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The Book of Revelation Lives On

Updated on October 26, 2012

Was John Simply Wrong?

In her new book, “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation”, Elaine Pagels presents what is in my mind the only plausible interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Instead of reading it as a description of the literal, apocalyptic events to take place in the imminent “end times”, she describes the book in the context of its author’s times. In other words, she uses the approach generally used for all historically significant books.

The Book of Revelation is filled with vivid, terrifying images of monsters, epic battles, and hordes of dead bodies. But in the late 1st century, the time period that most scholars believe its author (John) lived, these images would have easily been understood by his contemporaries as references to the Roman Empire. And in John’s mind, the end of Rome and the glorious return of Jesus were imminent. The Romans, after all, had not only crucified the promised Messiah roughly sixty years before. They had also recently crushed a Jewish rebellion and leveled the Jewish temple. Actions such as these were not only signs of Jesus’ promised return. They also merited the wrath of God that would come raining down on this idolatrous, evil empire that had consistently persecuted His people. The recent eruption of Mount Vesuvius and its burial of the city of Pompeii may have provided one more sign - along with some of Revelation’s violent imagery - of the battle of Armageddon to come.

The only problem with this interpretation, of course, is that the Roman Empire was not destroyed through the glorious return of Jesus. Instead, it would endure for centuries, and in the fourth century, it had become a Christian empire. In the end, the Roman Empire arguably did more to promote and spread the Christian faith than any civilization before or since. And when the Western Roman Empire did finally fall, it was after decades of gradual deterioration rather than a dramatic, apocalyptic event. Christians, rather than celebrating the fall of the “whore of Babylon”, generally viewed this as a step backward for civilization, wary about a future of potential political chaos and kingdoms ruled by barbarian invaders. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire would survive for another thousand years, and the legacy of Rome would live on through the structure, language, and seat of authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

So if John was wrong, there were only two things that could be done. The Book of Revelation could have been recognized as mistaken prophecy and never included in the Biblical canon. Or the powerful imagery could be reinterpreted by each succeeding generation, with people viewing the events of their time as the prophesied great struggle between good and evil. Each generation, after all, tends to view contemporary events and struggles as uniquely epic and important, and we tend to forget that past generations felt the same way. There is also a natural tendency to believe that the world is in a constant state of deterioration, an instinctive impulse to preserve our society’s cultural heritage in the face of inevitable change. And as the centuries passed, people became increasingly less aware of how Revelation’s imagery would have been interpreted by people of the 1st century.

Today, Christianity in America is alive and well, and so is Biblical and historical illiteracy. Since few people read the Old Testament, they fail to understand Revelation’s references to Jewish stories and prophecies that John (and his target audience) would know well. And because few Americans know much of anything about events 2,000 years ago, they fail to grasp the traumatic events of John’s time. It’s easy, therefore, for people to buy into the interpretations of the preacher or denomination of their choice, susceptible to that natural human impulse to believe that John must have been talking about us. Our experiences, after all, are unique, and the major events of our time must be signs that the end is near. It is comforting to believe, after all, that Jesus will come back soon and save us the trouble of confronting our complex problems.

And so the Book of Revelation lives on, and centuries of failed interpretations predicting the imminent end times have done little to hurt its reputation. This is partly the result of its author’s ability to create powerful, enduring, adaptable images that can be easily applied to virtually any circumstances. But it is also a result of our human desire to find order in the chaos and to believe that the injustices of our time will soon be made right. Every generation believes that there are contemporary circumstances that God cannot tolerate for long. And every generation seems to forget very easily the previous generation’s incompetent prophets, and people fail to ask themselves why a world in a constant state of deterioration has managed to endure for so long. Or maybe they think that someone in our generation will finally plug the correct people and events into Revelation’s secret code, and we will finally be ready for those “end times.”

Check out my new book

I recently published a collection of essays related to American History. The link below will take you to a hub that provides more details, including links to where it can be purchased.


