John empire continued to grow and appear indestructible,

John perceived many threats to
the Church, the most powerful one being a lack of commitment in the face of
adversity. Within the epistolary content of the opening chapters of Revelation,
John identifies a number of the threats that the seven churches of Asia are
facing. These can be separated into external forces and internal forces,
external being the threat or presence of persecution (Rev 2:9-10; 2:13) and
internal being the work of false teachers/prophets and the lessening commitment
to the Christ (2:4-6; 2:14-16; 2:20-23; 3:1-4; 3:15-20). When one considers the
social context of these seven churches, the cause behind many of these threats
expresses itself in the fact the perceived reality was contrary to most
Christian beliefs. To look around many of these cities in the time Revelation
was written would be to look at cities ruled by Rome and infused with Roman
imperial ideology. As the prosperous empire continued to grow and appear
indestructible, the propaganda of divine emperors and the Pax Romana would have
taken on a tangible sense of reality. Add to this the threat of persecution;
political, social, religious, or economic, that, should the church stay true to
its faith, would likely have engendered and you have a circumstance in which
the forces of Rome appear to be more powerful than the forces of God. In a
sense, the Roman Empire portrayed its own gospel, its own cosmology, and its
own lordship, all of which, to John, were blasphemous deceptions. The threat in
these were that the church would lose faith when faced with the power and glory
of Rome, that they would cease to belong to the new creation and be deceived
into submission to the beast (17:1-18).

Another aspect of a response orientated reading of Revelation is the way in
which John portrays martyrdom as a nearly necessary act in order for the whole
eschatological scheme of the ‘end times’ to continue. Reading chapter 6 verses
9 to 11, we see portrayed an image of those already martyred ‘…for the word of
God and the testimony they had given’ and read of their crying out for divine
justice and vengeance on the ‘beast’ that killed them. In addition, as we
continue to read we see these martyrs given robes and told to wait until ‘the
number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers
and sisters, who were soon to be killed…’. This statement reinforces the
participatory eschatological scheme we have been reading and suggests a belief
that with each martyr’s death the consummation of eschatology draws ever
closer. The belief in Revelation that martyrdom holds a special significance
within God’s eschatological scheme is also reinforced by the concept of the
millennium. Following Simon Woodman’s interpretation of the millennium as a
non-literal metaphor, we are able to see in the ruling of ‘…those who had been
beheaded for their testimony’ (Rev 20:4) the vindication demanded by the
martyred souls during the opening of the seals (6:9-10). This role as ruler,
when read in the context of a Church facing the possibility of martyrdom for
their beliefs, would provide a reassurance that in their death the ‘beast’ had
not been victorious, rather that in their sacrifice they have damned it more
and won for themselves an honoured place.  

Having looked at the effect of reading the Book of Revelation in the original
context, and seen the threats and evils that John exposed through his text, let
us now look to the possibility of reading this book in our current context.
According to two of the fundamental premises of this essay, that Revelation’s
establishes an alternate imaginary reality and adheres to an inaugurated sense
of eschatology, John’s text is certainly one that can be read today with a
genuine ability to look beyond our reality and attempt to perceive the world
through God’s eyes. Perhaps core in that understanding is the fact that
Revelation itself does not overly contextualize its characters and forces to a
specific point an time. An excellent example of this is John’s reference to
‘Babylon’. While in the text it quickly becomes clear that Babylon refers to
the Roman Empire, the use of this ancient cities name speaks of John’s belief
that Rome is merely the newest manifestation of a non-historically bound force
that has existed as long as humanity. In this comprehension of the continuing
manifestation of ‘Babylon’ throughout history, the vision of Revelation can
indeed be used to unmask similar powers today. Through reading John’s text, the
Church is able to transcend the perceived reality of life, exposing the beast
of today, and ‘refurbish’ its comprehension of the world through the
perspective of heaven and eschatology and so be strengthened to remain faithful
in the face of all adversity.  

This positivism toward the idea of reading Revelation within our current
context should, however, be tempered by recognition of the ease with which this
book is misread and the dangers of doing so, both for the Church and the world.
To identify some the dangers of reading Revelation within the modern world we
need only look to the evangelical right wing of American politics. Within this
subsection of politics and religion, there are strong lobby groups for many
policies, moral, economic, legal, but in particular it is their lobbying for
the state of Israel and a positive stance toward that nations expansion and
land ‘reclaiming’ that is exceptionally dangerous. This positivity, which
expresses itself in policies favourable to Israel, is rooted in their belief that
Israel must be restored fully to its historical lands in order for the second
coming to occur. Likewise, during the Regan regime and the Cold War, Russia was
identified as the ‘evil empire’, a reference from Revelation reinforcing
America as the force of good and Russia as the force evil. When this is tied to
the belief in some evangelical circles at the time, of which Regan was a part,
that nuclear war could be used to initiate the Second Coming. In addition to
this, and from the Church’s perspective, the danger exists that we can quickly
come to represent aspects of the ‘beast’. If Revelation is read literally and
with little reference to the life and death of Christ, sections such as those
we explored in the epistolary content regarding the command to ‘conquer’ can
lead to a degree of militarism and a misplaced vision of ridding the world of
evil through the use of force. Again, the United States is an example.
Following the attacks of September 11, President Bush made the statement that
“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and
rid the world of evil”, a claim that adds a biblical and mythical context to
the missions against the forces of ‘terror’. In many ways, this ideology mimics
that of the Pax Romana, which, as discussed earlier, is criticized within the
Book of Revelation as a blasphemous usurping of God’s place as the provider of
peace and security. These examples show the ‘dark side’ that is contained
within Revelation when it is read without the proper theological lens and as a
literal timeline for the end of times.

As this essay has shown, the eschatology of the Book of Revelation forms an
integral part of John’s critique of Roman ideology and in expressing the
threats prevalent within the first creation that could affect the Church.
Having explored eschatology in Revelation and determined an inaugurated
conception of the end times, a now but not yet comprehension, as well as the
consideration of Revelation as a literary counter reality, we have seen how John
worked to expose to his readers the reality that lay behind their perception of
the world. Through this counter reality and its reconsideration of life from a
heavenly perspective, John is able to warn, educate, and strengthen the Church
in the face of apparent Roman glory and power, as well as threats and
persecution. In visions of divine judgment and the destruction of the first
creation, John portrays the natural consequences, and so punishment, for the
‘satanic’ imperial parody of God’s power and kingdom and forces the Church to
choose between allegiance to the ultimately defeated Babylon, or to the New
Jerusalem. We also saw that in Revelation, John has instilled a core belief
that response to the imperial forces should be one of testimony and suffering,
even martyrdom if necessary. Considering the Book of Revelation as a text that
forms an alternate reality through which out perceived reality can be
critiqued, we also saw the potential positives and dangers of reading the text
into our modern context and how easy it was to begin to mimic many of the
characteristics of the beast. All this shows the power of John’s text, both in
its original context and today, and the critique of the perceived reality
inherent in it through its inaugurated sense of eschatology, to alter and
affect those reading it, and draw from them a response of faithfulness and
devotion to God in the face of persecution, oppression and suffering.

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