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The Book of Revelation:
Getting Past the Hype

by Timothy Cronin and Michael Daley

(A summary of this month's Youth Update)
If you would like to preview a future edition in Youth Update's private online chat room, contact CarolAnn@franciscanmedia.org.

The last book of the Bible is the one most misunderstood by readers. In many, reading the Book of Revelation instills fear and anxiety. Rather than look at this book as a blueprint for Armageddon or the great endtime, the battle to come between the powers of good and evil, this Youth Update is intended to help you understand Revelation from a Catholic Christian perspective.

You are invited to look at the book from a contextualist viewpoint—examining the Book of Revelation's writing style and historical setting. The book's major theme will be explored. You will be better able to make a book nearly 1,900 years old relevant right now.

1. What is apocalyptic literature (the style of the Book of Revelation)?

Apocalyptic literature is a type of literature that flourished in Judaism and early Christianity from roughly 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. The Old Testament Book of Daniel is apocalyptic in style. This kind of writing looks ahead to the end of history and the coming of the New Age, God's kingdom. The central message is that God is in control.

2. A crisis inspired the Book of Revelation.
What was it?

In the mid-90's A.D., two crises were afoot. The first was the Roman emperor Domitian who persecuted Christians who did not offer incense to him. The second crisis was what to do about the first! John of Patmos, author of Revelation, did not want Christians to compromise and honor the emperor as a god.

3. Why is Revelation so hard to understand?

The Book of Revelation was written in secret code so that the Romans couldn't understand it. Sometimes it's hard for us as well! John of Patmos used coded images and descriptions familiar to his audience. For instance, the author used lots of numbers such as 666. Three sixes is the number of the beast. Given that six is a number that symbolizes imperfection, repeated three times it signifies total failure. The symbols in the book needed to be secret, because the book was subversive, undercutting the popular idea that the empire and the emperor were the ultimate powers.

4. What can we learn from the Book of Revelation for our times?

Three main lessons for today—which is like the times of pagan Rome in many ways—can be gained from Revelation. First, you are a believer first and a citizen second. Second, you must be an agent of hope. Third, you must remain faithful.

Carla Alderman (15), Sarah Andrew (16), Bridget A. Commons (15), Natalie E. Corey (16), Angela A. Long (15) and Annie Lander (15) gathered at Camp Rancho Framasa in Nashville, Indiana, where they are counselors in training, to review this issue. They represent parishes in Fishers, Indianapolis and Plainfield, all in the Indianapolis Archdiocese. They posed the following questions which have been answered by the authors.

 

Q.

How can you be sure what the various symbols in the Book of Revelation mean? It certainly isn't clear to me!

A.

Your question stems from thinking that Revelation is unique. It's difficult to understand something without anything to compare it to. This book is part of a literary genre known as "apocalyptic." By examining and comparing other examples of the genre, such as the Sibylline Oracles and the Book of Enoch, common themes and symbols can be seen. What at first seems cloudy and confusing, like the use of numbers and colors in the Book of Revelation, becomes much clearer and understandable by comparison.

Q.

The readers of the Book of Revelation were brand-new Christians. How can we be called pagan when we've had the words of Jesus and the whole New Testament for so long?

A.

First, the Christians of Asia Minor for whom John writes are not "new," but are the second generation of the Church, removed some 60 years from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Second, you must distinguish between being a citizen and being a believer. Looking at our society as reflected in music, TV and news media, you can't help but notice many examples of selfishness, individualism and immorality. In this light, our society can be described as pagan. The Christian challenge isn't simply to hear about Jesus, but also to live like him.

Q.

If the Book of Revelation is meant to inspire hope, why does it scare people instead?

A.

Many people's understanding of Revelation is dictated by the media and popular culture which emphasize the book's supposed doomsday scenarios. All you have to do is look at a newspaper rack to find stories linking the Book of Revelation to the end of the world. Disaster movies like Armageddon, which draws its title from the Book of Revelation, also encourage incorrect associations. Finally, many people who read the Bible are unfamiliar with the book's literary style and distort its meaning by taking it literally. That's how a book about Jesus Christ and hope is twisted into a book about fear and death.

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