In a 1993 interview for The Door, Tony Campolo said:
“Any theology that does not live with a sense of the immediate return of Christ is a theology that take the edge off the urgency of faith. But any theology that does not cause us to live as though the world will be here for thousands of years is a theology that leads us into social irresponsibility.”
Marvin Pate concludes his introduction to Four Views on Revelation with these words, distancing himself from both the overly zealous Dispensational interpreter of Revelation who finds cryptic references to Obama’s Health Care mandate or the events of 9/11 in the metaphors of the seals, trumpets or bowls. He also wants to avoid a totally non-eschatological view of the book, since the author of Revelation really does claim to be writing about a future, eschatological age.
As I am preparing to teach a three week intensive course on Daniel and Revelation, I resonate deeply with what Campolo says. I think many students think a class on Revelation will be provide a kind of “end times outline of future events” complete with Clarence Larkin charts and graphs. While I am committed to a belief in the future return of Christ (including a rapture and a tribulation), the sort of thing that passes for “prophetic studies” are quite embarrassing. If anyone was expecting that sort of weirdness in my class, I think they will disappointed.
I usually joke at the beginning of the class the title of the class ought to have been “An Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature of the Second Temple Period.” That is the class I would really like to teach, although not many undergraduates would opt for an elective with that particular title. But Daniel and Revelation must be read for what they are, examples of apocalyptic literature from the Second Temple Period! Revelation is a book that has a “sense of the immediate return of Christ” and an “urgency of faith.” But also call their readers to challenge their culture, and “come out of Babylon.” Both Daniel and Revelation urge their readers to social responsibility that goes beyond even what Campolo had in mind.
Revelation is about God transforming the world, beginning with his faithful in the world and culminating with his Son’s glorious return in the future. In order to live out the theology of the book of Revelation, we must constantly be engaged with the world, evaluating and reforming it. The seven churches were not called to found monasteries, but to constantly be on their guard against any corruption of their faith while they continue to interact with their culture. This struggle will eventually end when Christ returns, but for now, it is difficult, and even deadly.
Nor were the seven churches in Revelation called to create complicated charts mapping out future events. There is a great deal of prophecy fulfilled in the life of Jesus. But no one suggested people could have used the Old Testament Prophets to write a life of Christ 50 years before he was born! Prophecy was fulfilled in literally, but in remarkable and surprising ways. What makes us think the Book of Revelation could yield a “tribulation map” warning people of the times and dates of various judgments?
The warnings in Revelation are against complacency and compromise. What will happen in the future is certain, but our calling now is to live properly in the shadow of the Second Coming, whether it happens in our lifetime or not.