[Paleopsych] Borgrev: Reading Revelation Again

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Mon Jan 10 01:27:50 UTC 2005

Reading Revelation Again

[I don't know who Borgrev is. This page is cached, so I can't get any 
other of his writings.

[I have at last finished by first cycle of books since abandoning reality, 
the last one, Steve Gregg, _Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel 
Commentary_. The book shows me how, exclusively in the West, four views 
(all Protestant inerrantist, at that) can be articulated and given textual 
support. I don't know whether Jews have done the same thing with the Old 
Testament or in this way, nor whether anything like it has been done with 
a sacred text elsewhere. Maybe it's a unique Occidental trait.

[I did some Premise Checking, and that is that it's too easy to frame 
everything for or against the idea of a revealed text and try to find an 
error and say GOTCHA! The most fun interpretation of Revelation is 
surely the pre-tribulationist, pre-millenarian one so popular with 
Evangelicals and the view of the _Left Behind_ novels and, before that, 
with Hal Lindsey's _The Late, Great Planet Earth. It promises the Rapture 
of the believers into Heaven, followed by seven years of Tribulation, the 
banishment of the Devil during a 1000 year reign of Christ (but individual 
sinning still possible), the brief return of the Devil, his defeat, and a 
New Earth and a New Heaven.

[The problem is that John, whichever John he may have been, spoke rather 
insistently of the near fulfillment of his visions. I am convinced by the 
arguments of John A.T. Robinson in _Redating the New Testament_ that all 
the New Testament was completed by the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 
70 AD. As a devout atheist, I am not bothered by the failure of John's 
prophecies to come true, nor that he may have made an error in counting 
the Emperors of Rome by believing in Nero's return (Gregg says we can't 
have that, that the Bible is wrong!). The historical question is what John 
intended. The article below, along with Robinson, convinced me that John 
was speaking of a near fulfillment of his prophecies, and indeed the 
preterist view is the second of the four elaborated in Gregg's book. The 
main dispute among preterists is whether John was speaking of the 
destruction of Jerusalem (and thus the end of the First Covenant--but the 
Dispensationalists speak of seven before the coming of Christ) alone or of 
Rome as well.

[Jesus, rather clearly to me, thought God would put and end to his 
creation within six to eight weeks. Since that didn't happen, to make His 
predictions true, Christians have had to alter the meaning of what he 
said. Later Christians moved the end ahead, John being one of them. Hmmm, 
so if Jerusalem and maybe Rome was destroyed, then what about the Second 
Heaven and the Second Earth. Unfortunately, Gregg changes his parallelism, 
so I don't know whether the preterists think there has already been a 
Second Heaven and a Second Earth. (NOTE BENE: Hell and the Lake of Fire will 
continue. God will NOT destroy them.)

[No one has yet explained to me why Evangelicals exhibit signs of the 
coming of the End, such as the Jews returning to the Holy Land and RFID 
chips as the Mark of the Beast, when these very same Evangelicals insist 
that these events will take place *after* the Rapture. The only way I can 
reconcile this is that the Rapture has indeed already taken place but 
that, the world being so in league with the Devil, that there were so few 
true Christians to rapture that their disappearance got no more attention 
than any other event reported in The National Enquirer.]

[And now on to my second Western novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 
by Sloan Wilson, one of many works of the 1950s protesting the conformity 
of the era.]

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    "Revelation is widely popular for the wrong reasons," says biblical
    scholar Raymond Brown, "for a great number of people read it as a
    guide to how the world will end, assuming that the author was given by
    Christ detailed knowledge of the future that he communicated in coded
    symbols." Indeed, a substantial percentage of fundamentalist and
    conservative-evangelical Christians read Revelation as forecasting the
    imminent "end of the world" and second coming of Christ.

    The conviction that Jesus is coming soon, or at least that he nay be,
    is widespread. According to one national public-opinion poll,
    sixty-two percent of Americans (not just American Christians, mind
    you) have "no doubts" that Jesus will come again.2 Another poll
    reports that one-third believe the world will end soon.3

    I call a reading of Revelation that emphasizes the imminent second
    coming of Christ a "millennialist" interpretation. That view has
    flourished in the last half-century. During the last thirty years,
    books by Hal Lindsey, beginning with The Late Great Planet Earth, have
    sold over forty million copies. During the decade of the 1970s,
    Lindsey was the best-selling nonfiction(?) author in the
    English-speaking world. In the last several years, a series of novels
    on "the rapture" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have been on the
    best-seller lists. A millennialist reading of Revelation is a frequent
    theme of television and radio evangelists and "prophecy conferences"
    throughout the world. Recently, as I surfed through my viewing options
    on TV, I saw one of the best-known television evangelists standing in
    front of a chalkboard displaying biblical "signs of the end" and
    suggesting that 2007 may be the year of the second coming. Speaking in
    the context of a fund-raising drive, he sent this message: "You don't
    want to be burdened when Jesus comes again."

    The millennialist interpretation is not universally accepted, however.
    In fact, the interpretation of Revelation divides the contemporary
    church. But those Christians who reject the milennialist view often
    lack an alternate interpretation, choosing instead to ignore
    Revelation. The majority of mainline Christians have little
    familiarity with this troubling text; they avoid it in personal
    devotions and seldom hear it preached about (for there are few texts
    from Revelation in the lectionary, which sets out the portions of the
    Bible assigned for reading in public worship). Readers are puzzled by
    Revelation's difficult and bizarre imagery, perplexed by its scenes of
    destruction and divine violence, and put off by the message, "Jesus is
    coming soon and you'd better be ready, or you'll be in big trouble."
    To them, the God of Revelation and the message of Revelation seem to
    have little to do with the gospel of Jesus. They are willing (even if
    not happy) to leave Revelation to others.


    Revelation stands at the end of the New Testament and thus at the end
    of the Christian Bible. However, it was not the last document of the
    New Testament to be written, nor did its author know that it would
    someday conclude the Christian Bible. Its placement at the end of the
    New Testament canon is due to its subject matter: "the end"-judgment
    upon the world, the second coming of Christ, the destruction of Satan,
    and the advent of the New Jerusalem, described in language that echoes
    the portrait of Eden at the beginning of Genesis. With Revelation at
    its end, the Bible moves from "paradise lost" to "paradise restored."

    Revelation has been controversial from Christian antiquity to the
    present. In fact, it almost failed to make it into the Bible. Though
    generally accepted in the Latin-speaking church of the West from the
    second century onward, Revelation took much longer to be accepted as
    scripture in the Greek-speaking Eastern church. In the fourth century,
    the Christian historian Eusebius listed it as one of the disputed
    books. At about the same time, the early church father Cyril of
    Jerusalem not only omitted it from his list of canonical books, but
    forbade its public or private use.4 Though gradually accepted in the
    East, as late as 810 CE a Byzantine (Eastern) list of canonical
    writings did not include it. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, it
    began to be routinely included in Greek manuscripts of the New

    Much later, leaders of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth
    century had doubts about Revelation. Martin Luther included it in the
    New Testament only reluctantly and gave it secondary stature (even as
    he wished it would be thrown into the Elbe River); Ulrich Zwingli
    denied it scriptural status; and John Calvin largely ignored it
    (writing commentaries on the other twenty-six books of the New
    Testament but not on Revelation).

