Jonathan Kirsch—A History of the End of the World

Jonathan Kirsch, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, takes on the Book of Revelation in A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, a best-selling book from 2006.  Though he is not a professional biblical scholar, Kirsch has certainly done a great deal of homework.  He writes engagingly and with a fair amount of passion.  However, his interpretation of Revelation is marred by a proclivity to read it in the most violence-supporting way possible–in order then to reject it.

The best contribution the book makes is to detail some of the many ways the book has been used to support extremist violence throughout the past 2,000 years.  Unfortunately, though he mentions one peaceable interpreter (Jacques Ellul), he does not engage the arguments of the wide scholarly stream that interprets Revelation as a book advocating Jesus-like persevering love as the model for Christians (see elsewhere on this website).

I share Kirsch’s antipathy toward people who justify violence by citing verses and themes from Revelation. I would prefer using Revelation itself to argue against such use, though. And I share Revelation’s antipathy, over against Kirsch, toward great human empires such as the Pax Romana (and the Pax Romana). I believe this antipathy in Revelation finds expression in ways that underwrite radical nonviolence in resistance to the systemic violence of empire. Kirsch’s sanguine attitude toward Rome hinders his ability to appreciate Revelation’s truly radical politics (neither pro-establishment or pro-violent revolution).

Kirsch has done a good job of making one strand of contemporary Revelation scholarship accessible to a general audience of educated readers. For that, he deserves praise. But because he ignores other (peaceable) streams that read Revelation with a much more sympathetic spirit (while also rejecting the violent future-prophetic views), he misses a chance to enlighten his audience even more.

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