Why The New Testament Book of Revelation is Often Misunderstood and Misused

A talk presented by the Rev. Dr. James A. Farrell to the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York on October 1, 1997 at the Guilderland Public Library. Dr. Farrell is a retired United Methodist pastor who lives in Esperance, NY.

Some Undisputed Facts About The Book of Revelation

  1. The first verse of Revelation identifies the author as John, but there is no reliable evidence as to which John it was. There is an early tradition that the author was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, but there is a major problem with this tradition. There were groups of Christians in the second and third centuries, when lists of which books were to be included in the New Testament were being developed, who did not include Revelation on their lists. If it had been certain that one of the twelve disciples had written Revelation, then no group of Christians would have been able to keep Revelation off of their list of New Testament books.

  2. There is no document which provides reliable evidence about the exact year in which Revelation was written.

  3. The earliest reliable evidence for the existence of Revelation is by Justin Martyr. In his work entitled, Dialogue With Trypho which was written about A.D. 155--60, he states: ``And further, a man among us named John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied in a Revelation made to him that they who have believed our Christ will spend a thousand years in Jerusalem, and that afterwards the universal, and, in one word, eternal resurrection of all at once, will take place, and also the judgment.''

  4. The book of Revelation was written in Greek. In the first verse of the first chapter and in the 7th,12th, and 20th verse of the last chapter, there is the Greek word tacho which has the basic meaning of speed. It is the same Greek word which makes up the first part of our English word tachometer Meter is a Greek word which means to measure. A tachometer is a device which measures the speed of rotation.

  5. The King James Version of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and the New English Bible provide the following English translations of Revelation 1:1, 22:7, 22:12, and 22:20, which is the second to last verse of the whole book. The English word for the Greek word tacho in these translations has been placed in capital letters.

    1:1 -- King James
    The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things which must SHORTLY come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
    1:1 -- New Revised Standard Version
    The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must SOON take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,
    1:1 -- New English Bible
    This is the revelation given by God to Jesus Christ. It was given to him so that he might show his servants what must SHORTLY happen. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,
    22:7 King James
    Behold I come QUICKLY: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.
    22:7 New Revised Standard Version
    See, I am coming SOON! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.
    22:7 New English Bible
    remember, I am coming SOON! Happy is the man who heeds the words of the prophecy contained in this book!
    22:12 King James
    And, behold, I come QUICKLY and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.
    22:12 New Revised Standard Version
    See, I am coming SOON; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work.
    22:12 New English Bible
    Yes, I am coming SOON, and bringing my recompense with me, to requite everyone according to his deeds. second to last verse 22:20 King James He who testifies to these things says, ``Surely I am coming SOON.'' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
    second to last verse 22:20 New Revised Standard Version
    The one who testifies to these things says, ``Surely I am coming SOON.'' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
    second to last verse 22:20 New English Bible
    He who gives this testimony speaks, ``Yes, I am coming SOON.'' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

  6. There is no document which gives the author's understanding of how tacho is to be interpreted.
  7. There is no document which gives the author's understanding of how any part of Revelation is to be interpreted.
  8. There have been groups of Christians in almost every century from the second through the twentieth who have interpreted that Greek word tacho as pointing to their generation not the generation of the author of the book.
  9. It is a fact that

    1. if it is accepted that Revelation was written before A.D. 160 when Justin Martyr referred to it; and
    2. if it is accepted that the Greek word tacho should be interpreted with respect to the author's generation which must have been sometime between A.D. 1 and A.D. 160, THEN
      1. it can not be claimed that the book of Revelation tells us what is going to happen in terms of the year 1997; and
      2. it must be concluded that the author was mistaken In terms of the predictions that the author made about those things that were to happen TACHO (soon, quickly, shortly) in terms of the author's generation.

        It is also a fact that the author's predictions have been false not only for the author's generation but for every generation since then.

  10. It is a fact that

    1. the recognition that the author's predictions have been false; and
    2. the recognition that the book of Revelation is part of the New Testament; HAVE CAUSED some Christians in every century from the 2nd through the 20th to develop methods of interpretation which have enabled them to find some value in the book of Revelation.

