Do the visions in the
Book of Revelation concern religious and political matters in the ancient
world, or are they prophesying events in the distant future? Discuss with
reference to primary and secondary literature.
This essay will argue
that the eschatology of the Book of Revelation forms an integral part of John’s
attempt within the pages of his book to form a literary world in which the
forms, figures, and forces of the earthly realm are critiqued and unmasked
through the re-focalization of existence from the perspective of heaven. It
will attempt to show that, in response to the social, political, religious, and
economic circumstances of his readers, the Book of Revelation forms a counter
imaginative reality. Through drawing upon an inaugurated sense of eschatology
and evocative imagery, John is able to pull the reader in and show them the
true face of the imperial world and consequences of its ideology, forcing the
reader allegiance to fall with either ‘Babylon’ or the New Jerusalem.
John perceived many
threats to the Church, the most powerful one being a lack of commitment in the
face of adversity. Within the epistolary content of the opening chapters of
Revelation, John identifies a number of the threats that the seven churches of
Asia are facing. These can be separated into external forces and internal
forces, external being the threat or presence of persecution (Rev 2:9-10; 2:13)1
and internal being the work of false teachers/prophets and the lessening
commitment to the Christ (2:4-6; 2:14-16; 2:20-23; 3:1-4; 3:15-20)2.
When one considers the social context of these seven churches, the cause behind
many of these threats expresses itself in the fact the perceived reality was
contrary to most Christian beliefs. To look around many of these cities in the
time Revelation was written would be to look at cities ruled by Rome and
infused with Roman imperial ideology. As the prosperous empire continued to
grow and appear indestructible, the propaganda of divine emperors and the Pax
Romana would have taken on a tangible sense of reality. Add to this the threat
of persecution; political, social, religious, or economic, that, should the
church stay true to its faith, would likely have engendered and you have a
circumstance in which the forces of Rome appear to be more powerful than the
forces of God. In a sense, the Roman Empire portrayed its own gospel, its own
cosmology, and its own lordship, all of which, to John, were blasphemous
deceptions. The threat in these were that the church would lose faith when
faced with the power and glory of Rome, that they would cease to belong to the
new creation and be deceived into submission to the beast (17:1-18)3.
Another aspect of reading Revelation is the way in which John portrays
martyrdom as a nearly necessary act in order for the whole eschatological
scheme of the ‘end times’ to continue. Reading chapter 6 verses 9 to 11, we see
portrayed an image of those already martyred ‘…for the word of God and the
testimony they had given’ and read of their crying out for divine justice and
vengeance on the ‘beast’ that killed them. In addition, as we continue to read
we see these martyrs given robes and told to wait until ‘the number would be
complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who
were soon to be killed…’. This statement reinforces the participatory
eschatological scheme we have been reading and suggests a belief that with each
martyr’s death the consummation of eschatology draws ever closer. The belief in
Revelation that martyrdom holds a special significance within God’s
eschatological scheme is also reinforced by the concept of the millennium.
Following Simon Woodman’s interpretation of the millennium as a non-literal
we are able to see in the ruling of ‘…those who had been beheaded for their
testimony’ (Rev 20:4)5
the vindication demanded by the martyred souls during the opening of the seals
This role as ruler, when read in the context of a Church facing the possibility
of martyrdom for their beliefs, would provide a reassurance that in their death
the ‘beast’ had not been victorious, rather that in their sacrifice they have
damned it more and won for themselves an honoured place.
