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The Christian Scriptures

Interpreting Revelation

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What does Revelation mean?

bullet Conservative Protestants typically believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and follow the futuristic approach. Many follow the theories of John Nelson Darby (1801-1882) who is regarded as the father of modern Dispensationalism. He introduced the concept of the secret Rapture -- that God would remove saved individuals from earth without prior warning. Dispensationalists generally believe that the end time is very near; many believe that it will happen during their lifetime. They regard the Book of Revelation as one of the most important in the entire Bible, because it describes what will happen in our very near future. They believe that the elements of the end times (tribulation, rapture, Armageddon, and millennium) will occur exactly as specified. However, there are many conflicting theories about the order of the events: Historical Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialism, and Amillennialism are three mutually exclusive theories of the sequence of the time happenings.
bullet Liberal Christians frequently follow an historical interpretation of the book. One source concludes that the writing of Revelation was motivated by persecution of the Christians by the Roman government. 2 The Romans had revived the requirement that everyone worship the emperor as a living god. This practice was reinstituted by Emperor Domitian near the end of his reign, during the early 90's CE. Thus, the book of Revelation is assumed to have been written at about that time. Its main theme is to call for Christian solidarity to resist the demands of the empire and to refuse to worship the emperor.

The author of Revelation clearly anticipated the end of the world within a few years of the writing of the book. He writes in the first chapter about "things which must shortly come to pass" and "the time is at hand." Of course, the author was wrong. The end of the world never happened in the late first or early second century CE.

Most liberals pay little attention to the book. They agree with Martin Luther and largely reject it because it portrays a God who is extremely hateful and bent on revenge against virtually the entire human race. The God of Revelation bears little resemblance to the loving, kind Abba who was worshiped by Jesus. The book describes armies fighting on horseback with primitive, first century weapons. It obviously has little relevance to us today. It was probably apocalyptic literature which was written to bolster the morale of 1st century Christians in 7 churches, located in present-day Turkey.

bullet Roman Catholics: The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the Seer -- the author of Revelation -- wanted to comfort Christians at a time of great peril:

"The danger of apostasy was great. False prophets went about, trying to seduce the people to conform to the heathen practices and to take part in the Caesar-worship. The Seer urges his Christians to remain true to their faith and to bear their troubles with fortitude. He encourages them with the promise of an ample and speedy reward. He assures them that Christ's triumphant coming is at hand....With the coming of Christ the woes of the Christians will be avenged. Their oppressors will be given up to the judgment and the everlasting torments. The martyrs that have fallen will be raised to life, that they may share the pleasures of Christ's kingdom, the millennium....It would appear, and is so held by many that the Christians of the Apostolic age expected that Christ would return during their own lifetime or generation. This seems to be the more obvious meaning of several passages both in the Epistles and Gospels....The Christians of Asia Minor and the Seer with them, appear to have shared this fallacious expectation. Their mistaken hope, however, did not affect the soundness of their belief in the essential part of the dogma. Their views of a millennial period of corporal happiness were equally erroneous. The Church has wholly cast aside the doctrine of a millennium previous to the resurrection." 13

bullet Christian domestic terrorists: In 1999-OCT, the FBI announced the completion of the Megiddo Project - an intensive study of the potential for domestic terrorism in the new Millennium. A portion of the report's introduction deals with religiously motivated terrorists: 3 It is quoted below: 
bullet Interpretations of the Bible:

"Religiously based domestic terrorists use the New Testament©s Book of Revelation -- the prophecy of the endtime -- for the foundation of their belief in the Apocalypse. Religious extremists interpret the symbolism portrayed in the Book of Revelation and mold it to predict that the endtime is now and that the Apocalypse is near. To understand many religious extremists, it is crucial to know the origin of the Book of Revelation and the meanings of its words, numbers and characters."

The Book of Revelation was written by a man named "John" who was exiled by the Roman government to a penal colony - the island of Patmos - because of his beliefs in Christ. 4 While on the island, he experienced a series of visions, described in the Book of Revelation. The writing in the Book of Revelation is addressed to churches who were at the time experiencing or were threatened by persecution from Rome because they were not following the government. For this reason, some believe the Book of Revelation was written in code language, much of which was taken from other parts of the Bible.

"One interpretation describing the essence of the message contained in Revelation is that God will overcome Christianity's enemies (Roman Government/Satan) and that the persecuted communities should persevere. 5 For right-wing groups who believe they are being persecuted by the satanic government of the United States, the Book of Revelation's message fits perfectly into their world view. This world view, in combination with a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation, is reflected in extremist ideology, violent acts, and literature. For this reason, it is imperative to know the meaning of some of the 'code words' frequently used:
bullet Four (4) signifies the world.
bullet Six (6) signifies imperfection.
bullet Seven (7) is the totality of perfection or fullness and completeness.
bullet Twelve (12) represents the twelve tribes of Israel or the 12 apostles.
bullet One-thousand (1000) signifies immensity.
bullet The color white symbolizes power and can also represent victory, joy and resurrection.
bullet The color red symbolizes a bloody war.
bullet The color black symbolizes famine.
bullet A rider on a pale green horse is a symbol of Death itself.
bullet 'Babylon' is the satanic Roman Government, now used to describe the U.S. government." 6

"Black Hebrew Israelites, a black supremacist group, typify the use of numerology from the Book of Revelation. They believe group members will comprise the 144,000 people who are saved by God in the second coming that is outlined in Revelation (7:1-17). In the Book of Revelation, John is shown a vision of 144,000 martyrs who have survived and did not submit to Satan. This number is derived from the assertion that the twelve tribes of Israel consisted of 12,000 people each."