      For example, Origen, who died in 254, used an allegorical method. The seven heads of the dragon became the seven deadly sins and the scroll with the seven seals became the Scriptures which only Christ could interpret.

  11. The 18th verse of the 13th chapter is as follows in the King James. -- Here is wisdom. 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.

  12. This number 666 does not appear anywhere else in Revelation; and there is no document which gives the author's understanding of 666.

  13. Among those New Testament scholars who believe 666 pointed to some actual person who would have been know to the members of the author's generation, there is disagreement as to the actual person.

  14. Some groups of 20th century Christians have said that 666 pointed to Hitler; others said it pointed to Stalin, and still others said it pointed to FDR.

  15. The 14th, 15th, and 16th verses of the 16th chapter are as follows in the King James -- For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.

  16. This name, Armageddon, does not appear anywhere else in Revelation; and there is no document which gives the author's understanding of where Armageddon is or in which year the battle will take place at Armageddon.

  17. Some groups of 20th century Christians have pointed to various places in the Middle East as the location of Armageddon and have taken the position that the battle will take place soon in terms of their generation.

  18. Some groups of 20th century Christians have taken the position that there will only be 144,000 people in heaven. They use the following verses from the King James version of Revelation to support this belief.
    7:4 And I heard the number of them which were sealed: a hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.
    14:1-3 And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him a hundred and forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps; And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders; and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.

  19. The number 144,000 does not appear anywhere else in Revelation; and there is no document which gives the author's understanding of the meaning of 144,000.

  20. The book of Revelation has similarities with the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapters 24 - 27 of the old Testament book of Isaiah and Chapter 13 of the New Testament book of Mark. There are also similarities with some of the ideas in Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion in Persia.

Some Information About the Meaning of the Words Apocalypse and Apocalypticism

  1. The first Greek word in Revelation is apocalyptos from which the English words apocalypse and apocalypticism are derived. The basic meaning of the Greek word is vision or revelation. Both the King James and the New Revised Standard Version use the same opening phrase for Revelation -- the revelation of Jesus Christ.
  2. In some versions of the New Testament, the 13th chapter of Mark is entitled the Little Apocalypse.
  3. There is no absolute agreement among New Testament scholars as to the boundaries of the term apocalypticism. Some prefer a more narrow definition and others a broader definition.
  4. My New Testament professor was Martin Rist, who was a recognized expert on the book of Revelation and on apocalypticism. He wrote the exegesis for Revelation in the 12th Volume of the 12-volume set known as The Interpreter's Bible and he wrote the essay on apocalypticism in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.

Here are the opening sentences from Dr. Rist's exegesis in the Interpreter's Bible:

Revelation is by any criterion the finest example of an apocalypse in existence. What is an ``apocalypse'' and what are its distinguishing characteristics?

This question is not readily answered, since the term has been defined so broadly used so loosely that it has ceased to have a distinctive meaning, being applied to a variety of literary types ranging from prophecy to purported visions of the next world. To avoid confusion, it seems best to restrict the designation to a specific type of literature, mainly Jewish and Christian (but also Persian and Mohammedan [now Islam]) which conforms to a distinctive and readily recognizable pattern of thought.

According to this pattern, apocalypticism may be defined as the eschatological belief that the power of evil (Satan), who is now in control of human history in which the righteous are afflicted by his demonic and human agents is soon to be overcome and his evil rule ended by the direct intervention of God, who is the power of good, and who thereupon will create and entirely new, perfect, and eternal age under his immediate control for the everlasting enjoyment of his righteous followers from among the living and the resurrected dead.

Dr. Rist also provided the diagram, reproduced on the next page, as a way to clarify the world view and apocalyptic scheme which is presented in the book of Revelation,

Some Facts About the Methods of Interpreting any Written text

How should the United States Constitution be interpreted? How should the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach be interpreted? How should the Bible be interpreted? How should the poem The Tyger by William Blake be interpreted?

Very different answers have been given to these questions. For example, there are people who say that the written text must be interpreted in accordance with the intentions of the author of the text. What were the intentions of the people who wrote the US Constitution? How did Bach want his Prelude and Fugue in G Minor to be played? How did the author of Revelation want his book to be interpreted? What were Blake's intentions when he wrote The Tyger? The answers to these questions provide the meaning of the text.

