Probably more lies are told about Revelation than about any other book of the Bible. That’s too bad, because Revelation has an important message for us that should not be obscured by lies.
Most of the lies come from what is called Dispensationalist theology. This is also known as “Left Behind” theology because of the series of best-selling books it inspired.
Dispensationalist theology was created virtually out of the whole cloth in 1830 by a wacko Brit named John Nelson Darby. Since then it has managed to infect many believers around the world, but especially in the United States, where it took root like a poisonous weed alongside other similarly wacko fundamentalist fantasies.
The chief Dispensationalist lie is that Revelation is about predicting the future. It is not. Revelation is a book of prophecy, but – as I’ve said many times before – prophecy is not about predicting the future. Prophecy is telling the truth about the present. Prophets aren’t harassed and killed because of what they say about some far-off neverland. Prophets are harassed and killed because of what they say about the present.
The title of the book actually tells all. Revelation is an English rendering of the Greek word apocalypsis, meaning unveiling. Revelation reveals or unveils or unmasks the truth about what’s going on in our world.
Think of that scene in the movie “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the funny little man controlling all the scary pyrotechnics. That’s what Revelation does. It lifts the veil, it parts the curtain, it shines a spotlight on the truth about human life and how God is acting to save us.
Revelation is not primarily about the future. It is mostly about the present. That’s why misunderstanding it is so critical. Revelation is not about what’s going to happen a long time from now. It’s about what’s already happening right now.
Since the powers that be don’t want you to know what’s happening right now, they want you to think Revelation is about some other time – any other time – so you won’t know the truth about what’s happening today.
It follows, then, that Revelation is not about the so-called “end times.” It’s certainly not about the “end of the world.” That’s a phrase that you shouldn’t find in your Bible, by the way, though you will find it in mistranslations of Matthew 13:49.
So kindly forget all that “end times” garbage, plus all the nonsense you’ve heard about “the Rapture” and the Anti-Christ and the millennium all the other stale dispensationalist fantasies.
Also forget about reading Revelation literally. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, tells us in the very first sentence that he’s going to be speaking in symbols. Oddly enough, only the King James manages to translate this correctly. John says that God “signified” the message to him. That is, God used “signs” or “symbols” to convey the message.
If that’s not clear enough, John warns us more than 50 times that what he is describing is “like” something. It’s not really this, he’s saying, but it’s like this. So if you take his description literally, you miss the point. Most interpreters of Revelation have missed the point, especially for the last 200 years.
I can hear some of you wondering, “Revelation was written 2,000 years ago. How can it be about the present?” That’s because Revelation is about the way things are, the way things have always been and the way things are going to be – not world without end but until Christ comes in final victory to clean up this mess.
Despite our advances in technology, nothing has significantly changed in the last 2,000 years. What was then also is now and will be. As time goes by, only the names, clothing fads and hairstyles change.
If you read Revelation literally, you will misunderstand it terribly. If you read it as a parable, as a symbolic revelation of how human systems oppress people and how God acts to save us from oppression by human empire, then you will gain much from it.
Revelation is full of bizarre and often violent imagery. It contains visions of seven-headed monsters and the gory deaths of millions of people. Should we take these images literally? No. Are these images real? Oh yes.
One example. You’ve all heard of the Four Horses, or Four Horesemen, of the Apocalypse. These are four horses and riders that appear early in the story as seven seals are broken to reveal the message on a mysterious scroll.
Some people imagine that these horses will appear in the future, and when we see them, we’ll know that the end is near. But there’s something so very familiar about these horses. They’re not future at all. They have galloped throughout history, and they gallop today as well.
First comes a white horse ridden by a conqueror. He rides out to conquer and destroy. Next comes a bright red horse, representing the blood spilled by the conqueror. Next comes a black horse. Its rider measures the hunger and want that always follow war. Finally comes a horse that’s pale green, the color of death, the inevitable result of warfare and oppression by human empires.
There is nothing specifically future about these horses and their riders. We know them all too well. The horses may tell about the future, but they also tell about the past and the present as well. From beginning to end, that’s what Revelation does. It tells about our past and our present and points to a glorious future when God literally brings heaven down to Earth. It also points to disasters that may occur if we continue to ignore God’s command to act as caretakers of the earth.
