Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Revelation: The Most Misused Book in the Bible

While I usually try not to make strong, dogmatic statements that cannot be empirically supported, I am quite certain that the book of Revelation is the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible.
A Traditional View of Revelation 
Growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church, it was not uncommon to hear sermons about the impending end of the world based on passages from Revelation, the last book of the Bible.
Especially when visiting evangelists preached “revivals” at my home church, Revelation was often used to emphasize that the end times were upon us for sure and we had better get ready for the rapidly approaching doomsday. I still remember hearing frightening sermons along those lines in 1950 or before.
Twenty years later, the final Battle of Armageddon still had not come, but Hal Lindsey wrote powerfully about the impending end times in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), said to be the bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970s.
Especially over the past 200 years, the Bible has been used frequently to predict the imminent end of the world. The books of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament have also been used for such “prophecy,” but the main basis has been the book of Revelation.
But I have long been convinced that the traditional “dispensational” view of Revelation is wrongheaded and that the widespread way Revelation has been used among conservative Christians is erroneous. 
A New View of Revelation 
In the early 1960s, my understanding of Revelation greatly changed—and greatly improved, I believe—by reading the book Worthy is the Lamb: An Interpretation of Revelation (1951) by Ray Summers, who was one of my seminary professors.
One of the main points that I realized from reading Dr. Summers’ book is that Revelation was written for Christians at the end of the first century, not for the purpose of prophesying what was going to happen in the last half of the 20th century.
During each of my two pastorates while a seminary student, I taught Revelation over the course of many Sunday evenings, using Worthy as the Lamb as the main commentary for interpreting that difficult book of the Bible. 
Repeatedly, I reminded those in attendance that every part of Revelation was written to help/encourage the persecuted Christians at the end of the first century. Thus it is important, first of all, to see what meaning each part of the book had for them. 
To say the least, it would not have been helpful for the early Christians to learn that Revelation was predicting how Russia was going to trigger the Battle of Armageddon in the 1960s or ’70s.
A Recommended View of Revelation 
This article on Revelation was prompted by Brian Zahnd, author of the previously introduced book Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God. Three of the chapters (7~9) of that engaging book are about Revelation, and last month BZ preached a sermon at Word of Life Church where he is pastor on “What About the Book of Revelation?” (That sermon, which you can hear here, is certainly worth listening to).
BZ also agrees with my opening dogmatic statement. He writes, “The book of Revelation is easily the most misunderstood and misused book in the Bible” (p. 149).
Revelation is, truly, an important part of the Bible. It must, however, be read and interpreted wisely. If properly read and interpreted, it gives us Christians hope for the future and strength to oppose political idolatry and evil in the present.
Rather than neglect Revelation because of its misuse, we need to pay attention to its abiding message, even for us today.

30 comments:

  1. I read once that Martin Luther questioned whether Revelation should even be in the Bible. It has marvelous imagery, and I've found it useful for spinning off sermons and ideas. But probably I'm more with Luther here; it's a challenging book to redeem for devotional purposes--better perhaps for lessons about the historical contexts of sacred texts and higher criticism.

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    1. Yes, it seems that Luther questioned not only Revelation but also Hebrews, James, and Jude.

      Later on, though, Luther used Revelation as a basis for criticizing the papacy. I have read that it was the one book that he illustrated with woodcuts, for Revelation allowed him to make one of his central points: the papacy was the Antichrist, and the end of the world was coming. In the woodcuts the whore of Babylon is wearing a papal crown, as is the seven-headed beast.

      This leads me to say that Luther was also guilty of misusing Revelation in a way not too far different from the dispensationalists of the 20th century (and still).

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  2. I heartily agree, Bro. Leroy. The Book of the Revelation would be of far greater benefit today if its comfort and encouragement were emphasized over its cryptic predictions. Our desire to be in control of the future through foreknowledge has greatly hindered the blessings this book offers.

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    1. Thanks for reading and responding early this morning, Tom.

      You probably were present most of those Sunday evenings when I taught Revelation at Ekron Baptist Church--but you were quite young then and probably don't remember that at all. I would like to think, though, that perhaps that study helped you to become open to a more nearly correct view of Revelation than many people had back then.

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    2. Yep, I was a bit young at ten-twelve years old. However, Summer's book was practically required reading as I was translating Revelation in my seminary days and working through it as a J-Term class. Learning to read Revelation as a book of comfort was easier having a father who didn't care much for the literal interpretation as I was going through high school and older.

