Keys to the Book of Revelation

Longtime reader St. TY asks:

Some commentators, atheists and anti-Christians, go so far as to say (mockingly) the writer of the Book was under the strong influence of some hallucinogenic substance. How should a thoughtful Christian interpret the prophesies in the Book so that it harmonises with the rest of scripture? The moon turning into blood, for example. I'm afraid we might find our "creative interpretation" of no help.

TY,

The Book of Revelation is part of a Jewish genre of literature called "apocalyptic literature", which includes the Book of Daniel, parts of Ezekiel and Zechariah, and several works which are not part of the biblical canon, such as 2 Esdras and the Book of Enoch (quoted in Jude 1:14-15).  So the Book of Revelation isn't coming out of the blue.  It's part of a genre which has rules and expectations (one of them being the highly symbolic visions narrated by angelic beings), which would have been understood to some extent by the original audience.

While it's obvious to anyone with an ear for literary style (excepting modern scholars) that the Letters of St. John in the New Testament were written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of St. John, it's less clear that the Apocalypse was written by the same person.

The author does identify himself as "John", and he must have been known to the original recipients.  Like the Gospel, it refers to Jesus as the "Lamb of God" and the "Word of God", and has "I am" sayings, placing Revelation in a characteristically Johannine theological tone.  On the other hand, the Greek style apparently is significantly different, as first pointed out by St. Dinoysius, bishop of Alexandria.  I'm not a Greek expert so I can't referee this dispute, but a bunch of pro and con arguments are discussed here.  Some early Christians claimed that there was a "John the presbyter" who was different from John the Apostle (the traditional author of the book).

Regardless of who wrote it, the Church decided to include it in the canon of Scriptures.  So we seem to be stuck with it.  In order to correctly interpret the Apocalypse of St. John, we need to bear in mind some fundamental principles:

1.  The book tells us at the very beginning that it is "the revelation (unveiling) of Jesus Christ".  So the main point of the book is to reveal who Jesus is (Rev 1:1).  That's the real reason we know that the book is inspired, because through it, the Spirit gives us a picture of the glorified resurrected Jesus, who speaks with the same distinctive voice as the Jesus from the Gospels.  "For the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10).

You will notice this phrase "Lamb of God" keeps popping up.  Attempts to predict the exact chronology of the end times from the symbols often get distracted from what it says about Christ and his Church, missing the point of the book entirely.  It is only through Jesus that the meaning of the present and future can be seen clearly. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the Scroll which contains the meaning of history (Rev. 5).  Only through his Cross can we gain the clarity to understand "what must soon take place" (1:1).

Although the imagery in Revelation is highly violent, one should notice the deep irony in the phrase "Wrath of the Lamb".  Normally a lamb is something meek and inoffensive.  Also notice that the sharp, double-edged sword (first mentioned in 1:16) comes out of Christ's mouth, symbolic of his words, not literal bloodshed.

2. Pretty much every single image contained in the Book of Revelation is taken from elsewhere in the Bible (often by mushing several things together).  You ask how to harmonize the book with the rest of Scripture, but the book basically consists of references to the rest of Scripture!   The 7 Spirits, the 4 Horsemen, the Living Creatures, the 24 divisions of Priests, the 7 Thunders, The 2 Olive Trees, the 12 Tribes, the Moon turning to Blood, the Plagues, the Beasts, the Whore of Babylon, the New Heaven and the New Earth?  All blatant rip-offs from the Old Testament prophets.  I'd turn these into links, but you should really figure it out for yourself.  Read your Bible cover to cover, and you'll find most of these parallels on your own.

(The hardest one here is the Thunders. For this, try counting the number of times "the voice of the Lord" strikes in the lightning storm described in Psalm 29.  Whatever the "voice" is saying is beyond human hearing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact on the world!)

Once you know what it meant the first time, that will give you clues about what it means in Revelation.

3.  Try reading the book in light of a political satire of what was happening during the 1st century religious persecutions ("Preterism"), and also as a description of the universal experiences of the church through history ("Idealism"), as well as a prediction of what will happen during the end times ("Futurism").  These are usually presented as rival views, but I think a text like this is capable of resonating on more than one level with different events.  None of these ways of reading the text should necessarily be privileged over the others, though some may work better than others for particular passages.  (The 7 churches were real 1st century churches, not eras in church history, and of course the Final Judgement and the New Heaven and the New Earth are still to come.)

Ecological disasters as a result of human sin?  These are, sadly, part of present day reality.  You will notice these plagues are not as severe as those described in the Book of Revelation.  Not yet, anyway.  But beware the time of the Seventh Trumpet, when "the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth" (Rev. 11:15).

The symbolism is fluid, many-valued.  Ways of reading the book so that it is relevant only at some past time, or some future time, are sterile and implicitly contradict the idea that all Scripture is useful for growth in godliness.

The bogus crackpot methodology is "Historicism", which tries to arrange all the material into an exact chronology of historical events, identifying whatever the current author views as the greatest threat as the to-be-Antichrist.  (E.g. Protestants said it was the Papacy.) Often culminating in an predicted end during (or shortly after) the writer's own lifetime, contradicting Christ's repeated injunctions not to predict the times and dates that the Father has set by his own authority.  This has never worked before, and your system won't work either.

4.  The numbers are symbolic, and shouldn't necessarily be taken literally.

I'd say duh, but there are too many people who, oblivious to the symbolic significance of e.g. periods of 3½ years (based on the persecution described in Daniel), try to interpret all of these as literal time periods.  Maybe after substituting years for days, so they get all excited after they find two important historical events that are exactly 1260 years apart.  Most people don't realize how easy it is to find coincidences like this.  (It's like the birthday paradox; if you have a small number of people in a room, the expected number of pairs who have the same birthday is proportional to the square of the number of people, not the number of people.  It's the same if you have a bunch of dates you want to get to line up in some pattern.)

