The book of Revelation is one of the least-read books in the Bible, and yet it is one that people seem to have the most opinions about. It is often referred to as some sort of map describing how the world will eventually endure multiple catastrophes, and then come to an abrupt and destructive end. Revelation has been used for a great deal of fear-mongering, and a gigantic enterprise has been built upon “end times” nonsense. However, this is not at all how the original author intended for the book of Revelation to be understood. In fact, the reading of Revelation as “the end of the world” is a fairly recent invention, no more than a couple of centuries old. While I once bought into the popular “end times” madness, I eventually came to find that Revelation is speaking of something much more profound, much more subversive, and much more helpful for us as modern people. Allow me to briefly recap my own journey.
In April 2010, there was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; it was due to a drilling rig explosion. This has gone down in history as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. At the time, I was completely convinced that this was the end of the world. In Revelation 8:8-9, the author wrote “The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” If you were to do a quick Google of Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill under images, you would find that the burning oil rig looks like a mountain of fire, the thick oil in the water is a dark red (like blood), and you would see many tragic photos of animals suffering and dying. Needless to say, I thought this was it. I had been taught that the author of Revelation was describing visions of how the world would end, and that these visions were unfolding in our time. This is by far the most popular way of reading Revelation in the western world today.
Eventually, time passed, and the world did not end after that oil spill. “What else could this passage have been talking about?” I thought. Soon after this, I came to see all of the ludicrous predictions that others had made about Revelation, and how absolutely none of them were correct. If this book is about something as important as “the end of the world,” why is it so cryptic and hard to understand? This way of reading Revelation eventually fell apart for me, and I had no idea what to do with it.
A couple of years later, a new (but also old) way of reading Revelation emerged for me. The book of Revelation was not a series of predictions of strange things that would happen two-thousand years later. The author was writing for his historical audience, with things that would have been meaningful for them in a very immediate sense. What good would the book of Revelation have been for the original audience if it only talked about things in the distant future?
So, what is the book of Revelation if it is not a prediction of the end of the world? It is a symbolic, political criticism of the Roman Empire. Revelation is a specific genre of ancient writing called apocalyptic literature. When you hear “apocalypse,” you probably think of films like The Day After Tomorrow or shows like The Walking Dead. However, in the ancient world, this is not at all what people had in mind when they thought of an apocalypse. The Greek word “apokalypsis” means “to unveil, to lay bare, to make visible to all,” or “revelation” which is why the last book of the Christian Bible has the name that it does. The reason people wrote apocalyptic literature in the times of old was not to make dubious predictions about the end of the world. To be completely frank, no one really cared about that sort of thing until very recently. Apocalyptic books were written to criticize or “lay bare” the corrupt powers that were dominating the world at the time. These writings were mostly produced from places of oppression. They generally entreat others to endure, to have hope, to persevere in suffering, and to know that evil always collapses on itself when it is faithfully resisted. The book of Revelation is not about the end of the world - it is about the end of the hideous empire that is running the world.
In Revelation 8, for example, the first trumpet describes “hail, blood, and fire” falling from the sky. Rather than this being a vague description of nuclear warfare, the author is doing something that would have made obvious sense to his initial audience. In Roman mythology, raining blood was considered bad omen or a sign that the gods were angry. The writer is essentially saying “The gods of greed, power, violence, and imperialism that the Romans are worshipping will ultimately betray them.” Indeed, any system that runs on greed and violence will eventually erode and die. The writer continues other imagery to identify the Roman Empire. One personification that is used is “the great whore” in Revelation chapters seventeen and eighteen. Rome controlled the world of its time through a mixture of seduction, intimidation, and violence. “The great whore” is also referred to as “Babylon the Great.” Babylon had distinct meaning for Jews. It meant estrangement, coercion, oppression, corruption, sexual perversion, and other pejorative characteristics. The way followers of Jesus were experiencing persecution under Rome was akin to how the Jews had experienced persecution under Babylon centuries prior. This image can be understood as meaning “We as God’s people have been here before, but God delivered us, defeated our enemies, they fell, and we went free.” This was symbolism that sustained them in their oppression, and indeed, the symbolism of all apocalyptic literature carries the resounding theme that God is always on the side of the oppressed, and never the oppressor.
The criticism of the Roman Empire is the whole substance of the book of Revelation. So how can this be meaningful for us today? It shows us that all imperial power structures that resemble Rome will eventually disintegrate. Christians (and everyone for that matter) in the United States must ask, in what ways do we resemble the Roman Empire? In what ways has our Christianity become an imperial religion? How have we accommodated the spirit of the Empire that runs on greed, violence, and coercion? We must identify these defects and repent. The call to find this traits and create change is urgent, as any Christianity that has attached itself to an empire will eventually be destroyed with that empire, as all empirical power structures meet their demise sooner or later.
What is the message of the book of Revelation? The message is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. In spite of what maniac might be in power, we are called to resist by creating an alternative way of life that is sustainable, by working to create change, and casting vision for a future without the powers that be, because all empires eventually collapse. Given the current political climate, I cannot think of a more important book of the Bible than Revelation. The Roman Empire eventually fell, just as the author’s critiques claimed it would, but the Kingdom of God is still up and running. Indeed, it will be forever, as the way of Jesus leads to life that lasts, and that is Good News.