among people who insist that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and our guide for all belief and practice, who virtually worship the Bible but have no clue what is actually in it. What’s *that* all about???
Having just typed that reminds me of the spiritual leader I had as a teenager, the man who “led me to Christ” (away from the Episcopal church where I faithfully attended every week, saying the prayers, confessing my sins, taking communion – where I was the head altar boy!). He repeatedly said with complete conviction that the Bible is the best book ever written. Even then I felt like asking him how many books he had actually ever read, to see what his basis of comparison was. Knowing now what I know about him, I can say with some assurance, that he had not read many — certainly none of the great literature of the world, let alone classics of other religions. (He probably was not as badly read as my roommate at Moody Bible Institute, who had literally read ONE book from cover to cover before coming to Moody. And guess what it was? Zip Zip Goes to Venus. Seriously.) (He too would have told you with enthusiasm that the Bible was the best book ever written, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s the best book he had ever read….)
In any event, the more I research the book of Revelation the more I realize what a tall hill I have to climb to write about it for a general audience. People will have a bias about the book – pro or con – and possibly strongly so, without having read it, and I will either be confirming their biases so they don’t have to think about it or I’ll be challenging views they’ve long held that held for no other reason than they are what they’ve heard and think anything else must be more of those crazy liberal views comin’ outta Chapel Hill.
So it’s a challenge. And there’s another challenge. I’ve completely changed my mind about the book and need to find ways to explain my current views to people who don’t know enough about the book to evaluate them. I guess that’s a common problem I have, but it seems especially daunting in this case for some reason.
I’ll be doing some test runs here on the blog, making some attempts to lay out the views emerging from my research. I’ve started, in previous posts, by providing some of the important background information about the Revelation — a summary of its contents (what’s actually *in* it); a discussion of its literary genre (“apocalypse”) and how that’s important for discussing the book; the reasons for thinking that its symbolism has to be interpreted in light of what its first-century author and first-century readers would have known and thought, rather than as hidden messages for Christians living in the 21st century (or the 20th, or 19th, or 18th – pick your century when interpreters thought it was referring to events of their own time!); and sundry other background materials (when it was written, by whom, etc.).
I haven’t yet, though, indicated much about what I now think about the book and why.
For many years – virtually my entire academic life, from graduate school until, say, last year (!) (so over 40 years) – I thought, taught, and wrote that Revelation was a book of hope for those who were suffering and oppressed. It was teaching that despite all appearances in this miserable world of pain and persecution, God ultimately was Sovereign. It may look like the powers of evil are in control of this world, but God is soon to intervene to re-assert his power and authority over his creation. He made this world and everything in it. People (or evil forces like the Devil) messed it up incredibly seriously. But what God made he will remake; what others ruined he will restore. God is going to make all right that is wrong and bring in a glorious world in which there will be no more pain, despair, or hopelessness, no evil, no sin, no death. It will be a glorious eternity for all those who side with God who may be miserable now, but who will be exalted for all eternity.
That’s how I taught the book both when I was a Christian and believed it and after I had left the faith. I no longer believed the message, but I thought that’s what the message was. Now I have a different view.
For the past year or so I’ve been thinking harder and harder about the book, reading it carefully in Greek, taking notes on what I read, reading what scholars have long said about it, and seeing what other observers have written, including non-biblical scholars who were/are nonetheless incredibly insightful readers of texts, including some household names (in a later post I may be discussing D. H. Lawrence!). I have come to realize that I do not revere, respect, or even like this book any more. I think it is a horrible depiction of God, portraying him as a ruthless tyrant who absolutely detests anyone who does not worship him with all their heart and soul, who wants not just to crush all opposition but to torture everyone who does not believe in Jesus.
When people say that “The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath but the God of the New Testament is a God of love,” I wonder if they’ve read the book of Revelation.
It is indeed horrible that the God of the Old Testament instructed the children of Israel to take over the city of Jericho by slaughtering every man, woman, child (infants!) in the city and then taking over their houses (Joshua 6). It really is a bloodthirsty narrative that exults in God’s almighty empowerment of those he favors to murder those he hates. But the book of Joshua is NOTHING compared to the book of Revelation, where God does that for the entire human race and world – for EVERYONE who is not a worshipper of Jesus.
That includes your family, friends, neighbors, it includes everyone who has ever lived who has not committed to follow Jesus – that is, not merely the very large majority of the human race living now but, well, everyone for all time who did not follow “the lamb.” Yikes. How do I say this without seeming angry and vicious myself?
There are other problems with Revelation and I’ll be discussing them, as I try to figure out how to write about it without offending huge swathes of the population, readers I would like to address rather than simply enrage. Even now I’m sure a number of blog readers will object to my views. But do bear in mind that I haven’t explained them yet (!). I’ll need to do so, and that will take a few posts.
But I should say that I intend to present a mitigating factor for this seemingly harsh and negative evaluation of the book as a positive contrast. My view of Revelation is that its ruthless, vengeful God who destroys the majority of the human race stands in sharp contrast with the God of Jesus. I think I can demonstrate that.
That will call into question what it might mean to say Revelation is a Christian book. It is certainly Christian to the extent the author considered himself a true and faithful follower of Jesus. But what if he misunderstood the message of Jesus, not just a little but almost entirely? I very much think he did. And I think that’s the view I’ll be laying out in my book. This author has “corrupted the gospel” far more than the opponents of Paul in Galatia or any of the other heretics we know about in the early church. His view is not only dangerous socially and politically; it is the opposite of the teaching of Jesus.
I do not mean to say that the God of Jesus was not also a God of wrath. In a very real sense he was. But it was in a completely different sense.
Whoa. This one’s gonna be tricky.