Similarly, pretty much anyone's name can be shown to be equal to 666 if you try hard enough.  (Although Nero Caeser seems like a pretty plausible guess for the original reference.)  So don't do this.

5. Remember that it's a work of art as well as a prophetic text.  The book is full of songs; it's about worship in the heavenly Temple which is above (which is why Tabernacle imagery keeps coming up).  Christian hymns are full of references to Revelation.  It's good to remember the healthy and wholesome impact which this book has had through the ages, not just the failed crackpot schemes.

There are 7 beatitudes in the Book of Revelation; the first says: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near."  Readers often tend to assume that if we can't boil down the book to a bunch of propositions about what God is going to do, then they haven't gotten anything out of the book.  But the mood, the ambiance, the tone, is just as important.  God could have just given St. John a list of doctrines, but that wouldn't have been the same, would it? Notice how the book affects you as a reader, and consider that that may be the point of reading it.

-------------------------------------

Oh, and was the author on hallucinogenic mushrooms when he received this vision?  That's pure speculation, as far as I'm concerned.  (The claim that Patmos has hallucinogenic mushrooms / plants seems to be frequently repeated on the Internet, but after several minutes of googling I was unable to trace it back to any reliable seeming original source.  Anyone know where this claim originally comes from?)

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that St. John had accidentally ingested a mind-altering substance.  This would not necessarily prevent God from using the resulting visions to reveal a true message.  God can use anything to accomplish his purposes.  The brain is a chemical system, and what we do with our bodies affects our spirits.

I once knew somebody who was led towards Christianity as a result of a few hours of religious themed hallucinations after smoking cannabis.  (Fact: pot can, unpredictably, cause effects akin to LSD.  It can also cause permanent neurological changes.  It's a much scarier drug than people make it out to be.)  God may have used that, but that doesn't mean that it's a good idea to trip out on something and hope to have a religious experience.  Being in an altered state of consciousness could make you more open to spiritual influences of all kinds—whether divine, or diabolical, or just weird stuff from your subconscious.

So I don't at all recommend that people take such things into their own hands.  Much safer to approach God in the ways that he has appointed, through the Bible, the Church, prayers and the Sacraments.  If he wants to give you a vision, he can.

Regardless of which St. John wrote the book, he was probably one of the Lord's disciples, as indicated by St. Papias.   This presumably means that he knew Jesus while he was on earth.  After a lifetime of suffering for Christ, and now an old man in exile, God gifted him with a vision of the same Jesus, now glorified, in order to encourage the rest of us to persist through our own suffering.   The vision came because he was tripping on the Spirit.  I don't think any drugs were required.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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6 Responses to Keys to the Book of Revelation

  1. Scott Church says:

    Aron, the claim that Revelations was the result of mushroom-induced hallucinogenic states appears to have originated with the 1970 book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by one John Marco Allegro who tried to trace St. John's visions to the fly amanita mushroom (amanita muscaria). Amanita muscaria occurs in coniferous and deciduous forests throughout temperate and boreal regions in the Northern Hemisphere including the Mediterranean, but like you, I was unable to find any references to it being prevalent on Patmos that didn't come from non-expert blogs and crackpot sites. Allegro's book has been widely discredited by scholars, and although some attempts have been made to revive his ideas they don't seem to be going anywhere. Today, claims of mushroom-induced visions in Revelations only have traction in New Age, Christ Myth, and other secular crackpot circles.

  2. TY says:

    Aron
    Thank you "airing" my question and for the sensible advice; especially point #3.

  3. Aron Wall says:

    Scott,
    So I've heard about Allegro's crazy book, but (as far as I gather, I hadn't read the book) I thought he was claiming that all of apostolic Christianity was a mushroom cult, that "Jesus" was just code for mushroom hallucinations, etc. This is clearly crackpot ravings of the worst sort. (He sounds like one of those disaffected Roman mystery-cult tourists, who were also quite disappointed, I imagine, to discover that Communion is just bread and wine!)

    The claim that there are hallucinogenic mushrooms on Patmos is a much weaker and saner claim, so I thought maybe it had a separate origin. It's probably not worth reading the Allegro book to find out whether the Patmos claim is specifically in it or not. It could just be a common misunderstanding of a crazy crackpot book. Sigh. (Naturally, the popular misunderstanding is less crazy than the book itself. Regression towards the mean?)

    Anyway, I'm guessing there's probably some sort of hallucinogenic plants almost everywhere people live. So pointing to their existence in one particular place, might be like saying that a murder suspect is particularly suspicious because he had steak knives in his kitchen. But everyone has steak knives in their kitchen!

    If St. John was allowed to send letters out, then he was probably allowed to receive food in as well. And presumably there were guards enforcing the sentence, who would also need a regular source of provisions. It seems unlikely that he was required to forage in order to survive.

  4. Mia says:

    Thank you.
    Revelation is a beautiful portrait of Jesus Christ and a future in him. I get really tired of the sensational interest in "End Times" but, maybe an interest in the sensational gets someone to open a Bible for the first time. I would like to think that this portion leads at least a few to further study of other writings in this amazing book.

  5. TY says:

    Last Sunday was All Saints Day at my (Anglican) Church and guess what where the New Testament Lesson came from? Revelation 7:2-4, 9-19. Here are verses 14-17. Very comforting words.

    Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

    14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

    And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

    “they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
    and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
    16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
    The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
    17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
    ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ ”

  6. Andrew says:

    Dear Aron,

    Can I ask, how do you know so much about the Bible? I've seen your comments before and I get the impression that you know a lot about theological history too. I've always been telling myself I should learn more but I don't where to start?

    Best regards,
    Andrew

    [I responded here---AW]

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