You probably have heard some jokes about children’s knowledge of the bible, and their answers to questions, like the class that was asked to list the 10 Commandments in any order. One child wrote, “3, 6, 1, 8, 4, 5, 9, 2, 10 and 7.” Or the teacher who asked, “Do you think Noah did a lot of fishing on the ark?” “How could he?” one boy answered. “He only had 2 worms.” A group of middle school children were learning about Lot during their Spiritual Formation class. The teacher asked the students why Lot’s wife was in so much trouble. One boy answered, “It’s because she was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire by night.” The teacher explained, “The man named Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city, but his wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.” One other little boy asked, “What happened to the flea?”
Stories like that illustrate how I feel about the book of Revelation. Revelation is a tough book to catch, and it makes me a little nervous. It’s hard to read. Hard to understand. Hard to explain. It doesn’t lend itself well to preaching – you know – three points, a story and an application… It requires a lot of explanation, so it works better to teach it, as opposed to preaching.
One of the things you’ll find out right away, if you make a serious study of Revelation, is that everybody has a different opinion about it. Serious commentaries, written by smart people, sitting side by side in Christian bookstores, are actually contradictory in their approach, understanding and application. So, I always begin a study of Revelation by suggesting that you start with a clear page and let the book speak for itself. Anything you’ve learned or thought, or believed, just put that aside, and let the Bible say what it says.
It’s a tough book, partly because there are lots of names and numbers, and we don’t always know what they mean. Have you ever been to a church service where you couldn’t figure out what to do when? The congregation suddenly stands up, or kneels or shakes hands, or raise hands, or people say things from the congregation back to the preacher? Everybody else seems to know what to do, but you don’t, because you don’t know the code, or the clues.
Well, the book of Revelation is full of codes… The very title of the book is taken from the first word, apokalypsis – it means “that which is uncovered.” The information in the book is hidden to most, in case it fell into the wrong hands, but uncovered to those who have “ears to hear”… who have the code.
It’s also a tough book because the style of writing is uncommon. Most people put Revelation in the category of prophesy – and some of it is. But not all of it. It actually starts out as a series of letters, and even in between the sections of prophesy there are smaller pieces that are like dream sequences. Nevertheless, “prophesy” is not a word that means uncovering the future like having a crystal ball. It really is a word that means “bringing a message from God.” More like preaching. I admit, there’s some flair and excitement to the idea that Revelation could somehow be a literal blueprint for an exact set of happenings in history, and if only you interpret them correctly, you’ll know what is happening in the future, and how current events fit into the scheme. The trouble is, lots of people have thought that way about Revelation, and every single one of them have been wrong. It’s not a crystal ball.
But the hardest parts to get hold of are the main parts that are written as allegory. That’s exactly what it is. The dictionary defines an allegory as a dramatic, literary or pictorial device in which each object, character and event symbolically illustrates a moral or religious principle.
Now we know what an allegory is, but we seldom use it to tell a story. If, for example, we wanted to describe an historical event, let’s say the black plague of Europe, we might say it began in the early 1330s with an outbreak of the deadly bubonic plague, first in China. And it spread rapidly. Plague causes fever and a painful swelling of the lymph glands called buboes, which is how it gets its name. The disease also causes rings on the skin – often first on the face – that are red at first and then turn black.
It spread from China to Sicily, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Superstitions abounded – people would carry flowers / posies to ward off the evil – but of course it didn’t work. People would literally fall down suddenly around you in death with no warning. Bodies were left in empty houses, piled up and burned in heaps, and within 3 months, the plague had spread as far north as England, where people called it “The Black Death”. Medieval medicine had nothing to combat it. After five years 25 million people were dead–one-third of Europe’s population.
Now that is the story of the Black Plague. However, if we wanted to describe that event in an allegory, we might say it in a poem:
Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies;
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
(You won’t sing that the same way again, will you?)
Most of Revelation is an allegory. The characters appear on stage (as it were), or across the screen and the crowd boos when the dragon or the beast comes out and hisses and struts and causes havoc (and you might imagine some scary music). And everybody cheers when the Rider on the White Horse comes in and cleans things up, and gets rid of all the bad guys. And then, the final scene is absolutely stunning as the cinematographers pull out all the stops with backgrounds and sets that are unbelievably beautiful, and everyone lives happily ever after.
If you don’t see Revelation in that way, and think that it’s somehow a calendar for events leading up to some destruction of the world, and think that the dragon is an actual dragon, and 666 is a symbol of evil, and 144,000 is exactly the number of people going to heaven, and Babylon is actually that place in Iraq, you’re going to have a tough time putting the puzzle together. It’s an allegory.
But mostly, Revelation is a tough book because it presents a particular view of the world and of history. Where is the world headed? What will ultimately happen to the world and humankind? There are lots of opinions about that.
Some believe that the world just keeps spinning on; It Just Is; that one day is pretty much like all the rest (in the greater scheme of things); and that we all pretty much play our part, and when we’re done, somebody else takes over, and it will pretty much keep on going like that (unless we do something stupid and kill ourselves off). We could call this the “pancake theory” (Because it looks like a stack of pancakes, don’t you think?), or the “Seinfeld Theory” because each episode is just as random and unconnected as the next. It’s one theory.
Some believe that things in the world are getting better, and that, on the whole, things will keep getting better and better, until we have a world that is perfect. Perfect genetics, perfect environment, no crime, no hunger, no disease, and so on. This is sort of the Darwinian view of history. We could call it the “Star Trek theory.” But it comes right out of the Scientific Enlightenment philosophies of the 18th Century.
