The Alternative Lens of Revelation
The Alternative Lens of Revelation: The Apocalypse as a Social Commentary
As the last book of the bible, Revelation is a curious book. To many Christians, the abstruse language and fantastic images within the Apocalypse of John render it irrelevant to everyday life; to non-Christians, the story of heavenly triumph over earthly woes often seems at best escapist and deluded, and at worst exclusivist and repulsive. Yet, preoccupation and fascination with the mysteries of the book has never waned, as people throughout history have sought its insights into the end of the world and present-day politics alike. However, in spite of this, Christian thinkers are by no means agreed on how to interpret the book. Disagreeing on almost everything about the book, numerous debates have been had on how ‘literal’ the events described in the book actually are, and on the span of time over which these events are to happen. (I.e., does Revelation describe the period immediately following Jesus’ death, the time just before the end of the world, or the entire period in between the two?)
Libraries of books have been written addressing this diversity of views, and we would not do the book justice to attempt to resolve them in one article. Nevertheless, it is clear that regardless of which view we adopt, Revelation purports to tell us something about ‘things to come.’ From doomsday prophets on street corners to concerned Christians anticipating the day of Christ’s return, the influence of Revelation has somehow permeated our culture. As responsible thinkers in this society, then, it is important to endeavor to read it responsibly, keeping to the message as truly as we can. Indeed, this book even opens with an exhortation to this effect: “Blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near” (Rev 1:3b).
This is encouraging, because it assures us that we are meant to be able to understand and apply what was written in the book. This is motivated especially in the light of what we find elsewhere in the Bible. At the end of the book of Daniel, a similar apocalyptic book in the Old Testament, the prophet is instructed to “keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end” (Dan 12:4). In the beginning of Revelation, however, John is charged to “[write] in a book what [he sees]” (Rev 1:11), and is told at the end “not [to] seal up the words of the prophecy of [the] book” (Rev 22:10). Why would God instruct one prophet to keep the prophecy a mystery, while telling another the opposite? Dennis Johnson, in his book Triumph of the Lamb, notes that between the times when Daniel and Revelation were published, a major epochal change occurred – namely, Jesus the Messiah came and established a new age in human history, in which mankind had a new hope in the future because they had been redeemed. In other words, before God’s plan to rescue his fallen people through the Messiah was revealed, the potential of Daniel’s prophecies were not fully realized; only after Jesus’ coming and establishing of the church could the apocalyptic prophecies in Daniel and Revelation be deeply applicable to the readers’ lives. Surely the key to relating Revelation to our present day, then, lies in Jesus’ coming as marking some turning point in history that changed the way apocalyptic literature can be read, understood and applied.
In this light, what is it about Revelation that makes it applicable to our lives? How did the coming of the Messiah suddenly make obscure prophecies about beasts and dragons and harlots relevant both to us and to the early Christians to whom the text was originally addressed? The incarnation is key to making sense of this. When the divine God took on flesh and came into the earth in the form of Jesus Christ, God not only saved humanity from enslavement to sin, he united the spiritual and physical realms and brought his spiritual presence directly into the earth and into the lives of humans. Perhaps equally important to note, Revelation was addressed to members of the early Christian churches in Asia Minor who were facing persecution and oppression by the emperors Nero and later Domitian. Given that they were uncertain if they would even survive through the week, it seems unlikely that these persecuted Christians would be concerned with events that would occur thousands of years from their time. Rather, bearing in mind that the book begins with letters of practical advice directly addressed to the seven churches in Asia Minor, it would make much more sense if the prophecies were meant to be an immediate encouragement to them in the midst of the persecution and oppression they were facing.
With these two points in mind – that the book is meant to contain practical advice, and that Revelation addresses the unity that Jesus brought between the physical and spiritual realms – this series of fantastic and seemingly unrealistic images becomes meaningful, as Revelation seems to act as some alternative spiritual lens by which we may view the world. Through this lens, instead of seeing persecution from the emperor, or any other worldly oppressive powers that may be, John shows his readers a beast that persecuted those faithful to the true God, described with seven horns upon ten heads (Rev 10:1) on which blasphemous names were written. Instead of seeing simply the lack of order and moral integrity in the world, John saw “a great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk” (Rev 17:1-2). And instead of seeing needless persecution and suffering, John presents the martyred saints praying at God’s altar, being told that the injustices against them will not long be left forgotten and un-avenged (Rev 6:10-11). John’s visions contrast with what is actually seen in the world, presenting the true character of events, individuals and forces, which we do not see from the physical plane.
If Revelation is to be an alternative lens revealing the true character of events unfolding in the world from a spiritual perspective, it follows, then, to ask what exactly it reveals. Among many other things, Revelation encourages the church, past, present, and future, by revealing three key concepts about the world and God’s action in it.
