When you spend year after year preaching, teaching, and worshipping in a church, there are patterns that emerge. Listen to enough sermons and Sunday school lessons and one pattern becomes obvious: more often than not, the Book of Revelation is missing in action. It rarely appears in the lectionary. And when priests and pastors use it, they often focus on the seven letters to the seven churches. Though canonical, it is quoted less often than the Gospel of Thomas (thanks, Elaine Pagels). In fact, in most of our churches you have to die to hear the Book of Revelation read. Then, of course, it’s too late to learn anything new about it.
While mainline churches have continued to neglect the Book of Revelation, dispensationalists have worked hard and successfully to popularize their approach to it, spawning the Bible Study Fellowship and so-called Bible churches. Although they publicly eschew claims to either denominational or theological distinctives, their approach to Scripture is, in fact, radically defined by a very specific set of theological assumptions popularized at first in the Scofield Reference Bible. In that approach, the whole of human history is divided into two eras of divine redemption: one effected through the Law, the other accomplished through grace in Jesus Christ. This division leaves both the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the “old” dispensation, and the letters of Paul, the General Epistles, and the Book of Revelation in the “new” dispensation. The dispensationalists then further subdivide history into smaller eras, making distinctions between the ways in which God has worked and does work in the world and relying heavily on Revelation to work out the details of an end-of-days tableau of events.
To argue for even this most basic scheme not only misuses the Book of Revelation but ignores the role of grace in the Old Testament, misunderstands the nature of the Law (which is not an instrument of salvation but instruction that describes what an existence made possible by grace will look like), relegates the teaching of Jesus—along with the Old Testament—to a secondary role in Christian theology, and misrepresents the nature of Judaism.
For much of church history, dispensationalists represented a minority movement in the church. During the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century, even prominent fundamentalists were repelled by dispensationalism, arguing that they would make common cause with it against modernism but were not fools enough to agree with it. And by the end of World War II, which offered the best prospect ever of global conflagration, they very nearly extinguished it as a movement.
But thanks to the creation of the Israeli nation-state and the specter of nuclear holocaust—as well as the commercial success of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series—dispensationalist readings of Revelation are now an unexamined orthodoxy. As a result, the vast majority of Christians believe that if one is going to read the Book of Revelation at all, it has to be read as a roadmap to our future. With the development of the new Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game—released last autumn “just in time for Christmas”—roadmap readings of Revelation threaten to gain an even deeper hold on the American religious psyche as the assumptions of dispensationalism thread their way through the culture.
So how do we leave behind the left-behind approach to reading the Book of Revelation? As I see it, there are four essential steps we must take: (1) make a conscious choice to equip Christians to read the Book of Revelation; (2) challenge the assumptions about how it should be read; (3) outline and explain the ways in which it has been read, and (4) recapture the deeper significance of the text for the Christian life.
Equip Christians to Read Revelations
For a variety of reasons, the decision to help people understand the Book of Revelation has itself become an issue. One reason is that most seminarians are never exposed to the demands of interpreting the Apocalypse. As a result, clergy are often ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of explaining it to others. They struggle with explaining the book’s arcane imagery and complex structure, they lack the information to sympathetically represent the purpose of apocalyptic literature, and they possess little more than a passing acquaintance with the historical context out of which the Book of Revelation arose.
Another reason most ministers shy away from teaching their congregations how to read Revelation can be traced to widespread disaffection in the church with eschatology, or a theology of last things. Reduced to a catalog of exotic and often lurid observations about the end of days, it is difficult to imagine that the Book of Revelation can be helpful to Christians who seek to live effectively in the world. Many ministers rightly believe that an eschatology that assumes redemption amounts to little more than a transaction in which one moves from a column marked “damned” to one marked “saved” is bereft if not corrosive of deeper moral and social commitments.
What many clergy are never taught is that, rightly understood, eschatology speaks to the shape of the future as a means of not only addressing our fate but as a means of reframing our understanding of the present and the nature of reality itself. Deeply rooted in the divine purposes of creation and in addressing the problem of evil, eschatology is the ending without which the redemptive story is incomplete and the purposes of God are finally frustrated. Unfortunately, however, left-behind theology has fueled embarrassment over eschatology, leaving clergy unwilling and unprepared to help their parishes in thinking in eschatological categories that might actually minister to them. The key to addressing this stunning omission is, in part, the commitment to explore the Book of Revelation.
