Studying the Revelation is like picking a college football team. I mean, no matter which team you pick, you’ve picked against everyone who supports a different team. And people are very loyal to their teams — more loyal to their teams than to me, I’m sure.
In the land of Revelation, the “teams” largely line up in terms of when you think the Rapture occurs with respect to the Millennial reign of Jesus. Now, I grew up in the Churches of Christ in north Alabama, where we take our Revelation theories very seriously — so seriously, in fact, that we refuse to have one — which is, of course, the only safe choice that gets you into heaven. Foy Wallace, Jr. taught us all to be Amillennialists, that is, to deny a Rapture or a thousand-year reign of Jesus.
Moreover, Wallace taught us that the Premillennialists (Rapture first, Millennium second) are all going to hell, because some Premillennialists believe in the doctrine of a second chance. Some might even be closet Universalists. Therefore, hell. (If you disagree with Foy Wallace, Jr. on anything …)
So, since no one really understands the Revelation, and since being in error re the Revelation (or any other important doctrine) damns, better not to have any opinion at all
— making most Church of Christ members not Amillennialists but Don’t-have-or-care-to-have-an-opinion-millennialists. We’d prefer to talk about questions where the Bible is plain. Like instrumental music. And the sinfulness of fellowship halls. And how to spend money in the church treasury. But questions like the End Times and the Holy Spirit, well, the Bible just doesn’t have much to say on those topics. So why risk damnation by having an opinion on something that’s not all that important?
(We are a strange tribe, are we not?)
Now, in addition to disagreeing over the order of the Rapture vs. the Millennium, there are major disagreements about what most of the Revelation is about. For example —
- Preterist (AD 70). There are those who believe the Revelation was entirely fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus. I don’t see how a war that killed over a million Jews and forced the Jerusalem Christians out of their homes to seek sanctuary from Rome was anything like heaven, but that’s the theory. And there’s a sub-tribe of the Churches of Christ that holds to this theory with great enthusiasm.
- Preterist (Constantine). Eusebius, a church historian who lived at the time of Constantine, believed that the legalization of Christianity was the fulfillment of the Revelation. The pictures of “heaven” at the end of Revelation are about the church enjoying freedom to worship without fear, indeed, even the support of the Emperor. And since the legalization of Christianity under Constantine followed shortly after the brutal persecution of Diocletian, surely it felt that way at the time. But in hindsight, most Christian scholars now see the joining of Christianity with the Roman Empire to become a state-supported church was a step in the wrong direction.
- Preterist (partial). Pretty much everyone else believes that some of the NT prophecies were fulfilled at 70 AD. This position is called “partial preterism” even though it really means “not preterist.”
- Futurist. Most of Revelation hasn’t come to pass yet and may not come to pass for thousands of years yet to come. There are those who support this view, but it’s hard to see how all these prophecies meant much to the First Century church, or even today’s church, if they detail world events in the distant future.
- TV Evangelist. Everything in this morning’s news was predicted by the Revelation, Ezekiel, or somebody. Just give $100 to support our ministry, and we’ll explain tomorrow’s news today.
- History of Western civilization. The Revelation lays out in symbolic language the history of Western civilization through the founding of the nation of Israel and World War II, at least. After all, God has no interest in eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Australia, or Latin America.
- Abstract. The images of Revelation are words of comfort to the early church, but they stand for generalities such as idolatry and empire but no particular events.
- Secret Decoder Ring. If you buy my book, you too can decode the Revelation and know when Jesus will return. There will be multiple editions of this book, since Jesus seems o have trouble keeping a schedule, and so recalculations (and new purchases) will be required.
- Parallel cycles. Recently, it’s been suggested that the Revelation tells the same story several times, each time from a different perspective. The focus is largely on the confrontation of Christianity with the Roman powers — the Emperor and the pagan cults — but some passages look further ahead to the End Times.
So this is all very confusing, and in fact tends to make one a bit cynical about the whole thing. I mean, no other book has been so abused by the church over the years, often to very venal ends. Luther declared the Pope the Antichrist. During World War II, young men were recruited into the military while preachers declared Hitler the Antichrist. Clever attempts were made to show show how the Pope’s or Hitler’s name is 666 in Hebrew. But it does seem unlikely that a First Century book, written to seven churches in Asia Minor (Turkey, in today’s world), would focus so heavily on a 20th Century war or a 16th Century religious revolution. How would that help the churches the book was addressed to?
Therefore, the trend among recent scholars has been to ask what the Revelation meant to Christians suffering Roman persecution in Asia Minor, likely due to the mandatory worship of the Emperor of Rome as a god. Asia Minor was the center of the Emperor cult, perhaps because the Emperor’s favor led to commercial advantages, which led to money and prestige — honor. Rome was close enough that the Emperor’s goodwill really mattered, and far enough away that he could be imagined as greater than merely human.
So I’ve chosen to be guided in my studies by Michael J. Gorman’s book Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Readers will remember than I’m a particular fan of his book Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (mandatory reading despite all the $5 words in the title).
Gorman’s book isn’t verse by verse, but more of an introduction. I’m not sure whether I’m going to attempt verse by verse either. We’ll see.
Furthermore, although Scripture is a living word from God that can bring a fresh message to people in changing contexts, with respect to Revelation it must be clearly stated that some readings are not only inferior to others, they are in fact unchristian and unhealthy. [Amen.]
This last sentence may concern readers who are expecting a responsible reading of Revelation to be unbiased. But by “responsible” I mean theologically responsible, which entails paying attention to the book’s original historical and literary contexts, its relationship to the rest of Scripture, its relationship to Christian doctrine and practice, and its potential to help or harm people in their life of faith.
As a biblical scholar who strives to interpret Scripture theologically and missionally, I do not find it appropriate to separate exegesis (analysis of the historical and literary aspects of the text) from theological reflection or application. This is not a license for sloppy scholarship, but an invitation to lively and life-giving engagement. Otherwise, as Mitchell Reddish warns about the symbolism in Revelation, “[o]ne may dissect the text to such an extent that one ends up with a cadaver rather than a living text that continues to inspire, challenge, and embrace the reader.”
(Kindle Locations 113-123).
Now, of course, asking what the book meant to the original readers hardly means ignoring what it means to us. It just means that we have to start with the original audience in mind, not this morning’s paper.
What are the implications of this approach? Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. It is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world. That is, like every other New Testament book, Revelation is about Jesus Christ—“A revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1)—and about following him in obedience and love. “If anyone asks, ‘Why read the Apocalypse?’, the unhesitating answer must be, ‘To know Christ better.’”
(Kindle Locations 134-137).