Amongst all the other confusions around ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories associated with the coronavirus Covid-19, we might not be surprised that there has been a rash of claims that the Book of Revelation (miraculously) predicted all this 2,000 years ago. Rather than look at any one of these in detail, I here make observations about the pastoral challenge, the phenomenon, and the text of Revelation itself and whether it admits of such a reading.
For those who are drawn to such theories, I think there are three things which are closely intertwined. The first is a sense of anxiety—that the world is out of control, or more particularly that the world is out of their control, and conspiracy theories of any kind are (slightly paradoxically) a way of bringing order and rationality to a chaotic and disordered—and so possibly meaningless—world. From a pastoral point of view, it might feel frustrating that this makes people vulnerable to implausible and groundless theories, but it is actually a quite understandable reaction, and in fact we all have our own strategies for finding order in the chaos of our world. More than that, it is something that Scripture generally and Revelation in particular does respond to and engage with.
One of the paradoxical features of Revelation itself is the juxtaposition of order and chaos; on the one hard, we are presented with what appears to be a bizarre menagerie of fantastic creatures, but on the other hand, the text exhibits an almost obsessive concern with order, number and structure, some of which is easily visible (in the use of seven as a numerical structure, and the explicit mention of numbers like 666, 1,260 and 144,000) but some of which is not immediately evident though becomes important in further study, such as the repetition of words a certain number of times. This ordered containing of images of chaos actually has a pastoral function, as Craig Koester points out in his short study of Revelation and the End of All Things:
With each successive scene, disaster strikes earth, sea, and sky, until the demonic hordes of locusts and cavalry torment humanity amid clouds of fire, smoke, and sulfur (8.7–9.21). The cycle is all the more ominous because the destruction unfolds in a relentlessly measured way. the effect is something like an orchestral performance in which the strings scrape dissonant chords while woodwinds shriek, trumpets blair, and cymbols crash in what seems to be wild discord—except that all the players move to a steady beat that is set by the conductor’s hand: one, two, three, four… (p 93)
I love this metaphor, because it captures well the theological tension in the text reflected by the juxtaposition of literary structure and symbolic chaos. God is in control—and yet, within this, the chaotic forces of evil appear to be shaping the world.
So, in one sense, those feeling overwhelmed with anxiety about the current situation are looking in the right place! But they are looking in the wrong way, and this leads to the second issue which I often come across—a complete lack of historical awareness and sense of perspective. Those I come across personally and hear about who talk in cataclysmic terms about our current challenges appear to have no awareness of what life was like in any previous age. We have recently visited the regions of the Dordogne and Gascony in France on holiday, and the history of the area was significantly shaped by the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. During that time, the population halved! Life truly was ‘nasty, brutish and short‘.
Even a modicum of historical awareness unravels the sense that we are in a moment of unique crisis. One hundred years ago, the so-called Spanish Flu infected one third of the world’s population—a proportion that readers of Rev 8.7 might have been alert to. When Genghis Khan invaded the east of Europe with his mongol hoards, he slaughtered so many people that, as the land reverted to wilderness from being farmed, you can measure the change in atmospheric oxygen in Antarctic ice cores. In 1666 (surely a significant apocalyptic date!) London was afflicted by both devastating fire and deadly plague—and so it goes on.
It is a conceit of modernity to think that we naturally expect our lives to be lived in security, peace and prosperity—and crises like the current pandemic offend this sense of natural privilege that we have. And it is both conceit and ignorance to then think that this crisis is uniquely important—so much so that God would take the trouble to have a book of the Bible written that ignores all the needs and concerns of hundreds of generations of previous readers, in order to communicate a message that was relevant to this generation alone!
If our pastoral response to the first issue, that of anxiety, should be sympathetic and understanding, then I think our response to the second issue, the conceit of modernity, should be rebuke and admonition. This aspect of the approach to Revelation is narcissistic, in the sense that it believes that the Bible is just about me, and my situation, and my concerns, rather than telling us what God has done and is doing for all humanity.
This leads us into thinking about the third dimension of problem—which is how we approach the text of Revelation itself. (I think we really do need to get to this, though in my experience if we don’t acknowledge and engage with the first two issues, then we will not make much progress on the third.)
There are many features of the text of Revelation which reinforce the fact that John is writing to his contemporaries with a message which is relevant to them, rather than writing some secret message to a future generation. The most obvious is that, in terms of genre, he is writing a letter to specific people who lived in specific places; this is reinforced both at the beginning and the end of the letter. At the beginning, Rev 1.4 onwards is in the same letter format that we find in other letters of the NT, especially those of Paul, and the epistolary ending in chapter 22 bears a remarkably close resemblance to the end of 1 Corinthians.
My own first encounter with Revelation was in a Bible study group where we were told that the seven ‘churches’ in the early chapters were ‘seven ages of the church’ and of course we were in the last age. If someone had just given me a map, and pointed out that the seven names were of real places with real communities of people in them, I think that would have helped a lot!
