People sometimes look at me a little funny when I tell them my favorite book of the Bible was when I was growing up was Revelation.
Yes, that Revelation. The one with the beasts and fire and blood and war.
Here’s the thing. In the Plymouth Brethren tradition in which I was raised, the worship time includes a lot of dead space – stretches of silence while everyone waits for a man, believing he is led by the Spirit, to rise and offer a scripture or a hymn for us all to sing or a prayer.
And when you’re only allowed a Bible with you to fill those interminable spaces, you go to the most action-packed book of the canon, the one that is literally apocalyptic.
Unfortunately, when Revelation is your favorite book and you grow up in the religious tradition begun by the man who literally invented the rapture-tribulation interpretation that forms the basis for much of the way people view Revelation today, your view of the book – and consequently your view of God – can get a little dark.
So when the opportunity arose to teach a class on Revelation at my church – well, OK, I’m a member of the adult education committee, so maybe I carved out an opportunity for myself – I jumped at it. What better way to understand a misunderstood book than by having to explain it to others?
I expected the class to be fun. I expected to learn something. I didn’t expect to finish it with the feeling that Revelation is once again my favorite book.
So how did that happen? How can a 10-week class so thoroughly redeem a book that scares so many people?
Well, since Revelation is filled with sevens – seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls – here are seven, um, revelations that came from the class, mostly courtesy of the excellent “textbook” we used: Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester.
- We all know Revelation, whether we realize it or not.
- Revelation never intended its message to be hidden from its audience.
- Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations.
- Rather than a linear story, Revelation is cyclical.
- The judgments are real, but so are the promises bookending them.
- We all fight the Beast.
- God’s grace is beyond what you can imagine.
- We all know Revelation
As Koester relays, we in the 21st century stand squarely within a 900-year tradition of reading current events into Revelation, mapping world leaders and threatening geopolitical figures onto the beasts and monsters described in the text. That tradition is alive and well among the evangelical and fundamentalist interpreters who see the prophecies as referring to the literal nation-state of Israel and its geopolitical enemies. But another tradition has also arisen – a hidden one in which mainline and progressive readers shy away from the book but nevertheless use it heavily without realizing it.
Looking at the regular Sunday morning liturgy, Revelation is used as a source just once – as one of several options during Easter week in one of the three yearly cycles; it gets some additional usage during funerals and other special events. It’s no Romans, in other words. Yet during the 10 weeks of our class, Revelation appeared during the Sunday service all the time – its imagery was pervasive in the hymns we sang: songs like “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “Holy Holy Holy” are drenched with Revelation imagery, and many other songs are more subtle but nevertheless contain allusions to the crystal sea, to the heavenly throne room, to the Lamb that stands at the center of Revelation’s imagery.
We all know Revelation; we just don’t all realize how much of it we know.
2. John did not intend Revelation to be a secret that required decoding
This is a hard lesson to unlearn; so many of us grew up with the assumption that Revelation’s prophecies required decoding that it has become our default lens through which to view the text.
But if we take the time and effort to lay those glasses aside, we find new meaning in verses such as Rev 22:10 – “Don’t seal up the words of the prophecy contained in this scroll, because the time is near.” Likewise, Koester rejects such common explanations that John hid his meaning in symbolism because he needed to smuggle his letter off of Patmos; it doesn’t require much interpretation to see that Rome was fully in view when John wrote his letter, as when he explicitly confirms that the seven heads of the beast on which Harlot Babylon rides “are seven hills on which the woman sits” (17:9) – a clear reference to Rome a first-century audience would not have missed.
This idea that Revelation was not intended to be decoded – that can be intimidating. Because what on earth is it doing? Koester argues that its symbolism is in fact intended to reveal, not conceal. Rather than concealing the truth from its readers, Revelation is revealing deeper truths by portraying readily recognizable powers – Jesus as a “lamb appearing as if slaughtered,” the ravening power of the empire as a monstrous beast rising out of the chaos of the seas, the economic might of Rome satirized as a debauched prostitute devoured by her own allies – in ways that reveal their true characters.
3. Revelation constantly subverts readers’ expectations – and its own
Two key moments that Koester highlights occur when John hears something that’s about to happen, but what he sees subverts that initial expectation.
