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What Does the Biblical Book of Revelation Mean? It’s Pretty Messy!

by Dr. Hal Taussig

Two wrecking balls crashing together and breaking with a grey sky background

It’s time to address the bizarre status of the Christian Bible’s last book, the Revelation to John (sometimes known as the Apocalypse of John).

Almost from its beginning this book has been very controversial. As early as the fourth century it was contested in early lists of the books pointing toward the Christian New Testament. Even now the Revelation to John does not exist in all Bibles around the world.

First, rather than try to decipher who voted for and against the Revelation to John in the last 1850 years, I’ll summarize what the basic content of the book is.  Next, I’ll describe the still on-going debate about what the Revelation to John means in our time. Finally, after a brief summary of those who criticized and who praised this book over the centuries, I’ll propose what to do about this mess.

The confusing content of the Revelation to John

The form of the Revelation to John is pretty messy. It is a long book, compared with most of the New Testament books (about 18 pages, longer than everything but the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles). It almost has a story, but not quite. It begins like a letter to seven communities from someone named John (no one is sure of which of the several Johns in the Bible, if any). But the letter almost immediately veers off in at least two different directions, one as if this is not a letter but a vision, the other picturing a divine figure of the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, and Jesus. Then, without any real introduction, the seven letters are presented. Without further mention of these letters for the rest of the book (or “letter,” ”appearance”), a loosely knit long series of visions ensue. Probably the most lengthy visions somewhat hang together in an almost-story of the destruction of the earth by God followed by God creating a new heaven and earth, sort of in the form of “the holy city Jerusalem.” No wonder for most of its existence many readers have been unsure what it means or simply been frustrated by the confusion in it.

Most historians take the Revelation to John to be a vision of Jesus and the God of Israel destroying the Empire of Rome for its violent rule over all the nations of the Mediterranean. This vision probably occurred in the late first and early second century. Because the Revelation to John is somewhat disorganized as it now stands in the 21st century, it might be that its earlier first- and second-century versions also received additional visions in the third through sixth centuries and/or had other first- and second-century visions taken away, since there is great variety in both the early and later manuscripts. All of these variations, of course, probably also resulted in a wide variety of meanings that people of later centuries developed, including fairly intense disagreements about its meanings through at least the seventeenth century.

A new perspective in the 19th through 21st centuries

In the 19th through early 21st centuries a new set of meanings emerged. Some of these joined forces under the emergence of fundamentalism. Currently, versions of these fundamentalist meanings are quite present in public consciousness. They agree mostly that the Revelation to John is a vision of a future destruction of the world followed by a creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Probably a plurality (but not a majority) of Christians in the United States today ‘believe’ to some degree that God is going to punish and/or destroy the earth to create a new heaven and a new earth.

This is a very different meaning from what current historians or ancient Christ people found, since there are many references in the Revelation to John to the violent ancient Roman Empire which enslaved and/or conquered all the nations of the ancient Mediterranean basin. For instance, notice what the vast majority of ancient manuscripts of Revelation to John say about the violent Roman Empire and how God is going to save the Mediterranean world:

Come here, and I will show you the sentence passed on that great harlot who has had licentious intercourse with all the kings of the earth…the seven heads are the seven hills on which the woman seated…there are also seven emperors….Come out of her, my people so that you may not participate in her sins…In a single hour your judgment fell.  And the merchants of the earth weep and wail over her, because no longer does anyone buy her cargoes….Alas, alas, Great city!  (Rev. 17:1b,2, 9b,10; 18:4,11,12,19)

It is fairly clear historically that the Revelation to John is talking about the violent first- and second-century Roman Empire which its author(s) are asking God to destroy. But the 21st-century fairly popular fundamentalist view is that the Revelation of John is a prediction of sometime still in the future far away from the writer(s) of this text.

The explanation that the Revelation to John is about the first two centuries of conflict between the Roman Empire and many broken nations destroyed by Rome has good evidence. And the explanation that the Revelation to John is the 19th– through 21st-century fundamentalist assertion of God’s violent but redemptive support is now deeply rooted in millions of 21st-century Christians.

It does not seem to me that either of these hypothetical meanings about what the Revelation to John means will win out or go away. They both have strong advocates. This is, almost certainly, one of the most contentious disagreements about a book in the Bible.

Who can say what it means?

This impasse only encourages others to reject Christian belief or historical investigation to make sense of the Revelation to John. The skepticism about either of these major explanations is not new. For instance, Martin Luther, one of the primary founders of Christian Protestantism tried earnestly to remove the Revelation to John from the Bible. And many of the early lists of important writings of the Christ people before a New Testament came into being also rejected the Revelation to John as authoritative.

As I said at the beginning, what a mess! For some minority groups, the Revelation to John inspires hope in the spiritual outlook of Christ’s ultimate victory over evil. But based on the two predominant views, the Revelation to John has never made sense to many—often most—Bible readers, much less to non-Christians.

So what in the world does the Revelation to John mean? And, what should people do with it? To a certain extent, it is already settled. In our time a strong minority of American Christians believe the Revelation to John announces that God will destroy the earth and create a new heaven and earth at some future time. But historical study makes a strong case against this future prediction, pointing to the document itself as an ancient writing that hoped God would destroy the evil Roman Empire of the first three centuries. Most American non-Christians thoroughly reject it as a crazy fantasy. Remember, many famous traditional Christians like Martin Luther in other ages also rejected this book

Too confusing for me

With these two dominant and contradictory views, I think it is settled for the foreseeable future. The Revelation to John is too confusing and controversial for most people to be reliable and clear in basing our lives on it. Maybe we can occasionally imagine how God might destroy the earth and create another one. Probably it could be helpful to continue to study the Revelation to John in terms of the violence of ancient Rome, but the historians’ study of this book has not yet given us enough facts to base our lives on ancient Christ peoples’ anger at ancient Roman violence. Because my job includes studying the ancient writings of Christ people and Christians, I will probably read the Revelation to John every year or so; perhaps some of these alternative interpretations may shed more light someday. But for now, I don’t anticipate any breakthrough in that study when it includes a vision of God destroying the earth and when it is so confusing.