23 September and the book of Revelation
There are currently some Christians in the US predicting the end of the world on 23 September, due to an interpretation of Revelation 12. But does the Bible really say the world will end this Saturday? Hear from our New Testament tutor, Dr Jamie Davies, who is currently teaching a class on the book of Revelation at Trinity.
There is a very long history of these kinds of prophecies, both within and outside the Christian church (the ancient Mayan calendar predictions about the year 2012, for example). This isn’t the first one, and it won’t be the last. Despite being wrong every single time, a minority of Christians continue to try to predict the end of the world from the book of Revelation. A solar eclipse across the continental US followed by series of natural disasters is the sort of thing that will usually trigger another one.
Doomsday prophecies like this are an easy target for those who want to mock religion, and it’s tempting to dismiss them as crackpot ideas. But there’s a concerning side to this sort of thinking, too. Similar beliefs were part of the tragedy in Waco, Texas in 1993, where 82 people died in a siege on the ‘Branch Davidian’ religious group. Even when such tragedies don’t occur, the general idea that the world is coming to an end soon isn’t exactly helpful when it comes to thinking about, for example, how we should care for our planet today.
These so-called ‘prophecies’, popular in some Christian circles, are usually based on a fundamental mistake: a misunderstanding of the kind of writing the book of Revelation is. First, a note on the name of the book. It is ‘Revelation’ (singular) not ‘Revelations’ (plural). Catholics call it ‘The Apocalypse’, which comes from Greek apocalypsis, meaning ‘unveiling’ (so the same as ‘Revelation’), and neither name has anything to do with ‘doomsday’ ideas. The popular use of the word ‘apocalypse’ to mean ‘end of the world’ has more to do with Hollywood than the Bible.
Revelation is, among other things, a first-century letter addressed to ‘the seven churches that are in Asia’ (an area roughly corresponding to modern-day Turkey). These churches were suffering various kinds of persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and struggling with how to live as Christians in a world which was very suspicious of their beliefs. The book records the visions of a man called John, and contains all sorts of strange images, which can be very hard to interpret today. The images make sense when viewed from the world of the first century, and only then can we talk about the twenty-first century. They are not a code for predicting the ‘end of the world’ by looking at the stars, or eclipses, or global political events; they are a way of teaching people to see their own world with a ‘heaven’s-eye-view’, giving them a ‘revelation’ not so they can predict the end but so that they can learn to follow Jesus more faithfully. Recognising this makes a huge difference to how we read this book today, and to what it can teach us about living faithfully as Christians in our own world, faced with our own set of challenges.
As I teach on the book of Revelation this term at Trinity, I think it’s a very important text for Christians today to understand, but it has to be read responsibly. And, yes, I have prepared for my classes for September 24th and beyond, and I expect my students to do the same!