The book of Revelation, quipped Ambrose Bierce, is “a famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.” And G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”
Indeed, the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, is fascinating and mysterious. Like an enchanting woman, the book attracts admirers of every sort. Many attempt outlandish feats of interpretation in order to gain attention. They usually do more damage than good, their fevered explanations reflecting their biases and presumptions rather than any true insight.
Many popular commentators who obsess over the book of Revelation use it to support both implicit and overt anti-Catholic opinions. Fundamentalists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have long associated the famed Whore of Babylon, “the mother of harlots” (Rev. 17:5), with the Catholic Church. Some also link the church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-25) with the Catholic Church since her members supposedly “practice immorality” and “eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20).
Even some Catholics use passages from John’s book to create end-times scenarios that are difficult to reconcile with Church teaching. Here are five of the most common fallacious statements propagated in the name of John the Revelator.
“The book of Revelation says the world will end in our lifetime!”
Most Fundamentalists, some Evangelicals, and even a few Catholics believe that Revelation depicts many soon-to-transpire events, including a global nuclear holocaust and the death of most of the earth’s population. For such folks the Apocalypse is a cosmic puzzle requiring only the right key to unlock its dark mysteries.
Fundamentalist Hal Lindsey, famed for the mega-selling The Late Great Planet Earth, wrote in 1973 that the book of Revelation holds “the key to the mystery” of the end of the world, a mystery that has “for eighteen centuries . . . remained largely unexplored” (There’s A New World Coming, p. 21, p. 15].
Yet the book has provided fodder for doomsayers ever since it was penned on the island of Patmos. One such group was the Montanists, a heretical sect formed by the self-proclaimed prophet Montanus in the 170s. Their reading of the book had them expecting Christ to return to Phrygia in Asia Minor and establish the New Jerusalem (see Rev. 21:2).
In fifteenth-century Bohemia a sect called the Taborites began killing those they judged to be sinners-that is, nearly anyone not joined to their movement. They were convinced that such violence was necessary to bring about the Second Coming. Eventually, in 1434, they were destroyed in battle by the Hussites. Similar events and movements were common in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Beginning in the late 1960s a flood of so-called “Bible prophecy” books streamed forth from American Fundamentalism. Today, the best-selling Christian novels of all time are the Left Behind books, created and coauthored by the anti-Catholic Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye. LaHaye acknowledges that the books are interpretations of the book of Revelation wrapped in a fictional veneer: “The book of Revelation is easily the most fascinating book in the Bible, for it gives a detailed description of the future” (Revelation Unveiled, p. 9).
Attempts to interpret John’s vision in light of current events have resulted in some amusing predictions. The infamous mark of the beast (Rev. 13:18) has been associated with credit-card numbers and amusement park tickets. Ronald Reagan, Saddam Hussein, and Mikhail Gorbachev have been identified as the Antichrist (a term that does not appear in the Apocalypse). Some claim that the New Jerusalem will be a literal thousand-mile-square cube hovering like a UFO over Earth.
These interpretations are futuristic-in other words, they assume that the book of Revelation depicts events that will occur in our lifetimes. Almost without exception this approach ignores the historical context of John’s writing. For example, the book contains hundreds of references to Old Testament events and realities, including the Mosaic covenant, Temple worship, liturgical rites, and the prophetic writings of Ezekiel and Daniel. This is not to deny that the book of Revelation includes material about the end of time. It just does not do so as depicted in books like The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. Scripture, not The New York Times or CNN, is the best guide to the Apocalypse.
“Christ will reign on earth during the Millennium!”
The twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation is a vital passage for those who interpret the book futuristically. It contains the only description of the millennium (Latin for thousand years) in the New Testament. Is this a reference to a literal one-thousand-year period? If so, will that time consist of a future earthly reign of Christ? Or does the passage refer in metaphorical language to another period of time, such as the current Church age?
Debate over the matter existed even in the early Church. When Church Father Justin Martyr was asked in the second century if he believed that there would be an earthly millennial reign of Christ in the future, he stated, “I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place.” At the same time he admitted “that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise” (Dialogue with Trypho, 70).
