Is there a book in history as controversial as Revelation? How many books have close to as many schools of interpretation as it does, each with their own variations inside them? I’m not even sure of the name of my own school of interpretation, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did in case that would make you tune me out. I’m not confident about the interpretation of every symbol John saw, but I can tell you a whole bunch of Christians are reading it wrong.
Here’s what I will say I believe. I think the best interpretation is that the main part with all the signs and extraordinary events is a cycle of visions (usually counted at 7) telling the same story with different emphases and intensities. You can see that many things are repeated throughout the story that you would think would only happen once. For instance, chapter 6 has the stars falling to earth and mountains and islands being removed. Then in 12:4 the Dragon pulls down a third of stars from heaven, and in 8:11 another star called Wormwood falls from the sky. In 16:20 the islands and mountains disappear again. “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen!” is proclaimed in 14:8 and again in 18:2. A voice calls out, “It is done,” in 16:17, then John sees some more things happening, and then Jesus says, “It is done,” again in 21:6. If this were a linear progression of events, why the first, “It is done,” if there’s more to follow before, “It is done,” again?
I think the point of Revelation is to reveal the cosmic conflict that goes on every day as the Church struggles against a fallen world. I don’t think we should identify any one person we really don’t like as one of the beasts, but rather that when tyrannical governments everywhere imprison and execute Christians because they won’t put the state first in their hearts, we see the first beast at work. We don’t have that problem as much in America, but we do have the Whore of Babylon tempting us away from our spiritual duties with promises of material affluence and sensual pleasures.
Of course, the strongest argument against Revelation predicting the signs of the Second Coming is that Jesus said there wouldn’t be any.
Anyway, I can tell you what Revelation is not. It is not a linear depiction of all the extraordinary things that will precede the Second Coming of Christ like many Christians make it. For one thing, Christ is born in Chapter 12, midway through a book that starts after His Resurrection. For another, everyone who has tried to predict the Second Coming as imminent in his own day based on Revelation’s “clues” about his current events has been wrong so far. Every generation or so, the interpreters have to reformulate what the symbols stand for according to what’s going on at that time, though the job never wants for volunteers. Would God give a book in the first century that no one in the Church would understand its true meaning for 2,000 years?
Of course, the strongest argument against Revelation predicting the signs of the Second Coming is that Jesus said there wouldn’t be any. This is a case where we must fall back on the tried-and-true method of interpreting ambiguous Scripture with more explicit Scripture. In Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse, the Apostles ask two questions: “When shall these things (the destruction of the Temple) be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (24:3, KJV). As I interpret it, Jesus answers the first question and gives them signs about the fall of Jerusalem, and then He answers the second question that, “Of that day and hour (My Coming) knoweth no man” and that ,“Ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (24:36; 24:42, KJV). I really doubt Jesus told His disciples that they wouldn’t know when He would come again and then gave them a whole book full of signs that would precede it. In fact, He says that He will come “in such an hour as you think not” (24:44, KJV), so evidently Revelation isn’t much use in regards to predicting the time of the Second Coming anyway.
Moreover, the depiction Revelation supposedly gives of the Last Days is significantly at variance with Jesus’s. He says that people will be “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (24:38, KJV); in other words, life will be going on as usual. That’s not what Revelation depicts. The people can’t eat and drink because they’re gnawing their tongues in anguish and the water has become blood, and they’re not likely to be having weddings while seventy-five-pound hailstones are falling from the sky.
So, bottom line: I think the Church has been seeing the prophecies in Revelation being fulfilled for the past 2,000 years. I don’t think it was written to just describe events that have happened in the last 50 years or so. What I do know is that you can’t use it to predict the time of Christ’s coming; we have Jesus’s explicit statement that we won’t know that. Tune in next week for a discussion of what Jesus said about the Last Days.