A Radical Rethinking of the Book of Revelation
FEATURE STORY
words by Emily Manthei
art by Becca Thorne
7,134 words / a 31-minute read

“The entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but becoming.”
Carlo Rovelli, physicist.

“If and when your Christian family and friends are martyred
upon their altar, our blood will be on your hands.”
My Aunt Tracy


On a cold day in the dead of winter, nine days before the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden, less than a week after Trump supporters led an insurgency at the U.S. Capitol, I received an unsolicited letter from my aunt. Written in a Word document and attached to an email, it explained that she had been following my Twitter feed and did not like it or the slew of suspensions that Twitter was handing out to insurrectionists. It accused Biden of being the devil, and defined Democrats — including me — as the army of Satan:

You are using your influence to help them… in their agenda… to shut up anyone who disagrees… and ultimately to usher in a one-world global government… spoken of in Rev. 13. If and when your Christian family and friends are martyred upon their altar, our blood will be on your hands. I love you. But I hate what you’re doing. It seems you have lapped up their lies and are blinded by “the arrogance of ignorance.” 

This wasn’t the first time she was certain that Democratic agents were fomenting the apocalypse; at the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, she invited me over to tell me about the dream she’d had in which God told her that Barack Obama was the Antichrist, a charismatic figure emerging from obscurity with promises of peace to usher in a time of chaos leading to the Battle of Armageddon. “I hope and pray that my vision isn’t true,” she said fearfully, after I hinted that this prophecy could also be interpreted as racism.

My aunt considers herself Greek Orthodox but spent much of her life as an Evangelical Christian, the faith in which I was born and raised and to which most of my family still belongs. I attended an Evangelical high school and university, but to their dismay have since chosen a different — though still Christian — path. I was still shocked that she could so easily vilify me and dismiss me as falling for Satan’s “media lies.” But her position isn’t based on dark web PDFs exposing the deep state or a Fox News-fueled belief system, though it has much in common with both. Instead, she hangs her understanding on a much more trusted peg: the Christian Bible. Specifically, the Book of Revelation. Nor is she alone in this. 

After that distressing email, my first thought was, “We should throw Revelation out of the Bible,” a kind of this-is-why-we can’t-have-nice-things instinct borne of anger, frustration, and the pain of being so vociferously condemned. But soon it became a consuming thought. Why is Revelation in the Bible? I knew that its esoteric and inflammatory language has been connected to political uprisings, crusades, and murderous cults that are in some ways the forebears of movements like QAnon. But what does Revelation actually say, and how should we interpret it? What insights does it provide? Does it do more harm than good? 

So I opened my Bible to its final book for the first time since high school. 

While you read:
Listen to “Songs in the Key
of Doom
,” Brandon Ousley’s
apocalypse-inspired playlist.

Revelation would make a terrible blockbuster; it’s not high concept. A “high concept” film can be summarized in a single sentence: killer shark unleashes chaos on beach town. Man bitten by genetically modified spider gains spider-like abilities. Farmer’s nephew plucked from the fields fulfills destiny and saves the galaxy. Revelation reads as though the author took a large dose of magic mushrooms and wrote a thousand-page screenplay. The plot is convoluted, its cast goes by multiple identities and aliases, and its characters are almost painfully generic. 

Also known as the Apocalypse of John, the lone apocalyptic book in the New Testament was written on the Greek island of Patmos between 68 and 96 CE, a complicated series of visions and visions-within-visions. Christians have long debated whether it’s a metaphorical prism through which we derive hope and spiritual encouragement, or an actual description of the future end-of-everything, or eschaton: the moment in which history culminates, is fulfilled, and ends.

Revelation reads as though the author took a large dose of magic mushrooms and wrote a thousand-page screenplay.

The heavenly scene: a throne room where God sits surrounded by 24 elders, seven flaming torches, and four minotaur-like creatures with six wings and the heads of a lion, ox, human, and eagle, respectively. Next to God’s throne is a scroll with seven seals that no one can open except the Lion of Judah, a Jewish religious and cultural figure who represents a conquering hero. But when the Lion enters the scene, it’s no lion: it’s a disfigured, bloody lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. 

(Along with 1,000 and four, seven — seals, eyes, trumpets, angels, bowls of wrath, candlesticks — is one of Revelation’s and the Bible’s Powerball numbers. It’s the number of the days of creation and the number of times the Israelites marched around Jericho before its wall fell. Seven years times seven elapse between Jubilees. In the New Testament, seventy times seven is the number of times Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive someone who has wronged them. Sevens connote good things.) 

As the Lion of Judah opens the seals, John begins seeing visions of the future. The four horsemen of the apocalypse kill a third of humankind with earthquakes, floods, poisoned water, and fire. Two great beasts are unleashed by a Dragon, one with seven heads from the sea, and another from the land, with two horns. The Sea Beast, the Horned Beast, and Dragon become a trifecta of Satans. The Sea Beast seems to receive a mortal wound, but is healed and earns the loyalty of all civilizations, becoming an icon and demanding that everyone brand their foreheads with his mark, 666, in order to “buy or sell.”

