A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation: Introduction
When I said that I was going to be blogging my way through Revelation, a friend of mine said, “…Because nothing brings Christians together in harmony like eschatology.” I got a kick out of that. But you have to know what “eschatology” is and be able to pick up on heavy sarcasm to think it’s funny.
Eschatology is the part of biblical studies that deals with “last things”—often described as “the end of the world,” although I think that’s a really misleading way to think about it since Revelation certainly does not tell the story of the end of the world. Almost exactly the opposite, in fact. It tells the story of how God, often working in concert with the followers of his son, Jesus, will recreate the world. It tells the story of how God will remake this world as a newer and better Eden—an Eden centered on the blazing beauty and glory of Jesus, who fully and finally reigns over his new creation in perfect peace, justice and love, having destroyed all evil and death and crying and brokenness forever.
And somehow, despite all of that, the book of Revelation tends to make Christians go to the mattresses like no other book. Which is amazingly ironic and sad, really, given that the book repeatedly pictures the people of God in perfect unity, standing before their beloved king, singing and worshiping and enjoying him together. There must be a way to study this book and take it seriously without divisiveness and without throwing stones at people who understand it differently. I so enjoyed working through this book together with my Life Group. I don’t think we all unanimously agreed on the meaning of almost anything in Revelation. But we loved and honored each other all the way through it. And if it’s possible on a small scale, it’s possible on a large scale. So, throughout this series, my hope is always to put forward my own understanding of this book in dialogue with those who may disagree—never deriding those who disagree. I’ll expect commenters to do the same.
I mentioned in the “preview” for this series that Revelation is for worshipers. It paints a portrait of a massive and beautiful and majestic God, who deserves all glory and honor. Revelation is for doubters. It lets us know that we are a part of a story that has a certain ending, because it is written by the one true sovereign. Revelation is for the weak but willing. It puts steel in the spine of those who desire courage and boldness. Revelation is for conquerors. It reminds us from whom our greatest strength comes and for whom we’re conquering. Revelation is for the evil. It reminds them that their time is short. And Revelation is for the broken. It reveals for us how all of the shattered pieces will be put back together again.
When a film begins, there’s always some opening credits, and often something along the lines of, “Based on actual events” and then “Little Boston, California. 1902” to set you up for what follows. So, a few opening credits to give credit where credit will be due, and to set you up a bit for what follows:
First, I’ll be leaning heavily on three biblical commentaries by three different scholars who have three different perspectives on the book: Revelation for Everyone, by N.T. Wright; The Book of Revelation, by G.K. Beale; and Revelation, by Grant Osborne (one of the few new testament scholars out there who bucks the “two initial” first name trend). They’re all excellent, and you’ll see along the way who I tend to resonate with the most. I’ll quote them when it’s appropriate and necessary, but know that you’re going to hear them echoing throughout my writing.
Second, I’m going to try to avoid as much as possible academic terms like “preterist,” “futurist,” “idealism,” “premillenial,” “amillenial,” “postmillenial,” “post-trib,” “pre-trib,” “mid-trib,” “a-trib,” “dub-trib,” “fancy-trib” and “extra-crispy-trib.” Because, seriously… Who cares? Maybe we can just talk about Revelation like real people who… you know… have jobs and mow the lawn and eat cereal. If you want to use those words to impress people, that’s cool with me. They don’t impress my wife when I use them, so I’m just gonna skip ’em.
Third, Revelation is “based on actual events.” Except it isn’t. It is and it isn’t. Everyone recognizes that Revelation is full of strange symbols. But all of the biggest disagreements about Revelation are really, at their root, all about how much of it is symbolic and how much of it isn’t. But here’s one word I want to encourage everyone to be very careful with: Literal. It is an extremely misunderstood word and it’s really open to misinterpretation, so I’d love it if we could avoid it entirely.
If you or I do use it, here’s what we should mean by it: “Reading literature according to the kind of literature it is.” Another way to say it is that “literal” means “reading literature according to its genre.” Every piece of literature has a genre—the rules and customs that tell a reader how to read something.
Think of it like the Sunday paper. There are lots of different “genres” in the Sunday paper. And we all know that they’re not all meant to be read the same. We all know that when we read a story on the front page, we’re supposed to be reading mainly for facts and information. The author is claiming some semblance of objectivity and reporting an event as accurately as possible. But we also all know that when we read the editorial page, we’re supposed to reading for biases and opinions. The author is not claiming any sort of objectivity (or, at least, they shouldn’t be). They’re arguing a side. They’re trying to convince you of their viewpoint. And we know that when we read the comics, we’re not supposed to be looking for facts and information at all. Comics are a different genre than an editorial or a front-page story.
So what does it mean to read Garfield literally? It doesn’t mean to read it as though there’s really a fat, orange, condescending cat that loves lasagna and has a love/hate relationship with a hopelessly stupid dog, and the author is trying to document their lives for historical interest. To read Garfield literally means to read it as a comic strip. To read Garfield literally means to understand that the story of the comic strip didn’t really happen, and that if the author is trying to convey a message, he’s conveying it symbolically, or comically. I think that’s where we often go wrong with Revelation, Genesis 1, and many other biblical texts.
To read something literally means to read something according to the kind of literature it is. So, some readers believe that Revelation is a more or less straightforward account of how things are going to unfold in the future, and that it uses very little symbolism whatsoever, and believe that at some point in the future there will be a physically real dragon on earth and locusts that kind of look like horses with women’s hair and lions teeth, etc. These readers claim to be reading Revelation “literally.” But some readers believe that Revelation is a highly symbolic form of literature, conveying its message by powerful and staggering images that represent events or realities in the past, present and/or future. These readers also should claim to be reading Revelation “literally.” Both kinds of readers have made a decision (whether they know it or not) about what kind of literature Revelation is, and how it’s meant to be read.
All of that to say, everyone should be reading Revelation “literally”—wrestling with what kind of literature it is. So let’s try to avoid using the word “literally” as though it’s some sort of biblical moral high ground (i.e. “I take Revelation seriously because I read it literally”). Instead, let’s try to understand why people are inclined to read this book the way they do, try to figure out how God intended for it to be read, and see if we can find a way forward in understanding Revelation with unity even amidst wildly divergent perspectives.
I hope that’s as geeky as I get through this entire series. I’d rather not talk about the book itself and how to understand it. I’d rather read it with you and watch it paint us a portrait of a staggeringly powerful God and King who is more beautiful and just and vengeful and loving than we have ever imagined. So here goes…