"Groups not only use the Bible to interpret the endtimes, but use it to justify their ideology. Phineas Priests, an amorphous group of Christian Identity adherents, base their entire ideology on Chapter 25 of the Book of Numbers. The passage depicts a scene where Phineas kills an Israelite who was having relations with a Midianite woman and God then granted Phineas and all of his descendants a pledge of everlasting priesthood. Modern day followers of the Phineas Priest ideology believe themselves to be the linear descendants of Phineas and this passage gives them biblical justification to punish those who transgress God's laws. Therefore, the group is ardently opposed to race mixing and strongly believes in racial separation. The number 25 is often used as a symbol of the group."

bullet Apocalyptic Religious Beliefs:
To understand the mind set of why religious extremists would actively seek to engage in violent confrontations with law enforcement, the most common extremist ideologies must be understood. Under these ideologies, many extremists view themselves as religious martyrs who have a duty to initiate or take part in the coming battles against Satan. Domestic terrorist groups who place religious significance on the millennium believe the federal government will act as an arm of Satan in the final battle. By extension, the FBI is viewed as acting on Satan's behalf."

"The philosophy behind targeting the federal government or entities perceived to be associated with it is succinctly described by Kerry Noble, a former right-wing extremist. He says the right-wing "envision[s] a dark and gloomy endtime scenario, where some Antichrist makes war against Christians." 7 The House of Yahweh, a Texas based religious group whose leaders are former members of the tax protesting Posse Comitatus, is typical: [Yisrayl] Hawkins (the leader) has interpreted biblical scripture that the Israeli Peace Accord signed on October 13, 1993, has started a 7-year period of tribulation which will end on October 14, 2000, with the return of the Yeshua (the Messiah). 8 He also has interpreted that the FBI will be the downfall of the House of Yahweh and that the Waco Branch Davidian raids in 1993 were a warning to The House of Yahweh from the federal government, which he terms 'the beast.' 9 Similarly, Richard Butler, leader of the white supremacist group Aryan Nations, said the following when asked what might have motivated the day care shooting by Buford O. Furrow, Jr., one of his group's followers: "There's a war against the white race. There's a war of extermination against the white male." 10


The Book of Revelation appears to be ambiguous, and open to many interpretations. This severely weakens the concept of biblical inerrancy and the belief that God inspired the authors of the Bible to write books free of error and ambiguity.

Unfortunately, as in so many other important Christian beliefs there is no way to harmonize the diversity of Christian belief. Even within the evangelical wing of Christianity there are many conflicting opinions about fundamental beliefs. Some suggest that believers can pray to God to seek the correct interpretation from among the beliefs that have been suggested. Unfortunately, a pilot study that we performed appears to show that a person cannot assess the will of God through prayer.

Some interpretations of Revelation have led writers to prophesy catastrophic events in their own future. Fortunately none of their predictions have ever come true. We will have to wait to see in the prophecies about our future will materialize -- particularly those involving the winter solstice in 2012. But with a 100% failure rate to date, it is difficult to place much confidence about prophecies of events in our future.

References used  and comments:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL (1990)
  2. S. MacLean Gilmour, "The Revelation to John," essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991)
  3. "Project Megiddo: Introduction," at Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) at:
  4. The FBI is here following the contents of Revelation. Theologians differ about the authorship of the book as noted above.
  5. The FBI's interpretation of the Book of Revelation is according to the Catholic Bible and a Catholic scholar-consultant.
  6. Symbolism was taken from The Catholic Bible; New American Bible. [American law enforcement seems to have a fascination with symbols. During the Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) hoax of the 1980's and early 1990's, few police seminars on SRA was complete without a few pages of strange looking symbols.]
  7. Kerry Noble, "Tabernacle of Hate: Why they Bombed Oklahoma City" (  Voyageur Publishing, Prescott, ON, (1998).
  8. Robert Draper, "Happy Doomsday," Texas Monthly, 1997-JUL, Page 74.
  9. Evan Moore, "A House Divided: Tensions divide Abilene-area cult," The Houston Chronicle, 1996-MAR-24.
  10. John K. Wiley, "Profile of attack suspect is familiar and frightening," The Miami Herald, 1999-AUG-12.
  11. Tom Harpur, "America obsessed with future apocalypse," The Toronto Star, 2003-OCT-5, Page F7.
  12. "The Book of Revelation: Introduction," The New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Company, (1970) Page 386.
  13. "Apocalypse," Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, at:
  14. Jen Gerson, "Today, your number is up," The Toronto Star, 2006-JUN-06, Page C1.
  15. Eusebius, "Ecclesiastic History," 7.25.

Additional information:

bullet "Project Megiddo: Introduction," at Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-MAY-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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