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.

5 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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