Of all the books in the Bible, the Book of Revelation is probably the one most easily distorted by the assumptions that people bring to its reading. No one will ever understand a single thing you say about John’s Apocalypse unless you begin by describing how people have previously read and interpreted it. They will either be completely mystified or will simply add the “interesting” observations you have made about the book to the larger, implicitly dispensationalist view of Revelation that has already shaped their understanding of the book. The difficulty in challenging those assumptions lies in the hold that dispensationalist views already have on the public consciousness and the presumptive orthodoxy that they therefore enjoy.
Challenging those assumptions has to be done as gently as possible, because what is at stake are not simply parishioners’ discreet views about the Book of Revelation but also, to some extent, the shape of their faith. That said, the effort to reorient the way in which people read the book does require a fairly direct challenge to dispensationalist assumptions.
It can be fairly pointed out, for instance, that when we read Scripture (or, indeed, any piece of literature) we read it with questions surrounding its original meaning and likely intent. It is difficult to know what Paul might have been talking about when he addressed the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols without knowing something of the historical setting. It is hard to know why Matthew would make so much of the lineage of the Messiah without knowing something of the traditions that shaped the messianic expectation of the era.
So it is counterintuitive, if not simply strange, to suddenly begin reading the Book of Revelation as a roadmap to the contemporary reader’s experience. Without being at all unfair to dispensationalism, essentially the left
-behind approach to reading the text of the Apocalypse asks the contemporary reader to assume that over two millennia ago in Asia Minor, a Greek-speaking writer wrote to a Greek-speaking congregation and, upon completing it, concluded, “I don’t have any idea what it means, but people living 2,000 years from now on a continent that has yet to be discovered, in a country that has yet to be founded, living under circumstances no one can now imagine, will understand it.” This is the obvious logic of a dispensationalist reading of Revelation, but it often goes unexamined. Therefore, taking a congregation through the typical ways in which we honor the historical particularity of biblical literature and then comparing the singular approach we take to John’s Apocalypse can be instructive.1
Explain Past Interpretations
It’s not necessary to use a lot of arcane terminology to help your parishioners think about how to read the Book of Revelation, but the basic approach taken to John’s Apocalypse is the greatest determinant of what the reader will get from this part of Scripture, so it is important to familiarize your parishioners with the various approaches.
The key lies in using accessible labels and definitions. For example, as mentioned earlier, dispensationalist understandings of Revelation can be described as roadmap readings. Such readings, intending to discover signposts to our future, deals in one-to-one correspondences with events in the text and events in our world. It is often literalistic in its approach to the imagery of John’s Apocalypse, even where those images resist literal renderings, and it treats the book as a timetable, even though the events in the apocalypse reverse the telling of the story, revisiting some of the images used earlier in the narrative.
Other readings, like the one popularized by French theologian Jacques Ellul, read the Book of Revelation as myth, a narrative describing in an evocative fashion the deeper nature of an experience, event, or person. We tell myths to conjure up a set of associations that not only pluck at our heartstrings but also shape our thinking and prompt us to act. For that reason, it is not surprising to discover that some interpreters have argued that the true meaning of the Book of Revelation is not to be found in a one-to-one and literalistic decoding of the book’s images but in the evocative and symbolic character of its language. Mythic readings of Revelation tend to be far more subtle than dispensationalist readings in their handling of the images in John’s Apocalypse, but lack the interest in the book’s setting to explain why it was originally written or how the circumstances under which it was written compare with those that we face.
That is why it continues to be important to help Christians understand that the Book of Revelation must also be read as the product of history. For many Christians the historical-critical approach to Scripture is thought of as an approach to the text bent on denigrating its spiritual value and undercutting claims to its inspiration. Consequently, it is important to reassure people in the pews that this is not the purpose of historical criticism. Instead, its intent is to discover the intended meaning of the text by focusing on the original writer and readers, as well as the historical, social, cultural, and religious circumstances that gave rise to the text being studied. Revered as they are today, it is very easy to forget that biblical texts were once very much like the writing we do today: certain circumstances usually require us to write, and we write in the hope of shaping the circumstances.
Historical critics give attention to that reality as a key to recovering the meaning of the Bible’s literature. Far from being abstract, theological treatises, the books of the Bible are occasional pieces of literature, written to specific people, dealing with specific struggles, events, and controversies. Knowing as much as possible about those matters informs the interpreter’s study of a given text. So, more often than not, they begin with five basic questions: Who, what, where, when, and why?
