This article introduces a new series on the Book of Revelation. Among the early Christians, the book was highly acclaimed by Bishop Melito of Sardis, St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and St. Irenaeus. The use of Revelation by the second century heretic Montanus led others to question this early enthusiasm for the book. Some early interpreters developed an overly literal interpretation of the ‘millennium’ or thousand year reign of Christ on earth found in Revelation 20. The church corrected these views and enthusiasm for Revelation again dwindled. St. Augustine, in his City of God, Book XX, rejects these views stating that we are presently in the final thousand years, which is a figure of speech and that the millennium stands for all the years of the present age (XX.7). In the same era St. Jerome emphatically rejects what he calls “a certain fable of a thousand years” (Letter 120.2). He writes, “Away, then, with the fable about a millennium!” (Commentary on Daniel 8). As the Catechism reminds us, “The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism” (CCC 676).
With a fragmented view of the canon of Scripture, early Protestant writers were even more put off by Revelation. Martin Luther treated Revelation as theologically inadequate, Ulrich Zwingli refused to base any doctrine on it, and John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament except Revelation. In more modern times, commentators have recovered from this prejudice, but they have produced a bewildering variety of opinions about the meaning of this book. G. K Chesterton quipped that although “St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators” (Orthodoxy, p. 10).
The popularity of futurist millenarian views among Protestants increased greatly in the early 20th century under the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), and more recently by such Protestant authors as Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye, Left Behind. This book was just released as a movie, Left Behind: The End Begins, staring Nicholas Cage (October 2014).
Richard Landes has suggested that there are obvious patterns to these apocalyptic movements. He humorously characterizes this as a conflict between roosters and owls.
Roosters crow about the imminent dawn. Apocalyptic prophets, messianic pretenders, chronologists calculating an imminent doomsday—they all want to rouse the courtyard, stir the other animals into action, shatter the quiet complacency of a sleeping community. Owls are night-animals; they dislike both noise and light; they want to hush the roosters, insisting that it is still night, that the dawn is far away, that the roosters are not only incorrect, but dangerous—the foxes are still about and the master asleep.
The Catholic world has not been immune to similar movements by alleged visionaries and mystics, but Hal Lindsey is perhaps the ultimate example of a ‘rooster.’ He treats Revelation like a code book for the end times, and as a countdown to an immanent Armageddon. His highly specific predictions about newsworthy world events have proven false and required him to keep revising his forecasts. Over time the ‘owls’ prevail.
How then should we properly understand the Book of Revelation? The Catechism reminds us that all of Sacred Scripture must be interpreted both with a focus on the meaning of the human author’s intention which implies taking “into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (CCC 110) and with attention to the role of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). In light of this the Fathers of Second Vatican Council offered three criteria for interpreting Scripture. First one needs to be “especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture” (CCC 112). Secondly Scripture must be read within “the living Tradition of the whole Church” (CCC 113). Finally one must be “attentive to the analogy of faith” or the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of God’s of entire revelation (CCC 114). The Church also recognizes the spiritual senses of Scripture which allegorically identifies the significance of Christ in the words and events of Scripture (Galatians 4:24), understands the deeper moral sense of Scripture and its role in leading us to Heaven (CCC 117).
There are four typical approaches to the Revelation. The first view, the Idealist, sees Revelation as describing timeless spiritual truths about God and the afterlife and allegorically about the relationship between the Church and the world. A rival type of interpretation which has been popular in modern Evangelical Protestant circles is the Futurist interpretation which sees Revelation as a kind of code book for the future which must be cracked by the interpreter to reveal predictions of the imminent last times and the advent of the millennial age. A third view called the Church historical view sees Revelation as a description of the Church in events throughout history. The final view, which is most popular among modern commentators is the Contemporary Historical or ‘Preterist’ view which sees Revelation as describing events primarily in the first century AD. Some recent commentators have preferred to blend these approaches.
Although Revelation may seem like a bewildering narrative of visions and dramatic images, following the brief prologue (1:1-3), the book is organized around successive images of Jesus Christ: the revealer in Rev. 1-3, the Lamb in Rev. 4-11, the messianic warrior King in Rev. 12-22. These divisions correspond to the trifold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King in which whole People of God participates through their baptism (CCC 783).
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.