Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A (not so) quick guide to finishing Revelation less confused than when you started

For the final paper in my master's biblical hermeneutics class, I was tasked with writing a paper exploring and interpreting Revelation 12. (The following is a dramatization of real events in the style of Jewish apocalyptic literature) When I saw this assignment, I fell down before the whole assembly of my peers and professors and wailed. The earth split open, the mountains quaked and crumbled, and the stench of burning sulfur poured up from the depths; a third of the world suffocated at the sulfur. The angels holding back the waters of the deep were commanded, "No more!", and they let the waters roll up over the great cities of the world, and a third of them were flooded. Then I was in the Spirit and heard a voice saying, "Fear not." I looked, and there before me stood an angel in front of an open door. He took me through the door into the sixth heaven and told me the true meaning of Revelation 12, saying, "You must teach this to students, and professors, and kingdoms, and nations." Then I saw coming down from heaven the perfect paper on Revelation 12, and I took it and submitted it.

A most troublesome book

Well, writing that was surprisingly fun. I can see why apocalypse was such a popular genre among second-temple Jews. But it probably reminds you of why Revelation might just be the most difficult book in the Bible for modern audiences. Chances are you either steer clear of it as much as possible, or you take an unhealthy level of interest in it. If you do pay a healthy amount of attention to it, it's probably to the letters to the churches in chapters 2-3 (which can be interpreted and applied more like the epistles), the exaltation of Jesus as the slain-and-risen lamb in 4-5 (which is a depiction of the glory of God similar to Isaiah 6 and acts as a nice illustration of Philippians 2:9-11), or the defeat of evil and the ultimate restoration of all things in 20-22 (to which my church frequently turns for the ending of the "gospel story"), skipping all that confusing stuff in between.

Unfortunately, Revelation 12 was right in the middle of all that confusing stuff in between, so I had to address it. As my description indicates, I was pretty nervous about this paper, so I checked out three commentaries from rather diverse viewpoints to help me make head or tail of it. Heavenly vision or no, the paper went well and is on this blog if you're interested. Before I have to return the commentaries, I wanted to share some of the things I learned from my study of Revelation.

When I thought in the past about the rather colorful sequences of events depicted in most of Revelation, I assumed they were all describing, in some confusing symbolic way, "the end times", and it was our job as interpreters to try to understand how they would play out, like figuring out the best way to put together a really difficult puzzle. As I learned in one of the commentaries, though, this is just one of four ways to read most of Revelation, called futurism. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the diversity of viewpoints this book has led to) Those four main views are:

Preterism: Revelation 1-19 describe events that happened shortly after the writing of the book (probably around the end of the first century AD).
Historicism: They describe events that took place (or still are taking place) in church history. This view was popular among Reformers who thought the Pope was the Antichrist/false prophet and the Roman Catholic Church was "Rome"/"Babylon".
Futurism: They describe events that will take place in the "end times", a period of history future to the apostle and still future for us.
Idealism: They don't describe historical events, but allegorically represent spiritual truths that are fulfilled continually.

A mixture of these views is also possible (preterism/idealism, futurism/historicism, etc.). Somewhat better-known, there are three views regarding the "millennium" described in Revelation 20, when Satan will be imprisoned and the faithful will reign with Jesus, and its relative ordering with other events that are supposed to take place.

Premillennialism: After a gradual deterioration of the world, Jesus will bodily return to rule with His followers for a thousand years. This is further divided into subviews regarding the relative timing of this return with the "great tribulation" mentioned in Revelation 7:14. This, again is the view expressed in the Left Behind books.
Postmillennialism: Jesus' thousand-year reign with the believers will be only spiritual in nature, preceded by an improvement in conditions and response to the gospel in the world by the work of the church. The millennium may have already begun. After the thousand years, Jesus will come bodily to judge everyone.
Amillennialism: The "thousand years" is to be interpreted symbolically or nonliterally, and doesn't correspond to an actual period of history.

My journey through Revelation

From the options I listed, it should be clear that Revelation is a book with a lot of possible latitude for interpretation in many places (i.e. most of the book). Many of the conclusions we draw from studying it should be considered theories, not doctrines. So while I would now describe my reading of John's last book as amillennial and preterist/idealist and can provide reasons for seeing it as I do, I can't dismiss futurism, premillennialism, or any of these other readings offhand as "unbiblical". I know and respect far too many people who would disagree with me to do that.

