Saturday, February 4, 2012

Loving the Apocalypse


           Ever since I first became a Christian in 1970, I have had a special love for the Book of Revelation.  I would spend hours and hours reading every commentary I could find in the various colleges of the Toronto School of Theology, reaching into dusty corners of their libraries to pore over volumes that had never before been checked out by another living soul.  I was obsessed, and on fire to learn as much as I could.  (I have since had to unlearn much of that learning, but that is another matter.)  The Apocalypse and I go way back.
Some of this overwhelming interest came to me from my involvement with the Jesus People.  In the Jesus Movement (the womb from whence I came), there was a great enthusiasm for all things prophetic, especially the Book of Revelation.  There was, however, little understanding of the apocalyptic genre, and books like The Late, Great Planet Earth taught us to view the Book of Revelation as a series of predictions of future events (which is emphatically not the way to read that genre).  Moreover, the popular approach poured the Apocalypse, the Book of Daniel, and St. Paul’s teaching on “the man of sin” into the same hermeneutical blender, assuming that all these referred to the same events, and from it prepared a potent prophetic cocktail.  Most of the Jesus People I hung out with assumed that those apocalyptic events were soon to be fulfilled (the author of Late, Great Planet Earth more or less set 1988 as the terminus date), and we were all living in state of high excitement.  Those were the days.  We were, of course, crazy.
            Next, as I kept reading, I discovered that all Christians since the days of the apostles did not, in fact, share this view, which we characterized as “pre-mill, pre-trib”.  (Don’t worry about the terms; it’s a long story.)  A Pentecostal pastor, a dedicated man of faith by the name of H.A. Maxwell Whyte, introduced me to the view of the classical Reformers, which identified the Antichrist with the Pope.  In this view, the Book of Revelation contains a series of future events, stretching from the time of the apostles to the Second Coming, with the predicted Reformation holding pride of place, as the Church battled the papal Beast.  This view shared with the “pre-mill, pre-trib” view the understanding that the Apocalypse contained a series of predictions for which one could find individual, specific historical fulfilments.  (One of the bowl judgments of Rev. 16 was supposed to be the French Revolution; I forget which one.)  To us moderns, this view sounds, if possible, even whackier than the previous one, but it can at least claim historical pedigree, since Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the translators of the Authorized King James Version held to it.  (Read the original Dedicatory Epistle in the KJV which flatters King James as God’s instrument whose writings “hath given such a blow unto that man of sin [i.e. the Pope], as will not be healed”.)  Never mind that this view cannot stand up to real historical scrutiny, and that it equates “the Church” with “the western Church”.  In its time, it was all the rage among Protestants, and it won me over too.  Thank you, Pastor Whyte.
            As I kept on reading both history and Scripture, however, I could not shake the feeling that the events of the Book of Revelation bore eerie resemblance to the Church’s early struggle with the Roman Empire, and that the Beast was the Emperor of pagan Rome. My classical Protestant view of the Apocalypse kept getting refined and retooled and revised until eventually it died the death of a thousand exegetical cuts, and I had to abandon the view of classical Protestantism entirely.  I came to see that the whole Apocalypse was addressed to the situation of the seven churches of Asia (no surprise), and that it was about the struggle of those churches with the power of the State, the city that sat on seven hills and reigned over the kings of the earth (see Rev. 17:18).  This first century shoe has proven to fit a great many other feet, and those who find in it a reflection of their own modern struggle with totalitarian power are not wrong.
            As I said, my love for the Book of Revelation goes back a long way, and when I first started writing the commentaries that would at length become the Orthodox Bible Study Companion series published by Conciliar Press, I started with the Book of Revelation.  Writing it was a labour of love.  I am delighted to share my labours now with you.  Those labours can be accessed here.

3 comments:

  1. The other parts of the Bible that desperately need to be addressed as not referring to future events are Matthew 24 and Luke 21. These are referring to events that took place in AD 70 with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and NOT to a future rebuilt Temple. The real tragedy of this Zionist reading of the New Testament are the sufferings of the Palestinians under the cruel occupation of the Israeli military. This is something that many Jews beginning to speak out against, seeing disturbing parallels with the bigotry they've suffered in the past. Unfortunately, too many Christians are blinded either by political ideology or, worse yet, the heresies of Darby to see the evils of Zionism.

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  3. I rather like G.B. Caird's comment on the beast of Revelatiobn 13:

    "But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that 'the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills' (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What
    Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less:
    more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, 'God's agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender' (Rom. 13. iv)."

    Caird is a Protestant, but I think he hits the nail on the head there.

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