Apocalypse Now, Later or Never?

Of what value is the book of Revelation? Does it foretell the cataclysmic end of the world? Is it a historical record of events long past, or perhaps a call to moral responsibility? Or should it be read merely as first-century literature aimed at a first-century audience?

The Apocalypse, or book of Revelation, is a puzzle to most people who take the time to read it. Filled with strange visions, blood and smoke, terrifying warfare, fearsome beasts, and evil rulers, it reads like a nightmare of the worst kind. It was set down by a man named John as a result of his extraordinary experiences on the island of Patmos, near the coast of what is today western Turkey.

The Greek term apokalypsis, from which the book’s titles come, means “the revealing” or “the unveiling”—in this case, of things to come. Yet most people’s reactions suggest that, far from uncovering the future, the book’s contents remain little understood. The one exception concerns the massive confrontation between God and unrepentant humanity near the close of “the present age.” Thus apocalypse has developed the variant meanings of “overwhelming catastrophe,” “cataclysm,” or even “Armageddon.”

Perhaps there’s a good reason for this general lack of clarity—something to discuss as we proceed.

They are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it. This is just the same as if we did not have the book at all.”

Martin Luther, “Preface to the Revelation of St. John” (1522)

In the preface to early editions of Martin Luther’s New Testament translation, the reformer famously said of Revelation, “Let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him.” He judged the record of John’s visions to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic” (though over time he came to a different view). English Bible scholar J.B. Phillips expressed similar misgivings. He wrote in the introduction to his 20th-century version, “I was naturally tempted to omit this book altogether from my translational work.” He noted that this was the course John Calvin had chosen in his New Testament commentary.

Future Imperfect

Martin Luther, John Calvin and J.B. Phillips were not the only ones to struggle with the book of Revelation. More recently even the Roman Catholic Church has expressed concern about the text’s value in speaking to the future. According to the Times Online (October 5, 2005), “the Catholic bishops of England, Wales and Scotland are warning their five million worshippers, as well as any others drawn to the study of scripture, that they should not expect ‘total accuracy’ from the Bible.

“‘We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,’ they say in The Gift of Scripture. 

. . . They refute the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, in which the writer describes the work of the risen Jesus, the death of the Beast and the wedding feast of Christ the Lamb.

The bishops say: ‘Such symbolic language must be respected for what it is, and is not to be interpreted literally. We should not expect to discover in this book details about the end of the world, about how many will be saved and about when the end will come.’”

Not everyone has felt that way. According to Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland, who have studied the book’s “reception history” over the past 2,000 years, people who tried to understand Revelation took one of two approaches. They viewed it either as a coded message about the working out of history in humanity’s final days (in which they believed they were living), or as a series of exhortations to live a moral life at the political, ecclesiastical or personal level. There have also been those who saw the book as simply interesting from a historical perspective. We’ll consider all three approaches in this article.

Three Views

Harry Maier is a Canadian scholar of German extraction, whose Lutheran parents fled Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe following the Second World War. As a child, he regularly heard his parents frame their recent experiences in apocalyptic terms. Accordingly, in his book Apocalypse Recalled (2002), he tries to get at the significance of Revelation for the present rather than focusing on the end of human history.

In an interview with Vision, Maier commented, “How shall those members in Christian communities who are reading Revelation hear it? As a kind of thinking of ‘the sweet by and by’? Or as the seven last years of history, when there will be tribulation and then Jesus will rescue us from all the bad things that are to come? Or as a call to living, faithful witness, with openhanded generosity in the here and now? These are very different readings, and they make all the difference in the world to what kind of religious community we inhabit, what we expect from our nation-state, what we expect from our government, how we will be as citizens in the world.”

Maier eschews the gloom and doom approach of fundamentalists who focus only on the catastrophic end of human society. He takes the second of Kovacs and Rowland’s approaches and emphasizes concerned action in the present.

A similar view comes from New Testament scholar Craig Evans, for whom the Apocalypse is primarily a call to Christian responsibility and responsiveness. Reflecting on the book’s messages to seven congregations in first-century Asia Minor, he notes, “The church is to bear witness. It is to live out its Christian life with integrity, and it is not to conform to the pagan world in which it finds itself, nor to become coldhearted, shallow and indifferent. The message is as applicable today as it was at any time.”

