Apocalypse: Perspectives on the Book of Revelation from the Left, Right, and Center
By Richard Edmondson
Doomsday, end-of-the-world-type scenarios seem to be much on people’s minds these days, or at least a number of bloggers are lately posting on the subject (see here, here, here, and here for example). Hardly surprising that humanity’s collective thoughts would turn in such a direction given the nuclear crisis in Japan and the existence of a nuclear-armed rogue state in the Middle East led by religious fanatics bent on world domination (and no, I’m not talking about Iran).
With all of the above going on I thought it might be timely to post some information on Saint John’s Apocalypse, also known as the Book of Revelation—the final book in the Christian Bible. Much of what follows is compiled from a chapter entitled “The Apocalypse,” taken from my novel, The Memoirs of Saint John, which was published in October of last year.
The Book of Revelation was written on the Greek island of Patmos, which is believed to have served as a Roman penal colony and is located off the coast of what is today Turkey. Most modern scholars date the writing to around 95 or 96 AD, although some have suggested an earlier date. The writer identifies himself only as “John” and Christian tradition has long held the author to have been John the disciple of Jesus, although his identity has come to be heavily disputed in modern times. If he was the disciple he would have had to have been quite old at the time of the writing, and some have suggested he may have actually been a lesser-known “presbyter,” or elder in the early church, of the same name. In an effort to avoid a wrangle over the author’s precise identity, a lot of people nowadays simply use the term “John of Patmos” and leave it at that. In any event, what we have here is a man imprisoned in a Roman penal colony who one day sees an apparition of Christ, or “one like a son of man,” as he describes it. The figure, standing amidst seven golden candlesticks, instructs him to write down in a book an account of a series of visions that are about to come to him—and what then follows is “the nightmare of God,” as St. John’s Apocalypse has been termed.
Heavily impregnated with symbolism, the Book of Revelation is puzzling and mysterious. A mystique in fact has come to surround it. Despite its many ambiguities, the tract has been, and continues to be, interpreted in creative, often absurd ways. It is regarded as history, end-times prophecy, or even both, by categories of expounders to whom such names as “preterists,” “historicists,” and “futurists” have been applied. In modern times, mainstream Christianity has tended to deemphasize the Apocalypse; church lectionaries seldom feature it any more, yet its passages have been evoked in countless books and movies. Moreover, for all its mysterious qualities, it does seem to resonate with disparate branches of the faith, from fundamentalists at one end of the spectrum, to liberation theologians at the other. Scholars, for their own part, have viewed the Woman Clothed with the Sun as representing the Virgin Mary, or alternately as the heavenly or earthly church, or Israel, while exegetes of various stripes have struggled to name the beast, or decode the number 666. In all of history, perhaps no other piece of writing, including the works of Plato and Shakespeare, has held such sway over the human imagination, or the Western imagination at any rate. This has shown no sign of slacking off in modern times. On the contrary, if anything, with the world entering the nuclear age in the 20th century, the reverse has been the case.
In 1970, Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth. Translated into 53 languages, the book became something of a manifesto for Christian dispensationalists, eventually selling more than 35 million copies and generating an astounding amount of mainstream attention. Essentially Lindsey’s interpretation of biblical prophecy, The Late Great Planet Earth is filled with cold war rhetoric, with the author casting the Soviet Union as the biblical “Gog” and warning of “the vast hordes of the Orient” who, in Lindsey’s view, would probably become “united under the Red Chines war machine” in time for the final Battle of Armageddon. These theories were finely tuned in a follow-up book, published in 1973, entitled There’s a New World Coming, a chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse analysis of Lindsey’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation. In it, he speaks of the “merciless, sweeping tyranny” of an Antichrist who would rise out of Europe. Significantly, the European Common Market, in the early 1970s, stood at just under ten members. John’s “beast from the sea,” described in Revelation chapter 13, has ten horns, as does the fourth beast in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Lindsey took it all as evidence that the European Common Market (now with 27 members and known as the European Union) would morph into a “Revived Roman Empire” that would supplant the United States in power. As for the latter, America suffered from a weakness in its will to resist communism, and “is nowhere intimated in the Bible’s prophecies of the last war of the world.”