The greatest opponent of early Christian millenarianism was Augustine of Hippo (354-450). In The City of God, he rejected millenarianism and offered a view of history largely free of end-times speculation. Throughout time and history, Augustine taught, the City of God and the City of Man were constantly in tension with one another. At the end of time, at the Last Judgment, the citizens of these two cities will finally be separated-the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:32-46). Augustine saw God orchestrating time and history like an “unchanging conductor,” ordering events according to his will. Although the Catholic Church never officially endorsed Augustine’s interpretation, most Catholics accepted it as a reasonable conclusion.
But some weren’t satisfied. Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202), a Cistercian abbot, departed from Augustine’s teaching in his Exposition on the Apocalypse, an influential interpretation of the book of Revelation. Joachim divided history into three eras, each corresponding to one of the Divine Persons of the Trinity. The age of the Father was the Old Testament, the age of the Son was the New Testament, and the approaching age of the Holy Spirit was to be a time of millennial bliss. Joachim calculated that the transition from the second age to the third would occur between 1200 and 1260. He arrived at these dates by interpreting the book of Revelation hyperliterally, foreshadowing the interpretative methods of British and American millenarians in the 1800s.
“Christ will reign from Independence, Missouri—no, from Jerusalem—no, from a heavenly Holy City . . .!”
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution sparked the millenarian fever still rampant today. “The French Revolution was directly responsible for the revival of prophetic concern,” according to historian Ernest R. Sandeen. “To live through the decade of the 1790s in itself constituted an experience in apocalypticism for many of the British. The violent uprooting of European political and social institutions forced many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near” (The Roots of Fundamentalism British and American Millenarianism: 1800-1930, p. 21).
During that time some Protestants calculated that the papacy would last 1,260 years and that it was finally coming to an end in the late 1700s. This calculation was based on passages such as Revelation 11:1-3 and 12:6 (“one thousand two hundred and sixty days”), with each day being interpreted as a year. Connections between these passages from the book of Revelation and the apparent demise of the papacy were accepted as keys to prophetic passages of Scripture.
When Catholic power in France was destroyed during the Revolution and French troops marched on Rome in 1798, many millenarians interpreted this to be the “deadly wound” of Revelation 13:3. A simple (and convenient) computation was used to argue that the papacy had first emerged in 538 (a date still used by anti-Catholic sects such as Seventh-Day Adventists).
Millenarian beliefs have long been a part of American religious life. The explosion of prophetic interest in the late 1700s had a strong bearing on the founding of Mormonism, Dispensationalism, Seventh-Day Adventism, and the Watchtower Society, all of which teach forms of millenarianism.
Mormons believe the Kingdom will be established in Independence, Missouri. Premillennial Dispensationalists such as Lindsey and LaHaye teach that Jesus will rule from the newly restored Temple in Jerusalem where animal sacrifices will once again be offered. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that during the millennium only the 144,000 (see Rev. 7:4, 14:1-3) will reside in heaven, while those remaining will dwell on a paradisiacal Earth. Seventh-Day Adventism claims that the earth will be barren during the millennium except for Satan and his angels; then, at the end of the millennium, Christ, the saints, and the Holy City will descend to earth. The unrighteous dead will be resurrected and will surround the city with Satan and his angels. Fire from God will destroy them and cleanse the earth and eternal bliss will be established.
The belief in a millennial reign of Christ on earth is difficult to square with Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, referencing a 1944 statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, states, “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of a secular messianism” (676).
“The Whore of Babylon is the Catholic Church!”
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformation leaders accepted the Augustinian view of the end times, but with one distinct difference: They identified the papacy as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon. The Turks, seen as the Antichrist by earlier generations, they identified as Gog and Magog, mentioned in Revelation 20:8.
Luther and subsequent Protestants interpreted the book of Revelation using the historicist method, which involves the attempt to match various elements in the book with events in Church history. The historicist view dates back to about the year 1000 (the most important of the early historicists was Joachim of Fiore). Most Protestant leaders accepted this approach in the two centuries following the Reformation. The constant feature of Protestant historicism is the belief that the papacy is the Antichrist. Current adherents to this interpretive method include Seventh-Day Adventists, whose theological system depends in large part on equating the Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon.
