I am currently working towards a PhD focused on the book of Revelation.
When I tell people this information, I am usually greeted with one of two responses: people either look at me like I’m crazy and want to get out of the conversation quickly (what kind of weirdo would study such things, after all?), or they look at me all crazy-like, with their eyes beginning to bulge (and glazing over ever-so-slightly) as they prepare to tell me all about the prophetic visions that they have had and their predictions about the carnage that is about to be unleashed.
From these encounters, I have deduced (perhaps unfairly, perhaps not) that the majority of Christians (or at least the ones I encounter) approach the book of Revelation from one of two completely opposite but equally unhelpful positions. They either disregard the book entirely, concluding that it is just too difficult to bother with, or they focus on it way too much, embracing the text with great fervour but little understanding. Somewhat ironically, both (seemingly polar opposite) positions seem to be based out of the same basic problem: the forgetting of the fact that this rather unusual text is part of the Christian Scriptures. For the first group, there needs to be an acknowledgement that this text is part of the ‘New(er) Testament’, and therefore shouldn’t be completely ignored by Christians in their practice of faith seeking understanding. For the second group, there needs to be an acknowledgement that, because this text is part of the New(er) Testament, it was produced in a context far removed from our own (which is kind of important…but I’ll get to that later).
What I want to do here, then, is to offer a (very basic) summary of some things that I have found helpful in my study of this peculiar text. This will probably take about five posts to get through (which I’ll try to get done over the course of the next few weeks), but my hope is that the information is relatively easy to comprehend and that it might be helpful to you (Christian or not) in understanding a little bit more about probably the most misunderstood book in the whole Bible (perhaps the most misunderstood text ever!).
Before I start, though, I should note very clearly that I am not suggesting that I have all the answers. This is not the last word on the study of this enigmatic text, and I don’t claim to know everything. Anyone who makes such claims is an idiot(!), and you should not listen to anything they say…just as a general life rule. What I do bring to the table, though, is a number of years of studying this text at a fairly deep level (first for my Bachelor of Theology (Honours) thesis and now for my PhD), and I have taught about these things at tertiary-level for a few years now too. I have read broadly and deeply about these issues, and believe that there is some really helpful information out there that can illuminate much in regards to interpreting all the weird imagery in Revelation. I am not making this stuff up (as I have been accused by at least one irate parishioner after preaching on these things). I am interacting with some good scholarship here, though I do add some of my own observations at certain points (working out of that scholarly foundation). All I ask here is that you hear me out, and then you don’t need to do anything else if you don’t want to. If you don’t like what I say, then please feel free to totally ignore it! If, however, you feel that there might be something to it, then I encourage you to read some more and, especially, to pray about it to see if there might just be some truth to it all.
Anyway, enough of that. There will be no more delay! Let’s get started…
The Usual Suspects
If you have done any study at all in regards to the book of Revelation, then you probably know that there are four usual positions that people adopt when approaching the text.
The first position is commonly known as the Preterist view. According to this view, the book of Revelation is to be understood very much in its first century setting, probably with the understanding that John (the author) thought that the things he was talking about in figurative language were going to happen quite shortly after he wrote. There are at least a couple of strands of this view. One strand views the book of Revelation to be predicting the destruction of Jerusalem in 70C.E.; another, that it was speaking of the imminent destruction of Rome (in the first century or just beyond). The beauty of this broad approach (in its different forms) is, of course, that it takes the author’s own context seriously, but there are obvious problems. Basically, these problems can be summed up in the idea that things haven’t really worked out like John said they would.
