Before in-depth analysis can start, the background and context of Revelation must be established. As previously stated, it was written by John of Patmos in the first century, most likely between 70 and 120 AD. Though many assume that the same John wrote Revelation and the fourth Gospel, there is little evidence to suggest this and the difference in writing styles between the two books points to two different authors (Kraybill 30). John of Revelation is not concerned with writing a historical document; rather, historical context must be gleaned from the images and symbols he uses as well as his messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Thompson 26-27). The time period between Jesus’s death and Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is commonly understood to be a time of excessive and violent persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. In some ways, this is accurate. If charges of Christianity were brought against someone, it was likely that they would be executed if they did not renounce their faith. However, Romans did not actively seek out Christians to persecute and kill. Christians could live somewhat normal, open lives under Roman rule as long as they avoided making a show of their faith or publicly going against the emperor. Even Nero and Domitian, two emperors known for their cruelty especially towards Christians, were not vastly different than other emperors of the time (Thompson 36). All viewed Christianity with animosity and scapegoated its followers, but were not crazed tyrants hell-bent on eradicating Christianity. If it presented itself, they would stamp it out, but beyond that they rarely actively pursued the removal of Christians.
Therefore, it is important to recognize that the violent imagery and martyrdom that John depicts within the Book of Revelation is not simply a 1:1 translation of real-life experiences into text. Rather, John is using widely-understood and relatable imagery to expose what he feels is the real threat posed by the Roman Empire: seduction (Barr 205-220). The Roman way of life was extravagant and full of pleasure-seeking; while the threat of persecution loomed, it was a falling away to the temptations of the Roman lifestyle that was most dangerous to the young Christian movement.
John’s message about this is clear when he addresses the seven churches of Asia in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. He addresses some members of the church in Smyrna as “those who claim to be Jews and are not, but rather are members of the assembly of Satan” (New American Bible, Revised Edition, Rev 2.9) John questions the church of Thyatira as to why they “tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, who teaches and misleads my servants” (New American Bible, Revised Edition, Rev 2.20). Had this simply been a time of Roman persecution, John’s message may have been encouraging and uplifting, reminding the faithful to hold steadfast to their beliefs. However, the issue facing the church stemmed from its own followers. People were being tempted or misled and falling away from the truth. The aggressive tone John takes with them is necessary to jolt his audience into action and discipline.
The primary concern of the Book of Revelation is establishing Jesus as the Messiah who has already come. The book begins with a vision of Christ, using terms such as “Son of Man” which John’s audience would know to associate with Jesus. John moves on to incorporate imagery such as Jesus holding stars and depicts himself falling to his knees in the presence of Jesus. Images and gestures such as these were commonly used to show the status of the Roman emperor during John’s time, so he subverts them to reveal that Jesus is truly in control (Kraybill 37-38). Jesus is worthy of the praise given to Roman emperors, but infinitely more as well. Jesus has received the worst that evil powers can throw at him (physical death) and yet overcomes it through the resurrection (Kraybill 101). The empire that John’s contemporaries viewed as all-powerful and unbeatable tried to defeat Jesus and were beaten. There is no more waiting; the battle has been won by Jesus. Though physically the Roman Empire still exists and is capable of carrying out evil, Jesus’s victory through resurrection confirms that the spiritual realm is where evil is defeated once and for all, unquestionably.
Possibly the most important line in the entire book is Revelation 5:6, where John is instructed to look for the Lion of Judah and instead finds “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (New Revised Standard Version). The entire theme of the book is here in this line. John and his fellow Jews are looking for a Messiah in the midst of both persecution and temptation. They expect a Lion, a mighty hero who rises up against the Roman Empire. Instead, they are given a Lamb who is slain, but because of its sacrifice has power (stands). John is able to recognize Jesus as the true Messiah in their midst and the one they were promised, but not everyone is able to. Thus, Revelation is written to remind people that Jesus is the conqueror and Messiah they are looking for. Everything falls into place, but critical thinking and reflection are required by the people because on the surface Jesus is much different than who they may have expected. Through his symbolism and vivid imagery, John attempts to convey to the people the message of who their Savior truly is.
The depiction of violence in Revelation is often a point of controversy when discussing the text. John graphically and aggressively depicts widespread destruction and death within the text that can be off-putting and hard to decipher without the proper contextual understanding. John’s seemingly-indefensible portrayal of violence is a challenge to his audience to be aware of what he is actually saying. Very little of the Book of Revelation can be taken at face value. The centerpiece of Revelation is praise of God and the Lamb who was slain. The violence depicted is not meant to speculate on what will happen to enemies of God or give instructions for political upheaval, but rather highlight how “God is in control of history and ultimately will bring healing to a broken world” (Kraybill 135). John’s message to his audience is not one encouraging violence; rather, John continuously uses the word hypomone, which translates to “patient endurance”. Followers of Christ are called to suffer for him while trusting that spiritual victory has already been attained (Kraybill 135).