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  3. In the early years of my sojourn, I was taught the novel dispensational, escatological view of interpretation - and bought it. But decades later, after reading John's Gospel with fresh eyes, I realized that I should probably read this book fresh as well. What I found was a repeating series - worship of God; something bad happens... and in the end, just worship of God.

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    1. 1sojourner, I think you have put your finger on an essential element for a proper understanding of Revelation. It is about the worship of the eternal, Triune God.

      The praise of God begins with Rev. 4:8 --

      “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,
      who was and is and is coming.”


      Summers' book title comes from Rev. 5:12, which is included with the closing words of praise in the fifth chapter:

      11 I heard the sound of many angels surrounding the throne, the living creatures, and the elders. They numbered in the millions—thousands upon thousands.

      12 They said in a loud voice,

      “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb
      to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might,
      and honor, glory, and blessing.”

      13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea--I heard everything everywhere say,

      “Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong
      to the one seated on the throne
      and to the Lamb
      forever and always.”

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  4. Faithful Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago today shares the following comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your observations about the book of Revelation.

    "I fully agree that the book of Revelation is certainly misused and misinterpreted. Many scholars believe that Revelation is a composite work based in part on earlier Jewish apocalyptic writings. Chapters 13 through 20 contain clear references to the city of Rome and to events and persons from the Roman Empire of the late first century CE. It is best understood in its original historical context, not those of later centuries.

    "J. Massyngberde Ford, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame, wrote in her book on Revelation for the Anchor Bible series that the prophecies of John the Baptist initiated and inspired the writing of Revelation. Although I am not so sure of her theory, Professor Ford has produced a very scholarly work.

    "Despite these academic musings, the book of Revelation does contain, as you have pointed out, a message for Christians today."

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    1. Thanks, Eric, for your learned comments. Although I have used, with profit, some of the Anchor Bible commentaries, I have not read any of Ford's commentary on Revelation--nor did I know anything about her.

      I was interested to learn that she became the first tenured faculty member at Notre Dame University in 1968 and that she died in 2015 at the age of 86.

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  5. I also received by email these comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you, Leroy. I agree totally with your assessment of misuse and abuse of revelation. I too took the Ray Summers’ approach in my 20 plus years of ministry. It’s still on my bookshelf, and am envious you studies with Dr. Summers. But it was Dr. Harold Songer, my New Testament professor at Southern, who drove me to this hermeneutical approach. I can still hear him today. 'What did it mean then? And what does it mean today for us?' We mustn’t get away from the original meaning.

    "To appropriate value for ourselves today, we mustn’t be afraid to see the invalid social constructs embedded in Scripture derived from the minds/thinking of antiquity."

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    1. I didn't know Dr. Songer well, but I certainly agree with the questions he asked you and others in his classes and with your assertion that we mustn't get away from the original meaning.

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  6. I've not read the referenced books, but I have read Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, by Elaine Pagels—my review is at this link.

    Pagels conjectures that there was no difficulty understanding the meaning of Revelation prior to Constantine. However, after Christianity became an integral part of Roman government it was no longer acceptable to identify the "Whore of Babylon" as the Roman Empire. After that point in history the meaning changed to target whomever was the current enemy or heretic.

    In Pagels' opinion the warning about those who "say they are Jews and are not" was targeting the second generation descendants of the gentile converts of the Apostle Paul. According to Pagels, John of Patmos believed in strict observance of Jewish laws and did not approve of the relatively loose standards of Paul's gentile converts. I find it ironic that letters written by authors of opposing opinions are now bundled together in the New Testament canon.

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    1. Thanks so much, Clif, for posting your informative comments.

      I have not read Pagels' book "Revelations"--and not much of anything she has written. But I think her basic premise, as you cite it, is correct:

      "What John did in the Book of Revelation, among other things, was create anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions--above all, the writing of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel." (p.16)

      I also found it instructive that Pagels says that the interpretation of the book of Revelation changed after Constantine. That fits in with our Anabaptist tradition of seeing the "victory" of Christianity with Constantine as actually being the "fall" of Christianity.

      The perennial message of Revelation, then, is that Christians find encouragement and hope in the struggle against the "Caesar" of any age. The problem, though, is that most Christians, in this country at least, are comfortable in their compromise with Caesar and see no reason to struggle against the empire.