First, in Revelation 5, John weeps because no one is worthy to open the scroll, and he hears a voice telling him not to worry: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
John hears that the conquering lion “has triumphed” and will open the scroll and its seals. But what does John see? “I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne … . He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.”
The reader is set up to expect a roaring lion, a symbol of dominance and victory, but that image morphs into a slaughtered lamb. Conquering is thus subverted; following Jesus is not about subjugating others but about sacrificing yourself.
A similar technique is used in Revelation 7. After the opening of the scroll’s first six seals, John hears the sealing of 144,000 people “who serve our God,” 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel – a number that is itself symbolic. Nevertheless, it is a number, unlike what John sees immediately afterward: “After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands.”
So John hears the sealing of a limited number, but sees a “crowd that no one could number … from every nation, tribe, people and language” who are clearly considered followers of the Lamb.
These two passages tell us something important that is easy to overlook if we focus on the violence and carnage of the judgments between them – first, that God’s definition of victory looks a lot more like defeat in the eyes of the powers that control the world, and second, that God’s definition of salvation looks a lot more universal than humans might suspect.
This subversion of expectations happens to John early in the book, but it happens to knowledgeable readers of the text later on.
In Revelation 11, after the two witnesses are killed in “the great city” and raised to life after three and a half days, a massive earthquake occurs, destroying 10 percent of the city and killing 7,000 people. That is an incredible disaster!
But Koester points out that Revelation’s initial audience would have read it much differently. Both of those figures have prophetic antecedents – in Isaiah 6, Yahweh promises destruction so severe that only 10 percent could survive, and even that tenth would burn (Amos 5 also pictures Yahweh’s judgment falling on 90 percent of the people), and in 1 Kings, just 7,000 Israelites have remained faithful to Yahweh and are spared the sword, whereas in Revelation, only 7,000 are killed and therefore denied the chance for repentance. The judgment in Revelation, therefore, is the opposite of what John’s readers would have expected. Once again, the subversion of expectations implies an expansion of grace rather than its end.
We could spend a lot more time on this sort of thing, but much of Revelation’s message is difficult to see clearly today because it relies on its audience knowing the Jewish prophetic tradition – it is filled with references and allusions that Christians, because of centuries of distrust and, let’s face it, anti-Semitism, are not equipped to catch with a casual reading. As a result, we see judgment and don’t understand that it represents mercy. In that sense, we do need to decode Revelation, but not because John tried to hide its message, but because we have hidden it from ourselves.
4. Revelation is circular
Our norms of reading a book, especially one that appears to be telling a story, is to fit it into a straightforward chronological narrative timeline.
Of course, not all stories fit that template. If you watch the Christopher Nolan film Memento and insist on seeing each scene as fitting a traditional narrative timeline, you will quickly become confused. But if you understand Nolan is playing with the conventions of narrative by telling part of the story in reverse, you will have a better experience.
Likewise, because we’ve been conditioned to view Revelation as a linear series of events – first the seals, then the trumpets, then the bowls, then the battle, then the judgment – we tend to ignore elements that don’t fit those expectations. For example, when Babylon is described as being destroyed by three separate causes in three successive chapters. Or when grass that’s destroyed in one set of plagues is protected in the next set. Or when stars that fall from the sky reappear several verses later. Or when “the nations” who war against God and the Lamb are destroyed at Armageddon yet reappear 1,000 years later to be led by the Dragon.
All of these narrative inconsistencies, Koester argues, should tell us John is not trying to write a novelized account of the end of the world. Instead, his visions come in cycles, each set of judgments bookended by promises of glory and worship in the heavenly throne room.
Thus a series of plagues that strongly resemble those of Exodus seem to occur twice or even three times across the middle of the book, and a massive battle initially prophesied in Ezekiel seems to be split in half and broken across either side of the millennial reign in Revelation. John is revealing more and more information as each cycle repeats, deepening the thematic tension between the costs of following the Beast and the benefits of following the Lamb.
All of that gets lost if we flatten Revelation into a single forward-facing narrative, rather than a deepening series of visions that mixes present reality with future promises in order to encourage and admonish Jesus followers to resist the seductive and brutal power of empire.
