“Fear Not,” Or, How I Learned to Love the Book of Revelation
By Blake Hartung
The last book of the Bible, the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John, has been a consistent source of mystery and bewilderment for Christians since its composition in the last decade of the first century. This is of course, shouldn’t be too surprising; we are, after all, talking about the book that has given us such bizarre tableaux as a pregnant woman clothed in the sun pursued by a dragon, four colorful horsemen, and a beast that comes out of the sea!
As a child in a conservative Southern Baptist church in East Texas, the book of Revelation was frequently a topic for sermons or classes, second perhaps only to teachings on Genesis 1 and 2. The Left Behind novels, based on pre-millennial dispensationalist interpretations of biblical eschatology, were a massive sensation in my evangelical circles, sparking an even greater fervor for Revelation and its secrets. And so it was that I acquired my fear of unifying world governments, computerized payment options, common currencies, and particularly, the terrible Tribulation. The Revelation-fever that was sweeping the evangelical world was providing me with very little comfort or encouragement.
I remember tossing and turning in my bed fearing for my salvation after a particularly unnerving sermon on the coming Rapture and Tribulation. Thoughts raced through my head, questions about the Apocalypse which was certain to arrive in my lifetime. What if I wasn’t really a Christian? What if I was left behind? And even if I was raptured, I hated the thought of being one of the only generation not to get the chance to live out my life on earth: to get married, to have children, etc. Not to mention that visions of beasts coming out the sea, flying dragons, raining fire, rampaging pestilence, and nefarious trans-national monetary policies were doing little to placate my worried young mind. The Book of Revelation was bringing me nothing but fear.
By the time I was well into high school and college, I decided that I had had enough. I wanted nothing more to do with the book of Revelation. I decided that this book was simply too obscure to be valuable, and that its vivid eschatological predictions were just not relevant to everyday life. Whether or not a Rapture and Terrible Tribulation were going to happen soon, I didn’t particularly care, and saw no point in discussing them.
My reaction was nothing new. People have seen impending terror in Revelation for almost 2000 years. Around the time of the Islamic invasion of the Middle East in the 7th century, a mysterious writer going by the name of Methodius wrote his own apocalyptic thriller, interpreting Revelation in light of the chaos that ensued with the arrival of the Muslims. And around the year 1000, numerous pamphlets were circulating predicting the end of the world. In Martin Luther’s day, as the Turks moved ever closer to Vienna and Central Europe, the great Reformer himself was pretty sure the end was nigh. And more recently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted –and subsequently had to revise their prediction – of the end times, how many different times? Undoubtedly, this eschatological fervor down through the ages has proven a source of fear and weariness for many Christians.
And so it was that I too gave in to Eschatological Fatigue (EF). And I was doing a pretty job of it too, shrugging off conversations on end-times prophecy and attempting to avoid sermons on the Book of Revelation. All of that lasted until a few years ago, when something remarkable occurred. In a church small group meeting, a friend suggested we study Revelation. The alarm bells went off in my head. Not this again. Indeed, I wasn’t the only one who reacted negatively: the suggestion led to various degrees of muttering and nervous shifting from several other EF sufferers in the group. A few people supported the idea, though, and the rest of us reluctantly agreed. And in the end, after several startling weeks of excellent discussion and uplifting exegesis, we all us came out of it seeing the enigmatic book with new eyes.
Crucial for my change of heart was John’s visionary encounter with our Lord in chapter 1. There, Christ appears robed in glorious and bizarre imagery evocative of the Old Testament, with hair white like wool, feet like bronze, eyes like burning flames, and a sword coming out of his mouth (vv. 12-16). At the sight of him, John falls on his face “as though dead” (v. 17) But then the Revelator adds a small detail: “But he placed his right hand on me”. The resurrected Lord stoops to touch the trembling visionary and adds: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” (vv. 17-18)
Here is the interpretive key to Revelation: “Do not be afraid.” Even though the persecution of the faithful church (the woman clothed in the Sun) by the unbelieving world (the beasts or dragon), is one of Revelation’s most prominent themes, Christ’s tender touch and words of hope to John should ring through our reading of the text. To its original audience, who lived under as strangers in a sometimes-hostile Roman world, the visions must have provided a great source of comfort. So they should also be for us. I have no interest in reading Revelation as a codebook to decrypt the events of the next few decades, and I refuse to see the book’s message as a source of fear. This is the message of Revelation that I missed hearing as a child: the living Christ of the apocalypse appears not to bring fear to the Christian, but hope, that he will indeed “make all things new,” as he proclaims in the finale of the book (21:5).
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
(Rev. 21:3-4, NRSV)
Blake Hartung Biography
Blake Hartung is a PhD candidate in Historical Theology (and adjunct professor) at Saint Louis University. A native of Tyler, Texas, Blake now lives in St. Louis, where he also met his wife Sarah. In his free time, Blake enjoys reading, gardening, hiking, strategy games, and making and/or listening to music.
Christian Background: Having grown up in a deeply Christian home, Blake cannot remember a time in which he had not heard that Jesus was Lord. Although he was raised Southern Baptist, Blake began to attend a Presbyterian church in college, drawn by the all-of-life theology of Neo-Calvinism, as well as his own deepening interest in Christian history. That growing awareness of the richness of the Great Tradition contributed to his own spiritual awakening, and carried him to into graduate studies in Christian history. Today, Blake attends a Presbyterian church, while writing a dissertation on St. Ephrem the Syrian at a Roman Catholic university, a combination which gives him a profoundly odd outlook on the Christian faith.
Image courtesy of Reece Meins.