Revelation’s Place in the Christian Bible

Keith Gilmour

 “A repulsive film in which intellectuals have found acres of social and political meaning; the average judgement is likely to remain that it is pretentious and nasty rubbish for sick minds who do not mind jazzed-up images and incoherent sound.[1]

This was Leslie Halliwell’s assessment of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange which, despite my enthusiasm for many of Kubrick’s other works–and my general irritation at the notoriously negative reviews of Leslie Halliwell–I must say I wholeheartedly agree with. But what may perhaps be of interest here is the fact that when I first came across these words in Halliwell’s famous Film Guide it was not my feelings towards Kubrick’s eighth movie that leapt immediately to mind but rather my own assessment of the biblical book of Revelation. After all, what could be more “repulsive” than apocalyptic horsemen snatching peace from the earth by causing mass slaughters (6:4); killing a quarter of the earth with sword, famine, pestilence and wild animals (6:8); burning up another third with fire, hail and–still more bafflingly–blood (8:7); killing every living thing in the sea (16:3); offing a third of humankind (9:15) with plagues (9:18, 11:6) and another seven thousand with an earthquake (11:13)–and all before everyone whose name has been omitted from “the book of life” (3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 21:27) is to be deposited into a “lake” of fire (20:15) and sulphur (21:8)?

Beyond this, biblical scholars–like Halliwell’s “intellectuals”–continue to find “acres of social and political meaning” (relevant to John’s situation) in almost every line of this often inscrutable text whilst the more apocalyptically minded cull eschatological meaning from amongst its “jazzed-up images” of angels, demons and golden lamp-stands; the handful of stars, the double-edged sword, the emerald-like rainbow, the thundering throne, the flaming torches, the crystal-like “sea of glass” and the one mixed with fire; the heavenly creatures covered in eyes; the scales, the scrolls and the seven seals; the slaughtered lamb, the wrathful lamb, the robes washed white (?) in its blood; the horses of red, white, black and green; the scorpion-like locust torturers, the fatal trumpet blasts, the bottomless pit; the fire, smoke and sulphur breathing horse-lion hybrids; the descending angel wrapped in a cloud (a rainbow around his head); the seven-headed dragon, the beast that arises from the sea and the one that comes from the earth; the sickle-swinging “Son of Man” seated on a cloud; the golden bowls filled with divine wrath; the great whore, the marriage of the lamb, the book of life and the “clear as glass” holy city of pure gold. And on top of all this, we might even want to add the “incoherent sound” of a trumpet-like “heavenly voice” similar to the sound of many waters, loud thunder and–bizarrely enough–harpists playing on their harps!

Despite all this–and leaving to one side George Bernard Shaw’s famous quip that what we actually have here is just “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict”[2]–few have been willing simply to dismiss this text as “rubbish.” John’s “mental video”[3] may well be “pretentious and nasty”–its appeal to “sick minds” now beyond question[4]–but it could not easily be dismissed as “rubbish” for two very important reasons. For one thing, it is simply too well crafted–its “recapitulating” cyclical structure, its symbolic richness, its often unique “cryptic” language, its ingenious employment of astrology and numerology, its allusions to just about every significant image in what we now call the Old and New Testaments, its imaginative use of popular Greco-Roman mythology (and other apocalyptic texts from the Ancient Near East) and its “many distinctive features [unparalleled] in related contemporaneous Jewish literature.”[5]

But a more important reason why Revelation cannot easily be dismissed is that it has–for over sixteen centuries–been elevated to the status of sacred scripture. And it is this that has made it so very dangerous for it has afforded this text a timeless quality it would otherwise have lost. Whilst it is now over nineteen hundred years since John offered to tell his readers “what must soon take place” (1:1, 1:19, 4:1, 22:6) there is–perhaps understandably–an unshakable reluctance amongst millions of twenty-first-century Christians to accept that this author (of the New Testament’s final book) was, in effect, a very much mistaken man of his times. The reasoning amongst such diehard literalists is that this cannot be prophecy that never was and never will be fulfilled and must, instead, be understood as prophecy yet to be fulfilled. The time is as “near” (1:3, 22:10) now as it was then! Such attitudes have allowed Christian men and women–at various times and in various places–to see Revelation as “a veiled picture of the history of the world or of the church, placing themselves at the penultimate moment and identifying beast and harlot with current bogeys, whether emperor or pope, church or sect.”[6] As Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us in her 1985 study The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgement, “Persons such as the Roman Pontiff, Hitler, Stalin, the Sandinistas, or Khomeini have [all] been candidates for the role of ‘the beast’ while movements such as communism, humanism or feminism are viewed as the ‘plagues’ of the end time.”[7]