Much of the violence depicted in Revelation is also carried out on followers of Christ rather than the wicked, making it difficult to say that John is encouraging or supporting violence. Though metaphorical violence is sometimes carried out against followers of the Beast, the text makes reference to real violence experienced by early Christians and recalls those who were martyred for their faith. To say that John condemns this violence but advocates for its conduction against enemies of God is inconsistent with what is written in the text (Kraybill 134-135). It is important when considering interpretations of Revelation to understand that John is not depicting literally what he thinks will happen nor is he depicting what he believes should happen. The Book of Revelation was not written to promote the belief that God will end the world with a violent display during which he wipes out his enemies with a showing of brute force.
The most influential source of misinterpretation of Revelation is the dispensationalist movement, which informs much of the current understanding of Revelation as a work depicting the end of the world in a literal sense. The movement was spearheaded by John Nelson Darby in the 1800s, and began with the belief that Christians would “be transported away to their heavenly existence at any moment when the secret rapture took place” (Bingaman 261). Darby believed the Rapture to be a separate event from the Second Coming of Christ, and his beliefs laid the groundwork for current understandings of the end of the world as starting with the Rapture and continuing with destruction before Jesus returns and judges the world. Dispensationalism takes its name from the belief that human history is separated into seven periods, or dispensations. These eras are broken up by significant events such as the fall of Adam and the death of Christ. The modern world is believed to be in the sixth era, while the seventh will bring about the Second Coming and the Kingdom of God on Earth (Bingaman 258). These time periods have their origin in interpretations of Revelation as well as other books from the Bible that also have apocalyptic themes, such as Daniel. Since its inception, dispensationalism has been controversial, but despite large amounts of criticism it has grown into a popular method of interpretation for the Book of Revelation and one that heavily influences pop culture.
One of the most prominent examples of Revelation in pop culture is the book series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Left Behind is an excellent illustration of the dispensationalist understanding of Revelation. The series begins with the Rapture, and depicts the anti-Christ as the series’ primary antagonist. Other stapes of dispensationalist ideas, such as the description of the post-Rapture time period as the “Tribulation”, are also present throughout the series. The timeline of the book series takes after the timeline of Revelation and those of other apocalyptic works such as an excerpt from the Book of Daniel. At the conclusion of the series, God reigns judgment upon the Earth and the Second Coming of Christ occurs. All of this is based off of an extremely literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which has generated ample controversy (“Left”).
- It would be disingenuous to suggest that the Book of Revelation’s influence on modern thought only extends to references in media. How Christians understand the end of the world according to the Book of Revelation (supposedly) has a legitimate effect on global politics. Approximately 59 percent of Americans believe that the events depicted in the Book of Revelation will come to pass in the future. Not only that, one in five Americans believe that the world will end in their lifetime (Weber 1-2). In other words, millions of Americans believe that the end of the world is coming soon, and that the Book of Revelation is the key to understanding Armageddon.
- The American attitude towards Israel is an example of how this mindset manifests. While the existence of Israel remains controversial, it is a strongly-supported ally of the United States. The Republican Party, which advocates heavily for Israel, has a large voter base of fundamentalist Christians, many of whom subscribe to the dispensationalist way of thinking. In fact, over one-third of American supporters of Israel cite their reasoning as the belief that the Bible states that Jews must repossess the Holy Land in order for Jesus to return (Weber 1). These Americans not only believe in a Biblical prophecy regarding the end of the world, they believe they have an active role to play in the return of Jesus. Starting in the 1980s, Israel began to catch on to this sentiment and began recruiting evangelical pastors for free trips to the Holy Land in order to grow non-domestic support for their nation (Weber 2). Their efforts have clearly been effective.
With regards to course material, the Book of Revelation is discussed by John Dominic Crossan in his book The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus. However, the work is only mentioned tangentially within a larger point Crossan is attempting to make. In laying the groundwork for his belief in Jesus as a historical figure, Crossan uses what he believes is a controversial depiction of Jesus from Revelation. In Revelation 19, Jesus is described as a rider called Faithful and True atop a white horse. His enemies gather to rise up against him but they are “killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth” (). Crossan is perplexed by this seemingly-violent action by Jesus, but uses it to show that the supposed contradiction between this violent message from Revelation and Jesus’s nonviolent preaching in the Gospels suggests that he must’ve really existed: “If you are inventing a non-historical figure, why invent one you cannot live with, but must steadily and terminally change into its opposite?” (Crossan 251).