Confused? Laura Jenkinson-Brown walks you through
the seven seals in stick-figure form. See the full comic.

John sees another angel with a tiny scroll and he’s asked to eat it; it tastes sweet, but gives him a stomach ache and, more importantly, triggers the events that result in the heavens opening and Jesus coming back to earth, riding a white horse, to assemble the righteous on Mount Zion: “Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” Jesus does battle against the Beasts, Dragon, and their armies. This is the Battle of Armageddon, a Greek word that seems simply to be a transliteration of a Hebrew term describing a place near a city on a hill. 

Jesus defeats the beasts, who are bound with chains and thrown into a fiery pit that’s sealed for 1,000 years. On earth, he establishes his Millennial Kingdom, ruling the world with the restored, reanimated bodies of beheaded martyrs.

In John’s vision, the Millennial Kingdom foreshadows something even more terrifying: the Beasts and their army return to do battle one more time with King Jesus. But instead of winning and continuing to reign on earth, Jesus destroys the entire planet in a devastating fire and throws the crew of celestial enemies back into the cosmic pit — this time, forever. Then he carries out a final judgement, of all the living and dead. Anyone whose name isn’t written in the Book of Life joins Death and Hades for eternity in the Lake of Fire. Everyone else gets to inhabit a new heaven and earth, created just for them by God: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” 

After reading the book multiple times and taking copious notes, I was more confused than ever. Is John describing the literal end of humanity and planet Earth? Delivering a prophecy of wish fulfillment? Giving a coded message about perseverance in the face of unspeakable opponents?  

“As long as the land remembers your

people’s suffering under occupation

— and it’s been less than a century

since the empire was driven out —

the trees will be needed to prevent

the soil from poisoning the water

and crops, and you gifted few will

be needed to keep those hungry trees

from growing too big, stretching their

roots too far, suffocating everything.”

Read more: Kel Coleman’s
Revelation-inspired flash fiction.

Religious historian Elaine Pagels believes the message is much simpler: “John created anti-Roman propaganda that drew its imagery from Israel’s prophetic traditions.” Ah, political propaganda! That sounds about right. Scholars use Greek and Hebrew numerology to identify the Beast as Emperor Nero Caesar; the letters of his name add up to 666. Roman coins carried his image, so no one could buy or sell without a coin bearing his mark. And Jesus-as-lord offered a sharp alternative to the demands of the Roman emperor, even mimicking the exact words of emperor-worship. 

As centuries passed, Revelation also came to be read as a Hero’s Journey, à la Joseph Campbell. In a Hero’s Journey, our humble Hero is plucked from obscurity by a supernatural force, forsaking security to go on a dangerous quest against a powerful enemy. On his journey, he acquires or discovers special powers, confronts evil personified, and is reborn, with lessons learned and enemy defeated, before returning home: think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or Black Panther’s T’Challa, or Buffy. In this reading, the Jesus of the gospels is the humble figure transformed into the supernatural badass and slayer of Beasts. It makes a complex text readable. It turns the Bible — a boundless text full of metaphor, parable, and prophecy —  into a complete story with a beginning and an end.

Get the whole Pipe Wrench story.

Behold, the Bible: breathed by God, written through apostles and prophets, printed and bound by Zondervan, a publishing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “If we were to time travel to the latter part of the first century of this era, we would realize that what we call the Bible is in fact a library of books that have been accumulated over many centuries,” explains Reverend Jean-Pierre Ruiz, author of the introduction to Revelation in my copy, the New Oxford Annotated Bible. And like most libraries, the Bible is filled with different authors and genres. An honest theologian must concede that its contents are both inspired holy books and man-made cultural documents, written and compiled by very human editors and subject to debate and revision. 

Tradition says that the books of the New Testament were written by people who walked with Jesus: the original disciples, or apostles. They — or their own disciples — may have written memoirs of Jesus, but an equally likely theory is that Jesus’ sayings and stories were collected by churches under the mentorship of an apostle as oral histories, and were turned into written traditions a generation later. Letters written by apostles to churches they had founded also became holy scriptures; other devotional texts were written by church leaders in communities from Rome to Egypt to Asia Minor. Eventually, second century Christians Marcion of Sinope (a follower of the apostle Paul) and Polycarp (who may have personally known John the Apostle) began compiling a definitive list of Christian writings: a canon. Neither one included Revelation. 

“Skip forward centuries and Revelation’s

narrative arc still looms over how we

imagine the end of the world: it’s there
in our superhero movies and in our envir-
onmental disaster stories and in our
modern-day technological anxieties.”

Katie Goh spent 2020 immersed in catastrophe
for her book on disaster fiction: Fill our your read
and watch list with her recs.

