The latest prediction of the end of the world, based on an ‘interpretation’ of Revelation 12, is that it will all happen at the end of the week on Saturday 23rd September. The simplest way to check whether this is correct would be to check back here on Sunday 24th September; if you can read this blog, then it hasn’t. If you cannot, then you might have more important things to think about.
But before dismissing this ‘prophecy’ out of hand, it is worth dipping into the argument and observing the dynamics, as this can offer some real insight into what is going on—and without engaging, it is very difficult to offer any help to those who might (irrationally) feel unsettled by these repeated claims to know the future. Besides, if you meet anyone who believes this, and you haven’t actually looked at what they are claiming, their beliefs will be confirmed since you are clearly ‘running from the truth’.
The core of the argument is that astronomical phenomena will line up in a way predicted in Revelation 12 which fulfils a prophecy of The End. It works like this: the constellation of Virgo follows the constellation of Leo, which consists of nine stars, but will also be aligned with Mercury, Venus and Mars. Jupiter, which signifies a leader, appears to be in the position of Virgo’s womb—and a mysterious Planet X is going to appear, signifying a malevolent creature. For David Meade, the person at the centre of these predictions, this is a fulfilment of what many find an odd passage in Revelation 12.1–6:
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
(Most people find most of Revelation a bit odd). Meade and his followers think that the verb ‘snatched up’ in verse 5 refers to the Rapture, when faithful Christians are snatched up to be with God. The finality of these events is indicated a few verses later in verse 10: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah.’
The problems with this theory start when you look at the basic lines of the argument. Although this kind of alignment is claimed to be unique, in fact something like it happens about every 12 years. The significance just now rests heavily on the purported existence of Planet X, a mysterious object outside the solar system—which does not actually exist. (Astronomical readings of Revelation 12 like this more commonly make reference to the constellation Drako, which is quite close to Virgo.) Leo does not necessarily contain nine stars; it all depends on which ones you include, and the constellations are all an artificial construction in any case, having nothing to do with the actual relation of stars to one another. So even on its own terms, this theory is looking a bit dodgy—as does other aspects of Meade’s claims. He believes that Jesus lived 33 years, and 33 is the number of the word Elohim, a title of God, but in fact Jesus was most likely born in 4BC and crucified in AD 33, making him 36 or 37. Getting some basic maths wrong here does not give confidence in someone who claims that all the answers can be found in the maths!
It gets worse when you start to read Revelation 12. Without doing any background thinking, simply reading the narrative of the chapter immediately suggests that there is a lot more going on. Following the episode quoted, there is warfare between Michael and his angels and the dragon (who is Satan and the serpent and the Devil), then a hymn of praise—and then the story of the woman (identified as Mary in one of the videos about this theory) being pursued by the dragon but being rescued by God and by the earth. It is not clear how all this material fits into Meade’s reading—or any reading which suggests that Rev 12 is mostly about ‘The End’. But what this ‘reading’ of Rev 12 is doing is filling a vacuum of understanding, since nature abhors a vacuum, and vacuums tend to collect up rubbish—like this sort of interpretation. The vacuum is created by ignorance of two things: the Old Testament; and first century culture.
Revelation is absolutely saturated with allusions to the OT, and our lack of knowledge often means we miss these. The woman in labour is an image of the people of God awaiting deliverance from exile in Is 66 and Micah 4 and 6. The dragon is a composite of the four beasts that emerge from the sea in the visions of Daniel 7, where they signify four human empires, and it is overlaid with a range of imagery denoting the primeval opponent of God and his people (the serpent in Gen 3, the Satan from Job) as well as intertestamental ideas. The male child ‘who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron’ is indeed Jesus as the fulfilment of the messianic Ps 2. If we struggle a little with these allusions to the characters, we will struggle even more with the strange plot into which they have been inserted. But John and his readers will have struggled no more than we would if we heard someone describing a girl wearing a red hooded cloak taking apples to her granny in the woods, or a girl coming across three bowls of porridge in a cottage. (If you don’t know what these are, then again it makes the point: we easily spot allusions to story we know in our own culture, but the moment we look at another, unfamiliar culture we can become very disoriented.)
