Book of Revelation: What Most Evangelicals Entirely Miss

Book of Revelation: What Most Evangelicals Entirely Miss October 29, 2018

There is a history of interpretation and re-interpretation in the church’s reading of Revelation. Many American evangelicals, and those throughout the world where American evangelicalism’s pet themes have been exported, have learned to read Revelation through the lens of dispensationalism and rapture theories.

This approach has compelled many to discover a worldview or adopt a social, historical hermeneutic that makes sense of the world in which we live.  A good book on how theologians and others in the history of the church have read Revelation is called The Book of Revelation and is by Timothy Beal, and it’s a good and easy read.

But what most evangelicals (of this kind of reading) entirely miss is what Craig Koester, in Revelation and the End of All Things, sketches with utter clarity. (Check out also Ian Paul, Revelation.)

What’s that? Revelation is about the reality of evil, the war with evil, and the defeat of evil, and the eradication of evil. Evangelicals have made this about gruesome end time scenarios filled with Who is Who? questions and answers and speculations (that inevitably prove to be wrong — no the Antichrist is not Henry Kissinger, no Gog and Magog are not communist Russia, no, no, and no). Wrapped up in those scenarios is a lurking “Sure glad I won’t be there because I’m a Christian and will be raptured,” which rapture isn’t even mentioned in Revelation.

No, 1000x No, that’s not what Revelation is about. Revelation is about the reality of evil, the war with evil, and the defeat of evil, and the eradication of evil. Craig Koester totally gets it.

Here’s the assumption that is where Revelation starts as a cosmic narrative:

A basic assumption is that God is the Creator of the world and the source of life (4:11; 10:6). Gods opponents are the destroyers of the earth (11:18).

The narrative focuses on evil and its defeat.

Revelation regards evil as a kind of cancer that has invaded God s world. Cancer cells are malignant, and as they grow, they destroy the healthy tissue around them. As the disease spreads, life is diminished as more healthy tissue is destroyed, and if the cancer is left unchecked, death will result. Accordingly, treating the disease means destroying the malignant cells that destroy life—and the goal is that life might thrive. This is the drama that unfolds on a cosmic scale in the last half of Revelation, where the Creator and his allies set out with the goal of “destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:18), so that the victory will be life for the world.

Evil has Agency.

The plotline traces the defeat of Satan, who is cast down from heaven to earth, and from earth to the abyss. In the course of the action, Satan seeks to operate through other agents, including two beasts and a harlot, but God and the Lamb eventually thwart their efforts. The progression of the plot continues to follow shorter cycles of visions that convey warnings and promises of blessing, but the overall sequence of events is highly stylized and can be outlined as follows [slightly edited with letters added]:

A. Satan is thrown from heaven to earth (Rev. 12)
B. Beast and false prophet conquer (Rev. 13)
C. Harlot rides on the beast (Rev. 17)
C´ Harlot is destroyed by the beast (Rev. 17)
B´ Beast and false prophet are conquered (Rev. 19)
A´Satan is thrown from earth into the abyss (Rev. 20)

The outline shows how John systematically introduces Satan, the beast and false prophet, and finally the harlot into the drama, and how in reverse order he describes the defeat of the harlot, the beast and false prophet, and finally Satan himself. The last piece in the sequence occurs almost as an anticlimax when the Devil is momentarily released, only to be cast into the lake of fire (20:7-10).

In this story of the triumph of God over evil…

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  • That’s a very specious case for Revelation being a cosmic story rather than about the suffering community on earth.

    Certainly, because it’s apocalypse, cosmological language is used in some of the imagery, but this is common in the OT to describe perfectly localized issues, such as Egypt in Ezekiel 32 or Edom in Isaiah 34. In apocalyptic literature, referring to “heavens” and “earth” while talking about specific nations and historical turmoil is reasonably common. It’s true that OT literature is a lot more direct about who the referent is, but virtually every piece of Jewish apocalyptic literature ever written is more direct about its referents than Revelation is.

    While I completely agree Revelation is not about some post-Rapture, dispensational end of the world, Koester’s prooftexting approach to make Revelation about a generic conflict with people trying to destroy the earth (because of 11:18!) is also not convincing to me and reflects just as much a contemporary reading as dispensationalism, albeit a far more thoughtful one and one that is much more respectful of the genre.

    Yet, almost every image in Revelation is a repurposing of OT imagery, and what we find is the political oppression of God’s people in concrete history and their hope for deliverance from it coming from God, which is exactly the theme of OT apocalypse and, again, extrabiblical Jewish apocalypse as well. The hope it brought to first century readers was not that evil in general would be overcome someday in the distant future, but that God would intervene in their present circumstances. I think it’s fine to repurpose this hope for succeeding generations, but we do that as a conscious interpretive and prophetic choice in the Church.

  • scotmcknight

    Opening sentence: that, it seems to me, is for Koester a false dichotomy. He has plenty of emphasis in his study about God’s people and the suffering community on earth and still sees cosmic conflict.

