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James Tabor

Tabor is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

(more about Tabor)

The Book of Revelation belongs to a genre that we call apocalyptic works and writings. ... This is a certain view of the world that begins to arise about a hundred, hundred and fifty years before the time of Jesus. We find it in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find it in other Jewish writings that have survived. The Book of Revelation becomes for Christians the most prominent example of that kind of view of history, but certainly not unique. [There are] at least a dozen or so other books that are very similar to this book.

The common elements that all of these apocalyptic books seem to have are the stark contrast of forces of evil and forces of good lining themselves up against one another in a final cosmic conflict that spreads throughout the whole earth, followed by the overthrow by God. So there's always this element that things will get very, very bad, very quickly, almost like a climax of evil, and then good will suddenly intervene and triumph, and bring about the kingdom of God. ...

Does anyone read the Book of Revelation literally today?

... Certainly in the United States, you can talk about the Bible prophecy movement, witnessed by the astronomical sales of books like the Late Great Planet Earth, that I think sold twenty million copies in the 1970s. Best seller on the trade market. Some current books that are out, Tim Lahaye's book Left Behind and so forth, that have sold in the millions. So I think we can say that there are millions of Christians sitting in pews who wonder, could it be that the bible should be taken literally in this regard? I don't think it is just a isolated fanatical fringe group in a mountain somewhere, on a compound waiting for the end ... .


PAUL BOYER

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

I think it's really a misreading of things to view prophecy belief as simply a matter of fringe groups, isolated cranks. Bible prophecy belief is very pervasive in contemporary American culture. ... A significant proportion of American Christians, and Americans in general, I think, believe that the world could end in their own time. One poll figure that I've seen suggests that about forty percent of Americans when asked say "Yes, the world will end at the battle of Armageddon between Jesus Christ and Antichrist." This is not to say that that great number of Americans are walking around day in and day out obsessed with Bible prophecy.
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I think there's a core group of believers who are deeply immersed in prophetic questions, and a larger group of people who are interested in prophecy. They believe there is something to prophecy, they may not be sure just what it is. But putting all of these groups together, a tremendous number of Americans I think, are certainly interested in apocalyptic things.

Is this phenomena confined to America?

No, it's certainly not confined to America. One finds it in parts of Europe, and certainly it's very pervasive in parts of the world where American fundamentalist missionaries have spread the word, through parts of Latin America, through parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Could you describe how people interpret the book of Apocalypse as pre-written history and what does that mean.

The most widespread prophetic belief system in America today doesn't draw upon just the Book of Revelation. It draws upon a number of biblical texts scattered throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, and putting specific passages together the end time belief involves a series of events that will occur very soon. We don't know when. But the first of these will be the Rapture, when all true believers will be taken to meet Christ in the sky. Then will follow a seven year period, the great Tribulation, a period when a demonic figure, the Antichrist, will arise and will rule the world. He will introduce horrendous persecution and suffering. At the end of that period comes the battle of Armageddon. Jesus Christ returns at Meggido in Israel, with his saints, the armies of Antichrist have gathered at Meggido, a two hundred million man army is marching in from the East, crossing the Euphrates, and at this apocalyptic moment in human history, the forces of evil will be destroyed by Christ and his armies and at that point the Millennium, the thousand year reign of justice, peace, harmony, will be established on earth with Jesus Christ ruling Jerusalem in a rebuilt Temple.

How has the apocalyptic world view influenced western thought?

I think the apocalyptic world view actually has profoundly shaped western thought in ways that are very difficult to identify, but are clearly very important. A kind of secular apocalyptic world view, I think, is woven through a number of reform movements. Marxism, for example is often thought of as an apocalyptic scenario of human events, a series of great unfolding clashes of powerful forces culminating in a kind of utopia. I think the apocalyptic world view, the sense of history being a story of conflict between great and powerful forces that gives meaning to history, is one that goes very deep in western thought. ...

A kind of secular apocalyptic sensibility pervades much contemporary writing about our current world. Many books about environmental dangers, whether it be the ozone layer, or global warming, or pollution of the air or water, or a population explosion, are cast in an apocalyptic mold. That is, a crisis is looming. We're on the verge of some horrendous catastrophe and we must do something. That's the secular apocalypse, apart from the religious apocalypse, because the religious apocalyptic writers say disaster is looming but there's not much we can do except see to our own personal salvation. These other writers propose strategies for avoiding the crisis that lies ahead. But they have in common, I think, an apocalyptic sensibility.


JOHN COLLINS

Collins is a Professor of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

(more about Collins)

A number of apocalypses arise out of specifically political circumstances. Many people would say that apocalyptic literature is crisis literature. And it is true that at least many apocalypses are. I don't think all of them necessarily are. But the big ones, like Daniel, is written in the heat of the [Maccabean] crisis, and the persecution there. The Book of Revelation, in the New Testament, is after the destruction of Jerusalem. ... In both cases there are political forces at work. These are not the only kinds of crisis, though, that generate apocalypses. ... What you have to have to generate an apocalypse, is a sense that this world is out of joint, and that we had better look to a different world if we want to be saved. ...

I suppose the most widespread, fundamental influence that apocalyptic literature had on western culture as a whole is the idea that history is moving towards an end. Now, you find this in many forms, many of them secularized. Marxism has often been said to be influenced by it. Not necessarily influenced by the specific Book of Revelation, but by this mentality. If you live in the western world, you think this is just the way things are, that it's obvious. But in fact it wasn't always obvious and it isn't always obvious in other cultures. Other cultures have gotten along just fine with cyclical views of history. Norman Cohen in his book Chaos and Cosmos, raises the question. Where does this linear view of history come from? And he argues in that book that it really comes from the Persians, that they were the ones who developed it first. He may be right, but I would say regardless of who developed it first, the way it came to be influential was primarily through the Bible, and within the Bible through the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation. That these were the books that had widespread influence in the western world and that they instilled that kind of teleological view of history into western consciousness in a way that leads us to think simply that that's the way things are. ...

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