Revelation, We’ve Got a Problem

Facebook knows. It knows I’m thinking these days about the Book of Revelation so it sends me video clips of preachers talking about Israel and the imminent return of Jesus; it sends me ads about conferences that will reveal to its audiences some very recent signs of the rapture.


Let’s step back to ponder how the Book of Revelation is read by so many interpreters today, and one major issue is the kind of discipleship it forms in its interpreters and churches and audiences.

Philip Gorski, in his exceptional book called American Covenant, says the speculative, dispensational approach needs criticism not only for how it reads Revelation but also for what it does to the readers. First, it reads the Bible:

(1)  predictively, as an encoded message about future events that can be decoded by modern-day prophets;

(2)  literally, such that the mythical creatures of the text are understood as material realities;

(3)  ‘premillennially,’ with the Second Coming of Christ understood to precede the earthly ‘millennium’ of God’s thousand-year reign on earth; and

(4)  vindictively, with the punishment of the godless occurring in the most gruesome and violent forms imaginable.

He presses on his readers another vital point: this is not how the church throughout its history has read the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. What was apocalyptic and metaphorical and fictional became rigidly literal for too many readers.

Gorski really helps us all when he zooms in on what these kinds of readings do to people. “First, it leads to hubris. It seduces its followers into claiming to know things that no human being can possibly know.” Such persons consider themselves elect and special and insiders, and such confidence tends toward condescension. Gorski’s second point stuns. This way of reading the Bible “leads to demonization of others. Our [the USA’s!] enemies become physical embodiments of evil. Third, it leads to fatalism, suggesting that wars and other calamities are beyond human control. Finally, and most fatefully, it suggests that the ultimate solution to all problems is a violent one involving the annihilation of one’s enemies.”

Michael Gorman, who wrote one of the most important textbooks about Revelation, concludes that the discipleship of this approach is about

believing in order to escape the Tribulation,

evangelizing to help others escape,

connecting current events to prophecies,

and being ready to die for faith in Jesus.

Christopher Rowland, another world class expert on all things Revelation, said something similar: “All that matters” for this view of Revelation “is to be found as part of the elect, who will enjoy the escape of the rapture.”

That is, the reading leads to either withdrawal from society or resignation to the evil arc of history. If you think this is exaggeration Google this stuff, find the YouTubes, go to some church where a pastor is preaching these themes, and you will find each of these points flourishing with abundance. (Most of the time.)

Here’s where we are then, and it pains me to say this, but I have students with these pains on their faces when Revelation is even mentioned. People have experienced two generations of fear-inducing messages about Revelation and now have no interest in the book. Nelson Kraybill puts it succinctly: “Many Christians in the West have shut out the book of Revelation after seeing it exploited by cult leaders, pop eschatologists, and end-time fiction writers.” A big hearty Amen! is what I hear from my students.

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No matter how misguided these readings of Revelation are, the Left Behind series has what Amy Johnson Frykholm calls a “tenacious grasp on the Protestant imagination” of millions. Hidden deep in the Left Behind plot is a conservative perception of American politics in an international context.

Have you read any of the Left Behind books from a different location: like South Korea, South Africa, or South America? The language comes off as so profoundly American to them. Again, Gorski’s project reveals that this approach to Revelation partakes far too often in nothing less than American Christian nationalism! “We” (America with Israel) win and “they” (usually Russia or the European Union) lose. This kind of reading of Revelation breeds confidence in America and not dissidence about Babylon (more on this later).

From Revelation for the Rest of Us, due in about a month.



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    February 2023

    Dear Friends –

    I am often asked how can we restore biblical theology and Spirit-given life to a badly divided church and culture. While there are several valid ways to answer this question the one I come back to is this: We need to understand the gospel of the kingdom and put the experience of this kingdom into our shared practice. Simply put, we need to embrace The Lord’s Prayer and pray it with deeper understanding and a growing faith. When we pray “your kingdom come” we are actually doing this.

    The biblical story challenges both the pagan and neo-pagan world. From creation to recreation, from the call of Abraham to the New Jerusalem, the central message of the canon is the kingdom. The kingdom comes down from heaven to earth at the end of this age. But the kingdom that will come at the end is the same that is coming now. Paganism saw the glory of creation and worshipped the creation instead of the creator. Pantheism, whether in the form of ancient Stoicism or the various New Age beliefs in our time, mirrors dualism. Dualism believes that creation is the work of a lesser god or (in fact) the work of an anti-god. Both pantheism and dualism feed off one another. The pantheist tries to deny the glory and power of the creator and the dualist seeks to deny the horrible things that happen in our world. Both cry out for a better response. The kingdom is that biblical response. 

    When you read the Bible carefully, seeing the grand story itself, you soon realize that our world is “charged with the grandeur of God” yet it is a world still “groaning as it awaits its recuse from corruption and decay.” But Christ’s death defeated the powers of evil now and the Spirit is bringing God’s healing touch to our world. When we stand in awe of Christ’s victory over Satan on the cross we begin to experience the kingdom and enter into God’s love for the world. When we grasp God’s kingdom purpose for our present world we enter into his eternal purpose for all of creation. 

    The very best book that articulates what I am saying, at least for non-specialists, is Heaven on Earth, written by my friend R. Alan Streett.

    There are a myriad of substitutes we have embraced for the nowness of the kingdom. One of the most dangerous substitutes can be seen in the widely popular Left Behind films and books. I meet this routinely when Christians tell me that what is transpiring in America is a part of the biblical “end times” scenario. (We have heard a growing number of prophetic messages, especially since 2016, all of which have clearly been wrong.)  This dangerous teaching becomes an escape from real kingdom life for churches and individuals. 

    What is missed here, beside the fact that “no person knows the day or the hour” of the Lord’s return, is the actual arrival of the kingdom that came in the gospel of Jesus. While postmodernity feels the need to deconstruct love, Christians are in danger of moving love to the sidelines in order to embrace aberrant views of the kingdom. 

    One thing seems clear to me: This popular teaching will never make us godly or fill us with true hope. I do not pray the Lord’s Prayer, at least in real faith, so long as I am influenced by this teaching. Having lived for seven-plus decades, I now see clearly how this has destroyed the true hope that builds Christians up in the love of Christ. Thankfully, we do not see the next generation(s) embracing this bankrupt teaching. I pray younger believers will embrace the biblical story expressed in the last two verses of the canon:

    The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

    Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

    The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. 

    (Revelation 22:20-21)

    Pax Christi,



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