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 Opinion: Revelation in the 21st Century

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

Every time there is a crisis in the nation or the world, real or imagined, a significant part of the Christian population takes on a renewed interest in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Like it or not, the book called Revelation is in the middle of our 21st century plate. We ignore it to our own peril.

In order to make sense of this literary enigma, a series of questions need to be addressed. Who wrote it? When did the author write it? Why did he write it? To whom did he write it? What literary vehicle did the author use?

Let us begin.

We do not know who wrote the treatise. It was not the apostle John. He had died long before Revelation was written. John was as common a name as it is today. It was a good name for an anonymous author. The best answer is “We do not know who wrote the book of Revelation.” Common scholarly opinion places the book’s writing some time after the turn of the first century CE. Possibly as late as 125 CE.

Among early Christians there was strong resistance to bowing down to a Roman emperor who claimed divinity. ...

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Rome was ruthless in persecuting Christian and Jewish believers around Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories because of the issue. The Roman rulers destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and killed dissenting people by the thousands. To the north of Palestine in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Christians were especially defiant. They would NOT bow down to Caesar!

Patmos was an island about 50 miles off the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The Romans used it as an island prison. Uncooperative people were sent to Patmos. Revelation identifies Patmos as the place of writing. Whether the Patmos location is real or symbolic is open to question. The book was written as a letter of defiance and protest for the consumption and encouragement of Christians across Asia Minor.

The writer should be recognized as a brilliant writer. The book of Revelation is one of the great literary masterpieces of the Bible. The writer was talented and was well informed. He knew what was going on in the world and understood his version of Christian Faith. The writer chose apocalypse as his literary form.

Apocalypse is rightly identified as a form of mythology. It qualifies as mythology because God is clearly the primary actor in the story line. Once identified as mythology, concern for historic accuracy is eliminated. Apocalypse is written for emotional/spiritual impact, not the reporting of history.

The closest comparison in modern communications is cartooning. Apocalypse is best understood as verbal cartooning. I read cartoons in the daily paper and in other periodicals to which I subscribe. Good cartoons use exaggeration to make their opinions unmistakable and memorable.

That was exactly what the writer of Revelation was doing.

The central message of Revelation was as clear as a New York Times cartoon. In a series of vivid verbal pictures, a statement is made. Roman emperors think they are in charge of the world. Not so! The God whom Christians serve will have the last word. To its intended audience of persecuted people of Asia Minor, Revelation was a clear and vivid expression of Christian triumphalism. Those for whom the apocalypse was written understood who all the players were. The message of Revelation was as clear to a contemporary reader in Asia Minor as a Doonesbury column is to an informed reader today.

The material understandably resonates with Christian Fundamentalists, who believe the world has been taken over by evil and can be reclaimed for good only by God himself with violent actions. With incredible imagination Christian Fundamentalists force modern characters into the roles that were portrayed in the original document 1900 years ago. They firmly believe that the book of Revelation provides a road map to a time when the Christian God will defeat all opponents, and righteousness will prevail under the rule of a triumphant Christ.

For me, the book of Revelation is not as strange as it first seems. Once its setting and purpose are understood, once the literary genre of apocalyptic writing is grasped, understanding is not difficult. The brilliance of the author of Revelation should be recognized. The book of Revelation ought to take its place among the greatest literary masterpieces of world literature.

The real question is whether or not I accept its message as being a part of Christian thinking. I do not.

I believe that Jesus, the Rabbi from Nazareth, would be horrified that his followers would embrace such thinking. The book of Revelation says that God will achieve his Kingdom on Earth through slaughter and bloodshed. Jesus taught exactly the opposite. According to Jesus, God’s Kingdom is to be established by a servant people with the practice of unfettered love.

I hope I have been helpful to many.



The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[12 June 2010]

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