In regards to the first option, which seems at first to be on firm ground (due to the fact that Jerusalem was destroyed), it must be asked whether everything in the book of Revelation has come to pass? If so, then there needs to be a radical redefining of much orthodox theology. This view also suffers from an incurable case of ‘the flattening of the Scriptures’, seeking to force passages from Daniel and the Synoptic Gospels onto the text of Revelation (or vice versa) in ways that just don’t fit. In its other, more viable, form (i.e. that the book of Revelation was predicting the imminent fall of Rome), it still suffers from the fact that, obviously, things didn’t quite turn out the way he seems to indicate they would. So, we are left (with either option) with a little bit of a conundrum as to what we are meant to do with the text now. If the ‘prophecies’ didn’t come true, then should we even have it in the New(er) Testament? Many people actually asked this question, and it should be made known that the book of Revelation had something of a bumpy ride being regarded as ‘canonical’ for these sorts of reasons.*
The next position is the Historicist view. This view really popped up around the time of the Reformation, and was a way of seeing the text of Revelation as a sort of commentary on the whole of Church history. You may have heard many people talking about the messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 as representative of different church ‘ages'; that is, describing the church at different points since the time of Jesus. This is the sort of thing that the Historicist view thrives on! The beauty of this approach is that it takes seriously the fact that things didn’t quite happen like John seemed to suggest they would in the first century alone, and that it desires to see the text as being relevant (at least in part) to Christians at all times throughout Church history. It also makes life fairly easy in regards to identifying the events that John was speaking about, because it gives such a wide historical scope for people to be able to match up historical events however vaguely with imagery in the text.** However, it also ultimately becomes highly subjective. The power of interpretation lies predominantly with the current group of Christians who are looking over Church history, and it moves significantly away from the idea that this text meant something important for early Christians. It also tends to focus heavily on the flow of Western Church history.
The third position is the Futurist position. This is the view that has become most popular of late, especially in North America (and North America-influenced places). Popularist presentations of this view have been extraordinarily successful, especially with books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth and the whole Left Behind franchise. This view focuses on the idea that at least most of the book of Revelation (chapter 4 ff.) is detailing what will happen just before Jesus returns for the Great Judgement. This is usually a very short period of time (often 7 literal years), and this will be the time when all of the fantastic imagery plays out (almost) literally before our very eyes. I hesitate to describe anything about this view as holding ‘beauty’, but it should be noted that this view takes seriously the fact that it’s pretty difficult to suggest the things described in the text have literally taken place already. As such, so the notion goes, they must be things that are going to happen some time in the future. The overriding problems with this view (and there are many), however, is that it is an approach that has pretty much only come about in the last 100-or-so years, it focuses almost exclusively on North American interests (and seems often to be tied to scary nationalistic tendencies), and it completely removes pretty much all meaning that the text of Revelation might have held for its first recipients. The question must be asked here: why did the first recipients even bother to keep the text, if it meant pretty much nothing to them? So, this view unfortunately seems to be hopelessly bogged in a swamp of modern self-interest.
So what is left?
The fourth position, then, is the Idealist (or Spiritualist) view. This view, noting the problems with tying the text to any one period in history, pretty much divorces the text from any specific historical reference point. The text is, rather, speaking about general notions of good vs evil, and is therefore generally relevant to all times in Church history (while simultaneously being of particular relevance for none). The beauty of this view is that it is certainly seeking to take seriously the idea that the text could (and should) be relevant to all Christians in all times. The problem, however, is that it becomes, basically, a total cop-out. This sort of interpretation arose pretty much around the time when Christians had moved from becoming the oppressed minority to the very rulers of Rome. Of course, any notion of seeing Rome now as a satanic ‘Beast’ was therefore quite uncouth, and so that idea needed to be muted somewhat. The message of Revelation, then, loses any notion of having something to say to corrupted (and corrupting) power, and becomes instead a sort of personalised, individualised message about overcoming personal sin and abstract notions of ‘evil’.
So, they are the four main positions that one is advised to choose between when approaching Revelation, but it doesn’t stop there.
