essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
One of my neighbours tells me she has found a new interest in religion which gives her much comfort. In particular she likes to read the bible. I know she’s had a hard life with lots of difficulties, so I was pleased to hear this.
Then she told me that reading the bible meant reading its last book, the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse. And she is convinced we are nearing the end of days. All kinds of things she’s worried about are foretold to happen in Apocalypse. Perhaps that’s what she finds comforting. But it doesn’t comfort me. I hate the Book of Revelation, which I see as a writing used to justify lots of religious persecution. But what would I know? I haven’t read it. So I decided to read it, just to be fair. Quotations are from KJV so they may be inaccurate.
Revelation, scholars tell us, was written at the end of the first century, in Greece, by someone called John, otherwise unknown. Deciding the authorship by calling John of the Apocalypse John the disciple or John author of epistles or John the Baptist is futile, as we know absolutely nothing about any of these Johns. However, the purpose and content of Apocalypse make it likely it was not part of the movement to link Christianity with Judaism found in the Synoptic gospels, even though the author seems a Jewish Christian, but part of the development of Paul’s Christology as expounded by some Gnostic (hidden doctrine) authors, who were all heavy on allegory and symbolism. It is likely that John is mentioned as the inspiration of the book, the source of information, but was not necessarily the one who wrote the message down.
Jerusalem had been destroyed 30 years earlier by Titus. By the turn of the century the Roman Empire was entering on its golden age under Trajan and Hadrian, prosperous and peaceful. The Christian religion was beginning to spread, at first in Greece, then Rome and other provinces. Still tiny compared to the numbers who believed in Mithras or Isis, Christians were rapidly making converts. Fervent Christians like John were angry at the empire of Rome for having crucified Jesus, then having destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem. They were mocked by believers of other faiths for their idea that a crucified criminal was the saviour of the world. They had accumulated a lot of resentment. John seems to be looking back at these problems rather than forward to new developments in the Empire and in Christianity, though he may have heard ominous rumours the Roman army would soon be on the move in Syria.
John tells us he has had visions. He has seen the Whore of Babylon, and the Beast, and tells of the second coming of Jesus Christ. As a visionary prophet he can be seen as similar to Montanus, a prophet in Phrygia in northern Asia Minor about 100 years after John’s time. Montanus was regarded with suspicion by the slowly forming church and its attempt to create an orthodoxy of faith from the many beliefs about Jesus Christ. Montanus was orthodox, but his belief that the Holy Ghost inspired believers and gave them prophetic vision struck at the heart of church structure and authority as it was being developed, and Montanus was declared a heretic. The book of the revelation of John seemed a similar work, and was not accepted by the church until the fourth century.
A look at the book
The key fact about Apocalypse is that it concerns “things which must shortly come to pass”. That is, John is about to describe what will happen about 100 AD, the year 3860 in the Hebrew calendar, “for the time is at hand”. John finds the number seven significant: he writes to the seven churches of Asia (from Patmos an island in the Dodecanese opposite Miletus in Turkey); he refers to the seven angels in heaven; he has a vision of Jesus Christ, king of the universe, come to judge humanity. Jesus holds seven stars, angels of the seven churches.
If John wrote just before the year 100 AD it might have been significant for him that emperor Trajan was about to conduct a war against the Nabataeans and was to move troops from Syria as early as 102 AD. Trajan was eventually to attack the Parthian empire in 113 AD, and occupied Babylon in 116 AD, just a year before his death. Trajan was tolerant of the Christians, and his letters to his governor Pliny the Younger have survived. These events or rather gossip of what was soon to happen may have been of interest to the seven churches of Asia Minor, who would recall the last movement of the Romans in the area, that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
John has messages for the seven churches. Praise, but warnings about the “Nicolaitans” who are preaching falsehoods. John is also concerned about “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not”, implying that followers of Jesus then thought of themselves as Jews rather than ‘Christians’. He warns against “the doctrine of Balaam”, and the prophetess Jezebel, who authorises forbidden food, and departs from strict chastity (she sounds like a follower of Paul). All who keep the word of the Lord shall rule kingdoms in the coming city, the new Jerusalem. Nobody knows what any of this means, but it refers to squabbles of Christian sects in Asia which John disapproved of.