Recapture Revelation’s Significance
As important as it is to help readers think deeply about how to read the Book of Revelation, it is far more important to help them understand its significance for the Christian life. If all we do is take dispensationalist assumptions away from them, we are unlikely to be heard or we will discourage them from ever reading it again. An historical-critical approach to John’s Apocalypse needs to be accompanied by an unabashed effort to make sense of it for our own day, and that is neither as hard nor as irrelevant as it may seem.
My friend and colleague Natalie Van Kirk compares reading the Book of Revelation with catching butterflies, a hobby she undertook with great earnestness as a child of 10 or 11:
I would take the butterflies I captured back to the house and mount them carefully on a padded board and then look in my butterfly book to learn what sort of butterfly I had captured, its range, and its living habits. If I damaged one when I caught it, then I would sometimes dissect it and look at pieces of it under my microscope, or shake some of the butterfly dust from its wings onto a slide to see what that looked like close-up. … The only part of the process that I didn’t really enjoy was killing the butterflies. But … if I was going to learn anything about them, if I was going to really know about butterflies, then I had to kill them and pin them to that board. If, however, the only way you study butterflies is pinned to a board, you will miss quite a lot. You will miss the Swallowtail caterpillars devouring the parsley and dill, the way a Monarch unrolls its proboscis to drink at the edge of a puddle, or the way that wings seem to change color as the sunlight flashes upon them. To learn those sorts of things you must sit still and pay attention with all of your senses while the world of butterflies unfolds around you. … Revelation … is a lot like butterflies. You have to know about its structure, how it fits together, and about the references it makes to really understand it, but the pieces aren’t all there is to it. The real trick here, as with any text from the Bible, is to study it, to learn something about what it means without killing it and pinning it to a board like a butterfly. Because, when you have finished studying, the Word will still be living and you must sit very still, pay attention, and listen as God’s Word unfolds around you in flashes of color and light.2
When dealing with the imagery of John’s Apocalypse, this is exactly what the interpreter needs to remember. The stories, actors, and images can be unpacked in some detail; the scriptural allusions are readily identified; and the points of contact with John’s churches, the Roman Empire, and the Judaism of his day are all there. Yet it is equally clear that the “flashes of color and light” cannot be reduced to a one-to-one correspondence. Instead, John’s use of imagery is like the brushstrokes in an impressionist painting. You can only grasp the artist’s intention when the painting is seen as a whole. Stand too close, squint at the individual brushstrokes, and the image is diminished or disappears completely. It is the larger picture that John meant for his hearers to see with their ears.
This is as clear in Revelation 17-22 as it is anywhere in the Apocalypse. The mythic looms large again, but there can be no doubt that we are talking about the human city of Rome and the church in Asia Minor living in faithfulness to their Lord.
John’s decision to use cities (Babylon and Jerusalem) as the central metaphor for the choice facing his church is a natural one. The Apostle Paul, his famous predecessor, had consciously chosen to spread the gospel in
cities, and they therefore figured prominently in the well-being of the ancient church. The world in which John lived was also city-centered. For six and a half centuries, rulers used them to spread their vision and build a power base, so it is no surprise to find that cities acquired an emblematic significance or that John would cast the choice facing his readers as one between the city of Babylon and the Holy City.
But John’s use of the image, like butterflies and impressionist paintings, is not exhausted by historical and social explanations for their existence. He is, instead, intentionally tapping his church’s memory and emotions, conjuring up two cities that loom large in the imagination. In this last section of his Apocalypse he turns his attention to each city, announcing that one will be judged (Rev. 17-18) and that the other will triumph (Rev. 19-22). In so doing, he puts the choice between Christ and culture before his readers a final time, confronting some and comforting others.
The first of those cities is Babylon. Known to ancient Jews as the center of Mesopotamian society, it is, in one sense, simply another ancient and now bygone city. But as the capital of the empire that captured Jerusalem in 597 BCE, it claims a much larger place in memory and myth. It is the city of exile, a place of bondage, and the enemy of God. John knows this and taps into the visceral, even repulsive set of associations that this ancient city has for his congregations, and he paints a lurid picture that builds on them, characterizing Babylon as a whore who actively seduces all those around her (Rev. 17:1ff.). Lest his hearers conclude that her conduct has little or no bearing on their lives, he notes that she is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (Rev. 17:6).