In yet another bestselling book on prophecy, John F. Walvoord, chancellor at Dallas Theological Seminary, also warned of a coming world conflagration in his Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis. The book was originally published in 1973, but was reissued in 1990—just in time, seemingly, for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War. Walvoord, too, saw a revived Roman empire shaping up in Europe, but he also regarded the “power of Arab oil” as being destined to play a deciding role in what he referred to as the “Armageddon countdown.” Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisiscites a number of passages from Revelation, including its references to the Euphrates River (16:12); Walvoord also depicted Saddam Hussein as having “the ambition of establishing a new Babylonian Empire with himself in the role of Nebuchadnezzar.” But as for any role America might play in the planet’s coming “death struggle,” Walvoord seemed to agree with Lindsey: “No specific prophecy whatever is found concerning the role of the United States, indicating that its contribution will be a secondary one as the world moves on to Armageddon,” he said.
Revelation’s use of “Babylon” as a code word for imperial Rome was of course key for evangelicals watching events unfold in the Middle East. But some Christian dispensationalists took the literal view, that is that a literal rebuilding of ancient Babylon, on the site where it once stood in today’s Iraq, was a necessary precursor to the final Battle of Armageddon. Saddam Hussein’s alleged plans to do no less than just that were revealed in The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times by Charles Dyer of the Moody Bible Institute. Arousing considerable public interest, particularly in the evangelical community, the book was originally published in 1990, and then reissued in early 2003—apparently timed for America’s second invasion of Iraq. “Prideful” and “barbaric”—these are some of the adjectives Dyer used to describe Saddam Hussein, in a book whose front cover artwork featured an image of the Iraqi leader’s face, with a mushroom cloud adorning the back. And what of America? How did it figure into Revelation’s prophecies? Again, like Lindsey and Walvoord, Dyer felt the United States was “strangely absent” from biblical predictions of the end times.
But of course nothing captured the public imagination quite like the Left Behind series by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. The books hit the mass-market fiction audience starting in the mid-1990s, serving up the adventures of a “tribulation force” of Christian believers who do battle with the Antichrist Nicholas Carpathia. The latter assumes control of the “Global Community” (the newly renamed United Nations), and moves its headquarters to “New Babylon,” which has been erected—where else?—on the ancient site in Iraq.
Lindsey, Walvoord, and Dyer, like most Christian evangelicals in the latter half of the 20th century, shared an almost deified admiration for Israel, and viewed the establishment of the Zionist state as a fulfillment of prophecy. (Many evangelicals today are moving away from that view. See here, here, here, and here, for just a few examples.)
In reading the Book of Revelation, university scholars generally part company, and in significant ways, with evangelical authors. One such scholar has been Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a Harvard professor of religious studies and author of two books on the Apocalypse. The Book of Revelation’s main value is the insight it provides into the thinking of Christian communities of the late first century, argues Schüssler Fiorenza, who cited Walvoord in particular as an example of “how a fundamentalist reading of Revelation and imperialist politics intertwine.”
“Biblical scholars do not read Revelation as a code by which to decipher events of our own time,” she adds.
Writing in 1991, Schüssler Fiorenza viewed the Apocalypse as exhibiting “bizarre language” as well as a “grotesque world of vision,” yet she also felt it was an “outcry for justice.” To look upon the book as a prediction of future events, she reasoned, would be “disastrous,” however. Instead, Revelation should be regarded as a “vision of a just world.” Schüssler Fiorenza also considered the premise of authorship by John the disciple of Jesus to be “not tenable.”
In his 1993 book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, UK scholar and professor Richard Bauckham viewed the Apocalypse as a work “composed with astonishing care and skill.” In his view, “we should certainly not doubt that John had remarkable visionary experiences,” yet Bauckham, too, dispelled the notion of the book’s being a picture of the future. Rather, he said, the ancient author’s intended purpose was “to counter the Roman imperial view of the world,” but the way he went about doing that is what aroused Bauckham’s admiration for the text; the Apocalypse, he noted, “creates a complex network” of literary cross references, parallels, and contrasts, all put together in an “astonishingly meticulous” manner. The grouping of various things into sevens—cups, seals, churches, and the like—is only a small part of this picture. In addition to these more obvious groupings, Bauckham discovered “numerical patterns” in references to God, Christ, and the Spirit scattered throughout the text. These references often fall into factors of four or seven. For instance, seven designations for “Lord God Almighty” (found at 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 19:6; and 21:22), are complemented by seven beatitudes (at 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; and 22:7 and 14), and fourteen occurrences of the name “Jesus.” In addition, the word “Lamb” in reference to Christ, occurs twenty-eight (7 x 4) times. Seven of these are in phrases linking God and the Lamb together (at 5:13; 6:16; 7:10; 14:4; 21:22; and 22:1 and 3); while there are also four references to the “seven Spirits” (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6)…and seven references (5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15) to what Bauckham referred to as the “four-fold phrase” (“peoples, tribes, languages, and nations”)—a phrase used by John as an indicator for all humanity. Baukham felt patterns such as these were “likely to be deliberate.”