As other theologians and bishops across the empire compiled and re-compiled canonical lists in the second and third centuries, Revelation was sometimes included, sometimes disputed, and sometimes dismissed, until a 382 CE council of Roman bishops decreed that the canon, now including Revelation, was closed. When Martin Luther reordered the New Testament in the 16th century he put his least-favorite books at the end, which is why Revelation is the final book of the New Testament today. It’s the only apocalyptic book that was included. 

The rabbis who compiled the Old Testament gave themselves a wider berth when selecting sacred texts, allowing an adventurous mix of poetry, pithy wisdom, law, prophecy, mythology, and history. Alongside those, a more political genre burst onto the scene 400 years before Christ, called “apocalyptic.” The Greek word apocalypse means “to unveil or reveal;” apocalyptic texts are explosive works that present readers with a shocking new reality. Their stories, written pseudonymously in the name of prophets, like the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Daniel, took place in Israel’s distant past but had strong parallels to contemporary struggles. They turned real history into mythology while paralleling a present political disaster, creating the opportunities for God to bring the Israelite underdogs to power. The earliest readers of Revelation would have been familiar with Jewish apocalyptic literature, interpreting the two beasts as the Roman Empire and the Babylonian Empire and noting its similarities to Daniel, written over 200 years prior. But instead of reading Revelation in the context of Israelite history — which is how most scholars read it — many Christians treat it like a choose-your-own-adventure with direct parallels in our political reality. My aunt was certain she had cracked the code, with Biden as the dragon who represents Satan: “I truly believe that the entity at the top of your team is the very devil himself… the father of lies,” she wrote. 

When Martin Luther reordered the New Testament in the 16th century he put his least-favorite books at the end, which is why Revelation is the final book of the New Testament today.

The symbolically-rich Dragon and man riding on the clouds can and have been embodied by thousands of saviors and villains across time in a vast, cosmic space opera: Martin Luther, Pope John Paul II, Saddam Hussein, and Mikhail Gorbachev have all been positioned as the villains of Revelation. The beauty of metaphor is in its flexibility and adaptability; that’s also its danger. Dr. Ian Paul, a theologian and associate minister in the Anglican Church, began studying Revelation while writing his dissertation on the use of metaphor in the book. “All of life is metaphor,” he told me. “The lack of understanding of metaphor is a major obstacle in understanding the Bible.” And when you add a misunderstanding about genre to a misunderstanding of metaphors, you create a radioactive stone soup (to mix metaphors maniacally).

Unfortunately, the critical, metaphorical reading happens less often than the reading enshrining Revelation as true description of events to come. The latter relies on a simplistic, binary vision of the world where my side is God’s and your side is the Devil’s, encouraging myopic attitudes toward the present. But when you cut to the wide shot, determining who’s with God gets pretty fuzzy. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan believed end-times prophecies were being fulfilled and cast the Soviet Union as the Antichrist. That role was taken over by Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and then the Islamic State. A cursory Google search for “Ronald Reagan” and “Revelation” also turns up an unauthored PDF citing “evidence” that Ronald Reagan’s name adds up to 666, making him the Beast, but an hour-long YouTube “Election Day Sermon” by Pastor Gary Hamrick praises the Republican party for their righteous alignment with scripture on the eve of the end of days. These fears echo elements of the QAnon conspiracy (supported by one in four U.S. Evangelical Christians) that a liberal Deep State is driving a global conspiracy to join Europe in the one-world leftist government, all funded by George Soros. Soros, who grew up in a fascist Hungary and escaped to the west to become a billionaire, has donated billions of dollars to spread democratic values in former Communist countries. 

“Like film and literature, popular

music often flirts with the dark

and unknown. Whether there’s a

lyrical motif with biblical imagery

or an instrumental passage with an

otherworldly feel, musicians tell

us things about the world we may

not have wanted to know and show

us possible futures.”

Get down until the final moments:
Brandon Ousley’s end-of-days funk playlist.

There’s a reason stories about the end of the world are so popular; they prey on fears of a brutal death, economic uncertainty, and social chaos and let believers know that no matter how bad things look, everything is part of a plan and will shake out on “my” side, even when it seems that the sky is falling.

Believers, though, are comforted to know that all that destruction will be followed by the reign of God, and that raises the stakes.

Revelation

To those who wanted to see the Kingdom of God — mentioned by Jesus 53 times in the New Testament — as a physical Jewish kingdom, Jesus’ death was a disappointment that not even a resurrection could make up for. Revelation mitigated that by writing a new end to the story: an earthly Millennial Kingdom yet to come. 

Jesus of the Gospels used the language of Jewish apocalyptic literature, or “Kingdom of God,” this way: he tells his disciples that not everyone will understand the expression, by design (Luke 8:10). It is present when he casts out demons and heals the sick (Matthew 12:28; Luke 10:9), it belongs to children (Mark 10:14), it will be hard for anyone rich to enter (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:23; Luke 18:25) — in fact, it belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20; Matthew 5:3). Jesus tells a crowd that some of them “will not taste death until you see the Kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). A kingdom ruled by children and those in poverty, and defined by the healing of body and mind does not sound like a political state or empire. Its “power” does not come from outside authority, but something within. 

