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Revelation for the Rest of Us

Revelation for the Rest of Us

JULY 15, 2023

/ Articles / Revelation for the Rest of Us

by Scot McKnight

I (Cody) taught my first class on the book of Revelation last summer to a group of eighty-five eager students through my church. We had students ranging in age from sixteen to eighty-six, coming from diverse cultural backgrounds and theological dispositions. Reactions were largely the same. On the one end we had those who were eager to discuss the book, those whose imaginations had largely been captured by excitation and speculation. While on the other end, there was an even larger portion of students (mostly younger) who were skeptical of the speculators, left only to conclude that the bizarro last book of the Bible should be ignored, removed, or simply ‘left behind.’ On a scale from speculation to silence, most simply wanted silence. In the end, they all came for the class (entitled “Revelation for the Rest of Us”) because they knew something far more important than speculation must be going on in this strange book.

Times have certainly changed since the 70s when speculation was in vogue. Do you know how many pastors and preachers today refuse to open Revelation for sermons? Most either ignore Revelation or choose to preach from safer passages, like the messages, or so-called letters, to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3[1] or the passage about new Jerusalem at the back of Revelation. Indeed, readings from Revelation assigned for Sundays by the Revised Common Lectionary are the safe texts.

Why the shift from obsession to silence?

Paradise for Fanatics

Why are preachers afraid of this book? An expert on the Bible’s language and imagery, and especially on how to understand the language about prophecy, G. B. Caird, tells us why: Revelation has become a “paradise of fanatics and sectarians”![2] That’s why. Add to the language and fanatics America’s cultural history. Matthew Sutton, in his probing of that history, opens with a salvo that puts that cultural history into a tightly woven bundle:

Perceiving the United States as besieged by satanic forces—communism and secularism, family break-down and government encroachment—Billy Sunday, Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, and many others took to the pulpit and airwaves to explain how biblical end-times prophecy made sense of a world ravaged by global wars, genocide, and the threat of nuclear extinction. Rather than withdraw from their communities to wait for Armageddon, they used what little time was left to warn of the coming Antichrist, save souls, and prepare the United States for God’s final judgment.[3]

Many Americans have experiences of Revelation inducing fear of a global holocaust, with the book providing a roadmap of who does what and when. Experts on the history of reading Revelation as speculation woven into culture have shown that in the middle of the nineteenth century the book of Revelation went populist—that is, it became, as Amy Johnson Frykholm put it, the “ordinary person’s game.”[4] All one needed was a dispensationalist framework, the rapture on the horizon, and a Bible in one hand and news sources (or Left Behind books) in the other. Everything “fit”: politics, international treaties, economic trends, moral decline, family breakdowns. East Coast elites and sophisticated biblical interpretation were easily swept out the church door when the experience of personally knowing the inside story became the norm. Such persons supernaturally knew what no one else knows.

In the middle of it all was one’s politics, and you don’t have to be a cynic to track the correlation of Revelation’s popularity with American political parties. For instance, the so-called cultural demise of the 60s and 70s spawned an obsession with the book of Revelation with dispensational apocalyptic productions and publications like those mentioned in the opening of this book. Did you notice that the election of the Democrat Bill Clinton went hand in hand with multimillion sales of the Left Behind series? Let’s not just poke conservatives in the eye. “Apocalyptic” is an apt term for how many progressives reacted to the election of Donald Trump, though their apocalyptic mode of expression was not so tied to the book of Revelation. Maybe the correlations of Revelation with politics are why “apocalyptic” and “apoplectic” sound so much alike!

But because of all this, many today have turned down the knob on the music of the book of Revelation. The speculation approach is behind the ordinary dismay with this book, and speculation can be laid at the front door of what is called dispensationalism (see appendix 1, “Dispensationalism’s Seven Dispensations.”) Dispensationalism of the classical sort is a method of reading the Bible in which God forms seven (or so) different covenants with humans—like Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Israel, the modern state of Israel, figures big in this scheme. What dispensationalism is known for even more is its belief in the imminent rapture that occurs before a future seven-year tribulation. Sometime near the end of that tribulation, Jesus will come back (the “second coming”), establish a literal one-thousand-year reign on earth, and then at the end of that millennium comes eternity. For dispensationalists the book of Revelation, at least from chapter four on, is entirely about that tribulation. The message of Revelation for many is, “You don’t want to be there when it happens. So get saved and get ready!”

Listen to our interview with Scot McKnight on SBE for more info on Revelation for the Rest of Us

[1] For a splendid new study on the churches of Revelation, see Weima, Sermons to the Seven Churches of Revelation. A distinctive emphasis for Weima is that these are not technically “letters” but more like sermons, and the reason for this conclusion is that these messages lack key elements of a letter. So also Aune, Revelation,1:125; Beale, Revelation, 224. The “these are the words,” say of 2:1, sound like prophetic oracles, which Weima translates into modern discourse into “sermon.” See Weima, 3-5.

[2] Caird, Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, 2.

[3] Sutton, American Apocalypse, 326, 329.

[4] Amy Johnson Frykholm, The Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 105–29, quoting from p. 106.

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