Is Revelation 17:9-10 the Decisive Evidence against the End-Times view of Revelation?

I avoided using the technical term for the viewpoint I am discussing here in the title. Those who’ve studied theology will know that the sort of view of the end times reflected in the Left Behind series and other such books is premillennial dispensationalism. But since most premillennial dispensationalists don’t know that they are premillennial dispensationalists, I thought I had better use terminology that might be more familiar.

Today in the Sunday school class I teach, we finished our study of Romans and turned our attention to something new: the Book of Revelation. I presented four widely held views of what the book is about, and explained them. I also shared that Revelation 17:9-10 was decisive in changing my mind about the book and freeing me from the end times view that reads the Book of Revelation looking for correlations with the latest news.

Revelation 17:9-10 reads:

This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.

The question I left them with is this: when is that statement in Revelation 17:10 true?

On what basis can anyone claim that the present tense John wrote is anything other than a reference to a state of affairs existing in his time?

The alternative is perhaps to say that it suddenly becomes true when Hal Lindsey, or Tim LaHaye, or someone else “cracks the code.”

But note what they then have to do. They have to say that the Roman Empire will be reestablished (Rome is the city with seven hills), that the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and many other things will have to take place, simply to get the future situation they insist the book refers to replicate the situation in the author’s time.

Is it not preferable instead to treat the book as referring to things in the author’s time? That is, after all, what the Book of Revelation itself says.

It can be hard to change one’s view of the Book of Revelation – especially when doing so implies that you individually/your country are not the pinnacle of human history and central to a climactic end-times drama. But doing so has the advantage of taking seriously what the Bible actually says.

If you were once an end-times apocalyptically-focused Christian, what changed your mind?

Let me close with an amusing anecdote from the Sunday school class today. When I asked what people have heard about the Book of Revelation, one person who is not a native speaker of English wanted to say that people say it is about the Rapture, but it sounded like he was saying “Raptor” which of course is amusing considering the prominent place the Beast has in it.

  • Gregwaddell

    James: I think I’ve found something I agree with you about (I’m jesting). You have of course just touched the surface (as I’m sure you know) of the evidence against Dispensationalism. I personally see a telescopic process happening in the book, with principles that were present (and fulfilled) in the day of John, yet also reaching into the future, similar to what we find when we compare some of the Messianic Psalms and how they were used by the apostles. In other words, in a few points, I still think there is room for similar events happening again (and again and again) with a grande finale that John envisioned (having been inspired by God just as the OT prophets were inspired), particularly the great effort to eradicate the Christian community that both John and Paul seem to have envisioned. 

  • RobertA

    Well, I grew up in a nice community of Neo-fundamentalists and believed in the Dispensational pre-trib, pre-mil well through college (one affiliated with LeHaye.) It wasn’t until I got to seminary and started reading other people (with real doctorates) and Church Fathers that I began shifting my view of Revelation. Though I remain a historical premillenialist my read of Revelation is eccletic (historicist-idealist.) When I read the text and do the math and think of the imagery I cannot help but note that even Dispy pre-trib/pre-mils take the book symbolically. There is just no truly “literal” read unless you think a ten horned beast, led by a dragon is literal.

    It is a dangerous thing to be dogmatic about anything related to eschaotology in my opinion. Thus grace and humility should work into our reads. I only see hubris from the other side.

  • Trey

    If you were once an end-times apocalyptically focused Christian, what changed your mind?

    I came from a fundamentalist background where Jack van Impe and Hal Lindsey were my prophetic oracles and Russian was the king of the north, etc. Actually what changed my view was listening to Dale Martin’s exposition on the Book of Daniel. Having him go over the last chapters where the author gets everything pinpoint precise until the story simply stops and incorrectly suggest how Antiochus Epiphanes meets his end, made me question the genre of Apocalyptic literature. Now with Daniel, scholars an excellent idea that the book was most likely written in the 2nd century B.C.E. rather than its depicted 6th century. This made a world of difference to me as it suggested a very human origin for books that I had regularly thought had a supernatural view to the future.

    • Christopher Olson

      Don’t believe for a minute that it was not supernatural in origin. You should remain skeptical of those who would try to convince you of this, rather than the other way around. 

      We know for certain that Daniel was written prior to 270 B.C. because it was translated into the Greek Septuagint at this time. And while this is one of the most authenticated books of scripture, I am only mentioning this fact as a shortcut to what comes next. 

