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Revelation as a Blueprint for our Future

I’ve been talking about how the book of Revelation has been interpreted by modern conservative Christians.  Isn’t it telling us what will happen in our own near future??    Here is how I will address the issue, in short, in my book on Revelation, assuming that I go ahead with the project and Armageddon doesn’t happen first.

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In Contrast: Scholars and the Book of Revelation

Not only are these futuristic readings of Revelation contrary to the history of Christian interpretation, they stand radically at odds with how critical scholars read the book of Revelation, and insist it ought to be read.

As often pointed out, every single interpreter who has argued that the “signs of the times” reveal the end is coming soon – probably next month – have been shown demonstrably and incontrovertibly to be wrong.   But just as significantly, the specific interpretations of these modern manifestations of these sings are almost always demonstrably flawed.  I give just one example from the book of Revelation, an interpretation famously pronounced by Hal Lindsey.   In Revelation chapter 9 the author describes a horrible disaster involving a plague of “locusts” that emerge from the smoke of the bottomless pit, wreaking havoc and misery among the people of earth.

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)

According to Lindsey’s futuristic interpretation, the prophet John could not have understood exactly what he was seeing, since he was a first-century observer who was witnessing a 20th (or now, 21st) century phenomenon.  So he did the best he could, explaining his vision in terms he and his readers could understand.

The “locusts” he saw were actually modern attack helicopters flying through the smoke of battle.   For the first-century seer …

If you want to see how he interprets the passage, and how critical scholars have shown he’s dead wrong, you will need to belong to the blog.  Better join soon.  The end is near!

For the first-century seer they looked like flying locusts, shaped like huge scorpions. The rotors on top appeared like crowns; they seemed to have human faces as their pilots peered through their windshields; they were draped with camouflage that from a distance looked like hair; they had fierce teeth painted on their fronts; they were made of steel and so appeared to have iron breastplates; the beating of their rotors sounded like chariots rushing to battle; and they had machine guns attached to their tails, like scorpions’ stingers.

What could be more plausible? The prophet had 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.

Critical scholars have no problems picking apart such interpretations just from the text itself.  Prior to describing the appearance of these locusts the author of Revelation tells us how they create such mayhem on earth, emphatically declaring that when they appear they are not allowed to harm any grass or trees, but only people; moreover, and most significantly, these locusts 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).

That clearly shows 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 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.

Critical scholars insist that 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.

It is true that to modern readers, Revelation is incredibly bizarre and mind-boggling, with its rich symbolism and strange beasts and heavenly visions coming one after the other in a tumble that is almost impossible to grasp, let alone explain.   It seems unlike any other book we have ever read.  But that is because most readers are not accustomed to reading “apocalypses.”.  We do in fact have a wide range of Jewish and Christian books like Revelation, written from about the same time (roughly 200 BCE – 200 CE).   These are all first-person narratives of visionary experiences. The visions are almost always explained to the author (who, like the reader, tends to be clueless about what he is seeing) by an accompanying angel who interprets them.  The visions are highly symbolic in ways meant to mystify, but the author often provides hints (as well as angelic explanations) that provide the critical reader with clues to unpack their meaning.

Apocalypses are always intent on explaining the heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.  Sometimes the visions do appear to describe the course of future events.  That is true, for example, of the one Apocalypse of the Old Testament, the book of Daniel – where the pseudonymous author, allegedly living in the 6th century BCE – uses a vision of bizarre beasts arising up out of the see to describe a sequence of future kingdoms that will appear and persecute the faithful people of Israel.  The actual author pretending to be Daniel, however, was living four hundred years later, long after these kingdoms had appeared.  He therefore had no trouble “predicting” them.  Other apocalypses describe the prophet’s visions of heaven as an indication of why the realities on earth are what they are.   What seems unfathomable to us down here makes sense if once we see these divine realities.

