Our world is in turmoil. There is fighting in the Middle East, an outbreak of a strange new disease in East Asia, natural disasters and economic woes in the world’s richest country. Could the “end times” be near? If so, will you be among the “saved?” For some, these questions may seem strange, but many others see in recent world developments signs foretold in Christian Scripture. Something could be brewing up in the celestial court, and we had better watch out.
Perhaps no other book in the Bible has captured the popular imagination throughout the centuries as has the Book of Revelation. One need not look hard to find numerous movies, comic books and video games filled with apocalyptic images meant to both frighten and fascinate. This is no surprise, as the prophetic section of Revelation tells a vivid and gripping tale. God the Father, enthroned in glory, hears the cries of the martyrs who demand an end to the oppression of the church. The Father produces a sealed scroll, presumably a declaration of war, and chooses his Son to lead the battle against the evil forces of the world. The battle rages back and forth; the plagues unleashed by heaven are challenged by the schemes of the Dragon and the Beasts on earth. A panoply of animals, angels and spirits leads the fighting on both sides. The forces of heaven win a major battle at the hill of Megiddo (Ar-Mageddon) and God establishes a reign that lasts 1,000 years. Eventually, after a brief satanic rebellion, God completely destroys the forces of evil and establishes a new kingdom in an entirely new creation that will remain for all time. Spielberg and Lucas could not conceive of a more wondrous story line!
The most recent pop culture manifestation of the Book of Revelation is a series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins called Left Behind, which has achieved amazing popularity. Approximately 40 million copies have been sold since the first novel appeared in 1995. The current installment (the 11th in a series of 12 books), called Armageddon, has been received with almost as much enthusiasm as a Harry Potter tome. (There are also two movies based on the novels, as well as a spin-off series of children’s books.) The story line is based on a literalist interpretation of events described in the Book of Revelation, updated for modern times. In the first book, called Left Behind, thousands of Christians around the world suddenly disappear, signaling the beginning of the seven-year Tribulation, and the Antichrist is named secretary general of the United Nations in an effort to create a unified world government. In subsequent books, a small band of true believers called the Tribulation Force unites to fight the powers of evil, while earthquakes and locusts plague the earth. Presumably, in the final volume Christ will come back to rule the earth, Satan will be destroyed and all true believers will be vindicated.
While exhibiting an obviously fundamentalist perspective, the Left Behind series is not popular with the evangelical crowd alone; there are many Catholics in its fan base, and they are asking fundamentalist questions not unlike those at the beginning of this article. How should Catholics respond when confronted with such queries? What does Catholic scholarship, both classical and modern, have to offer regarding Revelation? What is an appropriate pastoral response to concerns Catholics raise about this mysterious book and how it is presented in modern popular culture?
Although it was revered by many in the early church as a work of the Apostle John, the Book of Revelation differs in many ways from the other texts of the Christian Scriptures. Certainly, the text’s images have some parallels in pre-Christian apocalyptic literature, but their use in Revelation is often novel. Moreover, Revelation’s fierce, judgmental Jesus is very much unlike the Jesus the Evangelists portray. The abstruse prophecies contrast with the clear and simple language of the Gospels and require much interpretation. For all these reasons, not to mention the overt violence of the story, there were grave doubts about its apostolic origin, and the text entered the canon only after great difficulty.
Wherever records exist, however, we get a glimpse of the lasting appeal Revelation has had in popular religion. Indeed, given its tenuous moorings to the larger scriptural tradition, one could consider Revelation an early example of “popular” (neither apostolic nor didactic) Christian literature, promising deliverance to a church laboring under vicious persecution. Certainly popular culture had appropriated Revelation’s images even in late classical times. In the fourth century, St. Augustine railed against the “ridiculous tales” that even some Christians had elaborated from the text.
In order to counter such interpretations, Augustine used analogy to explain Revelation’s prophecies. In Book 20 of his City of God, he explains that the prophecies are not meant to be taken literally. Instead they compel individuals to make a choice of allegiance either to the City of God or to the Kingdom of the Beast. These two kingdoms have existed side by side since Cain and Abel; but since the resurrection of Christ, the Beast has been severely limited in his actions. It is up to the individual to experience the grace of the New Jerusalem by swearing allegiance to the City of God.