    Thus what to do with Revelation has been an issue for Christians for a
    very long time. In this chapter I will describe two very different
    ways of reading the book and look at the larger issues it raises.
    First, though, I will introduce it and provide a compact summary of
    its content.

    A Christian Apocalypse

    The book of Revelation is an apocalypse. Indeed, the two words-"
    Revelation" and "apocalypse"-are synonyms, for both translate the same
    Greek word, apokalvpsis. Thus Revelation in some Christian circles is
    called "The Apocalypse." Because Revelation was written by a person
    named John, the book is often known more fully as "The Revelation of
    John" or "The Apocalypse of John." (Note that the singular is used,
    not the plural; the name of the book is not "Revelations.")

    The word "apocalypse" means an "unveiling" or a "disclosure" or a
    "revelation." It also names a type of literature. As a literary genre,
    an apocalypse is defined by both content and style. Its subject matter
    is one or more visions disclosing or unveiling either the future or
    the heavenly world or both. Commonly, the present age is seen to be
    under the rule of evil powers who will soon be overthrown and
    destroyed by God, ushering in an age of blessedness for the faithful.
    The coming of the new age is typically marked by intense suffering and
    cosmic catastrophes. The stylistic features of apocalyptic literature
    include luxuriant imagery, fabulous beasts, and symbolic numbers.6
    Apocalyptic writings flourished in Judaism from about 200 BCE to 100
    CE. In the Hebrew Bible, the second half of the book of Daniel,
    written around 165 BCE, is the most sustained example.7

    Revelation was written late in the first century by a man named John
    living on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. Some have
    thought that John of Patmos was the disciple John, who also wrote the
    Fourth Gospel and the three letters of John, though virtually all
    modern scholars reject this identification.8 A few scholars have
    argued that Revelation was written in the time of the Roman emperor
    Nero in the 60s of the first century, though most affirm a date around
    the year 95, near the end of the rule of the emperor Domitian.

    Though Revelation is an apocalypse, it is also a letter addressed to
    seven Christian communities in seven cities in Asia Minor. John of
    Patmos was apparently known in these communities and may have been an
    itinerant Christian prophet and charismatic authority figure. He knew
    the Hebrew Bible very well. Though he never formally quotes a single
    verse, as many as sixty-five percent of the verses in Revelation echo
    or allude to passages from the Hebrew Bible.9 John's frequent use of
    the Hebrew Bible led one scholar to speak of the book as "a rebirth of

    Like the letters of Paul, Revelation would have been read aloud to its
    recipients at a community gathering, most likely in the context of
    worship. It was thus heard by its original audience (not read silently
    by individuals), and the listeners would have heard it all at once at
    a single sitting." This in itself has implications for interpretation:
    hearing Revelation all at once would convey the cumulative effect of
    John's visions in a way that the private reading of individual texts
    in isolation from the broad sweep of the book does not.

    Summary of Content

    After a brief introduction, John of Patmos speaks of the visionary
    experience in which he is commanded to write the book. Because the
    vision illustrates a number of characteristics of Revelation, I quote
    it at length:

    I was in the spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud
    voice like a trumpet saying, "Write in a book what you see and send it
    to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to
    Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.

    John then turns to see who is speaking to him. In his visionary state,
    he sees the risen Christ:

    Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on
    turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the
    lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and
    with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white
    as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his
    feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his
    voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held
    seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his
    face was like the, sun shining with full force.

    John then "fell at his feet as though dead." But the figure "placed
    his right hand on me, saying 'Do not be afraid," and then identified
    himself: "I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead,
    and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death
    and of Hades." The vision then concludes with the command of the risen

    Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after
    this. As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right
    hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels
    of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven

    John's inaugural vision illustrates several features of Revelation:
    emphasis upon visions and "seeing," use of luxuriant imagery, allusion
    to the Hebrew Bible, and frequent use of symbolic numbers. Most of the
    book is narrated as a series of visions; in the book as a whole, "I
    saw" is used about fifty-five times. The luxuriant imagery in John's
    initial vision speaks for itself, much of it drawn from the Hebrew
    Bible; there are no fewer than twelve allusions to that older document
    in this passage. The number seven recurs frequently throughout the
    book. Here, there are seven stars, seven lampstands, and seven
    churches; in subsequent chapters, there will be seven letters, seven
    seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Even when the number seven is
    not explicitly used, there are series of sevens: seven beatitudes,
    seven hymns of praise, seven categories of people, seven references to
    the altar, and seven prophetic affirmations of the second coming of
    Jesus. 13

    Chapters two and three contain the letters to the seven churches. They
    include an evaluation of each community, threats and/or encouragement,
    and a promise. Nothing bad is said about Smyrna and Philadelphia;
    nothing good is said about Sardis and Laodicea; Ephesus, Pergamum, and
    Thyatira receive mixed verdicts.14 The issues facing the communities
    are persecution, false teaching, and accommodation to the larger

    Chapters four through twenty-two contain the long series of visions
    that fills virtually the rest of the book.15 As chapter four begins,
    John exclaims, "I looked, and behold, in heaven, an open door!" He
    then looks through that door into another level of reality. There is
    no substitute for reading these chapters themselves, preferably at a
    single sitting. Nevertheless, I provide a summary.

    The section begins with a vision of God enthroned in heaven,
    surrounded by twenty-four elders clothed in white with crowns of gold
    on their heads. Four beasts are around the throne, each with six wings
    and eyes in the wings-strange creatures from another world. From the
    throne itself come lightning and thunder and voices.

    It continues with a vision of the Lamb that was slain but that now
    lives and is worthy to open the seven seals of the scroll of judgment.
    As the seven seals are opened, we see the four horsemen of the
    apocalypse riding forth upon the earth, bringing war, famine,
    pestilence, and death. Then there is a great earthquake, the sky
    blackens, the stars fall from the heavens, and the sky rolls up like a
    scroll. The seventh seal is opened, and it introduces another series
    of seven judgments: seven angels begin to blow seven trumpets in
    succession. The blowing of the trumpets unleashes another series of
    plagues and catastrophes on the earth, including giant locusts that
    look like horses equipped for battle (bearing tails like scorpions and
    making a noise like many chariots) and an immense army of two hundred
    million invading from the east.

    At the start of chapter twelve, we see a vision of a woman clothed
    with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head and the moon under
    her feet. She is giving birth to a child whom a great red dragon
    immediately tries to devour. At the same time, war breaks out in
    heaven: the archangel Michael and his angels battle against the great
    dragon, who loses and is cast down to earth. In chapter thirteen, a
    beast with seven heads and ten horns to whom the dragon has given
    authority rises out of the sea and takes control of the earth. The
    number of the beast, we are told, is 666.

    Then seven angels pour out upon the earth the seven bowls of the wrath
    of God, and we are shown the judgment and destruction of the "great
    harlot" or "great whore" who rides upon the beast and whose name is
    "Babylon the Great." This is soon followed by the battle of Armageddon
    and the second coming of Christ on a white horse. Christ leads an army
    clad in white robes against the armies of the beast and destroys them,
    their bodies becoming food for carrion birds that gorge themselves
    with their flesh. The dragon, now named "the devil" and "Satan," is
    cast into a bottomless pit for a thousand years, during which Christ
    and the saints rule. After a thousand years, Satan is released, and
    with Gog and Magog he fights a final battle and is again defeated.
    Then the last judgment occurs: all the dead, great and small, are
    raised, the book of life is opened, and all whose names are not in it
    are cast into the lake of fire, along with the devil, the beast,
    death, and Hades.