John is then transported to heaven, where 24 elders and four beasts, each with six wings, give constant praise to god. God holds a book with seven seals, which none can open except the Lamb, Jesus Christ, with seven horns and seven eyes. John sees Jesus break the seven seals. It is a vision though, not a prophesy that he sees. The word ‘prophet’ in Jewish culture didn’t refer to a seer looking into the future but to a reformer urging the people to observe the faith more strictly; this is what the Old Testament prophets did. The first seal is broken, and John sees a conqueror on a white horse, with a bow. The second seal is broken, and John sees a rider on a red horse, with a sword, who brings war; the third seal is broken, and John sees a rider on a black horse, with a balance, who measures and sells and buys; the fourth seal is broken, and John sees Death riding a pale horse, bringing destruction to a quarter of the people of the world; the breaking of the fifth seal reveals the martyrs, who cry for restitution; the breaking of the sixth seal reveals the end of the world and the great judgement of god, the “day of his wrath”.
The tone so far is to exhort all believers to be diligent in their faith, and to warn of the dreadful things that will happen to them if they do not, and the power they will receive if they are faithful when god makes his last judgement.
Then John sees “four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth”, and a great congregation of the faithful praising god, including an itemisation of numbers from each of the 12 tribes of the Israelites. Again the Jews are given a special place in John’s vision.
Then the seventh seal is broken. The day of judgement involves, according to John, the destruction of the world. This is the section of Apocalypse which has caught the popular imagination. Not so much the judgement, but that it involves the end of the world. John believed, like many early Christians, and perhaps Jesus as well, that the world was about to end. There was wrong doing on the earth. The faithful were persecuted or jeered at; the poor suffered and went without; Jesus had been crucified. But all this was soon to be redressed, they believed.
The seven angels with their seven trumpets prepare to blow. The first one sounds, and fire and blood destroy one third of the trees, and all of the grass. The second angel sounds the trumpet, and a mountain falls into the sea and it turns to blood and a third of the sea and its life is destroyed. The third angel sounds the trumpet, and a star falls from heaven and contaminates the water of rivers, and many die because the water is bitter. The fourth trumpet sounds, and a third of the sun and moon, a third of the earth, disappears.
Then comes the destruction of the non believers. Believers have had a seal placed on their foreheads, so the agents of destruction can spare them. This I thought a really nasty part of the book. All those who do not think exactly like John will be destroyed, and he gloats over the details. Here is a spiteful, deranged man paying back the score to all who have derided him as crazy and locked him up on Patmos.
“And the fifth angel sounded…And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. And it was commanded them that they should …[hurt] those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions… And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months. And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon. One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter”.
It is a plague John describes, inflicted on unbelievers by god (whom the gospels said had died to save mankind). It’s agent is Apollyon, who is the Greek god Apollo, who was thought to bring plagues and infections (as well as being god of music and healing and of the sun. Go figure). Just what kind of a plague is spread by locusts like horses with scorpions tails, lions’ teeth and women’s hair is anyone’s guess. But it was just a vision.
The sixth angel sounds the trumpet, and horsemen destroy another third of mankind, those who do not believe, or do not repent of their sins. John is about to reveal the events the seventh angel shall unleash with his trumpet when he is told to keep them hidden. But then told again he may speak them.
“And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, And sware…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets”.
Then, despite what was said before, the seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and the kingdom of god comes. There is “the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit”, and “there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail”, but the kingdom did come, despite the weather.
The reign of Satan
John’s vision continues with what appears to be his explanation of why there is evil on earth and why the faithful are persecuted. It is far from a straightforward account, but concerns the battle in heaven between god and satan, and the conception and birth of Jesus. In John’s apocalyptic style we hear “there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, the pregnant Mary. Then “another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads” i.e. satan.