Like Maier, Evans is not enamored of the “end-time” approach. He told Vision, “People get into the type of interpretation that I don’t like. It involves taking Bible passages and comparing them to newspaper headlines and trying to draw inferences about eschatology. I find it reckless and irresponsible. And though it seems to meet a lot of needs for a lot of Christians, especially in the West, I find it frankly deplorable.”

David Frankfurter is a scholar who represents the third approach. He is interested in Revelation from a different perspective: “I think this is very important as historical literature, and I think it has had a tremendous impact on the history of art, the history of literature, the history of culture—and I think it should be studied for that.”

Yet a complete reading of the Apocalypse cannot avoid the conclusion that while there is certainly the call to moral responsibility, there is also a clearly defined cataclysmic end to human evil. What Kovacs and Rowland have defined as either/or approaches in Revelation’s reception history are not the only way to read the book. Nor is Frankfurter’s purely historical view the only alternative. We can have all three, without the pitfalls of fundamentalism.

Written for Whom?

A very careful reading of Revelation—letting the text speak rather than superimposing our ideas on it—yields answers to the concerns of many about the book’s potential impact on the unwary. It also explains why it has been so poorly understood despite the literal meaning of its title: “unveiling.”

The book begins by telling us about the origin of its contents, its author and its purpose: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1–2).

God the Father gave Jesus the message about future events. Jesus in turn conveyed it to one of His followers, John, via an angel and through visions, so that God’s servants would have foreknowledge of what was to happen at the end of this era of human history. The early part of the book also contains important information for Jesus’ followers with respect to how they should respond to their social setting in light of what is to come. John was to write down all he saw and heard and send it in the form of an extended letter to seven church congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Revelation 1:11).

Why seven? Were there not more congregations in the region? In biblical literature, seven signifies completion, a totality, a whole. The book of Revelation has many patterns of seven—seven stars, seven angels, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven heads, seven crowns, seven bowls and seven last plagues. The seven congregations represent the whole church. Each received a message specific to it, but each message was to be read by all seven in the context of the entire book. As John records seven times, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2 and 3).

As the book’s opening verse clearly states, Revelation’s initial audience was limited to the servants of God. It was not a public message. Today, of course, it is public in the sense that it appears in millions of Bibles in hundreds of languages and dialects. But that does not necessarily mean that it is understood by a wider group than originally. In fact, as we have seen, its reception throughout history tells us otherwise. Despite its ready availability, it is poorly understood by the majority.

The reason is bound up in a seldom-grasped biblical truth: most people will not understand God’s purpose and plan and respond positively to Him in this lifetime. In fact, the very negative reaction of most of humanity is itself part of the story as the book of Revelation unfolds.

Hidden Knowledge

The general lack of understanding about the Apocalypse finds a parallel in the Gospel of Matthew. During His ministry, Jesus often taught in parables. Matthew records a series of such analogies about the kingdom of heaven. It is often thought that Jesus spoke this way to the public to make His meaning clearer. But that is not what Matthew shows.

Having heard Jesus publicly deliver the parable of the sower, His disciples asked Him, “‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given’” (Matthew 13:10–11).

The word “secrets” is translated from the Greek musterion, meaning “the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God’s) secret, the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God . . . which are hidden from human reason, as well as from all other comprehension below the divine level, and await either fulfillment or revelation to those for whom they are intended” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature).

The original community of called-out people (Greek ekklesia), or church, founded by Jesus Christ, was such a group. They were enlightened and they based their beliefs on an understanding of Jesus’ role in fulfilling messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Further, they practiced a way of life based on those same ancient Scriptures. Yet they were not large in numbers: after three and a half years of Jesus’ ministry, just prior to the founding of the New Testament church on the Day of Pentecost, there were only 120 disciples (Acts 1:15). Their numbers soon increased, but most who heard their message did not join them; they were not yet called to understand.

As Jesus said in privately explaining the parable of the sower to His followers, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).

The disciples were in a different category: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Their understanding would even exceed that of God’s people of old: “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16–17; see “Time for Change?).

