Revelation and Apocalyptic Imagery

Apocalyptic is best known for its symbolic use of language. The genre is full of strange dreams and visions, usually symbolic of something that the writer is trying to tell his readers, but hide from those that are not familiar with the “code.” This makes interpreting the books very difficult indeed, since many of the cultural references are lost.

World War 2 Political Cartoon

Craig Blomberg uses the analogy of a political cartoon from the cold war. Any person who lived through those years would understand the symbol of a bear and an eagle (Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 372). A political cartoon from 50 or 100 years ago might be virtually impossible to understand without immersing oneself in the politics of that day. I showed a series of political cartoons to my class, beginning with one from shortly after 9/11. Everyone understood the meaning of an eagle sharpening its talons in that context. But cartoons from 15 years ago were a bit more difficult for a college student to understand because of the historic distance from the events. I had cartoons from World War II (most people understood the reference to Hitler). The World War I cartoon was more obscure, and the Civil War cartoons were very hard to understand. Finally, a political cartoon from the Revolutionary War made no sense to any of us since we had no clue who the people were or to what events inspired the imagery.

This is how the “code” of apocalyptic works. It is not really a secret “Bible code” which needs a key to decipher the meaning; the symbols are only obscure to use because we live so long after first century and know so little of the culture. Some scholars have toyed with the idea certain circles of Christians produced a set of typical or stock images. An example might be “Babylon is Rome,” in an effort to hide the tact the book is talking about the Empire. While this is possible, it is a very difficult task to describe these stock symbols and their meanings.

In order to understand apocalyptic, we need to cross two different boundaries. We need to study the imagery in the proper time and the proper culture. In order to understand a political cartoon, I have to put in the right era, but I also have to know the cultural cues implied by the art. If I showed a French political cartoon from fifty years ago, I might have no idea what it was talking about until I researched the time period and culture in which the cartoon was produced. So too with apocalyptic – I must immerse myself in the culture of the first century. This includes both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, since Revelation has a foot in both worlds.  This has the advantage of coming closer to the author’s original intent (literal interpretation) and avoids some of the silly excess of popular interpretations.

One objection to this method is that it is hard work to immerse oneself in an ancient culture.  This is a fair point, but if the alternative is to read Revelation as a general comment on Good versus Evil, or as weird symbols only made clear by a recent prophet with the “secret key” to the book, then I am all for the hard work.  It is better to read Revelation with an Oxford Introduction to the Roman Empire in hand than Jane’s Defence Weekly.

16 thoughts on “Revelation and Apocalyptic Imagery

  1. The analogy of trying to understand older political cartoons and comparing that to what we must do to understand Revelation, helps put us in the right mindset for reading such a complex book. This analogy P. Long brings to attention also puts into perspective the amount of hard work and study we must do if we are going to properly understand Revelation. If a 50 year old political cartoon is difficult for us to understand, how much more difficult will the book of Revelation be without proper study of historical context and culture.

    This amount of study and work should not discourage us from reading Revelation. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 2:10-14 that the Holy Spirit helps us to understand and have spiritual discernment, and I think that includes God’s word. And perhaps we have merely developed an exaggeration within the book of Revelation, because ultimately when we read the Bible we must also do the work to understand the proper context and culture, Revelation is the same. Yes, perhaps Revelation requires a lot more contextual and cultural study, but this is no different from other books of the Bible, and we should not allow it to be a barrier preventing us from reading God’s word.

  2. The analogy of interpreting political cartoons to describe what it’s like to try to interpret Revelation really helped me understand it more. At first glance, it really can just seem like a lot of weird and vague things that don’t make any sense and don’t even always go together. But when you look at it with this concept of cultural understanding in mind, you can see why it presents this way to us as modern day readers. We aren’t necessarily the people that were immediately intended to be the audience, and we have hardly any context or cultural background to help us fill in the blanks. It’s not easy to put ourselves in the shoes of people thousands of years ago to know what they knew and understand what experiences and understandings went into the words they wrote. We can certainly do our best to research the culture of the time to try to understand some of the references and descriptions that don’t make sense to us right away. Revelation is not the only book in the Bible that contains vague or representative language, so we have to give it the same effort that we give other passages that offer an indirect message so we can determine the meaning.