    After all of this, at the beginning of chapter twenty-one, comes the
    magnificent concluding vision. The New Jerusalem, adorned as a bride
    for her husband, descends from the sky-a city in which there will be
    no more tears, no pain, no death. The city has no need of a temple,
    for its temple is the Lord God The Almighty and the Lamb. Nor does the
    city have need of sun or moon, for the glory of God will be its light,
    and its lamp the Lamb of God. Through it flows the river of the water
    of life, and in it grows the tree of life whose leaves are for the
    healing of the nations. There, the servants of God will worship God
    and the Lamb:

    They will see God's face, and God's name will be on their foreheads.
    And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun,
    for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and
    ever. 16

    Two Ways of Reading Revelation

    How are we to read all this? How are we to interpret the visions and
    images of this strange, violent, unsettling, and yet magnificent book?
    In this section, I will describe two very different ways of reading
    the Apocalypse of John in our time.

    The Futurist Interpretation

    The central claim of a futurist reading is simple: Revelation tells us
    about what will happen some time in the future. It has three premises:

    o What Revelation describes has not yet happened.

    o As the inspired Word of God, the Bible cannot be wrong.

    o Therefore, what Revelation describes must still be future.

    These premises are the foundation of the millennialist reading of
    Revelation mentioned in the introduction to this chapter. This way of
    reading the book sees it as a cryptogram, a message encoded in symbols
    about the signs of the end that will precede the second coming of

    To illustrate this way of reading Revelation, I will use the work of
    the popular millennialist author Hal Lindsey. In his book The Late
    Great Planet Earth, Lindsey argues that the events foretold by
    Revelation are unfolding in our time. For him (as well as for other
    contemporary millennialists), the establishment of the modern state of
    Israel in 1948 is a key sign that the end may be near. The reason is
    that some biblical passages speak of Israel as a nation living in her
    own land in the time of the end. Only since 1948 has this been true.

    Lindsey then "decodes" much of the language of Revelation to refer to
    phenomena of our time. For example, he speculates that the opening of
    the sixth seal in Revelation 6.12-17 refers to a thermonuclear
    exchange. The "stars of the sky falling to earth" are orbiting nuclear
    bombs reentering the atmosphere. The sky vanishing "like a scroll
    rolling itself up" refers to what happens to the atmosphere in a
    nuclear explosion.

    When the sixth angel blows the sixth trumpet in Revelation 9.13-16 and
    unleashes an army from the east that numbers two hundred million,
    Lindsey deduces that the reference is to Communist China. Only China,
    he says, has a large enough population to put so huge an army in the
    field. So also he speculates that the giant locusts with tails like
    scorpions and wings that make a noise like many chariots (Rev. 9.7-10)
    may be a particular kind of attack helicopter.

    The ten-horned beast from the sea in Revelation 13 is central to
    Lindsey's interpretation. Recognizing that it has some connection to
    Rome, he suggests that it refers to a revived Roman Empire composed of
    a ten-nation confederacy. This confederacy, he suggests, is the
    European Economic Community, whose membership was nearing ten nations
    when he wrote, and which was formed by the Treaty of Rome. The horn
    that received a mortal wound but recovered refers to a future ruler of
    the ten-nation confederacy who will also become the ruler of the
    world. Lindsey speaks of this person as "the future Führer" and claims
    that he is already alive, even though we do not yet know who he is.

    Thus, according to Lindsey, the time of "the rapture," the final
    "tribulation," the battle of Armageddon, the second coming of Christ,
    and the last judgment is near. The rapture is the notion that
    "true-believing Christians" will be taken up from the earth "to meet
    the Lord in the air" and thus be sp3red the intense suffering that
    will precede the end. 17 That period of suffering is known as the
    "tribulation" and is signified in Revelation by the opening of the
    seven seals, the blowing of the seven trumpets, the pouring out of the
    seven bowls, all of them unleashing the destructive wrath of God upon
    the world. The tribulation comes to an end with the battle of
    Armageddon and the defeat of the armies of the beast by the returning
    warrior Christ.

    The futurist reading in its millennialist form has striking effects on
    the meaning of the Christian message. The gospel (if it can be called
    that in this context) becomes "the good news" that you can be saved
    from the soon-to-come wrath of God by believing strongly in Jesus. The
    focus is on saving yourself and those whom you love (and as many
    others as you can get to listen to you) from the fate that awaits most
    of humankind. The message also has striking effects on our attitude
    toward life on earth, including issues of social justice and the
    environment. If the world is going to end soon, why worry about
    improving conditions here? Why worry about preserving the environment?
    It's all going to end soon anyway.

    Though Lindsey's approach has attracted millions of Christians, many
    other Christians (and, I suspect, most readers of this book) find his
    reading of Revelation to be bizarre and perhaps even amusing. But the
    central claim of a futurist reading-that Revelation speaks about what
    will happen some time in the future-is shared by a broad spectrum of
    Christians, including many who reject a millennialist reading. The
    latter group of Christians are doubtful, however, that the images of
    Revelation can be decoded in a highly specific way. They see the book
    as speaking in vague, general terms about the end of the world and
    regard attempts to figure out whether we are living in the last days
    as misguided interpretations or even as manifestations of human pride.
    They are content to leave the future up to God, even as they affirm
    with varying degrees of conviction and in a general way that God will
    bring history to a conclusion consistent with the overall message of
    Revelation. Indeed, this has probably been the conventional and
    commonsense way of reading Revelation throughout most of Christian
    history: it tells us about the future, but we should not become too
    fascinated with it or too confident that we have discerned the
    meanings of its symbolic language.

    But if we think that Lindsey's approach is farfetched at best, what is
    wrong with it? Is it simply that Lindsey has got the details wrong?
    That, in his enthusiasm, he has become too specific? Or does he
    perhaps simply have the timing wrong? Is it the case that Revelation
    does describe what will happen sometime, in however general a way,
    even if that time is hundreds or thousands or even millions of years
    in the future? Or is the futurist approach itself-not just Lindsey's
    version of it-mistaken? These questions lead us to a second way of
    reading Revelation.

    The Past-Historical Interpretation

    The past-historical reading, which grows out of the belief that we
    understand the message of Revelation only by setting the text in the
    historical context in which it was written, emphasizes what Revelation
    would have meant in the past. 18 In this reading, Revelation tells us
    what the author believed would happen in his time. This approach takes
    seriously that the visions of Revelation are found in a letter
    addressed to specific Christian communities in Asia Minor late in the
    first century. As such, the text was meant to be a message to them,
    not a message to people thousands of years later.

    The book itself indicates that John was thinking of his own time.
    Seven times in his prologue and epilogue, he tells his audience that
    he is writing about the near future. His first sentence begins, "The
    revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants
    what must soon take place. "Two verses later, he says, "Blessed is the
    one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those
    who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near." In
    his epilogue, the emphasis upon nearness occurs five times. The
    italicized phrases above are repeated once each, and three times the
    author attributes to the risen Christ the words, "I am coming soon."