The ultimate point of all these apocalypses is that as bad as things may seem here on earth –with economic disasters, oppressive governments, religious persecutors, unimaginable natural disasters – everything in fact is going according to plan.  In the end, God will make right all that is wrong.  He will intervene in history, destroy the cosmic forces that are wreaking havoc on earth, and bring in a new utopian age where all will be right, all will be happy, all will prosper for all eternity.

These books were written to help people in their present lives.  Not the people living hundreds or thousands of years later, but the people the authors were addressing, members of their own communities.  The authors were trying to provide hope in the midst of suffering.  The deep and puzzling symbolism of the books were necessary to show that reality is far more complicated than one would expect.  God’s sovereignty is hidden and mysterious.  But it is the ultimate truth.

As an apocalypse, Revelation is also to be read this way.  Critical scholars have had no difficulty showing that the symbols of the book have to do with what the author and his readers knew about their own context, the world of the Roman Empire, an empire that massively exploited its world through economic, social, and military power, an Empire that persecuted Christians to the death, an Empire that was aligned (for the author) with the forces of evil, but which God would soon – very soon for the author – overthrow.

This understanding of the book applies not only to the macro-level, to explain its overarching message, but its detailed symbolism.  And so critical scholars have long recognized that the Beast whose number is 666 actually refers to the Emperor Nero (I will be demonstrating this in the book); the Great Whore of Babylon, who is enthroned on a beast with seven heads and is  drunk with the blood of the martyrs,” is the first-century city of Rome itself, built on seven hills and engaged in deadly persecutions of Christians.  This is a book written for persecuted Christians at the end of the first century.  It is not predicting what will happen 2000 years later.

As a result, so much of the religious fervor inspired by the book – whether sparked by evangelists like Billy Graham or authors like Timothy LaHaye – is rooted in a highly problematic approach to interpretation.   I am certainly not going to be claiming that fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation are solely responsible for the disaster at Waco, the conservative right’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the arms race!   But odd as it might seem, they did play a role.

In short:  Expecting Armageddon will show that important slices of American culture are rooted in a problematic reading of the book of Revelation.  If one of the goals of critical thinking is to evaluate the world we live in, then understanding these roots and recognizing their problematic character is an important act of cultural critique.

 


Christianity’s Most Important Convert: Lecture at the Smithsonian

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 1, 2019

    Why did the white rider become interpreted as pestilence? Is it because he has a bow? Or was it because verse 8 talks about “sword, famine, and plague” and well… we have the other two so the white rider must be plague?

  2. Avatar
    alanpaul  April 1, 2019

    Dear Professor Ehrman

    Do you have a *psychological* explanation for why so many people enjoying comfortable, interesting and rather privileged lives in this world today, nevertheless apparently can’t wait for it all to end – not only for them but for their children and grandchildren – and therefore read Revelation as being all about *them*? I can understand why 1st century Christians would want to be vindicated and see an end to their earthly suffering and persecution. But life has dealt most folks today (I mean in Western societies) a very good hand with all kinds of possibilities to be useful, productive and fulfilled over a normal lifespan. Why then does the idea of the imminent end of the world grip their imagination so strongly? They might explain this by saying that they can’t wait to be with Christ, but having been put on God’s Creation for a purpose why would they constantly think about leaving it at the earliest opportunity?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      My sense is that most people who enjoy both comfort and privilege still are deeply unhappy and unsatisfied, thinking there must be something more.

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  3. Avatar
    Judith  April 1, 2019

    So, tomorrow will be the anniversary of your very first post! That calls for a celebration. I’m sending a donation in appreciation for seven years of excellence.

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  4. Avatar
    doug  April 1, 2019

    It’s understandable that some folks want to try to reconcile the world’s horrific suffering with God. But as you’ve shown, twisting Revelation around is not the way to do it.

  5. Avatar
    mannix  April 1, 2019

    Before I started reading your books and joining your blog, I had dismissed Revelation as the work of someone on a regular diet of a certain species of mushroom!

