05/30/2013 05:41 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Reading Revelation Realistically


At one point in Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace," an interpretation of the Book of Revelation captivates Pierre Bezukov. He calculates the numerical value of L'Empereur Napoléon (where a=1, b=2, c=3, etc.) and discovers the sum is 666. This is clear proof to him that Napoleon is the beast from the sea described in Revelation 13. He then applies his alphanumeric theory to the words quarante-deux, forty-two, the number of months "allowed to [the beast] to exercise authority," according to Revelation 13:5. Here too the number is 666, which leads him to conclude Napoleon's power would reach its peak in the year 1812 because in that year the Emperor would be 42 years old. And there is more. Wondering what will eventually put an end to the power of the beast, or Napoleon, he turns to his letters-equal-numbers reading strategy to unlock that mystery. This time he struggles, at least initially. He counts the numeric value of several possibilities, including the Russian nation and the Emperor Alexander but none of these makes much sense to his mind. Pierre finally tries his own name and nationality -- L'russe Besuhof -- and discovers, to his amazement that it also adds up to 666. This, he eventually concludes, means he is the one to impose a limit on the beast's power, that he must meet Napoleon and kill him, thus putting an end to Europe's misery. Only much later, after his failed efforts to defeat the beast/assassinate Napoleon, does he see the folly of his ways:

"His intention of killing Napoleon," writes Tolstoy, "and his calculations of the cabalistic number of the beast of the Apocalypse now seemed to him meaningless and even ridiculous." One wonders if any members of Harold Camping's Family Radio organization can relate.

I mention this curious story because Pierre's approach to the Book of Revelation illustrates a pattern of interpretation with a long ancestry. Insisting that biblical visionary literature addresses the concerns of a particular moment in history exclusively or primarily, and even reading individuals and communities into the narrative, is not unique to fiction and in some ways is not all that surprising. Such a highly personalized interpretation of the Scriptures offers guidance, comfort and a sense of purpose for those in trying circumstances. The Russian Pierre had good reason to fear the advancing French armies and their General, so his demonizing of the invader through an interpretation of the Bible is understandable. By casting Napoleon as the Revelation's beast, he creates a symbolic universe allowing an imagined escape from an otherwise hopeless situation. Aligning the French with the devil and the Russians with God promises a reversal of fortunes for the Muscovites because there is no ambiguity in biblical apocalyptic literature. There are clear winners and losers in these ancient, mysterious books so naturally many readers (not just fictional characters) recast their stories in apocalyptic terms, often with results every bit as bizarre, amusing and desperate as the one Tolstoy describes in "War and Peace." They read Revelation as though John the Seer looked across the centuries to their own situation. Of course, pious individuals and faith communities re-contextualize the ancient biblical texts all the time though usually not in such dramatic fashion as we see in this novel. This step is absolutely necessary if the prophets and apostles are to mean anything in the present day. There are, however, some unique challenges and questions apocalyptic literature presents modern Bible readers.

Part of the issue is genre. Finding contemporary parallels is not easy. These texts are populated with strange creatures; make liberal use of symbol and imagery; often depict disturbing, violent cataclysms; reduce complex moral and ethical questions to simplistic black-and-white; and insist on an insider-outsider frame of reference that refuses ambiguities. It is a kind of writing generally unfamiliar to us, and relatively rare even in the context of the Bible. Add to this the endlessly wacky history of interpretation, and the average Bible reader may be forgiven for throwing up their arms in hermeneutical despair.

But we don't we feel similarly exasperated with other biblical genres. How is it that we navigate, say, Paul's letter to Philemon reasonably well? For one thing, it is a recognizable form. We read letters all the time. For another, we instinctively appreciate that the apostle's note is a byproduct of a very specific, unrepeatable situation involving the author and the addressee. And that's fine. We don't deny it, we don't claim Paul was writing about future events he had no knowledge of, or that the letter involves a deep meaning accessible only to enlightened mystics. We ground our reading in the occasion giving rise to Paul's correspondence with Philemon. The people in that story (Paul, Onesimus, Philemon) are long dead but Christians still find meaning in that letter even though the situation Paul relates concerning a runaway slave is worlds apart from anything we encounter in 21st North America, thank God. No one reading Philemon today loses sight of the actual, historically grounded, real time occasion leading Paul to write it.

The same is not always true for apocalyptic literature. For many, including the good Pierre Buzukov in "War and Peace," there is a tendency to cut Revelation off from the world out of which it emerged, reducing it and its canonical and non-canonical cousins to cryptic forecasts of distant times and places entirely disconnected from the author of the book and its first readers. For Pierre, Revelation contained mysteries about his own life and about the unfolding political and military drama of 19th century Russia and France.