    Christians in subsequent centuries have often sought to avoid the
    implications of "soon" and "near" by saying that God's time is not our
    time. As the latest book in the New Testament puts it, "With the Lord,
    one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one
    day."20 But the original hearers of Revelation would not have thought
    of hearing the language of "soon" with this qualification. It would
    not have occurred to them to think, "Maybe soon, maybe thousands of
    years from now."

    In addition to John's prologue and epilogue, there is also compelling
    evidence in the main body of the book that the author was writing
    about realities of his own day. This evidence is most visible in
    chapters thirteen and seventeen. In chapter thirteen, the ten-horned
    beast from the sea rules the world and demands worship, just as the
    Roman Empire ruled the world known to John. Its emperors were hailed
    as lord and god in temples honoring them throughout the empire. At the
    end of chapter thirteen, we are told that the "the beast" is a person
    whose "number is 666." In antiquity, letters of the alphabet had
    numerical values, and the technique for encoding and decoding a name
    into a number was called gematria. Using the rules of gematria, the
    number 666 decodes into "Caesar Nero."21

    That John intended to identify the beast of chapter thirteen with the
    Roman Empire of his day is confirmed in the vision of "the great
    whore" in chapter seventeen. This woman, dressed in royal attire,
    rides upon the beast of chapter thirteen, and her name is "Babylon the
    Great." The Babylonian Empire had vanished some six hundred years
    earlier, so why would John name this creature Babylon? Historical
    context provides the answer: just as Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem
    and the temple in 586 BCE, so Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and the
    temple in 70 CE. In some Jewish and Christian circles, Babylon had
    become a symbolic name for Rome.22

    The identification of this woman whose name is Babylon with the Roman
    Empire is made complete by two more details in chapter seventeen. The
    woman is seated on "seven mountains"; from antiquity, Rome has been
    known as the city built on seven hills or mountains. The
    identification becomes explicit in the last verse of the chapter: "The
    woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the
    earth."23 In the first century, this could only have meant Rome. For
    John, the beast and the person whose number was 666 were not figures
    of the future, but realities of his present.

    In addition to this evidence in the book, there is a further reason
    why the past-historical reading supplants the futurist reading. If
    John was in fact writing about events thousands of years in the
    future, then the communities to which he wrote had no chance
    whatsoever of understanding his letter. If the ten-horned beast is
    really the European Economic Community (or some other future empire),
    if the giant locusts are really attack helicopters (or symbolize some
    other future death-dealing machines), and if the army of two hundred
    million refers to some future army, then the message of Revelation had
    no significance for the people to whom it was addressed. Though John
    wrote the letter and apocalypse to a specific audience, its message
    could not have been intended for them.

    For all of these reasons, the past-historical reading of Revelation
    affirms that John was writing about realities of his time. Of course,
    John was also writing about the future, but it was a future that he
    expected to happen soon, not a future that is still future from our
    point in time. His message to the communities to which he was writing
    was a mixture of warning (especially in the letters in chapters two
    and three) and encouragement. About his message, I will soon say more.
    For now, I summarize it very compactly as threefold:

    o Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ is Lord; Caesar and the
    beast are not.

    o God will soon act to overthrow the rule of the beast and its
    incarnation in Caesar.

    o Therefore, persevere, endure, be confident, take heart, have faith.

    The past-historical reading of Revelation has an important
    implication. To make the implication explicit: to the extent that
    Revelation is seen as foretelling the future, as prediction, it is
    mistaken prediction. What the author expected to happen soon did not
    happen. The Roman Empire continued for another three hundred years,
    more or less; and when it did fall, the events leading up to its
    collapse were not like those spoken of in John's visions. Furthermore,
    Jesus did not return soon.

    In other words, the past-historical interpretation takes seriously
    that the Bible is a human product, not a divine product with a divine
    guarantee. It acknowledges that the Bible can be mistaken.

    This realization raises the question of what it means to take the
    Apocalypse of John seriously. Do we take it seriously if we project
    John's symbols, visions, and end-times scenario from the first century
    to our time or some fill-future time? Do we honor the message of the
    book by affirming that what it says will still come to pass? Which
    reading of the book-the futurist or the past-historical-takes the text
    more seriously? Ironically, though the millennialist reading claims to
    take Revelation very seriously indeed, it does not, because it ignores
    what John was saying to the people to whom he was writing.24

    The past-historical reading of Revelation also raises the question of
    what to think about the second coming of Jesus. Not just John of
    Patmos, but other early Christians as well, believed that it would be
    soon. The authors of Mark and Matthew, for example, refer to the
    imminent coming of "the Son of Man," presumably referring to the
    second coming of Jesus. The gospel of John also refers to the imminent
    second coming, though it is not clear that the author accepts the
    notion literally. Passages in Paul point to the same expectation.

    Obviously, these early Christians were wrong. What are we to do with
    this? Do we say that they got the expectation right and that Jesus
    really will come again, but their timing was offi For a variety of
    reasons, I do not think that it makes sense to expect a visible future
    second coming of Christ. The belief can be understood metaphorically,
    however, as an affirmation that Jesus comes again and again in the
    lives of Christians: in the eucharist, in the celebration of Christmas
    each year, in the experience of the Spirit as the presence of Christ,
    and perhaps in other ways as well.25

    The Larger Themes

    But Revelation is more than mistaken prediction. The book has power.26
    Its numinous language about God and Christ has been integrated into
    Christian worship, liturgy, and art. Its affirmation of another
    reality that transcends the visible world has been a source of
    inspiration, hope, and courage. Its archetypal imagery speaks to both
    the political and spiritual realms of life; indeed, it integrates
    rather than separates those realms.

    A Tale of Two Lordships

    John portrays the central conflict of the book of Revelation in a
    number of ways. One of the most important is the conflict between
    competing lordships: Christ's and Caesar's. Is Caesar lord, or is God
    as known in Jesus lord? John's answer, of course, is clear. But to
    appreciate it fully, we must know the claims being made for Caesar.

    Ever since the emperor Augustus had brought the devastating civil wars
    that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar to an end, ushering
    in the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) and a "golden age," the emperors
    of Rome had been given divine titles. They were known as fihius deus
    (son of god), dominus (lord), and even deus (god). Augustus was
    heralded as the savior who had brought peace on earth. As an
    inscription from 9 BCE in Asia Minor puts it:

    The most divine Caesar... we should consider equal to the Beginning of
    all things .... Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole
    existence ... has brought our life to the climax of perfection in
    giving to us the emperor Augustus... who being sent to us as a Savior,
    has put an end to war .... The birthday of the god Augustus has been
    for the whole world the beginning of good news (the Greek word is
    euaggelion, commonly translated "gospel").27

    Throughout the empire, in temples of the imperial cult, worship was
    offered to the emperors. Such worship did not preclude the inhabitants
    from following their own religion as well. But it did have the effect
    of providing religious legitimation to the rule of Caesar and empire.

    Against this, John proclaims the exclusive lordship of God and "the
    Lamb"-that is, God as known in Jesus. John's first description of
    Jesus speaks of him as "the faithful witness, the firstborn of the
    dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth."28 As "the faithful
    witness," he is the Lamb that was slain, executed by the power of
    Rome. As "the firstborn of the dead," he has been vindicated and
    exalted by God, disclosing Rome as a false pretender lord. Now he
    rules upon the throne with God and has become "the ruler of the kings
    of the Earth." Throughout the book, the honor and praise demanded by
    Caesar is offered to God and Jesus instead. Much of Revelation is
    doxology, and its hymns of praise have been a fountainhead for
    Christian hymn-writers ever since:

    Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.

    Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and
    wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.

    Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and
    might be to our God forever and ever.

    The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his
    Christ, and he will reign forever and ever.

    Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.29

    Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not. John shares this affirmation in common
    with the whole of the New Testament.

    The Ancient Cosmic Combat Myth

    Among the reasons for the power of the Apocalypse is John's use of one
    of humankind's most widespread archetypal stories: the ancient cosmic
    combat myth. John draws on that myth to continue the theme of two
    lordships and to deepen and amplify his indictment of empire. The
    cosmic combat myth appears in many cultures, ancient and modern, and
    it takes many forms.30 The archetypal plot is a story of cosmic
    conflict between 'good and evil. In the ancient world, the conflict
    was between a god (or gods) of light, order, and life against an evil
    power of darkness, disorder, and death. Commonly the evil power was
    imaged as a dragon or sea monster or primeval serpent.

    In the ancient Near East, the cosmic combat myth is found in one of
    the world's oldest creation stories, the Enuma Elish. In that story,
    the god Marduk creates the world by slaying Tiamat, a seven-headed
    monster of chaos associated with the sea. In Babylon, that primordial
    battle was ritually reenacted each year.

    Traces of the ancient cosmic combat myth are found in the Hebrew
    Bible. According to Psalm 74, God "broke the heads of the dragons in
    the waters and crushed the heads of Leviathan."3' Passages in Isaiah
    echo the myth: "On that day the LoRD with his cruel and great and
    strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the
    twisting serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea."32 The
    book of job refers several times to the dragon or sea monster, naming
    it Rahab and Leviathan.33

    In the New Testament, the cosmic combat myth lies behind one of the
    most central interpretations of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
    Often called the "Christus Victor" understanding of Good Friday and
    Easter, it portrays Jesus' death and resurrection as the means whereby
    God defeated the principalities and powers that hold humankind in
    bondage.34 In the postbiblical Christian tradition, the cosmic combat
    myth is reflected in two of the most popular Christian icons: St.
    George slaying the dragon, and the archangel Michael warring with the

    In our own time, this ancient myth is the central plot element of the
    Star Wars movies: the battle between good and evil symbolized in the
    conflict between Jedi knights wielding light-sabers against an empire
    of darkness whose most vivid representative is Lord Darth Vader,
    commander of the "Death Star." The popularity of the Star Wars saga is
    due not simply to the stunning special effects, but also to the
    re-presentation of this ancient story.

    The series taps into something deep within human memory and
    consciousness: the awareness of conflict between good and evil and the
    yearning that good will triumph. Thus Revelation and Star Wars are
    powerful for the same reason.

    The myth was also well known in Greco-Roman culture. Its most common
    form in that context was the story of the god Apollo (son of Zeus and
    thus son of god) and Python, the ancient monster. When Apollo's
    mother, Leto, was about to give birth to her child, Python looked for
    his chance to devour the infant. Apollo was delivered safely, however;
    and after he had grown up, he battled and killed Python. It is the
    same story, appearing again and again.

    John of Patmos obviously knew this version of the ancient myth, and it
    shapes much of the Apocalypse.35 Now the battle is between, on one
    side, God and "the Lamb that was slain," and, on the other, the
    dragon, the ancient serpent, the beast from the abyss, who is also
    Satan and the devil. Like ancient Tiamat and Leviathan, the beast of
    Revelation 13 has seven heads. The battle climaxes with an army
    dressed in white defeating the armies of the beast and Satan cast into
    a bottomless pit and then into a lake of fire. John is telling one of
    the most powerful stories known.

    Revelation and Empire

    But it is John's identification of the dragon that gives to the
    Apocalypse a stunning political dimension. John is not simply speaking
    about a mythological battle between gods in primordial time; he is
    also talking about a conflict going on in his own time. For John, the
    present incarnation of the dragon is the Roman Empire. As already
    noted, the identification of the beast with the Roman Empire is most
    clearly made in chapters thirteen and seventeen.

    Moreover, John pointedly reverses the Roman Empire's version of the
    story of Apollo and Python. Both Caesar Augustus and Nero styled
    themselves as Apollo, the son of a god and himself the god of light,
    who had brought in a golden age of order and peace by slaying Python,
    the mythical power of disorder, darkness, and death.

    John echoes the story of Apollo's birth and reverses the imperial
    version of it in the vision found in Revelation 12. There a woman is
    about to give birth to a son who will rule the nations. A great dragon
    waits to devour the son, but the child is delivered by being taken up
    to the throne of God. For John, the child is Jesus, of course. Then we
    are shown a scene in heaven in which Michael and his angels fight
    against the dragon and defeat him. Though the war occurs in heaven,
    the means of the dragon's defeat is an event that happened on earth:
    he has been conquered "by the blood of the Lamb"-that is, by the death
    of Jesus. The result: the dragon is cast down to earth and gives his
    authority, power, and throne to the seven-headed "beast from the sea"
    who appears at the beginning of Revelation 13.

    This is a remarkable subversion of the Roman story of Apollo's birth.
    Jesus, not Caesar, is Apollo, the light of the world who brings in the
    true golden age of peace on earth. Caesar and the Roman Empire are not
    Apollo, slaying the beast; they are the incarnation of the dragon, the
    beast, the ancient serpent. Rome is the opposite of what it claimed to
    be: the empire that claimed to bring peace on earth, and whose
    emperors were spoken of as lord, savior, son of god, and even god, was
    in fact the incarnation of disorder, violence, and death.

    What's Wrong with Rome?

    That the book of Revelation indicts the Roman Empire in the strongest
    terms is thus clear. But why? What was wrong with Rome? Why did John
    call it "the beast"?

    An earlier generation of scholars identified the reason as Roman
    persecution of Christians. In particular, these scholars thought that
    John's communities were facing a major outbreak of persecution ordered
    by the emperor Domitian around the year 95. According to this earlier
    view, Domitian demanded that he be acknowledged as "lord" and "god" in
    temples to the emperor. Refusal to do so meant possible arrest and
    even execution.

    More recently, however, scholars have concluded that there is little
    historical evidence to support the claim that there was major
    persecution in the time of Domitian. While some scholars argue that
    there was no persecution and others argue that there was only minor,
    limited persecution, most agree that there was no massive persecution
    of Christians at that time.36

    What John says in his letters to the seven churches is consistent with
    minor rather than massive persecution. He mentions only one martyr in
    the communities to which he writes-a person named Antipas; and though
    he does warn of persecutions and trials to come, it is not clear that
    these have begun.37 In the body of the book, he mentions martyrs
    several times, but these may well be martyrs from the time of Nero
    some thirty years earlier.

    Why does the level of persecution matter? It affects our perception of
    why John called Rome "the beast." If there was massive Roman
    persecution of Christians in John's day, then Rome was "the beast"
    because of what it was doing to Christians. This was why Rome faced
    God's wrath and destruction. John's message would be, in effect, "Rome
    has been giving us a hard time, so God's going to destroy her."

