Understanding the Book of Revelation

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887

The Book of Revelation is sadly, and unnecessarily, shrouded in mystery and fear. Within its pages contain images that are frightening to many people, and who can blame them? It reads like somebody on a bad trip of LSD. The book has also been the tool of abuse, used by many religious leaders and cults alike, each applying their own personal interpretation which have led to even more confusion.

Where do we begin? How do we begin to interpret this mysterious book in any kind of a sensible way? What I hope to do here is outline some very sensible principles one can use to interpret the Book of Revelation.

First, we must understand that the Book of Revelation is intended to be symbolic. From beginning to end, the chapters and verses therein are not meant to be taken literally. This is a type of writing called apocalyptic literature, and it was extremely popular among Hebrew authors ranging from the second century BC to AD. The writing style uses imagery taken from the Hebrew prophets, and extrapolates them into entire books written in symbolic form. Each element or image is designed to symbolise something else, namely, a higher truth. The author of the Book of Revelation, presumably Saint John the Apostle, tells us in the beginning of the text that he had the initial vision while he was exiled on the Island of Patmos. He may have written it down much later, but he clearly tells us he was on Patmos when he initially saw these things. Patmos was a penal colony of the Roman Empire. John was sent there because he was a leader in the early Church. Roman authorities had attempted to execute him by boiling him in oil. Miraculously, he survived! So they sent him to Patmos, where I'm sure they thought he would eventually die. Again, he did not, and during that time in exile, or sometime thereafter, he penned the Book of Revelation. Possibly being under Roman guard however, or even if just under Roman observation, he had to be careful what he wrote. If he made his meaning too obvious, it would likely be censored. So John relied on a popular Hebrew method of writing -- Apocalypses -- which means 'revealing', or 'revelation', or a 'lifting of a veil', and hides its message within symbols and allegory. What's important to understand about this is that such literature is meant to be taken symbolically from beginning to end. It is a misreading at best, or an abuse at worst, to skip back and forth between a figurative and literal interpretation of the text. This is what many of our Protestant brethren have done throughout the centuries. Even some of our Catholic brethren have done this from time to time. When reading the Book of Revelation, you must remember to stay in symbolic mode. You can't take anything literally. Everything has to be taken to mean something else. The trick is knowing how to unravel it.

Second, to unravel the symbolic meaning of the Book of Revelation, you have got to know two things. One, you've got to know the history of the time period. So a good study of 1st century history is a good place to start. You'll need to know what was going on in two places -- Rome and Jerusalem. Dust off those history books, take a trip to the library, or surf some credible history websites on the Internet. You've got to know some things about the 1st century Roman Empire, and how important the Holy Land was to that regime. You've got to have a cursory understanding of the caesars of Rome; namely who they were and what they did.  You also need to study the politics between Rome and Jerusalem at that time. Some of this is touched upon in the New Testament gospels, but some reputable history books on 1st century Jerusalem would be extremely helpful as well. Two, you've got to understand Jewish symbolism, and about the only way to do that is to read the Old Testament, particularly the books of the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel. Though a reading of the other prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah would be helpful as well. You need to understand how they spoke, and imagery they used. It's all connected you see. Saint John, the Apostle, was a Jew, and he was writing the Book of Revelation using a Jewish technique. You must become familiar with that if you want to understand it.

Third, you must resist the temptation to think that the entire Book of Revelation is about events in the future. This is a critical error that people have been making for centuries, and Protestants are particularly notorious for it. This is because many Protestant denominations, indeed Protestantism itself, was founded on a mostly futurist reading (or misreading) of the Book of Revelation.

Fourth, you must resist the temptation to think that the entire Book of Revelation is historical. Indeed, most of it is (at least from our perspective in the 21st century), but some of it is not. Some of it really does pertain to the end of the world. The trick is knowing the difference.