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  7. Thanks, Leroy, for another informative and thought-provoking blog posting. It brought back my days as a seminary and graduate student at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. I too used Ray Summers' Worthy is the Lamb in a sermon series at the church I was pastoring while a student. I also remember my Greek prof James Blevins' enthusiasm for the hymns in Revelation. We used to sing the Greek to modern hymn tunes, such as Revelation 4:4 to the tune of "Holy Holy Holy" (which takes its text from Rev 4:4).

    These days I'm particularly interested in anti-imperial and ecological readings of Revelation. The anti-imperial aspect, which you mention near the end of your posting, Leroy, is pretty obvious. Less obvious, though, is the ecological reading. Many of the catastrophes in Revelation involve destruction of the natural environment (e.g. a third of the earth burned up in Rev 8:7). Yet the book concludes with the vision of a "new heaven and a new earth" (21:1; see Isa 65:17). The book of Revelation calls us to oppose the despotic rulers and to act on behalf of the earth.
    -- Michael Newheart

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    1. Thanks, Michael, for your significant comments.

      I wrote more about the relevance of Revelation with regard to "despotic rulers" in responding to Clif's comments. But I had not thought of the ecological implications, so I appreciate you calling attention to that.

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  8. I will add one piece of bibliography: Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books, 2005).

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    1. Thanks for the book recommendation, Michael. I have not seen it--but I probably should have mentioned it when I wrote my article about the Rapture that I posted on March 25, 2015. (The link is https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2015/03/do-you-believe-in-rapture.html ).

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  9. I wish you would have gone into how the book of Revelation has been Misused and Misinterputed, even though i believe you.
    I have attended several intense classes on Revelation, taught by the top Bible teacher minds, at least in America; even by my Messianic Rabbi and they All stressed the future predictions.
    I feel that Revelation is an encouragement for us Followers and also Giving us a glimpse of the future based on John`s visions.
    I see no problem with it warning us of the end times because it can come with our premature death, Not just the end of this world as we know it.
    I would like the input and more `Specifics` of your thought&beliefs as you are willing to Share.
    Love&Peace,
    John(Tim) Carr

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    1. Thanks, John Tim, for reading the article and responding.

      There is no problem in interpreting Revelation as prophesying/predicting an end in which God is victorious. The problem is when that general view is linked to specific historical situations.

      Luther, for example, thought that the Pope was the Antichrist, and it seems that because of that he thought the world would end at least by 1600. That, I believe, was misuse of Revelation. The Pope turned out not to be the Antichrist and the world didn't end then.

      Hal Lindsey predicted the end of the world in the 1970s based partly on Revelation, as did John Wesley White in his book "Re-Entry" (1971). As I remember it, White said that based on the Bible, including Revelation, of course, the world would certainly end by 1980. But it didn't and White lived to 2016 when he died at the age of 87.

      These are just some specific examples of people who have misused the book of Revelation.

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    2. Thanks for your reply and i agree with you 100%!

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  10. The Book of Revelation starts right out telling us not to take it too literally. In the first chapter John tells us he was "in the spirit" (1:10) before telling what he hears and sees, and then he ends the chapter explaining the symbolism of part of what he saw, "As for the mystery of the seven starts that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." (1:20) John himself treats the vision as an allegory, and invites us in with a partial explanation. There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to the book that invites us to experience and learn, even as it warns us not to take things too literally. Indeed, reading Revelation too literally would be to miss the point of the book as completely as a too literal reading of Alice in Wonderland would do to it. If you promise not to take the song too literally, there is a song inspired by Alice that might make appropriate background music while reading Revelation. For a link to White Rabbit, listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl89g2SwMh4

    Elsewhere in music, there is a musical called "Quilters" that is set in frontier Nebraska, and tells of the lives and adventures of the women of the plains through the quilts they made and the patterns they used. It dives deeply and profitably into the book of Revelation for themes and symbols while confronting everything from prairie fires to marriage. The final song is a tribute to a quilting pattern called Tree of Life. That musical is the best use I have ever seen of the book of Revelation. For a hint of the musical, see this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTGsm1hH90s

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    1. Thanks, Craig, for your comments and for linking to two interesting songs, but I'm afraid they weren't as meaningful to me as evidently they were to you.