      In the book, Daniel was given a prophecy by the messianic messenger, the archangel Gabriel. In Chapter 9:24-27 we see some very specific parameters described in this prophecy. Namely that “70 weeks” have been determined to take place in order to sum up the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. These weeks referred to by the angel are the weeks of years that marked the Sabbath rest that God commanded that they give to the land every 7th year, found in Lev 25 and 26 and Deut 16. Interestingly, it was for the very reason that Israel had refused to give the land its Sabbath’s for the previous 430 years that they were driven into Babylon for 70 years. To give the land the rests that they owed it. 

      Anyway – this 70 weeks spoken by Gabriel was a prophetic timeclock to specific events. Namely, he said that: ” from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince [shall be] seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.” 

      In effect, Gabriel said that it would be 69 weeks of 360-day years ( totaling 173,880 days) from the command to rebuild Jerusalem until Christ would arrive. This command was was given by Artaxerxes Longimanus on March 14, 445. This brings us to April 6, 32 AD, after accounting for leap years. 

      More could be written, but you get the idea. How could a “human” have known the precise day and year that Messiah would present Himself to Jerusalem as King of the Jews?

      If this part is supernatural prophecy, which can be clearly demonstrated, you should suspect that this holds true for the rest as well. 

      • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        I am well aware that if one is willing to arbitrarily change how many days one considers there to be in a year, then one can get Daniel to be referring to specific events in the life of Jesus.

        While Daniel originally referred to things going on in the time in which it was written, the Maccabean crisis, the fact that the “prediction” seemed to have the first century in view was noticed by people in the first century. And so it must be considered that the Book of Daniel may have inspired Jesus, and John the Baptist, and others to expect the kingdom of God in their time, rather than vice versa.

  • Brian S.

    Although I’ve never believed that the Revelation was about my own time, I always had a slight aversion to the book because as a child I found it absolutely terrifying, and I still do in some ways. Though I’m glad that you’re going to teach your sunday school about this enormously powerful and often times confusing text. Anyway I was going to ask my pastor if I could do a talk on it. Unfortunately, I’m a nervous speaker. But if I ever do summon the courage to do a talk on the book of Revelation, I would like your advice on how to do so.

  • http://citygatestheology.org Samuel Irlapati

    I remember you mentioning this very same passage and argument more than 10 years ago in class at Biblical Seminary. It is an excellent one. It helped me trash out the dispensational and eventually the pre-mil view. Keep doing it, more people need to be challenged.

  • Kenneth Myers

    I don’t know if it’s allowed or not, but if not, please remove the post. My new book on the issue was just published last week, and I think you’d enjoy the perspective: The End Is Near…Or Maybe Not: http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Near-Or-Maybe-Not/dp/1470001772/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1330919441&sr=8-1

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Congratulations on the book. I only mind when people fill lots of comments with an irrelevant advertisement. Mentioning a relevant book is always welcome! :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Brian, if you’re ever giving a talk, feel free to mention it here and see what useful feedback you can get from myself and others!

  • Joe Eason

    What changed my mind was actually reading the book itself, in the context of the literature of its own time. I suspect that almost anyone who reads Revelation with an open mind will reject the premillennial dispensationalist (such a term, now that I actually try to spell it!) reading. This reminds me of what my grandmother used to say about the ingredients on a box of food: if you don’t know what it is or can’t already spell it, don’t eat it. Would that people would apply the same principle to their reading of sacred texts– or any other text, for that matter.  

    I second what Brian S. wrote above. For all my own confidence about the book, I loathe the thought of teaching it to others in an adult Sunday School setting and applaud your audacity. Talk about a minefield… It would/will be interesting to hear more about your class as it progresses– although it sounds like you have a fairly sophisticated group. The “four ways” approach is interesting. Did you find your class inclining towards one particular view?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Hi Joe! I was surprised at how little experience any of them had had of the Cold War Soviet Antichrist, 666 in bar codes, microchips in your hand sort of approach. Most assumed it had something to do with our future, though. 

  • Brian

    I think I should use a different term, when I said talk I meant hosting a session for the RCIA program or sunday school at the church I attend, not something important like speaking in front of the Society of Biblical Literature or anything super scary like that.  But I’ll wait to see how your group reacts first before I dwelve into anything that many may or may not have strong feelings about.

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.”
    VERY EASY. According to my study, this part of Revelation (the Jewish version) was written in 71AD, but John pretended he wrote about his vision in 69AD (under Galba’s reign).
    The 7 hills represent Rome, the goddess his Roma, the five fallen kings are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. The one who is: Galba.
    Otho and Vitellius, the two short-lived usurpers are not counted. The one to come is Vespasian and he had to last 3.5 years up to the advent of the Kingdom.
    More explanation here: http://historical-jesus.info/rjohn.html

    • Gary

      Bernard said, ”
      was written in 71AD, but John pretended he wrote about his vision in 68-69AD (under Galba’s reign).

