“Decoding” the Book of Revelation, The

End Is Near! (Or Is It?): “Decoding” the Book of Revelation, The

Mindling, Fr Joseph

In recent years, the Book of Revelation and its dramatic end-of-the-world imagery have attracted the rapt attention of thousands of fundamentalist believers. At the same time, thousands of other believers have deliberately avoided these pages, which they find both confusing and unsettling.

It’s ironic that both of these reactions often stem from a similar set of misunderstandings. A very widespread but mistaken presupposition is that Revelation contains secret, coded messages, specifying the dates and details of cataclysmic events just around the corner. Another similar reading holds that certain characters in the book are disguised foreshadowings of secular or church leaders from later periods. In different groups, for instance, the Antichrist has been identified with both Adolf Hitler and the pope.

Interpretations like these are not only wildly erroneous; they also keep us from grasping what this book is really supposed to be: a powerful source of teaching and encouragement for believers in every age. In the following articles, we want to look at the Book of Revelation in a way that will help us move beyond negative notions such as these. Instead, with the help of the Spirit, we want to discover a more balanced-and a far more hopeful-approach to what God wants to tell us in this book.

Mixed-Up Methods? Revelation is not the only piece of literature that has been the subject of wild misinterpretation. Perhaps one of the most famous examples happened on October 30, 1938, when a radio adaptation of the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds was broadcast in the United States. The broadcast-which told the story of a fictitious invasion from Marscaused a large number of listeners who had missed the introduction to panic, thinking that Martian monsters really had landed in New Jersey and were killing everyone in sight.

Radio listeners in 1938 were familiar both with science fiction dramas and actual news reporting. But this episode showed how easily one type of program could get confused for another, producing both unintended and embarrassing results!

Living two thousand years ago, our ancestors in the faith would hardly have recognized these modern types of communication. Still, they had their own types of communication that are as unfamiliar to us as our documentaries and soap operas would have been to them. The Book of Revelation is a prime example. “Apocalyptic” literatureas it has come to be called-was quite familiar to first-century Christians and Jews. After all, apocalyptic literature had already been around for about two hundred years. Still, there is no modern equivalent to this type of writing, which is both highly imaginative and filled with religious images and language.

The only other surviving writings that are exclusively apocalyptic in style come from outside our biblical canon and are usually unfamiliar to anyone but scholars in the field. Nevertheless, numerous other Scripture passages have many of the same distinctive characteristics. Most are in the Old Testament, in passages such as Daniel 7-12; Isaiah 24-27; Ezekiel 38-39; Joel 1-2; and Zechariah 9-14. There are also some brief apocalyptic passages in the New Testament, including Mark 13:5-37; Matthew 24:4-36; and Luke 21:8-36; as well as in several of the Pauline letters (Romans 13:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 12; 1 Thessalonians 4; and 2 Thessalonians 2). In these passages, we can see themes similar to those in Revelation, especially the theme of God intervening in our world to bring good out of evil and establish his eternal kingdom.

Crisis Response. What prompted the creation of this kind of writing? Apocalyptic literature arose as faithful Jews and Christians sought to respond to the experience of either external persecution or some internal crisis of faith. The authors of such material were trying to look at these crises from a “God’s-eye” perspective. They wanted to interpret the concrete circumstances of their lives in terms of the universal struggle between good and evil-and when they did, they relied upon images, story lines, and symbols that would have been very familiar to other believers in the first century A.D.

So what makes a piece of writing apocalyptic? And how can these other writings help us better understand the Book of Revelation? As far as content is concerned, they focus on two topics: (1) a vividly portrayed shift from the world as we know it to an end-times climax and (2) the way present beliefs and conduct affect our final destiny.

As far as style is concerned, apocalyptic writings use very graphic, usually visionary, language that is rich in symbols drawn from Semitic culture. These images would have been very familiar to the readers of that time, even if they seem strange to us today. Fortunately, we can find a lot of help in understanding these images in the footnotes and introductions found in translations such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible.

The Future as a Guaranteed Reality. Like the other apocalypses that were written during this time, the Book of Revelation is indeed concerned with the future-but not with laying out concrete dates and details. Rather, the author of Revelation sought to present the future as a guaranteed reality that will come about as a result of choices made in the present. By dramatizing the punishments that await the unfaithful and assuring the righteous of ultimate victory-as well as rewards that will replace their current sufferings-John wanted to bolster his readers’ perseverance and help turn those still in darkness and distress toward the light of Christ.

Despite their many similarities, the New Testament Book of Revelation is also strikingly different from all of its Old Testament and nonbiblical predecessors in one very important way. At the heart of Revelation stands Jesus Christ, the Savior and Messiah who is central in all of God’s cosmic plans to fill us with divine life and to bring us into his heavenly kingdom.

As a result, every major aspect of this book that parallels other apocalyptic writings does so in a way that lifts the content-as well as the readers-into a new dimension. In most apocalyptic works, the central narrator comes in touch with the heavenly realm through a dream or by the appearance of an angelic messenger. In contrast, John’s initial encounter is with the risen Christ himself, who is mysteriously glorified yet still fully human. Although Jesus now holds the stars in his hands (Revelation 2:1), all that he says and does in this book shows how deeply interested he is in the lives of his faithful followers.

This Jesus is the same Galilean who moved among his flock, pasturing, reproving-doing whatever their well-being required, even dying on a cross. Only when this connection with the familiar, approachable Jesus has been made clear does the fuller picture unfold. This Good Shepherd shows himself to be the divine Lamb, once slain but now fully alive and enthroned with God. And in the light of the glory of God and the Lamb, the distracting veil of “the way things appear” is pulled aside to reveal what is really going on-and what is of lasting, even everlasting, importance.

An Ancient Book with Much to Say Today. Of course, this kind of thinking would have been considered just short of treason during the persecutions of the early church. But don’t we also live in a world that can be quite hostile against the values of our religious heritage? In some countries, Christians are subjected to physical violence as blatant as that of the Roman persecutions. In other places, the campaign to remove mention of God from the public forum and to intimidate religious leaders from speaking out in defense of gospel values is shamelessly aggressive. Perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at these closing pages of the New Testament. Maybe they have more to say to us and to our age than we might have suspected.

by Fr. Joseph Windung, O.P.M. Cap.

Copyright Word Among Us Nov 2004

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