Today, precisely this approach is actively promoted through hugely popular books such as The Late Great Planet Earth and Storm Warning: Deceptive Evil Looms on the Horizon. Such interpretations are, however, quite sensibly treated with disdain by reputable biblical scholars who stress the importance of an understanding both of the apocalyptic literary genre and the first century context this “circular letter” was written in and for. Such concerns are, of course, invariably quite beyond the average pew-dweller and/or cult member. As Bernard McGinn points out in The Literary Guide to the Bible:

Modern critical readers of Revelation tend to forget that most of those who ponder the book today see it through the eyes of the Hal Lindseys and the Billy Grahams as the divinely given plan for the coming Armageddon. The conflict of interpretations between academic readings carried on in schools of divinity and religion and in departments of English on the one hand and the mass of general readers on the other is probably greater now than ever before.[8]

Beyond this, there is something vaguely disingenuous about pointing to such a patently confusing slice of “sacred scripture”–so very obviously open to a multiplicity of “understandings”– and accusing the apocalyptically minded of “misinterpretation.”

With all this in mind, it is not particularly hard to see how apocalyptically minded “nonexpert” readers of Revelation might–having come to regard the word “soon” (1:1, 19, 3:11, 4:1, 22:6, 7, 12, 20) as intolerably vague–begin attempting to put a date on Armageddon. That some sort of timetable of future events can be culled from this “sacred” text must seem–to them–to be positively encouraged by the river of sign-seeking symbolic numerology that runs through it. It is hardly surprising that, having been explicitly encouraged (by its author) to calculate “the number of the beast,” many readers should have come to believe that they were also being implicitly encouraged to just keep on calculating! The net result of this understandable but absurd conclusion is that humankind has now (for centuries) been intermittently regaled with entirely erroneous apocalyptic predictions–culled from this supposedly “sacred” text. This has succeeded only in creating false and distracting hopes amongst all those who imagined themselves to be “marked” in a good way (their names having been recorded in the book of life) whilst simultaneously terrifying gullible “out-group” members who could expect only to be marked in a bad way and to have their names omitted from such a book.

The inevitable “nonevent” is typically blamed on prayed-for delays and divine reprieves intended to prompt and/or allow more time for “repentance” with such unsuccessful predictions invariably being followed by a return to the drawing board–the conclusions being not that these readers were wrong to calculate but rather that they had calculated wrongly. However, the raising and dashing of apocalyptic expectations can–as has now been well documented–be a dangerous business, oft times resulting not in red-faced revisions but instead in mass murders and/or mass suicides. As Brian Lane points out in his 1996 book Killer Cults, “many of the more off-beat beliefs of Christian breakaway-groups centre around apocalyptic visions of the end of the world–these are the so-called Armageddon cults, who look forward to sooner or later being embroiled in a literal realization of the battles between heaven and earth, between good and evil, predicted in the biblical book of Revelation.”[9] And if it doesn’t come, the temptation is to force it–the perfect example having been provided by David Koresh who, throughout the 51-day siege of his cult’s Mount Carmel compound, came to see himself as being (quite literally) inside the apocalypse–the avoidable showdown with the FBI serving only to cement his convictions that these scriptures were being fulfilled and allowing the “end times” to unfold before his very eyes.

Beyond this, there are other reasons why the baseless belief in a possibly “imminent” cosmic reshuffle can now be regarded as an unacceptable liability–for this idea (however loosely held) serves only to undermine and erode our sense of responsibility both towards our planet and its future generations. It is the mortal enemy of long-term planning and thinking! What emphasis is there, in this worldview, on the ways in which the actions and inactions of our own times might affect this planet and her inhabitants a few hundred, a few thousand, or even a few million years hence? How high up their list of priorities do apocalyptically minded readers of Revelation–still in the ascendancy in the most powerful nation on earth (if their online output is anything to go by)–place the threats posed by asteroids, pollution, global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, overpopulation, habitat destruction, the exhaustion of our natural resources, mass extinctions, and the overall loss of bio-diversity?

