Science tells us the Sun will eventually run out of fuel and destroy earth and, even if humanity survives that, the collision of our galaxy with another will almost certainly finish us off. Science also warns us that there may be other remote disasters in our future like an asteroid impact or a super volcano that could wipe out all life on Earth.
The human imagination also explores an apocalyptic future in popular culture. You don't have to hunt very hard to find a novel, TV series, movie or tabloid with this theme. Religion is not immune from this phenomenon. If fact the very basis of the word we use to describe a cataclysmic ending is rooted in Christianity. The first word in the final book of the Bible in its original Greek is Ἀποκάλυψις whose transliteration into English is Apocalypse and it is to this book of the Bible we now turn.
Predicting the Second Coming of Christ
In the 1840's, a Baptist preacher named William Miller became popular due to his prediction that the second coming of Jesus Christ would be on or before 1843. His followers became known as Millerites and an exact date was given for the second Advent of Christ--October 22, 1844. This day is called the Great Disappointment perhaps for obvious reasons. Many people had quit their jobs and sold their possessions in a lead up to seeing the return of their Savior. When it did not occur, some became disillusioned and returned to their former Christian denominations while others continued to see the Second Advent of Christ as a key tenant of their faith. A few new denominations formed out of this movement including Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
If you are curious about what the Great Disappointment might have been like for the average person, perhaps this article from a great-grandson of someone there who became an Adventist or the following clip of people who believed the 2011 prediction of Harold Camp will be of interest to you.
If our study of Revelation isn't about a prediction of the Second Advent of Christ, then what will it be about? Well to answer that question we need to first understand the prophetic tradition of Judaism.
Prophetic visions were about interpreting the present day situation and what it would mean for the near future. Amos 3:1-11 gives a good glimpse of that. You can read it in your bible or online here. In Amos we see the role of the prophet is to make connections. If a trap snaps shut, it is because it has caught something. If an alarm goes off in a city, a disaster is forthcoming. If a lion roars, it has found its prey. So what connections is Amos making? He notes in verses 10 and 11 that the people of Israel have forgotten how to do the right thing. Their leaders have turned to unjust violence and amassing wealth that isn't rightfully theirs. Amos says just look for yourselves see what is going on in our city. He will go on to say that God will not let this stand and that their leaders along with the nation will suffer calamity.
This is one half of biblical prophecy: in prosperous times, the prophet may see God's people are unjustly prospering and are bringing about their own demise. Conversely, a prophet may see the suffering of God's people and look around and see God's hand at work to bring an end to that suffering.
Sometimes, especially in times of persecution and disaster, even prophets see no hope of the situation getting better. It is in exactly this type of situation that the book of Revelation was written. In this situation, saying God was about to end their suffering would seem like a false hope. Instead God's people found comfort in re-framing their earthly persecution in light of a cosmic struggle between God and the forces of Evil. Spoiler alert--the writer of Revelation unveils for his readers that God wins this cosmic struggle.
You see how this is different? Is isn't about looking at the world around you with a keen eye for what is happening. It is instead about looking at the bigger picture of God's history with humanity and finding God is on our side regardless of how hopeless this present day situation may seem. This type of writing falls in the Apocalyptic Genre. Later I will briefly outline what is common in this genre because it will help guide us in our study of Revelation.
Jesus Fulfills Scriptures
I would be remiss right now to not spend a moment talking about the relationship to Jesus and the hopes of Judaism for a coming Messiah. On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), the risen Jesus himself "interpreted for [two disciples] the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through the Prophets." What this is referring to is the longing and anticipation in Judaism for a Messiah who would restore their fortunes as a nation. Much could be said on this topic but I bring it up for a particular reason now. What happened first was the experience of Jesus in his ministry, death, and resurrection. It is only afterwards that Jesus makes the connections between himself and the Jewish Messiah. When Matthew would later write his Gospel and make these connections for his readers, he would say that a particular event in Jesus' life happened to fulfill scripture. It may be a subtle point, but this too is quite different than decoding scriptures to predict future events.
Prophecy of a Different Nature: Nostradamus
One final piece on prophecy I would like to turn to that is prevalent in our culture and that is the prophecies of Nostradamus. Here are three that people refer to that were to clearly predict 20th century world events (the rise of Hitler,the dropping of the atomic bombs during WWII, and Sept 11). I will let you determine which one matches which event. Personally I do not find predictive value in his writings. That being said, I do think this type of prophecy is what popular culture believes we have in the Bible. We will see (and have seen somewhat already) this is not the case.
Century I, Quatrain 87
Earthshaking fire from the centre of the earth
will cause tremors around the New City.
Two great rocks will war for a long time,
then Arethusa will redden a new river.
Century II, Quatrain 6
Near the gates and within two cities
There will be two scourges the like of which was never seen,
Famine within plague, people put out by steel,
Crying to the great immortal God for relief.
In the place very near not far from Venus,
The two greatest ones of Asia and of Africa,
From the Rhine and Lower Danube they will be said to have come,
Cries, tears at Malta and the Ligurian side.
Note: Nostradamus wrote in French so I am dependent on English translations. Although I'm not convinced completely on the credibility of this site, it at least claims to offer the original French and lists its sources.
So if you want to become a lawyer, it is probably important to read legal textbooks as part of your training. Reading say British murder mysteries may be entertaining but the will not train you to become a lawyer. Think also about say a book of poetry and nonfiction book. They are completely different literary works and require the reader to engage them in quite different ways. The genre of a literary work is very important consideration when reading the text. When we read the Bible, this is equally true.
The Book of Revelation is part of the Apocalyptic Genre which has a particular style. I am going to briefly outline that style here and we will come back to it later when we begin actually looking at the text of the book.
- A vision is given to a human being most often by the intervention of an otherworldly being
- The vision involves a cosmic transformation that results in the beginning of a new age or divine judgment of all
- The vision helps interpret what is happening on earth when at the time the vision is given and that situation is often one of suffering and/or persecution
- The visions often include vivid symbols and mysterious numbers
- The time during which the vision is written seems to embody supreme evil and feels like the last age of humanity
- Divine intervention is seen as the only hope for the historical context
- This genre is dualistic: Heaven and earth, Good and Evil
- This genre uses figurative language that may refer to a historical person, nation or event but has several layers of meaning. An example of figurative language is the phrase "a new day is dawning." Literally that would mean that the sun is coming up in the East. Figuratively that may mean an important event has happened which will significantly change our future.
Hopefully you find this a helpful introduction and tune in for future posts or join us Wednesday evenings at 7pm at Old Trinity.
In preparing this study of Revelation, I have read several works that have shaped my thinking especially “The Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse)” in An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. Brown. Doubleday © 1997.