Still, the commentary I read with which I now agree most felt to me like a breath of fresh air. Looking back, I think I had gotten very tired of how futurist readings of Revelation seem to produce more heated debate, speculation, and theological platform-building (which I really don't think John was going for). Maybe your experience with Revelation has been different; maybe you have found reading it in a futurist way to be fruitful. I'd love to hear about how. I was simply searching for a way to read this book that did it justice, and I couldn't seem to find it in the traditions I grew up with.

So I stayed restless about this book because read properly, Revelation has the potential to be the most awesome book in the Bible (I really mean that). It's full of scenes that would be over-the-top even for Michael Bay, the ultimate cosmic battle between good and evil at the end of the age, and depicts Jesus as the awesome, evil-destroying Prince of Peace who fulfills all of God's promises of faithfulness and wins the battle for the fate of the cosmos. I want to read Revelation and get hit in the face with all that until I can't help but worship the God who authors it all.

With that said, I was able to identify seven guidelines to reading Revelation in a way that is more helpful than confusing; hopefully they'll work for you even if you don't come to the same conclusions as me.

1. Mind the genre (and context) of Revelation
Or rather, genres; it incorporates elements of the prophetic, epistle, and apocalyptic genres. The one of these that gives us the most trouble is apocalyptic ("apocalypse" is just the transliteration of the Greek for "revelation"). Apocalyptic literature is a distinctly Jewish genre that usually involves dreams and visions set on both heaven and earth, bizarrely symbolic language, and formal stylization such as the symbolic use of numbers and sequences. It had a similar goal to the Old Testament prophets (hailing from the age after the "true" prophets had stopped speaking) of looking forward to God's ultimate deliverance and redemption of His people, but unlike the prophets was written instead of oral. Gordon Fee says:
Part of the reason for this was that apocalyptic was born during the time of powerful world empires, which was often a time of persecution for the Jewish community. These writers, therefore, were engaged in a kind of subversive literature, prophesying cataclysmic judgments on their persecutors—God's own enemies—who at the time of writing appeared so powerful that there was no hope for their collapse except by divine intervention. Thus these writers no longer looked for God to bring about their redemption within history; rather, they pictured God as bringing a cataclysmic end to history, which also ushered in a redemptive conclusion for God's people.
John J. Collins defines it:
"Apocalypse" is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.
If possible, reading some other Jewish apocalypses helps greatly to give a larger sample of this genre. Its closest peer in the Bible is the ending of Daniel, which Revelation repeatedly references.

Most apocalypticists, to add credibility to their vision, would write under the name of a famous Old Testament figure and mention how they had been commanded to "seal up" their words until the age of the actual author, but John speaks not in the guise of an established prophet but as a Christian prophet contemporary to his audience. His revelation differs from others in two key ways: John (we think, with support from textual evidence) does not write under a pseudonym, and John is not commanded to "seal up" his vision for a later age (he is explicitly commanded not to in 22:10). Says Fee: "John is not simply anticipating the End, as were his Jewish predecessors and contemporaries; rather, he knows the End to have begun with Jesus, through His death, resurrection, and ascension."

Considering the context of Revelation (historical, cultural, literary) is also important. Though writing in the style of Jewish apocalypticists, John's immediate literary context is unquestionably the Bible (that is, the Old Testament), which he references almost constantly in his imagery. Many of the characters and symbols he uses are from Daniel; some of the plagues he describes are from the Exodus, and that's just scratching the surface. Lots of his depictions of the Father and Jesus are also from the Old Testament, to emphasize the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises therein. Others of his symbols were rooted in his culture, from the obvious (Rome, the city set on seven hills, becomes a woman on a beast with seven heads) to the obscure (the hordes described in 9:16-19 might be mounted Parthian archers?). In any case, it's important to ask ourselves what John's imagery would have meant to his original audience, rather than simply what it seems to mean to us (more on that later).

I'll try not to make the other items this long...

