Image by J. Mark Bertrand via FlickrReal Christians are going to disappear abruptly someday soon. The world is going to descend into a bloodbath while someone known as the antichrist attempts to seize control of the planet. That is what some of your neighbors think—and some of your politicians. Many of them even relish the thought. Is Revelation, the last book in the Bible, a set of prophecies or a set of hallucinations? Neither, says Reverend Rich Lang of Trinity United Methodist in Ballard, Washington.
If the Book of Revelation isn’t a blueprint that tells us what is coming in the End Times, what the heck is it?
Like any book in the Bible, Revelation was written from the perspective of faith for the purpose of giving faith. It was written in the early days of the Jesus movement to a persecuted minority that was fearing worse persecution.
As the Jesus movement started in Jerusalem and Jesus was crucified, and there was this experience of resurrection, at the same time, there was a simultaneous political movement within Judaism of rebellion against the Roman Empire. It peaked in the 60’s and 70’s. It culminated finally—horrifically-- in the Roman legions marching into the country, destroying Jerusalem and burning down the temple. These two factors – the young Jesus movement and the brutally crushed rebellion–intersect in the writings we now call Revelation
But Revelation doesn’t talk about Jerusalem being destroyed. It talks about a beast with many heads and a dragon and the four horsemen. . .
That poetic language which sounds so strange to us was actually familiar to ancient readers. The author was writing a dramatic script in a form of popular media. Today we all recognize different modes or “genres” of writing—the detective novel, the love sonnet, manga. . Each has its own familiar structure and images. The same was true in the past.
The book of Revelation belongs to a then popular genre of literature called apocalyptic. The term apocalypse means “unveiling.” There were lots of apocalypses, each a graphic poetic vision of some radically transformed future in which the good guys win. This genre began around 200 BC and went out of style around 150 AD. The book of Revelation is also called the Apocalypse of John, and it is one of several explicitly Christian apocalypses that still exist today. In each, metaphoric language was used to communicate something that, experientially, felt too big for words. It was a way of trying to speak the unspeakable—and to inspire endurance and hope.
So what was the author of Revelation unveiling?
Revelation was written about twenty years after the fall of Jerusalem. The author, who we know only as John, had lived through the horrors that accompanied fall of the city. Imagine: the Roman Empire is surrounding Jerusalem. At the same time, civil war is raging within the walls. People are literally starving to death. As the siege continues, the Romans capture 20,000 Jews and crucify them on the walls of the city—while the city still is under siege.
20,000! We think of the crucifixion being unique.
No. Crucifixions happened all the time. There were thousands and thousands of crucifixions. The Jews wanted freedom. To them it was a blasphemy to have the Romans in their land. Many of them rebelled, and they lost. Eventually, the city fell, and the people were slaughtered. Those remaining were expelled from the land. This is the time of the Diaspora—the scattering of the Jews, who were dispersed around the Mediterranean—Asia Minor, Greece, Northern Africa and Europe.
But the author, John, is a Christian.
Remember, the earliest members of the Jesus movement were Jews, and so the early Christians scattered with the rest of the Jewish people. During the Diaspora, Christianity began to be adopted more widely by gentiles and at that point it began to grow rapidly throughout the Mediterranean. John is writing to Pauline (gentile) churches, but they are very rooted in Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures.
At the time Revelation is written, about twenty years after these devastating events, the young scattered Christian movement is being persecuted. They are treated like Blacks in the South during the ‘30s and ‘40s. A Christian carpenter might not be able to get work. Some are lynched. John, himself, is writing from exile, so whatever he was preaching was viewed by the Roman Empire as a threat to law and order.
Why was the message so threatening?
Clearly, part of his message was “Stop participating in the imperial cult. Stop participating in the patriotic way of life of the Roman Empire which requires paying homage to the gods of the Empire and in particular the emperor as an incarnation of God.” The Early Christian movement was an alternative to the way of empire. You know, Jesus is called “Lord and Savior”. If you ask where did that language came from, that language came from Caesar. Caesar was “Lord and Savior.” Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25, which was when Roman celebrated the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The pagans believed that if they didn’t take care of the gods, the gods wouldn’t take care of them. By forbidding the cult of the gods, the Christians threatened this balance.
One thing confuses me. Is John writing about events in his past or events in his future?