“We waited expectantly, convinced that

at any moment we’d magically teleport

to Israel. Sadly, I didn’t experience

the ingathering of the Jewish people

on eagles’ wings. But it’s easy to see

how the possibility of a revolutionary

event held a seductive appeal to two

depressed teenagers who wanted different

lives than the ones they were living.”

Messianic longing isn’t unique to Christianity:
Read more from Joshua Gutterman Tranen.

But prophetic readers of Revelation see Jesus’ first-century life as a humble foreshadowing of the political messiah he was to become upon his re-entry from the clouds, which allowed them to anoint all kinds of people with the “messiah” title, granting them unprecedented real-world power over communities large and small. In the late 13th century, some Germans believed that Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was the messiah. His death in 1250 did not deter this belief; their expectation that Frederick was destined to return to defeat the influence of Rome so that Germany could establish its own Millennial Kingdom only grew stronger. Around the same time, Bauduoin, Count of Flanders, set out for the Fourth Crusade only to be kidnapped and killed during his travels. Back in Flanders, he became the posthumous leader of a Millennialist movement when an imposter returned as the “resurrected” Count and his followers determined that this was Christ’s second coming. (Millennial fervor was a major driver of the Crusades themselves, which were underpinned by the belief that Christ’s return was dependent on the world population embracing Christianity.)

This trend continued in many new age, free spirit, and ecstatic prophecy movements, especially after the Protestant Reformation. 18th century Englishwoman Ann Lee preached that she had a revelation from God that extreme purity was the only path to salvation and would speed Christ’s second coming. In England, she was imprisoned for her beliefs; after her release, she fled to the New World, where she started Shakerism. The Shakers came to believe that Ann Lee herself was the feminine appearance of God in the flesh, the second Christ.

As recently as 1993, the leader of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, proclaimed himself a prophet-messiah who, for the first time in history, was able to decipher the precise meaning behind each of Revelation’s complicated visions by connecting them directly to prophecies from the Hebrew Bible books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel. His exegesis convinced his community in Waco, Texas, that they were living out Revelation’s prophecies during the FBI standoff in which most community members died.

Some readers of Revelation believe that Christ’s second coming and the subsequent end of time isn’t something to passively await — it can be brought about by evangelism and conversion. This has led generations of Christians to impose religious expectations on society beyond the church doors, often violently.

Many medieval European Christians who fought crusades to institute a “New Jerusalem” were working to fulfill Revelation. The First Crusade in 1095 had strong support from peasants who believed that the Christian occupation of Jerusalem coupled with the defeat of the European landowner class would bring about a truly Holy Roman Empire. In the 13th century, participatory Easter parades in England, known as Mystery Plays, told the story of Jesus using contemporary figures that people could relate to: miserly moneylenders, wealthy clergy, and greedy landlords were caricatured as the army of Satan whose destruction ushered in the Millennial Kingdom, which ended the play. Other medieval authors picked up the inequality theme, including an unnamed author in the 15th century, the German “Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine” who wrote The Book of 100 Chapters. It painted ethnic Germans as the true successors of the biblical Jews, and claimed that the institutional church brought inequality to God’s chosen people and that only a defeat of these anti-German influences would restore the Millennial Kingdom over which Germans (and Jesus) were meant to reign. His nationalistic Millennialism would resurface 500 years later, when National Socialism told Germans that their divinely-ordained superiority gave them the right to establish a kingdom (“Reich,” in German) over all the earth. 

For others, it was personal moral perfection — and the judgement of those who didn’t live up to that standard — that would draw the Millennial Kingdom nearer. In Revelation, 144,000 elders on Mount Zion are set apart for their personal holiness. But amid the growing number of Christians across the empire (more than three million by the 4th century), who were the righteous 144,000? Select bishops and clergy made it their task to pass judgement on those they deemed unworthy. As Pagels writes of 4th century bishop Athanasius, he “turned John’s vision of cosmic war into a weapon against those he called heretics,” equating bishops across the empire who disagreed with his theological views to the Whore of Babylon, another character from Revelation’s satanic dragon squad. 

“Early childhood socialization is hard

to shake, and that’s part of what makes

indoctrinating children into high-control,

fear-based, authoritarian religion abusive.”

Read more from ex-Evangelical Chrissy Stroop,
editor of “Empty the Pews.”

Athanasius realized what some Fundamentalists have come to rely on: a sword cuts both ways, and holy judgement can fall on godless masses and fellow believers alike. My conservative, Evangelical high school had a weekly sermon during Thursday Chapel service, sometimes given by clergy and sometimes by students. One Thursday, a classmate with a mass of curly hair like Cher in The Witches of Eastwick stood. As she took the mic, her voice became low and gravelly. What came out was a grab bag of Biblical imagery peppered with quotes from Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I have spit you out of my mouth! I have sent my servant to turn your hearts toward me, and you must repent!” Judgement, damnation, and a call to action. Revelation’s chilling rhetorical power allowed her to pass judgement on everyone who didn’t see things through her eyes, even fellow Christians. Teenagers.