So with those four principles in place, let me give you a couple points of reference that can help a lot. Thankfully, the Catholic Church has defined one very clear point of reference in the Book of Revelation, and from that one clear point of reference, we can begin unlocking the time frames of the book. That one point of reference the Church has defined for us is the portion of the book often referred to as the Millennium...
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended. After that he must be loosed for a little while. 
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years. 
And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city; but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. 
-- Revelation 20:1-10 RSV-CE
These passages come near the end of the Book of Revelation, and they describe a thousand-year period of time in which 'the dragon' (meaning the devil) is bound, and souls of the martyrs of Jesus reign with Christ. This is a very important part of the book. The Protestants have, for the most part and with few exception, interpreted these passages about the Millennium to be a literal future event. Even some Catholic scholars of ages past had a similar interpretation. However, the Church had never taught about it authoritatively until recently, and this is what she says...
The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism. 
-- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 676
Here the Catholic Church teaches us that (1) the messianic hope of a perfect world, or near-perfect world, can never be realised within history before the last judgement, and (2) the Church rejects all forms of 'millenarianism', meaning any teaching that advocates a literal 1000-year period of future messianic hope before the last judgement. The Catechism goes on to condemn as perverse any attempted man-made version of this. This is extremely important for us as Catholics, because it specifically prohibits any literal interpretation of the 1000-year Millennium in Revelation 20:1-10. That Catechism prohibition is perfectly consistent with the scholarly interpretation of the text using the above four principles of unravelling Jewish apocalyptic literature. So based on that we can ascertain that the 1000-year Millennium, described in Revelation 20:1-10 is NOT a future event, and should not be taken literally. If it's not a literal time period in the future, than what is it?

In this case, the number 1000 is important. We see in other places, within the Book of Revelation, the repeating pattern of cubing numbers. For example; in the next chapter, the measurements of a great city (also symbolic) are cubed. It stands to reason here that the number 1000 is quite obviously the cubing of the number 10, or 10x10x10 = 1000. In Hebrew literature, the number 10 is symbolic of the Gentile nations, while the number 3 is symbolic of God. Three being the number of the Trinity, we can ascertain that the symbolic message here is simply this. God will reign among the Gentiles for a very long period of time.

Such an interpretation is consistent both with the Catechism's mandate to avoid millenarianism, and the scholarly principles of interpreting the entire book consistently in a symbolic way. Keep in mind here that most Protestants succumb to the temptation to flip out of symbolic mode, and interpret these passages literally, then flip back into symbolic mode again for the passages that follow. It happens quite a bit, and most of Protestant eschatology is dependent on this inconsistency.

Now that we know this passage in Revelation 20:1-10 is to be taken symbolically, and that it is likely talking about the reign of Jesus Christ through his Church in a symbolic way, we can ascertain that anything written before this passage is talking about history, and the consummation of Hebrew Old Testament eschatology in the Person of Jesus Christ and the formation of his Kingdom Church. That which is written after Revelation 20:1-10 is a symbolic representation of those things that occur in the future at the end of time. Revelation 20:1-10 is a symbolic representation of the Church Age, this time period we live in right now. Obviously, it is not a literal 1000 years. The Church has been in existence for nearly 2000 years now. The number is symbolic of 10 cubed, or God reigning among the Gentile nations for a long period of time.

Once we understand that everything before Revelation 20:1-10 is basically historical, consummating the period of the Old Covenant with the Gospel, and that everything after Revelation 20:1-10 is a symbolic account of the future, we now have a definite point of reference to help us understand the entire book.

The other point of reference is Revelation 13. The entire chapter is a symbolic representation of the Roman Empire during the 1st century, and the number 666 (or 616 depending on the Bible translation) is a symbolic reference to Nero Caesar. You see, each letter of the ancient Hebrew alphabet had a numerical value attached to it, just like the ancient Greek and Roman alphabets. When you spell the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew, the numerical value of those letters adds up to 666. Nero Caesar was the emperor of Rome when the Book of Revelation was likely written.

Between, these two points of reference, you should be able to begin deciphering the Book of Revelation accurately, if you use the four principles I reference above. In my next instalment, I'll discuss the significance of the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Discover the Apostolic Faith in the Bible Belt.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. Shane's continued writing is entirely dependent on your generosity. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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