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Overview of the Book of Revelation

I’d like to devote a few more posts to my book on the Afterlife.  I don’t want to steal my own thunder and give away *everything* I will be talking about in the book here on the blog.   But I am interested to getting reactions to some of my more important and controversial claims about the Bible.  One thing I’ll be arguing is that the idea of hell-fire, taken chiefly from the book of Revelation, is frequently misunderstood.  In my view, the book of Revelation does teach the eternal joy that is to come for believers in Jesus; but it does not teach that sinners (and unbelievers) will experience eternal torment in hell.   Even though they are thrown into “the lake of fire.”

To explain my views will take at least three posts.  To begin I need to explain some things about the book itself and the symbolism found throughout the book.  To do that I need to sketch what actually happens in the book.   Here is a kind of quick and ready summary of the action (there’s lots of action!)

The book begins with the author experiencing a highly symbolic vision of Christ, “one like a Son of Man,” who tells him to write letters encouraging and exhorting the seven churches of Asia Minor and then to describe all that he is about to be shown – the visions of the heavenly realm that foreshadow what will happen on earth (Revelation 1:12-20).

After John writes the correspondence, the revelations begin in chapter 4, where he is ordered to ascend through a door in the sky to the world above.   When he arrives in heaven he sees God in his brilliance, seated on his throne, with flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, surrounded by twenty-four elders wearing white robes and golden crowns, and four creatures representing all living things, worshipping God forever.  John then sees in the hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll sealed with seven seals.  The scroll contains a written account of what will transpire on earth.  The prophet weeps when he sees that no one is worthy to break the seals so as to unroll the scroll.  But one of the elders tells him that there is, in fact, one who is worthy.  John then sees next to the throne “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.”  The Lamb, of course, is Christ (4:1-5:14).

The Lamb takes the scroll from the hand of God and …

To see what the rest of this post reveals about Revelation, you will need to belong among the Chosen Few, the members of the blog!  Your future hangs on it.  Join!

The Lamb takes the scroll from the hand of God and breaks its seals, one at a time (ch. 6)  With the breaking of each seal, a major catastrophe happens on earth: war, famine, economic collapse, and death.  When he breaks the sixth seal, cosmic disaster ensues: the sun turns black, the moon red; the stars fall from the sky and the sky vanishes.   You would think that this, now, is the end of all existence, the destruction of the universe.  But we are only in chapter six.

The breaking of the seventh seal does not lead to another disaster, but to a new sequence of disasters.  Seven angels appear, each bearing a trumpet.  As each one blows his trumpet, a new disaster hits the earth. Natural disasters on land and sea and in the sky; the appearances of horrible beasts who wreak havoc; massive calamity and unspeakable suffering (chs. 8-9).  The seventh trumpet marks the beginning of the end: the Antichrist appears along with his false prophet (chs. 12-13).  But then we are introduced to seven more angels, each bearing a bowl of God’s wrath.  Each one pours his bowl out upon the earth in turn, leading to yet more calamities, one after the other:  epidemics, universal misery, and death (chs. 15-16).

The end comes with the destruction of the great “whore of Babylon,” the city responsible for the persecution of the saints (ch. 17).  The city is overthrown amidst great weeping and wailing on earth, but much rejoicing in heaven (chs. 18-19).   There then comes a final cosmic battle between the heavenly Christ, with his heavenly armies, and the Antichrist and the forces aligned with him.  It is, in fact, no contest: Christ wins quickly and decisively.  The enemies of God are completely crushed and the Antichrist and the false prophet are thrown into “the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Revelation 19:21).

An angel then comes from heaven to capture Satan and bind him for a thousand years in a bottomless pit, while Christ rules the earth with the many, many martyrs who had been killed for their faith.  At the end of this “millennium,” Satan is released for a time to wreak temporary havoc on the earth, but then finally he is captured and also thrown into the lake of fire, where with the Antichrist and prophet he would be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).

