Lesson 46: “He Will Dwell with Them, and They Shall Be His People” #BCCSundaySchool2019

John . . . wants to do more than tell what happens; he wants to show what such events mean. He wants to speak to the urgent question that people have asked throughout human history, wherever they first imagined divine justice: how long will evil prevail, and when will justice be done?

–Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

I can say one thing about the Book of Revelation that is helpful, useful, and unproblematically true: It is called Revelation, not Revelations. The “s” has been added in casual discourse to create an incorrect parallel to books like Acts, Corinthians, Hebrews, Romans, and etcs. So, if you have been referring to it as “Revelations,” then stop it.

This is not a trivial grammatical quibble. We make interpretive mistakes, I think, when we focus on parts of the text without reference to the whole–that is, when we treat John’s vision as “the Book of Revelations” and not “the Revelation.” This has produced nearly twenty centuries of interpretations that disregard the structure of the work in favor of what it may appear to say to a specific historical time.

These readings have become so prominent in our era–in which people have tried desperately to shoehorn the text into a 7,000 year time frame for the history of the world–that it has become difficult not to see parts of the text as a road map to the end of the world.

So, before going any further, I would like to take six paragraphs to paraphrase the vision that John describes. Like any six-paragraph paraphrase of a long and complex work, this is reductive and incomplete. But I want to try to fit the whole text in our field of vision before looking at any of its parts. So, here it goes: 

After being instructed by Jesus Christ to write down the vision he is about to have, John is taken up to heaven in the spirit and shown the throne of God, around which are 24 thrones occupied by 24 elders wearing white. John is introduced to four living beings resembling, respectively, a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle–except that each has six sets of wings each and multiple eyes. He also sees a scroll with seven seals that can only be broken by one who is worthy. A lamb with seven horns and seven eyes is given the scroll and proclaimed worthy. 

As the lamb breaks each of the seals, John sees different visions. Each of the first four seals calls forth a horseman on a different color horse (white, red, black, and pale), each with the power to wreak some sort of havoc on the world. The fifth seal calls forth the souls of those who have been martyred for God, who call out for vengeance, and the sixth seal brings forth great natural disasters. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, protecting it from harm until God’s seal can be placed upon the foreheads of the faithful, who number 144,000 and come from the twelve tribes of Israel.

The opening of the Seventh Seal is heralded by seven angels and trumpets along with a fair bit of incense. As each angel blows their trumpet, various cataclysmic things happen to the natural world. As the sixth trumpet blows, God releases four angels bound on earth to kill one-third of humanity, which does not cause those who remain to repent. John eats a little scroll and likes it. With the sounding of the seventh trumpet, the Temple of God opens and John sees the Arc of the Covenant.

Cut to Heaven: John sees a glorious woman, a queen, who is also very pregnant. He also sees a red dragon with seven heads standing by the woman to eat her child when it is born. She bears a son, whom God protects, and the woman flees into the desert for about 3 and a half years. Michael and his angels fight the dragon, who is thrown out and becomes Satan, and he tracks down the woman, but she gets wings and flies away, leaving the dragon angry and frustrated and vowing to make war on the women’s descendants.

Cut to the Ocean: John sees a beast arising from the sea. It is basically a leopard, with bear feet and a lion’s mouth. And seven heads with ten horns. The earth worships the beast, and it is allowed to speak blasphemies for 42 months. Then another beast ascends from the earth with horns like a lamb’s and the voice of a dragon. This beast performs miracles and gathers a following, but he seizes power, makes everybody a slave, and stamps 666 on their foreheads. But the 144,000, who have God’s stamp on their foreheads, are standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion. While everybody else is building statues to the beast, they sing happy songs with the good guys.

Cut back to the Seven Angels: The angels no longer have trumpets; they have steaming bowls of yuck to pour all over the earth. When the angels pour out the contents of the bowls, lots of really bad stuff happens: water turns to blood, rivers dry up, people get burned to death by the sun–the usual.The Great Whore of Babylon is punished, Babylon is destroyed, the beast is defeated, the Dragon is imprisoned for a thousand years, and God reigns on earth in the New Jerusalem.

Fade to credits with everybody dancing while an angelic Louis Armstrong sings “What A Wonderful World.”

