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
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.
- There is no document which provides reliable evidence about the exact year in
which Revelation was written.
- 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.''
- 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.
- 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
- 22:7 New Revised Standard Version
- See, I am coming SOON! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of
- 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
- 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,
- second to last verse 22:20 New English Bible
- He who gives this testimony speaks, ``Yes, I am coming SOON.'' Amen. Come, Lord
- There is no document which gives the author's understanding of how tacho is to
- There is no document which gives the author's understanding of how any part of
Revelation is to be interpreted.
- 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.
- It is a fact that
- if it is accepted that Revelation was written before A.D. 160 when Justin
Martyr referred to it; and
- 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
- it can not be claimed that the book of Revelation tells us what is going
to happen in terms of the year 1997; and
- 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.
- It is a fact that
- the recognition that the author's predictions have been false; and
- 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.
- 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.
- This number 666 does not appear anywhere else in Revelation; and there is no
document which gives the author's understanding of 666.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- In some versions of the New Testament, the 13th chapter of Mark is entitled the
- 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.
- 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
Revelation is by any criterion the finest example of an apocalypse in
existence. What is an ``apocalypse'' and what are its distinguishing
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
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
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
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
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
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