  3. This is simply good expository work. One will never really be able to profit from the Bible until they immerse themselves in the culture that it was written in. And the “hard work” is certainly necessary. What if you made a comment that went mainstream and nobody took the time to study the context in which you uttered the comment? You would feel like “nobody is taking you serious”. In other words, you would feel like people were not being fair to you. This applies to the Bible as well. It is a very old book, and we cannot expect it to use the language and analogies that we are familiar with. We must take the time to study them diligently. The Bereans in Acts 17:11 are a great example of this. After they heard the word of God preached, they took it upon themselves to study the sayings themselves, and compared it to other texts in the Bible–and they were very wise for doing this. Out of all the books of the Bible, I think this practice applies most importantly to Revelation. It is full of metaphors and ancient analogies and very nebulous language, and if one is not diligent in figuring out the historical context, then I guarantee one will be lost. If one is not able to interpret the text correctly, then the reality is one will not be able to receive the blessings it offers, and I think this is the key point I wanted to make. The “hard work” described above is not without its rewards. Taking the easy route by just reading through the book lazily, merely referencing the “popular interpretations of the book”, one will not be encouraged. The truth of Scripture is what compels, inspires, motivates–but one must work hard to uncover this truth, not that it is like a secret “code”; it was simply written in a historical context that is not altogether familiar with us.

  4. I agree with Dr. P Long when he says that the genre is full of strange dreams and visions. There are so many visions that are symbolic and if a regular person reads it, that person would be very confused. There have been many times that I read the Bible and was surprised and very confused by what it said and I to be honest, I couldn’t understand what I was reading.

    There are many political cartoons that are easy to understand however, when it comes to older political cartoons it is very hard to define what it means because we are either not familiar with the cartoon, or are not old enough to understand the cartoon. It is important to understand that each cartoon has its history and meaning behind it. Sometimes it is impossible to interpret cartoons that were recently made and when it comes to the book of Revelation, it can be almost impossible to interpret the dreams and visions and the meaning of the book. However, with proper knowledge, it is possible to rightfully understand what the book of Revelation is about.

  5. The Bible is a book that if you don’t understand the culture and the background behind the stories then it is fairly hard to determine the meaning and what it is saying. In your post you talked about needing to immerse ourselves in the politics of the past in order to understand the propaganda that was being used around war time, and the same is for the Bible because if we don’t study and dig deeper into the background information than we wont understand what it is saying. Within the Bible there are many places where imagery and metaphors are used and we need to think hard to figure out what it is saying because if we don’t than it could cause us to be confused about the rest of it as well. We need to know what happened before and after to understand the context as well as know the culture and even some of the language would be helpful. This may seem discouraging because of all the work that goes into deciphering the text but it will be very beneficial in the end. It should be our desire to understand Gods word as best we can in order to connect with him and know what he has in store for us.

  6. I got to look at some of the political cartoons from class and they were tough to understand. I felt like I did not know any of them after 9/11 because I was so young. I learn a lot in history, but none of the cartoon people looked familiar and it was not possible for me to interpret the ones in different languages. Many of the apocalyptic language can be difficult to interpret because they are from a long time ago and talk about things that we may not be familiar with. There is a lot of history and language we may not know, but if we took the time to research and study it, then we can interpret the apocalyptic language that is being written in the book of Revelation. It can be difficult though because there may be times where we crack the code wrong because it might make sense, but may not be what the interpretation is supposed to be. Many of the ancient culture is hard to learn and it is from a long time ago so there may not be enough information so it can make it difficult to research the culture to help interpret the verse. But if we take time and prepare ourselves, we may be able to understand the apocalyptic language of the verse.

  7. The analogy that P Long made with the interpretation of political cartoons really helped me to make a correlation to interpreting the book of Revelation. I was in class that day we looked at the political cartoons and I can admit I had a lot of trouble deciphering the cartoons that did not have familiar faces, places, or incidents. This is true when looking to the book of Revelation, it can be hard to interpret phrases, people, or things that happened that we are not familiar with. We have to place ourselves into that time frame and that culture that it took place within. We cannot simply read Revelation and not dig deeper into the context of which it happened. We need the Holy Spirit to help reveal to us meaning behind God’s word, as well as put in the work it takes to understand these verses and chapters. One response I have to the one objection P Long stated, is that this Christian walk was not meant to be easy in the first place. We should not go into this relationship with Christ thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park. It is a relationship with Christ that we have, and relationships take work, we know that full well. Applying ourselves to the word and reading what God has given us can help us deepen our relationship and understanding of who He is and who He has been all this time.

  8. The idea of using political cartoons as a way to help understand how quickly the meaning behindimagery in apocalyptic literature can become lost. While there has ben a ton of study on Revelation and the imagery John used I think we tend to get caught up on the imagery and how fantastic it is. Clearly, there needs to be a ton of research involved to interpret the images athat John uses and we may never completely understand those images. It is the same with political cartoons we can tend to get caught up on the imagery and start making assumption on the meaning of the cartoons. While some imagery in the cartoons even if your not familiar with the time can be clear, for example hitler in the above cartoon. I think for the book of revelation we can compare some of the imagery to our own culture the empire references. However I feel we need to be cautious of this approach as that can leader us reading something into the context that is not there or the author did not intend to be there.

