The Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye attracted attention to eschatology—the “part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind” (Oxford English Dictionary). They are by no means the first writers to depict the events cataloged in the book of Revelation and other passages of prophecy. Back in 1972 A Thief in the Night, the first of a series of four feature-length films, made it’s way into theaters.
There was also a badly written novel—the title escapes me—that encapsulated the entire story of The End . . . in about 250 pages. I’m sure there were others. Certainly there have been since Left Behind. In 2010 Scars: An amazing end-time prophecy novel came out. In 2011 an author announced he was beginning work on The Revelation: a new end-times novel as part of NaNoWriMo.
Years ago, before Revelation became a subject of fiction, churches favoring a dispensational view of Biblical history, held prophecy conferences, complete with charts and time lines.
All this to say, there has been a fascination with Revelation and what it says about the future. But of late, perhaps in reaction to the so popular Left Behind books, there’s been a bit of a backlash against end-time fiction. Some publishers, for example, state in their guidelines they do not want end-time stories. Some bloggers make repeated references to the “bad theology” of the Left Behind books.
I suppose the main struggle with the book of Revelation is to know what is symbolic and what is literal. In some instances, an angel tells John, and therefore us, what the visionary language means.
As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev. 1:20)
These passages are not nearly as common as the pictorial, symbolic language filling most of the book.
That we struggle today to know what John saw that was figurative and what, literal, should be no surprise. The disciples struggled to understand Jesus, too. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, He told them. Oh, no, the disciples said, we forgot to bring bread. I’m going up to Jerusalem to die, Jesus said. Who gets to sit on Your right hand and left hand when You take over, the disciples asked.
When was He talking in parables, when was He speaking plainly? If they couldn’t tell, it should be no shock that we struggle a bit with the same issues when it comes to the revelation Jesus gave to John.
But there are some things we can know. So what is good theology when it comes to the book of Revelation? What is this book recording John’s vision of angels and trumpets and bowls of wrath and seals and beasts and the harlot Babylon, all about?
As my former pastor said as part of his introduction to a sermon series over the book, the one clear truth is that Christ wins. That being said, I think there are some additional key themes that run through Revelation which, I believe, Christians on either side of the theological divide, agree upon.
First, Jesus Christ is the Lamb that was slain, making Him the only one qualified to open that which God has held secret from past ages and generations.
In addition, He will return as the Conqueror and the King, defeating Satan and assigning him eternal punishment.
Revelation also portrays divine judgment on those who follow Satan, who do not repent and give God glory.
Throughout, the book shows God as righteous in His acts, even those that come directly from His wrath. Here’s an example:
And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous are You, who are and who were, O Holy One, because You judged these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.” (Rev 16:5-7)
Another key theme is God’s provision of a new home—a new heaven and a new earth—for those whose names are written in the book of life.
One more, though undoubtedly there are others: there’s a clear warning to the churches to hold fast to the truth, to love God and obey Him, to resist false teaching or the lure of riches or complacency.
Revelation is a rich book because it shows us more about who God is than it does about what will happen someday. It shows us what He cares about and what His wrath looks like. It shows that He is worthy to be praised for His justice as well as for His redemption, for His majesty as well as for His righteousness. It shows that He is the Lamb who is Worthy.
This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2012.