Context, Context, Context

The community of Jesus’ followers continued in the religious beliefs and practices of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, empowered by the Holy Spirit with new understanding. They knew that the Hebrew Scriptures were a unified whole. Thus, when the church(es) later read John’s description of God’s throne (Revelation 4), they would have recalled Ezekiel’s similar vision (Ezekiel 1). For them the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament books that followed represented unified practice and belief.

The only way for the called-out ones to understand the Apocalypse was by the mediation of the Holy Spirit and the recognition that its context is the rest of Scripture. When the Bible is read holistically, the message of Revelation is consistent with its other parts. This means that, in particular, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter and Jude all make a positive contribution to the framework of Revelation.

John’s use of Old Testament allusions . . . provides the key for unlocking the meaning of Revelation’s many obscure metaphors.”

G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Front Cover Flap (1999)

Ezekiel writes not only about God’s throne but, in the later chapters of his prophetic book, also about the coming establishment of His kingdom on earth. This, too, finds parallels in the final chapters of Revelation.

Daniel’s visions, in which various empires that have ruled the Middle East are represented by a statue of a man and by several animals (see Daniel 2, 7 and 8), find a parallel in John’s vision of composite beasts in Revelation 13 and 17.

The well-known Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6) are reminiscent of the prophet Zechariah’s description of four similar horses (Zechariah 1 and 6).

When Jesus’ disciples asked Him in private about the end of human society as we know it, He replied to their questions in part with a reference to the book of Daniel and to specific events in the Middle East (Matthew 24:15). He also mentioned His own return in the kind of language we find in Revelation 19.

The apostle Paul wrote about Christ’s second coming in each of his letters to a set of seven local or regional churches—in Thessalonica, Corinth, Galatia, Rome, Colossae, Ephesus and Philippi. Similarly, James, Peter and Jude all wrote about the great future event that would eclipse the “present age” in personal letters to the small groups of believers in their care.

A Book for Then and Now

For the seven congregations in Asia Minor at the close of the first century, this was all backdrop to Revelation’s record of end-time events. But if a modern reader is intent on characterizing the New Testament as authored by men who held diverse views and were in general contention with each other, then this cumulative perspective is lost.

It is clear that so many parts of the Bible are interconnected and consistent with each other. When we connect the dots, it becomes obvious that one day God will intervene to resolve human problems. Earlier we saw that, broadly speaking, readers have adopted one of two perspectives on the book. Harry Maier is one who takes the view that action in the present is the appropriate response to the book’s themes.

He is concerned about modern imperialism, about the perils of globalization and the desire of every nation for an increasing share of the economic pie. He sees the rampant materialism brought about by Roman peace and prosperity—the first-century context of John’s writing—being replicated in the 21st century. That is to say, he sees the way of life promoted by the Pax Americana as the current problem, whereas John lived in the shadow of the Pax Romana. Though Maier does not believe that Revelation is about the end of the world, he does acknowledge that by greedy, irresponsible behavior in the political, economic and environmental spheres, we could bring about our downfall: “This way of thinking is doomed to failure for everyone; it’s doomed to destruction for everyone. So Revelation is really inviting us to a different kind of imagination.”

That different way of looking at life would include reassessing the long list of the world’s tradable commodities found in chapter 18. It includes not only food and drink but also precious metals, exotic furnishings, gemstones, fabrics, perfumes and the very troubling exploitation of the “bodies and souls of men” (Revelation 18:11–13). I asked Maier what he made of this first-century list in light of the contemporary pursuit of globalization and Revelation’s description of the system’s collapse. He said, “The passage [is] almost a burlesque of the most costly wares you can imagine. People obviously are profiting an enormous amount from this, and now they experience all the loss that comes from all of their hopes and dreams being disappointed. . . . For those of us who inhabit plenty, with a lot of material wealth, it urges us to ask where our allegiances lie. To whom do we belong? To what do we give faithful witness? For what, after all, would we be willing to lay down our lives? That’s the question.”

We cannot know exactly when the present age of human self-government will end, nor the precise moment of Jesus Christ’s return; as He said, “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). But the Apocalypse does unveil the kind of world that will precede His coming. And what we read there is eerily familiar. The book of Revelation also teaches those who have ears to hear, how they must distance themselves from the way of man—the “government of Caesar”—and anticipate, by their way of living, the coming sovereignty of God and His Son.