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The Eschatology Of The Book Of Revelation


THE book of Revelation recounts a series of visions, ascribed to John on Patmos, a small island in the AEgean. After the section in which we find the seven letters to the seven churches, the principal series of visions are those of the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls. Important episodes, such as that of the woman and the dragon, and the beasts fill out the structure of the book.

A little closer survey of its contents will be of use to us. John in the Isle of Patmos receives the revelations which are embodied in the book. Letters of warning and encouragement are for Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Following this, John sees the vision of the book no one is worthy to open, until the Lamb that was slain is declared worthy and opens the book after receiving the homage of heaven. As the seals are opened symbolical horses come forth, one white, one red, one black, one pale. Then the martyr souls under the altar are seen. Great disturbances in nature follow the opening of the sixth seal. The sealing of Israel is described, and the opening of the seventh seal introduces the seven angels with the seven trumpets. Plagues follow the sounding of the first four trumpets, the woe of locusts the fifth, and the woe of armies the sixth. Here the episodes of the seven thunders, the little book, and the measuring of Jerusalem, with the death and resurrection of the two witnesses, find place. Next comes the account of the woman whose son at birth is saved from the dragon, who is cast down to the earth. The episode of the beast from the sea and the beast from the land follows. A series of not very closely connected visions and utterances now occur, ending with the reaping of the earth. The seven angels with the seven bowls pour them out, part of them introducing plagues like those of the trumpets.

The fall of Babylon now finds a large place. The marriage supper of the Lamb then the chaining of the devil, and the reign of Christ with his martyrs and faithful ones for a thousand years. Finally the last opposition, its defeat, the new heaven and new earth, with a description of the New Jerusalem, and concluding words about the prophecy, and the coming of the Lord. Throughout the book there are interludes where one catches glimpses of supernal glory, and hears choruses of beatific song.


The book of Revelation itself purports to be the work of John. And the testimony of remarkably clear external evidence is that this John was the one whom we know as one of the twelve. This testimony goes back to Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp. In the third century we come across the suggestion that another John may have been the author, and Eusebius thought it might have been John the presbyter who was the author. It seems pretty clear that if the book comes from the pen of a John, it must have been John the apostle, as no other was well enough known to speak as the author does to the seven churches.

The question has become complicated in recent years by theories of composite author-ship. There is a growing feeling among some scholars that the unity of the book is formal and artificial, and that there are traces of different points of view, of different historical situations, and of different authors. A modification of this view is one held by Professor Porter that one author used freely different apocalyptic sources. While it seems to me we must admit, with Professor Stevens, that there are problems whose solution would be made simpler by admitting a diversity of authorship, I do not find the evidence yet sufficient to force that conclusion.

The really serious objection to the Johan-nine authorship, it seems to me, is the difference in the style emphasis of the fourth Gospel and the book of Revelation. That they have much in common one cannot doubt, but there are differences which, together with other problems, make me hesitate to pronounce with thorough conviction for a Johannine authorship. We need not deal with this problem more closely for the purposes of this discussion.


Jerusalem fell A. D. 70. Nero reigned A. D. 54-68. If the book anticipates the destruction of Jerusalem, it was written before A. D. 70. If the historical situation reflected is that of Nero's reign, its limits are more closely fixed. It does not seem to me that the background of the book is that of the reign of Nero. The persecution which gives the book its atmosphere is one of far larger dimensions than that of Nero. It had become evident that Rome's characteristic attitude was opposition to Christianity. This, as has been pointed out by Professor Ramsay, was not true in the time of Nero. And I do not think the interpretation of the symbols of the book requires his reign as a background. That chapter eleven does seen at first sight to anticipate the destruction of Jerusalem is true. This chapter is one which would fit into the theory of composite authorship particularly well. On the other hand, if it be taken as entirely symbolic, the difficulty is removed.

The reign of Domitian, 81-96, when a great and terrible persecution was raging, when Rome had become the great opponent of the church, is the most natural and likely background for the book as a whole.