Having looked at the effect of reading the Book of Revelation in the original
context, and seen the threats and evils that John exposed through his text, let
us now look to the possibility of reading this book in our current context. Perhaps
core in that understanding is the fact that Revelation itself does not overly
contextualize its characters and forces to a specific point and time. An
excellent example of this is John’s reference to ‘Babylon’. While in the text
it quickly becomes clear that Babylon refers to the Roman Empire, the use of
this ancient cities name speaks of John’s belief that Rome is merely the newest
manifestation of a non-historically bound force that has existed as long as
humanity. In this comprehension of the continuing manifestation of ‘Babylon’
throughout history, the vision of Revelation can indeed be used to unmask
similar powers today. Through reading John’s text, the Church is able to
transcend the perceived reality of life, exposing the beast of today, and
‘refurbish’ its comprehension of the world through the perspective of heaven
and eschatology and so be strengthened to remain faithful in the face of all
This positivism toward the idea of reading Revelation within our current
context should, however, be tempered by recognition of the ease with which this
book is misread and the dangers of doing so, both for the Church and the world.
To identify some the dangers of reading Revelation within the modern world we
need only look to the evangelical right wing of American politics. Within this
subsection of politics and religion, there are strong lobby groups for many
policies, moral, economic, legal, but in particular it is their lobbying for
the state of Israel and a positive stance toward that nations expansion and
land ‘reclaiming’ that is exceptionally dangerous. This positivity, which
expresses itself in policies favourable to Israel, is rooted in their belief that
Israel must be restored fully to its historical lands in order for the second
coming to occur. Likewise, during the Regan regime and the Cold War, Russia was
identified as the ‘evil empire’, a reference from Revelation reinforcing
America as the force of good and Russia as the force evil. When this is tied to
the belief in some evangelical circles at the time, of which Regan was a part,
that nuclear war could be used to initiate the Second Coming. In addition to
this, and from the Church’s perspective, the danger exists that we can quickly
come to represent aspects of the ‘beast’. If Revelation is read literally and
with little reference to the life and death of Christ, sections such as those
we explored in the epistolary content regarding the command to ‘conquer’ can
lead to a degree of militarism and a misplaced vision of ridding the world of
evil through the use of force. Again, the United States is an example.
Following the attacks of September 11, President Bush made the statement that
“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and
rid the world of evil”7, a
claim that adds a biblical and mythical context to the missions against the
forces of ‘terror’. In many ways, this ideology mimics that of the Pax Romana,
which, as discussed earlier, is criticized within the Book of Revelation as a
blasphemous usurping of God’s place as the provider of peace and security.
These examples show the ‘dark side’ that is contained within Revelation when it
is read without the proper theological lens and as a literal timeline for the
end of times.
As this essay has shown, the eschatology of the Book of Revelation forms an
integral part of John’s critique of Roman ideology and in expressing the
threats prevalent within the first creation that could affect the Church.
Having explored eschatology in Revelation and determined an inaugurated
conception of the end times, a now but not yet comprehension, as well as the
consideration of Revelation as a literary counter reality, we have seen how John
worked to expose to his readers the reality that lay behind their perception of
the world. Through this counter reality and its reconsideration of life from a
heavenly perspective, John is able to warn, educate, and strengthen the Church
in the face of apparent Roman glory and power, as well as threats and
persecution. In visions of divine judgment and the destruction of the first
creation, John portrays the natural consequences, and so punishment, for the
‘satanic’ imperial parody of God’s power and kingdom and forces the Church to
choose between allegiance to the ultimately defeated Babylon, or to the New
Jerusalem. We also saw that in Revelation, John has instilled a core belief
that response to the imperial forces should be one of testimony and suffering,
even martyrdom if necessary. Considering the Book of Revelation as a text that
forms an alternate reality through which out perceived reality can be
critiqued, we also saw the potential positives and dangers of reading the text
into our modern context and how easy it was to begin to mimic many of the
characteristics of the beast. All this shows the power of John’s text, both in
its original context and today, and the critique of the perceived reality
inherent in it through its inaugurated sense of eschatology, to alter and
affect those reading it, and draw from them a response of faithfulness and
devotion to God in the face of persecution, oppression and suffering.
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4 Woodman, Simon. The Book of Revelation. London:
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7 McNamara, Mary, and Lynell George. Bush to
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