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The Odd Modern Way of Reading the Book of Revelation


Back to my possible trade book on the book of Revelation and the way it has affected not just modern conservative Christianity but also secular society (literature, film) and political policy (environmental legislation; second Amendment discussions; policy on the Middle East).   In my description-to-myself of what I’m imagining the book to be, after discussing these various effects of Revelation, I start talking about Revelation itself, and how it came to be read as a blueprint for our future (a reading that seems so *natural* today, but is not how the book was read until the 19th century).


Armageddon in the Book of Revelation

The thesis of my book is that all of these manifestations of apocalyptic thought in American discourse – religious, literary, cinematic, social, and political – ultimately stem from a particular way of reading the book of Revelation, a reading that, despite a few scattered precedents throughout history, came to the fore only at the end of the 19th century.   Critical biblical scholars are unified in thinking it is based on entirely false premises.

The book of Revelation records a series of visions concerning what is “soon to take place,” given to a Christian prophet named John in exile on the Island of Patmos.  The prophet is taken up to heaven itself, to the throne room of God, and there witnesses what will occur in both heaven and earth as history comes to its climax.  These visions are (intentionally) mystifying, baffling, and highly symbolic, portraying divinely sanctioned catastrophes on earth — wars, famines, earthquakes, and the collapse of the entire universe — which, if taken literally, would destroy the entire world and everything on it, already a third of the way through the book (chapter 6)!

In the midst of the mind-boggling calamities, the ultimate enemy of God, called …

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Armageddon and American Politics



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 29, 2019

    I understand why people thought the Book of the Revelation of St John was coming true in the 20s. First there was World War I and all the wars that sprung up in its wake – Eastern Europe was in constant turmoil for five years or so after the end of the war. Then there were all of the men who came home from the war – broken, disillusioned, many of them hooked on heroin, amphetamines or ridden with venereal diseases from the soldiers’ brothels. Then there was the Great Flu, an epidemic which killed more people than the war did, and preferably struck the young men who had managed to survive the war. And of course, in the wake of the war came wide-spread famines – we had bread riots in Sweden in 1917, and the Turnip Winter happened at the same time in Germany. War, Famine, Pestilence and ever-present Death? Sounds like the apocalypse to me.

    I think the reason the Religious Right hasn’t picked up global warming as an apocalyptic scenario is that the question was seized by the Democrats with “An Inconvenient Truth.” It seems if one side of the aisle believes something is true, the other increasingly feels they must believe it is false.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 29, 2019

    Oh, I forgot. If you’re reading end-of-the-world novels, you should definitely look up “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It’s a parody of books and movies like “The Omen.” It is a wonderful send up of the genre, written by two genuine craftsmen at the height of their powers. Highly recommended.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019


      • Avatar
        AstaKask  April 1, 2019

        There were vague planes for a sequel called “668: The neighbour of the beast”, but unfortunately they never materialized.

  3. Avatar
    crucker  March 29, 2019

    Is there a book or two you would recommend on the history of the formation and rise of modern fundamentalism?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      The classic is by George Marsden. Just look him up on Amazon.

  4. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  March 29, 2019

    In your research, have you encountered any psychologists weighing-in on the modern interpretations of Revelation?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      There are a lot of them, but I don’t find them helpful, since the human psyche was very different in ancient cultures so removed from our own.

  5. Avatar
    Leovigild  March 29, 2019

    This is the first time I’ve seen the term “Anglo-English.” To what does it refer?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      I suppose as opposed to American-English. As an American married to a Brit, I can attest there are significant differences.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  March 29, 2019

    Every day recently on the way to work in Raleigh I pass a large semi-permanent tent structure with a sign outside, “REVELATION SPEAKS PEACE!” Apparently a 7th-day Adventist enterprise, who persist even though Ellen G White clearly got her dates wrong. Fortunately I grew up Lutheran before becoming Restoration (Church of Christ/Christian Church) so I never got caught up in the end times mania. Dr. E, why do you think some fundamentalist churches got caught up in the rapture mania but not others (like the Restoration movement)?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      It’s an intriguing question. And as often happens, I have no clue!

  7. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 29, 2019

    The scariest verse in the Bible is Revelation 22:20 which says, in part, “Come Lord Jesus!”

  8. Avatar
    tonysolgard  March 29, 2019

    Would you sort out for us the distinction between 19th century ‘Darbyism’ and the ancient expectation of the imminent return of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      Darbyism utilized that older expectation but built it into an entire system; look up millenial dispensationalism and you’ll see what it looks like. It’s not something anyone in antiquity could have imagined, let alone subscribed to.

  9. Avatar
    AJB2016  March 29, 2019

    John Nelson Darby as “Anglo-English”? This is a new one, at least for this Brit! Possibly, Anglo-Irish?

  10. Avatar
    Nichrob  March 29, 2019

    What happens when you tell a fundamentalist the earlier sources state the beast’s number as 616?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      They say, huh! But it doesn’t really affect any fundamentalist views: it just mean it’s a different number. (And the vast majority of mss read 666 in any event, which is probalby the original reading.

  11. Avatar
    doug  March 29, 2019

    You mentioned modern fundamentalism in the second half of the 19th century. What book(s) would you recommend on the history of modern fundamentalism from that period onward?

  12. Avatar
    forthfading  March 29, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Where in the New Testament is the rapture even discussed?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2019

      The term never occurs. The closest passage to deal with the concept is 1 Thes. 4:14-18.

