This week I was talking to my friend and mentor, Dr. Jeff Garner, and he informed me that the Church where he is a Pastor (where I spent several years of my life and where I married my wife, Miranda) is beginning a series on the Book of Revelation. He proposed that sometime next week we do a video interview (this time I’d be the one being interviewed rather than being in my traditional pandemic-time role as the one doing the interview) wherein we discuss this controversial text. In preparation, I want to write out some of my thoughts.
Why I avoid the Book of Revelation
First, I admitted that I’m sympathetic to those traditions that didn’t give the Book of Revelation canonical status. I understand why those traditions that did give it canonical status were slow in doing so. It’s place in the genre of Jewish Apocalyptic helps us better understand how it should be interpreted but that doesn’t make it easy to interpret. And as a quick Google search reveals, Revelation may be misused and abused more than any other book of the Bible. To take the Apocalypse seriously is to put yourself into a conversation with some shady and dangerous people.
Why I come back to the Book of Revelation
But there’s another reality I must face. John of Patmos (Rev. 1.1) was a disciple of Jesus who was persecuted by Rome. While many Christians in the United States today feign persecution, and that may color the Apocalypse, I must remember that Christians globally remain one of the most persecuted categories of people. To what degree John and his community were unfairly treated, we may never know, but if we put ourselves in the place of a ostracized and often maligned minority community within a sprawling Empire, we’re bound to be more sympathetic to John and his vision than if we read it through our experience with privileged American Christians who see a loss of status as the same thing as being persecuted or if we read through our experience with doomsday prophets and date predictors who are wrong, time after time.
I come back to the Book of Revelation because I recognize it gives a voice to those within my tradition who have been marginalized, silenced, and even martyred. I favor the Jesus of the Gospels who tends to be somewhat pacifistic (and who according to Anabaptist-hermeneutics was pacifistic). The Jesus of Revelation 19, the warrior-Jesus, seems to be a different, even contradictory, Jesus (see though the interpretation of Revelation by Quaker theologian Wess Daniels). Again, genre matters, so I don’t need to read passages like Revelation 19 as being literal predictions that Jesus will appear in space-time on our earth using violence against the armies of the world (as popularized in The Left Behind ‘novels’). There’s a place to spiritualize it, if you will, so that the warrior-Jesus fights spiritual enemies in ways that are depicted as mirroring the physical violence so common on our earth but hopefully subverting that physical violence to show that true warfare isn’t ‘against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ as the Pauline author of the Epistle to the Ephesians worded it.
How I read the Book of Revelation
This is how I’ve chosen to read the Apocalypse. I use the aforementioned author of Ephesians as a paradigm. He uses images of warfare not to advocate for warfare but to subvert the power claims of physical warfare—the kind of warfare perfected by Empires but not the the Kin(g)dom of God (or whatever other metaphor works best for you).
Speaking of ‘Empire’, this is central to how I interpret this text. On several occasions, John of Patmos mentions ‘Babylon’ (Rev. 14.8; 16.19; 17.5; 18.2, 10, 21). Most scholars seem to agree that this code for ‘Rome’. John knows better than to critique Rome-as-Rome so he critiques Rome-as-Babylon. His Jewish readers would’ve known what he meant by Babylon, the destroyer of the First Temple, was Rome, the destroyer of the Second Temple. Also, they would’ve been familiar with a tradition going back to the Book of Daniel where the fall of one Empire only leads to the rise of the next Empire so that in some sense one can speak of there being an ‘Evil’ that might ‘die’ with the collapse of Persia, or the Ptolemies, or the Seleucids, but can always return from the dead again, as they were seeing in Rome.
So, while there’s a place for reading the Apocalypse as a book of ‘lasts’, there’s also a place for reading the Apocalypse as a reminder that the ‘spirit’ of Empire reincarnates.
Why the Book of Revelation is relevant right now
The Book of Revelation is an ‘apocalypse’. It begins with these words in the NRSV, ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ…’ which translate Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. That first word, Ἀποκάλυψις, transliterated Apokalupsis, doesn’t mean the ‘end’ of something, per se, but it means that something is being revealed (which is why it’s called the ‘Book of Revelation‘). Another way of saying this is that something is being exposed; something that wasn’t visible is being made visible. This might mean that the heavenly or spiritual realm is being revealed to earthly or physical eyes, or it might mean what the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes (12.14) meant when he says, ‘For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ Or what the Matthean Jesus (12.36-37) meant when he says, ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’
In the Christian tradition there will be some sort of ‘final’ apocalypse in this sense. The Apostle Paul warned in Second Corinthians 5.10, ‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ The Nicene Creed states, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ And then there’s the liturgical acclamation: ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’ But not every ‘apocalypse’ has to be final, final.
But it’s possible to experience a semi-apocalypse, i.e., an apocalypse that ends an age. This is subjective. It’s not necessarily what the Apostle Paul, or the Nicene Creed, or the aforementioned liturgical confession mean, but it’s real. Elizabeth Dias wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times titled ‘The Apocalypse as an “Unveiling”: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times’ that makes this point better than I can.
Every semester when I teach the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, I frame their origination around the collective trauma of the destruction of the First Temple (the Hebrew Scriptures) and the execution of Jesus and destruction of the Second Temple (the Christian Scriptures) to explain why these works were written, by whom, and to whom. (As I’ve written, David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins has been an important dialogue partner for me.) Every semester I try to relate these collective traumas to what Americans experienced during 9/11. The problem has been that my students can’t relate. When I was younger, I understood the concept of ‘Pearl Harbor’ but didn’t ‘understand’ it. Similarly, this year, I don’t think any of my students had been born yet when 9/11 happened. They ‘understand’ my reference but they don’t understand my reference.
Now, COVID-19, and this pandemic, has caused collective trauma. It has ended an age (see Ben Rhodes, ‘The 9/11 Era is Over’) and a new one will emerge. We talk about the ‘new normal’ knowing not of what we speak. For the foreseeable future, when I want my students to understand what prompted the formation of the writings they know as the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’ I won’t relate the destruction of the First and Second Temples to 9/11; I’ll relate these traumas to this earth-shattering, time-stopping pandemic.
Allison Murray’s ‘What is Now Uncovered/Don’t Waste an Apocalypse’ gets to the point I want to make next. Apocalypses shatter our myths. They expose our false narratives. As an American, the triumphalism of the military industrial complex, or Wall Street, have been shown to be lies. Bombs don’t stop a pandemic. Money doesn’t stop a pandemic. And when a pandemic hits your shores, no wall is going to stop a pandemic. But the pandemic will show you what happens when ‘the wealthiest nation on earth’ forces most people to live paycheck-to-paycheck, spends more on war than healthcare, continues to underserve communities (usually because of race), ignores the weaknesses of its education system (or in DeVos-mode, tries to ruin that education system). Many people saw our weaknesses as an empire. Now the pandemic has left us nowhere to hide.
I don’t mean this in a cheery, triumphalistic, ‘told-you-so’ way. This apocalypse is horrifying, as Dr. Kelly J. Baker’s article ‘It’s the End and Nothing Feels Fine’ rightly captures. But we’re here now. And the Book of Revelation is less literature to be read and more a mirror for reflection. What happens when the unseen is seen? What happens when the lies are exposed? What happened when an era ends? Apocalypse. As Pope Francis has proclaimed, this isn’t divine judgment, but it’s our judgment. This virus has judged us. It has exposed us. There’s nothing more apocalyptic than that.