I have referred several times to the weird book of Revelation in the Bible, particularly how it has become the go-to source for the Rapture-lovers. I just learned that my colleague Tim Beal in the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University has published a new book titled The Book of Revelation: A Biography that dishes the dirt on this last book in the Bible that has produced such a lot of head scratching and been the source of so many weird fantasies.
The publisher’s description of the book lays out what it is about.
Few biblical books have been as revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future. Others denounce it as the work of a disturbed individual whose horrific dreams of inhumane violence should never have been allowed into the Bible. Timothy Beal provides a concise cultural history of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled.
Taking readers from the book’s composition amid the Christian persecutions of first-century Rome to its enduring influence today in popular culture, media, and visual art, Beal explores the often wildly contradictory lives of this sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring biblical vision. He shows how such figures as Augustine and Hildegard of Bingen made Revelation central to their own mystical worldviews, and how, thanks to the vivid works of art it inspired, the book remained popular even as it was denounced by later church leaders such as Martin Luther.
In an interview, Beal elaborates on the problems posed by this book for mainstream Christians, and the many misunderstandings about it.
I am still a religious person—I’m married to a Presbyterian minister—but certainly in a progressive community where nobody goes near Revelation with a 10-foot pole. Most people in my religious circles wonder why this even got into the Bible in the first place.
There seems to be a vague sense that Revelation is about some kind of end, some kind of massive final judgment with everyone getting sent either to heaven or to hell. That is kind of incorrect. Sure, the world gets destroyed many times over. There’s tons of destruction and blood and monsters and hyperbolic language.
The Rapture is not even in Revelation, but it’s now part of the phenomenon we call Revelation . The text has just sort of been broken up and become part of a constellation of ideas that attach to others, like the Rapture.
There have been many Christian leaders who believed Revelation didn’t belong as scripture, that it was a fake, or too obscure, or too crazy.
Perhaps Revelation made it into the canon of scripture is because of confusion—thinking Revelation’s author named John was the same person as John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, who tradition credits with authorship of the gospel known by the same name.
[W]hen Revelation was written, and for centuries after that, there was no such thing as the Bible yet. It’s not like the author of Revelation thought he was writing the end of what we know as the Bible. And Revelation was not put at the end of the Bible because it was about the end of the world, like a book-end to match the story of creation in Genesis 1.
Probably Revelation ended up there because it didn’t fit with the other kinds of literature—gospels and letters—in the New Testament.
Revelation is not going away anytime soon. It has many hosts in our world today, to use a parasitic metaphor. It seems to be our apocalyptic go-to, a powerful means of escalating things to the level of a cosmic battle between good and evil, holy “us” against demonic “them.” Which I’d say is just about the last thing we need today.
Maybe the real question is not how is Revelation relevant but how to make it irrelevant, or differently relevant.
Beal is an excellent scholar and I look forward to reading the book. When I was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, we studied the Bible as part of our preparation but we steered clear of this book. It was like the weird uncle in the family who ranted and raved incomprehensibly, someone you had to live with but hoped everyone would ignore his strange behavior.