Before the book of Revelation was written there was a great output of apocalyptic literature. The book of Daniel in the Old Testament is an example. Certain common characteristics of canonical and non-canonical apocalypses are noteworthy. They are the outcome of an age of persecution; they speak in language of highly wrought imagery, full of mystery and in a form less noble than that of prophecy; they foresee judgment, and the victory of the persecuted.

There has been a tendency to closely relate Revelation to other apocalypses in recent criticism. Regarding this there are three things to be said : (1) Revelation is a book of a class. It does not belong by many kinships to apocalypses written before. (2 ) It escapes in a wonderful way the extravagances of the non-canonical apocalypses, and is as impressive by its differences from them as its likeness to them. (3) In regard to material used from non-canonical sources, the great question is not, Were did it come from? but What is it worth? not, Was it used before? but Does God here seal it as a part of his revelation to men?


Perhaps no problem of the kind which the church has had to meet has touched in perplexity the problem of the interpretation of the book of Revelation. The attitude of the church at large has probably almost always been that in some hidden way the book contained a history of the church in relation to the world, and the final consummation. Here the exegesis of jugglery has run riot, and almost every important character of history has been given a place in the book by some fanciful interpreter. The method is its own condemnation. Its results are confusion worse confounded. A method which results in the apotheosis of exegetical insanity can never be a true one.

Men whose judgment has revolted from this view, but who have reverence for the supposed mystical meaning hidden in the book, have cut the Gordian knot by declaring that it refers to the future. It is a message to the church to come in the final times. They will find themselves in difficulty in explaining the fact that it was clearly addressed to men who were alive when it was written, the author's consciousness of having a message to his own time, and in explaining why God gave a message to his final church millennium too soon, and left it as a perpetual bewilderment to those who came before a method contrary to all we know of God's ways in revealing himself to men.

Some modern scholars have taken the opposite view. All the book grew out of the time of its authorship and had reference only to that period. A close study of the material of the book, with the principle of the timelessness of prophecy in mind, will lead, I believe, to the conclusion that this method, while bearing witness to an element of truth, is quite one-sided and incomplete.

Another method which has been pro-pounded with enthusiasm is to consider the book a splendid expression regarding institutions and principles, not treating of facts or incidents. That this view has a bearing upon the significance of the book we need not dispute, but that it adequately explains a book whose center was an historical situation, whose comfort would have been all too small had it consisted of great generalizations, and one which bears the marks of particular reference, I cannot believe.

Before stating the method of interpretation to be followed in this study it will be necessary to secure the standpoint out of which it comes.


Every book in the Bible must vindicate its right to a place in the canon at the bar of Christian consciousness, and in case of perplexity as to the interpretation of a book, the relation it holds to that consciousness is sure to be a key to be used in reference to the securing of a proper method.

Now, what does the book of Revelation say to the Christian consciousness? From the first we find the book permeated by the very atmosphere of Christian worship. It is filled with poetry which is the expression of genuine Christian emotion. It breathes the reverent awe and restraint which is characteristic of the thought of God at its highest. The Holy God who is found here is he than whom there is no higher. With regard to sin, in its final form as a state of deep and utter turning from God, one finds an emphasis terribly in earnest and unflinchingly real. In relation to Christ, we find a faithfulness to history and a depth of under-standing which is nothing less than marvelous. Nowhere is he more exalted than here high as the Highest, the possessor of unutterable power and glory yet the historic Jesus who walked with men. Regarding the atonement, the adequacy of the book may be measured by the fifth chapter, which is perfectly saturated with the deepest feeling of the worth of our Lord's sacrificial death. The wonder, the abnormality, the tragedy, and the glory of the death of Christ, all appear in this vision of the Lamb that was slain. While there is an emphasis on works, the root of hope is that the blood of the Lamb has been effective, and the very works emphasized are those of loyalty to the Redeemer.

This much shows us what an appeal the book makes to Christian consciousness, and also proves that it must have been its product. Only out of warm, pulsing Christian life could such conceptions have come.