Crossan implies that had Jesus been fictitious, his followers would’ve had the luxury of portraying him consistently with the message they were trying to spread. However, because Jesus actually existed, accounts of his life and teachings that conflict with one another demonstrate the ways that his followers attempted, with mixed success, to interpret his words and actions. However, Crossan makes several mistakes throughout the course of his assumptions. First, the assertion itself is rather weak. It could still be argued that Jesus never existed and that his followers simply split in their idea of how he should be depicted. Second, Jesus is clearly being depicted metaphorically either way; his slaying of the beasts is not an actual event that followers of Jesus have to reconcile with their understanding of him.
The main problem with Crossan’s point is that his interpretation of the Book of Revelation is superficial and questionable. He sees the text, but is unable to truly see into the meaning behind it. The violence depicted is metaphorical: the sword coming from Jesus’s mouth is not meant to be a sword, but the Word of God, which Jesus is the manifestation of. J. Nelson Kraybill addresses this exact image in Apocalypse and Allegiance, stating: “just as God once spoke the word to bring creation out of chaos, so Jesus speaks the word again to restore creation” (Kraybill 135). Though Jesus is depicted with blood on his robes in this scene, it is in actuality his own blood shed during the Passion to conquer sin and death. No additional action, violent or nonviolent, was needed once Jesus rose from the dead. According to John, Jesus is the Messiah and he has already won. The illustration of Jesus as a rider in the sky is a simple representation of this that also subverts common violent imagery by representing Jesus’s victory through the Word.
Crossan betrays a potential bias during the course of his argument that is important to recognize. When describing the image of Jesus, he mentions Christ as riding in on a “battle horse” (Crossan 250). However, the word “battle” is never used in reference to the horse; it is only described as white. Here, Crossan moves away from using the text and, whether consciously or unconsciously, inserts his own idea of what the scene looked like. The error is a minor one, but still must be considered when looking at how and why Crossan interprets the text the way that he does.
The overall call to critical thinking John attempts to express to his audience bears many similarities to the message of Seeing the World and Knowing God by Paul S. Fiddes. John wants his audience to see the world around them for what it really is. The Roman Empire promotes itself as a bringer of peace and happiness when in fact it is an agent of chaos and destruction. The Messiah has already come, and God has triumphed. In many ways it would be easier to stick to Christianity in the face of persecution, as good and evil would be clear and opposite. However, Christianity faced eradication through seduction and the fading away of values and beliefs due to temptation. It was necessary for John to make a fiery and clear call to stop and take another look at the world of the first century. Though the context is different, Fiddes also calls readers to look at the world differently, to see it and know what is really going on. By doing so, Fiddes’ audience can see the world and know God in the same way that John’s audience could.
Fiddes also makes an important point about wisdom that has relevance when discussing dispensationalism and other ways that Revelation has been interpreted over the years. When discussing the attributes of wisdom, Fiddes states that it “contests the attempt of the subject to use cognition for the sake of controlling other things and people” (Fiddes 4). Wisdom is not the acquisition of knowledge in order to have power or status over one’s peers. Those who are attempting to use cognition to gain influence and control others through manipulation are not truly in pursuit of wisdom; rather, they are pursuing power through selfish means.
Many who interpret the Book of Revelation both accurately and inaccurately are putting forth an earnest effort to understand John’s intentions for how his text would be received. However, it is also easy to begin interpretation from a biased perspective, only gathering from the text what one wants to believe. The many cults and doomsday predictors that have sprung up over the years are evidence of the many individuals who take this approach for power, money or fame. A simple spot on the local news can be enough for someone to distort the text for their own gain. Rather than encourage discussion and a mutual increase in knowledge, this approach leads to ignorance and a loss of the text’s original intentions.
Barr, David L. The Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Brill, 2007.
Bingaman, B. (2009). Learning from left behind? A call for coherent accounts of scripture. Anglican Theological Review, 91(2), 255-272.
Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2013.
Fiddes, Paul S. Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context. Oxford University Press, 2015.
“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Popular Culture.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 May 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Horsemen_of_the_Apocalypse_in_popular_culture.
Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. Brazos Press, 2010.
“Left Behind.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 May 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left_Behind#Books_2.
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Thompson, Leonard L. “Ordinary Lives: John and His First Readers.” Reading the Book of Revelation: a Resource for Students, Brill, 2004, pp. 25–47.
Weber, Timothy P. On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israels Best Friend. Baker Academic, 2005.