There are sixty-six books in the Christian Bible, none of which has provoked more controversy, esoteric speculation, or misunderstanding than the very last one — Revelation. In the fourth century notable scholars like Chrysostom and Eusebius hesitated to include Revelation in the canon. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther described it as “neither apostolic nor prophetic. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament except Revelation. Today, among Eastern Orthodox believers Revelation is the only book that they don’t read in their public liturgy.
Not in the mainstream of the Christian faith, Revelation has, however, been the favorite book of the Bible of many marginal Christian groups. Sects like David Koresh’s Branch Dividians have used its violent imagery to support its own violent actions. The two churches most common for sending its members knocking on doors to ‘evangelize,’ Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, nearly always begin their proselytization with Revelation (at least in my experience of conversations on porches).
More troubling is the extent to which Revelation is fascinating larger numbers of contemporary “evangelical” Christians, especially in the United States, who have made the “Premillennial Dispensationalism” of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882; British preacher) a central part of their faith — as manifested, for example, in the popularity (over 50 million books sold) of a fictionalized version of dispensationalism, the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (For more on the Left Behind series from the perspective of mimetic theory, see the webpage “Re-Sacralizing Violence in the Left Behind Books.”) With much of mainline Christianity seemingly doing its best to ignore the Book of Revelation, there has not been a strong enough voice to challenge the increasing acceptance of the dispensationalist way of reading it.
Is it time for other Christians to wake up and add their voices to the mix? If that would happen, they would find that there is a more recent trend in the interpretation of this mystifying book that may be even the most surprising yet: seeing Revelation as a call to nonviolence — a 180 degree turn from the Left Behind version. The Book of Revelation, I believe, shows us a picture of the beastly powers of violence finally collapsing into their own hell-hole of violence, together with a plea to the faithful to maintain their faith. In the midst of relating his vision, John the Seer pauses to speak directly to those faithful:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Rev. 13:9-10)