How Should We Read “The Revelation of St. John”?

St. John the Divine (Not Actual Size)

A buddy and I were discussing the sorry state of the world, and he mentioned that he’s pretty pessimistic about the future of our species. I asked him the reason for his pessimism, and he replied, “The Book of Revelation”. He then asked me what I thought, and this is what I wrote to him:

There’s likely no book in the entire Bible as controversial as Revelation. When I was a kid, I read it literally and believed it was a literal prophecy of stuff that was literally gonna happen. As I got older and a little more experienced and a little wiser, I began to see  it differently. It’s pretty hard to read it now with an unjaundiced eye because of all the “interpretations” I was exposed to as a kid, but I try.

I have little doubt that John is writing what he experienced. I believe he had an ecstatic experience, like Teresa of Avila, like various mystics throughout time, like many people who seem to be more spiritually “tuned-in” than the normal person. (And – if I may say so – unlike me.)

The “vision”, as it were, appears to be in 3 or 4 major parts. (Four if you count the intro.) At the intro, John has his vision of the Risen Christ standing amidst the  candlesticks. There’s a brief conversation where John is told to write what he sees and hears, and then it dives straight into the first of the 3 major parts: the message to the 7 churches.

If any part of Revelation was ever intended to be taken literally, it is perhaps this section. The seven churches named in those first few chapters are churches that actually existed in that time. Apparently, John was given a particular message to pass along to each of the leaders of these individual churches. My suspicion is that the churches – when they heard the message addressed to them in particular – understood exactly what was meant. I likewise suspect that anyone who takes those messages and applies them to different places and times than those to which they were are addressed are just plain getting it wrong. Not that the messages are not timeless, but they were clearly addressed to a specific set of people in a specific place at a specific time.

The middle section of the book is the freaky part: the “Whore of Babylon”, a beast with ten horns, dragons spitting out floods to drown babies, swarms of deadly locusts, stars falling from the sky, rivers turning to blood, seven angels sounding seven trumpets, The Book of Life! The biggest clue that this part should be read symbolically rather than literally is the beast and dragon stuff. If that part is symbolic, then the stuff about  stars falling and rivers turning to blood is also intended as metaphor. Although I can barely speculate what the bit about the beast and the dragon means, the bit about stars falling from the sky is a fairly common piece of imagery in Oriental literature – it is a way of talking about rulers being deposed and kingdoms being overthrown. The “beast with ten horns” can be interpreted as the Roman Empire with some degree of consistency. What is not at all clear is whether the one horn that grew and ruled the others refers to a particular ruler or a particular kingdom. I suspect again that readers familiar with Oriental imagery understood it much better than we do.

The end of the second part is the truly freaky apocalyptic stuff – the opening of the two scrolls, the appearance of The Lamb, the judgment of the Beast and the Whore of Babylon. Frankly, I haven’t a clue what to make of it. The only conclusion I can draw is that John had a mind-blowing vision. (An excess of pain-killers, maybe? Tradition has it that he survived being boiled in oil and ultimately died of natural causes at a ripe old age.)

The last major section is the description of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Pretty cool stuff, but a lot of it completely defies physics, so if we are to read it literally as a prophecy about what is to come, then we must of necessity also read it as a prophecy that the fundamental laws of the physical universe are going to be altered. What should we think of that? Well, if Death – the final enemy – is truly to be overcome, then the fundamental laws of the universe MUST be overcome. The whole universe is dying – entropy dictates the end state of everything, and there is nothing to prevent that from being the final state of all matter – nothing within the physical universe anyway.

A striking part of this book is the repetition of the number 7. Such repetition is a fairly common literary device that gives structure and cohesion to the work. Early oral literature made use of such devices to insure that the structure of the tale held together as it was passed on from generation to generation. Revelation shows many of the same influences. (And that’s kinda cool, because the Apostle John was certainly not a highly educated man – but this is clearly a work of genius or divine inspiration – take your pick.)

I think it is a freaky, amazing, disturbing and comforting vision of a realm that most of us never suspect exists, let alone have the opportunity to see. Are there lessons we are to learn from it? That I honestly cannot say. There are some really wise things said in the book, and some really cryptic things, and some really downright silly things. (A city that is a CUBE? Really? C’mon, man!) It contains some of the most famous literary imagery and phrases in all of western literature, so it is certainly worth reading, studying even. But is it a reliable, trustworthy description of actual events that are yet to take place? To be honest, I doubt it.

Nostradamus had a series of similarly fantastic ecstatic experiences, and his “prophecies” are ambiguous enough to be interpreted as being accurate – but only in hindsight. Teresa of Avila had ecstatic experiences that were clearly life-altering, and that make for worthwhile contemplation, but aren’t remotely prophetic. I think the quality of John’s vision falls somewhere in between those two.

The Revelation of St. John the Divine is an extraordinary work. Like all works of great art, it bears the marks of a divine touch. But I think interpreting any of it literally is a mistake.

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