      The 7 hills represent Rome, the goddess his Roma, the five fallen kings are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. The one who is: Galba.
      Otho and Vitellius, the two short-lived usurpers are not counted”.Another version:
      I think Revelation was written with a Jewish perspective only, not a world view, revolving around the most important item in the life, the temple.
      I prefer five fallen are Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, the one is, Nero (indicating he was “suppose to be” alive at the time of revelation authorship). The 8th, that belongs to the seven is Titus, the really “bad” guy from the Jewish perspective, since he actually destroyed the temple, and will go to perdition. The  8th belongs to the seventh, seventh being Vespasian (Titus’ father), who was also important, being the Caesar in Rome at the time of the temple destruction. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius don’t even show up on the radar of the Jews. They weren’t around for long in Rome before they died, plus Vespasian had put the entire Jewish War on hold (as general when he was in Israel) after Nero died, so Galba, Otho, and Vitellius didn’t count. Then the clock started for the Jews again when Vespasian had Titus start the war again. Why is Titus king and Caesar? Because the Jews viewed him as such, even though the Romans didn’t make him such at that time. Josephus, “The Wars of the Jews”, (5.2.2.58/63), referring to Titus,  “many of whom did not so much as know that the king was in any danger”…”The enemy indeed made a great shout at the boldness of Caesar”. Concerning the date of Revelation, there are two likely scenarios…..if you believe in the author’s “vision”, I think you’d have to say pre-temple destruction. But I really think this is an example of “pious fraud”, where the author is trying to indicate the authorship pre-temple destruction, but the actually authorship probably was post-event, since it is too detailed per historic facts. And not that there is anything wrong with “pious fraud”. It does not void the entire bible, it is just making a literary point about an historic event. Same as Deuteronomy being a long lost document written by Moses, instead of something likely written by Jeremiah (per Friedman on the D stuff – not revelation though, obviously).

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree with you, but as you probably know, premillennialism people aren’t so easy to convince. I learned in my youth that John spoke in the present because he was watching the vision unfold. As for the place on the 7 hills – well my early brand of premillennialism believed this was the RC church. As for the temple – well that just excites them more because they think they are seeing the unfolding of prophecy with Israel being established as a nation (plus the millions they send to Israel for the temple rebuilding).

  • http://church-of-ouzo.com/ Bob Evenson

    Dr. McGrath, in your Sunday School class, you presented four widely held views of what the book of Revelation is about, but when you leave out “The Ouzo Prophecy,” you leave out what it is actually about.  Also, I cring when you don’t quote Rev. 17:9-10 in the KJV.

  • Kenneth Myers

    I’m not sure how detailed you want to get here; but have you considered that the seven hills represent Rome, but “the woman” represents Jerusalem – the unfaithful bride of God/harlot who makes allegiance with Rome, is supported by Rome (sits on her back) but is ultimately devoured by Rome? Maybe this *is* your interpretation. But when I look at it, this just screams out as the most sensible, first century, interpretation.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I try to avoid trying to seem too certain about many of the details in Revelation’s symbolism. But that certainly is a very plausible interpretation of the imagery!

  • http://twitter.com/JTarb Jeremy Tarbush

     Rome (and seven kings, or possibly popes) make sense. I am just not familiar enough with the history of the Catholic church and have never been to plumb the depths of this. However, I am not dismissing a double use of this passage yet. I am certainly not a premillenial dispensationalist.

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    On my website, I have a picture of a coin minted during Vespasian’s rule which shows the 7 hills with a woman seated on them.
    You can also see both sides of the coin on this website:
    http://www.icollector.com/Roman-Empire-Vespasian-69-79-Sestertius-71-28-39g_i9258028

  • Dysmas

    I am now a “pan-millenialist” – it will all pan out in the end.  This is the lazy or cowardly way to avoid taking a stand on an issue (in this case, eschatology) which basically resists foolish dogmatism.

  • http://historical-jesus.info/ Bernard Muller

    There is no evidence that the book of Daniel was incorporated in the earliest editions of the LXX:
    “Behind the legends lies the probability that at least the Torah (the five books of Moses) was translated into Greek c. 250 B.C. for the use of the Greek speaking Jews of Alexandria.The rest of the O.T. and some noncanonical books were also included in the LXX before the dawning of the Christian era, through it is difficult to be certain when.”(The NIV Study Bible)
    ‘Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach’ (200-180BC) is not aware of ‘Daniel’ and the first external evidence comes around 100BC.
    According to my study, a first part of ‘Daniel’ was written around 323-301BC, and a second part was added in 167BC. Then “updates” were made up to the death of Antiochus IV, about 3 years later.
    I also demonstrated that the seventy sevens started during Cyrus’ first year (the decree) and ended in 167BC, the year when Jews were massacred in caves by troops of the Seleucid king because those Jews were observing the Sabbath.
    For more details see http://historical-jesus.info/daniel.html

  • AFB

    I’m curious, when do you date Revelation?