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  6. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  April 1, 2019

    There’s a passage in Revelation 11:9-10, where the two witnesses die, and people from every nation look on their bodies fro 3 days. I’ve heard people use this to show that this must refer to modern times. After they die, the whole world celebrates–which would require that knowledge to be spread very quickly, impossible in the ancient world. Any thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Don’t buy it. It’s simply a common way of saying “everyone.” Doesn’t mean it literally. It’s like when Satan takes Jesus up to the high mountain for his temptation and shows him “all the kingdoms of the earth.” Was he using television screens? Ancients didn’t worry much about that kind of thing.

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  7. Avatar
    dennislk1  April 1, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It is indeed a challenge trying to determine if a text in the Bible is to be taken literally or metaphorically.

    If I understand you correctly, like with the book of Daniel (as you have come to understand it), the book of Revelation was written after the events took place that the book of Revelation prophesy. And that the “Beast” and 666 refer to Nero. Do you believe the writer of Revelation saw Nero as the “Beast” because he persecuted Christians or because he was the head of the Roman Empire that caused the Temple in Jerusalem to be destroyed? And in your opinion are some of the prophecies in Revelation prophesying the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans? I can believe the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was a huge psychological blow to the Christians at that time because so much of Jesus life is associated with the Temple and Jerusalem was the center of Christianity in the beginning. Or did Christians at Nero’s time no longer associate Jerusalem with the center of their religion?

    The suffering of the Jews before and after the Temple was destroyed seem to parallel some of the prophecies of suffering in Revelation. Did the suffering of the Christians under Nero rise to the same level as the suffering of the Jews? That is, where they enslaved and sent to the far reaches of the empire?

    And lastly, might the book of Revelation have been written this way so that if the document was discovered by the Romans, they would not be able to understand it was talking about them?

    Thank you,

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Nero is the culprit because he persecuted the Christians, torturing some of them to death. He played no role in the destruction of the temple (which happened after his death). And no, I don’t think Revelation uses symbolism to hide it’s meaning as underground literature, even though that is commonly said these days. Symbolism was simply part of the genre of “apocalypse,” used in all the ancient jewish and Christian apocalypses. And sometimes the symbolism is so obvious that it wouldn’t fool anyone (the whore of babylon, God’s great enemy, is “the great city” that is “seated on seven hills”. Anyone in antiquity would know what that means: Rome!

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      • Avatar
        AndrewJenkins  April 4, 2019

        I think there was quite a large Jewish community in Rome in 64 CE. Do we know whether the Christians blamed for the fire and persecuted by Nero in Rome were mainly Jewish converts or Gentile converts?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2019

          Nothing in Tacitus indicates, but when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans a few years earlier he greets 26 people by name and indicates for only 6 of them that they are Jews. That almost certainly means the other 20 were not Jews, so the proportion of Gentiles to Jews in the church, among people he was aware of, at least, was 20 to 6. So roughly 25-30% were Jewish. I suppose it was the same at the time of Nero’s persecution.

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  8. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  April 2, 2019

    How are futurist scholars looked upon in the scholarly community? Are there any competent futurist or dispensationalist scholars? Do you think much of John Walvoord or Dwight Pentecost? (They’re both dead, so don’t worry about insulting them.) 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      No, they are not seen as serious scholars outside of fundamentalist circles. Quite the opposite. No one has heard of them, and if they have, they don’t think they are real scholars.

  9. John4
    John4  April 2, 2019

    “…they stand radically at odds with how critical scholars read the book of Revelation, and insist it ought to be read.”

    Well, Bart, I don’t know about critical scholars in general. But I do know that *you*, Bart, sometimes slip into telling people how they “ought” to interpret a text (*your* way, of course, lol!).

