“Out of the Great Ordeal”: Reading Revelation in a Global Pandemic
The interpretation of the Book of Revelation has always been a heavily contested affair. The text has inspired both extraordinary art and “quacks and cranks,” and invariably its complexity (and the huge array of paratexts associated with Revelation) leaves the average reader feeling overwhelmed. Particularly unhelpful is what Michael Gorman calls the “hyper-canonisation” of the text, whereby particular interpreters use literal readings of the text in order to draw out a timeline of the final judgment of God – despite the fact that interpreters have attempted to do so almost since the text was first written. Many of these interpretations are unhelpful, inciting panic, obsession with the “end times,” or worse.
In particular, interpreters are bound by the limits of their own knowledge, and therefore a wide range of interpretations can exist for any given text. This causes any ambiguities within the text to be multiplied, as different interpreters understand these ambiguities in a variety of ways. Whilst allowing for variety is certainly helpful in empowering readers, it also raises the potential for a range of conflicting interpretations. One helpful solution might be to establish a common basis for reading and understanding the text. For instance, beginning any reading with the Sitz im Leben of the text in question creates this common ground. Understanding the text’s genre, and therefore its overt purpose, also helps provide helpful contextualization.
This returns us to Revelation, a text which has already yielded a wide range of ambiguous interpretations. Revelation is typically understood to be “apocalyptic” literature, itself a “complex literary type which has absorbed into itself several component genres.” John J. Collins’ broadly accepted definition defines apocalyptic literature as:
a genre of revelatory literaturewith a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly beingto a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent realitywhich is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.
This definition, however, does not take into account the circumstances that underpin the writing of many apocalypses, and should be supplemented by David Hellholm’s definition of apocalypse, which posits that apocalyptic texts are written “for a group in crisis with the purpose of exhortation and/or consolation by means of divine authority.” In other words, apocalyptic writing is written to address moments of crisis, and must therefore be read within that context.
What was the crisis being faced by the audience of the Book of Revelation? Church tradition and scholarship largely agree that the early Christians perceived themselves to be facing persecution, though the actual extent of this persecution is debated. John, the author of the text, is himself persecuted; his self-identification of being exiled to the figurative wilderness of Patmos allows him to connect with an audience who might have undergone similar experiences. His presence in the text marks him as one of the few humans in Revelation, as the narrative of the text contains surprisingly few characters with whom the audience could identify. It is possible to locate three key groups of humans within Revelation: John, those faithful to God, and those who ignore God and his kingdom.
Wait, Witness, Worship
Of the three groups, it is the “faithful witnesses” who are of most interest to a Christian audience. These are typified by the twenty-four elders, who represent the ascended champions of Jewish and Christian faith, but are also separately depicted as souls under the altar (Rev 6:9), the 144,000/great multitude (Rev 7 and 14), the two witnesses (Rev 11), and finally the servants of God (Rev 22:4). They are those marked out by their faith; they urge on God’s justice and worship God in heaven. These humans are shown in the service of God, and almost entirely as having suffered for their faith, and therefore portrayed as “models” or “paragons” of humanity. These humans are generally clothed in the “heavenly” colour of white and showed as “ruling with God” through a variety of circumstances. The text depicts them as the ideal to which all faithful believers should strive, and ultimately their suffering is vindicated as justice is restored to the earth via the parousia.
Revelation makes it clear that the events depicted within the text are initiated by God; whilst they are a response to evil on earth, the timeline of events proceed according to an unknown divine schedule. When read carefully, it becomes evident that the roles of the faithful are limited to a combination of three distinct things: to wait (Rev 6:11), to witness (Rev 11), or to worship God (Rev 7 and 14). In the midst of the various calamitous events that befall the earth, it seems that the role of those who profess to be faithful believers is remarkably clear.
Revelation 6 depicts the souls of Christian martyrs crying out for retribution from under the altar; in Rev 6:11 they are given white robes and told to wait a little longer until “the number would be complete.” The text makes it clear that human action is insufficient to stop the evil that has consumed the earth (human action is almost entirely ineffectual throughout Revelation), and though human responses to evil continue to be important, the ultimate responsibility for punishing evil and restoring justice rests under God’s sovereignty.
However, the faithful believers do have a unique role to play. Both John and the two witnesses of Revelation 11 are called to proclaim the message of the kingdom of God: John through the recounting and transmission of his vision, and the two witnesses through their prophetic message to the people of the earth. Both face substantial challenges – John has already been exiled for his faith, and the two witnesses are killed and mocked. Nevertheless, their actions represent one of the few responses available to believers in the midst of the crisis as John makes it clear that human action is unable to succeed unless permitted by God.