2. Keep in mind the purpose of Revelation
As I hinted above, I seriously doubt that John wrote Revelation to incite bouts of debating, disagreement, and speculation. I hope we can all agree on that, at least. I see the first few verses as a mission statement: John does say that God gave it to him "to show to his servants the things that must soon take place" (1:1), but in 1:3 says "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near."

So in other words, while part of John's purpose is to tell his audience about what will take place, simply knowing what John is saying, much less fitting it into a theological grid of some kind, is not the point. Rather, he intended his letter to be read aloud, understood, and kept. This means he intended this letter to spur a certain action or attitude in his audience, which (from the rest of the book) seems to be an increased, steadfast faith that loves Jesus and hopes in His coming even unto death. I believe John wrote the book to encourage the believers in these first-century churches by setting their lives and their persecution in the context of the cosmic battle between good and evil, and by showing them the eventual outcome that their faith is leading them to

So, even though we aren't the target audience of Revelation, we should still seek to fulfill John's purpose in writing it. I believe John wrote in order to be understood by his audience, not to set a puzzle for later generations of interpreters to "figure out".

3. Focus on what is clear
Rather than what is unclear or obscure. (Of which there is plenty) This calls for epistemological humility, realizing that a great many people smarter than you may disagree with (say) your interpretation of the locusts in Revelation 9 as Apache helicopters. Attach a degree of uncertainty to your conclusions. Be especially careful about staking too much or building any doctrine on top of unclear passages (let alone textually disputed passages).

4. Consider John's theological perspective
I also refer to this as the prophetic "God's-eye view". John places a high value on depicting the events of Revelation as God's doing, either directly or through the "theological passive", a common device for pious Jewish authors wishing to avoid using God's name explicitly. For example, in Revelation 12:14: "But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle". The implied giver here is probably God Himself.

I think this kind of prophetic speech has a different effect on us in our more intellectual, dualistic culture than it did in John's day. We see all these seals being broken, trumpets being blown, plagues being sent, cosmic battles being fought, and assume that these events, if they are fulfilled physically, will be obviously miraculous or supernatural. In other words, we view God "doing" something exclusively from something being done by humans. Or, more mathematically, divine agency and human agency are mutually exclusive. I disagree with this assumption.

A helpful example: the ministry of Jesus. God chose to come to earth as a human, to live, breathe, eat, grow, and feel as a human. While Jesus didn't shy away from doing miracles, this is quite different from saying His whole life was one continuous miracle, or that He was some kind of energy being in the sky beaming peoples' sins out of them, or some kind of giant hand sticking out of the sky. This kind of imagery is much more like we see in the apocryphal gospels than in the genuine ones. In the life of Jesus we see the Father most clearly (Jhn 14:9), but we also see divine agency and human agency coming together perfectly and beautifully.

If I may analogize for a moment, I think a better explanation is found in the world of theater (or literature). For example, the plot of Hamlet is driven by greed, ambition, revenge, love, grief, and an intricately woven tapestry of human actions and passions. People have spent centuries analyzing it. Yet on another level, the events of the play can be understood as driven not by the actions of the characters, but by the writing of Shakespeare, and his own thoughts and intentions in writing the play. So, John's prophetic writing is written to his fellow players to lift their eyes from their immediate surroundings, to pull aside the curtain, to remind them that they stand on a vast cosmic stage, and that ultimately God is in control of the plot. What is, on one level, a human action is, on another, part of God's script. Our actions aren't free or divinely determined. They are both. If we bifurcate our everyday human perspective from John's theological one, we are like actors debating the motivations of the playwright instead of saying their lines.

One example from Revelation where I found this helpful is in what is sometimes referred to as the "Great Tribulation", beginning in chapter 6. Previously I saw this as God arbitrarily killing people with natural disasters of all kinds that might still be referred to today as "acts of God". As one commentary offered the possibility that, for instance, the four horsemen might be describing the persecution of Christians by human (perhaps Roman) persecutors who would later face justice themselves, all under the sovereignty of God. That the parts of Revelation that previously seemed random or bizarre might be theologically oriented descriptions of human actions is a very compelling theory to me.