Then comes the most famous passage of Apocalypse. It is an attack on all those who think differently to John, blasphemers. John “saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority”. But, ‘”If any man have an ear, let him hear…he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword”. And then another beast comes, a wonder working beast, who lifts up the first beast, and has power to buy and sell. But blasphemers and workers of false miracles can be easily identified. They have a mark upon them, they “had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” That is, those who have different views to yours can be easily identified, and are tools of the devil.
We then learn of the judgement. There will be some saved, “the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth”, who are virgins not defiled with women. Then angels with sickles do their work, and the unfaithful are destroyed, and there is blood everywhere. Then comes the seven plagues of the seven angels (by this time I am thinking the book a bit repetitious), and “seven golden vials full of the wrath of God” is not my idea of god at all. John’s god is predominantly a vicious sadistic psychopath who enjoys handing out a bit, a large bit, of torture. This relish of the judgement day punishment is miles away from the Christianity of Jesus or of Paul. The seven plagues do their work, together with earthquakes, blood etc etc.
Then comes the destruction of the great whore Babylon, and the actual judgement of Jesus, “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” And so it goes on til “the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” And more, “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death”. We can guess what inspired Dante’s Inferno.
And finally, ” And he said unto me, These sayings are faithful and true: and the Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done”. “And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand”.
This is John’s main belief: that the end of the world is coming, in days or weeks or months. That the non believers (= sinners) will be destroyed with hideous torment. That all who believe as John will become as kings in heaven, the new Jerusalem. I think the misgivings of the early church fathers about Apocalypse were justified, for it is clearly nothing like the Christianity of the rest of the New Testament.
What’s missing from this picture? Good works (“just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead”, as James puts it). Charity (“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become [as] sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” as the Letter to the Corinthians puts it). Love (“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”, as Matthew puts it). Tolerance (“resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”, as Matthew again puts it).
Apocalypse is written with hate, fear, resentment, cruelty and spite. Its language is grandiloquent and obscure. And it has always been one of the most popular books of the bible. That’s us folks. Maybe we need to be destroyed.
The interesting thing about Apocalypse is that nobody understands it. Nobody. Those who interpret it are making it up to agree with what they want to believe. John wrote in an obscure code which he may have understood (though I doubt it). But the key has been lost. Paradoxically that has proved one of the sources of the book’s popularity. It gives scope for code breakers of all descriptions to tell us what the book really means. The fire from heaven that destroys a third of the earth is really a nuclear attack. The persecution of the faithful (us) is really the precursor to the end of the world. The beasts of magical properties and various animal parts is really President so and so, or Dictator such and such. The beast who buys and sells is really the universal capitalist monopoly who secretly controls the world. And so on. The same method that finds the words “Francis Bacon” as the initial capital letters in lines 1125-1160 of the First Folio edition of the Merchant of Venice in Shakespeare’s collected works of 1623.
One of the reasons the early church was hesitant about accepting Apocalypse into the canon of scripture was that it was clearly mistaken. John had believed that the world was about to end in 100 AD. It hadn’t. None of the things he had seen in his vision had come to pass. Unless you got to work using your own allegorical interpretation or symbology. Yet the book apparently was very popular. The reason was that readers conveniently ignored the ‘it’s about to happen any time now’ passages in the book. Instead they looked at the signs and wonders John detailed, and tried to fit them to what was happening in their own times. People have been doing it ever since. Ignoring the bits they don’t like, and using the bits they do. And the bits they do like are just those bits that express foreboding. The sense that things have got out of control, and mankind is about to be walloped. Apocalypse is really a therapy for this sense of foreboding.
My neighbour is a very fearful person. In the past she has had good reason to be. John’s Apocalypse directs that fear at things she justifiably finds fearful going on around her, and links it with god’s judgement on sinners. I still don’t like it. It’s a panacea for those Christians who want to be smug. An ‘I’m all right Jack’ approach. There’s bad things going on in the world, but we Christians are all right. We’ll be saved. The rest of you will be tortured and damned unless you convert. Er, what about doing something about the bad things in the world? Like stopping them? What about acting like adults?
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.