Another response available to the believers in Revelation is the act of worship, as seen in Rev 7 and 14. Of course, Revelation is filled with instances of worship, but Rev 7 and 14 specifically depict human worship as opposed to worship by heavenly beings. In Rev 7:9–10, a great multitude from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are seen worshipping before the throne of God in heaven. In Rev 14, the 144,000 are seen singing a “new song” before the throne. The precise identities of these groups is relatively unimportant; what matters is their task – worshipping before the throne.
In the Book of Revelation, many of God’s actions appear to be motivated by the pleas of his faithful followers; their cries and prayers are heard by God, who responds with judgment on the earth with the ultimate goal of eradicating evil and restoring justice. Revelation thus conveys an important message: that human requests and prayers can (and do) elicit a divine response. The message heard by Revelation’s audience, that the cries of the Christian martyrs who were unjustly oppressed would move God into restoring justice on this earth, would have brought the early Christians great hope, and it has potential to speak similar hope into situations of crisis.
Such a reading of Revelation reminds the reader that their struggles and suffering are not in vain, that the believer’s voice matters and is heard by God, and that the structures of oppression and evil will be fought against by God and his servants. It reminds readers that God is ultimately interested in justice, and that therefore the perseverance of Christians is important: the question posed in Revelation 6:10, “how long?” is answered in Revelation 7 when a great multitude “from all tribes and peoples and languages” is assembled before God’s throne room.
The followers of Jesus are called to three simple actions, whilst acknowledging that “tribulation is regarded [by John] as a necessary part of the believer’s life.” Despite facing significant hardships, the believers are encouraged that they are able to take action in the midst of crisis – though, of course, Revelation also makes it clear that the actions surrounding judgment are reserved for God alone.
Whilst much attention has been focused on Revelation’s direct opposition to empire, another important aspect of Revelation’s resistance involves a critique of economic systems. When Babylon is thrown down, the kings and merchants weep over her; as part of this lament, Revelation 18 provides a list of luxury goods traded with Rome. It is notable that this passage directly critiques the wealthy excesses of empire which allowed the rich to profit from the work of others, stockpiling goods for themselves. The list is eerily similar to the war spoils that Josephus lists as seeing in a Roman triumph (including human slaves), and in providing this list John takes direct aim at the economic violence inflicted on the poor, marginalized, and oppressed by the extremely wealthy, noting that it will all be destroyed by God’s justice. The final item on the list is “human lives,” which is often understood to be a criticism of the slave trade and has clear, continuing implications for economic systems around the world.
The Seven Churches
A persistent theme in many futurist readings of the text is an attempt to match up the seven churches of Rev 2–3 with historic “church ages,” usually with predictably underwhelming results. Rather than focusing on the specific details of each church in order to create a set of ideals, a better approach is to draw out the commonalities between each one: each letter includes the call to “let the one who has an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Each letter speaks to the particular context and circumstance of each church, and provides encouragement and/or admonishment as necessary, ultimately encouraging each one to persevere in its worship of God. The themes found in these letters persist through the rest of the narrative of Revelation, ranging from a call to persistence in faith to an admonishment against participating in evil or syncretism, and remain relevant to Christians in the 21st century.
Reading Revelation in a Global Pandemic
In light of the brief discussion above, what does the Book of Revelation have to say to Christian believers in the midst of a global crisis?
Firstly, it is important to remember that Revelation was not intended to be understood as exact prophecy, but rather within the frame of apocalyptic encouragement. This means that believers should avoid interpretations and readings which seek to twist Revelation out of context, drawing exact parallels between current world events and the occurrences of the text, or using the text to predict the future.
Secondly, though many significant events seem to be happening almost daily, Revelation shows that God is always in control. There is no need for believers to panic – the Apocalypse shows that human action is always limited in the face of divine agency and theodicy. Instead, the church should continue to gather to witness, wait, and worship; though this may look contextually different to what believers are used to, there is no doubt in the text that the church is central in God’s plan.
Thirdly, believers must continue to pray and seek justice – not just for themselves, but for others. Revelation shows that the prayers of the saints moves God to action, and so it is all the more important for believers to continue their engagement with God. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation show that God is deeply engaged with the activity of believers, and encourages righteousness, justice, sacrifice, and mercy.
Fourthly, a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to re-evaluate global priorities and systems. Revelation provides a strong critique of both imperial hegemony and corrupt economic systems, critiquing the excessive wealth of some when it is either obtained at the cost of others or used to dominate others. Privileged believers need to be reminded of their position and encouraged to outwork God’s justice by using their wealth to support others in a time of crisis, striving toward an economic system where excesses are curbed and none suffer at the hands of others.
The Book of Revelation concludes with a final resurrection and a vision of the holy city on earth, an encouraging hope for all who profess to be followers of Jesus. However, as Koester points out, “the hope is not for escape from the world, but for creation to be made new and the redeemed to have a place within it.” The teleological endpoint of the text is renewal on earth, and this represents a serious challenge to many Christian theologies: how do believers prepare the earth for God’s imminent return, and work toward a kingdom where all are welcome, and every tear will be wiped away – especially in the midst of a pandemic?