  13. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 29, 2019

    The modern fundamentalists’ approach to Revelation is virtually the same as their approach to Daniel. And if you’ll excuse the pun, it was a real revelation to me to learn several decades ago that Daniel wasn’t written the time of Daniel but during the Maccabean Revolt. Once these books are understood as being meant for the time they were written, rather than predicting what will happen in our own time, it’s as if the scales fall from our eyes and what once was once mysterious becomes clear. The abomination of destruction predicted by Daniel [and by Jesus acc. to Mark and Matthew] already happened in the time of Antiochus IV, and the Beast of Revelation already appeared in the person of Nero. And these books are even more interesting for providing a gateway into the minds of their writers and ancient readers as they are for letting us in on the secret of which political leader of today is the Beast.

  14. Avatar
    godspell  March 30, 2019

    This is more than a little reminiscent of the imbroglio over the so-called Mayan Calendar.

    A text is created for a given culture–then that culture either dies out or changes to the point where nobody except a handful of experts on it can come up with even a close approximation of its original import. The text survives, but the context is lost.

  15. Avatar
    nbraith1975  March 30, 2019

    Bart –

    Maybe off-topic, but since you’re talking about how people “read” the Book of Revelation, with respect to the a trinitarian argument that Jesus was God incarnate, can you please comment on Revelation 1:18 where Jesus tells a very frightened John:

    “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I WAS DEAD, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

    It seems to me that the fact can’t be dismissed that in the first sentence ever spoken by a resurrected Jesus to a living human being he specifically says that he “was dead.”

    How can this possibly be true?

    The Greek is very clear:

    I WAS
    ἐγενόμην (egenomēn)
    Verb – Aorist Indicative Middle – 1st Person Singular
    Strong’s Greek 1096: A prolongation and middle voice form of a primary verb; to cause to be, i.e. to become, used with great latitude.

    νεκρὸς (nekros)
    Adjective – Nominative Masculine Singular
    Strong’s Greek 3498: (a) adj: dead, lifeless, subject to death, mortal, (b) noun: a dead body, a corpse. From an apparently primary nekus; dead.

    This statement by Jesus himself begs the biggest question in scripture – how could Jesus, who probably 99% of Christians believe was God incarnate, ever die?

    • Avatar
      nbraith1975  March 31, 2019

      Correction: Revelation 1:18 contains the “first sentence” ever spoken from a resurrected Jesus from “heaven” to a human.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      I believe that’s the point of most traditional Christian theology: Christ “died for your sins.”

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 30, 2019

    Fascinating to see this outlined so clearly: Namely that this “Revelation” theology changed so much during the nineteenth century from the “Preterist’ theology that “Revelation” symbolically describes events during the first century that had already taken place. Humans have an enormous capacity to make stuff up and then believe with passion whatever they have made up and spin all data accordingly. Depressing conclusion about humans, but I guess that is the way it is….
    Where, oh, where, did reason based on evidence go???

  17. Avatar
    flshrP  March 30, 2019

    Ah, the Isle of Patmos. A gem in the Aegean. Where St. John the Evangelist was inspired to write the Book of Revelation.
    In the mid-1950s a grade school friend and I were rebuilding old WWII multiband shortwave radio receivers as a hobby. We would listen to AM and shortwave bands at night when reception was best at our Midwest location. We could pick up the “border-blaster” radio stations located just across the Rio Grande River in Mexico. These beasts had 100,000+ watt transmitters (a lot more powerful that the 50,000 watt “Clear Channel” radio stations in the U.S., limited by the FCC).

    We enjoyed listening to the fundamentalist Christian preachers who bought time on those transmitters. They were all preaching end-times sermons based on Revelation. One in particular was a hoot. He was soliciting donations from the believers in order that he and his family could visit the Isle of Patmos and retrace the footsteps of St. John, thereby reaching a deeper understanding of Revelation, or so he said. I don’t know if he received enough cash to make the trip but he was entertaining. This was my introduction to the business end of Christianity employing the high technology of that time. The Sunday collection seemed to be small time compared to the much larger expectations of these radio preachers.

  18. Avatar
    jeffmd90  March 31, 2019

    Bart, do you think that many of the bizarre otherworldly visions seen in scripture could have been the result of hallucinogens?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      It’s what scholars occasionally would start arguing in the 1960s! But no, I don’t think so. Not any evidence of it.

  19. Robert
    Robert  March 31, 2019

    Leovigild: “This is the first time I’ve seen the term “Anglo-English.” To what does it refer?”

    AJB2016: John Nelson Darby as “Anglo-English”? This is a new one, at least for this Brit! Possibly, Anglo-Irish?”

    I presumed Darby was referring to himself as descended specifically from the ængli who began settling in what is now England in the 5th c CE as opposed to the Britons or other tribal groups who were already there. I watched a pretty good documentary on PBS last week that highlighted the local genetic diversity that still exits today among various villages in England. Modern genetic studies have surpising revealed that the Anglo-Saxon tribes only contributed about 10% of the genetic make-up of the English people today and the diversity of genetic make-up can still be effectively mapped geographically within England.

    King Arthur’s Lost Kingdom, Season 17 Episode 5 of Secrets of the Dead. By the way, this is also why I started reading the Cambrian Annals.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2019

      Wow! Thanks.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 1, 2019

        On the other hand, Darby’s family was Irish and, ‘though born in London, he was ordained as an Anglican priest in Ireland so this was probably supposed to be Anglo-Irish!

  20. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  April 1, 2019

    …”efore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

    Does this mean that jesus did not think that god will give the jews their land coz they werent producing the fruits ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2019

      Not the land itself, but the coming kingdom of God. Gentiles would be included instead of Jews.

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