But dealing with the book in a closer way, we find that it bears unmistakable marks of having been written as a book of consolation and stimulus in an age of persecution, and the conceptions here are such as to fill it with power for every persecuted Christian in every age. With what blackness of darkness the clouds of evil cover the sky ! The very essence of evil, at its zenith of power, pours forth its terrors. There is no easing of the problem to make the solution easy. Hell's masterpiece of evil in history appears, and in the midst of all the book absolutely glows with a glory of hope. Let the world do its worst, the righteous shall yet triumph. The light of a hope strong with a fervor of confidence that never wavers, a hope clothed with immortal youth and power, plays over the pages of the book and into the heart of the reader.

Dominant evil to be utterly overthrown. Righteousness persecuted unto death, for-ever triumphant. All this because God is God and Christ is Christ. This is the message of the book of Revelation. This it said to the Christians of the first century, and this it has said to the persecuted in every age since.


Now, we ought to be able to find a clear and safe point of departure for the interpretation of the book. It said this word of hope to the sufferers of the first century. It spoke to the depth of the Christian consciousness from the same depth, "deep calling unto deep." This and what flow from it is the vital part of the book, and nothing else is vital. The kaleidoscopic symbolism of the book is an attempt to suggest the in-expressible. The glowing hope in God, and His Christ, leaps over the barriers and limitations of speech, and pours itself out in imagery sometimes characterized by incongruity always only a hint, yet a splendid and ever valuable monument to the confidence, the trust, the perfect glow of hope that inspired it. But the symbolism is always to be interpreted as the outpouring in varied form of a God-inspired faith, not as a mysterious detail map of the future. The book of Revelation is not an alchemist's book of magic, but, as it has well been called, "An Epic of the Christian Hope."

We can agree with the scholars who hold to the historical method in believing that it grew out of a particular historical situation and was primarily designed to meet it. We can agree with the view which finds principles in it, to the extent that so profoundly did it treat the situation in which it found itself that it expressed what is eternally true, and could give hope to every following age as well as its own. But its author did not know there would be any following ages of world history. He was thinking of his own. So accurately has it dealt with the fundamental opposition of good and evil that every new form of the age-long conflict, especially those characterized by great and terrible suffering, seems but the fulfillment of what it foretold. This because the awful opposition of the first century, though the author of the book did not know it, was in many forms to be repeated from age to age. Lastly, the consummation which the author foresaw though he knew it not was to be delayed many centuries ; and so the word of God's final triumph does await fulfillment, and will be both a message and a glad fulfillment to the final church. Thus, it seems to me, we do justice to what is vital in the other theories, and have a standpoint which sets us free from the vagaries of Quixotic exegesis.

To present an outline of the interpretation a little more formally : In the time of Domitian the great persecution, which really made it evident that Rome itself was the terrible enemy of the faith, came on. In this time of widespread and awful calamity, when it seemed as if the iron heel of Rome must wipe out the faith, the book of Revelation appeared. It was a book with a great past behind it. Saturated even to the phraseology with the Old Testament, as Professor Harnack brilliantly says, "It was thought in Hebrew and written in Greek." We may add, that while it owed much of its form to the Old Testament, its outlook and essential message belong to the gospel. It carried its own vindication to the hearts of Christian men as God's message to them. To endure to the end, in hope of sure and eternal triumph this was its summons. Perhaps a touch of added mysteriousness was given to it because of the dangers of this persecuting age. But to any Christian it carried its own key to its great message and needed no interpretation.

It is not necessary that we should peer too curiously into the method of the origin of the message. If the author had actual visions, which I do not think need be disputed, we may remember that vision as well as a prophecy could be psychologically mediated ; and that it is quite in harmony with what we know of God's methods in Revelation, that the inner life and the experience of the recipient of the vision should have entered into and colored the vision itself. Into this realm we need not enter further. The message spoke God's word to the time. That was its vindication. It has spoken God's word to generations of Christians since. That has given it its place in the canon. Not the mysteries of its symbol-ism but this message to Christian consciousness placed it secure in the Book of God.