Revelation’s chilling rhetorical power allowed her to pass judgement on everyone who didn’t see things through her eyes, even fellow Christians. Teenagers.

“I remember, as a teenager, being very

angry and telling my mom that there’s

so much emphasis on wrapping the Quran

in pretty cloth and keeping it on the

highest shelf in the house yet very

little on understanding it for ourselves.

Power structures built around religious

leadership have long sought to alienate

everyday citizens from religious under-

standing because it gives a select few

people a sense of control.”

Issues of religion and power know no theological
bounds: Pakistani Muslim journalist Anmol Irfan.

Institutional Christianity carries on this tradition, periodically exploding into radical schisms like the divide between the Byzantine and Roman churches into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic in 1054 or the Protestant Reformation. Luther realized that Revelation’s imagery was particularly useful for demonizing the papacy; in his printed Bible, Revelation is the only New Testament book illustrated with woodcuts, in which the Dragon, Beast, and Whore of Babylon all wear the papal tiara. Today, the Lutheran Church is itself divided into at least 40 synods, splintering over beliefs about women priests, communion, and same-sex marriage. The U.S. Episcopal Church split in 2008 over the decision to ordain gay Bishops, leading to a rift in it the worldwide Anglican Communion. This year, the annual conference of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest conservative denominations, vowed to fight a “liberal drift” as it argued over critical race theory, women in leadership, and the punishment of pastors accused of sexual abuse. Right now, the SBC is deciding whether to disaffiliate one of its biggest megachurches for ordaining three women pastors.  

Like the SBC, I am sure Prophet Cher would have an opinion about which churches should be included among the righteous and which ones God should spit out of his mouth.

The most radical of the post-Luther Protestant spinoffs left the Christian continent of Europe entirely; North America’s colonies were fertile ground for persecuted Christian communities. In many cases, European settlers migrated to North America for the express purpose of practicing their religion — usually to the exclusion and condemnation of anyone who didn’t conform. The puritans were zealous and unforgiving in their pursuit of Christian perfection, and their pursuit of a Christian utopia lives in American society and politics today. 

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the consequences of the Reformation ricocheted across the New World. Strange sects began brewing. During intense religious revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries, upstate New York was known as the Burned-Over District, in which the coals of last month’s revival were charred again when a new preacher, with a slightly more fiery and urgent message than the last, rode into town. Some communities, like the Anabaptists, Perfectionists, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons, aspired to live their lives completely separate from secular influences, withdrawing into insular, egalitarian communities based on the words of Paul in Acts 2:44-45: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This obsessive focus on purity, they believed, would ensure their place in the 144,000, and the latent distrust of government dovetailed nicely with the values of the freshly-formed United States.

“Candace couldn’t fully agree that she’d

be safer in her childhood home, under the
shadow of her father’s delusions about
the ways of the world and its evils. But
she loved her mother. And beneath her
mother’s plea for Candace’s safety was
her mother’s fear for her own.”

Creative writer Taylor Byas’ short fiction exposes
the extremes of purity culture. Read her stories.

It was this atmosphere that birthed William Miller, who crunched the numbers in Revelation and Daniel to set a date for Christ’s return: March 1843. Miller’s predictions failed to materialize, but that didn’t stop his successor, British theologian John Nelson Darby, from offering a brand new take on Revelation a few decades later. Darby’s innovation, dispensationalism, organizes human history into seven dispensations, or eras, starting with the age of innocence in the Garden of Eden. In each successive age — before the flood, after the flood, the life of Christ — God dealt differently with humans. Now, in the church age, the fifth dispensation, we are awaiting Christ’s return to kickstart the sixth age, the Millennial Kingdom, before the final seventh age of a new heaven and earth. Darby believed that Revelation describes the haunting transition between our present and the coming tribulation and judgement: wars, new technology, and increased wickedness. Dispensationalism quickly came to dominate end-times beliefs among Evangelicals and remained the dominant view well into the 20th century. 

The wheel of American apocalyptic interpretation spun faster and faster in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many Christians agreed with the peasant crusaders: the Kingdom of God is a place without economic or social inequality where possessions are shared freely and no one owns wealth. Per Paul, again, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Hippie cults of the 1960s, Hare Krishnas, and bohemian communities espoused these values; even Burning Man is a form of egalitarian Millennialism. So yes: anarchism, communism, and populism are all hitched historically to the wagon of Christian apocalyptic Millennialism. Bring on the Age of Aquarius! Then during the Cold War, Communist governments, led by the Russians, were seen by American Millennialists as the fulfillment of the Antichrist’s purpose to create a “one-world, global government.” The co-founder of the anti-communist John Birch Society was convinced that Revelation spoke of an attack on the West by Stalin in October 1952 (it never materialized). In the 1960s, the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade was organized to stop the Soviets from achieving their one-world government (it never got past the meeting phase). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, end times-seekers replaced it with the United Nations, or the European Union. Pope Francis, who has called for international governments to cooperate on climate change, has been accused by prophecy devotees of promoting the dreaded one-world global government, too. 