Once a basic position has been chosen, one must decide where they stand on the issue of the ‘Millennium’ (found in Revelation chapter 20). You might choose to identify as a ‘postmillennialist’ (i.e. the idea that things will keep getting better and better until there comes about a thousand-year-or-very-long-time period of wonderful world peace where the Church is in charge and, after which, Jesus will return to kick-start eternity) or a ‘premillennialist’ (i.e. that things will get pretty bad until Jesus returns, sets up a thousand-year-or-very-long-time kingdom on earth, at the end of which ‘eternity’ begins), or an ‘amillennialist’ (i.e. that the ‘millennium’ is actually talking about the whole Church Age – from the time of Jesus’ resurrection until he returns).***
But wait, there’s more!
Once all this is done, you need to decide where you’re going to stand on the ‘tribulation’ and the so-called ‘rapture’. Will the rapture occur before, during, or after the tribulation and, and, and….
It all becomes really stupid.
Basically, I’m going to suggest here that we forget all of that. Everything! The whole sorry lot.
This is for a number of reasons, but I’m going to get all apocalyptic and sum these reasons up into three ‘woes':
The Three Woes
Woe to the interpretation that comes to the text with conclusions already made!
Woe to the interpretation that treats the book of Revelation in a way totally different to any other New Testament text!
Woe to the interpretation that treats the ‘millennium’ as the central element for the whole book of Revelation (and eschatology in general) and forces everything else around this interpretive centre!
To explain these a little more, I would suggest that it’s a pretty bogus starting point to already have your mind made up about what you’re going to find in the text. If you approach the text as an Historicist, you will find what you’re looking for. If you approach it like a Futurist, you’ll see things that have to do only with the future. If you approach it as a Preterist or Idealist, you’ll get what you’re after. The text is so bizarre that, at a surface level, you can pretty much bend it any way you like, so we have to be very careful about the presuppositions we are bringing to the study of the text. We always bring presuppositions, but we just need to be really clear about what they are and how they might affect our interpretation.
Also, if we completely ignore the fact that the book of Revelation is part of the New(er) Testament, then we will make the same mistakes I outlined at the beginning of the post. If we acknowledge, however, that it is part of the New(er) Testament, then we should also be somewhat more consistent when approaching the text. It is not some sort of magic document, but rather something that we need to approach reverently and with hermeneutically sound methodologies (which should be somewhat constant across all biblical texts).
Finally, the concept of the ‘millennium’ occurs in a couple of verses, in one chapter, in one book, in one Testament, in the whole Bible. Sure, it is an important element and theological development in the overall structure of the book of Revelation, but it is not either the most important or central element in the text as a whole. We need to get a little bit of perspective about this.
And so, I’m suggesting that we start with a clean slate. Let’s throw off the shackles of the ‘usual’ restrictive interpretive positions, and see if we can develop a methodology that allows a somewhat less flawed starting point. I like to suggest that studying the book of Revelation is like climbing Mt Everest: we need to make very sure that we have the right equipment and that we are well-prepared for the journey. If we do so, the views from the summit are simply breathtaking!
A More Excellent Way
And so I suggest what I believe to be a more excellent way. This is an approach that, I think, can be used more broadly to approach pretty much any biblical text, but it is also ideally suited to the study of the book of Revelation.
Basically, the approach focuses on three main elements:
- A contextual examination
- An inter-textual examination
- A literary-rhetorical examination
The details of the strands of this approach, however, will have to wait until the next post.
* This obviously needs to be a little more nuanced, but we might get to that later. I guess I should simply say here that the millennial (or ‘chiliastic’) fervour that many saw in the book of Revelation was not seen as ideal as the Church grew more established, especially after the time of Constantine.
** We could note here that Martin Luther didn’t really have much time for the book of Revelation, until, of course, he figured out he could identify the Pope as the Beast and the Roman Catholic Church as the great Whore. It subsequently became of some use to him.
*** It should be noted that this is actually a form of ‘postmillennialism’, which was popularised by people like Augustine. It is, however, what most people usually understand when one speaks of ‘amillennialism’.