Let’s get straight to the point: The Pope and his election has absolutely nothing to do with the end of the world. Further, this recent papal election has absolutely nothing to do with a pope that will become the ever allusive “antichrist.” If that’s how you read the book of Revelation, please close your Bibles… now open them and start again. Perhaps read the entire Old Testament before again trying to read the final book of the Bible…a book that is theologically predicated on not only the New Testament that precedes it, but also the theological motifs of the entire Hebrew Bible that precede the New Testament. If you haven’t done that, and Re-membered what you’ve read, then chances are Revelation will prove to be quite a conundrum.
I have some very simple reasons as to why I do not proffer nor correlate papal politics with the Book of Revelation. There is literally a litany of reasons. This blog would not be able to contain all the reasons for not reading the Book of Revelation in such a way that one would deduce the presumed prophetic facts that the Pope, and his hilly city of Rome, is the very larval environment from which a super-human known as Anti-Christ will emerge. Much finer minds and scholars have written entire books on how to read the book of Revelation in responsible ways; ways that do not primarily feed our bizarre appetite for destruction, but rather offer the world and the church hope in one the New Testament called the Christ.
I understand that it is en vogue, at least within conservative evangelical circles (and Baptist circles), to believe in the Rapture and to be able to “plainly” see this in the biblical text. Even in my own ministerial context, most folks polled would say “yes” if asked if they believe in a future rapture and “yes” they believe that Rome has something to do with the antichrist and the last days. The question is not one of whether many people believe something. Indeed if enough people believe something long enough then for them it becomes the truth, even if no one else shares that belief. Another way of saying it, we don’t know what we don’t know. The real question is whether such belief is warranted through biblical, historical, traditional, theological and philosophical grounds. I would contend that the idea of “rapture,” and then all the premillennial theological baggage associated therewith (such as popes and antichrists), is absent any viable reasons for believing in the system of interpretation that is required to hold such a worldview, let alone call it the Christian reading.
Before I give my reasons, let me first say that this will not answer all detractors nor will it seek to define in entirety all of the following concepts. The most common form of remainder will be in particular interpretive questions, such as the meaning associated with particular concepts with which rapture theorists have made their most hay. Concepts such as: the mark of the beast, the tribulation, the great whore of bablyon, white throne of judgment, the destruction of satan, etc. But let me be clear, under a responsible form of biblical interpretation all of these ideas will make sense and do have answers; they just won’t have the very “literal” answers that we are so used to receiving.
Let me further add that I am a recovering premillenialist. In other words, I used to believe that in some strange way the pope, Rome, and the antichrist were all intimate parts of the end of the world that would play out during a 7 year period…3 ½ of which would be very bad for people who did not love Jesus. Until I was 19, I was a card-carrying member of Tribulation Force Christians. I was raised on the ideas of John Hagee, Jack Van Impe, Hal Lindsey and your local evangelist who specialized in the Book of Revelation. I have heard more sermons on 1 Thessalonians and its rapture teaching than most folks could probably ever care to hear…but I loved them. I loved hearing those sermons. In fact, when I first began preaching I even preached the idea of “rapture” and all the dispensations associated with it on more than one occasion. Yet…these ideas also tormented me. I have been left behind, personally “left behind,” at least a half-dozen times.
So at 18 I started asking questions…questions to which those preachers whom I respected where unable to give sufficient answers. I still held to my childhood faith, the faith I was raised with, but the more I pondered and asked questions, rather than just believe something because some old guy told me this is how I was supposed to read the Bible…the more I began to be open to a different view of scripture. I was looking for a reading that made more sense and made the dark pages of Revelation less opaque.
I personally believe this quest was led by the Spirit. And after this quest, for the first time I was able to actually read Revelation not fearing its content, but actually allowing its words to feed my spirit in the present. It was no longer a word about future destruction; it became a word about present hope and grace in my life and the life of the world. For this I am thankful.
So here’s a little of what I have learned, why I don’t believe in the rapture as its usually taught, and therefore do not fear the new Latin Pope who will, according to some, be the very material appearance of the son of perdition.
First, Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which means it should be read as apocalyptic literature. In the Bible there are many literary forms: poetry, narrative, mythology, law code, history, letters, prophecy, gospel, apocalyptic, wisdom, etc. All these literary mediums are to be read in particular ways, ways consistent with that genre if we are to understand their messages. If we read all literary types the same we will find that nonsense begins to emerge.
For example, do we read the newspaper or online news articles the way we read a poem? Of course not. To do so would mean to miss the point of the poem or the prose. We understand that one is about conveying information and the other is about captivating our imaginations and reinterpreting our worlds. Both forms of communication are true; they mean something, but they communicate differently and with different intent. We know that HOW they are written matters…and we take this into consideration when reading them.
Another example, would we read a history book the way we read L. M Alcott’s Little Women? Of course not. One is a story in history that is fictional with freedom to create another world; the other is a non-fictional biased observation on events that have happened in the past. They both use words, both can be read “literally,” yet we know to read one like the other would confuse them and distort meaning.
Yet we do this ALL THE TIME with the Bible. We read every book like its every other book. We never consider that the wisdom literature is different from the exilic prophets or that the Gospel of Matthew is different than the Book of Revelation…and as a result we read Revelation incorrectly. Or worse, we do make distinctions but do so unconsciously and therefore unintentionally coming up with interpretations that may be totally foreign to the text we are reading. We come up with crazy ideas like popes, antichrists and beasts that arise from the ocean in some weird version of Alien vs. Predator. We do this because we are reading apocalyptic poetry like it’s a newspaper article or a Pauline letter. We do not approach it as a work of APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE and then attempt to interpret it. We approach it as a flat literal text that can be read like all the other books in the bible. Next time, write your sweetheart a love letter and tell her to read it the way you read this blog…see if she’s able to understand the medium of your words.
So Rule #1 about biblical interpretation: If you do not understand the genre type you are reading and how its medium of communication functions on a literary, and therefore, historical level, you will not understand much of scripture and you will continue to read INTO the Bible what you believe because of what you have been taught. The Bible will never become strange; it will never become new; you will always see the same Bible because you read all of the Bible the same way. So Rule #1: know what kind literary genre is being used and then read it in ways consistent with that genre…
This is one reason I can say without doubt that this Recent papal election has nothing to do with the end of the world.
Second, to read the Book of Revelation in a purely futuristic way…as a book that does NOTHING but tell us the future is to question the very reason it is incorporated into the Christian canon. I struggle to understand why, why, why, a book would be included in the Bible that was ABSOLUTELY USELESS to every Christian who has ever lived, and every Christian community that has ever believed Jesus was the Christ, until the present. In what way is the Book actually inspired if it was worthless to every reader until the present? I thought all scripture was inspired and worthy for instruction?? But when we say that this book tells us all the above about Iran and Russia and the Papal antichrist, we are saying exactly this…that the Book of Revelation was useless until OUR generation arrived on the scene. I wonder what the preacher did when he came to this text say in the year 400 or 1000 or 1530 or 1776?? Did communities simply say, “Well guys, the Book of Revelation is not for us…we don’t live in the last days, so we will refrain from using it as instruction for our Christian lives because we are not the ones who can understand it.” What would be the point in having a book lie dormant for nearly 1700 years in our Christian canon and how would it be inspired?
In fact, historically the opposite was the case. Communities have always used the Book of Revelation to describe their relationship to the world and Christ’s victory over the enemies of God. Augustine used it when Rome was sacked around 400, the Catholic Church used it around millennial fervor in 1000, Martin Luther used it as allegory to say that the Roman Church was the Great Whore (he thought HE was living in the last days), the Reformed used it as a book that helped them make sense of differing shades of Protestants in 1600 and the American Revolutionaries used it as a paradigm for interpreting their relationship with Great Britain…and this to name a few. This text has always been appropriated by believers as a source of hope and to orient the way they worship. It was not relegated for use by the ENLIGHTENED ones in the 21st century that would finally KNOW ALL THE ANSWERS.
We have to be some of the most prideful Bible readers to assume that all that came before us were idiots and now we have the answers…but that is what a Rapture belief does. It assumes that now we have the answers, we know why it is inspired and we are able to use it better than any other generation because we have acquired the right form of interpretive knowledge. Well, that sounds a lot like Gnosticism and it is not very holy, because holiness is not typified by self-righteous knowledge.
A further point here is that this Book of Revelation was historically a Letter to Seven Churches. Why would John write them a letter that was not really for them? Why write a letter to people, the contents of which would not be helpful as they engage the world? I think it much more likely that John wrote words to them that would empower them in their contexts and give them hope in Christ…and that the content of the letter, (as all letters we write to one another), would have been understood by its recipients. A letter written to people that would not be able to understand every detail and all its symbols, metaphors, etc., is a useless letter…both today and in the First Century. And if this is the case, we should not ask the question, “what does revelation mean for US here today?” before asking the primal question, ‘what did the Letter of Revelation mean to those Seven churches and what might that say about our present?”
So this is reason #2 I do not fear the new Latin pope is Spanish Antichrist spoken about in Revelation 26.66
Lastly, we must also understand that to read the Book of Revelation in a literal fashion and to do this under a premillennial paradigm is a VERY new Christian thing to do. In fact, there is no historically Christian warrant for reading Revelation in this way: raptures and trib forces and literal bottomless pits and all.
This idea was germinated in the thought of John Nelson Darby in the early 19th century. Darby did not have any formal theological training but a zeal for the work of the church. He was not the first to interpret history across time periods, but he was the first to develop an entire dispensational system from the biblical text. He interpreted all of scripture within what he called 7 “dispensations” or time periods of history. Each dispensation was a different epoch of history and linked with a unique covenantal event in scripture. He then read scripture as being revealed across these epochs. His reading of scripture was very literal and did not take into consideration literary, historical and canonical issues when reading the Bible.
His ideas were popularized by one Cyrus Scofield, an evangelical leader in North America who was won over to his ideas through Darby’s work in America. (Darby was British of Irish parents) Scofield published his own KJV reference bible and interpreted all of scripture in Darby’s dispensational way. His Reference Bible was the key to engraining dispensationalism in the evangelical psyche as its study notes were alongside the pages of scripture so that the pious believer could have easy reference to this interpretive system (you can still buy a Scofield Reference Bible at most bible retailers). It was published in 1909 and was widely used in churches and Bible schools. Though it was rarely used by Universities or seminaries it became the most influential bible in North America during the 20th century (a century begun by Pentecostal end times fervor if you will). This bible became so influential that it was the main source for resolving disputes or matters of interpretation across many areas and it remained popular among conservative Christians, evangelicals and Pentecostals. It is because so many folks read the Bible in the shadow of Darby and Scofield (none of which were academically trained or biblical scholars to any degree) that people read the book of Revelation literally and think that this recent papal foray is the foreshadowing event of Armageddon.
So let me say this another way: no one of Christian note, until Darby and Scofield, interpreted the Bible in a full blown dispensational way and worked out an entire system of interpretation predicated thereon. Not Jesus, Not Paul, Not Polycarp, Not Tertullian, Not Augustine, Not Aquinas, Not Gregory, Not Luther, Not Calvin, Not Arminius, Not Wesley, Not Whitfield, Not Edwards, etc., etc.,…NO Christian thinker prior to Darby would have understood anything Darby was doing with the Bible. It was not historically Christian, it was not biblically literate, it did not make philosophical sense, it disregarded the literary genres of scripture, it usurped a full version of inspiration…AND last but not least, it was a liberal modern reductionistic way of reading the Bible by harnessing all the mystery of divine text into a model or system that could contain its truth. Conservatives eat your heart out and hate modernity, but there is nothing more modern than the latter. The very ones who accuse liberals of reasoning away text have beaten the Bible to death with Reason…and yet claim to not use it in their interpretations.
These reasons do not even begin to scratch the surface of why I do not think that the recent Papal election has anything to do with the end of the world…meaning, I have not scratched the surface of why I don’t read Revelation as a literal book about literal future events. I could go on to talk about how interpreters of Revelation often pick and choose what texts are literal and what are to be understood symbolic…often making these decisions arbitrarily. I could go on to talk about how reading this book literally as a future map does nothing to edify the church or make Christians. I could go on to offer a liturgical critique, asking why so many modern readers who believe in this “rapture” and all the stuff that necessarily follows it…like concern of papal politics is missing entirely the general usage of the Book of Revelation as a book of prayer, praise and adoration. Some of our greatest hymns are found within its pages…I could go on…but I won’t.
When I come to the Revelation I read it for its beauty; I read it for is power and its promise; I read it and never cease to be amazed at how John gives us the story of God in Christ in such captivating ways that challenge our view of the world, of good and evil, of salvation and sin, of redemption and judgment. In short, I read it as a good word to us in the NOW and any interpretation that fails to demonstrate how scripture can be incarnated into the community of faith is an interpretation of which we should all be suspect.
So Popes, Vaticans, and hairy scorpion monsters come what may…The city on a hill from which evil is performed is always performed within the shadow of another hill in which evil was already defeated.