Then there is a final resurrection of the dead.  Humans are all raised to face judgment.  Those whose names are written in “the book of life” are rewarded; those not found in the book are thrown into the lake of fire.   The book concludes with the prophet’s vision of a New Jerusalem that descends from heaven to earth, the dwelling place of all saints forever.  It is an enormous place, 1500 miles square, made of gold and with gates of pearl; it has no need of light because God himself, and his Lamb, enlighten it.   This will be an eternal place of joy, with no more fear or darkness, no pain, misery, suffering, or tears.  Good will reign forever and the righteous will forever bask in it its light (chs. 21-22).  The prophet John ends the book by stressing his vision is true and Christ is “coming soon” (22:20).

In my next post I will be dealing with the symbolism of the book generally, all with an eye toward what he is describing when he talks about the “lake of fire.”  My overarching question is: if most of the book is filled with symbols that are never meant to be taken literally, but figuratively – why should we think the author means for the lake of fire to be understood *literally*?

 

 


Symbolism in Revelation: The Whore of Babylon
Did Peter Use a Secretary for his Writings? A Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. tompicard
    tompicard  September 25, 2018

    hmm, interesting

    In Revelations – Lake of ‘fire’
    In Matthew – ‘fiery’ furnace
    In Luke – I came to cast ‘fire’ on earth

    and of course rev 11:14-15

    These witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. If anyone wants to harm them, FIRE PROCEEDS FROM THEIR MOUTHS AND DEVOURS THEIR ENEMIES. In this way, anyone who wants to harm them must be killed.

    what do you think is the FIRE that comes out of these witnesses’ mouth a symbol of ?

    Do you think it possible that FIRE coming out of their mouths can literally kill anyone ?
    Or do you think the FIRE could annihilate anyone ?

    it is only too obvious (to me) the ‘fire’ of God’s Word convicts the wicked leading them eventually to realization of sin and their repentance.
    but if you have a different thesis please explain.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Not sure. Maybe they’re discussing a hot topic! But no, I don’t think fire out of mouths happens or kills. But yes, your interpretatoin makes good sense.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 26, 2018

      I think it’s important to understand what the ancients thought about the nature of fire and so-called “lakes of fire”. They understood that there was “fire” within the earth, because they saw the power of such fire in, for example, volcanoes and hot springs. So they understood that there was an element of, at the very least, fire and heat (i.e. as in the four “elements” of fire, earth, air and water) to the interior of the earth. If you add to that the fact that most, if not all cultures of that time and place also placed the realm of the dead — whether hades or sheol or whatnot — also within the interior of the earth, then you have a natural melding of the two.

      Now add to that the fact that within Jewish philosophy of the time, the story of Korah’s rebellion in the Torah, where the earth supposedly opened up and the rebels plummeted into the earth, that story was taken literally. Even the most sophisticated Jewish thinkers, from the Pharisees to Philo, probably thought that story literally happened. So in their minds the notion that there was a “lake of fire” within the earth, into which sinners and the wicked could be flung, well, that wasn’t such a crazy idea to them. Of course, for us, who are much more sophisticated people living in a much more sophisticated time, we understand that such an idea is totally preposterous.

      • michael_kelemen  October 15, 2018

        The people who were in Sheol or Hades do not appear to have been living in lakes of fire so perhaps you are saying that there were lakes of fire in the underworld but not that the underworld was made up only of molten lava.

  2. Nichrob  September 25, 2018

    “What I’m saying is the ancients didn’t write their stories literally and now we are so smart we interpret them parabolically, but rather they wrote them parabolically and now we are so dumb we interpret them literally”. – John Dominic Crossan.

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  September 25, 2018

    I hope the book (or future posts) will deal with the popular notion that the devil and his minions will be tormenting people in hell. While you see that everywhere in media, and medieval churches, I don’t think it’s anywhere in the Bible.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Yes, I wonder where that idea originated. It’s not in the materials (the early Christian texts) I deal with. Hell, instead, is devised to torment *them*

  4. Anton  September 25, 2018

    I really dont believe anything in revelation. Sorry.

  5. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 25, 2018

    Your last sentence is telling. Can’t wait for the next post.

  6. mkahn1977  September 25, 2018

    Could the lake of fire symbolize being executed by fire? I seem to recall you mentioning something like this in a previous post/comment.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      I think the reason “fire” is seen as the afterlife torture is in part because martrys were sometimes being killed by fire in this life.