U-Wen Low is a lecturer in Biblical Studies and Program Director for the Master of Arts at Alphacrucis College, residing in Melbourne, Australia. His doctoral thesis, Revelation as Drama: Reading and Interpreting Revelation through the lens of Greco-Roman Performance was completed through Whitley College (University of Divinity), and accepted in 2018. His research interests include the Book of Revelation, postcolonial criticism, performance criticism, and Asian hermeneutics.
6 Among those who have detailed the misuses of Revelation are Jon Newton and Barbara Rossing: see Jon K. Newton, Revelation Reclaimed: The Use and Misuse of the Apocalypse (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2009); Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
11 Scholars had relied on accounts of persecution under either Nero or Domitian in dating the text, but recent studies have cast doubt on these early accounts, for example: 1 Clement 1, Tertullian Apol. 5.4, or Eusebius Hist.Eccl. 3.17. For an overview of the debate, see for example Craig R. Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible 38A (Yale: Yale University Press, 2015), 76–78; David Aune, Revelation 1-5, Word Biblical Commentary 52a, (Texas: Word Books, 1997), 5–16.
12 Keith Dyer argues that Revelation depicts “the struggle between the polytheologies of the dominant culture on earth (ultimately Babylon / Rome), and John’s (non-) description of the all-powerful One on the throne.” Keith Dyer, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Consequences of War (Revelation 6.1 - 11),” in Ecological Aspects of War: Engagements with Biblical Texts, ed. Keith Dyer, Anne Elvey, and Deborah Guess (New York: T&T Clark, 2017), 133–48.
13 Aside from John, few human actions actually occur in the Book of Revelation, and the implication is that only actions permitted by God actually succeed – of particular note: Rev 6:9–10 shows the aforementioned souls under the altar crying out for justice, Rev 9:20–21 notes that the remaining humans do not repent of their idolatry or evil deeds, Rev 11:1–14 shows the activity of the two witnesses and their death at the hands of other humans, Rev 14:1–5 depicts the 144,000 worshiping, Rev 18:9–19 shows the merchants and kings weeping over Babylon, Rev 19:19-21 shows the kings of the earth gathered with their armies, to fight against the rider on the white horse, Rev 20:4–6 shows the martyrs resurrected to reign for a thousand years, and finally Rev 21:24–26 shows people and the kings of the earth bringing their glory into the holy city.
14 For a comprehensive survey of worship in the Book of Revelation, see Melissa L. Archer, “I Was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”: A Pentecostal Engagement with Worship in the Apocalypse (Tennessee: CPT Press, 2015). Significant discussions have occurred over the nature of liturgy and worship in the text – see for example Leonard L. Thompson, “Hymns in Early Christian Worship,” ATR 55 (1973): 458–72; John J. O’Rourke, “The Hymns of the Apocalypse.,” CBQ 30.3 (1968): 399–409; Jean-Pierre Ruiz, “Betwixt and Between on the Lord’s Day: Liturgy and the Apocalypse,” in The Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation, ed. David L. Barr, SBL Symposium Series 39 (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 221–42.
15 Richard Bauckham points out that worship is reserved for God alone, and that Rev makes it clear that worship of other beings (such as kings, angels, and so on) is strictly forbidden. Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 120–40.
17 See for example Michael Labahn, “The Book of Revelation − an Early Christian ‘Search for Meaning’ in Critical Conversation with Its Jewish Heritage and Hellenistic-Roman Society,” SkrifligIn Luce Verbi 48.1 (2014): 8, http://www.indieskriflig.org.za/index.php/skriflig/article/view/1833; Harry O. Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002); Stephen D. Moore, “The Revelation to John,” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, ed. Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah (New York: T&T Clark, 2007); Keith Dyer, “Basileia or Imperium? Rome and the Rhetoric of Resistance in the Revelation to John.,” in From Ancient Manuscripts to Modern Dictionaries, Perspectives on Linguistics and Ancient Languages, ed. Tarsee Li and Keith Dyer, vol. 9 of (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2017), 346–364; Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly; David R. Barr, “John’s Ironic Empire,” Interpretation 63.1 (2009): 20–30; Lynne St. Clair Darden, Scripturalizing Revelation: An African American Postcolonial Reading of Empire (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015); Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon: Press, 1996). Others include Barbara R. Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1999); Anathea E. Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2011); Peter S. Perry, “Critiquing the Excess of Empire: A Synkrisis of John of Patmos and Dio of Prusa,” J. Study New Testam. 29.4 (2007): 473–96.
18 For an in-depth discussion on the economics of Revelation, see J. Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cults and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996); Allen D. Callahan, “Apocalypse as Critique of Political Economy: Some Notes On Revelation 18,” HBT 21.1 (1999): 46–65; Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18,” in Images of Empire, ed. Alexander Loveday (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 47–90.