How should 20th-century Christians read the book of Revelation?
Originally published in Gospel Herald (January 21, 1992), 1-4.
Last year’s Persian Gulf War stirred up new interest in the book of Revelation. It’s not hard to see why. Revelation refers often to “Babylon.” The location of ancient Babylon falls within the borders of Iraq. And Saddam Hussein reportedly had taken steps to rebuild the city of Babylon. No wonder some were asking, will “prophecy” from Revelation be fulfilled?
Prophecy certainly does have its appeal. Futuristically inclined Christians have written and read countless books connecting events in the Middle East, for example, with fulfilled or soon-to-be-fulfilled prophecy. So, when I lead discussions on the book of Revelation, expectation is high. Might I be offering some new spin on the book of Revelation? What is the deeper meaning behind the events in Iraq? What will happen next, according to Revelation?
Some are disappointed when I begin by asserting that I reject the future-prophetic approach to Revelation. Instead, I believe Revelation reveals God’s perspective on the present of its late-first-century readers, not the immediate future of its late-twentieth-century readers.
That, however, is not to say that the prophetic thrust of Revelation has no relevance for twentieth-century Christians. But that relevance is tied to our sharing key characteristics with its first readers. As I reflect on Revelation in light of our recent war, I conclude that, yes, Revelation has great relevance for us during this time. But it does not address our curiosity about prophecies of what will happen next. Rather, Revelation challenges us with a prophetic critique of our conformity to the spirit of our age. It calls us to find ways to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4), even (especially) in the warring society.
Seeing Revelation as a book that foretells future events raises certain problems for Christians and our relationship with God:
• The future-prophetic view gives us a deterministic God. It sees God as directly inspiring people such as John. God essentially dictates to them specific predictions of what will happen without fail. Once these predictions are set down, the events they point to will most certainly happen. So what we have, in effect, is a puppet-master relationship to God, who determines for all time exactly what is going to happen. History becomes simply a playing out of these predetermined events.
• The future-prophetic view argues that the true meaning of Revelation will not be clear until the predicted events occur. What this means is that much of Revelation was unintelligible to its original readers and even to John himself. John wrote things that he did not understand. Those visions had nothing to do with people who lived between the writing and fulfillment of these prophecies. Again, this offers a deterministic God and passive, puppet-like human beings.
• While the future-prophetic view presupposes a “high” view of biblical inspiration, it denies the human and historical nature of the Bible. Since the words are seen to come directly from God, the historical context for John’s writings had little to do with their meaning. In fact, much of Revelation had nothing to do with the first century, or any time since prior to the End.
• Future-prophetic discussions that make application to present-day politics tend to label opponents of the United States as being in league with the Antichrist and Babylon. Hence, the prophetic thrust becomes one of condemning our nation’s political opponents. It points fingers at people and political systems that we do not like. John’s implicit challenge for Christians to search their own lives and souls in self-critical ways is lost.
• Much of this approach to the Bible seems to reflect great fearfulness. Perhaps this is a fearfulness of other cultures or of other systems of belief. Or maybe it is fearfulness of an uncertain future. It does not put faith in the power of the mercy and loving patience of God. This approach reflects a nervous need to know for sure where history is going. It goes counter to a calm assurance that God’s love will bring us through even as we “see through a glass darkly.”
An alternative view of Revelation rests on assumptions which differentiate it from the future-prophetic perspective (let’s call it the “historical-symbolic” perspective). One is that Jesus of Nazareth, in his life and teaching, serves as a key which orients interpretation. Jesus is the main criterion by which the data is evaluated. Revelation is read as a complement to the picture of Jesus in the rest of the New Testament. The value of Revelation for Christian practice and thought rests on its function of stimulating trust in and adherence to the way of Jesus. Just as the Old Testament looks different when read as ultimately pointing toward its culmination in Jesus, so too Revelation looks different when read as ultimately serving to illumine the way of Jesus.
Revelation, therefore, agrees with the vision of God expressed in the accounts of Jesus and in the Old Testament. God is seen in these places as being relational, not as impersonal. God reacts and responds, not just acts. God is long-suffering, not judgmental; a healer, not a destroyer. Jesus provides the basis for highlighting the elements of Revelation that give us a fuller picture of God.
How, in our time, can we benefit from a study of Revelation? We need to focus on what John’s message meant for his readers (especially with regard to Jesus and ultimately to God). Then we can draw analogies between John’s time and ours. When we do this, Revelation becomes not a predictive blueprint or rule book. Rather, it is a piece of literature calling forth our own creative responsibility to apply its message in new and fresh ways to present-day circumstances.
I see five themes in Revelation that provide perspectives for us in our struggle to follow the Prince of Peace amidst wars and rumors of wars:
(1) Revelation is symbolic and imaginative–not logical, linear, or propositional. John faced a crisis more perceived than literally present. The crisis had, on the one hand, to do with the long-term consequences of some churches finding themselves too much at home in Roman society. On the other hand, other churches faced severe and likely even violent persecution. So the fear of persecution increased the likelihood of cultural conformity as a means of escaping persecution.
John did not straightforwardly argue that the church would soon face a crisis if it did not prepare itself. Instead, he sought to bring the crisis to the surface by challenging conventional wisdom on the level of imagination through amazing visions and oracles.