  • Ok, well, I’m arguing out of ignorance, here (I’ll wait for the obvious joke, because I would totally make it, here) because I haven’t read his book and maybe I should before going on. But I was going off what your article was portraying which was this:

    No, 1000x No, that’s not what Revelation is about. Revelation is about the reality of evil, the war with evil, and the defeat of evil, and the eradication of evil. Craig Koester totally gets it.

    and then proceeding to demonstrate from Koester’s text how Revelation is about a cosmic struggle with evil.

    This seemed to me to indicate that the argument is that this is the main idea of Revelation – a struggle against evil in general. But that’s not the main idea of Revelation. The main idea of Revelation is the deliverance of first century persecuted saints from their predicament through powerful events that will change the world as they know it.

    We might -extrapolate- from that thoughts or hopes for how God will deal with evil in general, and we could discuss whether a specific passage has broader implications than its historical context, but I’m not keen to replace the Left Behind reading of Revelation with a transhistorical, generic one. Although if I had to pick one of those, I’d pick the latter.

  • scotmcknight

    It’s both, that’s what I’m saying.

  • Ok, and in this article, you were focused on the theme of the general defeat of evil so that’s the one you highlighted? That makes sense and I appreciate the clarification.

    In general, how do you see that playing out in the text? Do you think the symbols carry both meanings – like the beast represents both a political reality that first century readers would recognize AND evil in general? Or do you think some portions of Revelation speak to the circumstances of the original audience while other portions deal with the broader picture of the cosmic struggle with evil?

  • Craig Wright

    I’ve been teaching our adult Sunday class, going through Revelation, using Koester’s book and recently Beal’s book (thanks to your recommendation last week), as well as several previous commentaries that I’ve read. I recommend to our class Bruce Metzger’s book, Breaking the Code. It is short and accessible for lay people.

  • Craig

    Phil – I have read much of Koester’s book. Do you have a book to recommend that emphasizes the 1st Century suffering community that you are referencing?

  • Ted Johnson

    It so happens that I just concluded a month of reading through Revelation many times, writing thoughts as I went through each time. This was a summary I came up with,

    The Almighty, victorious, Sovereign God, who eternally was, and is, and forever shall be, sits on the throne in Heaven with the Lamb, in glory, power, majestic calm, ruling over all, including all kings, kingdoms, and powers, that are, that ever have been, and ever will be, and the victory over Satan, demons, Beasts, was/is already accomplished and sealed by the Lamb, on the Cross, and those whose names are written in the Book of life do now, and will even more fully soon share in the Lambs victory and sovereign rule, and all powers, empires, kings, peoples, who have or are or will set themselves in opposition and disobedience to Almighty God and the victorious Lamb and His people who bear His name and seal are and shall be defeated, judged, and eternally punished. Therefore, be faithful, be patient, be holy, be obedient, be encouraged and be full of joyful worship and praise, and be assured that neither opposition, suffering, nor even death alters or is contrary to any of the foregoing, but rather hastens, confirms, and enlarges the victory and glory and praise of The Almighty God and the Victorious Lamb. Amen!

  • Hmm. That’s a good question.

    One good book you might check out is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Although I’m not a postmillennialist, David Clark’s The Message from Patmos focuses a lot on the immediate historical context, if you can find a copy of it.

    Adam Taylor Ross’ The Fall of Jerusalem, while not explicitly being about Revelation, offers some challenging readings from the standpoint of how we might understand not just Revelation but the entirety of the New Testament if we take seriously the concrete historical circumstances of the original audience. I don’t agree with all the conclusions, but I like the direction.

    Basically, although I don’t consider myself a preterist, a lot of the literature from the preterist camp places a strong emphasis on the historical circumstances of the original audience which, almost by definition, will define most eschatological statements in terms of what the first century audience was experiencing. I would keep my antenna up, though, because there is a rather vocal slice of preterists that seek to understand every eschatological or apocalyptic statement in Scripture as referring to the transition between the Old and New Covenants, and while I appreciate the challenge to the status quo, I don’t think at all that the story of the people of God can be collapsed into those categories.

  • Dennis Hesselbarth

    Dr. Ralph Covell, missionary to China and later a missiologist, was captured and imprisoned by the Red Chinese in the early 50’s. In captivity, not knowing if he would live or die, he thought he’d spend the time studying eschatological texts and figure out for himself the “end times.” But as he opened the bible to passages like Revelation, it struck him that the purpose of these passages was not to hint at “who did what” but to shout to those facing persecution and trials, “hang in there, because we win in the end!” There is evil, there will be struggle, but in the end, God conquers. Were Ralph alive today, I suspect he’d be giving an big amen to this blog.

  • I am glad the author questions the Dispensational view, as do I. The “code” of Revelation helped protect the early Christians from the Roman Empire, such as calling Rome “Babylon” (See I Peter 5:13). In the Last Days, the code will do the same for Believers. Many of us who have studied the Protestant Reformers have seen a recurring theme of recognizing the historic Roman Papal power as the beast of Revelation (See Revelation 17:9). But this is not politically correct today, therefore we can not discuss this, even as a possibility. Most Protestants have forgotten why they Protestant today. That is why history will repeat itself.

  • Reformers did see it that way because that was their primary opponent in the world. Obviously, such an interpretation would not have been cogent to John’s original audience.