  7. fishician  September 25, 2018

    The author starts the book by saying he is writing of things “which must shortly come to pass.” Don’t you think a lot of the futuristic interpretations of Revelation seem to overlook this? Or do they have an excuse for why “shortly” means 2000 years or more?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Weirdly, it is often taken to mean “shortly” from our *present day* reading of it!

  8. Pattylt  September 25, 2018

    My overarching question is: if most of the book is filled with symbols that are never meant to be taken literally, but figuratively – why should we think the author means for the lake of fire to be understood *literally*?

    Because nothing works like fear. I believe it was in your Triumph of Christianity that you pointed out that the Pagans needed to be convinced that hell existed before they could see why they needed to be saved from it. As horrid a theology as hell is, it works much better as an eternal punishment than annihilation for converting the masses. If your new book does nothing else, placing doubt about eternal torment is such a good think in my view.

  9. RonaldTaska  September 25, 2018

    Good and concise summary. I am afraid I don’t have a clue about the “Lake of Fire.” I have, however, read the 16 “Left Behind” novels and they were more interesting than I expected, especially the first couple of novels where people were suddenly jerked up in the rapture. I thought this series of novels gave me an interesting view of what the book of Revelation says if taken “literally.”

  10. Omar6741  September 25, 2018

    Do you think Psalm 16 — mentioned in Acts by Peter — was originally about a resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      No, we don’t get Jewish notions of resurrection until later — the first instance in teh Bible is Daniel 12.

  11. doug  September 25, 2018

    Do you have any idea why God in Revelation thought it was a good idea at the end of the millennium to release Satan to wreak temporary havoc on the earth?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      I”ve often wondered that and never figured it out. It’s like those horror movies where you THINK that guy is finally dead….

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 26, 2018

      At the time Revelation was written, the writer probably thought that Satan was currently wreaking havoc on the earth (possibly in the guise of one of Vespasian’s sons?), so it wasn’t so much a prediction of the writer’s future as much as it was a perceived description of the writer’s present.

  12. Lance  September 25, 2018

    One of the most eye opening books I read about Revelation and other Jewish Apocalyptic works was Adela Yarbro Collins’s, “Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse”. “Breaking The Code” by Bruce Metzger is a great book as well. Thank you Professor Ehrman for introducing me to them as well as many other great scholarly works in your bibliographies.

  13. JohnKesler  September 25, 2018

    Bart wrote:
    The enemies of God are completely crushed and the Antichrist and the false prophet are thrown into ‘the lake of fire that burns with sulfur’ (Revelation 19:21)…Satan is released for a time to wreak temporary havoc on the earth, but then finally he is captured and also thrown into the lake of fire, where with the Antichrist and prophet he would be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).”

    I think that you mean Revelation 19:20 for the first reference, and I quote both passages below followed by my comment and question.

    Revelation 20:10
    10And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

    Revelation 19:20
    20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur.

    I have to infer by the process of elimination that you think that “the Antichrist” is the same as the beast, but the term “the Antichrist” nowhere appears in these verses or anywhere in Revelation. Since the beast of Revelation 13:18 is the Roman Empire in general or Nero Caesar in particular, why use the nonbiblical term “the Antichrist”?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      Yes, 19:20. I use the term “Antichrist” because it’s one that general readers are familiar with, as opposed to “the beast.” But I’m willing to rethink it. (it’s not a nonbiblical term, btw; it appears in the Johannine epistles several times)

      • JohnKesler  September 26, 2018

        Bart wrote: “Yes, 19:20. I use the term ‘Antichrist’ because it’s one that general readers are familiar with, as opposed to “the beast.” But I’m willing to rethink it. (it’s not a nonbiblical term, btw; it appears in the Johannine epistles several times)”

        Okay, but those passages–1 John 2:18, 22; 1 John 4:3; and 2 John 1:7–have in view not a single person/entity, do they? As you say in *The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture* page 131: “In what sense did these secessionists deny this [Johannine] communal belief? Some important clues are provided by the author’s ostensibly polemical comments. In one other place he calls his opponents ‘antichrists.’ In 4:1-3 he sets the ‘spirit’ of the ‘false prophets,’ the antichrists gone out into the world, against those who have the spirit of God. Only the latter confess that Jesus has come ‘in flesh.’ Whichever reading is adopted for 4:3, the antichrists’ denial that the Christ is the man Jesus appears to derive from their denial of his fleshly manifestation.”

