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The book of Revelation and reality

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Archives / 2010 / January



The book of Revelation and reality

Sigve Tonstad
Sigve Tonstad, MD, PhD, is assistant professor of religion and biblical studies, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, United States.


Having started my doctoral studies, I was determined that for my dissertation I was going to look at the theme of cosmic conflict in the book of Revelation. I did so, realizing that the bulk of current scholarship had relegated the book of Revelation to nothing more than a critique of the Roman imperial system.1 In this paradigm, the beast from the sea (Rev. 13:1–10) is the Roman Empire; the wounded head is the emperor, Nero, thinly veiling the myth of Nero redivivus;2 and the beast from the earth (13:11–18) is the imperial cult or the imperial priesthood in Asia Minor.3 Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Bousset said that “the observation that the core of the prophecy in the Apocalypse refers to the then widely held expectation of Nero redivivus is in my opinion an immovable point that will not again be surrendered, the rocher de bronce [rock of bronze] of the contemporary historical interpretation against which all contrary points of view so far have been dashed to pieces.”4

As if that was not bad enough, my university supervisors leaned in that same direction in regards to the book’s meaning. However, emboldened by the text of Revelation, and the work of Richard Bauckham and Jon Paulien on John’s use of the Old Testament,5 I did not want to give up on the cosmic conflict theme.

This article reveals some of what I found.

A different genre

For starters, in my chapter on method, I indicate that the genre of Revelation is ambiguous. It does not univocally belong to apocalyptic genre and is probably best classified as prophetic (if generic classification is deemed absolutely necessary). Determining genre is important, of course, but clarity on this point can be bought at too a high price. Loosening Revelation from the company of generic apocalypses, allowing it to be read more as a second Ezekiel, for instance, than as a second Daniel, opens the book to more nuanced readings.6

Having eased the book out of the straitjacket of genre, I wanted to allow Revelation—like other notable books in the Bible—to treat us to “the antagonism between sensory appearance and meaning”7 rather than to be confined to the visceral and unsubtle intimations of generic apocalypses. “The simple notion that a text means what it says is always inadequate, but with Revelation is always wrong. Revelation does not mean what it says, it means what it means,” says David Barr.8

This does not mean that determination of meaning is beyond reach. Rather, this is a reminder that a prima facie reading is inadequate. Revelation’s disclosures are reserved for “anyone who has an ear” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 13:9), and it calls for a mind that has wisdom (13:18; 17:9). Revelation is in the business of “aural circumcision,”9 and its disclosures depend not only on what is said but also on what is heard.

The importance of details

A central element, I believe, is the personage on the opposing side in the conflict portrayed in Revelation. However some scholars claim that this element can be safely brushed to the side at no loss to interpretation. In Saving God’s Reputation, I start my argument on this point by beginning with the end of the book.10 The beast and the false prophet (the Roman Empire and the imperial priesthood in Asia Minor in critical interpretations) are now removed from the stage (19:20). Only the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan” (20:2, NIV; cf. 12:9), is left. For a figure that is supposedly a mythological “stock” character (as he has been deemed by some scholars), Satan is given a lot of attention in Revelation. He is bound, and then released under the compelling logic that he must be released (20:1–3). Despite this prominence, one interpreter tried to evade the whole issue by arguing that John left it to an unintelligent disciple to finish the book, and the disciple failed miserably.11 Others have said that the seer simply has lost interest in what he is describing.12

My interpretation, in contrast, takes neither approach. It recognizes that the text should be read as it stands, and that the text, as it stands, allots to the figure of Satan a central role in the cosmic conflict.

God’s reputation?

Along with the character of Satan in the book of Revelation, a larger issue exists: how does the book make God look? Anton Vögtle says that God “is not the only one who is at work in this world—as the Apocalypse makes so abundantly clear.”13 Few observations are as important as this one. On the terms of Revelation, the devastation that unfolds in the sequence of the seals (6:1–8:1) increased a notch higher in the sequence of the trumpets (8:2–11:19), until evil finally takes off its gloves with nothing to restrain it in the sequence of the bowls (16:1–21), is not circumlocution of divine activity (although some of the most astute interpreters of Revelation see it as that).14 John, it seems, goes out of his way not only to show the demonic quality of the action but also to link the action and the acting subject with such clarity that the reader virtually finds the passport, driver’s license, fingerprints, and copious amounts of DNA of the acting subject at the scene.15

The divine reputation looks better if one sees these calamities as unambiguous, unmitigated demonic activity. Divine permission must be distinguished from divine agency. Divine permission poses problems of its own, but these problems are ameliorated by the recognition that the acting subject in Revelation’s relentless portrayal of destruction has claimed to be something other than what he is.