To the author of the book of Revelation the incarnation of all evil is the Roman empire. So his message of the overthrow of evil is a message of the fall of Rome. This is one great burden of the book. But he goes back of Rome to the Satanic power, the ultimate personification of evil. He too is to be overthrown. With this final over-throw and judgment comes the consummation of all things. As it was with the prophets of old who caught a glowing vision of the future, but to whom distinctions of time were not revealed, so it was with this prophet of a later day. Each prophet had seen the glorious consummation just fronting him or his age. So this Christian prophet seemed to see the great future unrolling just ahead. He thought all was to happen quickly. He was a true son of the prophets in this attitude. But with him, as with them, the consummation was farther than the seer dreamed.

The hunger for revenge because of the persecution of the saints seen in parts of the book may be assigned to the awful experiences of the time. Certainly, it does not express a permanent element in Christian consciousness. The fact that almost no place is left for personal decisions in the future grows out of the author's conception that the end is at hand. He viewed the world in the light of a bearing already held, either for or against God.


1. The figurative passage regarding the martyrs under the altar is the nearest hint of a conception of an intermediate state. That they are in a place where they are protected by God, but not yet come to their full reward, is the conception.

The book of Revelation believes in the resurrection and the future life. Its central message of hope for those who suffer even unto death would disappear without that. Its great goal is a goal after death. That the Lord is to come again, and that his coming is to inaugurate the consummation, is the conviction the book would give its readers. Regarding the one thousand years reign we will speak later. It believes in a judgment where justice will be meted out to all who have lived to the righteous eternal life with God, 'to the wicked eternal suffering with the devil. I do not think an honest exegesis can find any basis for concluding that the thought of annihilation ever entered the author's mind.

An important element in the forward look of the book of Revelation is that it is not contented with a goal for life like that of evolution, a goal which would bring great things to some future generation without solving the problem of those who perish on the way to this consummation. It is essentially a personal eschatology. All the dead are gathered and the consummation metes to each life its proper future. Many philosophies of history are brutal compared with this splendid outcome, where each individual life comes to its own goal of joy or woe.

In chapter sixteen there is a wonderful negative emphasis on personality. In spite of all judgments, the people described here "repented not." The author of this book knew that men could so set themselves against God that his chastisements could not move them.

The teaching regarding heaven is full of poetic beauty, and full also of reserve. The perfect city has glories which are expressed in a description in which earth's richest and rarest are called upon to suggest what can-not be described. The absence of death, sin, and sorrow, and the presence and all-sufficiency for the dwellers of the city of God and the Lamb, these are expressed with a beauty and tenderness hardly to be surpassed.

Hints full of insight regarding the great finality for the saints are given: "The Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life" (7. 17) ; "His servants shall serve him; and they shall see his face; and his name shall be on their fore-heads" (22. 3, 4). Service and fellowship with God, and oneness with him these are the final words about the final universe.

2. Some Particular Problems in the Interpretation of the Book. (1) The two witnesses of chapter two may symbolize the witnessing, suffering, dying, victorious spirit to be found in the true church.

(2) The Beasts. The beasts of chapter thirteen constitute an interesting problem. The best solution, it seems to me, is to regard the Final Beast as a symbol of the Roman power as embodied in the office of emperor, and the second as some particular manifestation of that power through some lower official. The healed death-stroke has been suggested to be the threatened convulsion at the time of the death of Nero. The number six hundred and sixty-six, falling short of the perfect number, may well suggest the realization in humanity of all that is opposite to holiness and perfection. The finding of Nero's name by incorrectly securing the numerical value of the letters of his name in a language not used by the author in writing the book, and not understood by his readers (cf. Professor Ramsay) , is fanciful enough.

(3) Babylon. The whole treatment of Babylon, the great and wonderful city, and its fall, it seems to me, without doubt refers to Rome. Professor Milligan's attempt to interpret it as referring to the faithless element in the church quite fails to secure vital historical contact for the passage. On the other hand, the situation out of which the book came and the language of the passages themselves fit in a remarkable way the interpretation which refers them to Rome.

