[Paleopsych] Borgrev: Reading Revelation Again
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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."
49. Rev. 18.4. See the comment of Gerd Theissen, The Religion of
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,
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
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