I've been reading through the book of Revelation, asking myself what kind of book it is, and how we are meant to read it to hear its message.
I've found myself wondering if I've been asking the wrong questions.
Revelation as Symbolic Retelling of History
I used to see the book of Revelation as a symbolic retelling of parts of the history of parts of the human race. I say "parts of", because I would want to suspend judgement on whether it's "parts" or "all".
It might be telling the story of the whole of history between Jesus' first and final comings, or it might be telling the story of certain portions of that history. Candidates for "certain portions" would include the first 40 years after Jesus ascended, or the last few years (or the last thousand years) before he returns. Or maybe it tells of the first 40 years, and the final years, but without much on what comes between. Or it could be "all", telling the whole of history
As I say, suspend judgement on that: I saw the book as a symbolic retelling of some of human history. That's to say, the book of Revelation recounts real events that human beings on earth get up to. Some could be events that were in the past when Revelation was written; others could be events that were in the future when Revelation was written. But it tells the story, and it does so symbolically. A bit like a caricature cartoon drawing, the players on the stage of human history are acted out in the book of Revelation by characters that symbolise them: a woman here, a dragon there.
Reading Revelation: Find the Key
If that's what Revelation is doing it, then the task of interpreting it becomes clear. We need to find the key. When we meet a character in the book, we try to work out which character (or group) is referred to. Is this Jesus, Satan, Mary, a particular church leader, a particular Roman emperor, or what? When we meet a place in the book, we try to work out which place is referred to. Is this Jerusalem, or Babylon, or Rome, or Ephesus, or where?
But what if that was the wrong approach and those were the wrong questions.
Revelation as Coherent Story
Here's what I've noticed. The book tells a coherent single story through chapters 4:1-22:7. I'll tell that story in another post, and I'll look at the relationship between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-22 in still another. But let me illustrate what I mean by "a coherent single story".
The Throne-room with its Cast
Chapter 4 opens with a vision of a throne, with someone seated on it, surrounded by other thrones containing 24 elders and by 4 living creatures. As we near the end of the book, in Revelation 19:4, we discover this: "The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshipped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: ‘Amen, Hallelujah!’". So as the multitude praises God for the condemnation of "the great prostitute" (Revelation 19:2), the elders, living creatures, and God on the throne are still present and responding to the events. We didn't leave the heavenly throne room behind after Revelation 4-5; we've had other hints on the way through that we're still there, of which this is the last one.
The Dragon and the Two Beasts
In chapters 12-13, we meet an unholy trinity of dragon, beast and second beast. They do the things recorded in those chapters, and it's tempting to think they've finished their part on the stage. This is not the case. In Revelation 16:13, when the sixth angel pours out his bowl, impure spirits that look like frogs "came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouse of the false prophet". And then, in Revelation 19:20, the beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of sulphur. In Revelation 20:10, the devil is also thrown there, having been identified in Revelation 20:2 with the dragon.
So the heavenly throne-room is the explicit scene of Revelation 4-5, but we never leave that backdrop. The harm done by the dragon, beast and second beast / false prophet are the focus of Revelation 12-13, but they remain on stage. They have a role in Revelation 16, and they are unfinished business until they enter torment in Revelation 19 and Revelation 20. There is a single story unfolding.
The Seven Bowls with their Angels
Or take the seven bowls. "I saw in heaven another great and marvellous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues – last, because with them God’s wrath is completed." (Revelation 15:1). This is followed by Revelation 16:1, "Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, ‘Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.’" Chapter 16 then tells the story of what happens when these 7 angels pour out their 7 bowls.
By the end of chapter 16, those angels have finished their part in the drama, because that scene has concluded, right? Wrong. The scene in chapter 17, with the woman seated on the beast, is introduced thus: "One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters’" (Revelation 17:1). The description of the holy city in the second half of chapter 21 is introduced thus: "One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’" (Revelation 21:9). Now, I can't figure out why this is important, but let's just note the fact that a single story is being told: For some reason, it matters that the narrator who introduces those scenes is one of the angels from chapter 16. The text could just have said "An angel came and said to me", but for some reason we need to know that it was one of those angels.
The Mark of the Beast
One more example: In Revelation 20:4, the souls who came to life to reign with Christ are described in this way: "They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands". That's a reference to Revelation 13:12 ("It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.") and Revelation 13:16-17 ("It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name."). So the risen souls of chapter 20 are defined by how they handled themselves under the pressures of chapter 13.
What is clear is that Revelation is not comprised of a series of discrete scenes, with different cast on the stage and different events being referred to. It's one single story being told, in which fresh characters enter the drama at regular intervals, but where we are always intended to assume that we're in the flow of all that's happened up to that point.
Back to How to read Revelation
How does all this come to bear on whether we're asking the right question when we ask for the real-world equivalents to the characters, places and events we meet in the world of Revelation?
If History, it's History in Order
Firstly, observing that Revelation is a single flowing story does not, in and of itself, rule out the possibility that Revelation is a symbolic retelling of parts of human history. After all, human history is a single-flowing story. What it does mean is that if Revelation works like this, then Revelation needs (mostly) to tell the story of human history in order.
Within the world of the book, each scene in Revelation needs to have been preceded by the scenes before it, otherwise we won't have the prior knowledge we need of various of the characters and action.
If all the main characters and events of the book correspond to characters and events in human history, it follows each scene of human history portrayed in the book needs to happen after the ones portrayed earlier in the book. (My background is mathematics. For fellow mathematicians, the mapping of events in Revelation onto dates of events in human history needs to be an increasing function. If you move forwards through the book, you move forwards through human history too.)
Reading Revelation: Follow the Story
Second, seeing that Revelation weaves a single coherent narrative of its own does mean that we are not asking the most important question when we ask what corresponds to what.
Stories / narratives have power to communicate, as we listen to the story-teller telling a story that draws us in and teaches us in the process. Stories are not first and foremost codes to be broken, but narrative worlds to be entered and listened to.
So the most important question is: "What is this story teaching us?", and we let it work as a story to do that.
Perhaps the analogy is Pilgrim's Progress. It's an engaging story. It's symbolic (the names have characters that betray their character, rivalling Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men stories). But the story works because it draws us in, and we can identify from the various things that happen and the people we meet. It doesn't need us to "decode" it before we can read it.
Instead of seeking to find the key, we seek to follow the story.
Stories have power to communicate, without needing to be an allegory to do so.
As we then seek to locate ourselves in the story, so we can hear it address us, it may be helpful at points if we identify who various characters represent. But we don't need to do that, at all, and we certainly don't need to do it at every point, in order to be able to listen to what the story is saying. We just need to pay really, really good attention to the story.