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.
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.