(4) The 1,000 Years. This passage occurs in the twentieth chapter of the book. It describes the chaining of the devil and the reign of Christ with his saints for a thousand years. It is usually interpreted to mean a period immediately following the Parousia. It has been interpreted, however, to mean the whole Christian era from the first coming until the Parousia, because Christ in his work essentially conquered the devil and sin. The reconciling of this view with the statements of the passage about the saints (who had been dead) reigning with Christ, and the first resurrection, seems a task of proportions which may well lead us to seek shelter in some other view. It seems clear that, however we treat the pas-sage in relation to Christian doctrine, its meaning as it stands is that after our Lord comes, there will be a resurrection of his saints and a period of triumph for them with him in this world. The following loosing of the devil and final conflict are full of perplexity, and when one remembers that the whole passage in its present form represents views unparalleled elsewhere in the New Testament and probably contradictory to other teaching, it becomes evident that the passage cannot be pressed for purposes of New Testament theology. However, it is safe, I think, to say, that it is a witness to a deep Christian intuition that Christianity is to have a real triumph in this world.


The most marked divergence of the book of Revelation from other New Testament conceptions is to be found in the passage just discussed. Saint Paul does say that Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15. 25). But this is not a real parallel, for Satan is bound before the beginning of the one thousand years and loosed afterward. The two passages have in common a victory of Christ in this world. Saint Paul emphasizes Christ's delivering up the kingdom unto the Father. This conception does not appear in the book of Revelation. The solution in all likelihood is that Paul's vision had complete illumination at this point.

In general, however, it may be said that there is striking agreement between the eschatology of the apocalypse and that of the rest of the New Testament. The great essential features of the outline we have given of this eschatology of the apocalypse might have served as an outline of the eschatology of the New Testament. Indeed, its relation to our Lord's eschatological discourse in Matthew 24 is so remarkable that it has been called an enlargement of that discourse (Milligan) .


The Christian theologian may well enter the deepest places of this book before he begins to write on eschatology. There are great moods in the book which need to be his mood. The sense of the dire evil the church must meet in the world, of the individual problems whose only solution is in the life beyond, he should feel. Its under-standing of the power of a person to set himself permanently against God should be his. The pulsing joy in the final triumph of God and the righteous should throb in his pages. The great sense of the eternal significance of the Lamb that was slain should ring clear, as he writes of the final universe.

This book joins its witness with the rest of the New Testament to the great eschatological conceptions he is to relate to his system: the Parousia, the resurrection, the judgment, heaven, hell; and he presses close to first-century Christian feeling about these things as he reads the apocalypse. Then he should try to enter into fellowship with the subtle spiritual insight of the book. In its symbols he will find no hidden map of the future, but he will find a wealth of suggestions as to many deep things of Christian experience and life in them. The Christian's hidden relation with Christ, suggested by the name Christ gives him, known only to himself in this, and it may be in numberless other figures, he may find hints and suggestions full of meaning to the Christian devotion, out of which theological insight of a spiritual kind will come.

And the final word of his eschatology will be that of this book : God exalted, righteousness triumphant, the whole universe, all, all under God's sway he King of kings, and Lord of lords. And for this the Hallelujah Chorus will need to sing in his own soul.


The book of Revelation stands to many like the sphinx with its own unrevealed secret, a strange monument on the desert of the years, with long, dark mystery enshrouding it. But it need not be so. Let us come to it as Christians with the hunger of Christian hearts, and it has food for us. Turning forever from the false esoteric view of the book, let us listen to its real message. Have we sorrow? May we some day meet persecution? There it stands a beacon of hope. At the gateway of death it draws aside the veil, and we behold "Jerusalem the Golden." Do earnest lives fail of fruition here? It points with perfect hope to the fulfillment beyond. And over and over it sings the song of our own deepest Christian mood the basis of our hope the song of praise and everlasting devotion to the "Lamb that was slain."

( Originally Published 1915 )

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