In the language of the Bible the word ‘apocalypse’ does not mean the end or destruction of the world, but a revelation from God, especially disclosures characterised by strange visions and symbolism. This is why Apocalypse, the final book of the New Testament (and thereby the Bible) is also called the book of Revelation. In this session we explore this strange text.
It claims to be written by John (tradition identifies this with the apostle John) on the Greek isle of Patmos and is specifically adressed to 7 church communities. We believe it was written at the end of 1st century. The importance of this 1st century context is that disclosures of the Kingdom of God are brought into sharp contrast with the the rule and cult of the Roman Emperor.
There are many examples of apocalyptic writing in the Bible, the most famous of which is the book of Daniel, the imagery of which is heavily drawn upon here. For instance, there are many animals used as symbols, some of which also appeared in Daniel, and there is a symbolic use of numbers- the number 7 in particularly has resonances with the not only with Daniel, but also with the Sabbath. In part due to this richly symbolic style it is very difficult to understand passages out of context of the whole, but we will try anyway.
“Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore. And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. They worshipped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshipped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also, it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”
Some of our thoughts:
- There is a sense of despair at the condition of the world.
- This passage is very violent, the beast could be seen as a divinisation of military violence, a false god of hatred and political/military power.
- The poetic bit in the middle here makes use of Matthew 26:52 – “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
- Dragons are serpentine and therefore associated with evil in Biblical imagery (i.e. the snake of Genesis ch. 3).
- The first beast has the same number of heads as there are on all the monsters in Daniel, which might imply it is some kind of ‘super beast’.
- There are two beasts and a dragon forming a sort of ‘anti-Trinity’.
- This was plausibly intended to represent an inversion of the Trinity because it talks about authortity given over the whole world (cf. the end of the Gospel of Matthew), a mortal wound that has been healed like the wounds of Christ. And also about breath and fire coming down from heaven which are symbols of the Holy Spirit.
- The mark of the beast which is demanded as a sign of inclusion looks like a parody of baptism.
- The number of the beast is of a singular person. Famously, numerology has been employed to identify this with the Emperor Nero who carried out horrendous violence against Christians (while claiming to be divine himself). But this is a very problematic position to take because the ‘666’ is ‘616’ instead in many of the early manuscripts we have.
- A simpler interpretation is that because the number 7 represented holiness in the language of the Bible, 6s -as something that falls short of the perfection of 7- represent sin. So someone equated with three 6s is very sinful.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’”
Some of our thoughts:
- This is explicitly eschatological, it is about the distant future (or a culmination outside of time) and heaven and hell.
- The ‘living water’ is a reference to John 4:10.
- In the language of the Bible the sea -which here is “no more” – was a symbol of separation and non-believers.
- The Church is the bride Christ, God is inviting Christians into a spiritual romance. This elevates human dignity from children of God, to lovers of God.
- Christ who is “the Alpha and Omega” (the beginning and the end) brings salvation in making all things are made anew.
- In this new ‘saved’ state, God is intimately present among the people. This is an interpretation of Jesus’s prouncements that the Kingdom of God was near.
How should this book be used?
- It is often used to justify views about a devil although it does not actually say in plain language that there is one person who is the devil and that Christians must accept his existence. Instead it seems to be more of a general warning about the presence of evil forces in the world, forces that often seem respectable to the public at large.
- More strikingly there do not appear to be any specific prophesies about the end of the world, which is how many churches have famously used it (in the last couple of centuries a doctrine called ‘the rapture’ has developed in some groups but this isn’t taught by the text). Indeed, though chapter one says that John believed these things to happen soon, the rich and archaic symbolism make it very unclear what these things are. Given then allegorical use of the apocalyptic genre by the Hebrews, it is extremely unlikely that he meant this as a literal description of future events.
- While the historical context makes it very tempting to try and impose the interpretation of the beast(s) as the Roman Empire, this is far from clear from the text and this ambiguity is a great thing because it means that the relevance of Scripture is not frozen in the past but alive for us today.
- A clear example of this contemporary relevance is found in the liberationist tradition which became popular in the social thought of the Catholic church in the late 20th centrury. Liberation theology aims to interpret the bible (and theology generally) -as Jesus would if he was in the modern world- by focusing on the poor and excluded. As such, the book of Revelation with its focus on oppressive powers at work in the world, has become a crucial and fruitful source for this project.
- Finally, here’s a LEGO interpretation of the book (by atheists).