Who’s afraid of the Beast?
If you’ve been put off the book of Revelation, says Symon Hill, it’s time to take another look
What do the following have in common? The European Union, the Pope, Elizabeth II, Oliver Cromwell, Mikhail Gorbachev and the inventor of bar codes?
The answer is that they have all been accused of being the Beast who appears in the book of Revelation. If you Google ‘book of Revelation’ and ‘Beast’, you can be sucked into a bizarre world of alarmingly precise calculations about the end times. Many are written by hard-right types in the USA, stirring their listeners to violent defence of ‘America’ or ‘freedom’.
So it’s no surprise that many Christians are uncomfortable with Revelation, put off by violent imagery and apparently esoteric messages, but they are missing out on a great book. For most of history, it has not been xenophobic hatemongers who have found inspiration in Revelation but people resisting oppression. It was a favourite text for persecuted Anabaptists during the Reformation. A century later, the Quaker leader George Fox – who denounced violence and the exploitation of poor people – quoted Revelation more than any other book in the Bible.
Revelation has been especially on my mind during the pandemic. Not long after the lockdown began, a friend asked: ‘Are you surviving the apocalypse?’ The title Revelation is an attempt to translate the Greek word apokalypsis, ‘apocalypse’. This was a form of ancient literature, although the Revelation of John is the only one that made it into the New Testament. You can, if you wish, read many others.
As a form of writing, apocalypse is troubling and disturbing. It is not meant to be straightforward. We cannot know how John of Patmos received his visions, or how they affected him. I imagine him wrestling with inspiring and nightmarish images as he sought to describe his experience…
Symon Hill is a Christian writer and activist. He teaches history for the Workers’ Educational Association
This is an extract from an article published in the September 2020 edition of Reform