In the ancient world, the number seven represented completeness, while the world, with its four wind directions, four corners, etc., was depicted by the number four. For Bauckham, Revelation addressed the “worldwide tyranny of Rome” in a manner that made it essentially “the most powerful piece of political resistance literature from the period of the early Empire.” Of course, Rome isn’t the only thing at which the Apocalypse takes aim. The words “synagogue of Satan” are found at two points in the text (2:9 and 3:9). For Bauckham, the phrase sounded “dangerously anti-Semitic,” and in fact “would be, if repeated outside its original context.” But Baukham regarded 2:9 and 3:9 as evidence of an “intra-Jewish dispute,” rather than an outpouring of anti-Semitism, a dispute which he described as “a rift like that between the temple establishment and the Qumran community, who denounced their fellow Jews as ‘an assembly of deceit and a congregation of Belial.’”
Indeed the Apocalypse does have “insiders,” as well as those who seem clearly and pejoratively regarded as “outsiders.” Scholar Cameron Afzal felt the tract’s intended audience was the insiders, and that as such the Book of Revelation was not, per se, a missionary text intended to convert others to the Christian faith. Furthermore, Afzal, in his 2008 work, The Mystery of the Book of Revelation, contended that the author, whichever John it may have been, was possibly the most revolutionary thinker of his age.
Among us are artists, visionaries, thinkers with creative minds that help shape our communal perspectives. Their work becomes a part of culture and helps us to perceive and apprehend both ourselves and the world around us. These cultural artifacts don’t necessarily create reality in order to flourish and grow. Sometimes one of us will attempt to radically reconfigure the way in which we look at the world. St. John of Patmos was one such man.
Afzal felt John had intended his narrative of world cataclysm to function as a “future trace,” as Afzal put it, an indication that something is to occur in the future, much as a glow in the sky before dawn indicates the sun will rise. “In a sense the future trace lies at the foundation of all modern physics in the form of probability theory or even quantum mechanics,” he said. He also noted the book’s extensive grounding in Jewish literature and culture, and said there is an “emerging consensus” that the author was indeed a Jew.
It’s worth pausing here to note that one of the basic concepts of quantum theory is that matter possesses a particle-wave duality, exhibiting characteristics of each. This in turn gives rise to a level of uncertainty over a particle’s precise position, creating in effect a “range” of possibilities. The wave is what determines the range, but when the position of the particle is measured, the range narrows, creating what scientists refer to as “wave collapse.” Why the phenomenon occurs has not been completely understood. Is it the mere act of observing? If so, would there then be no wave collapse without consciousness, and would the collapse therefore be deemed a result of “downward causation,” as scientists refer to it, or—as theologians would term it—“divine intervention”? It’s an interesting question. Theologians of course deal in matters of the spirit—a dubious concept for most scientists, yet in the world of quantum physics, dubious concepts often materialize into reality, the experiments of French physicist Alain Aspect and associates in the early 1980s being a case in point. Aspect proved that two particles emitted from the same wave function remained inextricably correlated. A change in one produced a similar and instantaneous change in the other, even when the particles were separated by a distance of more than a kilometer. Communication normally occurs by means of signals carrying energy. But in this case, there was none. The effect has been referred to as “spooky action at a distance.”
To no great surprise, actual victims of oppression read the Book of Revelation in a manner far, far different from ivory-towered university professors, or even pulpit-pounding evangelicals. The power of the Apocalypse and its relevance to the South African struggle against apartheid was the subject of Comfort and Protest, a 1987 book by Allan Boesak.
I heard from family members how a mother and her four-month-old baby and six-year-old handicapped boy were driven out of their shack by tear gas. As they ran out they were driven back again by gunshots. While they were inside, the shack was set alight and they were burned alive. The police looked on without lifting a finger. The young man who told me the story was barely eighteen. I had no answer to his burning anger, nor had I comfort for the tears of the old woman who stood next to him.