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  11. Local Thinking Friend Wade Paris, who is a little older than I, shared the following comments:

    "Interesting. Just last week I began reviewing 'Worthy Is the Lamb.' I recall as a ten or eleven year old boy revival preachers coming and declaring they would tell us everything about end times and Revelation. One year the revival evangelist in the spring and the one in the fall told of almost opposite 'certainties.' As A boy I concluded someone was wrong. They couldn’t both be right."

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  12. I think we err when we view the Canon--these 66 books, all these 66 books, none other than these 66 books--as divinely inspired. I understand original intention in Revelation. But I see so much havoc in the history of the interpretation of that 66th book, havoc which continues to the present, that I think it would have been better if Revelation had not been included in the Canon. So I pretty well just leave it out of mine!
    BTW, don't know whether it is true, but I have read that Hal Lindsey invested his profits from LGPE into real estate! Charles Kiker

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles.

      It would probably be better for Revelation not to be in the Bible than to be misused as it has been so widely. But there are many who also have been largely able to understand the symbolism and to profit greatly from the true message of Revelation. So I can't agree that its misuse should cause it not to be used/read/appreciated at all.

      As for Lindsey (b. 1929), I was surprised by what I found--and am unable to verify. Some websites claim that he is worth around $42,000,000. He also seems to have been married and divorced three times and is now married to his fourth wife. The latter may be more verifiable than the figure about his wealth, which I could not find the source of--but real estate would be a good guess.

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    2. I guess Planet Earth has been pretty Great for him of Late. CK

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  13. My introduction to Revelation as a theological student was straight to the relations of the early church to Rome and the Roman Empire. That was the tack taken by the authors and editors of the Jerusalem Bible under the aegis of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem (original French edition 1961, English translation 1965—I still have both). Their chronological table estimated its initial circulation as a book around 95, but the introduction (by M. Boimard) treated it as a likely reworking of several earlier pieces, e.g. the letter to the seven churches. There may have been two earlier apocalypses by the same author at two earlier times. The basic focus was on how Christians see and live their relationship to the Roman Empire, adding as to its place as a part of Christian scriptures: “The significance of the Revelation is wider than this primary, basic meaning derived by historical interpretation: the book is interested in the unchanging realities to which faith is always open in any period of history.” “Revelation in an epic of Christian hope, the victory song of the persecuted Church.”

    In more recent years I have come to realize how “The Apocalypse” of the NT is one of some two dozen examples of apocalyptic writings we have from the period of 235 BCE through 200 CE. This hit me and led me to further reading, when I saw the Dead Sea scroll exhibit at the Union Station a few years back, as those scrolls contained an apocalypse. I picked up and read with interest James Vanderkam’s An Introduction to Early Judaism (2001, Eerdmans) with a section specifically on “apocalypses”.

    I am a fan of L. Michael White presentation of “From Jesus to Christianity” (PBS Frontline, and the book, 2004). He has an essay on “Apocalyptic Literature in Judaism and Early Christianity” that provides the lineage and context from Isaiah 56-66 and Ezekiel through I Enoch and Daniel, the Dead Sea scrolls and II Enoch to the Apocalypse of John and on to the Apocalypse of Peter and third version of Baruch, most of which can be read in the handy collection, The Other Bible (W. Barnstone, ed., Harper, 1984).

    Writing and preaching “apocalypses” seems to be an affliction and continuing source of fear-mongering as well as creating an epic of hope.

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    1. Thanks, Larry, for your learned comments. My impression that Revelation has been misused far less in the Roman Catholic Church in modern times than it has in much of (conservative) Protestantism.

      There were certainly apocalyptic writings long before Revelation, but for Christians none is as significant as Revelation--although many dispensationalists made strong use of Ezekiel and Daniel also.

      I like, and fully agree with, the the summary statement at the end of your first paragraph: “Revelation in an epic of Christian hope, the victory song of the persecuted Church.”

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  14. I appreciate your perspective--and heartily agree. I've taken a similar approach in the following book--which now has been translated into several languages, most recently Spanish. Here's the English version:

    https://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-Allegiance-Politics-Devotion-Revelation/dp/1587432617/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509549922&sr=8-1&keywords=apocalypse+and+allegiance&dpID=51hBFu8rhQL&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch

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    1. Dr. Kraybill, I am delighted that you posted comments and the link to your book here on my blogsite.

      You will be interested to know, I think, that I read some of your book in my preparation for writing this article on Revelation. In addition, I also quoted the Christian pledge of allegiance from your book in the sermon I preached on Oct. 22. (That sermon was closely related to my Oct. 20 blog article.)

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