The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Armageddon’ reads the Book of Revelation with fresh eyes

Bart D. Ehrman’s new book is alert to the calamities wrought by particular readings of Revelation

(Simon & Schuster)
6 min

“I was dreamin’ when I wrote this,” Prince once observed. “Forgive me if it goes astray.” That’s quite the preemptive flex. Do you approve of what follows in “1999”? Lions in pockets? Everybody having a bomb? Judgment Day? It was all written while dreaming. Complain about a dream if you must, but that’s on you. There’s no running from revelation.

Dreams resist explanation. The Bible is full of them. As artists like Prince and Joni Mitchell and William Blake have shown us, to open the book is to be confronted by them and asked to interpret them. What we feel and what we say about what we find there is its own form of data. We’re beholding our own reflection. The Bible, after all, reads us. To presume to speak of it too knowingly is to handle combustible material and to risk the ire of those who think it’s exclusively theirs.

Into this fray steps Bart D. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s been at this for a while, writing and editing dozens of books, including “The Triumph of Christianity” and “How Jesus Became God.” In his new book, “Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End,” he addresses what might be the most high-impact dream of all: John’s Apocalypse, or the Book of Revelation. Professor Ehrman is not a fan.

He is not alone. Martin Luther opposed its presence in the canon and saw no Holy Spirit lurking within it at all. Augustine of Hippo didn’t oppose it but argued that it could only be meaningfully read as metaphorical. This standard for understanding it, Ehrman demonstrates, held sway for centuries. The idea that creation itself is fit only for burning — that our sweet old world is nothing more than a disposable ladder to heaven — is, it turns out, a relatively new interpretation that’s much younger than these United States. “The idea of the rapture,” Ehrman writes, “has not been taken from the Bible; it has been read into the Bible.” When? The 1830s. Turns out treating John’s mysterious text as a puzzle to be solved and a timeline for predicting an otherwise uncertain future is a handy method for attracting a crowd, growing a church and selling books. From Cyrus Scofield to Hal Lindsey to Tim LaHaye, we live in the wake of high-stakes prognostication allegedly grounded in John’s dream visions.

Having once held a fundamentalist read on Revelation himself, Ehrman knows feelingly what a toxic conception of God, self and others can do to a person. He’s also vigilantly persuasive concerning the horrors wrought by particular readings of Revelation in the corridors of power. In this sense, he argues, the witness of John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, is a bad seed yielding wicked fruit. Given climate denial, the belief that the United Nations is destined to serve as the throne of a world leader bearing the number of the Beast, and the partnership of evangelicals and Zionists against Palestinians and anyone successfully tagged as a threat to the State of Israel, it is difficult to underestimate the calamities, among us already and still to come, that can emerge from bad readings of these scriptures.

But are they simply bad readings? Or is the trouble with John himself? Ehrman says yes. He spies in John a bitter and hateful person mistaking his own contempt for Rome and its culture for the will of Jesus the Christ. In this, Ehrman is joined by the novelist D.H. Lawrence, whose final work (“Apocalypse”) offered a similar assessment: “All the gold and silver and pearls and precious stones and fine linen and purple, and silk, and scarlet,” Lawrence wrote. “All these that are destroyed, destroyed, destroyed in Babylon the great — how one hears the envy, the endless envy screeching through this song of triumph.”

Ehrman spies in Revelation these same values: “God will destroy every other man, woman, and child on earth, everyone who has not accepted the author’s particular way of following Jesus — no matter who or where, whether good or wicked — so the true followers of Jesus can have all the wealth and power in the world. That is what John yearns for.”

Ehrman wants to set up a contrast between what he believes John thought and what Jesus taught. This is certainly fair game. The canonical Gospels differ on the meaning of Jesus, and the texts we call the Bible — that popular, well-worn, much-contested composition notebook of a centuries-long caravan of asylum seekers — differ on the end, as well as the middle and the beginning, of humankind.

But John, like William Blake and David Bowie and anyone who tries to set down what they’re seeing, is perhaps more nimble than we, including Ehrman, are apt to give him credit for in our day. When he speaks of the Beast, for instance, which scholars agree is the Roman empire, and the power behind the Beast as Satan (Hebrew for “the accuser”), we have to strain to read it cartoonishly. It’s easier to read it as contemporary. We can let it land on our own heady days with due moral heft. Accusation, after all, is an oppositional energy, like disinformation, the currency of corruption. The human catastrophe of empire banks on the weaponizing of despair. John of Patmos still has a word for the mess we’re in.

And Ehrman does, too. By inviting us to study Revelation in its context, and to read it for ourselves (the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of nations, the water of life offered freely as a gift to all who thirst, as well as the plagues, the horsemen and the scorpions), he gives us the gift of considering anew John’s dream vision. The Bible can’t say any more than Queen’s “Greatest Hits Volume II” can say. But it does make an alarming and awful and sometimes healing sound.

David Dark is the author of “Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious: Revised and Reframed and the forthcoming “We Become What We Normalize.” He teaches at Belmont University in Nashville.


What the Bible Really Says About the End

By Bart D. Ehrman

Simon & Schuster. 250 pp. $27.99

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