In our day, we have all the analytical data we can assimilate (and then some!) detailing our world’s impending crises: ozone layer depletion, toxic waste, greenhouse effect, unhealthy diets, Third World debt. However, we cannot seem to act decisively until the crises actually do burst wide open. What is this if not a failure of the imagination?
Are we capable of seeing that our political structures are beast-like (Rev 13)? That our materialism will meet the same fate as Babylon’s (Rev 18)? Are we capable of believing that our–at times–minuscule, counter-cultural, seemingly powerless worship of the slain Lamb partakes of the worship of the countless multitudes (Rev 14)? That this slain Lamb and his way decisively shape history?
(2) John offers a sharp critique of Babylon. John’s Babylon obviously represents Rome. However, the symbolism has broader application. Babylon represents most nation-states when they demand total allegiance. This especially applies to those nation-states when they demand total allegiance. This especially applies to those ancient nation-states most like Rome: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. But it also applies to more recent empires such as the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleonic France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Chapter 18 of Revelation contains the heart of John’s critique: (a) the idolatrous worship of the harlot, “fornication,” that demands loyalty and conformity; (b) Babylon’s violence, especially toward people of faith; (c) Babylon’s smug self-glorification and the high value it placed on power; and (d) Babylon’s materialism and unjust economics. When we look critically at the entire experience of the U.S. in the 1991 war against Iraq, we can see many parallels, not the least of which is the practical atheism of U.S. foreign policy.
(3) However, John’s concern when beyond critiquing Babylon as an end in itself. He worried about the effect of Babylon on the church. His prophetic critique of corrupt culture served as a call for faithfulness within the specifically Christian culture. John used his social criticism to challenge the church.
John had two primary concerns: (a) The Roman Leviathan showed great hostility toward the resistant minority, which it perceived as threatening the wider social order. This hostility took the form of persecution, even severe persecution. This worry accompanies the church any time it attempts to retain freedom from empires.
A modern example is that of conscientious objectors to war. These have generally met with hostility during the history of Christianity. In our most recent war, we still see expressions of this in the military’s extraordinarily harsh responses to soldiers who filed for CO recognition.
(b) John’s second concern had to do with the seduction of the church. Babylon sought to pull the church into cultural conformity, as with the case of the church at Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22). Again, we can see a parallel in our day in the relative comfort of most Christians in the U.S. during the Gulf War. They simply accepted the government’s propaganda that painted Saddam Hussein as a near-Hitler who had to be stopped with military force.
John’s prophetic imagination attempted to bring these threats to the surface as present realities. Not all of his readers (nor all of us today) recognized the dangers or the hope which trust in God can provide.
(4) John did not address his message to Babylon and its inhabitants. He addressed it to the church. He offered his readers a choice: Babylon or the New Jerusalem. The judgment of Babylon, the plagues, the destruction–these were not literal predictions or even objective statements about the world so much as “props” with which to challenge the church to faithfulness. The portrayal of the fate of Babylon intended to highlight the actual locus of the drama–the choices Christians make. Will we let Jesus and his way determine our values, our actions, our view of the world? Or will we let the spirit of Babylon provide our framework for living?
John’s visions do not have as their main goal moving us to center our actions around persuading Babylon to change its ways. To center on Babylon is to let Babylon call the shots and determine our actions. The government, even in its fits of violence, must not (and cannot, unless we let it) stop us from focusing on being peaceable ourselves. One aspect of this peaceableness certainly is refusing to conform to Babylon’s war spirit. But other aspects have little or nothing to do with Babylon.
John provides a challenge, both to politicizing Christianity and to following uncritically the ways of Babylon. He calls upon Christians to establish their identity free from Babylon–free from fear of Babylon’s persecuting wrath and free from dominance by Babylon’s values. Ultimately, John calls upon Christians to rely upon God, to gain their identity from trust in God’s mercy.
(5) The crucial issue for the ethical faithfulness of people who trust in God is: How do they understand God? Who is God? What is God like?
Like the Old Testament, Revelation pictures God in ways with which I am not always totally comfortable. Revelation’s God (like the God of the Old Testament) at times seems violent, angry, and arbitrary. This God is not always meek and mild. God becomes angry because of concern with the power of evil in the world and with the need to be noncoercive of the human soul. These two concerns seem to be in tension with each other. How they fit together is hard to imagine (as is the juxtaposition of plagues and worship in Revelation). John’s story is a creative attempt to assert that God is letting evil destroy itself, a violent process.
As a healer, God sometimes breaks in order to heal–as we can see in the prophecies of Hosea, which picture Israel’s process of healing brokenness (Hos 6:1). In life in this fallen world, suffering is often a prerequisite for the most profound growth.
In the end, the overall picture of God in Revelation is of a God who remains committed to the way of Jesus. Chapters 5 and 19 clearly picture realized eschatology. The “battle of the ages” has already taken place in the thoroughly pacifist life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is how God defeated evil and how God will continue to defeat evil. And Jesus’ way is also, therefore, the way God’s people are called to deal with evil.
Revelation has relevance for us in light of the Gulf War, the relevance it always has. The way of true power in the world is the way of the Lamb. The source for truth, the criteria for values and priorities, the way to deal with brokenness and evil–these all lie with God and the Lamb. They do not lie with the schemes and plots of Babylon.