First of all, he is writing from a lived experience of what Empire can do. That is the key to understanding his perspective. He is writing a book that combines familiar political images. The dragons, for example, are much like our political cartoons. When you see an eagle and a bear you know it means the United States and the Soviet Union. For him, he is using images largely out of Hebrew scripture to convey what the Roman Empire is, and what he believes will happen to the early Christian movement. John’s primary message comes in Chapter 18: Empire will fall. Rome cannot last. This power structure that seems so big and is so crushing of the people will crumble, and God will re-create out of the ruins a new Jerusalem. John continually counsels the movement to hold fast: Those who endure to the end will be saved. This is a book of hope: The empire is going to fall. God is going to make a way where there is no way.
But had he—lost it? With all of the bizarre images, I’ve heard Revelation called “John on Acid.”
No. Almost all the imagery in the book of Revelation is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures, and some comes from Greek myths. In Chapter 12, you have the woman clothed in the sun and Satan falls out of the sky and there is this dragon that chases the woman. Well, that is the birth of Apollo. Dominion, who is the emperor at that time, he likens himself to Apollo. He is the sun god. So John is taking this known story and writing a counter-myth. He is saying that Dominion is not so important as he thinks. The birth of the child, Jesus, that’s the real big story.
The religious impulse easily gets perverted into a quest for secret knowledge because it makes me more than you. The images of Jesus himself are rooted in Hebrew stories. They simply cannot be understood unless you know that they are coming from the book of Daniel and Ezekiel and Zachariah. The narrative, the story line is rooted in the Exodus story in which God liberates the Jews from Pharaoh’s empire – walks them through the Red Sea and the wilderness and sends them to a promised land. Revelation is a recapitulation, a re-telling of the same story. God is the god who frees us from empire, whether Pharaoh or Dominion. We will come out of this into a land flowing with milk and honey. One of the big exhortations of the book is: “Come out of her.”—Come out of Roman Empire (as the Jews came out of Egypt).
What you are saying helps me to understand why people who are immersed in this theology are so fearful of empire – the League of Nations, the Soviet Union, the United Nations—any form of internationalism. Among the “Left Behind” crowd, people who are bridge builders or peacemakers are seen as evil and to be mistrusted. That is what John was talking about, that was his experience, even if people take it out of context.
From the very beginnings, part of the Christian message was the notion of an end time. God is going to clean up the world –which is a messy awful a place with a lot of violence and evil. After all, the central hero of the Christian story is tortured and crucified-- put to death by an empire! How is God going to clean up the world? Jesus is going to come back and rule the world and shepherd the nations.
The Hebrew understanding of history is that it is going somewhere. It is linear, not cyclical, which is a break with the agriculture-based earth religions. Christianity, which is a child of Judaism, picks up the Hebrew storyline: History is linear. But –and this is really important-- in the Bible the end is never the end of the physical world. It is the end of an age. It’s the end, for example, of the Roman empire, and then what happens is not that everyone is whisked off to heaven but that on earth there is a renewal , a renewal of the earth itself, of culture, of the nations ,peace and justice, everyone has their own vineyard and fig tree.
So, where did the notion of everyone being lifted out of their clothes and cars and cockpits come from?
That comes from the 19th Century. An Anglo-Irish theologian called John Darby created a new interpretive lens for the Bible. It’s called Dispensationalism, because in this system, history is divided into seven “dispensations” or ages within an age. In this system, the Rapture leads to the Millennium when Jesus reigns on Earth for 1000 years but before the Millennium is the reign of the antichrist. At different historical junctures different bad buys are picked as the antichrist. In the 1970’s, thanks to Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, it was all about Russia. And the ten nations, the European Union would become part of the Beast. Today dire warnings about Barack Obama being the antichrist are scattered about the internet. Or Osama Bin Ladin.
Believe me—I’ve seen plenty of both—even Chavez and Bono. But come back, for a moment, to the Rapture itself. What about that verse in Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:16). There’s the Lord descending with a trumpet, and the dead in Christ rising and then “we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”
That is wonderful graphical mythical language which, when written, had very little to do with the plot of Left Behind.
Thessalonians is Paul talking with an early church in southern Europe, and he faces a specific challenge: Christians have died. We had expected Jesus to come back before that happened. Now what do we do? Paul thought he was living at the end of an age. He thought he would see the day that God would come back, clean up the earth and restore Paradise. But it hasn’t happened within the timeframe he expected, so he offers an explanation that integrates the existing facts—instead of Christ returning before any Christians have died, the dead and the living are united with Jesus together.
