I have sent my book manuscript off to my editor. She will work it over, ask for edits, and we’ll go from there. The preface to the book, as it now stands, explains what the book is about and what I try to argue for in it. I thought I’d pass it by you to see what you think.
Many of the early Christians had serious doubts about the book of Revelation and did not think it should be included in the New Testament. The author, they argued, was not an apostle and the book presented views that were clearly unacceptable. In the end, of course, they lost the argument. But once the book came to be widely accepted as Scripture, the followers of Jesus had to figure out how to make sense of it. Over the long course of Christian history, many readers of the Bible have widely opted not to delve into its mysteries at all. Even today, most find it bizarre and unapproachable.
Those who do read it fall into various camps of interpretation. Starting toward the end of the nineteenth century, most evangelical Christians began to take the book as a blueprint for what is to happen in the near future, a description of events soon to come. These readers are convinced that the prophecies are now, at last, being fulfilled. God is about to intervene in history through a series of fore-ordained disasters. At a final confrontation of the powers of good and evil, the Battle of Armageddon, Christ will appear from heaven to destroy his enemies and those who persecute his followers. But the true believers in Jesus will survive and in fact thrive for all time, in a glorious utopia – a city of gold with gates of pearl, from which they will rule the world.
On the other side of the interpretive spectrum, liberal Christian scholars argue the book does not provide a literal description of divinely ordained catastrophes soon to transpire. It is instead a metaphorical narrative meant to provide a message of hope for those who suffer now, much as Christ himself, the innocent “lamb of God,” suffered when he was among us. In this view, Revelation seeks to show that, despite all appearances, God is ultimately sovereign. Evil is pervasive and misery rampant, but the Ruler of All will eventually make right everything that is wrong. The book therefore does not describe the imminent end of history as we know it; it instead celebrates God as the ultimate source of hope for all who follow him.
I have held both these views at different times of my life, and I now think they are both wrong.
I began my study of Revelation as a late teenager in the mid 1970s. As a committed evangelical Christian, I considered every word of the Bible to be inspired and true. Along with everyone else in my immediate evangelical context, I heartily embraced a literal reading of the prophecies of Revelation, convinced that it showed beyond any doubt that Jesus was about to return from heaven and start the proceedings. Soon there would be hell to pay. At least for those who, unlike me, were not true believers.
After some years, as I engaged in a more rigorous study of the Bible, I came to see the difficulties with this view and began to explore the book of Revelation from a more historical perspective. I realized it was important to understand the work in its own context in relationship to other Jewish and Christian books that, like it, that are collectively called “apocalypses.” And I recognized the importance of studying such books — like all ancient books — in light of their own historical contexts and cultural assumptions. These books may not be well known to most non-scholars, but they are endlessly fascinating. They regularly narrate visions of heaven and of things to come in order to show how the awful realities of earth can be explained by the ultimate truths of heaven, with the goal of providing comfort and support for readers who are experiencing pain and misery now.
This is how I taught the book when I began my university career and continued doing so for years: Revelation is a graphic but non-literal proclamation of hope for those who are suffering. It will all be well in the end. Good will triumph. God will prevail. And he will “wipe away every tear.”
It was difficult for me to abandon this understanding of the book – just as earlier in life it was hard to give on the idea that it was predicting our future. In this book I will show why I think both views are irretrievably flawed. In the first part a “futuristic” understanding of the book as a blueprint for what is yet to come is almost certainly wrong – even though it continues to be the view of evangelical Christians and probably of the reading public at large, few of whom are familiar with the scholarly alternative. It’s talking about the future, right? Nope. I don’t think so, and I’ll show why.
If you don’t need to be convinced about that, I do hope you’ll go on to read final chapters of the book. There show why I also don’t think Revelation provides a comforting message for those who suffer in this life. At least not most of them. The overwhelming emphasis of Revelation is not about hope but about the wrath and vengeance of God against those who have incurred his displeasure. For the author of Revelation, that entails the vast majority of people who have ever lived, including, perhaps surprisingly, a number of committed Christians. The book repeatedly indicates that God is angry and that Christ seeks to avenge his own unjust death, not just on those who were responsible for it; his vengeance falls on the “inhabitants of earth.” His followers too want revenge and are told to go out and get it. The largest section of the narrative thus describes God and his “Lamb” inflicting horrible suffering on the planet; war, starvation, horrid disease, drought, earthquake, torture, and death. The catastrophes end with the Battle of Armageddon, where Christ destroys all the armies of earth and calls on the scavengers of the sky to gorge themselves on their flesh. This, then, is the climax of the history of earth.
But it is not the end of all things. After that there will be a final judgment. God’s faithful followers, his “slaves,” will be saved; everyone else who has ever lived will be brought back to life, judged for their wickedness, and then thrown, while still alive, into a lake of burning sulfur. Afterward, God will reward his obedient slaves by giving them a glorious new city of gold with gates of pearl. They then, the followers of Jesus, will rule the earth forever.
That is indeed a happy ending for some people. But it not because God loves them deeply – at least the book never says so. The saved are God’s enslaved minions who do what he demands. The love of God – for anyone or anything – is never mentioned in the book, not once. The book is instead about the “wrath of God” — as stated repeatedly — as well as the wrath of Christ, and the violent vengeance wreaked on the inhabitants of earth leading up to the appearance of the glorious city from which God’s slaves will rule the planet.
At first glance this summary may seem slanted and implausible. I will try to show, however, that it is exactly what the book itself repeatedly emphasizes. Its troubling emphases have been seen by other modern readers, of course, including, rather unexpectedly, D. H. Lawrence, who described Revelation as the “dark side of Christianity.” I could not agree more.
At the end of my book I will consider why the Revelation was nearly excluded from the New Testament and ponder whether the ancient Christian opponents of the book may in fact have had some valid insights. In particular, I will compare the views of the author, John of Patmos, with the teachings of the Jesus. John certainly considered himself a follower of Jesus — a particularly ardent follower. But are his views actually consistent with those of his Lord? Would Jesus have accepted John’s perspectives and considered him one of his true followers? To put the matter concretely, can John’s celebration of violence, quest for vengeance, passion for glory, and hope for world domination be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus, who urged his followers to pursue love, non-retaliation, poverty, and service?
Different readers, of course, will answer the question differently. I would simply urge anyone who wants to consider the matter seriously to read, or re-read, Revelation with unflinching honesty, and see what it actually says. That is what I have tried to do in this book.