QAnon, with its fears of the Deep State and the media, is the natural secular heir to this line of thinking — and finds a surprising number of Christians among its adherents, particularly Evangelicals. One of Q’s major refrains is that “The Storm is coming,” a reference that’s vague enough to mean anything and is easily linked to Revelation’s Fourth Seal: “I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.” Q prophecies, which use spiritual language and sometimes quote the Bible, have predicted Hillary Clinton’s arrest, the capture and violent murder of Satanic politicians, and Donald Trump’s reelection. “Many in our government actively worship Satan,“ Q posted in 2017. “The level of importance of this operation equates to a ‘Good vs Evil’ battle that transcends politics,” wrote an early Q follower. 

“How can I ignore my responsibility as a

Muslim in fighting climate change when

one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w)

most famous sayings is Do not waste

even if performing ablution on the

bank of a fast flowing large river?”

Read more from Anmol Irfan on the tensions
between individual and institutional faith.

When I talked to my own Anglican priest, Reverend Christopher Jage-Bowler, he pointed out that people see “apocalypses” as out of our control, when really, there are some, like the climate crisis, that are largely within our control and simply require us to take responsible action. It’s comforting to see the evil as outside us, or on Team Evil, instead of lurking within. 

“People have vested so much of their own identity in this particular interpretation,” explains Dr. Paul. “And when they are in a like-minded group online, they are in the cognitive majority. Whereas in the wider society, they are a cognitive minority, and being together in a dissident group is the thing that gives them credibility or status.” That’s the dualism that allows us to side with our heroes and condone the damage done to their enemies, no matter how morally dubious it is. That leaves no room for inward unveiling, and no place for others who don’t think like us. In a world where those who don’t share our views are locked in mor(t)al combat, there is no future. So is a future with Revelation really no future at all? 

Revelation

All of this puts me back where I started, with a book that doesn’t belong. So how would we go about taking Revelation out of the Bible, anyway? 

“…when I encounter discussion about the
possibility of kicking Revelation out of the
New Testament, or even reinterpreting it, I
find myself feeling mildly offended. Christians
should have to own Revelation precisely
because of how much human harm it’s fueled.”

Read more from exvangelical author
and activist Chrissy Stroop.

Historically, it’s been easier to add books to the Biblical canon than take them away. And the fragmentation of the Protestant church would make a full-blown removal nearly impossible. So I turned to the Catholic Church, whose membership comprises 1.3 billion Christians, or roughly half the world’s total Christians. Catholics make things easier by having one central authority, the Pope. I asked Rev. Ruiz if the Pope could make a Biblical book disappear. He told me that Catholics respect Biblical scholarship as the method through which the church understands scripture, and there’s rarely a need for the Pope to make dramatic statements about Biblical interpretation.

I took that starting point and ran with it. If enough Catholic scholars raised questions about the authorship, authenticity, or value of Revelation, they could hold sway over Vatican City. At that point, it would be time to contact the publishers. So I reached out to Zondervan, which publishes four modern English translations of the Bible and distributes their products in more than 65 languages. They didn’t get back to me. 

In the wild, I bet libraries would collect old editions for posterity, while the mainline Christians who prefer to ignore Revelation anyway would get on board with the change. In liturgical churches, like the Catholic or Episcopal Church, anything that has been blessed by a priest should be burned or buried, like the palm fronds passed out on Palm Sunday. Perhaps the pages of Revelation could be torn from Bibles and burned as incense, their ashes buried underneath the church grounds. And in neighborhood congregational churches, where incense is shunned, those pages could be used as kindling for the community fish fry that welcomes the village to the church. Come one, come all. 

QAnon, with its fears of the Deep State and the media, is the natural secular heir to this line of thinking — and finds a surprising number of Christians among its adherents, particularly Evangelicals.

Meanwhile, those who want to hang onto Revelation would start hoarding the last copies of the now-defunct, outdated Bibles. Maybe they would build repositories for old Gideon Bibles, removed from hotel rooms to make way for the new editions. Or, in early church fashion, they could commit the entire text to memory, reciting it daily. Theologian Craig Keen suggested a more organic solution: if, 1,000 years into the future, humans are even more fragmented due to climate catastrophes and population loss, isolated Christian communities might decide for themselves which canonical books to hold onto and which to discard. “I think it would be a tragedy for [Revelation] to be ignored. But it is ignored! Either that, or turned into a comic book.”  

