Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quick Thought: Reading the Book of Revelation

We have to be careful when reading scripture, especially in trying to interpret and extract meaning from the scriptures for ourselves.

The scriptures are diverse and there are a variety of literary styles found in the Bible. One such style is "apocalyptic". You'll find this style of writing both in the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation and the above warning should be heeded especially when reading these particular books of the Bible. In Revelation 13, for example, we read about the "mark of the beast" (666) and to whom this number belonged to (or identified):

"This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666." - Revelation 13:18 (NIV)

I remember some years ago (when I was still in high school in fact), that someone calculated that the mark of the beast, 666, belong to Bill Gates, now-retired CEO of Microsoft. So the inference was then made:

Bill Gates = the anti-Christ

... And the sad part is that people actually started to believe it. But then it was suggested that "666" could also represent Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, Barack Obama, and Fundamentalists would even argue that "666" identifies the pope as the anti-Christ (erringly)! All of this because of the numerical value attached to a name when it is written out in full. I'm not going to go into that because to be quite frank I haven't got the energy for it and the fact that it's such a convoluted method identification that I feel my own time is best vested elsewhere.

There is also the symbol of the dragon at the beginning of Revelation 13 which some interpret as Communism and/or the People's Republic of China. The Chinese certainly do have an affinity with dragons as the creature is steeped quite heavily in their legends and folklore and apparently the red dragon is symbolic of Communism. But again: these are interpretations I do not want to give the time to explain but such interpretations highlight a danger in misreading apocalyptic texts.

I would err on the side of caution when reading apocalyptic literature like that of found in the Book of Revelation. The author of the book (the apostle, John) uses rich imagery, symbolism, and heavily descriptive writing to describe what his own eyes have seen. What John writes about would make more sense to the intended audience of the time, and we, may make an erroneous reading because we read such a text with contemporary eyes. We see things that are happening today or see specific people and draw parallels between those and what we read about in Revelation. I believe people may draw such parallels because they see what they want to see. Even a single book in the Bible needs to be read in light of the entirety of scripture (this is why we have a canon), much in the same way a single verse needs to be read in the light of the book that it came from. A text without a context is a pretext.

The key understanding we should be paying attention to in the Book of Revelation is this: Christ will come again, he will come at a time unbeknownst to us, and we need to be ready for his coming. Read 2 Peter 3 if you want to get a better idea of what I mean by that... advice, that is.

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If you want to learn more about unlocking the secrets of the Book of Revelation, then I strongly suggest listening to an April 18 edition of Catholic Answers Live featuring Professor Michael Barber, professor of Theology, Scripture and Catholic Thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University. You can download that particular show on mp3 via this link.

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