Then, capitalizing on the surprise that ancient Babylon could be the undoing of the church, John makes it clear that this archetypal city is, in fact, Rome (Rev. 17:6bff.), the city set between seven hills and governed by seven emperors (Rev. 17:9), the last of whom will be a beast—Nero revisited (Rev. 17:11). With this observation it becomes clear, in retrospect, that the whore John has been describing is the city whose patroness and goddess Roma is worshipped in Asia Minor (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12). According to the world over which she rules she is the source of blessing. Even in the eyes of her enemies and victims she is large, dominant, and defining. In spite of the pain that she inflicts, it is difficult to imagine a world without her, and the water on which she rides—the other nations of the world—are, for that reason, her allies (Rev. 17:2, 15).
But in the war that she is about to wage with her allies against the Lamb, she will be defeated and the victory will belong to the Son and to those that follow him (Rev. 17:14). When the outcome is clear, then even her allies will turn against her (Rev. 17:16-18) and the self-destructive nature of evil will be manifest.
In what one commentator rightly describes as one of Scripture’s more poignant passages, John both celebrates and mourns the undoing of Rome (Rev. 18). The ambivalence of this lament may reflect the ambivalence of John’s own followers, some of whom no doubt celebrated the promised demise of the Empire. But not all of his followers necessarily viewed the passing of Rome as a completely positive development, and others no doubt objected to this notion (cf. Rev. 18:2, 21-23).
So, here again, the complex shape of John’s churches and the pastoral demands he faces are in evidence. The lament acknowledges the pain that some experience at the prospect of Rome’s demise, or John may be skewering the self-interest that those who depend upon Rome can display. He may even have been attempting to address specific misgivings—organized as the laments are around the grief of kings, merchants, and sailors—or they may simply reflect the groups who most often depended upon the Empire. Whether that is the case or not, John undoubtedly knew that ambivalent reactions would surface and that, without acknowledging and challenging them, some might not hear his message.
He also clearly felt that the judgment levied against Rome was justified. So the lament outlines the case against the city: idolatrous worship (Rev. 18:3); violence against the church and others (Rev. 18:24); “blasphemous self-glorification” (Rev. 18:3, 7, 9); and the wanton use of its wealth (Rev. 18:3, 11-19, 23).
Anticipating that indictment, the angel who announces the fall of Babylon—a.k.a. Rome (Rev. 18:2)—also cries out to the church, “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 and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18:4-5).
Then in chapters 19-22, John announces the coming of the Holy City. Each of the major divisions in the Book of Revelation begins with a glimpse into the transcendent, deeper realities that John believes should shape the behavior of his church, and each is followed by visions offered in sets of seven. Here, John takes his readers back to the divine throne room, and following hard on the words of praise and worship uttered around the heavenly throne by the 24 elders (Rev. 19:1-11) are the last seven visions: the parousia, or return of Christ (Rev. 19:11-16); the last battle (Rev. 19:17-21); the binding of Satan (Rev. 20:1-3); the millennium (Rev. 20:4-6); the defeat of Gog and Magog (Rev. 20:7-10); the last judgment (Rev. 20:11-15); and the new Jerusalem (Rev. 19:11-22:21).
Here, as elsewhere, it is a mistake to assume that John has a chronological interest in the events described. Some of them might have been presented in a different order. Some of them overlap or happen all but simultaneously, and he abandons numbering completely.
It is also a mistake to reduce the “flashes of color and light” to a one-to-one correspondence with past, present, and future events, or to focus on the brushstrokes to the exclusion of the image that John is painting. Unlike the defeat of Rome and other emblematic cities of power, the final triumph of the Holy City is without precedent and without point of contact in history. So, while John has used images of an evocative kind throughout the Apocalypse, here the images he uses are, by definition, rooted in myth and imagination.
John’s message to the churches of Asia Minor underlines the urgency of a question that we all need to answer. Anyone who subscribes to the conviction that a person of faith must engage the world will face a choice between the cities of our own making and God’s. There will always be questions of where and how those choices manifest themselves and should be made. How much John or the members of his church accurately understood these questions in their own day is open to debate. But in our own time these questions are inescapable, and they are worth facing before our funerals.
1. Frederick W. Schmidt, Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005).
2. Natalie B. Van Kirk, “The Difference between Catching Butterflies and the Mysteries of God,” an unpublished sermon preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Matthew, Dallas, Texas, May 16, 2004.