The attitudes expressed in this “sacred text” encourage literally minded readers to be this-worldly pessimists and only otherworldly optimists for John’s message is–unmistakably–that this world is only going to get worse. A better world is (according to John) not something to be evolved through social, political, religious and environmental reforms but rather something to be awaited, the suggestion being that the late great planet earth is, in the end, something of a lost cause–“let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). John’s emphasis is very firmly on patient endurance (1:9, 2:2, 3, 19, 3:10, 13:10, 14:12) seeming even, on occasion, to be promoting what I can only describe as a martyr complex (2:10, 12:11). So instead of aiming for the impossible (but still worth shooting for) goal of an earthly utopia for all, what is expected here is, it seems, a this-worldly dystopia for the many and an otherworldly utopia for only the chosen few with–depending on how one reads it–the possibility of a divinely orchestrated earthly utopia sandwiched somewhere in between. Beyond this, it is far from obvious that patient endurance in the face of worsening oppression (whether real or imagined) is all that is here being promoted, for many of John’s repeated references to “conquering” (2:7, 17, 26, 3:21, 6:2, 17:14) can–like most everything else in this book–be understood in more ways than one. These become particularly pernicious when read in the light of John’s apparent “reassurance” to his readers that after biding their time they will not simply cease to be oppressed but may in fact get to do some oppressing of their own (2:26-27, 3:9).

This brings us, then, to perhaps the most insidious feature of this text–the nauseatingly sadistic ill-will that pervades the entire book. Here “do to others as you would have them do to you” appears to have been replaced by ‘do to others as they have done to you’–and double it (18:6) whilst “love your neighbor” gives way to ‘avoid your neighbor’ (2:14-15) and “love for enemies” has been supplanted by an expectation of the very worst for one’s enemies. Those without the “seal of God” on their foreheads are, John enthusiastically informs us, to be tortured by the above-mentioned scorpion-like locusts for five months–the merciful release of death to be kept just out of reach (9:3-6, 10)–whilst those who “worship the beast” (surely a reference to emperor worshippers) are to be “tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10-11). Elsewhere, we find this author well-nigh salivating over the idea that these unfortunate souls will soon be gnawing their tongues in agony (16:10) as they are scorched with fire (16:8) and ravaged by hungry birds (19:21) before finally being thrown alive into the lake of fire and sulphur (19:20) where, we are told, torments continue “day and night forever and ever” (20:10). This “lake” is, of course, the eventual fate not just of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet, but (according to John) anyone whose name is absent from “the book of life”–and this appears to include all those guilty of such monstrous crimes as cowardice, unbelief, fornication and lying (21:8).

Again, what makes all this so very pernicious is the fact that Christianity has elevated John’s Revelation into a “sacred text” by including it in the New Testament canon. This has afforded divine legitimation to the cruelties contained within it, frequently cultivating a callous indifference towards (and often an outright enthusiasm for) the sufferings of “out-group” members everywhere whilst lumbering us with a tyrannical warrior god–a powerful “record keeper” desirous of unceasing worship. As John Sweet notes in his 1979 study, “there is a spirit in Revelation which is at home in the Old Testament but hardly in the New; what can be found in small deposits elsewhere in the New Testament crops up here in lethal concentration. These excesses might be excused as the product of the author’s personal situation and psychology–an outburst, as Jung put it, in one striving for perfection. But the picture of God in Revelation cannot so easily be excused if it endorses and propagates such a spirit.”[10]

End Notes

[1] Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide: eighth edition (1991), John Walker (ed), HarperCollins, London.
[2] George Bernard Shaw quoted in The Literary Guide to the Bible (1997), Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (eds), HarperCollins, London.
[3] Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (1992), Penguin, London.
[4] See especially the writings of David Koresh as reproduced in James D Tabor and Eugene V Gallagher’s 1995 book Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (University of California Press).
[5] Christopher Rowland, The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (2000), OUP, Oxford.
[6] John Sweet, The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993), Bruce M Metzger and Michael D Coogan (eds), OUP, London.
[7] Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (1985), Fortress, Philadelphia.
[8] Bernard McGinn, The Literary Guide to the Bible (1997).
[9] Brian Lane, Killer Cults (1996), Headline, London.
[10] John Sweet, Revelation (1979), SCM, London


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