Most people are happy to know that the world did not end on December 21, 2012. In fact, it did not even come close unless you count jumping off the “fiscal cliff,” which Congress was debating at the time. Despite the fact that on a number of recent occasions rumors of the end of the world were greatly exaggerated, we know it will happen someday. Many Christian denominations believe the apocalypse is imminent, and a growing number of Catholics wonder the same.
In the Gospel of Mark Chapter 13, Jesus gives us one of the most straightforward descriptions of the signs leading to and the events that will occur at the end of this world: “Nation will rise against nation…there will be earthquakes…there will be famines. These are the beginnings of the labor pains.” He goes on to describe the great tribulation, and ultimately his return “Coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” But after all this rather specific description, he admonishes the apostles not to worry about it. “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He concludes by telling us to “Watch!”
Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., and president of the Magis Center for Reason and Faith in Orange County, is focused on, among other things, scientific evidence for the existence of God. While he believes science can point us to God, he cautions against trying to deduce the timing of the apocalypse.
“The Book of Revelation is so highly metaphorical that it can’t be assessed with scientific analysis. But I am confident that when the time comes the Devil will be completely dominated and punished, and all of Creation will be brought to fulfillment. The best thing we can do in the meantime is keep our nose to the grindstone, continue to pray and watch out for false prophets.”
Peter S. Williamson, in his book “Revelation: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,” discusses what is clearly the most difficult book in the Bible. “Revelation provides a narrative that progresses toward the consummation of history, although by a circular rather than a direct route,” he writes.
This circuitous and not chronological story is what causes most readers to scratch their heads. But it has also led others who do not understand Revelation’s deep roots in the Old and New Testament and metaphysical language to speculate with wild abandon.
The “Left Behind” books and rapture theory are examples of Revelation theology run amok. “Revelation interprets the Old Testament prophets in light of what God has done in Christ. It confirms that their eschatological prophecies of judgment, salvation and a transformed world began to be fulfilled through Christ’s death and resurrection and will be completely fulfilled when Christ returns,” Williamson writes.
The figurative language and symbolism is especially difficult for modern readers. When it was written, in approximately 90 A.D. this type of literary form was extremely popular. Readers then understood much better the meanings behind the many symbolic images and terms. “Many people today are more literal in their thinking than ancient peoples, perhaps because of the esteem with which our age regards technology and the exact sciences,” writes Williamson. “The literature and iconography of both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture of the era in which Revelation was written manifests a love for symbolic communication that the early Christians shared with the people of their day.”
Christian scholars both ancient – such as Origen and St. Jerome – and modern have resisted the temptation to use Revelation as a predictor of future events, but rather to meditate on the many theological gems buried deep within its layers.
Whether one takes the stories in Revelation literally, figuratively or somewhere in the middle, the message is the same – to trust in Jesus even in the face of unspeakable evil. When Revelation was written Christians faced horrific persecution under Caligula and Nero. Revelation reminded the faithful that through the blood of the Lamb, Christians will be victorious.
Nearly 2,000 years after Revelation was written, Christians still face horrendous evil and persecution. The world may not be literally idolatrous as in Roman times, but idolatry exists in many forms today replacing love for God with lust for things that remove us from God. We may have already had a series of Anti-Christs, from Attila the Hun to Hitler, Stalin, and the various political and social movements today that show no regard for human life and dignity.
Perhaps Revelation’s predictive qualities lie not in its assessment of a future sequence of events, but on a repeating circle of events where evil and good do battle for the souls of humanity. What we do know for sure is that the good guys win.
Revelation is written in a language of dreams and nightmares drawing on numeric symbols and imagery that is not commonly understood today. Here are some tips for “translating.”
7: Universal, Perfection, Totality
3: (1/2 of 7): Partiality/Incompleteness
4: World, Earth, The 4 Winds Etc.
12: 12 Tribes Of Israel And/Or 12 Apostles Of The Lamb, The Number Of The People Of God
1000: Immensity, Not Necessarily A Specific Number
666: Emperor Nero
Harlot Of Babylon: Pagan Rome, A City On Seven Hills
White Horse: Military Victory
Bride In White: Purity
White Garments (Of Saints): Resurrection Or Eternal life
Source: Revelation: Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, by Peter S. Williamson