A recent Fundamentalist polemic identifying the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon is Dave Hunt’s book A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days (1994). The title is based on Revelation 17:7, which speaks of “the mystery of the woman and of the beast.” Hunt writes: “[The] revival of Rome’s religion will undoubtedly be a blend of Christianity and paganism, as occurred under Constantine and continued thereafter. That perverted and paganized form of Christianity eventually became known as Roman Catholicism” (p. 39). Notable for its scholarly sloppiness, misuse of historical information, and nasty tone, Hunt’s book epitomizes a strain of anti-Catholicism that is still strong today, fueled by passages from the book of Revelation.
Fundamentalists such as Hunt claim that since Rome is built on seven hills the Catholic Church is therefore the woman-who is a city-who sits on “seven mountains” (Rev. 17:9)-in other words, Vatican City. Yet Vatican City doesn’t sit on any of the famed seven hills of Rome, as James Akin has pointed out: “Vatican City is not built on seven hills, but only one: Vatican Hill, which is not one of the seven upon which ancient Rome was built. Those hills are on the east side of the Tiber river; Vatican Hill is on the west” (“Hunt-ing the Whore of Babylon,” This Rock, September-October 1994).
Besides, ancient Rome-pagan, anti-Christian, and idolatrous-fits the first-century context in which John wrote the Apocalypse. Forcing one’s hatred of the Catholic Church onto passages of Scripture says far more about the commentator than about the actual text.
“I am going to be Raptured out before the Great Tribulation!”
The most influential American millenarian movement of the last century is premillennial Dispensationalism. Its core tenet is the pretribulation Rapture event. The ongoing impact of Dispensationalism can hardly be overstated, as evidenced by the wildly popular Left Behind books.
One “escape passage” used by pretribulation Rapture advocates is Revelation 3:10 where Jesus instructs John to write these words to the church at Philadelphia: “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth.” Being kept from the “hour of trial” is interpreted as a reference to the Rapture, when Christians will be translated from earth to be with Christ in heaven.
Yet Revelation 3 never mentions the Rapture or being “taken up” or “translated” to heaven. Rather, Christ’s assurance to the Church is like his request of the Father, “I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15), and his statement “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Christians have been chosen “out of the world” (John 15:19), but it does not follow that they will be taken out of the world prior to a time of tribulation. The face value interpretation of the text is that Jesus would protect the church of Philadelphia in a special way from the persecutions and turmoil that were about to come on the Church in the first century.
Another Dispensationalist argument for the Rapture is that since the word church does not appear between Revelation 6 and 18, the Church must not go through the tribulations described in those chapters. But this “argument from absence” as it were, applied to other words, leads to odd and untenable conclusions.
For instance, the word Jesus does not occur between Revelation 1:9 and 12:17. Does this mean that Jesus is not the subject of Revelation, since his name does not appear for nearly twelve chapters or over half of the book? Because the name Jesus is not used, are references to “the Lion of Judah,” “the root of David,” and “the Lamb” references to someone other than Jesus? Hardly.
A closely related problem is that the words church and churches do not appear even after Dispensationalists want the Church back on the scene in chapter 19. These words do not appear after Revelation 3 until the very end of the book (Rev. 22:16). A consistent Dispensationalist who uses this interpretive method would have to conclude that the Church not only does not appear in Revelation 6-18, it disappears altogether.
The Dispensationalist position is hurt also by an argument from the other side of the coin. How do they understand the many references to “the saints” in Revelation 6-18 (8:3-4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20, 24), not to mention the “great multitude” (7:9), and the “souls of those who had been slain” (6:9)?
It is far more sensible to recognize that “the saints” is a clear reference to the Church and that there is no pretribulational Rapture in the book of Revelation.
Not a Cipher or a Riddle, but the Revelation of Christ
The book of Revelation is undoubtedly difficult and full of mysteries. But it is a profoundly Catholic work that reveals Christ for who he is-the Lord of the Cosmos-and is full of rich liturgical and heavenly images. As the Dominican Celestin Charlier remarked, “It is a pity that the Apocalypse has so often been regarded as a secret code containing details of the whole of Church history. . . . It is much more than a cipher-it is a prolongation throughout time of that rhythm of God’s plan which was conceived in eternity” (The Christian Approach to the Bible, p. 201).
Eternity drew near in the Incarnation and so, as John wrote, “the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). For Christ, who is timeless, is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).