My theological background includes a checkerboard of Protestant religions. The first third of my life was spent in a Pentecostal church (no, we did not handle snakes). The second third in a Southern Baptist setting (yes, we danced). And eventually I settled into the world of Methodists. The beauty of this history is that I am deeply ingrained with a passion for charismatic worship. Unfortunately, the other element that took hold in my psyche was a slight obsession with the rapture.
For those of you unfamiliar with this term, in my world the rapture referred to the end of times as outlined in Revelation. In the not-so distant future, a worldwide event will take place in which God takes away all of his believers in the blink of an eye. Poof. Vanished. For everyone left behind, chaos breaks out in the world as the antichrist takes over and forces everyone to take the mark of the beast. Plagues ensue, fires and natural disasters abound and generally life is… unpleasant.
To be honest, I’m not sure how much of this was biblical and how much was absorbed from the “Left Behind” series, but we talked about it in church. All. The. Time. Quite often someone in the congregation would stand up and warn us that the rapture could happen this week (maybe even tonight!) and we better be ready. As you can imagine, to hear this message so often caused me to have slight anxiety. As a child, most nights I laid in bed asking God to please, please, please forgive me of any sins that I might have unknowingly committed that day and to let me go to Heaven in the event of a house fire or the rapture.
As a young adult, I decided to visit Floris UMC. Sitting in the pews, I kept waiting for the rapture sermon, but it never came. Months went by, then years, and still it never came. I found this bizarre but decided it was a sign I could tuck my rapture anxiety away for a while.
Then one day last year I realized my anxiety was still with me. A friend with a similar religious background shared a story about a night when the power went out. She mentioned how nervous she was because she thought the rapture might be coming. I could tell she felt a bit silly saying it, but I suddenly laughed and said, “Me too!”
I knew I needed to re-read the book of Revelation to finally figure out once and for all what is really there and what is not. When I opened up the book, I discovered that it truly is as twisted as I remember it from my childhood. Creatures with multiple heads; hail, fire and blood pouring from the sky; a sea of blood; demonic mutant locusts; animals with fire, smoke and sulfur coming from their mouths; dead bodies in the street; and dragons. I’m sorry, what?!
I was confused (and slightly panicked), so I decided to do a little digging on the internet. Google returned such a plethora of misinformation that I may have died a little inside before finally realizing this task required actual research. It became apparent that I needed to spend some time bonding with seminary textbooks and Disciple text instead. I compiled the resulting information in the hopes that it might be helpful to others out there who struggle with Revelation. Here are some things I found:
- There are three styles of interpretation used by Christians when studying Revelation: Historical Interpretation (what it meant for Christians then), Idealist Interpretation (what it means universally for all Christians at all times) and Futurist Interpretation (a prediction of times to come). In the academic world, most theologians support a historical perspective with some idealist application. The vast majority of scholars object to people trying to align any specific events or images in the scripture of Revelation with modern events or as a tool to predict the future, because that practice does not honor the intent of the original writer.
- Revelation was written as a series of letters specifically for first century Christians to inspire hope during a time of intense persecution. The most prevalent theory is that Revelation was written around A.D. 95/96 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Peter and Paul were crucified at this time, and both Domitian and his predecessor Nero were employing terrorist tactics, torture and public execution of Christians. Revelation begins with a series of letters written to inspire Christians of that time to be faithful to the Gospel and stand strong against persecution. John aimed to give his audience hope that Rome would eventually fall and evil would be destroyed.
- The book is intentionally difficult to understand because much of it was code that only early Christians would be able to interpret. Obviously, the Roman leaders would object to seeing literature describing the downfall of the Roman Empire, so terms were substituted. Babylon represented Rome, and the woman in childbirth represented Israel. The dragon represented Satan. The number 666 was used to represent the emperor. Numerology was quite popular at the time, so even phrases such as the “144,000 saved” were not meant to be taken literally. Twelve thousand times twelve is a complete number that describes the perfected people of God.
- Revelation is also considered to be apocalyptic literature, which is a genre commonly filled with bizarre imagery and symbolism. This style of writing was popular at the time and typically described a battle between good and evil. Revelation was meant to communicate a general truth about God and the world through bizarre symbols and imagery. To interpret these literally does not take into account the style of writing. However, most scholars do believe that Revelation portrays the future in general terms, meaning that God will ultimately prevail over evil and restore a new kingdom.
- It confuses everyone. Seriously, no one has the perfect answer to what Revelation means. Don’t be discouraged if it still leaves you scratching your head. I was shocked to learn that this is the only New Testament book on which even John Calvin, well-known Protestant theologian, would not offer commentary, because even he was befuddled.
So what does this mean for modern Christians? For me, when I read Revelation, I see a story of inspiration. Early Christians endured such hardship and violent persecution, yet they supported one another and stood strong.
I also receive a message of hope. How beautiful that Revelation ends in the garden of innocence, just as Genesis began in the Garden. God will restore a new heaven and earth. Who knows—we might experience the “end of times,” but I no longer lay in bed worrying about the impending “Left Behind” version of the rapture. I know that God has the ultimate victory, and my faith lies in the one who was, and is and is to come.