    Seeing the issue this way has an important corollary. It implies that
    if Caesar had not called himself "lord" and "god," if he had not
    demanded worship in imperial shrines, if he had left Christians alone,
    then Caesar would have been okay and imperial Rome would have been
    okay. In short, this reading makes the issue narrowly religious,
    domesticating John's indictment of Rome. It suggests that if Rome had
    allowed "religious freedom" to Christians, then Christians would have
    had no issue with Rome.

    The persecution of Christians cannot be eliminated from the passion
    that drives the Apocalypse. Nevertheless, there are clear indications
    that it is not simply Rome-as-persecutor but Romeas-empire that
    accounts for John's indictment of Rome as the incarnation of the
    dragon, the ancient seven-headed monster that plunges the world into

    Recent scholarship has moved in this direction. It sees the book of
    Revelation as a powerful indictment of the Roman Empire not simply
    because of its persecution of Christians, but also because that empire
    was the then-contemporary incarnation of the "domination system" that
    has marked so much of human history.38

    The Indictment of Empire

    Earlier in this book, the ancient domination system was described as a
    web of political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious
    legitimation.39 Elites of power and wealth controlled societies in
    their own interests and declared the order they imposed to be the will
    of God. In his indictment of the Roman Empire, John names all of these

    Political Oppression Rome controlled the world of the first century
    through a combination of seduction, intimidation, and violence. The
    Roman Empire personified itself as a woman in the form of the goddess
    Roma. So also John personifies Rome as a woman, but as "the great
    whore" dressed in finery, the appealing seductress "with whom the
    kings of the earth have committed fornication. " 41 She practices not
    only seduction but sorcery, bewitching the inhabitants of earth to
    follow the ways of empire . 42

    Rome is not only a seductive sorceress; it is also a ferocious beast
    ruling through intimidation and violence. The inhabitants of "the
    whole earth followed the beast," for they said, "Who is like the
    beast, and who can fight against it?" 143 intimidation was not
    adequate, the empire used brutal violence. John knew of Rome's
    reconquest of the Jewish homeland some twenty-five years earlier, the
    mass crucifixions, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
    John knew also of Rome's execution of Christian martyrs, including
    Peter and Paul. But the beast incarnate in the empire of John's day is
    the slayer not only of Christian martyrs but also of prophets and
    countless others: "In you was found the blood of prophets and saints,
    and of all who have been slaughtered on earth."44 Above all, John knew
    of the murderous power of the empire in its killing of Jesus, "the
    Lamb." In its execution of Jesus, the empire exposed itself as the
    beast as well as sealed its doom, for God had vindicated "the Lamb
    that was slain" against the power of empire.

    Economic Exploitation It is striking how much of John's picture of
    "Roma" personified as "the great whore" and "Babylon the Great"
    emphasizes the wealth of Rome. Chapter eighteen imaginatively
    celebrates her fall. As it does so, it describes the luxury of empire:
    "She glorified herself and lived luxuriously clothed in fine linen, in
    purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels and with pearls."
    Her "merchants were the magnates of the earth," and "the kings of the
    earth lived in luxury with her."45

    John provides a vivid picture of cargo ships carrying the wealth of
    the world to Rome as the center of the domination system. His list of
    cargo includes luxury items, agricultural products, and human slaves:

    gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet,
    all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of
    costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh,
    frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and
    sheep, horses and chariots, slaves, and human lives.46

    But all of this will end: "All your dainties and your splendors are
    lost to you." Those who had grown wealthy from her exploitation will
    mourn: "Alas, alas the great city, where all who had ships at sea grew
    rich by her wealth. "47

    Religious Legitimation Little more needs to be said about religious
    legitimation. The Roman Empire's claim that its domination reflected
    the will of the gods has already been emphasized. John refers to this
    in the second half of Revelation 13, in his portrait of "the false
    prophet" who leads people to worship "the beast. "48

    Thus, as we have seen, Rome is indicted by John not simply for its
    persecution of Christians but because it incarnates the domination
    system. That same system, in different incarnations, was known in
    Egypt in the time of Moses and in Israel in the time of the
    predestruction prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Rome and the beast have
    an ancient lineage. "Babylon the Great" is not a code name simply for
    Rome; it designates all domination systems organized around power,
    wealth, seduction, intimidation, and violence. In whatever historical
    form it takes, ancient or modern, empire is the opposite of the
    kingdom of God as disclosed in Jesus.

    This analysis is consistent with the content of John's letters to the
    seven churches. Some (and perhaps all) of these communities had been
    established a generation earlier. We should imagine them as having
    been similar to the communities of Paul: initially remarkably
    egalitarian communities living by an alternative social vision. Now, a
    generation later, some are beginning to fall away from the power and
    passion of the founding vision.

    John does warn some of his communities of the possibility of
    persecution, but that is not his focus. His messages to the individual
    groups commend some for their faithfulness to Jesus and reprove others
    for their accommodation to the culture and values of empire, calling
    them back to what they first heard. The communities in Smyrna and
    Philadelphia, to whom nothing negative is said, are commended for
    being rich even though poor and for being faithful to Jesus' word even
    though they have little power.

    The community in Ephesus is reproached for having abandoned the love
    its members had at first and is urged to repent "and do the works you
    did at first." The communities in Pergamum and Thyatira are charged
    with eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, a symptom of
    accommodation. To those in Sardis, John says, "You have a name of
    being alive, but you are dead." That community is urged to "strengthen
    what remains

    and is on the point of death" and "to remember what you received and
    heard." The community at Laodicea, which has become rich and
    prosperous, is indicted for being "lukewarm, neither hot nor cold."
    Cumulatively, John's negative indictments portray communities that no
    longer differentiate themselves from the world of empire.

    In this context, John's portrait of Rome means, Do not betray the
    vision of Jesus and accommodate yourself to empire, for it is the
    beast. In his own words, as he writes about Babylon the Great, the
    world of empire: "Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take
    part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues, for her
    sins are heaped high as heaven. "49

    A Tale of Two Cities

    The tale of two lordships concludes with a tale of two cities. The
    climax of the Apocalypse is a vision of a very different kind of city.
    After John's vision of Babylon the Great and its fall, he sees "a new
    heaven and a new earth" and "the New Jerusalem" descending out of the
    sky. Babylon the Great, just described, is the city of Rome as well as
    the Roman Empire. The New Jerusalem is the city of God as well as the
    kingdom of God. Revelation is thus a tale of two cities: one city
    comes from the abyss, the other from God.50

    John's vision of the New Jerusalem is highly symbolic, with virtually
    every one of its details based on imagery from the Hebrew Bible. His
    symbolism echoes the story of creation and paradise even as it moves
    beyond and speaks of the deepest yearnings of humankind.

    John sees a "new heaven [sky] and new earth."51 It is a new creation,
    and in the new creation "the sea was no more." The sea as the home of
    the ancient monster, from which empire after empire ascended, is gone.
    Then he sees the New Jerusalem descending out of the sky "prepared as
    a bride adorned for her husband," and he hears a loud voice
    proclaiming that God now dwells with humankind:

    See, the home of God is among mortals.

    God will dwell with them.

    They will be God's peoples,

    And God will be with them.

    In the New Jerusalem, the ancient afflictions of humankind are all
    gone: grief, pain, and death are no more. "God will wipe every tear
    from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain
    will be no more."

