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Revelation: Who Likes It, and Who Doesn't?

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This is the third entry in a three-part series. The earlier posts are here and here.

Perhaps you're acquainted with a Bible prophecy movement buff, the sort of person who visits the Christian bookstore to purchase books about the end-times. She even may sport one of those "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned" stickers on her bumper. Bible prophecy buffs like to remind us that we're living in the "last days."

The Bible prophecy movement represents one group of people who like Revelation. Polls suggest that a sizable minority of people believe the end is near, but only a much smaller group really reads the books, watches the videos and peruses the websites. Most of us may find those end-time devotees a little wacky, but we can all understand why their belief system appeals to some people.

End-time speculation provides its devotees with something we all need, a story to live by. Prophecy believers see themselves as the faithful minority that understands the true meaning of history. For them, bad news is all part of God's plan. While things go to hell all around them -- and in this election year, who's to say things aren't? -- end-time believers believe their salvation is drawing near. When church attendance declines and civic prayer disappears, Bible prophecy teachers tell people this is their moment to shine. Only a faithful few will endure until Jesus comes to rapture the saints into the sky. A meaningful story-line for one's life holds great appeal. I may not share their outlook, but I think I understand it.

But what about the rest of us? Who likes Revelation, and who doesn't?

Revelation has long appealed to people who resist imperialism and injustice. Revelation called ancient Christians to reject the Roman Empire, to abstain from popular worship of the emperor and refrain from exploitative commercial systems. From Latin American liberation theologians, who understood that God takes sides with the poor, to Allan Boesak, who finished a book about Revelation during an Apartheid era state of emergency, countless readers have found encouragement in the Apocalypse. Even within the United States, political activists have find in Revelation a critique of militaristic and imperialistic policies.

Warren Carter's new book, "What Does Revelation Reveal?" provides several answers to its own question. According to Carter, Revelation reveals what it means to worship God and Christ. It challenges believers to faithful living in the midst of cultural pressure to compromise. It demonstrates that, while God does judge, God also offers the opportunity for repentance. And Revelation reveals how God's reign of justice and peace will displace oppressive and violent systems.

If Revelation brings good news for the oppressed, what's not to like? Typically Revelation has faced four major sets of objections.

First, many readers find Revelation escapist. In the face of overwhelming injustice, they say, Revelation offers an empty promise: a pie in the sky future. Endure now, and hope for a better life beyond this one. Christianity has long been subject to this critique, that it inspires hope for the future without providing resources for changing the present. In the words of an old Arrested Development rap, "The word, hope, and the word, change, are directly opposite; not the same."

Second, many reject Revelation's violence. Revelation portrays enormous human suffering, to the point that people cry out for the rocks to crush them and put an end to their torment (6:16-17). It even resorts to the imagery of sexual violence (2:22) and the annihilation of a "great city" (18:21-24). In my own research, I've noted how Revelation employs choirs to praise God immediately after its most horrific scenes -- almost as if some justification is necessary (15:2-4; 16:4-7). Allan Boesak defends Revelation's violence, writing, "If [Christ's] cloak is spattered with blood, it is the blood of his enemies, the destroyers of the earth and of his children." Indeed, Revelation maintains that God does not watch idly while masses of people suffer exploitation. Yet Revelation's willingness to imagine and to justify violence poses a problem for many readers.

Third, more recent interpreters critique Revelation's gendered imagery. Like other biblical books, Revelation often employs women's sexuality as a metaphor for righteousness and wickedness. The prophet Jezebel is promiscuous; she faces judgment. The Great City Babylon is a prostitute; she goes up in smoke. Revelation's two positively valued female images are a mother and a bride, the Woman Clothed with the Sun (chapter 12) and the New Jerusalem (chapters 21-22), respectively. In a passage that baffles interpreters to this day Revelation describes the 144,000 who follow Christ as "those who have not defiled themselves with women" (14:4, my translation). Does Revelation have woman problems? Gender instability? One wonders.

And finally, many object to Revelation's "us against the world" sectarian outlook. Revelation identifies its audience as saints, prophets, slaves, kings and witnesses. But its frequent references to "the inhabitants of the earth" depict the masses of people as wicked and deceived, subject to judgment and incapable of repentance. It's one thing for a tiny, vulnerable minority to look upon the larger society with suspicion. But it's a dangerous thing when one group thinks of itself as righteous and pure, regarding the rest of the world simply as kindling for the abyss.

In my view Revelation adds an invaluable contribution to the biblical witness, but it also requires sensitive, honest interpretation. One cannot just wish away the dangers Revelation presents -- and the sad examples of many apocalyptic movements testify to those dangers. Yet within the New Testament Revelation represents the one book that most clearly calls believers to be suspicious of power and of empire. Revelation exhorts Christ's followers to faithful witness even in the most harrowing circumstances. It reminds us not to confuse power with righteousness: "Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?" (13:4). And Revelation demonstrates that glamorous appearances rarely embody God's truth (17:1-6). Revelation unites the risky witness of those who confront injustice and idolatry with that of Jesus, who endured humiliation and death on account of his own "faithful witness" (1:5). Dangers attend the reading of Revelation, but more is lost by avoiding it.

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