The Apocalypse: Pathological neurosis or healing therapy?

An exposure of the value and positive role of the book of Revelation in contemporary culture

Paul Fisher is a Seventh-day Adventist minister currently studying at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Recent reinvestigation into the Branch Davidian tragedy of 1993 in Waco, Texas, has something to say to Christians.

According to Professor James Tabor, one factor in the disaster was the failure of the U.S. federal agencies to comprehend and take seriously the apocalyptic beliefs of the Davidians.1 Aberrant and extreme as the Davidian beliefs were, this failure on the part of the government is part of a larger cultural failure to come to grips with the power of the Apocalypse.

The Apocalypse is a dynamic and, as history shows, a dangerous revolution ary document. Unfortunately, the misguided radical use of the Apocalypse by extreme groups often provides an easy target for those who wish to minimize its biblical and historical value.

The book of Revelation has long been marginalized within the Christian church. Although it is part of the canonical text of Scripture, it has been viewed since the time of Augustine as something of an embarrassment to the faith with its assertion of the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. The trend has been to allegorize and spiritualize the Apocalypse in order to render its message more palatable to a contemporary Christianity.

In more recent times, the Apocalypse has been subjected to the probing critical enquiry of the therapist. It has taken its place on the couch in our therapy-oriented culture. Beginning with Sigmund Freud, with his classic case study of Daniel Paul Schreber, the apocalyptic idea of the end of history has become associated with schizophrenia.2 According to classic psychoanalytic interpretation, the doctrine of the end of the world is simply the projection of interpersonal chaos and confusion onto the external world. The Apocalypse is diagnosed as little more than a personal crisis projected by the imagination onto a screen of global and cosmic proportions. Such criticism has done much to undermine confidence in the prophetic and apocalyptic portions of the Bible during the last century.

It is hard to imagine a better strategy to marginalize the Word of God in a therapeutic culture than to equate truth with pathology. In much of the therapeutic world, those who uphold apocalyptic truth are not merely seen to be intellectually mistaken, they are pathologically ill. It would be bad enough if this form of criticism came only from humanistic, secular therapists. Unfortunately, the pathologization of apocalyptic truth has struck a resonant chord in certain sec tors of the Christian intellectual community.

One popular scholarly study claims that the Apocalypse is the literary expression of first-century Christians' feelings of "resentment" and "envy" toward their rich and prosperous Roman neighbors.3 So much for the vivid visionary truth about the justice of God against the oppressor in the Apocalypse. So much for the canonical book of Revelation as a text gleaming with transcendent redemptive meaning for the oppressed people of God. Such a psychological-critical reading seems to align itself with the oppressor. It continues to stigmatize and marginalize the oppressed apocalyptic community just as surely as did Rome in the prime of its power, when Revelation was written to encourage the small flocks of Christians throughout her borders.

The recent trend to view martyrdom as a form of masochism4 is another ex ample of the pathologization of apocalyptic truth. On the couch of the therapist, those who courageously "loved not their lives unto death" are trans formed into sick souls with deep dysfunctions.

Examples of this pathologization of apocalyptic truth could be multiplied. But it is enough to notice the trend.

Revelation, a book of healing

How can the church in general and the pastor in particular respond to this psychotherapeutic challenge to the Apocalypse? Is it possible that the apocalyptic patient is not in as bad a condition as has been diagnosed? Could it be that the pathology is in the critic and not in the one on the couch? Is it possible to convince our culture that the Apocalypse is not a marginal and substandard way of thinking but instead is a fundamentally Christian and noble expression? Could it be true that the apocalyptic worldview is actually an indication of spiritual health as opposed to a sign of psychological dysfunction? I would suggest that this is an essential part of the constructive and evangelistic task of the Christian and Adventist pastor in the current intellectual and cultural climate. We must persuade our Freudianresonant culture that the final book of the Bible embodies a healthy way of thinking and feeling.

The message of the book of Revelation does not make its hearers sick. It is a divine source of healing for human pathology of all kinds. It presents to our view a "tree" whose "leaves" are "for the healing (therapeia) of the nations" (Rev. 22:2). It not only bears witness to the existence of a divine source of healing but also actually mediates the blessings of that tree to those who "hear" and "read" and "keep" its message (1:3). Such hearers, and only such hearers, will not participate in violent revolutions or doubtful moral actions but will instead exhibit the "patience of the saints" in the form of a "consistent resistance" to what is evil and destructive (14:12). The mind that is fortified with apocalyptic truth is intellectually and morally equipped to discern error and to resist the forces of injustice that threaten to rend the social and personal fabric of our lives.

The heart of the message of the Apocalypse is the conquest of evil by the redeeming power of God. "And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death" (12:11). The Lamb is the apocalyptic symbol of the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Thus, for apocalyptic believers, love that manifests itself in self-sacrifice is understood to be the absolute bedrock of the moral government of God's universe. If that message is pathological, then the whole of Scripture must be subject to the same diagnosis. But most people instinctively sense that such love is not pathological at all but is intensely therapeutic and beneficial. Pastors must become adept at playing this loving chord of the Apocalypse for all it is worth.

