For One Friend In Particular--The Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is one of my favorite in the Bible--I think it may be because the imagery speaks more fully than any interpretation of it ever can.  And what the imagery actually says, I cannot say, because sometimes one must just appreciate the beauty.  This was the advice I gave a gentleman who confessed the other night that he never could make it through Ulysses because he could not understand it.  Sometimes it isn't necessary to understand in order to appreciate.  I know that flies in the face of our logical positivist, scientific empiricist world--but it is simply the truth.  Truth, goodness, and beauty, the platonic triad need not be fully comprehended to be appreciated--nevertheless, they will out if one gives them the opportunity.  (Full disclosure forces me to note that I have a high tolerance for reading things I do not fully understand as witnessed by the fact that I have been through The Wake three times now--on the other hand, I'm not certain Joyce understood all that he was doing in that particular opus.)

Okay, so enough with the mystical and mushy introduction.  Back to the central point--The Book of Revelation is one of my favorite in the entire Bible.  I like the thought of beast with seven heads and ten horns and a kind of Kwan Yin Blessed Virgin shining like the sun, etc.    Hence, when I found a book in the library about the Bible as literature, the first place I turned was to see what they had to say about the Book of Revelation.

From "Revelation"
Bernard McGinn
in The Literary Guide to the Bible
eds. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode

Reading the Book of Revelation has tended to be more of an obsession than a pastime. Those reader who could dismiss it, either with a quip like George Bernard Shaw. . . or with studied indifference like John Calvin, have been few. Many who have hated the book have been unable to escape from it. D. H. Lawrence, for instance, felt compelled to write his own form of commentary to try to exorcise it from his mind. Suspect in its origins, controversial throughout its history, even today Revelation raises the question of how it is to be read in a more dramatic way that perhaps any other book of the New Testament. The insistence of many commentators, both early and late, that they alone have found the real key to this unveiling of the mysteries of the end has served only to compound the enigma as history has demonstrated the errors of insufficiencies of various readings. St. Jerome showed more wisdom than most, not only in merely revising someone else's commentary rather than writing his own, but also in remarking that "Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words."

So, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, I return to the point I started with.  It is unlikely that anyone on this side of the veil understands completely what John intended in his writing of this most puzzling of works; however, it is clear that the literary form is that of the Apocalypse--"a lifting of the veil" which shows us, not the future, or at least not the future of the world, but the future of those who believe in Jesus, for the point isn't all of the fascinating and horrible things that happen throughout, but Chapter 21:

 1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (NIV)

The point of the book is its end--no matter what the trials, tribulations, horrors, atrocities, and bizzarities that the true believer may experience, all of it is as nothing because it all passes away with the result explained above.  That isn't to dismiss the remainder of the book, because like any good work of literature, the denouement is only meaningful after the build-up.  And ultimately the Book of Revelation is a book of comfort--it is, once again, the song of God's love for His people.  And what it says ultimately is that so long as there are people, there will be these things that are so awful and so incomprehensible as to be nearly unendurable--to be utterly mind-altering.  But once belief enters into the picture, whatever is to be can be endured knowing that it is not the end of the line.

Whether or not one accepts John's statement, is, of course, a matter of faith.  But to read the Book of Revelation is almost any other way is simply to twist the symbols to mean as we desire them to mean.  We can read the Holy Mass, or the future of the world, or an allegory of the ancient world with Nero and all of the other persecuting emperors of Rome.  I can't say which is valid, but what I can say is that regardless of which of these one chooses to start with, one still ends with chapter 21--the point of having written the whole.


  1. Thanks for this post. One of my sons decided to read Revelations for Lent. I was a little worried because I knew I couldn't give him any black and white guidance on meaning, - he would have to puzzle it out himself - but this has confirmed that it doesn't need to be translated, but enjoyed.

  2. Dear Emily,

    I don't know if it is a help, but I do think it significant that the Office of Readings for the Season of Easter (after the Octave) consists, for the most part of reading the entire Book of Revelation. The fact that it occupies the entirety of a season of joy is indicative of the meaning that the Church gives it. The meaning I think I limned when I pointed out the key nature of chapter 21. After the dread darkness of night, then comes the dawn.



  3. Steven, your is a great post about a too frequently confused topic. As for me, taking Revelation as prophecy, for lack of a better word, I rely upon the more precise definition of prophecy that is a variation on William Blake and Flannery O'Connor: prophecy is the special ability of someone to see otherwise ineffable but real things and explain them as they are (very much in the here and now) rather than looking ahead and predicting what might be happening in the future. Revelation, therefore, is not about the future; it is about the here and now. So, with that mindset--combined with your wise advice--then I think readers would be well on their way to becoming better readers of the too frequently misinterpreted and misappropriated text.

  4. Don't have anything to say other than great post Steven!

  5. By the way, started listening to Scott Hahn's tape on the book of Revelation; in his commentary he mentions how some of it celebrates the annihilation of our enemies and he said how modern Christians need to get over our squeamishness about that subject. He said we needed to overcome our timidity and desire that our enemies be converted, but if conversion fails then - that the name of God be not be mocked - that they may be destroyed. He then mentioned some of the more egregious forms of modern "art" that mock God and his saints, such as a certain entertainer who took the name "Madonna".

    I do wonder if he would take the same tack today; that talk was given more than a decade ago.

  6. Dear TS,

    God created people as good and the Fall did not change that essential goodness--but heaven knows they are capable of the most outrageously wicked things. If we see the concept of enemies NOT as people but as the evil that people do, then we can only rejoice in the destruction of the enemy. I think it is possible to separate the doer from the deed, regardless of Yeats to the contrary.

    Or not.




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