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    • searchinsany profile image

      Alexander Gibb 5 years ago from UK

      I think we may differ because I believe the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. Based on that premise my Hubs are an attempt to explain why those who wrote that Jesus' return was imminent were clearly correct.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 5 years ago

      My perspective is a bit different. I don't claim to know what Jesus may have said and did. I am only familiar with the claims made by the writers of the documents that ultimately made it into the New Testament. And those people who believed that Jesus' return was imminent were clearly wrong. Whether Jesus ever actually claimed he would come back soon is a separate question.

    • searchinsany profile image

      Alexander Gibb 5 years ago from UK

      This is a very interesting Hub.

      Some years ago I came to the conclusion that the only way to understand The Revelation was to accept the words of Jesus. On a number of occasions Jesus said His return would be soon, the Apostles also wrote to the 1st century believers that His coming was about to take place.

      Did Jesus get it wrong? No.

      Did the Apostles give false hope to believers who were suffering great tribulation? No.

      If Jesus said it, then I believe it!

      In my opinion, the problem lies with us and our concept of the manner and purpose of His return.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      Yes, my understanding is that the modern use of "prophet" as a person who knows the future was not the original meaning. A prophet was primarily commenting on the times in which he lived, and typically saying that such a sinful Israel (or world) would eventually pay the price. John, like all self-proclaimed prophets, was primarily commenting on his times, not on some far off judgment day.

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Great hub, F.F.! Voted up for useful and interesting.

      I admire Elaine Pagel's work, along with that of Karen Armstrong -- another religious scholar, whose work I know you are familiar with, F.F. Like Pagels, Armstrong stresses the fact that this tortured literal reading of scripture is a relatively new phenomena.

      Armstrong points out in her book "A Case for God," that medieval people did not read the Bible literally (most people didn't read for one thing and it was mediated through the preacher). But people understood their existence to be both mythos (the spiritual conception) and logos (the world of rational thought, what one needs to survive in the world).

      Armstrong says that with the Catholic/Protestant split that happened in the sixteenth century, basically EVERYTHING was subsumed to LOGOS. There was no longer -- to oversimplify -- in a sense, any room for mythos.

      With that religion, (again, oversimplifying) twisted itself into conformity to logos, insisting that it was every bit as practical and useful as the new, exciting natural sciences that were being developed.

      Armstrong says that it was precisely out of this milieu, came both atheism (in the modern sense, it actually used to mean something else) and fundamentalism. And with fundamentalism (along with the spread of mass literacy) gave us a tendency to read the Bible and its Prophecies were always imminent.

      Also, I don't know if you've ever heard this, but what we think of as Biblical 'prophets' were more like what we would call political commentators. Their 'prophecies' were more like predictions based on what was happening. Its like when progressive political-economists today speak of the social dangers to a society that has such a wide gulf between the rich and poor. For example, during the run up to the economic-financial crisis of 2008, many political-economists noted that the gulf between rich and poor had reached 1920s levels.

      And so on and so forth.

      Thanks for a fine read, F.F.

      Take it easy.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago

      Thanks for clarifying. Yes, I guess it is more exciting to go looking for hidden meanings that provide insight into the future "end times."

    • profile image

      Derian Llewelyn 6 years ago

      Sorry, I meant the realistic explanation of Revelation will be too much of a prosaic explanation for some, not that your writing is :)

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 6 years ago


      Yes, there were many potential antichrists at that time.


      I wasn't trying to be fancy. I imagine that more people will be offended by the notion that the author of the Book of Revelation may have been mistaken.

    • profile image

      Derian Llewelyn 6 years ago

      Down to earth and realistic commentary on Revelation. It'll be too prosaic for some however.

    • jbosh1972 profile image

      Jason 6 years ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      It does definitely seem that we are perpetually in the end of days. Try reading the book of Revelations and read world history from 1914 to 1945. Man those times where chaotic and messed up! Likewise there where times during the cold war that Armagedden seemed emminent.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      I hope lots of people read this excellent article. Everything you say here is totally correct. You are one very wise teacher,

      Take a bow.


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