The damage is done when people create speculative and imaginative angles on some of the Apocalyptic symbols and disproportionately or excessively emphasize these while excluding the paramount symbol of the Lamb. This tilts the truth and thrusts those involved into a detrimental view and use of the book of Revelation.

With this in mind, as we preach the Apocalypse we must recognize and insist that pathology is not in the Apocalypse itself but is rather in the mind of the one who reads or misreads the Apocalypse. Psychologist and biblical interpreter Cedric Johnson says that "biblical data are sometimes distorted through the spectacles of our personality."5 He mentions a number of ways in which the human mind may corrupt a healthy understanding of the Word of God.6 I will focus briefly on three that are particularly relevant to the misinterpretation of the apocalyptic message of Revelation: reaction formation, selective attention, and transference.

Misinterpretation of Revelation

Reaction formation is essentially a defense mechanism against anxiety. For example, the strong preaching of a particular preacher against sexual sin may appear in retrospect to be a fear-reaction against his own sexual impulses. Isn't it true that our antennae are often raised by those whom we perceive to "protest too loudly"? Another example of reaction formation might be the professor who raises the volume of his voice as a substitute for the self-perceived weakness of his argument. What psychological factors might lead to the strong reaction of our culture against the apocalyptic truth of Scripture? Is it possible that the long-lived desire to negate the message of the Apocalypse is in reality a way to minimize our personal and societal fears of the end of the world? Is it possible that even apocalyptic believers do not study the prophecies because they are reacting to the anxieties and fears that such subjects might evoke in them? Such tendencies may well lead to a misinterpretation or depreciation of a book of the Bible such as the book of Revelation.

Selective attention is the simple human ability to screen information. For example, when my sister was a child, mom took her to the doctor because of a hearing problem. After checking her, the doctor said, "Her ears are fine; she seems to hear only what she wants to." As I re call, the diagnosis was essentially the cure! A similar phenomenon is noted by Ariel Roth who draws attention to the mechanism of "intellectual phase locking" by which scientists often overlook (or stop looking for) evidence that would counter a favored hypothesis.7

This capacity for selective attention and "intellectual phase locking" could lead to an unbalanced and potentially harmful view of the symbolism of the Apocalypse. For example, a preoccupation with the apocalyptic images of evil (beasts, dragons, false prophets) might lead to a fortress mentality that would hinder loving social contact. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, "The complete fulfillment of its mission will always be gravely endangered if the congregation supposes itself too directly to be placed in the situation of Revelation 13."8 To read prematurely present experience in the light of eschatological conflict could lead to the withdrawal and isolation of the believing community from a world that desperately needs the salt of Christian grace.

Transference happens when, based on past feelings and experiences, a per son reacts to a current situation or individual. For example, a member of the church may transfer their hostile feelings toward a parent onto the pas tor in the counseling process. Or a person may react negatively to the pas tor as an authority-figure based entirely on previous negative experiences with encountered authority-figures.

Is it possible for the same kind of transference dynamic to be present and operative in the mind of a person as they come to Scripture? For example, most of us probably are not completely comfort able with the apocalyptic depictions of judgment found in Revelation. It seems that this discomfort could be, to a large degree, based upon our past exposure to human judgment and justice in our present life and culture. Our immediate society maybe full of expressions of op position to the death penalty, for example. So when we read the visionary accounts of God's judgment against the wicked in the Apocalypse, we automatically transfer our feelings and reactions against judgment and justice in our present to the Apocalyptic scene. Then, rather than rejoicing in God's justice against evil we transfer our feelings of aversion to the unjust situations about us to the way God is described as handling judgment in the book of Revelation. This helps to explain why op pressed peoples, who have experienced real in-your-face evil, do not seem to be as troubled by apocalyptic justice as others who have not had such experience.9


The message of the Apocalypse is as important for the church today as it ever has been. Because this message is often perceived as marginal and even dangerous and because, in the hands of irresponsible practitioners, the pathologization of apocalyptic truth is a reality, pastors must be prepared to recognize and meet such challenges. This is a reality that we must resist with all the moral and intellectual power that God has given us.

As preachers of the Apocalypse, we need to regularly and systematically unpack its "healing" message for our listeners. As pastors, we must regularly and systematically apply its wisdom to the anxieties of those who come to us for counsel. Although viewed from the couch of the psychotherapist the Apocalypse might appear dangerous and disturbing, from the pulpit the message of the book of Revelation should shine forth in all its transcendent therapeutic glory!

1 James Tabor is professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He was involved in negotiations with David Koresh to surrender to the FBI. For a complete statement of his view of the Waco crisis available on the World Wide Web: gopher://

2. Ulrich H. J. Kortner, The End of the World: A Theological Interpretation, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 47.

3. Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 144.

4. David L. Barr, "The Apocalypse as a Symbolic Transformation of the World: A Literary Analysis," Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 3& (1984), 42.

5. Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 43.

6. Ibid., 41-66.

7. Ariel Roth, Origins: Linking Science and Scripture (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1998), 294.

8. Kortner, 226.

9. Allan Boesak, Comfort and Protest: Reflections on the Apocalypse of John ofPatmos (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987).

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Paul Fisher is a Seventh-day Adventist minister currently studying at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

November 2000

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