Flash forward a little bit. When you study very early church history, if you study the art of the early church you don’t see a lot of images of the crucifix or scenes of the crucifixion; you see images of paradise. And there was a proclamation of the early church that had an optimistic view – that where we were headed --on earth as in heaven, was a paradise. This was the expectation of many in the early Jesus movement.
There was a historical process, and over time this expectation changed for some. This process, which I don’t have time to go into, was wrapped around when Constantine became emperor and absorbed Christianity as the state religion. Rather than being a minority faith it became the dominant faith.. Once it became the dominant faith Christianity radically changed because it became about politics and power and control of the nations.
You have this book that is all about how evil empires can be because he has this horrifying experience and now all of a sudden Christianity is in power; empire is on the side of Christianity. That’s a little awkward.
Yes. And, the book of Revelation was dormant for many many years because of this. In our time the book of Revelation has come back with a vengeance because the imagery is made to order for wild interpretation. You’ve got an entire generation of children being raised in these fundamentalist end-times churches, being told they are the last generation.
You obviously think this is a bad thing.
Well, thankfully these families don’t live as if what they say is true is really true. They are still stashing away money to send their kids to college and for their own retirement. If they really believed you would see a hardening of the faith. There is a far right segment of Christian in which you do see this hardening—churches focused on “spiritual warfare” building walls rather than bridges, organizing services to celebrate gun rights, praying public prayers for the death of abortion providers or Barack Obama or judges. This kind of far right hardening comes out of the misuse of apocalyptic literature. Christianity gets translated into a quest for purity and righteousness that will bring these prophesies to fruition.
You said earlier that there were lots of apocalypses. It was a popular medium. How did this particular book get into the Bible?
Well, there was controversy about that. Many Christians didn’t want it in the Bible, and even Martin Luther question the decision of the Catholic councils to include it. Revelation got into the Bible because the church fathers chose to believe that the same John who knew Jesus in person was the author of this and several other texts. Their primary criterion was “apostolic authority.” What we now know – this is just the evolution of our own knowledge—is that the authors who wrote the Gospel of John, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Letters of John, and the Apocalypse of John, were not the same person. The script is very different. The same phrases are not used. One is written by a highly educated Greek author, the other written by a person whose primary language is Semitic.
These books that the counsels thought were written by John, the companion of Jesus, they were written by two or three people?
The people who actually knew Jesus, the twelve, none of them left writings for us. All of these writings are written well after the death of Jesus. The Church was looking for authority, and so they tried to choose writings that fit a hierarchical form of Christianity and that traced their lineage through the apostles back to Jesus. The Bible is the book for the church and it was compiled by the Church for the purpose of helping the Church advance faith. The books didn’t become finalized as scripture till 300 years after Jesus lived and died.
I was taught as a child that the Bible was essentially dictated by God to the authors. I was never taught about which books were chosen and how. But I would assume that Catholics believe God gave perfect insight to the councils that made the decisions?
I would assume so. And that is a wonderful mask for authority. When religion becomes a pursuit of power—a system to keep people in control, you are always going to have those games that are being played. Against religion, you have the message of Jesus, which is a spiritual message – a message of freedom.
Part of what this comes down to is: What is the Bible? When you are dealing with an end times fundamentalist Christian, you are dealing with a person who believes that the Bible was written by God– God writes it and there is a secret code and if you are in the know you will know the code and the elect will know the code. The Bible itself becomes a magical book, a secret script. If you just know how to read the script, you’ll know where the world is going. And so people begin to live this script as if they live in the end times.
We’re so into that secret knowledge thing, aren’t we? You see it many places: Gnosticism, the Knights Templar, Freemasonry, the Mormon temple, childhood clubs, Skull and Bones . . . .
Yes, and I think you see it in all religions. I think that part of the religious impulse easily gets perverted into a quest for secret knowledge because it makes me more than you. I am special, I am elect, I am closer to God, I know the truth. The reality is that we are all schmucks trying to muddle through as best we can.
This article is adapted from an interview conducted by Valerie Tarico on Moral Politics Television, Seattle, June 12, 2009. Special thanks to Producer Bill Alford.