The Book of Revelation isn’t nuts, but it subverts the spirit of Christianity.
For years I thought the Book of Revelation was insane. After reading what several scholars have written about it, I no longer believe that. The Book of Revelation makes sense as a coded attack on Rome, among other things. While I understand its place at the end of the Bible, finishing a journey begun in Genesis, I still don’t believe Revelation belongs in the Bible, for it subverts the message of Jesus and the Gospels.
Just to remind you of how strange the Book of Revelation is, I’ll quote from 12:1-6. Revelation has many such passages.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” [Psalm 2:9] And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
Background of Revelation
Revelation was written by John of Patmos at the end of the first century of the Common Era. While some think it was written by the same John who wrote the Gospel that bears his name, he would almost certainly have been too old. There were lots of Johns running around in those days, as there are today. No one seems to know anything about John of Patmos, other than that he identifies himself as the author. Beale believes that his knowledge of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament demonstrates that he was originally a Jew from Palestine (p 2).
The Book is written in symbolic code as a way of talking about life under repressive Roman rule. A number of 7’s appear in the Book, and among other things they refer to the 7 hills of Rome. There are more references in Revelation to the Old Testament, as many as 278 of the 404 verses, than in all the rest of the New Testament. The reason the number of references is inexact is that many are allusions, and so sometimes it becomes a matter of judgment.
In the passage quoted above, Israel is a woman, and the dragon monster refers to the nations that threaten her. The meaning of the number 666, the number of the beast, is unknown, though such number-letter codes were common (Rev13:18). Most likely it refers to Nero, possibly to the nations surrounding Israel.
Everything changes, only it doesn’t
During the reign of Constantine (306-337 CE), the Roman empire became, in effect, a Christian empire. No longer was there a Roman enemy, and one might expect that the Book of Revelation would fade into obscurity. It didn’t. Instead, it found a new enemy. God’s enemies became Christians who had been deceived by the Antichrist (another term that does not appear in Revelation). Athanasius, roughly a contemporary of Constantine, interpreted the whore of Babylon (Revelation 17) as Arian Christians—that is, Christians who had a somewhat different interpretation of the Trinity. The beast and the whore were now within—- those Christians who did not accept the Nicene Creed.
More fundamentally Athanasius opposed those who held that one could learn about Christ directly, through communion with the living Jesus, a view associated with Gnosticism. A view like this has always driven the authorities crazy (the Protestant Reformation was its next big act), and Athanasius interpreted Revelation as condemning all heretics.
Like Bishop Irenaeus two centuries earlier, Athanasius turned John’s visions of cosmic war into a weapon against those he called heretics. (Pagels, p 144)
Like paranoids at all times and all places, the enemy without is all too likely to become the enemy within, in this case from pagan Rome to Christians who believed differently about some really fine distinctions, such as whether Christ was begotten or made—that is, was Jesus a mode of God, or God himself in a different aspect. Paranoids need their enemies and will find (or create) them almost anywhere. Sigmund Freud called it the “narcissism of small differences.” (p 72) The less substantive the dispute, the greater the hatred.
Pagels is right. The Book of Revelation wrapped up our worst fears into a horrific nightmare.
Fears of violence, plague, wild animals, unimaginable horrors emerging from the abyss below the earth, lightning, thunder, hail, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, and the atrocities of torture and war . . . . John’s visions speak to what one historian calls the Christian movement’s most powerful catalyst —the conviction that death is not simply annihilation. (P 171)
I don’t understand the last sentence. Are not the Gospels above all a story about a God-man who died so that we might live forever? Are not the Gospels a claim that we are partners in eternity? If so, then what does Revelation add?
It adds a story that can be “plugged into any conflict.” But if Revelation provides a ready-made explanation of almost any conflict, it lacks the most important lesson of the Gospels, “his strength made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) There are lots of stories of powerful gods and heroes vanquishing our oppressors. What’s different about the Gospels is that they teach not power, but the power of weakness. Instead of a God conquering our enemies, the Gospels are a story about God becoming weak, allowing himself to be tortured to death, so that he might know human pain and teach us how to live.
For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25: 35-36)
Nothing of this teaching, absolutely nothing, remains in the Book of Revelation. To be sure, Christ’s teaching about love and care for all humanity comes with eternal punishment for those who don’t (Matthew 25: 40-46). Nevertheless, the tone of the Gospels is primarily one of love and care for those in need, taught by a God-man who gave his life to save humanity. Revelation, on the other hand, is about a powerful God who will destroy Christ’s enemies in one final battle, returning to earth to establish his kingdom in power and glory. The tone and the lesson are entirely different.
This is why Revelation doesn’t belong
The Book of Revelation brings the beginning and the end of the Bible together, from Adam, Eve, and the serpent to God’s final victory over evil. Revelation also brings together the Old Testament with the New, connecting them with its hundreds of references to the Old Testament. Apocalyptic comes from the Greek word for revelation, and there is little difference between revelation and prophecy. Though we don’t usually think about it this way, Revelation is a work of prophecy in the Old Testament tradition, once again linking the Old Testament with the New (Beale, p 4).
There was great dispute over whether Revelation should be admitted into the canon we call the Bible. This fellow Eusebius, a bishop, was so ambivalent about the Book of Revelation that he placed it both on the list of books he calls “universally accepted” and on the list of books he calls “illegitimate.” This as late as 325-340 (Pagels, p 161).
I think something like this must be our attitude. We can understand why the Book of Revelation makes a fitting ending to the Bible, but the concept of God as supreme victor over the Antichrist spoils the tone and tenor of the Gospels, which teach a subtler lesson.
G. K. Beale and David Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Eerdmans, 2015.
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, translated by James Strachey. W. W. Norton, 1961. [original 1929]
Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Vision, Politics, and Prophecy in the Book of Revelation. Viking Penguin, 2012.