    The size and construction of the New Jerusalem are fantastic. It is
    huge. It is a square, fifteen hundred miles on each side. Indeed, its
    height is equal to its width and length, so it is a cube, like the
    holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem. But the city has no need of
    a temple, "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb."
    The city is made of transparent gold, "pure gold, clear as glass." So
    also its streets are "pure gold, transparent as glass." It is
    Jerusalem the Golden.52 Its walls are pure jasper, and its foundations
    are adorned with every kind of jewel. Its twelve gates are twelve
    pearls, and they are never shut by day-and there is no night.

    The significance of the New Jerusalem is universal. Not only is it
    huge, with open gates, but "the nations will walk by its light, and
    the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it." In this great
    city, next to "the river of the water of life" is "the tree of life"
    whose "leaves are for the healing of the nations." It is the city of
    light, in which there is no more night. It is the city of God, in
    which God and the Lamb dwell with humankind.

    But what are we to make of this vision of the New Jerusalem? The city
    that John contrasts to Babylon and the world of empire is clearly no
    actual city. One cannot imagine it ever existing, whether in this
    world or another. So has John left the world of history? Is he, as one
    might imagine, speaking of "heaven" in his highly symbolic language?

    We must not too quickly assume so. For it is impossible to reconcile
    all of what he says with the supposition that he is speaking of
    heaven. Many of the details John mentions are specific to earthly

    o The new Jerusalem is "on earth," though it is a new earth and

    o Kings and nations remain in John's vision, for they come streaming
    to the light of the New Jerusalem.

    o The city's tree of life is for the healing of the nations.

    o The gates of the city are open to the world.

    Though John's vision recalls the language of paradise (and is in that
    sense paradise restored), it is not a vision of individuals communing
    with God in an idyllic garden. It is a vision of humans living
    together in a city. And it is the opposite of life in the other city,
    the world of empire.

    Thus John's vision has historical elements. We need to remember that
    this is the language of apocalyptic. As such, it is enigmatic,
    metaphorical, parabolic. John's concluding vision is perhaps best
    understood as "the dream of God"-God's dream for humankind. 53
    Throughout the Bible, God's dream is a dream for this earth, and not
    for another world. For John, it is the only dream worth dreaming.

    Concluding Reflections

    The book of Revelation is not without its flaws. John's portrait of
    Rome as "the great whore" and of 144,000 men "who have not defiled
    themselves with women" reflects a misogynistic attitude.54 His
    portrait of God as sending massive destruction upon the inhabitants of
    earth is extreme. In one scene, blood flows "as high as a horse's
    bridle for a distance of about two hundred miles."55 The God of
    Revelation sometimes has more to do with vengeance than justice, and
    the difference is crucial.56 Though John cannot be blamed for all the
    meanings that Christians have sometimes seen in his book, Revelation
    supports a picture of God as an angry tyrant who plans to destroy the
    earth and most of its people.

    Nevertheless, in this final book of the Christian Bible, we find the
    same twofold focus that marks so much of the Bible as a whole: radical
    affirmation of the sovereignty and justice of God, and radical
    criticism of an oppressive domination system pretending to be the will
    of God. The domination system that John indicts is a subsequent
    incarnation of the domination system that existed in Egypt in the time
    of Moses and then within Israel itself in the time of the classical
    prophets. It is the same domination system that Jesus and Paul and the
    early Christian movement challenged.

    Rome and the beast have an ancient lineage. "Babylon the Great" is not
    simply a symbolic name for Rome, but for domination systems organized
    around power, wealth, seduction, intimidation, and violence. In
    whatever ancient or modern forms they take, domination systems are the
    opposite of the lordship and kingdom of God as disclosed in Jesus.
    Thus John's indictment of empire sounds the same theme as the central
    voices of the biblical tradition. As with Moses, the prophets, Jesus,
    the gospel writers, and Paul, his claim is stark and compelling: God
    is Lord; the kingdoms and cultures of this world are not.

    John's vision of the New Jerusalem has both historical and
    trans-historical elements. Indeed, its power as a trans-historical
    vision may be the primary reason that Revelation ultimately made it
    into the Bible. Its speaks of the reunion of God with humankind,
    thereby overcoming the exile that began in Eden. There every tear
    shall be wiped away. The river of life flows through it and the tree
    of life is in it. There we will see God. It is difficult to imagine a
    more powerful ending to the Bible.


    1. Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York:
    Doubleday, 1997), p. 773. Two excellent accessible commentaries on
    Revelation are Adela Yarbro Collins, The Apocalypse (Wilmington:
    Michael Glazier, 1979), and Eugene Boring, Revelation (Louisville:
    Knox, 1989). See also the earlier work by George B. Caird, A
    Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (London: Adam and
    Charles Black, 1966). An excellent highly readable introduction to
    various ways "the end of the world" has been understood in prophetic
    and apocalyptic literature and in the history of the church is
    Reginald Stackhouse, The End of the World? A New Look at an Old Belief
    (New York: Paulist, 1997).

    2. A 1980 Gallup poll cited by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther,
    Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY:
    Orbis, 1999), p. 16.

    3. A U.S. News World Report survey cited by Stackhouse, The End of the
    World, pp. 1-2.

    4. Boring, Revelation p. 3.

    5. Adela Yarbro Collins, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel
    Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 5, p. 695.

    6. I owe the phrase "fabulous beasts" to Luke Timothy Johnson, The
    Writings of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), p. 514.
    On p. 515, he refers to the "apocalyptic menagerie."

    7. For a study of Jewish apocalypses not included in the Hebrew Bible,
    see John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (New York: Crossroad,
    1984). Apocalyptic literature has antecedents in portions of exilic
    and postexilic books of the Hebrew Bible, including Ezekiel, Joel,
    Zechariah, and Isaiah (24-27).

    8. The argument that the author of the Fourth Gospel and the author of
    Revelation are two different people is also ancient, made by an early
    Christian writer named Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria in the middle
    of the third century. Dionysius's denial of apostolic authorship of
    Revelation was among the reasons for the book's slow acceptance as
    scripture in the Eastern church.

    9. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 775. Boring,
    Revelation, p. 27, notes that there are over five hundred allusions to
    the Hebrew Bible.

    10. Austin Farrer, A Re-Birth of Images (Westminster: Dacre Press,

    11. About two hours are required to read Revelation aloud. For a
    contemporary dramatic reading of Revelation that seeks to convey what
    it was like to hear it at a single sitting, see a videotape featuring
    David Rhoads, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of
    Theology in Chicago, The video is available from SELECT, Trinity
    Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

    12. Rev. 1.10-20.

    13. For the series of sevens and chapter and verse references, see
    Boring, Revelation, p. 31.

    14. See the useful two-page tabulation in Brown, An Introduction to
    the New Testament, pp. 784-85.

    15. Are the vision narratives in these chapters based on actual
    visionary experiences? Did John "see" all of this in a visionary state
    of consciousness? Or are the vision narratives literary constructions?
    It is, I think, impossible to make a discerning judgment. Although I
    think that John did have visions, the use of repeating structural
    elements (seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, and so forth) and
    the frequent echoing of the Hebrew Bible suggest literary
    construction. But literary construction can be based on real
    experiences, of course.

    16. Rev. 22.4-5.

    17. The "proof text" for the rapture is I Thess. 4.13-18, in which
    Paul speaks of followers of Jesus "being caught up in the clouds ...
    to meet the Lord in the air." It is difficult to know how literally
    Paul meant this language. In any case, he seems (like the author of
    Revelation) to have believed that the second coming of Christ was
    near, for he imagines that some of those to whom he is writing (and
    perhaps he himself) will still be alive when it happens.

