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 ... .
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. 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
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
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.
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. ...
book of revelation ·
primary sources ·
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation