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Reading and Mis-Reading the Book of Revelation

During the time Sadaam Hussein was ruling Iraq, I made six trips there to deliver humanitarian supplies and to see what I could do to help end the deadly economic sanctions that the United Nations had imposed on the people of Iraq at the request of the United States. Each time before traveling I made sure not to carry any literature critical of Mr. Hussein in my brief case or luggage. And I told my family and friends that if they called or emailed me they should not say anything critical of Mr. Hussein, even jokingly. That was because I thought there was a chance my emails might be read or my phone “tapped” or the contents of my luggage searched. I made one trip to Iraq after the U.S. invaded and overthrew Mr. Hussein and the owner of the hotel where I stayed told me that my phone had, indeed, been tapped on my previous trips. I think I might have seen the guys doing the listening in the hotel basement the night I ran down there for shelter during Operation Desert Fox. That was when my Muslim hosts protected me while Christian American Air Force pilots were dropping bombs on me. But that’s another story.

I remembered my experience of not wanting to be found with literature critical of Sadaam Hussein when I recently re-read the Book of Revelation, a text that is highly critical of the Roman Empire. Could it be that John, the writer of Revelation, chose to conceal his message in case the couriers who were carrying his letters — or the churches who received them — happened to be searched by Roman soldiers? Whether or not that was the case, the essential point about the Book of Revelation, written around the year 90 CE, is that it is an apocalypse, which means “revealing” or “disclosure” of the true nature of Rome, the evil empire that had killed Jesus and beloved Christian leaders Peter and Paul and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg calls the Book of Revelation “anti-imperial” and an “indictment of empire.” It is a white-hot criticism of Rome, barely concealed as a piece of Christian fantasy literature.

This otherwise arcane bit of Biblical hermeneutics becomes profoundly important today because unfortunately many conservative American Christians mis-read the visionary poetry of the Book of Revelation as an encoded description of what will happen in the “end times.” These Christians see recent events in the Middle East, particularly the establishment of the State of Israel, as all part of God’s plan for the end times. This is, unfortunately, very harmful for the cause of peace in the Middle East because these Christians have been caught up in their elaborate theological speculations that they see no point in questioning Israel’s oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people and the theft of their land. The opinions of these Christian conservatives and fundamentalists carry a great deal of political clout: they are Mr. Trump’s political base and the largest single American religious group.

This mis-reading of the Book of Revelations came into public view recently in President Trump’s highly controversial move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He did this largely in response to pressure from conservative Christian supporters along with other hard-line supporters of Israel. According to the Religion News Service, “Recognition of Jerusalem excites apocalyptic fervor” (Dec. 18, ’17, Mennonite World Review). A Google search for “Book of Revelation and move of U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem” found some 585,000 results. A brief skim of the first few revealed some differences of opinion, but so much of what I read tragically missed the point.

The fact that so many influential Christians mis-read the Book of Revelation and have adopted an escapist view of it has had a significant impact upon our nation’s Middle East policy. If the world is about to end, as many Christians seem to think, and it is all “in God’s hands,” why should they worry about peace and justice issues? They seem to forget the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is on heaven.” And they seem to have stopped reading before reaching the end of the Book of Revelation. We read in Chapter 21 that there will be a new heaven and a new earth where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (v. 4). Sadly, the U.S. military invasions of the Middle East in recent years along with the oppression of the Palestinians by our ally Israel are the source not of healing and comfort but of many of the tears and deaths in the Middle East today.

A very good book to help us understand Revelation is “Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the Book of Revelation” by J. Nelson Kraybill, former President of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Based in his extensive scholarship and enhanced by photos from his travels, he shows us many ways that Revelation is a critique of the Roman Empire. He includes study questions that among other things challenge us to ask ourselves: are there parallels between ancient Rome and modern America? Kraybill notes: “We are tempted to the diversion of using Revelation as a horoscope for predicting the future rather than a handbook for radical Christian living in the present.” (p.190) An old saying has it that the real question is not how we read the Bible but how the Bible reads us. This is certainly true of Revelation. Available at

A similarly very helpful book in understanding Revelation is “The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation.” Author Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, shows us that the widely held belief of the “rapture” in which true Christians will be plucked up and taken from a fallen world is in fact not Biblically sound teaching. In fact, she calls the idea of rapture a “racket.” Available at

The elaborate theological mind-trips that conservative American Christians make of Revelation is the modern theological equivalent of the medieval theological speculation of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Both are unhelpfully beside the point. The point of Revelation is to call early Christians from the seductive false lure of obedience to the Roman Empire to the worship of the true God of peace and love and compassion. That challenge was as compelling to 1st century Christians as it is to 21st century Christians.

Mel Lehman

March 23, 2018

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