5. Remember our bias as modern readers of an ancient document
I think of two ways this plays out especially in our reading of Revelation: we generally assume that the most faithful interpretation of Scripture is a literal one, and we believe that a crucial part of "understanding" a passage is figuring out its informational content. By the first, I mean that we can feel almost bound to read passages literally and concretely, feeling as though we're somehow evading God's word if we don't. The frequent debates you may hear on "whether to read the Bible literally, or metaphorically, etc." are an example of this. Not only are we looking for a simple rule to follow in blanket fashion for interpreting scripture (another trademark of modern thought; everything proceeds from simple laws and rules), we consider a strictly literal reading to be plausible. I can assure you that before the enlightenment, people didn't wonder whether to read the Bible literally or metaphorically: they chose both ways, and threw in a moral and anagogical sense to boot!

How this plays out, especially in a book like Revelation, is that we discern a literal reading for some bit of apocalyptic imagery, like that exactly 144,000 celibate Jews will be saved in the Tribulation in chapter 14, or that the faithful will reign with Christ bodily for 1,000 calendar years, and then turn believing it into this macho test of faith, even if it raises far more questions and concerns than it answers. We assume that details that look concrete must be concrete, even if they are serving a very different purpose for John, like numerical symbolism or a citation of an Old Testament prophet for continuity.

The other way is that we focus on the informational content of Scripture. We ask what it can tell us, what we can learn from it, maybe view it as "biblical data" to add to our body of biblical knowledge. The result is that we keep thinking about theology without getting around to living it. I know of no one more guilty of this than myself. What this means for Revelation is that John's original purpose of exhorting and encouraging churches in their faith all too often gets drowned out in the quest to figure out what all of his apocalyptic storytelling is really about. We do very well to remember 1 Corinthians 8:1b, which I think certainly applies here: "This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up."

The problem with both of these assumptions is that they are anachronistic. They read our modern ways of thinking back onto ancient people who didn't share them. We think about how the cosmic signs in 6:12-17 are possible according to modern science, or whether the 24 elders in ch. 4-5 are angels or elect humans and the implications of either for pretribulationism, when these concerns were simply not on the radar of John or anyone in his audience. We must be willing to set aside our assumptions about what the Bible says when they keep us from it. Which leads right into the most important point...

6. Read with an incarnational hermeneutic
I am truly indebted to Peter Enns for tackling the questions that were undermining my faith, and for transforming how I approach the Bible. Central to his approach is the incarnational hermeneutic: the idea that Scripture is fully human and fully divine, just as Jesus was. Neglecting either side of it will lead to problems. In general, and especially in a book like Revelation, evangelicals tend to neglect the human side.

Here's how this question of the nature of Scripture applies with Revelation (this summarizes several of the previous points): Revelation, like the rest of the Bible, is "God's word" written "for all believers everywhere", and since God's words will never pass away (Mat 24:35, Mar 13:31, Luke 21:33), it must be speaking to us just as it did to its late first-century audience. (This is part of the reason the futurist reading is so compelling) Therefore, we feel justified in reading Revelation in anachronistic ways because it speaks the same eternal spiritual truth to us as it did to the churches in Asia Minor, and the same Spirit will guide us into all truth (Jhn 16:13) just as He guided them.

But, applying the incarnational analogy, we recall that the human side of Revelation: that it was given to first-century Christians in a specific cultural and historical context, through a uniquely second-temple genre of literature that we are largely unaccustomed to today. It does not speak independently to us, but rather through this cultural lens. Whatever we do with it today must take into account the "situated" form in which it was written and what it meant to its original audience, not just what it means to us. We must follow what John does with its details to the conclusions he draws before we can apply them to our own context. This will go a long way towards alleviating the anachronistic ways we approach Revelation.

7. Consult multiple commentaries
This point is probably the simplest, but is also the most important (I lied about the last one). Revelation is probably the book of the Bible for which commentaries are most necessary. Whatever you do, if you want to seriously study Revelation, don't go it alone, or even with a single commentary. Ideally, get several that express a variety of views and positions to weigh. I did this as a happy accident in my own study.

It's "Revelation", not "Revelations". Or, if you like, "The Apocalypse of Saint John".

1 comment:

  1. Funnily enough, Scot McKnight interviewed the author of a new book on Revelation right after I put this up. I don't entirely agree with his conclusions (he seems to take a purely idealist approach, whereas I think much of Revelation was meant to be predictive in some form), but it's definitely worth reading.