Revelation or the Apocalypse of John is one of the most provocative texts in the Bible. It has inspired great art and music, even as it has fueled speculation about the imminent end of the world. My study of Revelation asks how people have construed its meaning in such different ways, and it offers a way of reading it that is socially engaged and profoundly hopeful.
That positive approach may seem counterintuitive, because people often assume that Revelation is about annihilation of the planet. It includes visions of cosmic conflict in which the forces of good and evil collide. There are scenes in which the stars fall from the sky, the sun becomes dark, and the earth shakes. In terms of literary genre, Revelation is an “apocalypse,” a word that means disclosure or unveiling – though it has unfortunately come to connote destruction, the end of the world as we know it.
So why read Revelation differently? The broad literary arc within the book centers on creation. The main action begins in chapter 4, where God is introduced as the one who has made all things; and it culminates in the final chapters, where God makes all things new. All the scenes of struggle in between must be seen in light of that goal, which is the renewing of life.
Revelation is not about the destruction of the earth. Instead, the writer speaks of destroying the destroyers of the earth (chapter 11 verse 18). Note the difference. The writer assumes that the world is God’s creation, but the forces of evil have invaded it and now threaten the world’s wellbeing. Evil is like a cancer, which spreads through the body and destroys life. This is what defines the central conflict. The agents of destruction must be destroyed in order that life may be made new.
Word pictures play a major role in Revelation. The writer takes us into a narrative world in which the antagonist is a seven-headed beast, and the protagonist is a Lamb, who was slaughtered but is now living. Angelic armies do battle with Satan, who is pictured as a great red dragon. Readers often imagine that the writer uses such images as a secret code, in order to conceal his meaning from all but a few insiders, who have the key to deciphering his message. But that is not the case.
The writer uses word pictures to reveal meaning, not to conceal it. The vivid images are designed to shape the readers’ perspectives on the world in which they live. One might compare them to the cartoons we find in the editorial sections of the newspaper. The artist uses satirical images to make serious points about politics, the economy, social trends, and religious life. Revelation does the same.
The writer is sharply critical of his own society, which is the Roman world of the late first century. The seven-headed beast personifies a political system that is both impressive and violent. The beast holds the world in awe with the illusion of military invincibility. Its base of operation is a city that is dubbed Babylon, which connotes splendor and brutality. The city subjugates people through force and then placates them with promises of prosperity. The writer pictures the city spinning a web of commerce that allows a few to attain great wealth, while many others pay the price. Human life is degraded, and the insatiable appetite for luxury goods drains the earth of its resources.
In one astonishing scenario, the pattern of violence and greed come full circle when the beast turns against Babylon. The city built with violence falls victim to its own violent tendencies. The patterns that now seem to support the current order become its own undoing. That is followed by a scene in which Christ meets the beast in the battle of Armageddon. In the popular imagination, this is the moment of cosmic annihilation. But in Revelation, the only weapon used in the battle is truth. There is no sword made of iron, only the sword or word from Christ’s mouth. The battle marks the triumph of truth over falsehood. This is not the destruction of the earth. It contributes to the destruction of the destroyers of the earth, and the goal is that life might thrive.
Interpreters sometimes assume that the writer must have been responding to a heightened sense of threat under the emperor Domitian. The idea is that in the mid-nineties of the first century, Domitian unleashed a reign of terror. Demanding that people worship him as “lord and god,” he persecuted all who refused – especially Christians. But in recent years that reconstruction of the context has been rightly challenged, and promising alternatives have emerged, which help us see Revelation’s challenging critique in new ways.
The opening chapters of Revelation picture the early Christian readers living in varied social situations. In a few cases there were local conflicts between Christians and non-Christians. But elsewhere the Christian communities were prosperous and complacent. For the writer they seemed all too ready to accommodate patterns of political, economic, and religious life that eroded their basic commitments to the ways of God.
Revelation fosters resistance to the dominant social patterns by contrasting the beast with the Lamb, whose victory comes through sacrifice, not oppression. The social order represented by Babylon has its counterpart in New Jerusalem, where life flourishes. The New Jerusalem is no private heaven. It is an expansive city, whose gates are open to the nations of the world. It is a vision of the future that is can shape life in the present.
Writing this book was a process of discovery. In it I engage in dialogue with interpreters from antiquity to the present. I ask what ancient readers like Augustine and Jerome saw in Revelation, and how medieval mystics understood the book’s imagery. I explore perspectives of Protestant and Roman Catholic writers from the sixteenth century, and consider how artists and musicians continue to shape our perspectives on the book.
For me, discovery continues through dialogue with wide range of current scholars, who have opened up fresh perspectives through studies of the literary features of Revelation, along with exploration of archaeological materials, Greek and Latin texts, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. My commentary is an invitation to join the conversation. The Comment sections offer a sustained reading of Revelation, while the Notes identify other interpretive possibilities. My hope is that contemporary readers will see how rewarding the study of Revelation can be.