When we read about the ‘four horsemen’ in chapter 6, who bring conquest, war, famine and death, whilst these look like fantastical images of future disaster, only a little understanding of John’s world would make us realise that these were very familiar features of his world.
But there is one feature of Revelation, often passed over, which is conclusive in helping us read the text aright. At the end of the book, there is a key phrase which reinforces all this:
Then he [the angel] told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near.” (Rev 22.10)
But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge….Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.
(We can see the allusion to Daniel 12 in Rev 22 by the echo in 22.11 of the phrase from Daniel ‘the wicked will continue to be wicked.’)
What does this mean? In Daniel, the stories are set in the sixth century BC, with Daniel in exile in Babylon. But most commentators agree that the stories refer to the Antiochene crisis in 167 BC, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes sacrificed unclean animals in the temple, and event which led to the Maccabean revolt described in 1 and 2 Maccabees. Some scholars would see this as vaticimium ex eventu, a literary device where Daniel appears to foresee what is to come, though the text is actually written in the second century. Others would see it as an ‘authentic’ predictive text, where the second-century BC future was revealed to sixth-century BC Daniel. But either way, the point is that the events being referred to are many years after the setting of the story being told. Hence the words of the vision must be ‘sealed’ (in this case for around 400 years), until they become relevant to the readers.
What does Rev 22.10 then say? The exact opposite. The words of John’s vision report must not be sealed; the events being referred to are not many years after the setting in which John is writing. The beast of Rev 13 is not some future, eschatological figure who will come many centuries hence, but (in the form of Roman Imperial power) is already demonstrating his strength.
Given all this, it is surprising that even responsible commentators still allow for a kind of ‘futurist’ reading of Revelation, which encourages the ‘conspiracy theory’ type approaches. Robert Mounce (who wrote the Eerdmans NIC commentary) explains it like this:
The predictions of John, while expressed in terms reflecting his own culture, will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history. Although John saw the Roman Empire as the great beast that threatened the extinction of the church, there will be in the last days an eschatological beast who will sustain the same relationship with the church of the great tribulation. It is this eschatological beast, portrayed in type by Rome, that the Apocalypse describes…
It seems quite acceptable to believe in the dual fulfilment of biblical prophecy whilst accepting that the Old Testament prophets did not necessarily have the second (main) fulfilment in mind, even though they may have been “trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing.” However the New Testament writers, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recognised the second fulfilment. The same thing applies to New Testament prophecies. The writers made predictions which sometimes referred to 1st century events and did not necessarily have a second major fulfilment in mind. Similarly Jesus made predictions which his hearers may have applied only to 1st century events. But it is clear that some of these predictions do have a second major fulfilment which is still future. We have to be careful, though, in seeking a correct understanding of these predictions.
There is a fascinating move going on here. Because the OT prophetic texts have a ‘second fulfilment’ in the person of Jesus, then NT ‘prophetic’ texts will also have a ‘second fulfilment’ in the timetable of ‘last days’ events. Note that Mounce is not here talking of the kind of partially-realised eschatology we find in Paul, for example in Romans 8, where what we have now is the ‘first fruits’ of what we will experience when Jesus returns. He is talking about historical events referred to (such as the fall of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70) having corresponding historical events in a ‘last days’ calendar. He does not appear to notice that is actually the opposite of what is happening in relation to the OT. The fact that there is a ‘second fulfilment’ in Jesus is because Jesus is the ultimate expression of God and his purposes, and all his promises find their ‘yes’ in him. To say that there is a further series of events that are needed to fulfil the NT is to say that not all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in Jesus. Futurist eschatological schemes actually undermine the centrality of Jesus in the NT, because they focus the fulfilment of God’s promises in a scheme, rather than in his person.
But more significantly (in relation to Revelation) there is no indication whatever in the text itself that the symbolic action has this kind of ‘double reference.’ There is repeated emphasis on the fact that this is all to happen ‘soon’. The primary genre of the book is of a letter; John is addressing people he knows who live in a particular historical and cultural context, and since the work of Ramsay and Hemer on the seven ‘messages’ in chapters two and three, we have appreciated that Revelation is firmly embedded in its historical and cultural context. And the function of the messages themselves is to root the action in the world of first-century Asia; the visions that follow are not detached from the world they live in, but describe and speak to their world very directly.
Revelation does help us understand our world—not because it has ‘predicted’ our current situation, but because it speaks into the crisis of human existence that we share with John’s first readers. It is not writing in ordinary language about some extraordinary future time, but is writing in extraordinary language about the ‘ordinary’ time of human existence in history. It is a revelation—that without God, we find the world as chaotic and meaningless, but that with the knowledge of his love and grace, expressed in the self-giving of the lamb who was slain, we can discover order and meaning. And because that lamb is on the throne, we can be confident that one day he will rule the world with truth and love, that the evil and chaos we see around us will come to an end, and that we will share his reign.
For an accessible introduction to reading the Book of Revelation, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation.
For more in-depth exploration of the text, you might be interested in my commentary on Revelation in the Tyndale series published by IVP.
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