  9. The parallel between the book of Revelation/apocalyptic literature and political cartoons makes it more clear for readers to understand the language used in the book of Revelation. It is true that modern day Christians often times have a hard time understanding the book of Revelation, along with other books of the Bible, because they do not understand the culture in which the text was written. I once heard scripture and the culture of the Bible described this way, “the text cannot mean to the audience today what it did not mean to the original audience”. This means that in order to properly understand the message that the writer of the text was teaching, the present day reader needs to understand the culture of the past writer. For instance, in the book of 1 Peter, it can be understood the type of persecution that Christians were receiving, but readers need to understand the persecution of the time of when the text was written, not what persecution looks like in the present era. Peter was writing about the persecution of the Jews to revert back to the previous religious practices, but also those who were living in the Roman society surrounded by those who were worshipping Greek mythology (1 Peter 4). The persecution that believers face today look different because they are not getting stoned for being Christians, at least not in American society, but more discrimination due to their faith. Christians need to understand the differences in culture in order to fully understand the meaning of the text to the original audience. This will help believers to better understand the apocalyptic literature of Revelation.

  10. I don’t think anyone will truly even be able to understand Revelation, no matter the level of education provided. This is text given off of dreams, visions of the future. Where is the study in that? Something that pops up at times of intense imagery and imagination. The book of Revelation may be hard to understand, but it should not stop us from reading it or even attempting to understand it. Revelation requires a lot more contextual and cultural study, but this is no different from other books of the Bible, and we should not allow it to be a barrier preventing us from reading God’s word.

  11. This is such a great post on the importance of reading within the context and culture of the time. I am the first to admit that I have always avoided reading or studying Revelation, because it just made no sense to me. Johnson (2008) describes the literary form of Revelation as one full of symbolism (p. 2455). Because of this, I would have absolutely fallen into the category of assuming the “weird symbols” can only make sense to an elite few, or it is just too much work to try to interpret what these symbols mean. But to be reminded that if I would just take the time to understand the context in which Revelation was written, it can give insight into the message being given, then why wouldn’t I want to spend the “extra time” in doing so?

    I just finished reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. What sets this apart from so many other books is that Spiegelman chose to draw his subjects as animals: Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, Polish are pigs, Americans are dogs, etc. At first glance, it does seem strange that he would depict such a devastating subject with animals. The question could be posed, does using cartoons of animals takes away from the seriousness of the message? But, if you do some research into propaganda at the time, you begin to understand the underlying message Spiegelman intended by anthropomorphizing his characters. To fully appreciate Maus, you need to first understand the context. All this to say, this has been a great reminder that if I put as much effort into understanding the background and context of biblical writings, as I do modern literature, just imagine how much more I can understand of God’s word!

    Johnson, D.E. (2008). Revelation. In The ESV Study Bible. Crossway Bibles.

  12. I think context is a major part of understanding anything within Scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament. In order to properly interpret anything from the Bible, the cultural context alongside the situation being presented in that time period, as well as the author’s intent are all key to understanding a passage of Scripture. It is when pastors and church leaders don’t take into consideration these things that we find so much misinformed interpretations of Scripture. For Revelation it is the same. Understanding apocalyptic imagery, alongside the social and political context in which John is writing, is key to understanding Revelation. Much like today first century Christians had different cultural references and ways of talking about things, and like Professor Long suggested, due to the persecution of Christians in Rome, the term “Babylon” as being Rome would make sense. Ignoring culture and the way that people lived in a time where these books and passages were written makes correct interpretation practically impossible. That is why reading commentaries, taking classes like this one and doing research to understand the authors, contexts and history of the books is so vital. Doing the hard work is key, and worth the time and effort, especially when understanding the God-breathed, Word of God is on the line (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

  13. Revelation uses so many images that many people find the book hard to read, and some might even call it bizarre. Reading through Revelation, it is hard to know what John is talking about. He describes many visions, that sound ridiculous, like beasts with many heads, this imagery almost seems like something from Harry Potter or another world. In class, we further developed the idea of viewing these visions as a political cartoon. We understand political cartoons from our culture, but if the cartoon is from another culture and in another language, we will not understand what the cartoon is trying to convey. We have several strikes against us in trying to understand the “political cartoon” imagery of Revelation. First of all, Revelation was written years ago, the time gap makes it difficult for us to understand references pertaining to that time. Additionally, John wrote out of a different culture than modern readers come from. One final aspect is, that John originally wrote in a different language, and what we read is a translation of what John wrote. Time gaps, different cultures, and different languages all make it hard to understand political cartoons, so it makes sense that those things would make it hard for us to understand the imagery used in Revelation. One comment from class that I remember and found very interesting was that perhaps the original audience would have understood the imagery of the beast, the prostitute of babylon, and the mark of the beast, just as we understand modern political cartoons. What cultural cues are we missing that helped them interpret Revelation? Will we ever understand Revelation? We might not, and we need to be okay with knowing that we don’t understand all of Revelation.

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