    • http://church-of-ouzo.com/ Bob Evenson

      The Greek book of Revelation was written in the year 96 AD.  If you add to this the the word Iesous (Greek for Jesus) in classical Greek gematria (888), plus the 1000 years that Christ reigns after Armageddon, you reach 1984, the year “The Ouzo Prophecy” http://church-of-ouzo.com/pdf/ouzo-prophecy.pdf was written.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      AFB, I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m often inclined to think that the temple was still standing, and thus the date would be pre-70, because of the way that is referred to in the text. And it is clearly post-Nero, and reflects expectation of Nero’s return, which arose quickly after his death. So that gives a relatively small window, in the very late 60s. But I’m not very confident about that dating.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QAFSMUTSS3RIX4J72TNLHGUDYM Bernard

    to AFB,
    The canonical (Christian) Revelation was completed, about 95, maybe a few years earlier but definitively before Domitian’s murder.
    However the original all Jewish version was written in 71 but claimed composed earlier by John, 68-69 during Galba’s reign.
    Without the Christian additions, Revelation is very coherent, easy reading, with little confusion and do not have Jesus as a lamb, which is also a shepherd, a lion, Son of Man, the great warrior of the apocalypse, the Alpha & Omega, the First and the Last, the Word of God and King of kings.
    http://historical-jesus.info/rjohn.html 

    • Gary

      Bernard…..Just curious, I’ll have to try and read your stuff, but it is pretty long, and I’ll have to do it in pieces, since I don’t have the time now. I noticed you said about the author trying to show Galba was the Caesar at the time of writing, and Daniel the connection to the 10 kings. Obviously, there is no one-to-one correspondence to Revelation, which makes everything a guess. Since I think it was written after 70 AD (exactly when I have no idea), and the primary emphasis was Jewish, I still think the ultimate bad guy was Titus. But I think the Christian, world-view might have leaked into it, explaining the 10 kings as the actual 10 Caesars in Rome thru the destruction of the temple. This time, he includes Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, and does not include Titus. So 10, from Julius to Vespasian. Why would the author of Revelation try to show he was writing Revelation during Galba’s reign, when he was rather insignificant to both Jews and Christians? Unless I missed something. But Nero was indeed significant to both Jews and Christians. I remember Josephus saying something about a friend of Nero’s wife, that was Jewish, that had influence on Nero. So Nero was a player in the whole thing, but Galba was effectively a nobody.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QAFSMUTSS3RIX4J72TNLHGUDYM Bernard

    Well Gary, wait you read all my webpage on the matter. It seems to me you browse through it only. I do explain Galba (13:1,3) and there are also allusions to the holocaust of 70 (11:1-2; 13:7) and the destruction of the temple (11:1-2). The 10 kings in Revelation (who would rule for only one hour!) turn out to be some wished_for arsonists for burning Rome. Yes the ’10 kings’ is drawn from Daniel (where they mean a succession of Seleucids kings) but that’s about it. Please try to have an open mind. But if you feel so strongly about your ideas, don’t bother to read my webpage.  

    • Gary

      Bernard, I just didn’t have time to read it yet…just skimmed through it fast. I wouldn’t say I have strong feelings about it either way…just seems likely to me. Now I have the references, I’ll check that. But it’s going to take me awhile to get to read it all, since I’ve got other things to do too. I’ll bookmark it and check it out when I get a chance.

  • Gary

    Bernard, I don’t quite get the numbering system, Galba (13:1,3). Does that refer to your reference, or is it located somewhere else?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QAFSMUTSS3RIX4J72TNLHGUDYM Bernard

    Gary, “mortally wounded” (13:3) would refer more to the death of Galba (very publicly wounded all over) than Nero (assisted suicide). That was also taken as a symbol of the Roman crisis before the recovery of 70. From that, the 5 preceding emperors can be determined (13:1). Soon after (13:7) there is allusion to war and victory against the Jews.

  • len

    Using the wording in the kjv bible……There are 3 times in the history of the U.S. presidency, that when a president took office 5 preceding presidents were still alive. The last time this happened was when Bush Jr (43) took office. The seventh king Mr. Obama had to be reelected if he was to continue for a short space. You also need to understand that the seven years o tribulation described in ch 11 and 13 ended on 04/30/09 (on that date 250 multinational corporations met with the bank of Iraq to divide up the economy…) buy sell trade

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Very amusing!


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