The “comfort” Boesak finally elected to offer was that of Saint John’s Apocalypse. Boesak, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, initiated a series of Bible studies for his congregants on the Book of Revelation. The latter, he held, has “much to say to our own times, and especially to those of us who, like the churches of John’s time, must live under political repression.” Boesak rejected the futurist interpretation of Revelation adopted by evangelicals, but likewise he also found fault with scholars who read the work solely in terms of its first century setting. Instead, he put forth a “contemporary-historical” understanding of the work: “No prophecy receives its full and final fulfillment in one given historical moment only, or even in a series of events. If the prophecy is the expression of an undeniable truth which comes from God, it will be fulfilled at different times and in different ways in the history of the world.”
But South Africa wasn’t the only place people were reading Revelation and drawing solace from it. In 1994, the Chilean priest Pablo Richard published his book, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, following a series of workshops held primarily in Central America. The gatherings averaged eighty persons each, including peasants, indigenous people, leaders of Christian Base Communities and the like. Richard’s conclusion was that Revelation is having a “decisive influence” in the Third World, where it is “coming to be the preferred book of the Christian Base Communities” and other ecclesial movements seeking social change. Its appeal, he said, is that it “unveils the reality of the poor and legitimizes their liberation.” Richard furthermore felt that the Church ignores or downplays Saint John’s vision at its own peril. “Over the long run, it was disregard of Revelation that opened the way for the incorporation of the church into the dominant imperial system and the construction of an authoritarian Christendom. To retrieve Revelation is to retrieve a fundamental dimension of the Jesus movement and of the origins of Christianity.”
Unlike Richard, Catholic lay writers Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, writing in 1999, went so far as to attach a modern-day name to the beast: “global capital,” they called it. The co-authors regarded Revelation’s imagery as “lurid and violent,” but then the beast of global capital also exerts a “systemic violence” that is “visible and apparent,” they said. “We have also noted the ‘war against the poor’ waged on behalf of global capital in Latin America and other places when people are murdered for daring to seek dignity and the basics of life.”
But the violence capable of being unleashed upon the planet by those of wealth and privilege was not only sensed and intuited by Third World peasants. Others saw it as well. In the United States, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan wrote Nightmare of God while jailed for his anti-nuclear activism in the early 1980s. Berrigan takes his own country to task for “preparing for ever more lethal incursions” against other countries and peoples, while he also issues a withering criticism of biblical scholars: “To most scholars of the Bible, the crimes of the U.S. Air Force are forever beside the point. Thus does crime multiply and scholarship rot.” The Apocalypse, in Berrigan’s view, contains a “social bias” in favor of the victims of oppression, unlikeAmerica, which Berrigan felt was bent upon “carving the earth” through war. “Bellicose, selfish, self-deluded, icy, absolutely resolute—behold the Rome of the Book of Revelation. Behold also America?” For Berrigan there was only one choice: “resist the state.”
With the publication of Nightmare of God in 1982, Berrigan may well have become the first American to draw a public analogy between modern day United States and the beast in Revelation, but outside the United States, others were making identical comparisons. One was Guatemalan exile-poet Julia Esquivel. Her poem, “Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.”, was written in November of 1981 and published the following year in her collection Threatened with Resurrection; here the poet speaks of being “led by the Spirit” on the “eve of Thanksgiving Day” into the desert where she has a “vision of Babylon.” It is a lengthy poem, and one very much worth reading in its entirety. I will supply here an excerpt.
Later another Angel showed me
the plains of California,
and I heard a great cry
which poured from the earth,
rising above the smoke
from the skyscrapers,
until even the Father could hear it,
and it reached the throne of the Sacrificial Lamb.
It was the cry of the blood
of thousands of innocent martyrs.
Then I recognized the Beast
which has a thousand faces
and a different mark
on the forehead of each.
The marks blazed with arrogance
in colorful, scintillating lights,
imitating the stars and wasting the energy
stolen from the world’s poor.
deceived the ignorant
and those who flee from the truth:
those who worship the Beast
in the Bank of America
or in its many other temples…
The marks offered them
sure and peaceful sleep,
a way to acquire prestige
and a thousand unnecessary things.