With that in mind, let’s look at Revelation 8:6-13. This passage describes the first four of seven trumpet blasts made by angels who serve at the throne of God. The text is from the Common English Bible.
Then the seven angels who held the seven trumpets got ready to blow them.
The first angel blew his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood appeared, and was thrown down to the earth. A third of the earth was burned up. A third of the trees were burned up. All the green grass was burned up.
Then the second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain burning with fire was thrown down into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the creatures living in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
Then the third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, burning like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water.
The star’s name is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it became so bitter.
Then the fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars so that a third of them became dark. The day lost a third of its light, and the night lost a third of its light too.
Then I looked and I heard an eagle flying high overhead. It said with a loud voice, “Horror, horror, oh! The horror for those who live on earth because of the blasts of the remaining trumpets that the three angels are about to blow!”
Note first that it is never said that God orders these awful events. The trumpets simply announce them. Also note that you cannot take any of this literally. For example, if a star actually fell to earth, more than one-third of the rivers would be affected. All of Earth would be obliterated.
But what if you took this passage seriously rather than literally? What if you tried to discern what Revelation might be saying if you examined its images as symbols of reality, pictures of things that are “like this” but not this exactly, images that point to the truth about current events?
Wouldn’t you, in fact, come up with a picture of what is happening on Earth today?
Wouldn’t you find that the awful images of Revelation accurately describe what’s happening today because of centuries of human destruction of our environment?
Wouldn’t you find that the awful images of Revelation accurately describe what’s happening today because of global climate change triggered by centuries of human destruction of our environment?
Consider the evidence, which corroborates what scientists have been warning us about for more than 50 years.
- Exceptional volcanic eruptions on the island of St. Vincent, in Hawaii and elsewhere.
- Uncontrollable forest fires in the American West, in Africa and Australia and Indonesia and Siberia.
- Drought, massive crop failures and famine all around the world.
- Widespread, sometimes unprecedented, flooding, and increased numbers of dangerous hurricanes. Last year’s ocean storm season was the most active on record.
- Marine life dying because of pollution and changes in water temperature; not just coral reefs and whales and dolphins but also mammals such as sea otters and polar bears.
- Glaciers worldwide melting and the level of the seas slowly rising, eroding shorelines, destroying beaches, soon threatening cities as well.
- Poisoned public water supplies such as in Flint, Michigan.
- The Western Monarch butterfly, which used to be such a joy to see returning every year, now nearing extinction.
- Winter snowstorms that catch public utilities unprepared, causing power outages, rolling blackouts, and untold amounts of misery
And it goes on. All of nature is out of whack because of human sin. Time after time, the call echoes throughout Revelation: Repent! Change your ways! Time after time, the call is ignored. We continue to treat God’s beloved creation shabbily.
Do you know what leads people to repentance? Two things, according to Revelation. First is the perseverance of the saints. Don’t give up hope, Revelation says repeatedly. Don’t be bewitched by the lies of a twisted culture whose continued existence depends on you believing its lies.
Revelation describes this twisted culture as empire – specifically, in the first century, the Roman Empire. It calls this culture Babylon, and it says, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins and do not share in her plagues” (Revelation 18.4).
Babylon is any human regime that does not honor God and God’s purposes for creation. Babylon is every human regime, to one degree or another, because all humans and all human institutions are tainted by sin and all human governments allow or promote the rape of the earth for momentary profit.
So the first thing that leads the world to repentance is Christian perseverance, Christians awakening to the truth about Babylon and staying free from it as much as possible. The second thing is Christian witness to the truth.
Ultimately, Revelation seems to be saying, Christian witness is the only thing that convinces non-believers to turn from their destructive ways and follow the ways of the Lord. No amount of plagues and other disasters will do it. Only clear Christian witness will convince non-believers of the truth about life and the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
So there you have it. If anyone asks you what the book of Revelation is all about, tell them to forget all the end-times lies they’ve heard concerning monsters and the slaughter of infidels. Tell them that Revelation reveals the shining truth about the love of God and the need for believers to stay faithful to God’s commands and witness to their faith.
Revelation is about the victory of God over the forces of evil – a victory that is being won not in some weird fantasy world in the future but today in our everyday lives, if we are faithful and witness to the truth.
This message was delivered June 6, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.