The ‘Book of Revelation’: Apocalyptic Visions of Evil

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: WHY EVIL EXISTS

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Early Christians saw themselves as bit players in a cosmic struggle between God and maybe Christ on the one hand, and the principalities and powers commanded by Satan on the other. Many people in the 1st century were, in fact, expecting the end of the world or a coming messiah. This apocalyptic vision is most obvious in the Book of Revelation, though there is a tendency to ignore it in modern times.

A painting showing angels fighting the demons.
The apocalyptic visions in the Book of Revelation are often ignored by Christians. (Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder/ Public domain)

Ignoring the Book of Revelation

The Christian account of the struggle with evil is in some ways complicated and in some ways rendered distanced and unique because of the way it reads that struggle. But in Revelation, the theme of Apocalypse is quite pronounced.

Revelation, of course, is probably the most famous of the apocalyptic texts of early Christianity, though interpretive attention to it in our world seems to have been by and large abandoned by many churches today.

The embarrassment of Christians to talk about this text, for fear of being associated with more apocalyptic tendencies in their culture, makes them especially susceptible to ignoring a crucial dimension of Christian message here. Too much of the time, Christians are ignoring this crucial dimension of their religious heritage, and it misshapes the story they tell and the story they understand about their faith in two important ways.

Learn more about evil in the Hebrew Bible.

Ignoring the Revelation, Misshaping the Story

The first way it misshapes the story is that it ignores the fact that in popular Christian culture today, the Book of Revelation is still incredibly powerful. The second is that, by ignoring the Book of Revelation, Christians are trying to avoid a certain complicated historic prophetic interpretation of history. This history relates them in complex ways to Judaism and also to a richer understanding of the texts of the Old Testament.

One of the big problems is that Christians in the West have preselected a body of scriptures that, for them, tell a certain story of Christianity. But it renders it hard for them to see that story as in as rich continuity with the Jewish faith as it should be.

Looking Closely at Revelation

A page from the 'Book of Revelation'.
The Book of Revelation speaks of the visions at the end of the world. (Image: Real Biblioteca de San Lorenzo/Public domain)

The Book of Revelation is an apocalyptic text. An apocalyptic text is a text that talks about the last things and speaks of the end of the world, and seeks to offer its readers a skeleton key to decipher the signs of the times.

Certainly, a lot of Revelation is about that; but this raises a deep question about the point of the book: Is the Book of Revelation really just a kind of skeleton key to the end of the world? Is it really just to help people look out for the end of the cosmos? Is it a kind of eschatological meteorology guide to determine the theological weather? Or was it also—and maybe more basically—about teaching them how to live in this world in the end times? That’s what it was probably doing.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Battle with the Dragon

Here’s one of the greatest challenges to the continued use of the Book of Revelation by churches today; and perhaps this might be a major reason why many Christians today find this part of their Scriptural heritage so hard to understand, because they can’t see this text as anything more than a collection of kind of predictions of the end of the world.

But it’s actually more than that: It’s about the present world, whatever its prophesies about the world to come.

To see this, note how the theme of combat pervades this text, especially crystallized around the metaphor of the combat between the dragon, an embodied force of evil, and a good God. Examples of this combat are not hard to come by.

Consider that at certain points the imperial beast of Satan is represented, and there is a war between Satan and the angels as well. But the most dramatic example of this motif in Revelation is probably the war between the archangel Michael and the angels on one side, and the dragon, or Satan, and his angels on the other.

Learn more about evil as a cosmic battle.

The Dragon as Earthly Power

The beast and the dragon from the Book of Revelation
The dragon is a persistent metaphor in the Book of Revelation. (Image: Kimon Berlin/CC BY-SA/ 3.0/Public domain)

Clearly, the ‘dragon’ here turns out to have a long history, both in the later thinking about evil and also as an interesting metaphor.

From the earliest reception of the Book of Revelation, the other meaning of the dragon has been very clear: people understood it to be the Roman Empire. Human organizations that are in some sense separate from God in both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures take on a kind of patina of illegitimacy and theological disrespect fairly early on.

Christianity was significantly marked by being formed in a period where it was radically outside of the structures of worldly power, and, in important ways, those structures were arrayed against it.

Both in Palestine and the larger Mediterranean world, Christians did not have friends in high places. This has shaped the way Christians have thought about evil and the worldly power in profound and potentially very long-lasting ways.

Common Questions about The Book of Revelation

Q. What is the Book of Revelation about?

In the Book of Revelation, the vision of the world is apocalyptic. This means that the text that talks about the last things and speaks of the end of the world, and seeks to offer its readers a skeleton key to decipher the signs of the times.

Q. Why is the Book of Revelation relevant for a proper understanding of Christianity?

The Book of Revelation is relevant for a proper understanding of Christianity because it relates them in complex ways to Judaism and also to a richer understanding of the texts of the Old Testament.

Q. In the Book of Revelation, what does the dragon represent?

In the Book of Revelation, the dragon represents both the celestial threat from mythological demons as well as the Roman Empire, or any other oppressive power.

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