5. The judgments – and the promises – are real
Revelation is a threatening book. But one of the things we talked about in class is that its threats apply most to those with the most to lose if Jesus upends the status quo.
The infamous Four Horsemen are a prime example. Although often read as predictions of a cataclysmic judgment, Koester argues these work better as descriptions of real life for many people. The hegemonic powers of the world – represented by Rome – claim to provide security, safety and economic well-being, but all of that can be wiped out in an instant because only God provides true eternal security and well-being.
Which leads us to an unsettling question, one that becomes even more overt when the economic elites mourn the fall of Babylon: Why does this image of disaster befalling the status quo frighten us? Does it frighten all readers of Revelation? The answer is surely no. Because no matter how many people benefit from the status quo, there are those for whom the status quo means discrimination, degradation, humiliation, oppression.
I read a passage from W.E.B. Du Bois’ searing essay collection Darkwater, describing a lynching in Atlanta, a poem in which he angrily cries out to God for justice – much like the martyrs do in Revelation – and I asked the class: Would Du Bois read Revelation’s depiction of violent justice as a threat, or as a promise?
It might be that the more threatening we find Revelation, the more we need to take to heart its message. It might be that we are colluding in the oppression of others with the imperial power of our day; it might be that we have been following the Beast without even realizing it, so seductive is its power.
That said, there are full-fledged, unambiguous promises as well – promises of victory and a New Jerusalem with no more death or tears, promises of rest with God in the heavenly throne room for those who suffered in the name of Jesus. Promises, too, of a city with gates that will never shut, with chance upon chance for repentance from those who follow the Beast, chances continuing well after you or I would have given up hope.
We shouldn’t ignore the real prospect of judgment that hangs over Revelation, even – especially – if it makes us uncomfortable. But we should also stay attuned to the incredible promises it offers. And we should remind ourselves that sometimes what looks like judgment to the privileged is a promise to the marginalized.
6. We all are called to fight the Beast
One of the most pernicious results of the popular ways of interpreting Revelation has been to strike much of it irrelevant to our daily lives as Christians. Why do I need to worry if I’m going to be raptured and the rest of the poor slobs who didn’t listen to my street-corner preaching are going to see I was right in the end?
Of course, not everyone reads the text in such bad faith, but the implication is there. Why worry about fighting the Beast if the Beast is a specific geopolitical figure who won’t rise until the true believers have left the scene?
But if the Beast is a timeless figure – a symbol of the rapacious power of the political and military systems that coerce, threaten and beguile us into abandoning our commitments to the Lamb – then the message of Revelation becomes much more urgent.
In his messages to the seven assemblies who are the immediate audience of the letter (although seven being a symbol for completeness, Revelation is written to the whole church), John sees problems that Koester groups into three buckets: a problem of persecution, a problem of assimilation and a problem of complacency. All three are paths to idolatry, which John is clear means worshipping the demonic forces that lay behind the Greco-Roman gods and divinized Roman emperors Jesus-following Jews in the first century feel compelled to worship. Worshipping those forces leads to their being unleashed on the world – in the end, people who turn from the Lamb to worship and ally themselves with the Beast receive their judgment.
They accept the Beast’s mark – 666, likely an initial symbol of Nero but designed by its vagueness to apply to the ruling powers in any and all ages and contexts – as a sign of their economic and political complicity; their religious powers encourage, even compel such complicity; and eventually they are deceived by Satan himself into warring against the forces of creation.
All of this means very little if it’s a mere symbol of a future event. It means much more if it’s an urgent warning for followers of the Lamb to stay true to their faith and reject the seduction of empire.
As Koester puts it, in discouraging efforts to decode the 666 riddle by applying it to modern political figures:
“We might better ask when the beast’s presence is not apparent. When is idolatry not a threat? When do the followers of the Lamb not experience pressures to give up their commitments? … The summons to persevere … is a message for all generations that are confronted with idolatry and violence.” (p. 135)
7. God’s grace is beyond anything you can imagine
To put it diplomatically, Revelation is not usually presented as a grace-filled book.
But it is! From the aforementioned sealing of a countless number of people from every nation and reversal of prophetic judgments to the infamous Judgment Day scene, some of Revelation’s most promising and inclusive passages have been ignored or warped into threatening portents of widespread doom.
