Thursday, April 14, 2011

The long, strange journey of the Book of Revelation

Note: I originally wrote this in May 2008. I decided to delete it, and other articles I’d written, because I didn’t want to offend some Christians. But some Orthodox friends have remembered it and requested that I re-post it. If anyone disagrees, I respect their right to their point of view. But as weak as I am, as hard as I struggle in my faith, I’m simply Orthodox – and I can’t apologize for that. A blessed Easter to you. – TBP

A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. As 24-hour news outlets bombard us with amounts of information at a rate the human mind has never had to contend with, we see famines and earthquakes and floods and wars and every manner of evil in our own living rooms, compliments of CNN or MSNBC.

At the same time, more and more people are taking comfort in a particular interpretation of a book written 2,000 years ago: The Book of Revelation. It's everywhere you look: in the multi-million dollar, best-selling "Left Behind" series of books by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and bumper stickers that warn that "In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned" (countered wryly with another bumper sticker that says, "In case of Rapture, can I have your car?").

The modern obsession with a theology known as Dispensationalism really began in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth." Certainly, at the time, the world appeared to be going to hell in a handbasket, what with pervasive drug use, free love and racial riots.

Lindsey warned of the imminent end of the world (since then, he's come out with a new book every few years - at this writing, 13 – moving the "imminent" just a bit further into the future – since the world keeps ... well, not ending.)

I'm no theologian. I have no direct pipeline with God that says my beliefs alone are correct. For this reason I can't disrespect or ridicule the beliefs of others regarding the future of the planet.

But history is something else – it’s objective. One either knows history or not. That's why I'd like to share a little of the history of the book that's caused all this hullabaloo (and earned people like Lindsey and LaHaye a ton of dough).

The reality is that worldwide, and over the past 2,000 years, only a tiny percentage of Christians have interpreted the Book of Revelation in the way the Lindseys and the LaHayes of the world have interpreted it. That is, saying that there will be a great (and necessary) war in Armageddon, near the Gaza Strip. But first, all "true Christians" will be taken up into heaven so they don't have to experience the literal hell that will follow. (There's much more to it than that, but that's Dispensationalism 101.) (Added April 2011: Here's a handy-dandy countdown.)

The belief in The Rapture the way it's explored in the "Left Behind" series can actually be traced to the reported visions of one Scots-Irish girl, Margaret McDonald, in 1830; her reports were published in 1861 and later popularized by John Nelson Darby. The year 1830 sounds like a long time ago, but what it means is that for the first 1,830 years of Christianity, no Christian interpreted the scripture in Revelation in this way. (That would include the apostles; the church fathers; those who wrote the Scriptures and the Creeds; and those who decided on church Canon.)

1,830 years is a long time. And a lot of Christians lived and died during those centuries.

But the questions go further back than Margaret McDonald. Actually, the Book of Revelation made it into the Bible only by the figurtive skin of its teeth.

During the period of time the books of the New Testament were being written, and the Church was deciding what would (and would not) be Canon, controversy about the Book of Revelation raged. Disagreement over the legitimacy and origins of the Book (was it written by John or someone else?), as well as its interpretation (Does it refer to the inner battle of one's soul? .... To events that will occur in the future? ... To events that had already occurred?) continued for more than 300 years before the book was finally (and reluctantly) accepted as part of the Bible we know today.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople, advised against the acceptance of Revelation as Canon. (To this day, Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is not read aloud during services in Orthodox Christian churches. However, it’s untrue to say that the Orthodox do not "allow" the study of the book; rather, those who study it are encouraged to do so with guidance and a firm background in the historical context in which it was written.)

But it's not just the Orthodox that have concerns. Martin Luther – the very founder of Protestantism – initially called the Book of Revelation "neither apostolic nor prophetic" and stated that "Christ is neither taught nor known in it ... Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it."

And John Calvin, the theologian to which every Reformed and Evangelical church today owes its beginnings, wrote commentaries on every New Testament book except for Revelation.

You might ask why on earth I am spending so much time talking about a single book of the Bible. Well, it's because I've come to believe that in today's political and military environment, the topics of Biblical prophesy and militarism have become dangerously enmeshed.

One discouraging example – when I was in college, I was a member of both “Students Against Nuclear Arms” and “Campus Crusade for Christ.” I was told by members of the CCC I could not participate in anti-nuke rallies, since nuclear war was a prerequisite to the coming of Christ, and “people working for peace are working for the Devil.”

Do the questions that have always surrounded the Book of Revelation mean we should ignore it? Not at all. But neither should we use Revelation to justify military preparation to fight an "inevitable" war in the Gaza Strip.

You see, something happened to our understanding of human nature in the centuries since Christ walked the earth. We have forgotten that God saw his creation as "good."

To be sure: humankind has fallen. The evidence of this is not just in the Bible, but all around us. Humans are inclined to "miss the mark." We're likely to do what we think is best for us personally, rather than considering the needs of our fellow man.

But Orthodoxy has never seen humankind as incapable of doing good. To the contrary: Orthodoxy sees humankind as having a choice to do, or not do, the right thing.

In fact, there is some evidence that humans ARE finally learning to do the right thing. Amazingly, statistics show that despite the unprecedented number of humans on the planet, the rate of violence has actually gone down in the last few decades.

As for earthquakes, floods, and other signs of “the end,” there is legitimate disagreement as to whether these events are actually increasing in number, or whether – due to new technology and the media – they’re simply being reported with greater frequency.

Orthodoxy recognizes that Scripture – while inspired by God – was not "channeled" verbatim into thee brains of those who wrote the Scriptures. The writers worked within the history and symbolism in the world in which they lived.

Further, not all prophesy comes to pass. Biblical prophesy is not a television screen into an unchangeable future. It is a warning to be heeded.

Our futures might be known to God, but each of us has free will. We're not puppets. The last book of the Bible has been written, but the last chapter of the world has not been completed.

So go ahead – pray for peace. Work for peace. Honor every human being as a child of God. You won't stop Jesus from coming. You won't throw a wrench into God's plans. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

Remember his words each day.