Unsurprisingly, every one of the scholars, theologians, priests, and Christians I talked to assured me that I was asking the wrong question. “It’s not a simple matter of deciding any longer that a certain book doesn’t belong to the Bible, because the 27 books [of the New Testament] that we find today are the heritage of thousands of years of belief and authority among Jews and Christians,” Rev. Ruiz told me. 

“You know, we could be living in the end times,” my dad told me on the phone one day. I wasn’t going to tell my parents about this piece until it was finished and my arguments were all laid out, but I couldn’t help myself. I explained to him the Greek meaning of “apocalypse,” the scholarly agreement about 666, Martin Luther’s ambivalence. When I told them about removing Revelation from the Bible, they also, predictably, rejected the premise. I tried keeping it simple: if nobody actually understands the words of the text (starting with “apocalypse”), and they simply lead to fear-mongering, finger-pointing, and conflict-generating judgement instead of pointing readers to the message of Jesus — salvation, solidarity, and love — why did the early church theologians decide to keep it? What is Revelation’s job in the Bible, anyway?

I realized that this was the question I should have been asking all along. 

Then, the next morning, my dad sent me this message:

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.(Revelation 2:10).  

The above scripture was your grandfather’s life verse which he often quoted.  One night several weeks after he had been diagnosed with cancer, he had a dream that in 10 days he would be delivered from the prison he felt he was in from his sickness. Exactly 10 days later he went to heaven. We felt this was a powerful confirmation of the truth of scripture as it was demonstrated in a real time witness in my Dad’s life. Your grandfather had a very high view of the truth and application of all scripture in every area of life. Thank you for helping me to reflect on my Dad’s passing so many years ago.  Love,  Dad

My grandfather read Revelation and took it seriously. But instead of seeing a cosmic battle, he saw encouragement that gave him hope that his last days of suffering would pale in comparison to his new life in heaven.

This message of hope is a common theme in the interpretations of the Biblical scholars, both conservative and progressive, Protestant and Catholic. To minority communities in the 21st century, the message of Jesus’ victory over the political powers on earth, symbolized in Revelation by allusions to the Roman Empire, gives marginalized people hope in the struggle for liberation. Dr. Keen characterized Revelation’s main theme as “victory occurring through defeat. The victors are the defeated ones.” When the Lion of Judah appears as a slaughtered, defeated, non-threatening lamb, “it’s an ironic moment of glory. The glorious one is the one without glory. The image here is that the one whose very body shouts I am the victim of tragedy has glory about it.”

My grandfather’s understanding echoes a theme found in several first and second century apocalypses rediscovered in 1945 and later examined by scholars, of personal stories illustrating inward revelations. Their authors described visions given by angels, just like John of Patmos, leading to spiritual or physical transformations through encounters with the divine. They received their visions in moments of great despair, loneliness, or fear. The encounter with God’s love and presence was a source of hope and a promise that in that presence there is nothing to fear in life, or death, because God is everywhere. And while they were never imbued with the sacredness of scripture by the doctors of the Church and aren’t in any lists of canonical texts, they were circulated in early Christian communities as devotional encouragements. 

“If we took Revelation out of the Bible, the Bible wouldn’t have an ending,” my mom said simply when I asked her what she thought of my research. 

“I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” says Jesus to John in Revelation 22:13.

“Of course, I’m no longer approaching this

topic from the perspective of a believer

of any kind. “Don’t throw out the baby with

the bathwater!” I’ve heard so many liberal-

ish to progressive Christians implore. But

for me, a transgender woman who is now happy

as an atheist, there never was a baby.”

Not everyone raised Christian stays Christian,
or is looking for reinterpretation:
More from Chrissy Stroop.

And perhaps that’s what’s fascinating: a Bible without an end. One that just keeps going, and going, and going, and going. Where taking the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth is a task meant to be continued, not completed. Where Christians don’t spend their time anticipating a last day, or building a fallout shelter to ride out Battlezone Earth until Jesus comes, or condemning geopolitical foes and rival denominations to the Lake of Fire, but instead live out the blueprint Jesus modeled, taught, lived, and died. As Dr. Paul puts it: “Futurist eschatological schemes actually undermine the centrality of Jesus in the New Testament, because they focus the fulfillment of God’s promises in a scheme, rather than in his person.” This interpretation of Revelation would refocus the New Testament on Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in himself. If Christians believe that, the apocalypse already happened. And it wasn’t the end, but a beginning. 

“The Jewish people were steadily moving

back to the land of Israel, living in an ethno-
state, and bulldozing over Palestinian land
just like the Israelites in the Book of Joshua.
Perhaps, he suggested, Mashiach wasn’t a
person but a time period — one which had
already begun.”

How many people are waiting for something
that’s already happened?:
More from Joshua Gutterman Tranen.