    18. This approach to Revelation is the foundation of modern scholarly
    study of the book and is affirmed by virtually all mainline scholars.
    Many scholars move beyond this approach and also emphasize the
    literary and/or aesthetic and/or political meanings of the book, but
    the past-historical reading is their common foundation.

    19. Rev. 1.1, 3; 22.6, 10, 7, 12, 20.

    20. II Pet. 3.8, echoing Ps. 90.4. It is interesting to note that the
    context is the delay of the second coming of Christ: II Pet. 3.1-10.

    [5]21. Rev. 13.18. Nero was caesar (emperor) from 54 until the time of
    his suicide in 68 CE, when he was still only about thirty years old.
    Because "666" refers to Nero, some have thought that Revelation must
    have been written during his reign rather than some thirty years
    later, near the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian. However, for
    two different reasons, the name of the beast as Nero need not conflict
    with a late-first-century date. On the one hand, there was a rumor
    that Nero had survived and would return to claim the imperial throne.
    On the other hand, Nero was the first Roman emperor to persecute
    Christians, and thus the name Nero could refer to the empire in its
    role as persecutor of the Christian movement.

    22. In the New Testament, see I Pet. 5.13.

    23. Rev. 17.9, 18.

    24. In what he calls a "strong clarifring statement," Raymond Brown
    writes, "God has not revealed to human beings details about how the
    world began or how the world will end, and failing to recognize that,
    one is likely to misread both the first book and the last book of the
    Bible. The author of Revelation did not know how or when the world
    will end, and neither does anybody else." An Introduction to the New
    Testament, p. 810.

    25. For further exposition, Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning
    of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), chap.
    13, esp. pp. 194-96.

    26. In The Writings of the New Testament, p. 513, Luke Timothy Johnson
    comments, "[T]he book of Revelation is one of those rare compositions
    that speak to something deep and disturbed in the human spirit with a
    potency never diminished by fact or disconfirmation."

    27. Excerpted from Richard Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas (New
    York: Crossroad, 1989), p. 27. Italics added. See also pp. 25-33.

    28. Rev. 1.5.

    29. In sequence, Rev. 4.8, 5.12, 7.12, 11.15, 19.6.

    30. See Walter Wink's compelling analysis of its presence in comic
    strips, television cartoons, spy thrillers, and movies, as well as in
    the policies of contemporary national-security states, in his Engaging
    the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), pp. 13-31. I am impressed
    again and again with the brilliance of this book and commend it to
    everybody. See also Robert Jewett, The Captain America Complex, rev.
    ed. (Santa Fe: Bear, 1984); and Robert Jewett and John Sheldon
    Lawrence, The American Monomyth (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977).

    31. Ps. 74.12-13; see also Ps. 89.9-10, where the primordial monster
    is named Rahab.

    [6]32. Isa. 27.1. See also 51.9: "Was it not you who cut Rahab in
    pieces, who pierced the dragon?" In Isa. 30.7, Egypt is referred to as
    "Rahab"; see also Ezek. 29.3, which identifies Pharaoh "as the great

    33. Job 7.12, 9.13, 26.12-13, and all of chap. 41.

    34. See especially Gustav Aulen's classic study of Christian
    understandings of Jesus' death and resurrection: Christus Victor,
    trans. A. F. Hebert (New York: Macmillan, 1969; first published in

    35. For the way the ancient cosmic combat myth shapes Revelation, see
    Adela Yarbro Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation
    (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976). See also compact expositions in
    Boring, Revelation, p. 151; Wink, Engaging the Powers, pp. 90-93;
    Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse
    (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), pp. 148-50. On p. 148, Collins
    writes, "This basic plot or pattern is found in every series of
    visions in Revelation, beginning with the seven seals (in Rev. 6) ...
    and in more elaborate form, for example, in the passage that extends
    from 19.11-22.5" (italics added).

    36. Some scholars deny that there was any official Roman persecution
    of Christians in the time of Domitian. For a persuasive argument that
    there was minor (but not massive) persecution, see Raymond Brown, An
    Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 807-9.

    37. Antipas is mentioned in Rev. 2.13; references in the letters to
    persecutions to come are found in 2.10 and 3.10. See also 1.9.

    38. The most sustained recent study arguing for this point of view is
    Howard Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire. See also Ward Ewing, The
    Power of the Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1990); and Wink, Engaging
    the Powers, pp. 89-104. See also earlier books by William
    Stringfellow, Conscience and Obedience (Waco: Word Books, 1977), and
    Daniel Berrigan, Beside the Sea of Glass: The Song of the Lamb (New
    York: Seabury, 1978), and The Nightmare of God (Portland, OR:
    Sunburst, 1983).

    39. See chap. 5 above.

    40. Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 99: "Never has a more withering
    political and economic criticism of empire been penned."

    41. Rev. 17.3, 18.3.

    [7]42. Rev. 18.23. See Wink's comment, Engaging the Powers, p. 93:
    "People must be made to believe that they benefit from a system that
    is in fact harmful to them."

    43. Rev. 13.3-4.

    44. Rev. 18.24.

    45. Rev. 18.7, 16; 18.23, 9.

    46. Rev. 18.12-13.

    47. Rev. 18.14, 19.

    48. Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 93: it "proselytizes by means of a
    civil religion that declares the state and its leaders divine."

    [8]49. Rev. 18.4. See the comment of Gerd Theissen, The Religion of
    the Earliest

    Churches, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), p. 244:
    John drives a wedge "between the community and the world. It was not
    the emperor cult that was the great problem, but the lack of
    demarcation between many Christians in the churches and the pagan
    world, its affairs, and its society." John seeks to resist "tendencies
    in the community to assimilate to this world . . . . The Roman empire
    did not declare war on the Christians; a Christian prophet declared
    war on the Roman empire."

    50. For a striking tabulation of the symmetrical contrasts between the
    two cities, see Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, p. 160,
    and their chapter on "Babylon or New Jerusalem?" pp. 157-96.

    51. The paragraphs that follow are all based on Rev. 21.1-22.5.

    52. The phrase "gold transparent as glass" makes me wonder if John
    perhaps did see the New Jerusalem in a visionary state (in contrast to
    the whole of the vision being a literary creation). Mystical
    experiences are frequently marked by golden light, so much so that the
    historian of religions Mircea Eliade refers to such experiences as
    "experiences of the golden world." Cited by Robert A. Johnson (with
    Jerry M. Ruhi) in Balancing Heaven and Earth (San Francisco:
    HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 2.

    53. As noted in chap. 6, I owe the phrase "the dream of God" to the
    title of Verna Dozier's book, The Dream of God (Cambridge, MA: Cowley,

    [9]54. Rev. 14.4. For critiques of his misogynistic language and two
    different ways of dealing with it, see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,
    Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress,
    1991) and Tina Pippin, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the
    Apocalypse of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992).

    55. Rev. 14.20.

    56. See John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity (San
    Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. 586


    5. http://21.Rev.13.18.Nero/
    6. http://32.Isa.27.1.See/
    7. http://42.Rev.18.23.See/
    8. http://49.Rev.18.4.See/
    9. http://54.Rev.14.4.For/

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