To continue along this path,
they had to harden themselves
against the Lamb and against
His Kingdom of Peace and Justice…
The poem also and describes “the outcry of the thousands crucified in El Salvador and Guatemala”—a reference to what was an ongoing bloodbath in Central America at the time Esquivel wrote the poem. On January 31, 1980, a group of Mayan peasants occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City, protesting the kidnapping and murder of peasants by the U.S.-backed government. Over the objections of the Spanish ambassador, Guatemalan police stormed the embassy, touching off a fire that left 36 people dead, including the father of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. The act was described as a “defining moment” in the Guatemalan Civil War, a conflict in which an estimated quarter of a million people were killed or disappeared. In neighboring El Salvador, on March 24, less than two months later, Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass—one day after delivering a sermon calling for soldiers to obey God’s higher order and to cease human rights violations on behalf of the government. The assassination was believed to have been carried out by a death squad operating under the orders of Salvadoran Army officer Roberto D’Aubuisson. Romero was shot while holding up the Eucharist. His blood spilled over the altar.
Then some eight months later, on December 2, four American church women, nuns Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clark, and Ita Ford, along with lay missionary Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered by members of the Salvadoran National Guard. At the time of her death, Donovan, just 27 years old, had been doing missionary work in El Salvador for three years. Her duties had included burying the bodies left behind by the death squads. She was said to have been an especially devoted follower of Romero, and reportedly had stood next to his coffin. During the bishop’s funeral, attended by thousands, a bomb exploded, followed by shots fired. Some thirty to fifty people died in the resulting melee. Donovan survived that experience, but wrote to a friend in May of that year: “Everything is really hitting so close now.”
Then, as the timeline goes, comes November of 1981: Esquivel writes the poem, “Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.”
In the ancient world, “prophecy” and “poetry” were often regarded as one and the same. And indeed there may have been something akin to “prophetic insight” in Esquivel’s writing of the poem. Or at least in its line about the “crucified” of El Salvador. On December 11 (with the ink on the poem perhaps not even dry), the Atlacatl Battalion of the U.S.-trained-and-supplied Salvadoran Army carried out a massacre in El Mozote and surrounding villages. An account of the event is given in the book Rebel Radio: The Story of El Salvador’s Radio Venceremos, by Jose Ignacio Lopez Vigil. Just over a thousand people died. Women and girls were raped, houses burned to the ground, animals slaughtered. The attack seemed to have been part of a counterinsurgency strategy of “draining the sea to catch the fish.” The idea was that the people were “the sea,” while the guerillas were the “fish” that swam in the sea. Arriving after the soldiers had left, a detachment of armed guerillas, along with reporters from the rebel radio station, found that the attackers had been thorough; inside the village church were overturned pews, scattered saints, walls pockmarked with bullets, and “a mountain of rotting bodies.” The guerillas would come to refer to it as “the saddest Christmas.” Before leaving the village, they discovered some graffiti left behind by the murderers:
The Atlacatl Battalion was here
The Angels of Hell
Several years later, by which time El Mozote had become an abandoned graveyard, a contingent of guerillas made a return pass through the area by night, noticing a curious phenomenon: the entire ghost-village lit up by fireflies. Years later, one of them would remark upon it to Vigil:
It was a dark night and when we approached the abandoned village thousands of fireflies lit up at the same time. Thousands and thousands, the entire woods glowed. Then, as if by some mysterious order, they all went dark at the same moment. Then they all lit up again with that spectral light. Then they all went dark. I swear I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I don’t imagine anyone who was in the column that night has been able to forget the call of the fireflies.
But Esquivel wasn’t the only Central American dissident combining the poetic and the prophetic at this time. In 1977, Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal penned the poem “Apocalypse,” in which seven angels come down to earth “bearing cups of smoke in their hands.” One angel pours forth a “neutronic cup,” while another’s is of “Cobalt,” and so on and so forth, and in the apocalypse which ensues, “Hiroshima’s fate was envied.” And hence, writes Cardenal, “BABYLON THE GREAT IS FALLEN”—a “great whore” who had come “clutching all manner of checks and bonds and shares and commercial documents.”
Thus, has the Book of Revelation been read, perceived, and interpreted by a wide range of Westerners, Westerners grounded, in most cases, in the Christian tradition. But perhaps not surprisingly, the Apocalypse has also generated commentary from non-Westerners. One is India’s Paramahansa Yogananda. Unlike many others to pen discourses on Revelation, this twentieth century Hindu yogi never questioned the authenticity of authorship by John the disciple of Jesus. In fact Yogananda, who, upon his death was given the title Premavatar, “incarnation of love,” held John to be the most advanced disciple of the “Christ-man” Jesus. In his book, God Talks with Arjuna, he writes:
The records left by Saint John, among the various books of the New Testament, evince the highest degree of divine realization, making known the deep, esoteric truths experienced by Jesus and transferred to John. Not only in his Gospel, but in his epistles and especially in the profound metaphysical experiences symbolically described in the Book of Revelation, John presents the truths taught by Jesus from the point of view of inward intuitive realization.
