The Book of Revelation is the estranged crazy uncle of the Christian Bible.
The one who is never invited to family get-togethers, but still somehow shows up. When he does show up, you silently pray not to have to sit next to him at the dinner table, because he smells like sulfur and never has anything positive to say, mostly muttering about the end of the world and punishment due to many. He’s a creepy outcast, but he always seems to have groupies of one sort or another, usually people who are even creepier than he is.
The Book of Revelation is rarely preached in church worship. Most people’s exposure to it, even observant Christians, is based on popular culture rather than the text itself. Even really smart, well-educated folks associate it with the Rapture, even though it’s never mentioned in that text. (The only Biblical reference to some rapture-like event wherein an elect few are raised up to heaven in their birthday suits takes place in the 1 Thessalonians.)
If the god of the Hebrew Bible is wrathful, then the god of Revelation is wrathful on steroids. Times three. This is no kindly Jesus who teaches, heals, and every now & then puts corrupt religious leaders in their place. This is Jesus, the slain Lamb wielding a sword as his tongue and directs the total destruction of the earth.
It’s not destruction of the earth not by flood, wherein the receding waters allows for re-population of creation and hope. Oh, no. This is Armageddon destruction where a whole new world, or at least a New Jerusalem, must descend from the heavens because everything else has been decimated. Times three? Maybe times seven.
I have just finished a semester’s course on this text with its 11,983 words. Despite myself, I have developed an appreciation that I did not have before. Its images, though horribly violent, are well-crafted and thought-out. There is a complex internal logic that I admire. There is the mark of the author’s literary talent, even if the theology is impossible to stomach. I have also developed a scholarly affection for some of the more radical theologians who write about it (Tina Pippin, Stephen Moore, Barbara Rossing).
Historically speaking, the text barely made it into the New Testament in the first place, making the cut despite centuries-long opposition. Talk about irony: the man who wrote it created the Christian foundation for heresy by naming internal enemies in the newly emerging church and was himself considered a heretic by those against inclusion of the Revelation of John. In the end, it made it because it had a powerful backer, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who, towards the end of the 4th century C.E., found it to be a useful tool to strengthen the false binary of orthodoxy and heresy. He, and others, wielded the Book of Revelation as a weapon against ideological enemies to turn alternate views of Christianity into heretical ones.
So not only is it ironic that the author that helped established the category of Christian heresy was considered by many to be a heretic, it is ironic that this text that kinda barely made it into the Christian scriptural canon is one of the most widely recognized (even if it’s a distortion) parts of the Bible in pop culture. Four horsemen of the Apocalypse? Yep, that’s the Book of Revelation. Iron Maiden’s number one hit song, Number of the Beast? Yep. Television show Sons of Anarchy, season six, episode nine? Yep. American Dad’s episode entitled, “Rapture’s Delight” which is Book of Revelation, but gets the rapture part wrong (likely nearly everybody). The Battle of Armageddon: yep, it’s there, too. The whole concept of the Anti-Christ? Like the rapture, it’s falsely attributed to the Book of Revelation, but folks sure seem recognize that term.
Too easily has this text attracted the attention of psychotic, anti-social people with violent tendencies (think David Koresh in Waco, TX). It’s not because they are misinterpreting the text. It seems to have been written by just such a person. The traces of his suffering and pathology have survived these nearly two millennia, giving life to violent apocalyptic visions throughout the centuries and into modern times.
As my fellow students in class are too aware, I have struggled all semester to find the relevance of this particular part of Christian scripture to my Unitarian Universalist ministry. When I mention to my UU colleagues that I am taking a semester-long course in this single text, their jaws drop (and not in envy).
Yet, part of my ministry is to heal brokenness, and in particular, to heal brokenness caused by religion. Revelation has got that going for it: it has caused a messload of damage. Some people use it as justification against environmental activism and against care for the earth, because they see the destruction of the earth as a precursor of the arrival of the New Heaven.
So let’s sit down to dinner and invite our uncle to join us. We know he’s not the best company, but he’s living on the edge and that generally means there is something interesting about to happen. Part two of this series (next post) will address what, if anything, the crazy uncle has to say makes sense, especially about saving our beloved planet?
 This is actually the number of words in the KJV and I have been reading the NSRV, but the number is probably in the same ballpark.