The silence of the Lamb

The suspense that accompanies the story of the losing side in the cosmic conflict is dwarfed by the stunned silence that accompanies the presentation of the winning side (5:3; 8:1). Jesus is not an imperial figure; in Revelation He is “the Lamb.”16

Loren L. Johns draws out three crucial elements concerning Revelation’s Lamb Christology. First, “the lamb is declared worthy precisely because it was slaughtered (5:9).”17 Second, having been slaughtered is an essential part of the Lamb’s identity (5:12; 13:8); it is constitutive of Jesus’ experience and character.18 Third, the slaughter that comes to view does not refer to sacrifice for sin in the sacrificial cult, set to soothing organ music, “for the language is that of butchery and murder, not ritual sacrifice.”19

Also, just as Jesus in the Gospel of John reveals what God is like, the Lamb’s role in Revelation is revelatory. The slaughtered Lamb appears “in the midst of” the divine throne in heaven (5:6, KJV; cf. 7:17) in order to show that “Christ’s sacrificial death belongs to the way God rules the world.”20

What comes to light, then, is not an imperial figure bringing the rebellious to heel by power. “[N]o one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it” (5:3, NKJV), says John. Why does he say that? Is his main point that other potential candidates for the task lack the Lamb’s pedigree for this task? Or does it have (as I see it) a persuasive intent of the order that “absolutely no one else would have solved the cosmic conflict this way”?21

Eye for an eye

There is, though, another element regarding the character of God. The logic of retribution tends to dominate interpretations of Revelation, as when John J. Collins—influenced by his decision to assign the book to the apocalyptic genre—finds in Revelation “the projection into the future of what was unfulfilled in the past. Jesus did not destroy the wicked in his earthly life, but he would return with supernatural power to complete the task.”22 Was the notion of “an eye for an eye” only temporarily suspended (Exod. 21:24; Matt. 5:38–42), to be recalled into service in Revelation in double measure (Rev. 18:6)? Does God, at the very end, send fire from heaven against God’s opponents, burning them alive (20:9)?

My suggestion is that the reality of cosmic conflict that plays out in Revelation offers other options.23 Specifically, as to the mysterious binding and release of Satan (20:1– 10), I suggest that it is the logic of freedom, not the logic of lex talionis (law of retaliation) “that leads to Satan’s release, and it is within the logic of freedom, precisely the value said to be lacking in the divine character, that Satan proceeds to work his definitive undoing (20:7–9).”24


Though often seen as a book revealing the future, Revelation also should be read as a message that illumes the present. The ideology of Revelation, right down to the self-designation of the book (apocalypsis), is the ideology of transparency (as against secrecy);25 the ideology of accountability on the part of the ruling power; the commitment to the non-use of force; and the obligation to abide by this commitment on the part of those who hold to “the commandments of God as revealed by the faithfulness of Jesus” (see 13:10; 14:12).

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1. William Barclay (“Great Themes of the New Testament:
Revelation xiii,” Expository Times 70 [1959]: 260–264)
provides a representative and easily accessible
presentation of this view. The leading study pursuing
the imperial dimension, among many worthy options,
is probably Leonard Thompson, The Book of Revelation:
Apocalypse and Empire (New York: Oxford University Press,

2. Hans-Josef Klauck, “Do They Never Come Back? Nero
Redivivus and the Apocalypse of John,” CBQ 63 (2001):
683–698. The author, reviewing the traditional arguments
in favor of the Nero redivivus hypothesis, lays his expressed
concern to rest by predicting a healthy future for this

3. The most important source for the imperial cult as the
referent for the beast from the earth is S. R. F. Price,
Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); see also
Steven Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John:
Reading Revelation in the Ruins (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001), 5–131.

4. Wilhelm Bousset, Die Offenbarung Johannis (Göttingen:
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1906), 120, translation mine.
Bousset’s view is maintained with minor variations, though
with less rhetorical flourish, by a host of interpreters; cf.
Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 3d ed.
(London: Macmillan & Co., 1908), 163, 164; I. T. Beckwith,
The Apocalypse of John (New York: Macmillan, 1919),
635–637; R. H. Charles, The Revelation of St. John, 2 vols.
(ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), 332, 333; G. B. Caird,
The Revelation of Saint John (London: A. & C. Black, 1966;
2d printing, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999),
164; Jürgen Roloff, The Revelation of John, trans. John E.
Alsup; (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 153–168; A. J.
P. Garrow, Revelation (London: Routledge, 1997), 118–125;
Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the
Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993), 384–452;
Adela Yarbro Collins, The Combat Myth in the Book of
Revelation (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1976; repr. Eugene,
OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 176–184; David E.
Aune, Revelation, 3 vols. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson
Publishers, 1996–98), II:729.

5. According to Bauckham (The Climax of Prophecy, xi),
Revelation’s allusions to the Old Testament are “meant to
recall the Old Testament context, which thereby becomes
part of the meaning the Apocalypse conveys, and to build
up, sometimes by a network of allusion to the same Old
Testament passage in various parts of the Apocalypse,
an interpretation of whole passages of Old Testament
prophecy”; cf. also J. Paulien, Decoding Revelation’s
Trumpets: Allusions and the Interpretation of Rev 8:7-12
(Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1988).

6. See e.g. Frederick David Mazzaferri (The Genre of the Book
of Revelation from a Source-critical Perspective [BZNW
54; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1989]), who argues that
Revelation is better seen as a prophetic book, a second
“Ezekiel.” See also Gregory L. Linton, “Reading the
Apocalypse as Apocalypse: The Limits of Genre,” in The
Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of
Revelation, ed. David L. Barr (Atlanta: Society of Biblical
Literature, 2006), 9–42.

7. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1953), 49.

8. David Barr, Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the
Book of Revelation (Santa Rosa: Poleridge Press, 1998), 4.

9. The term is borrowed from Frank Kermode (The Genesis
of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative [Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1979], 3). “Aural circumcision” in
Revelation is implied in the call that echoes throughout the
messages to the seven churches (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13,
22) and by the emphatic injunction in 13:9.

10. Sigve K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological
Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of
Revelation (London and New York: T. & T. Clark, 2006),

11. R. H. Charles, The Revelation of St. John, 2 vols. (ICC;
Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1920), II:147.

12. Ernest Lohmeyer, Die Offenbarung des Johannes (HNT
16; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1953), 161; cf.
Heinrich Kraft, Die Offenbarung des Johannes (HNT 16A;
Tübingen: Mohr, 1974), 258.

13. Anton Vögtle, “Der Gott der Apocalypse,” in La Notion
biblique de Dieu, ed. J. Coppens (Gembloux: Éditions J.
Duculot, 1976), 383.

14. The term edōthe is used a total of twenty-one times in
Revelation (6:2; 6:4 (twice); 6:8; 6:11; 7:2; 8:3; 9:1; 9:3;
9:5; 11:1; 11:2; 13:5 (twice); 13:7 (twice); 13:14; 13:15;
16:8; 19:8; 20:4. Five of these occurrences are “positive”
(6:11; 8:3; 11:1; 19:8; 20:4), describing privileges given
to the redeemed. One is ambivalent (7:2). The remaining
instances refer to permission to infl ict harm. David Aune
(Revelation, 3 vols. [WBC; Dallas: Word Books, 1997], II:394,
395) accepts the traditional idea of the passivum divinum
but notes that the expression by itself cannot resolve
whether the “divine enablement” refers to a positive or
negative activity. As to the trumpet sequence, Boring
(Revelation, 134, 135) is convinced that “all the plagues
come from heaven,” are not caused by independent
powers, and proceed ultimately “from the sovereign hand
of the one God.” Jürgen Roloff (The Revelation of John,
trans. John E. Alsup [CC; Minneapolis: Fortress Press,
1993], 111) sees divine agency and judgment on human
disobedience “when God [emphasis added] poisons the
water and thereby destroys the place where these people
live.” To Aune (Revelation II: 545), recalling the underlying
motif of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, the purpose of the
trumpet plagues specifi cally “is not to elicit repentance but
to exact punishment.” According to Hans K. LaRondelle
(The End-Time Prophecies of the Bible [Sarasota: First
Impressions, 1997], 115), the contents of the sealed scroll
describe “the judgments of God on a hostile world.” The
cycles of seven cover the same ground; “the apocalyptic
seals, and by extension the trumpets and bowls, are all to
be understood as Messianic judgments” (123), and “the
literary resemblance of the trumpets with Egypt’s plagues
tells us that the trumpets are in essence not natural
disasters or general calamities, but God’s covenant curses
on His enemies” (175, 176). Sovereignty, omnipotence, and
judgment are stable ingredients in these interpretations.
God is the acting subject.

15. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation, 108–114.

16. As Vögtle (“Der Gott der Apocalypse,” 386, 387) shows, “the
Lamb” is “the most frequently utilised and comprehensive
title of honour of Jesus Christ,” numbering 28 instances.

17. Loren L. Johns, “The Lamb in the Rhetorical Program of the
Apocalypse of John,” SBL Seminar Papers 37 (1998), 2:780.

18. Johns, “The Lamb,” 2:780.

19. Ibid, emphasis added.

20. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation
(NTT; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 64.

21. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation, 141. Caird (Revelation,
75), confi guring persuasion in a way that deserves a better
story line than he gives it, writes that “omnipotence is not
to be understood as the power of unlimited coercion, but
as the power of infi nite persuasion, the invincible power of
self-negating, self-sacrifi cing love.”

22. John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2d ed. (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 278.

23. What is left for God to do when the losing side has
exhausted its powers of destruction? Enumerating some
caveats, seeing consequences rather than retribution
at work: (1) fi re from below (9:17); (2) fi re from within
(Ezek. 28:18); (3) self-destruction in the Old Testament
antecedent to Revelation’s eschatological battle (Rev. 20:8;
Ezek. 38:21); (4) self-destruction and dissolution in the
ranks of the losing side explicitly featured in Revelation
(17:16) even to the point to suggest that when the beast
and false prophet are “thrown alive” into the fi re (19:20),
they meet the consequences by the hand of those who
feel aggrieved by them; (5) self-destruction as featured in
other apocalyptic voices (14:19, 20; cf. 1 Enoch 100:3); (6)
Origen’s notion (First Principles 2.20.4) “that every sinner
kindles for himself the fl ame of his own fi re, and is not
plunged into a fire which has been previously kindled
by someone else or which existed before him”; (7) two
more caveats, perhaps the most signifi cant, that I leave
unmentioned here.

24. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation, 155.

25. Cf. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American
Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

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