For Yogananda, John’s words contained a measure of “precision” not found in other books of the New Testament. Revelation’s various septenary groupings, for instance, he viewed as representing the seven cerebrospinal centers of divine consciousness in the body. Expounding on one passage in particular, Revelation 2:26-28, with its reference to the “morning star,” the Indian spiritual teacher said the words therein contained John’s description of the ajna chakra, the spiritual eye, located at the center of the forehead. “The ‘morning star’ or ‘star of the East,’” he said, “is the spiritual single eye in the Christ or Kutastha center of the forehead (east), a microcosm of the creative vibratory light and consciousness of God.” In the passage in question, the author of the Apocalypse has Jesus promising the light of this star to those who remain steadfast. He also inserts a quote from the second Psalm.
To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—he will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star.
For Yogananda, it was yet another example of Saint John’s precision. “Through the spiritual eye, the adept yogi attains mastery over the forces (‘nations’) in his physical, astral, and causal bodies, and gains entry into the realm of Spirit,” he said.
One text—many interpretations! While it may seem like we’ve covered a lot of ground here, this is in reality only a small, select sampling of the numerous exegetic interpretations of the Book of Revelation that have appeared over the years. And they are still coming out. At this moment Christian Zionists and media supporters of Israel are using Saint John’s Apocalypse to validate the Zionist state and justify further wars in the Middle East. This seems an especially favored tactic of Glenn Beck. On February 17, just as protests were underway in Egypt, the Fox News host aired a program in which he and a guest likened the 12th Imam of the Islamic faith to the Antichrist of the Bible (see here and here.) The program was provocative and inflammatory—equating one religion’s holy messiah to another’s archfiend and villain could hardly be otherwise—and included a discussion on the Book of Revelation as well as chalkboard comparisons. However, from an ecclesiastical standpoint there were a number of flaws. For one thing, both Beck and his guest failed to clarify that the word “Antichrist” appears nowhere in the Apocalypse. Omitted also was any mention of Revelation’s “synagogue of Satan” references, which presumably would not fit in well with the political point the show was hoping to make. But despite its theological flaws, the program served up some handy agitprop for American viewers—driving a wedge between Christians and Muslims while further serving the interests of Israel.
In closing, perhaps the most important thing of all to remember about the Apocalypse, and which the religious Right, in its overzealous support of for the Jewish state, habitually overlooks, is that it was written by a man who had been imprisoned by the Romans and who was urging his readers to resist oppression. It is this that lies at the book’s heart, far more so than the cataclysmic imagery that has become its more superficial trademark, and is doubtless why it has become so favored by those struggling for justice in Latin America and elsewhere. Another thing is important too. While he was a huge fan of the Hebrew prophets, especially Daniel, John was also most likely a “self-hating Jew.” I say that because what he has done is he has taken the theme of messianic war—a theme running through much of the Jewish apocalyptic literature of that day—and combined it with a theme of liberation from slavery, binding this finally to a picture of Christ as Witness, as the “Lamb of God.” The result is something of a hybrid form of literature. The long-awaited Jewish Messiah, a descendent of David to be anointed by God to lead his people into a war against the Gentiles, is reinterpreted—as Messiah Jesus, as a king victorious without military conquest, and whose victory is universal, attained not in the narrow interests of a single tribe or nation but on behalf of the international People of God.
Frescoes in the Monastery of Saint John—on Patmos today
And finally, we should explode a common myth or misnomer: that Revelation predicts the end of the world. It does not. What in fact is predicted is a new beginning, a new age, one wherein “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.” To be sure, there will be “birth pangs,” as Jesus describes them in the synoptic gospels, but in the end, the visions of John bring us finally to a “new Jerusalem,” a Jerusalem where grows a “tree of life” whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.” That being said, it’s also important for us to remember that we are not simply to sit back and wait complacently for these changes to occur. It is very much up to us to bring them about. God is inside us and he works through us, and just as Hosni Mubarak was not toppled from power until the people of Egypt rose up and demanded his removal, the New Age, the Awakening, will not come about until we make it happen. As John put it, “To he who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” The key here is the word “overcome.” We must first take it upon ourselves to overcome the forces of repression—and we shall and we will—but it will take all of us working together.
Richard Edmondson is author of The Memoirs of Saint John. Visit his website at www.memoirsofsaintjohn.com