The story in Rev 12 is shaped by the myth of Python and Leto, where a dragon pursues a pregnant woman to devour her child who in fact is snatched away to safety and reverses expectations by defeating the dragon and slaughtering it. The myth had a number of forms, some of which included two dragon characters, but you can read one of the more common versions as Fabula 140 in the collection made by the Roman writer Hyginus around the time of Jesus’ birth:
Python, offspring of Terra, was a huge dragon who, before the time of Apollo, used to give oracular responses on Mount Parnassus. Death was fated to come to him from the offspring of Latona. At that time Jove lay with Latona, daughter of Polus. When Juno found this out, she decreed (?) that Latona should give birth at a place where the sun did not shine. When Python knew that Latona was pregnant by Jove, he followed her to kill her. But by order of Jove the wind Aquilo carried Latona away, and bore her to Neptune. He protected her, but in order not to make voice Juno’s decree, he took her to the island Ortygia, and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find her, he returned to Parnassus. But Neptune brought the island of Ortygia up to a higher position; it was later called the island of Delos. There Latona, clinging to an olive tree, bore Apollo and Diana, to whom Vulcan gave arrows as gifts. Four days after they were born, Apollo exacted vengeance for his mother. For he went to Parnassus and slew Python with his arrows. (Because of this deed he is called Pythian.) He put Python’s bones in a cauldron, deposited them in his temple, and instituted funeral games for him which are called Pythian.
(The island of Delos is adjacent to Patmos, where John received his revelation.) The myth is important since several emperors, including Domitian, portrayed themselves as a new Apollo, defeating the chaos monster Python by imposing Roman rule and order on the unruly nations. John is telling us that in fact it is Jesus who is the new Apollo, and (through the description of the beasts from sea and land in chapter 13) that it is the Roman Empire and the emperor himself who are the agents of chaos and destruction.
If you are still unclear, then it is helpful to reflect on when the New Testament understands the defeat of Satan and the victory of Jesus and his followers, expressed in Rev 12.10–11: ‘For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’. The consistent answer (seen for example in John 12.31 and Romans 8.1) is ‘When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead’. Although there is The End to come, in fact the end began with Jesus’ defeating the forces of evil on the cross, which is why Peter draws on cosmic and astronomical phenomena in his Pentecost speech in Acts 2 to explain the outpouring of the Spirit on his people.
Having said that, there are some interesting things to note in the presentation of this latest conspiracy theory masquerading as Christian eschatology. Revelation was written in a time when astronomical signs were accorded significance, and so we should not be surprised to find such things (like the ‘star of Bethlehem’ in Matt 2) in the New Testament. Some years ago, Austin Farrer actually proposed an astronomical interpretation of the whole of Revelation from a respectable academic viewpoint—though it did not gain wide support. Second, one of the videos about this interpretation is really worth watching:
The thing to take away is not the wacky interpretation, but the visual and imaginative power of the text. A recent area of growth in Revelation studies is understanding its power as ekphrasis, a rhetorical technique of describing something visual in a way which evokes a powerful emotional response in the hearer. We are continually reminded what a powerful and impressive piece of writing Revelation is—in my view, the most remarkable piece of literature in all of human history. And the particular form that the metaphorical language takes in Revelation not only speaks powerfully to its first audience, but allows it to be transferred into the context of subsequent generations of readers—hence every age has seen in Revelation signs of ‘The End’ in its own times.
As is usually the case, the trailer for the film about this theory, called ‘The Sign’, packages together several other things which form part of this dispensationalist outlook. One is the idea that the establishment of the modern State of Israel is a fulfilment of an ‘end times’ prophecy in Ezekiel 39; it is not, since the NT writers consistently see the ‘gathering from the nations’ of God’s people fulfilled in Jesus and the gentile mission. The other is that the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ mentioned by Jesus in Matt 24 and Mark 13 are about the final end, when in fact they are about the events immediately surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. It is odd for these people to be described as ‘biblical literalists’ because they are not in fact taking the texts ‘literally’. The literal meaning of ‘a woman clothed with the sun’ would be, well, a woman. Virgo is not a woman; it is a name given (by men) to what visually appears to be a group of stars who are in proximity to one another. So the ‘literalists’ reading is actually highly figurative, bordering on the allegorical, and we should treat it as such.
But there are several things are quite disturbing about all this. The first, and most obviously pastoral observation, is that ‘rapture anxiety’ and endless speculation about the end of world is very disturbing and destructive for people caught up in it.
Secondly, there is a strange idea here that ‘prophecy’ is about calculations and predictions, and has no ethical content. In both the OT and the NT, the primary purpose of the prophetic warnings about God’s coming judgement was to urge people into a change of life—think about John the Baptist’s ethical injunctions in Luke 3, where the required response to impending doom was to be honest, helpful and just, not to stand around peering up at the sky.
Thirdly, it always strikes me as odd that those offering such interpretations are usually powerful, wealthy, white men who don’t allow you to ask to many questions but say you must buy into their system of thinking, often literally so, with your credit card in hand. (I have explored this as a social and theological phenomenon previously.)
A better response to all this is to encourage our friends to take the Bible seriously in its own terms, and see how important and transformative a good understanding of NT eschatology can be.
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