Could most of what you’ve read about revelation be wrong?

The Antichrist is alive today and is either a Jew or a Muslim, right? (That’s if it isn’t Barack Obama). We are all soon going to have an identification mark on our foreheads or hand, right? Or what about these?:

• Israel and the Palestinians will soon sign a peace treaty brokered by a prominent world leader!

• A new Jewish temple will soon be constructed in Jerusalem!

• The European Union will soon become the power base for the Antichrist!

• Soon most Christian denominations (especially those in the World Council of Churches) will band together under the Pope and become an ally of the Antichrist!

This sounds like something from another planet, but it seems there is a strong consensus among writers and readers of books about the ‘end times’ that include the statements above. This consensus goes back at least as far as Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and is currently being kept at the forefront of our thinking by the Left Behind phenomena.

The trouble is, each of these statements, and many others like them, rest on very thin biblical foundations and are most likely simply wrong. For example, the prediction of a rebuilt (that is, brand new) Jewish temple, rests largely on just one verse in 2 Thessalonians that speaks of the “man of lawlessness” setting himself up as God in the temple of God. There is also a reference to the “temple of God” in Revelation 11:1-2, though this does not appear again in the beast passage in chapter 13 and there is no further mention. But there is absolutely no direct promise or prediction of a fresh physical Jerusalem temple in Revelation or anywhere else in the New Testament.

Church union under the papacy is largely based on the whore passage in Revelation 17 which never mentions the word “church” and only infers Rome through its reference to seven mountains. There are strong suggestions in the chapter that it is at least partly referring to something in existence in the time Revelation was written; a reference to a living king, for instance (verse 10).

Identification marks are inferred from Revelation 13’s “mark of the beast”, but even that isn’t literally what the passage says, as it talks of a single number, 666, not a different number for every person on earth. Moreover this numbering is performed not by the beast but the “false prophet”, his religious representative and wonder-worker.

The word “antichrist” only appears in 1 John and 2 John and it clearly doesn’t mean a far-off world ruler but a close-at-hand religious heretic. Ideas about what is traditionally called “antichrist” have to be pieced together from passages that use different terms and may have nothing to do with each other: Daniel’s “little horn”, Revelation’s “beast” and Paul’s “man of lawlessness” being the main candidates.

Predicting the future?

Now, of course, writers who follow this tack of predicting world events out of the Bible might get lucky. History tells us that if you keep making predictions out of the Bible, especially Revelation, you’ll get it right sometimes. For example, some students of the Historicist school (who interpret virtually all of Revelation as symbols of the sweep of church history) in the late 19th century worked out that the Ottoman Turkish Empire would fall and Jews would return to the Holy Land again. They were right: the Ottoman Empire fell apart at the end of World War I and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 opened the door for increasing Jewish migration to Palestine, laying the foundation for the modern state of Israel. But those same biblical commentators also predicted the decline of Islam, which was at least premature, though it may have seemed more likely then.

It is cases like this that cause many interpreters of Revelation and other prophetic books to say something like, “Well, it worked then and if we are patient our other predictions will also come true.” This is especially tempting when some details pop up seemingly from nowhere to whisper that we are on track.

Right now, for example, there are occasional technical developments that would make an identity marker on hands and foreheads feasible. This might be a sign of the end! Well, maybe, but let’s not be too sure. Several decades ago in Australia the major banks put out a credit card called “Bankcard”. The cards carried stylised three bs that looked like 666. A sign of the end? All I can say is that this card no longer exists.

Then there are recent reports of the drying up of the Euphrates River as a result of dam construction upstream and maybe climate change. Surely this fulfils Revelation 16:12, making it possible for “the kings of the east” to send their 200 million strong army (Revelation 9:16) to invade Israel or engage the Antichrist in battle. Could be, but how long will we wait before we realise it isn’t happening – at least, not yet?

As for the peace treaty supposedly predicted in Daniel 9:27, successive US Presidents have tried to make that happen in order to bring peace in the Middle East. Eventually one of these agreements will stick, you’d think, and President Whoever will be acclaimed as the beast! Some fundamentalist writers are already priming up Barack Obama for this role. Yet the passage in Daniel is very vague, for example it doesn’t say who the treaty will be with.