This is not all bad. Pierre and countless other readers like him who link the Apocalypse to their own moments in history do well to find comfort in the Bible, and the insight that God cares about their unique situations. On that much I agree.

However, when David Koresh or Hal Lindsay or the purveyors of the Left Behind franchise or Harold Camping want to sever Revelation from its first-century moorings, and then connect the document exclusively or largely to 20th and 21st century interests, the attempt is doomed to hermeneutical failure. Why? Because other readers, in other parts of the world, across the centuries and millennia of Christian history also lay claim to the book. The minute they or we claim a reading of apocalyptic literature that is exclusive -- this story is about us, our age, our nationality, our crisis -- we deny the book's relevance to other Christians removed from us in space and time. Instead of particularizing apocalyptic writing, of looking for specific, limited fulfillments, we do well to treat Revelation and Daniel and Jesus' Olivet Discourse and Zechariah as we do Paul's letter to Philemon. Allow that the prophet, apostle or evangelist addressed the particular needs of a particular audience, and only then make the leap to the modern congregation.

So how should we read this stuff? How can we read Revelation meaningfully in the 21st century? This is hardly the venue for a robust response but here are five brief Recommendations for Reading Revelation Responsibly.

First, I offer a caution. I recommend we be aware of the potentially dangerous language of the Book of Revelation. Consider, for example, the language of the martyrs under the altar who cry out "'Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?'" (6:10). Interpretations that align one's enemies with the enemies of God described in the book are a recipe for violence. Consider the example from "War and Peace," where a reading of Revelation demonizes the French and sanctions an assassination attempt. The gendered language of the book that identifies a false prophet as Jezebel (2:20), or depicts the redeemed as virgin males (14:4) is also potentially problematic. I raise this issue because if we ignore this particularly difficult biblically book, which I think many in the church do, distasteful and morally objectionable readings of the book may fill the vacuum.

Second, I recommend we be suspicious of hyper-futurist readings of John's Apocalypse. If it is true that Revelation is about some murky, remote, futuristic cataclysm, it is meaningless to John's readers in other periods of the church's history. If the New Testament is the word of God, it is God's word to the whole church, in all times and places.

Third, I recommend we read Revelation as a letter, or more correctly, a series of letters. We are comfortable reading letters. To approach John's Apocalypse as we do Philippians or 1 Corinthians or Philemon offers an instructive hermeneutical analogy. Yes, apocalyptic literature is highly distinctive, even weird, but Revelation is also epistolary correspondence. Again, we know Paul's letters responded to the needs of first century churches and we find meaning in them without insisting there is a deeper, profounder meaning exclusive to other churches in later centuries. Too often, we cut off the letters in Revelation 2-3 from the rest of the book. There is a clear example of this in the influential Scofield Bible's note at Revelation 4:1:

Beginning with 4:1 the viewpoint of John is from heaven. As the word "church" does not appear again in Revelation until 22:16, the catching up of John from earth to heaven has been taken to be a symbolic representation of the translation of the Church as occurring before the events of the tribulation described in chs. 6-19.

To separate these chapters from the rest of the book confuses the matter, inviting us to ignore the circumstances leading John to write and his churches to read.

Fourth, I suggest we also read Revelation as a sermon, and one that does not reveal any more about the future than any other New Testament writing. John was a pastor intent on motivating, encouraging and inspiring his congregations. The beleaguered churches of Asia Minor he addressed faced all kinds of challenges and like all good preachers, John proclaimed Jesus' authoritative words -- chastising, instructing, motivating and warning as their circumstances required. An announcement about the end of the world on Oct. 21, 2011 (as Harold Camping predicted) or the death of Napoleon Bonaparte by assassination at the hands of a Russian prince would mean little to the congregations of first-century, Roman-era Ephesus or Smyrna.

Fifth and finally, I submit that Revelation does not need decoding. This is not to deny that ancient languages, unusual imagery, obscure cultural references and the like are straightforward. It is a difficult book and careful exegesis is necessary to make sense of it but this is the case with all biblical writings. If it is true that Revelation is a puzzle, that its numbers, symbols and characters hide deeper mysteries, clues to God's master plan, then we have a situation where part of Scripture is inaccessible to most readers. The implication is that mystics and/or priests and/or prophets and/or scholars and/or a chosen few are capable of retrieving the real message behind the words. But Jesus instructed John to write for churches, not some privileged elite.