Some objections have been raised against this original intention method of interpretation. There is often no clear statement by the author as to what the author intended. Many different opinions about the original intention have been given. Even when there is anything approaching the author's statement about the original intention, why must we accept that intention as the meaning of the text? John Ciardi, who was the poetry editor for The Saturday Review, took the position that a poem has meanings that the poet never saw or intended.

If original intention is abandoned as the method of interpretation what should the method be? Some people have attempted to find the meaning within the text itself. They use various techniques to analyze the actual words or music of a given text. They end up by saying this is what the poem means, this is how the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor should be played, this is what the book of Revelation means, this is what the First Amendment to the Constitution means.

Some people have confined their research to both the culture out of which the text emerged and the history of similar texts. There are also people who combine several methods. Look for the original intention, examine the text itself, study the culture and the history. But there are still basic disagreements.

In 1954, Kathleen Raine took the position that the tiger in Blake's poem, The Tyger is a symbol for evil. Part of her argument rested upon the word ``forests'' in the second line of the poem. Her research convinced that Blake always used the word ``forests'' as a symbol for the natural, fallen world. Ten years later, E.D. Hirsch took the exact opposite approach. He said the poem celebrated the holiness of tigerness and based part of his argument upon the word ``forests''. He said the word suggested the orderliness of the tiger's stripes.

There is one more method to look at. A text can mean anything but the value of the interpretation is to be judged in terms of its impact upon the world and upon human beings. If a man interprets a passage from the Bible to mean that he can beat his wife anytime he wants, this method of interpretation would ask first if it is O.K. for husbands to beat wives. If the answer is no, then this method says that the use of this interpretation is wrong and the value of the text is not to be found in husbands beating wives.

The historical research by people who support this method suggests that no matter what people have said about how they interpreted a text, what they were really doing was looking for an interpretation which would have a good impact upon human beings and the world. Musicians talk about an interpretation that works. They experiment with different tempi and choose one that works. For example, many contemporary interpretations of Handel's Messiah take q much faster tempo and use a smaller orchestra than 50 years ago because it works better.

Some legal scholars believe that underneath all the reasoning that goes into the interpretations of the US Constitution is the basic desire to develop interpretations that will have a good impact upon the U.S. and its citizens.

There are some Christians, and I am one of them, who use this method of interpretation with respect to the Bible. Any passage from the Bible can mean anything but the value of the interpretation is to be judged in terms of its impact upon the world and upon human beings.

Some concluding Remarks

I entitled my talk this evening -- Why the New Testament Book of Revelation is Often Misunderstood and Misused. The simplest answer is that each method of interpretation sees other methods as leading to the misunderstanding and misuse of the book. This simple answer is then expanded by giving more reasons which rest upon the basic method which is used.

I believe that when Revelation is interpreted, it is necessary to become acquainted with many of the undisputed facts about the book and it is necessary to understand the assumptions, which can't be proved, upon which the method of interpretation rests. Therefore, in my opinion, if these two things are not done, the book of Revelation will be misunderstood and misused.

My method of interpreting any text is to say that it can mean anything but the value of any interpretation is to be judged in terms of its impact upon human beings and upon the world.

The history of the use of Revelation shows that its basic impact has been to give hope to people who are suffering from injustice, but that hope has often created the three harmful consequences of passivity in the presence of injustice, joy at the expected punishment of enemies, and arrogance.

God will soon make everything all right by punishing our enemies. Therefore we don't have to do anything to reduce the amount of injustice in the world. All we basically need to do is to keep the faith that God will soon solve our problems.

Isn't it wonderful to realize that our enemies will soon be punished? We may be hurting now but they will really hurt when God punishes them. We can be joyful over that.

How good it is to know that we are numbered among the righteous. We are good and our enemies are bad.

In my 36 years of preaching sermons, I never preached a sermon based upon any part of the book of Revelation. I did not want to be part of a process which would enable my parishioners to be passive in the presence of injustice, joyful over the expected punishment of their enemies, and arrogant with the belief that they were righteous.