The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible—and the most controversial.
Instead of stories and moral teaching, it offers only visions— dreams and nightmares. And although few people say they understand its powerful images and prophecies, the book has been wildly popular among readers for two thousand years. Even today, countless people throughout the world turn to it to find meaning, and many Christian groups claim to see its prophecies of divine judgment being fulfilled before their eyes. Millions fear being “left behind” when the end comes, as Tim LaHaye’s best-selling book series warns, and believe that they are seeing its prophesied battles playing out in catastrophic events of recent history. Its visions of heaven and hell weave through literature from Milton’s Paradise Lost to the poems of William Butler Yeats and the stories of James Baldwin, and have inspired music ranging from “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and African American spirituals to the Quartet for the End of Time, which French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote and first performed in a Nazi prison camp. Filmmakers and artists today graphically picture its visions, as Michelangelo, Goya, Bosch, Blake, and Picasso did before them. Christians in America have identified with its visions of cosmic war since the 1600s, when many immigrating to the New World believed they had arrived in the “new Jerusalem” promised in Revelation. Many have seen America as a “redeemer nation” that is to bring in the millennium, while others see its present military and economic system as evil Babylon. Political rhetoric still appeals to our nation’s sense of divine destiny—or damns America for its sins.
How did this book speak to people when it was written two thousand years ago, and how does it continue to do so today? These questions led to this book, for, whether we love or hate it, the Book of Revelation speaks to something deep in human nature. I began this writing during a time of war, when some who advocated war claimed to find its meaning in Revelation, which was itself written in the aftermath of war. Exploring how this book has fascinated readers for two thousand years tells us much about ourselves and about how religion evokes such powerful responses— for better and for worse— to this day.
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