    You are my favorite Bible scholar, Bart. I usually I interpret the Bible as you do. But, unlike you, I’ve never had any illusion that a critical reading is the only valid way to approach a text. To my mind, Bart, people *ought* to interpret the Bible in a way that works for them in their life, even though that is often not the way that works for me in mine.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Ah, I think you’ve misunderstood me! I do think a critical reading of the Bible is highly important, even vital. But I think there are lots of other ways to read it too! Somebody reading the Psalms for comfort doesn’t need to spend a single second thinking “Well, David is not really the author….”

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  10. Avatar
    pmwslc  April 2, 2019

    This may very well turn out to be your most important book, and I sincerely hope that you do get it written and published.

    2
  11. fefferdan
    fefferdan  April 2, 2019

    I agree that “so much of the religious fervor inspired by the book .. is rooted in a highly problematic approach to interpretation” — namely the idea that it refers to the present day rather than the time it was written. But I have a more basic problem with Revelation: namely its “unchristian” attitude towards one’s enemies. Its author wants vengeance: ‘I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”’ [6:9-10] And God delivers that vengeance in spades, as the following chapters foretell. The concept of forgiveness and mercy are entirely lacking in the book. No wonder many early authorities didn’t want to accept it as canonical. But I have to admit that, when I was young, I did my share of trying to figure out which political or religious leader was the Beast.

    2
    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Yup, it’s a problem. And not just with Revelation. Think: book of Joshua! (Also part of the Christian Bible). I’d say there are lots of Christian attitudes toward love, hate, vengeance, violence, slaughter of enemies, and on and on! (One might note various Christians in the modern world, e.g.!)

      3
  12. Avatar
    Eric  April 2, 2019

    My interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is rooted in the Enlightenment, not Scripture.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Yes, a much better approach.

      Few people would actually claim that the Bible is telling them how to interpret the constitution. Yet so many people claim that the Founding Fathers were good Bible-believing Christians! Ones own views can skew how one understands the past, and its documents.

      3
  13. Avatar
    fishician  April 2, 2019

    I find it interesting that Revelation, like the other books of the NT, never explains why God would allow Satan to be thrown down to earth, where he causes lots of trouble, and only at the very end does God dispose of him. Seems like getting rid of Satan up front would have saved a lot of tribulation and death. I know theologians have their theories, but odd that the books of the canon don’t offer a clear explanation.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      It’s a mystery!

    • Avatar
      Ephraimlad  April 7, 2019

      I think this problem goes farther back: why did God send the serpent out of Eden, along with the newly-cursed Adam and Eve, to perpetually torment them? Did He not have the capacity to address the problem then and there?

      Another thing: did God also give the serpent a heads-up not to chat with Eve?

      It seems this is the root of Hebrew apocalypticism. Is Yahweh is constrained by his own morality (or lack of it?)

  14. Avatar
    Apocryphile  April 2, 2019

    I think your proposed book really does need to be written, and I hope you do it. Books on Revelation have been written before, but I think its problematic interpretations in our current culture really need to be explicated and made accessible to as wide a reading audience as possible. Our modus operandi these days seems to be “don’t offend anyone”, but there comes a point when dumb becomes dangerous, and ignorance needs to be called out for what it is. Tragic incidents like Waco are also never isolated from the culture at large – it was a major influence on Timothy McVeigh, who went on to execute the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

  15. Avatar
    AntiochusEpimanes  April 2, 2019

    In Revelation 9:16 there are 200 million troops. (So this is supposed to indicate that the world population would be in the billions.) First, the Greek reads two myriads of myriads–and myriads supposedly means 10,000. Do you think he was trying to convey 200 million? And does it seem like they’re demonic? The horses aren’t regular horses.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      The whole passage is obviously heavily metaphorical; but the 200,000,000 — it’s hard to know if that means “a massive number.” It doesn’t seem to be symbolic of anything. On the other hand, no one had any idea how many people were on earth at the time, so I’m not sure that was necessarily a problem. My sense is that since he is providing symbolic descriptions of the coming catastrophes, he wasn’t imagining a literal number of troops, thinking this is really what is literally going to happen.