First, Revelation tells us that the world, as it was yesterday and is today, is not how it is meant to be. In other words, physical calamities, moral depravity, oppression by Caesar and racial discrimination in South African apartheid are not meant to be. Instead, the picture painted by Revelation depicts this present evil as a result of the spiritual rebellion of the dragon (Satan) against God, and the parallel rebellion of the kings of the earth (the human race) against God as they obsessed over wealth and sex and other worldly idols as their gods (Rev 17:5). With this, the world in its sin is suffering both the effects of God’s holy judgment, and the natural consequences of the wrong choices its inhabitants have made. In other words, massacres and murders, sexual slavery and adultery, oppression of the week and poor for personal gain are but a shadow of the world’s actual spiritual state, one that both leads to disorder and calls for the holiness of God to justify the deaths of the righteous (Rev 6:10). Beyond providing perspective into the cause of unhappiness and distress in this world, it also provides hope that pain and suffering are not natural states of affairs, but rather arose only as a result of sinful rebellion. In this vein, we have hope that when the world is restored, suffering and pain will be no more.
Second, in light of the wrongness that has infected the world, Revelation tells us that we are in a battle to right this disease, and that this battle is not only in the tangible world but equally and even foundationally in the spiritual one. The realm over which we have direct influence is the physical, and that is where Christians are called to action. However, Revelation is a reminder to Christians that, even as they work against enemies such as Nero or Pol Pot or Nazi Germany, the true sources of evil and oppression are more fundamentally the dragon and beast and the metaphorical harlot of Babylon – for it is these that represent the idolatry and immorality of man (Rev 17). This depravity will persist as long as the deeper spiritual forces behind them are present; wickedness will be present as long as the harlot of the world’s immorality is at large in the wilderness. Therefore, as it was for the early Christian church, Revelation is a reminder that the principle and foundational way in which the church is to resist evil and oppression is through spiritual resistance – through persevering in righteousness, and through prayer and petition to God alongside the saints in Revelation (Rev 6:10). Only in light of this perspective can physical work bear fruit – because just as Revelation tells us that suffering in the world is a reflection of deeper transcendental evil, it also encourages us that the work we do in prayer is by the same measure a reflection of God’s triumphant and omniopotent work in the spiritual realm. In this way, Revelation also gives us the strength and courage to work for God’s kingdom in the physical world, because we see God working alongside us and through us. Finally, Revelation also comforts us with the knowledge that when things are hopeless and bleak (even in the midst of the destruction and chaos in the world), there is always a remnant of good in the spiritual realm. Even in the face of bitter persecution and isolation, Revelation reveals that there is a group of people from “all tribes and people and languages” who have persevered in righteousness, under the shepherding of the Lamb who wipes every tear from their eyes (Rev 7:9, 16-17). It provides assurance and a hope that at the end, the world will be restored to its original, intended state of goodness and perfection; that the lost tree of life that was present in the Garden of Eden will once again be amongst humans, in the “middle of the street of the city” of a “new Jerusalem” (Rev 22:2). In Revelation 5, the Lamb who was slain emerged as the only one worthy to open the scroll that triggered the events leading to the final defeat of the dragon (Rev 5:6). Similarly, in Jesus’ resurrection, Christ and the church rose up in rebellion against the powers that be in this world, slaying evil, sinfulness and oppression. With this knowledge and this hopeful assurance, Christians can courageously work to bring God’s kingdom to earth and fight to allay suffering knowing that we will eventually triumph – for indeed, in the spiritual realm opened up to us by Revelation, we have already triumphed in Christ.
There is a story in the Old Testament in which the prophet Elisha was at war with the king of Aram and at one point found himself in a house surrounded by masses of hostile war chariots. Elisha’s servant, sure of their impending doom, began to despair in fear. Seeing his distress, Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant so that he would see and not be afraid (2 Ki 6:17). And when the servant looked again, he saw not the armies of Aram, but instead mountains full of heavenly horses and chariots of fire that God had sent to protect them. This vision imbued Elisha’s servant with hope and courage because he had seen the world as it actually was; through the alternative spiritual lens granted to him, he saw that God was overwhelmingly on their side. Today, John’s Revelation is the answer to that prayer of Elisha’s, for us. This book may or may not do a very good job of actually predicting future events in the world, but by opening our eyes and minds to the reality of what actually is around us, we can find strength and hope and courage to work against oppression in this world. Indeed, like the answer to Elisha’s prayer for his servant, Revelation gives us a glimpse into the real world – a world in which armies of heavenly horses and chariots surround us, and in which we have already, indeed, overwhelmingly and utterly triumphed in Jesus Christ.
1 For further details into the broad categories that these thinkers fall into, see Johnson’s Triumph of the Lamb (Appendix B, pp. 351-363)
2 Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2001. Print. 20.
3 In other words, when Jesus came as the Messiah to die for the sins of humanity and reconcile humans to God, the fabric of the world was changed so much that prophecy of the end-times became understandable and relevant (where it previously had not been).
4 Nero is well known for pinning the blame for the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 on the Christians, among other acts of persecution aimed at casting Christians as social enemies.
5 In the period of whose reign Revelation was written, where Domitian’s Deus et dominus noster Domitianus) was a major source of oppression to the early Christian church which resisted emperor worship.
6 Boesak, Allan Aubrey. Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987. Print. 25.
7 Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. 9.
8 For a more developed idea of spiritual warfare, see Paul’s description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6.
9 Boesak, Allan Aubrey. Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John of Patmos. 58.
Shaun Lim ’16 is a rising sophomore in Winthrop House. He intends to concentrate in Molecular and Cellular Biology and is a staff writer for the Ichthus.
Image: Dragon by M.C. Escher.Tags: apocalypse, Bible, Dennis Johnson, hope, money, Rome, sex, sin