Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revelation 10: We Do Not Know What the Thunder Said.

For evangelical Christians of all stripes, the book of Revelation isn't just a trippy snippet of apocalyptic fiction--it's a reliable timeline for how the world will end. So reliable, indeed, that it may dictate public policy.

Witness arch-conservative pastor John Hagee's Christians United for Israel--a group that boasts the support of numerous Republican Congressmen and former president George W. Bush. Hagee and many of his coreligionists believe that the end-times scenario played out in Revelation requires that the Jewish people must return to Israel en masse before the final battle between good and evil can get underway. Hoping to start the confrontation as quickly as possible--because who doesn't like a good God-Satan throwdown from time to time?--Hagee's organization looks to assure Israel's long-term security and provide a safe haven for the Jewish people's return.

However, Hagee's lobbying for Israel is based on a faith that his reading of Revelation is not only correct--it's iron-clad. He and the rest of the CUFI hordes believe that their understanding of the Bible's last book is so sure that they may raise literally millions of dollars--with the help of some of the most powerful men and women in the country--to hurry along Biblical history. (To his credit, John McCain eventually rejected the endorsement of Hagee and CUFI, though only after some calculation.)

But how sure of Revelation's message can we be? The poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence famously wrote, "When we read Revelation, we feel at once that there are meanings behind meanings." And even a first-time reader of the text quickly perceives that these meanings are anything but apparent.

But I write today not merely to suggest that simple interpretations of an obscure text like Revelation--like "The Jews must return to Israel"--are folly. I write to remind over-confident readers of a simpler truth: we don't even have all of Revelation. Some of its truths are intentionally withheld--perhaps by God himself.

Revelation is what many call "visionary" literature; in it, an author named John (not the disciple John or the Baptist John) claims to have been visited by a divine messenger who showed him a vivid preview of the end of the world.

But this preview is abstruse, partial, and deeply symbolic. In the first part of the vision, for instance, John sees seven lampstands, seven stars, and "one like the Son of Man" (1:13) standing among them. John has no idea what these symbols mean, and he is so terrified by this "one" that he "fell at his feet as though dead" (1:17).

To understand this first image, though, John needs help, and the "one like the Son of Man" is happy to oblige, saying, "As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw [...] and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches." These seven churches, as it turns out, are small proto-parishes (in what is now Turkey) to whom John must write. And if that's an obvious meaning of the image, I'm Bryant Gumbel.

Now, it is worth noting that most readers--even sane ones--think that this "one" who helps John figure out the stars and lampstands is the risen Jesus, and there are plenty of textual clues to back them up. However, the text itself will not confirm: after all, this is only one "like" the "Son of Man," not the "Son of Man" himself. And insofar as the prophet Ezekiel is also referred to as "Son of Man," this mysterious figure could be, um, Ezekiel's crazy cousin Baba.

Kidding. But I want to stress this point: no reading of Revelation is iron-clad, and John's is a thoroughly mysterious vision from start to finish. Further, John will infrequently get the kind of interpretive help he receives in the first chapter.

But again, I'm not just trying to make the point that Revelation is difficult, though it is; I'm trying to tell you that we don't even have all of it. To prove my point, I fast-forward to Revelation 10, when John receives part of the vision aurally:

"And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven [...] And when he shouted, the seven thunders sounded. And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down'" (10: 1-4)

Let's review: midway through the revelation, a mighty angel speaks, and seven thunders deliver a message so crucial that John wants to record it. However, a voice from on high (God?) commands John to "seal" this part of the message--to make sure that it is neither declared nor recorded.

This "sealing" is a devastating blow for those who claim to have full knowledge of Revelation, because it is textual evidence that part of the message is kept from us as readers. We do not know all of the revelation, so how can we claim to have complete knowledge of it?

The bottom line is that we can't. And we shouldn't. And Hagee shouldn't either. And CUFI is dumb. (Okay, that last one's just me, but I stand by the rest.)

1 comment:

  1. The book of Revelation is a prophecy (and warning) of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It was the end of the age for the generation that crucified the Messiah as prophecied in the book of Daniel.

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