  16. Avatar
    wostraub  April 2, 2019

    Hal Lindsey’s ridiculous interpretations are a sad commentary on American religious thought today. Worse, his views represent those of many American Christians, possibly the very same ones that are currently in charge of our country.

    2
  17. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  April 3, 2019

    “God will make right all that is wrong . . ” and ” . . all will be right, all will be happy, all will prosper for all eternity.”
    Yes, but its important that IN THE MEANTIME you follow MY sect and – especially – tithe to MY sect.
    That’s what all the modern day interpreters are saying, in my opinion. “Follow me now! And avoid the rush!” (paraphrasing Ashley Brilliant).
    Get me my luxury jet plane NOW and I’ll see to it that you have it easy in the apocalypse later.

    1
  18. tompicard
    tompicard  April 3, 2019

    How about Rev 6:12
    > a great earthquake, and the sun became black
    > like sackcloth of goat hair, and the
    > whole moon turned blood red
    Based on historical context shouldn’t this be considered symbolic rather than literal, just like the locusts?

    Now check the words in Mark 13:24, they are intents and purposes identical
    > the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not
    >give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and
    >the heavenly bodies will be shaken

    Then do you likewise agree these words by Jesus should to be understood symbolically ? i.e that Jesus meant “God will make right all that is wrong. He will intervene in history, destroy the cosmic forces that are wreaking havoc on earth, and bring in a new utopian age where all will be right, all will be happy, all will prosper for all eternity.” but that he probably didn’t expect any sort of strange supernatural phenomena

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2019

      I wish I knew *what* these people thought was really going to happen! But since Jesus expected the kingdom to come to earth, I suppose there needed to be an earth for it to come to. Still, a cosmic shake-up wouldn’t be beyond the imaginable.

    • Avatar
      Ephraimlad  April 7, 2019

      Excerpts from the THE SIBYLLINE ORACLES (translated by Milton Terry, 1899). This imagery clearly goes back much farther than the presumed 90ADish authorship of Revelation – at least 600 years. I personally believe one or more Jewish apocalyptic sects were influenced by the language of the ancient Roman oracles, using them to explain why their temple was destroyed after the fact.

      …And he massed clouds, and bid the sun’s bright disk,
      And moon, and stars, and circle of the heaven,
      Obscuring all things round; he thundered loud,
      Terror of mortals, sending lightnings forth;
      And all the winds together were aroused,
      And all the veins of water were unloosed
      By opening of great cataracts from heaven,
      And from earth’s caverns and the tireless deep…

      Alas for all the women in that day
      Who shall be found with burden in the womb!
      Alas for all who suckle tender babes!…

      For stars from heaven shall fall into all seas.
      And all the souls of men shall gnash their teeth
      Burned both by sulphur stream and force of fire
      In ravenous soil, and ashes hide all things.
      And then of the world all the elements
      Shall be bereft, air, earth, sea, light, sky, days,
      Nights; and no longer in the air shall fly
      Birds without number, nor shall living things
      That swim the sea swim any more at all…

      1
  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 5, 2019

    Talk about apocalypse check out “Newfound tiny planet may be a Glimpse of Earth’s Ultimate Fate” by Catherine Zuckerman in “National Geographic.” Here is the scenario: The sun runs out of fuel and expands into a white dwarf consuming the Earth’s orbit.

  20. Avatar
    Joel Smith  April 6, 2019

    The Book of Revelation mentions the number 1260 seven times. The Book of Daniel adds a couple more references to 1260. Islam (especially Shi’ih Islam) repeatedly mentions the year 1260 AH.
    Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Zoroastrian religion and even the Native American religions all foretell the coming of a Promised One. Each of the Founders of these great religions either promised to personally return himself, to send another like himself or in some instances…. the Founder promised to do both.
    Could it be that these Founders were all foretelling the same event? The 1260 appears to be the key.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2019

      Both Revelation and Islam got it from Daniel — so they are not independently attesting it.

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