It is difficult to trace the appeal of Revelation in the centuries immediately after Augustine. It is only after European society begins to recover in the 11th century that we again see the impact of the book on the popular imagination. Peoples’ minds were very much on the end of the world in this period. A thousand years had passed since the birth of Christ, and many believed they were on the verge of the brief satanic ascendancy that Revelation predicted. When the year 1000 came and went without incident, the question for many became, “If not now, when?” It was during this period that Europeans built the great gothic cathedrals and carved swirling scenes of the Last Judgment into the walls. This was also the time of the first crusades, when Christian Europeans marched south to Jerusalem to “free” it from its native inhabitants, most of whom were Muslim. Many believed that this battle between good and evil was the battle predicted in Revelation 18. The prophecies of Revelation seemed to be on the brink of fulfillment.
Writers of this period, most notably Joachim of Fiore, developed a new technique for interpreting this text. Instead of treating each of Revelation’s prophecies as an analogy with a moral interpretation, these authors understood each image as a specific prophecy predicting a future event. This opened the text to a variety of interpretations as every interested scholar confidently read into contemporary events the portents of doom. It should be noted that this “direct prediction” hermeneutic, which still dominates popular and evangelical interpretations today, is an 11th-century innovation. It is unlikely that such interpretations were the intention of Revelation’s author.
As Augustine intuited, countering such extreme interpretations of the text requires a certain amount of sensitivity toward and insight into both the text and the audience. It is not helpful to dismiss a text taken so seriously by so many, nor is it helpful to generate some kind of “Catholic literalism” that simply perpetuates misunderstandings. Rather, a helpful Catholic approach draws on the best of our tradition and the best modern scholarship. Augustine’s use of analogy to understand the text yields good results when understood in the light of the work of modern scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Arthur Wainwright, Adela Yarbro Collins and David Aune.
A Catholic response that draws on these sources could include five themes. First, Revelation teaches that God is the master of history. God created the world and its inhabitants, and in the end everyone is answerable to divine judgment for our choices and behaviors.
Second, the things of earth are intimately known in heaven. When the saints experienced persecution, their cries reached the very throne of God. No human actor, no matter how powerful by earthly standards, can act with impunity.
Third, God will act to save God’s people. The deity in Revelation is not a distant king seated on his throne, but an active leader who seeks to rectify injustice and protect those he loves.
Fourth, Christians resist the regimes of the beast by building the City of God. The liberation theologian Dagoberto Ramirez Fernandez believes that Revelation calls us to witness nonviolently against the injustice of our world. The Christians in Revelation who refuse to accept the mark of the beast are an example to Christians today, who should feel obliged to withdraw from unjust social arrangements. The prophets in the temple who preach against the dragon and the beast are an example to us, who must denounce this world’s wrongs and announce the judgment of God.
Finally, God will triumph in the end. No matter how severe the oppression or how lengthy the time of mourning, the Master of History will bring the world to the conclusion of God’s own choosing. In the darkest night, we can look forward to the time when “every tear shall be wiped away.”
Misunderstandings about the Book of Revelation and other books in the Christian Scriptures arise for a number of reasons. Primarily, texts like Revelation contain very vivid images and are easily subjected to superficial interpretations. The images in Revelation are both eerie and fascinating; the reader’s attention can get swept up in the fantastic narrative, which can obscure the real meaning behind the message. We who profess the Catholic faith should know this deeper meaning so we can respond to misunderstandings about this book.
There is a way to encourage a more nuanced appreciation for Revelation. As Catholics, we need to foster the study of Scripture. It is important for us to know the text and understand it in context. Those who use certain passages to predict the future or claim some position of superiority are misguided and do damage to the text. Our tradition contains many wonderful but untapped resources that we can use to understand Scripture and avoid such misguided interpretations. One may hope that by developing such an appreciation for Scripture, Catholics will discover that the Book of Revelation, instead of inspiring fear, can actually promote our faith.