Before we are tempted to become “Christian prognosticators” who will impress the world and prove the Bible right because its predicted events are now happening, or soon to happen, let’s look back and learn from recent history.

Apocalypse now?

Not very long ago, Christian writers about biblical prophecy predicted:

• Nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the USA.

• The expansion of the EEU to ten members. Well that happened, but trouble was, it grew to more than that, spoiling the scenario based on Daniel’s “ten toes” or the ten horns of the beast in Revelation.

• Massive economic dislocation based on the Y2K problem.

• A rebuilt Babylon in Iraq as a new world capital, courtesy of Saddam Hussein.

Now of course, these things, or something like them, could still happen. But what of the biblical basis for such claims or the other predictions I noted?

Are we using the Bible (especially Revelation) properly? I would argue that many Christians have misused Revelation during the whole of the Christian era. We have too often pressed Revelation into service as a tool to forecast forthcoming world developments, as a commentary on current events, as a weapon to beat our religious enemies over the head with or as a special word to our brand of Christianity. After all, surely Revelation must be a word for us today in these dangerous and challenging days!

Revelation, like all the Bible, is a word for us today, just as it was to its original hearers, and to Christians ever since, but not in the way often envisaged by preachers. In fact, if Revelation really is a prediction of events that could only happen now that nuclear weapons or the state of Israel have appeared, it wasn’t much of a word to previous generations of believers, let alone the churches it was specifically addressed to in the first place! Rather it is God’s word to us in the same way as it was to them, just like every other book of the Bible.

You see, too often when we read Revelation (a privilege the original audience didn’t have: they had to take it all in, in one or more hearings) we are guilty of missing the wood for the trees. We get so caught up in the details of the locusts (Revelation 9), the sea turning to blood (Revelation 8), the male child (Revelation 12), the beast (Revelation 13) and his number, the whore (Revelation 17) and all the other imagery, that we miss the point of what John (or the Holy Spirit) is trying to say. It seems to me that if we read (or hear) the book as a whole, we might rather come away with one of these challenges ringing in our ears:

• Do I love Jesus enough to resist the allurements of my culture and the pressures to compromise?

• Am I really part of Jesus’ people, those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life?

• Am I a faithful witness to Jesus; would I even be ready to die for him if necessary? After all, this challenge is facing increasing numbers of Christians right now.

Or we might find our hope in him strengthened by the way the storyline of Revelation unfolds and ends, especially if we are undergoing heavy pressure for our faith.

Of course, many of those given to predicting tomorrow’s headlines from Revelation, and other prophetic books, loudly claim to be taking the Bible literally. But in fact, they are quite selective about this. No one takes everything in Revelation literally: no one that I know of expects a red dragon to fall onto the earth, stand on the seashore and give power to a great sea beast (Revelation 12:9, 13:1-2), for example. So you have your choice which passages you take literally. So no red dragons perhaps, but what about locusts with crowned heads and tails with stingers (Revelation 9:7-10)? Is this a primitive description of helicopter gunships? Where will we draw the line?

And if we are going to take Revelation literally, what about its plain language as opposed to its imagery? What about its statement that it is predicting the near future, as opposed to thousands of years hence (Revelation 1:1,3; 22:10)? What about its clear intent to address seven ancient churches in Asia (Revelation 1:4,11)? How did we ever get that to mean Revelation is mainly about the distant future or that the seven churches were really seven eras of Christian history, mainly in the West?

I worry about what some people are doing with God’s word these days. It seems to me that some of us have too often hi-jacked it to suit our agendas rather than those of Jesus Christ. How then can we hear what the spirit is saying to the churches today? How can the word feed us and challenge us when we are busy using it attack everyone else in sight in the name of Bible prophecy?

May the Holy Spirit restore to us a way of reading Revelation that will give due weight to its historical setting and its message as a whole text and release its challenging message so that it can address us as it once addressed those seven churches. Maybe then the Western Church would wake up from its spiritual slumber and spiritual comfort, respond to the call of Christ for repentance and become a conquering force again. Of course, that sentence is based on Revelation 3, not because these are the last three messages to the seven churches, but because “if the cap fits, wear it”.