Some believe that things in the world are getting worse, and that things will keep getting worse, until human structures fall apart and no longer work, and mad cow disease or some pandemic, or nuclear war, or racial or social wars deplete the ability to operate, and the world degenerates into anarchy and chaos. We could call this the “Planet of the Apes” or “George Orwell’s 1984” Theory. And it also comes out of the scientific theory of “atrophy” – that all things eventually degenerate and fall apart.
Some believe in the “Wheel of Karma” which says that every living thing is reincarnated many times, and in the lifetime you are in, you accumulate either good or bad, and in the next life, you move either up or down on the wheel until finally, hopefully one day the whole world can achieve liberation and eternal bliss.
So there are lots of ideas about the final course of human history.
But let’s talk about the 1st Century Christian view. This is important, because the book of Revelation is written from and about this view, and expects the Christian reader to understand and accept this view. To the author, it’s a given, and therefore never really talked about or explained. What is this view?
This view is that all things had a beginning. God created the world, and when it was created, it was good. It was exactly the way God wanted it to be. The bible expresses God’s intention for “original blessing,” including you and me and everything else that is made in the image of God. The universe is “blessed,” beneficial. It is now and always in God’s favor. God is in all things. This tradition stands over against those that emphasize “original sin,” the idea that, from the beginning, God’s plan was/is messed up. It was a term used by St. Augustine, but not really embraced fully until the 16th Century and then went gangbusters in the Protestant Reformation.
As a result of “original sin” thinking, history and theology is predominated with a world view that is startling in its anxiety and fear, distrust and suspicion, hostility and exclusion – hallmarks of a systemic evil many call “The Empire.”
This decade has once again been a time of world-wide violence and hateful rhetoric. The conflict of ideologies around the world, unaddressed racial injustices and divisions in America, the unrelenting cascade of mass killings by guns, the bombing of mosques, the refusal of safety and asylum for refugees and immigrants, the burning of churches and LGBTQ discrimination, a nation and world increasingly divided against itself.
Our minds struggle to find a way to reduce this vast tragedy to a human level; a way to fathom all this pain and struggle in the world in a meaningful way.
Is that our destiny, then? To be dominated by that pattern until the stars blink out? The book of Revelations says, “No.” Because something has happened. What is that something that redeems? It is the overwhelming love of God; the grace of a God of justice, compassion and hope. It’s the birth. The cross. The sacrifice. The Incarnation. The Resistance. The Kingdom. The making of all that is wrong, with what is right. And if you like that, the bible says, just wait, because that is just the beginning of the end. The twist of Revelation is that there is no “end of the world” in Revelation. It never talks about a rapture. That word is never used in the bible. It’s a term that was made up by John Darby in the 1830’s and made popular by the fiction books by Tim LaHay called the “Left Behind” series. The bible doesn’t talk about some people being “left behind” – despite the popularity of that fiction that says otherwise.
What is the end of all things? (Remember the meaning of the word “apocalypse”, by the way – the “uncovering” of all things.) Just this: that in Christ, God has intervened to bring the cosmos into its original plan. God is all about finishing this work. When evil disappears. When peace is ushered in. When it is actually “heaven on earth.” The “Kingdom of God” is opposed to “the Empire of Evil.”
However (and this is important) this view of end things stretches all the way to our own time, in fact, to your own life. Revelation teaches that we are in the end times. Like Jesus says, “The Kingdom is among you.” Heaven is now. The Kingdom is wherever people follow Jesus. So this is not strictly a linear view of history. Believers have a responsibility to act as if the Kingdom is already here, and when that happens, the Kingdom actually comes. The ten dollar word is “realized eschatology” if you want to impress your friends.
This kind of non-conformity to the Empire of the world is a matter of embracing peace in a world prone to violence and division, embodying hope in a world marked by fear and despair, reflecting compassion in a world divided by competition, modeling generosity and gratitude in a world of self-centeredness and greed, mirroring justice in a world scarred by injustice, oppression and exclusion.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way: “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., p.226)
God sees. God cares. The arc of the universe is long, but it does bend toward justice.
In the book of Revelation, this allegory of this Drama, this dream, this prayer,
Not one evil alliance…
no matter how great or how small…
no matter how broad or limited…
no matter how powerful or weak…
whether in the past, present or future…
No evil escapes the justice of a holy, righteous God. The Empire is being crushed. One day, all the Empire will be crushed.
All the wrong will be set right.
All the righteous will be exalted.
That’s the Christian view of history. The writer of Revelation assumes you know that, and that you believe it: something hopeful; something good. And if all of it is written as an allegory for our deepest prayer, hope and longing for all that’s wrong in the world to be made right, well, it’s a beautiful one. One I claim.
The book of Revelation is a perfect book for the Progressive understanding of Christianity. It describes a God of perfect grace, and unending love. It says that God stands with us in our struggle against the tyranny of the Empire, and that God, in the fullness of love, will pull off the greatest revolution, by bringing all of creation into God’s presence, mercy and peace.
The book was written in a time of confusion, persecution, chaos. And the theme of the book is “Christ will overcome.” It’s meant to encourage Christians in every age to hold fast to their faith during every time of difficulty and trouble and even death, knowing that whatever may happen, Christ has already sealed the promise that God is enlarging the miracle of Easter to a cosmic scale, and the Kingdom will appear in all its fullness.
In the meantime, Revelation says over and over again, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints.” “Hold fast to what you have.” And so we live as if the Great Day has already come. In this time in between; this already, and not yet time. The reign of God is breaking into the world. And we are waiting. Serving. Praying. Singing “I see a new world coming…”