I Have Given Up…on the Book of Revelation
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Recently I joined a wonderful group of people in a home-based but church-related weekly Bible study. They are dear Christian folks and I miss them—for now. They decided to spend a few weeks reading and discussing a book about The Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, The Revelation of John, the sixty-sixth book of the Bible (as Protestant Christians count the books of the Bible). I sadly dropped out for this time during which they will be studying the book and its author’s interpretation of Revelation. Why?
I grew up in a church and denomination and type of evangelical Christianity that was absolutely obsessed with eschatology—the “end times.” I heard numerous sermons and Bible studies about the subject and I read numerous books about it and took several classes devoted to it. Over the years I have “bumped up against” many, many truly wonderful Christians who seemed to me too concerned with eschatology including trying to discern the meanings of the symbols contained in Revelation. (Does it drive you as crazy as it does me when I hear every television actor or news reader or other talking head on TV call it “The Book of Revelations” [plural] — including actors playing educated parsons, priests, even theologians?)
I am not opposed to people striving to understand Revelation or eschatology in general. However, I have personally given up on it. Had I stayed with my friends in this series I would have been a reluctant but inevitable problem because I would have often, almost constantly, been asking “How can anyone know…..?” In other words, in my humble but educated and experienced opinion, most of the middle chapters of Revelation are simply opaque as to their meaning.
It seems to me that there once must have existed a kind of “code book” of Jewish-Christian apocalyptic literature and that it has been lost. Surely the original readers of portions of Daniel and Revelation and other even extra-biblical apocalyptic literature understood what these things meant. But the hypothetical code book has been lost and we are left guessing. Some guesses are better than others, but none seem really convincing.
Plus, we have, in Christian history itself, even among conservative, Bible-believing Christians, preterists, futurists, idealists, historicists, and hybrids of two or more of those. A preterist “sees” something in Revelation entirely different than does a futurist or idealist. All can be equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians.
I admit that I get irritated at people who claim to have unlocked the secrets of Revelation.
I almost didn’t become a theologian because of this. When I first thought of becoming a theologian I asked one of my first theology teachers to recommend a serious book of theology for me to try out. Up until then I had only been reading light theology, nothing really deep or challenging. My professor recommended “Things to Come” by Dwight Pentecost, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. I dutifully went to the local “Christian Book and Bible Store” and bought it and attempted to read it. I made it most of the way through and concluded the author had no idea what he was talking about. Well, of course, Dwight Pentecost was a smart man, so what I meant then and mean now is that the book made no sense to me. It almost derailed my plan to become a theologian! Fortunately, I found better theology books to read but, sadly, none about the “true meaning” of biblical apocalyptic literature and especially Revelation.
Now, having said that, I will add that it seems to me clear that the last two chapters of Revelation point to a future rule and reign of the Messiah Jesus on earth, a period at the end of history, before “time shall be no more,” when Satan will be bound and unable to tempt humankind. A time of perfect peace and justice. And, it seems to me, in the last chapter a veil is lifted and we see a mystery—through a glass darkly—that at the end of time as we know it there will be a new creation in which God will be everything to everyone. No one has helped me more to hold onto that hope than Juergen Moltmann, perhaps my favorite “modern theologian.”
*Sidebar: I wanted to go to Germany to study with Moltmann, but things turned out differently and I ended up going to Germany to study with Pannenberg. I’m not sorry even though I like Moltmann better than Pannenberg. Munich is a marvelous world-class city; Tuebingen is a nice little German town with a great university.*
I have not given up on eschatology, but I take a broader view of it than focus on the details of the symbolism in the middle chapters of Revelation. Attempting to interpret them is to me a waste of time and effort. A few things are clear, but not the details. For example, clear is that there is a spirit of Antichrist in the world and that we, God’s people, are to be strong in the Lord and of good courage and trust in him in spite of all evil and even persecution. But who the “two witnesses” are or were or will be is unknowable. The same with regard to the 144,000.
Don’t ask me what I think is the “best book about Revelation” because I’ve never read a good one. If I had to recommend one, I guess it would be Ray Summer’s. I don’t remember the title, it’s been so long since I read a book about Revelation. But don’t hold that against me because I read many and none of them really helped me interpret the apocalyptic symbolism of the last book of the Bible.
I am looking forward to the day when I can return to my friends’ weekly Bible study, confident that I can be helpful and not a cause of confusion or discomfort.