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2018

          Yes, these books refer to a group of people, but anyone in the group is an Anti-christ.

  14. caesar  September 25, 2018

    Since there is so much symbolism, does that mean that everything in Revelation is symbolic?

    For example, it talks about all these battles that are going to take place. Does taking Revelation figuratively mean that there aren’t going to be these literal battles taking place?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      There certainly is a lot of symbolism in the battle scenes. Read ch. 19, e.g.; obviously tons of this is symbolic (unless someone wants to think that Christ is riding around on the clouds on a white horse and has a sharp sword sticking out of his mouth). It’s a good question, though, whether the entire event — a final battle — is to be taken symbolically or if he imagines there actually will be one.

  15. julianwb  September 25, 2018

    “When he breaks the sixth seal, cosmic disaster ensues: the sun turns black, the moon red; the stars fall from the sky and the sky vanishes. You would think that this, now, is the end of all existence, the destruction of the universe. But we are only in chapter six.”

    This leads me to wonder. Does the Book of Revelation hold what could be considered a more (First Century) Jewish view of cosmology? A more Hellenistic cosmology? Or is it more unique?

    Back when I was a bible college student (now a Physics major), I would have thought most of this was metaphorical, and wouldn’t have thought it would hold any different “cosmology” than what we observe today.

    Great Article Bart!

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2018

      The idea that there are different layers to reality — the dead below us, we here on earth, god(s) in the sky above the clouds — is common to Jewish and pagan sources at the time; so in the most basic sense, it is a shared cosmology. The way the apocalypse is working with disaster after disaster after disaster in a non-linear fashion would be characteristic expecially of Jewish apocalypses.

  16. Silver  September 26, 2018

    A masterly account, thank you.

  17. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 26, 2018

    I think one of the difficulties in reading the symbolic nature of Revelation is due to layers of literal interpretations along with cultural myths being superimposed upon the text. I think people get their understanding and concepts of Hell more from Dante’s Inferno and Hollywood movies than from understanding the symbolism of the text.

    Do you think some of the concepts of Hell come from these cultural sources and then people project then onto the Book of Revelation?

  18. Hormiga  September 26, 2018

    For those who prefer to have this explained in manga format, there’s http://www.electricsheepcomix.com/apocamon/

    Sadly, this series was never finished.

  19. jhague  September 28, 2018

    “then finally he is captured and also thrown into the lake of fire, where with the Antichrist and prophet he would be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10).”

    Are the Antichrist, phophet and Satan not annihilated but tormented day and night forever and ever? Or is this symbolism for annihilation?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      I think as immortal beings they are not annihilated (unlike mortals)

      • webo112
        webo112  October 1, 2018

        Ah…that’s the piece of the puzzle that makes your thesis come full circle- do you make this point in the book?

      • Hogie2  October 1, 2018

        But if both the righteous & unrighteous are raised, doesn’t that put them in the same situation, ie they are now immortal beings as well? Is it possible that the contrast between the righteous raised for eternal bliss, suggests that the unrighteous are raised for enernal torment? Why bother to raise the unrighteous just to annihilate them?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 2, 2018

          No, that’s my point. The righteous are raised to an immortal existence. The unrighteous are raised to see the error of their ways and experience the “second death.” Justice requires that they realize they can’t just die and get away with whatever they did to exploit others. They die, finally, in horror at the error of their ways.

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  20. dankoh  October 1, 2018

    There is a lot of poetry in the Bible that has since come to be taken literally. I think of the line “the four corners of the Eart” which some people claim shows the Earth is flat. (And BTW, nobody who lived around the Mediterranean ever believed that/.)

    But to follow up on your puzzlement as to why the lake of fire was to be taken literally. I suggest that it is a product of human desire for revenge and payback, combined with an unfortunate taste for sadism which I strongly argue that Christianity has consistently fostered. One thinks of Tertullian gloating over the punishment of the damned, or modern televangelists.

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