Near the end of the book, John sees a scene of final judgment, where the dead are raised to life and learn their ultimate fate. Typically, the scene is paraphrased this way: Each individual’s life is reviewed, then an angel checks to see whether the person’s name is in the Book of Life; if not, they are thrown into the lake of fire forever.
But that’s not what Rev 20:11-15 actually says. It describes a two-stage judgment using two different books. Look at v. 12 closely:
“I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Another scroll was also opened, which is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by what was written int he scrolls.”
It’s not until v. 15 when it says, “And if any were not found written in the scroll of life, they were thrown into the lake of fire.”
So what we learn from that is although everyone is judged according to their works, a person’s ultimate fate is determined by their place in the Book of Life. And how do you get your name into the Book of Life? You don’t. Rev 13:8 and 17:8 say the same thing – the names are included (or not) “from the creation of the world” or “before the world was made” or “from the foundation of the world.” We often miss this because the KJV and NIV shift the phrase to the end of 13:8, so it says “the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world,” which is frankly nonsensical, especially since they keep the sense in 17:8.
The depiction of judgment in Rev 20, therefore, tests our view of God. If the Book of Life is written before the world was even made, what do we make of the notion that someone’s name might not be in it? Hardcore Calvinists won’t have a problem with this; the rest of us probably do.
But notice one more thing from Rev 20:15 – If any were not found written. “If any.” Not, “All those who.” The lenses we’ve received miss the conditionality of this verse. We combine the two judgments and assume those whose deeds were found wanting – even if the deed is the failure to recite the sinner’s prayer in a timely manner – are destined for the lake of fire. But that’s not what the text says.
Revelation says something else: That inclusion in the Book of Life is in the hands of no one but God. And in Chapter 22 it says goes further: It says the gates of the New Jerusalem – the famous pearly gates sans Peter – are always open. Even more, it says the kings of the earth will enter them and worship God and the Lamb, even though the last time we saw them, the kings were fighting alongside the Dragon and being destroyed by God.
Despite initial appearances, Revelation never closes the book on anyone. Its view of God’s kingdom is more inclusive than the prophetic tradition from which it draws – and more inclusive than the Christian tradition drawn from it. Whether Revelation supports a fully universalist eschatology is beside the point; it unquestionably supports a view of salvation more expansive than many of its interpreters’.
Over and over throughout its 22 chapters, Revelation holds within its evocative and terrifying visions a promise of unrestricted grace. Despite the oppression and brutality of the Beast’s followers, despite their idolatry and their blasphemies, despite their refusal to turn away from the forces whose chaos is destroying the world, God provides numerous opportunities for repentance. And when the final judgment does come, the only thing Revelation says for certain is that the gates to God’s kingdom will never close, with people trickling in even after the final judgment.
I could keep going, listing well more than seven things I learned about Revelation – such as how it affirms God as Creator, never ascribing the destruction facing Earth directly to God but to Satan; or how the very first warning to an assembly is not against idol worship or faithlessness but against forgetting how to love others in its zeal to be doctrinally pure.
In short, Revelation is certainly a deep and multifaceted book, rewarding multiple readings – and also providing its readers the narrative they expect. If you come to the text expecting a chronological narrative of future events, you can certainly find that. If you come expecting a timeless description of theological truths, you’ll find that, too. The question we should ask ourselves is: Which reading better aligns with the life and teachings of Jesus – including the self-sacrificing Lamb of Revelation itself? Which reading better aligns with the God affirmed in Revelation and elsewhere as the good creator who is the source and embodiment of love?
It’s time to stop treating Revelation like a mystery novel and start recognizing it for what it was originally meant to be: A letter of encouragement 1) warning followers of Jesus to turn away from the idolatry of the political, economic and military powers holding sway over their culture and 2) celebrating the ultimate victory of good over evil.
In that sense, Revelation remains challenging – not because we must decode the future of geopolitics or confront an angry and vengeful deity bent on destroying creation, but because it calls us to turn aside from short-term comfort and security in favor of the long-term security of God and the Lamb, even if that trade means we run afoul of the political, cultural and economic norms we prize so highly.
So here’s to Revelation, newly re-enthroned as my favorite book of the Bible. Give it another shot; maybe it will become yours, too.