The Troubling Mystery of 'Revelation'
Editor’s Note: A core contradiction of Christianity is that the teachings of Jesus, one of history’s great pacifists, have been transformed into justification for unspeakable violence, much of it celebrated as righteous by those who consider themselves to be the most devoted followers of Jesus.
At the center of this contradiction sits Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, with its image of a vengeful Jesus overseeing a final battle that casts the wicked into a lake of fire, a signal to some Christian fundamentalists that killing “bad guys” is doing God’s work, a conundrum addressed by Rev. Howard Bess in this guest essay:
Every time there is a crisis in the United States or the world, real or imagined, a significant part of the Christian population takes on a renewed interest in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, with its vivid imagery of violent conflict between Good and Evil.
Like it or not, the book called Revelation is in the middle of our 21st century plate. We ignore it to our own peril.
However, in order to make sense of this literary enigma, a series of questions need to be addressed: Who wrote it? When did the author write it? Why did he write it? To whom did he write it?
And there’s perhaps the biggest question of all: how does one reconcile the judgmental and triumphal Jesus of Revelation with the gentle pacifist who preached the Sermon on the Mount and told his followers to love thy enemy?
The Book of Revelation says God will achieve his Kingdom on Earth through slaughter and bloodshed. Jesus taught exactly the opposite. According to Jesus, God’s Kingdom would be established by a servant people with the practice of unfettered love.
So, there is much mystery surrounding Revelation and how Christians should interpret its message. Let us begin.
First, we do not know exactly when Revelation was written, though common scholarly opinion now places the book’s writing some time after the turn of the first century CE, possibly as late as 125 CE (though some traditionalists still argue for an earlier dating of authorship).
The book’s author also is a mystery. Though the author identifies himself as John, it was not the apostle John, who wrote in a different style and who is believed to have died near the end of the first century before most scholars say Revelation was composed.
The author is often identified as John of Patmos, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, because Revelation identifies Patmos as the place of writing. Since John was as common a name then as it is today, it was also a good name for an anonymous author.
Nevertheless, the answer to the question of authorship is: we don’t really know.
We have a better sense of why. Among early Christians there was strong resistance to bowing down to a Roman emperor who claimed divinity. Rome was ruthless in persecuting Christian and Jewish believers around Jerusalem and in the Palestinian territories because of this resistance.
The Roman rulers destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and killed dissenting people by the thousands. To the north of Palestine in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Christians were especially defiant.
Patmos was an island about 50 miles off the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The Romans used it as an island prison where uncooperative people were often sent. However, whether the Patmos location for the authorship is real or symbolic is open to question.
What is clear is that the book was written as a letter of defiance against Roman tyranny to be read by Christians across Asia Minor and to encourage them.
Without doubt, the author was a brilliant writer. Revelation is one of the great literary masterpieces of the Bible. Its imagery and characters have inspired endless works of art from poetry to paintings to popular movies.
Aside from his talents, the writer was well informed. He knew what was going on in the world and understood how his version of the Christian faith fit in. The writer consciously chose apocalyptic storytelling as his literary form.
Apocalypse is rightly identified as a form of mythology with God as the primary actor in the story line. Though many scholars have tried to match Revelation’s references to precise historical events, once the book is identified as mythology, concern for historic accuracy is eliminated.
Apocalypse is written for emotional/spiritual impact, not the reporting of history. The closest comparison in modern communications might be editorial cartooning. Good cartoons use exaggeration to make their opinions unmistakable and memorable.
That was exactly what the writer of Revelation did. In a series of vivid verbal pictures, a statement is made. Roman emperors think they are in charge of the world. Not so! The God whom Christians serve will have the last word.
To its intended audience of persecuted people of Asia Minor, Revelation was a clear and vivid expression of Christian triumphalism. Those for whom the apocalypse was written understood who the players were.
The message of Revelation was as clear to a contemporary reader in Asia Minor as a Doonesbury cartoon is to an informed reader today.
In modern times, the story in Revelation understandably resonates with Christian fundamentalists who believe the world has been taken over by Evil and can be reclaimed for Good only by God through violent actions.
Christian fundamentalists also force modern characters into the roles that were portrayed in the original Book of Revelation 1,900 years ago, for instance, casting disfavored politicians as the Anti-Christ, thus demonizing certain political leaders and their opinions.
These fundamentalists firmly believe that the Book of Revelation provides a road map to a time when the Christian God will defeat all opponents and righteousness will prevail under the rule of a triumphant Christ.
For me, the Book of Revelation is not as strange as it first seems. Once its setting and purpose are understood, once the literary genre of apocalyptic writing is grasped, understanding is not difficult.
The brilliance of Revelation's author also should be recognized and his work honored as among the greatest masterpieces of world literature.
The larger religious (and to a degree, political) question, however, is whether I accept Revelation's message as being a part of Christian thinking and whether it should guide Christian behavior. I do not.
I believe that Jesus, the Rabbi from Nazareth, would be horrified that his followers would embrace such violent thinking.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is email@example.com.
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