Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.
The book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse) is a constant source of both fascination and fear among Christians. In North America, the book is likely to be identified with the dispensationalism of Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind series. It is therefore often treated as being off-limits in mainline churches.
This is unfortunate. To the extent that we distance ourselves from Revelation, we hand it over to eccentric uses; even worse, we miss out on its real glories. In the next two posts I will make some comments aimed at helping us overcome our aversion to the Apocalypse.
Today I will discuss “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”; next time I will turn to “Seven Things Revelation Is.” The division is a bit artificial, so don’t be surprised to find some affirmations in the midst of the negations and vice versa. I hope to whet the reader’s appetite for exploring Revelation on his or her own, perhaps in company with my Brazos commentary (Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos 2010).
Seven Things Revelation Is Not
1. A code, cipher, or secret message. The tendency to read Revelation as an esoteric book—the ultimate insiders’ text—has a very long history. The book is filled with mysterious images and symbols. It is natural to want to know what these symbols “stand for.” With this approach to Revelation, interpretation will be a matter of wresting a discrete, consistent, and controllable meaning from each image. There is just enough of this reading strategy in the book itself to encourage us in this view; see for example 17:9-10.
I cannot stress too strongly, however, that as an overall reading strategy this form of interpretation misfires and will cause us to miss almost everything that is important about the book. The Apocalypse is visionary literature. Its symbols are polyvalent, pointing in many different directions at once. To take the most famous example, it is tempting to believe that when John wrote 666—the infamous “number of the beast”—he intended the emperor Nero. Historically speaking that is extremely likely. But as any postmodern literary critic will tell you, texts are simply not that stable—much less so a text of which God or the Spirit is the author! Revelation is less interested in information than in transformation. Rather than looking for a meaning “behind” the text, we should let it draw us into its powerful vision of a world created, judged, and redeemed by God.
2. A book exclusively about the future. This point follows from the previous one. While Revelation does, indeed, offer a glimpse of God’s final consummation of all things, it would not have us speculating about the future. John wants us to “remember the End”—Travis Kroeker’s evocative term for apocalyptic vision in the works of Dostoevsky—precisely so that the church may live more faithfully and courageously in the present. This is true whether that “present” is in AD 113 or 2013.
3. Chiefly a response to persecution. We know that there has been at least one martyr in the churches John is addressing (Rev. 2:13), and he clearly expects that there will be more (2:10; 7:14). It is therefore easy to assume that the purpose of the book is to offer comfort and reassurance to communities subject to Roman persecution. This fits a common view of apocalyptic writing as a literature of the dispossessed.
My advice to the reader is to take all this with a large grain of salt. On the one hand, notice that John writes to seven churches marked by notable differences: if Smyrna is under pressure, Laodicea is all too pleased with itself (“you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered,’” Rev. 3:17 NRSV). Like churches today, John’s communities inhabit a wide range of social locations and strategies of resistance/negotiation/accommodation to their host culture.
But even more crucial is the question of agency. While the “kings of the earth” (a recurrent image in the Apocalypse) exercise real and terrible forms of power, there is never any question that God is the ultimate Power with whom humans have to reckon. This is what John wants his readers to grasp. It is God—the LORD of Israel—who determines history, not the Romans.
4. A simple temporal sequence. Already in the early history of the church, attentive readers of Revelation noticed an odd thing: the book repeats itself. The seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls are less a linear sequence of events than a dizzying spiral, a vision of the (singular) End narrated from a variety of perspectives. The technical name for this is “recapitulation.”
This is not to say there is no drama, no “story,” in the Apocalypse. But the drama must be taken on its own terms. It is must not be assimilated to earthly, empirical history. Again recall that John’s intention—or the Spirit’s intention through John—is less to inform than to transform.
5. A warrant for violence. It is well to be honest: many of the events described in Revelation are terrifying. Many readers struggle to reconcile the awful imagery of death, mayhem, and destruction with the God of love. I will have more to say about this in my next post.
Nevertheless, while terrible things happen in Revelation, the author never says, “Go out and do terrible things.” The question of agency again looms large. It is God’s love, God’s judgment, God’s vindication that stand at the center of attention. If there is a consistent command given to the church, it is simply to practice “patient endurance,” a kind of creative waiting and suffering in trust that God will set things right (cf. Rev. 1:9; 2:2; 13:10; 14:12). To read the book as a warrant for any human exacting of vengeance on enemies is simply false.
6. An outlier in the canon of Scripture. We are prone to draw a distinction between the teaching of Jesus, say, or Pauline soteriology (theological comfort food for Protestants), and the “weird apocalyptic stuff” in writings like Daniel and Revelation. But there is far more slippage than we like to think. Mark’s Jesus is a clearly apocalyptic figure, while Paul writes of cosmic transformation and speaks of Christ as the “man from heaven” (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 15). Nor are these convergences accidental: Mark, Paul, and John the Seer are all rooted in the apocalyptic soil of Israel’s faith. It is for this reason that the great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer called Revelation “a rebirth of images,” referring to the way in which John takes up themes and symbols from the Old Testament. What he sees is new but at the same time very old.
7. A book with a clear, easily summarized message. This goes back to what I said earlier about reading Revelation as a coded text. If the book is a cipher, we can figure it out, determine its “meaning” once for all, and be done with it. In this approach the text itself ironically becomes dispensable. Fortunately Revelation doesn’t work like that. It is an act of testimony, an act of witness by one who claims to speak the very Word of God—in short, a prophet.
The proper understanding of Revelation, then, begins with listening to this Word. This is a theme I will take up in my next post, on the “Seven Things Revelation Is.”