The first rule for interpreting Revelation without becoming a wack-job is to preserve the unity of John’s vision. That means keeping everything  together, but it also means bringing the same interpretive assumptions about symbolism, figurative language, typology, and historical context to various parts of the text. If the battle between Michael and the Dragon (12:7-12) refers to the events of a long-past battle in the pre-existence, then the Whore of Babylon (17:1-6) can’t suddenly be a prophecy about the Medieval Catholic Church.While both interpretations are possible in isolation, they don’t combine to produce a stable reading of the whole text. 

Another way to say this is that we should assume roughly the same level of abstraction among the various symbols. If we want to read the four horsemen as personifications of abstract phenomena like plague, war, conquest, and famine, then we can’t simultaneously say that they are going to literally descend on a concrete place called Megiddo (Armageddon) about an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on the Yitzhak Rabin Highway/Route 6.

We should also make sure that we read the symbols in Revelation as doing the kind of things that symbols can do, which is conveying powerful emotions that do not translate easily into prose. Symbols are not particularly good at representing timelines or placing events on maps. And symbols are very bad at prophesying about future events in ways that people can understand before they happen. Such prophecies make much more sense in retrospect, when we can filter out all of the possible interpretations that did not occur. 

So, given all of this windup, what does Revelation mean?

I have no idea, actually. It might not mean anything at all–just the ecstatic ramblings of a first-century wack-job. Plenty of people have believed this, including most of the early Church Fathers, which is why it was the last New Testament book to be canonized and almost didn’t make it.

But it could also mean some very profound things that it conveys through its vivid, unforgettable symbols. Some of the possibilities include:

  • An assurance that, no matter how vile or ugly the world gets, God is in control, and the monsters and beasts in the world exists because they, too, are part of a grand design. This would have been important for the Christian/Jewish community to understand after the Fall of Jerusalem and the martyrdom of most of the first generation of leaders.
  • An assertion of the fact of justice.Though John does not answer the questions that Elaine Pagels asks–“How long will evil prevail, and when will justice be done?–he does convey very powerfully that evil will not prevail forever and that justice will be done in the end.
  • An understanding that many of the things that we call “evil”–natural disasters, earthquakes, plagues, fires and the like–are caused by “angels,” or, more abstractly, represent the will and divine understanding of God.
  • The very crucial understanding that the evil “beasts” of the world–up to and including Satan–gain their power by deceiving people into following them and then taking their freedom. The way to make beasts powerless is to reject the counterfeits that they offer and seek instead the actual Kingdom of God.
  • An urgent emphasis on the distinction between Zion and Babylon, with the latter able to create counterfeits of the former–as the Whore of Babylon is a copy of the beautiful queen–but only for a short time. Zion brings joy, while Babylon brings merely pleasure.

These bullet points all slouch towards a reading of the Revelation that sees its freakish nightmares as, ultimately, designed to comfort people who have seen plenty of real evil in their lives at the hands of the Roman Empire. Speaking in another context, and exploring the function of fairy tales in children’s lives, the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote, 

Fairy tales . . . are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Much the same, I think, could be said of the Book of Revelation, about dragons, beasts, serpents, monsters, natural disasters, and, yes, Roman emperors. The point is not that they exist. And the point is not that they will come in the last days. The point is that–whenever they come and wherever they are–they will not be victorious because they are all ultimately servants–willing or unwilling– of a just and loving God.

Comments

  1. Thanks for making your points.
    I’ve been wondering if I received the same revelation if I would write it down the same. If so, why would God reveal such symbolically heavy visions to people?

  2. Thank you, Michael Austin. I love the six-paragraph paraphrase, and this post has been the best advice I’ve heard or read on how to read the Book of Revelation.

  3. I just explained this to my 10-year-olds in Primary today. After we drew pictures of the dragon and the beast because they’re cool.

  4. Stephen Hardy says:

    Jader3

    I’m no expert but I’ve read that the symbolism may have helped get the message out without stirring up the Roman powers. They were confused by it and didn’t use it, it is suggested, to further Christian persecution’s. Sort of like all kinds of stuff that were symbolic that got by soviet censorship

    Maybe…