Mishandling the Book of Revelation
17 November 2021 Hits:1543
One of the good things about a crisis is it often provokes people to read the Bible and pray. The global pandemic certainly has achieved this. It’s been a motivator for people to read Revelation. But as one of the Bible’s more mysterious books, it is often misunderstood and mishandled.
My Early Christian Years
I’ve watched Revelation being mishandled for decades. I had my first encounter with Christianity in the late 70s. Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, was all the rage. The planets would align in 1982, starting the Great Tribulation. Cataclysmic events would unfold upon the earth, and Jesus would return in 1988. Oh, and the Pope was the antichrist because he had 666 written under his cap. I kid you not, someone told me this in all seriousness, and I believed them!
None of it was true. None of it happened, just like all the other predictions over the centuries from mishandling Revelation.
I now know better.
A Little History
The book of Revelation was (reluctantly) admitted into the Canon of Scripture in 395 CE. It was the last book to be incorporated into the New Testament.
The Western Church wanted Revelation included but didn’t appreciate Hebrews. The Eastern church didn’t like Revelation (and still don’t use it in their services), but they wanted Hebrews included in the Canon. So, the compromise was to have both books in the Bible.
The Nicene Creed
By 395 CE, the church’s doctrine was well and truly completed and stated in the Nicene Creed (325). The Nicene Creed contains everything the early church believed about the future:
[Jesus] will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
These statements form a summary of eschatology (doctrine of last things) and comprise everything Christians have ever believed about the end of this age:
Nothing to Fear
Notice the line “We look forward to the resurrection of the dead.” In other words, the future is not something to fear. The apostle John put it this way, “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:17-18).
And so, according to the church’s greatest creed, the future is not something to fear. It’s something to look forward to. Contrast that to an interpretation of Revelation that does nothing but inject fear:
- Fear of antichrist and one-world government
- Fear of the Mark of the Beast
- Fear of the great tribulation
- Fear of the most dreadful afflictions rained upon the earth
- Fear of beasts, dragons, harlots, & birds feasting on human flesh
- Fear of Armageddon
- Fear of a lake of burning sulphur
- Fear of a sneaky rapture where you could be left behind
One of the most popular Christian songs of the 1970s was Larry Norman’s “I wish we’d all been ready.” The song included the line, “There’s no time to change your mind, the son has come, and you’ve been left behind.” It was a great song, but the theology was awful.
Some particularly full-on (read, obnoxious) Christians at the time would ask other Christians, “are you rapture saved?” It was a weird question that basically asked if you, as a Jesus follower, were saved enough to be taken up in the air when Jesus returned. Again, awful theology!
One Saturday, I finished my shift on the radio and headed back home to the farmhouse I was living in at the time. I walked into the house. There were pots of food bubbling away on the stove, and two chairs were pulled out from the table and facing each other. It was as if two people had been removed (raptured) from the room. I was terrified. I’d been left behind.
Shortly afterwards, my housemate walked back into the room with another friend. I was so relieved.
Left Behind was the title of a series of novels in the 1990s and early 2000s. Some of these were made into movies starring Kirk Cameron and Nicholas Cage. They are terrible films, having attracted the lowest audience score of all time on Rotten Tomatoes (3%). Sadly, many Christians base their understanding of Revelation on the Left Behind series. These books are novels, not Bible commentaries!
A Solid Foundation
Fearmongering might be a good money-spinner, but we must not base our beliefs on these fads. Our faith must rest solid and secure on the truth as it is stated by the great creeds of the church:
[Jesus] will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead. His kingdom will never end. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come. Amen.
And so, when the book of Revelation was finally included in the Bible, it could not add to the doctrine as stated by the Nicene Creed. The church’s essential beliefs had been fully expressed by 325 CE, seventy years before Revelation was accepted into the New Testament (395).
Revelation was not to be used to add anything to eschatology. In fact, it was expressly stated that Revelation was not to be used to foretell the future (how ironic!)
Handle with Care
Revelation’s two main uses were/are as:
(1) A call to Worship (the Lamb upon the throne) and,
(2) A call to faithfulness (in the face of persecution and hardship).
The book of Revelation is jam-packed full of marvellous truth that applies to today. When we remove our fixation with the so-called “end times” and cease to use Revelation to predict the future or read interpretations into it from the daily newspaper, we free Revelation up to be the inspiration it was designed to be.
Revelation was written initially to seven churches that existed in the first century. But as part of inspired scripture, this book is written to every church and every disciple of Jesus. I hope you will handle it with care and not give in to the wild speculation and conspiracies that I fell for in my early Christian years.
For further study, listen to two podcast discussions between Shane Willard and myself (Rob):