Revelation for beginners: Wrong Ways to Read Revelation

One of my concerns as a pastor is that most Americans read the book of Revelation in the New Testament in ways which are harmful and counter-productive to their own understanding of God and our work to make the world a place more in line with His will.

Because the way we view the end affects what means we are willing to use to get there, how we read the book of Revelation has profound affects, I believe, on all sorts of everyday issues in Christianity. And, the way most Americans read Revelation is wildly off track from the way bona fide professional Bible scholars from all over the Christian family tree believe Revelation is to be understood.  When I say ‘bona fide Bible scholars’ what I mean is people who have committed their professional life to studying the Scriptures, have become recognized experts regarding parts of the Bible, their work stands up to peer review across the denominational spectrum and is recognized as solid, quality work, regardless of whether they are Lutheran, Catholic, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Baptist, Anglican, Methodist, Mennonite or whatever.  So, for example, a Nazarene scholar would say “Yes, bible scholars from all over the denominational landscape (Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc) agree that Roman Catholic Joseph Fitzmyer is a first rate scholar of the book of Luke…”

Now that you know what I mean by ‘bona fide bible scholars’, here’s my point: the way most Americans read Revelation is wildly off track of the way 98% of the world’s bona fide bible scholars believe it is to be understood. Most Americans approach Revelation through the lens of movies, the Left Behind novels and a strange American mixture where other New Testament passages from the gospels and epistles are folded in with the images in Revelation and end up with a terrifying result. A good example are passages in the Gospels where Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem that would occur in 70 AD (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 17 etc). Generations of Christians from the earliest times to within a couple hundred years ago understood Jesus was talking about what the Romans did in 70 AD (exactly as he predicted). However prophecy preachers on TV and the radio today use those passages as if they are about the end of the world, and mix them up with the Book of Revelation. The results are troubling to me as a pastor.

It will take several posts to unwind all that I am talking about here, but I will close this one by simply listing a few of the problems this approach creates. In later posts I will unpack more of all this.

–         Using Revelation as if it is a predictive roadmap of things that have to occur before Jesus can return strips of all authority Jesus’ many assertions that His return could be anytime.

–         Taking the many symbolic, poetic scenes in Revelation literally make it sound as if Jesus has had a change of heart while in heaven. During his first visit he was content to use love and avoid violence and coercion, but during his second coming he has decided that didn’t work so he is in a killing mood.

–         Taking passages of Revelation literally makes it sound as if my granny has become a violent person while enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven. Prophecy preachers today actually tell us the sky will open up and our deceased Christian grandparents will be on horseback and come riding down from the sky with swords to kill the armies (usually Muslims)  surrounding Jerusalem. I have a hard time believing heaven has made my granny a more violent person. My granny might make a bad person a plate of cookies and hope her act of kindness drew their heart toward God’s goodness, but she was never interested in killing bad folk. This type of interpretation strikes me as toxic and sick.

–         Prophecy preachers have created a mishmash of so many bible passages that they end up saying Jesus’ return is like him swinging by a drive-through window to pick up what he wants (his Christians) and then leave. But this “rapture” is not a Scriptural idea – the return of the Lord was understood as Jesus returning to earth, setting everything right and the righteous (meek) – rather than leaving – inherit the earth. It’s not the righteous who get pulled out of the harvest field, it’s the weeds (Luke 13:37).

–         The end of the world scenarios so common among prophecy preachers cast God as someone who has given up on His Creation and is going to destroy it. This images God as someone telling Noah He will never destroy the earth with water again, but snickering in His sleeve and telling someone off-stage in a whisper “Next time I’ll use fire.” But the Scriptures tell us of a God who wants to heal and restore the world, making all things new (not “all new things”) and a Jesus who has “reconciled everything on heaven and earth…”. The ways people read Revelation today make it bad news. John intended it to be good news.

–         Many of the assumptions common to the Left Behind/ prophecy industry indicate that Jesus’ return is surely very soon. Many people are asking a good question today: if Christians believe the world will end within the next 5 or 10 or 25 years, how can we expect them to meaningfully contribute to trying to solve long-term problems that will take us 100, much less 300, years or more to solve?

There’s a lot more to unpack regarding Revelation. Christians haven’t always read Revelation the way we do today. And we’ll look at a lot more of this in upcoming posts.

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