In a personal sense, spiritual growth that continues — instead of a focus on who has achieved perfection (spoiler alert: nobody) — erases the good-versus-evil binary and challenges Christians to practice forgiveness and solidarity, even when we would prefer to cancel and forget the most problematic of us. “The challenge of standing before open ruptures in civic life is matched, and complicated, by the challenge of standing hospitably before those who offend and harm and drive us crazy in an everyday way,” writes Krista Tippett.  

Some of the communities most inspired by Revelation did seem to realize this, and responded by taking seriously Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God, bringing it into existence by their very actions. And that is a political act. The Anabaptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Oneida Perfectionists shared everything among themselves, creating a community that cared for everyone — weak, old, poor, and sick — regardless of how much they could contribute or who they had been “on the outside.” They opened their doors to everyone. They didn’t plan for tomorrow because they trusted God so much today. Unfortunately, those particular communities mostly fell apart when they realized that Christ’s return wasn’t imminent; the fear that bonded them during uncertain cultural and economic times ultimately gave way in times of prosperity and power. What would have happened if the earliest Christians, who had hoped Jesus would return in their generation, had given up? But they kept going. They continued living, without an ending. As Rev. Christopher told me, “The apocalypse, in actuality, is about a restoring and renewing and reconciling and redeeming, and God working with us to get things right, on the earth, as it is at the moment.”

At the Center for Action and Contemplation, a Franciscan education center in New Mexico, Father Richard Rohr has spent 2021 studying Revelation. He says a text that unveils something is meant to reframe our reality:

Apocalyptic writing deconstructs the taken-for-granted world by presenting a completely different universe, similar to what a good novel or even a science fiction movie does for us. As the Buddhist heart sutra says it’s, “Gone, gone, utterly gone, all has passed over to the other side.”  It makes room for the reconstruction of a new vision of peace and justice… It’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of worlds — our worlds that we have created… Apocalypse is for the sake of birth, not death. Yet most of us have heard this reading as a threat. Apparently, it’s not. Anything that upsets our normalcy is a threat to our ego but in the Big Picture, it really isn’t… An apocalyptic event reframes reality in a radical way by flipping our imagination.

Instead of the beginning and the end, what about no beginning and no end? What if we stopped looking for a political messiah or a corporate billionaire to change/fix/renew our kingdom, and instead flattened our hierarchies and chose to reach out to others as equals? 

The key to understanding the Apocalypse of John and the Bible itself, for Dr. Keen, is not about seeking answers, but by giving ourselves in response. “If anything, we’re the answers to God’s coming. We answer God by saying ‘yes.’” 

“Disaster fiction makes unbearable prospects

bearable, even enjoyable. It turns them into

art, something that can be held at arm’s length,

imagined and interpreted at a safe distance. Very

real catastrophes become manageable as metaphors.”

Not ready to leave the apocalypse behind?:
Katie Goh’s end-times fiction reading list.
Revelation

In the final phase of the Hero’s Journey, the Hero returns to where they came from, changed. The Hollywood distortion of the story makes this The End. But life is continuous, cyclical; true change is rarely an isolated epiphany in the last act. I asked Dr. Keen how to break down my aunt’s construction of Revelation, and his answer was anything but heroic: “Let it be slow.” Like all conversations, he said, it happens over a lifetime. Stories have the lifespan of millennia. They exist not in the span between yesterday and today, or today and tomorrow, but in the eternal now. 

The New Testament uses the Greek word “kairos” 86 times. It is a way to talk about time, but not in a chronological sense. It means “the suitable time” or “the right moment,” and is used to describe a critical moment where God breaks into history and gives humans a new opportunity. Not as a means to an end — or The End — but an invitation to participate in a new Kingdom, the “new heaven and new earth,” in the language of Revelation. Perhaps Revelation wants to invite its readers to enter the Kingdom of God today, a society to which all receive an open invitation, and people who have lived on the margins are prioritized. In that society, people of color experience the same safety as people who are white, and the lives of LGBTQ+ folks are just as respected those of hetero- or cis- people. In that society, we are still, and always, called to be the caretakers of our planet, because our “new earth” is made of the same stuff as our current one. That message does not separate anyone into teams or ask us to pick sides. Rather, it says that whatever one’s other affiliations — Roman or Greek, Socialist or Capitalist, Republican or Democrat– there is universal belonging to be found, now and forever, world without end.

Emily Manthei tells multicultural stories that stimulate curious minds in publications scholarly and social and on screens cinematic and retractable. Her more than 20 short films made in the United States, Central America, Eastern Europe, and South Asia have appeared in festivals across the world, and her travel and culture stories can be read on the web or in print.

Becca Thorne is a Bristol-based illustrator creating hand printed pieces in linocut, silkscreen, and wood engraving. She specializes in history and lifestyle illustration, particularly food, gardening, and medieval history.

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Edited by Michelle Weber
Fact checked by Matt Giles

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Next in Issue 4:

Does reimagining Revelation let Christianity off the hook for its sins too easily? Read “Goodbye, End Times,” by scholar and exvangelical Chrissy Stroop.


Or browse all the contributors.