• By Bart D. Ehrman
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 272 pp.

What to make of the Book of Revelation?


The Christian church has often had an ambivalent relationship with Revelation, the final book in its scriptural canon. Skepticism about Revelation’s orthodoxy ran deep in the early church, Protestant reformer Martin Luther relegated it to an appendix in his translation of the Bible, and even those Christians who love it often admit to confusion over its meaning. Yet in some corners of American evangelicalism today, no part of Scripture has a deeper impact upon how the faithful imagine the world’s future.

Many well-read American Christians might also express ambivalence about the writings of University of North Carolina professor Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar famous for being an atheist. In adolescence, Ehrman himself had a brief, passionate fling with evangelicalism, and he frequently targets his former coreligionists for closemindedness and incuriosity about their own Scriptures. In his new book, Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says about the End, Ehrman sets his sights on evangelical readings of Revelation and the astonishing violence the book contains, arguing not only that the Bible’s grand finale has had deleterious effects on American politics, but that its version of Christianity misses the gospel preached by Jesus of Nazareth.

From Armageddon’s first pages, Ehrman takes pains to disabuse readers of the assumption that Revelation and its author, John of Patmos, speak to them and their day, a reading Ehrman argues “is almost certainly wrong.” Instead, he shows readers that Revelation takes part in the conventions of an ancient genre of literature called apocalyptic, which uses otherworldly imagery, famous figures from the past, and fantastical visions to shed light on political and other events in the author’s world, not ours. The Armageddon of modern anti-Christian tyrants and Christians being snatched up (raptured) into heaven envisioned by proponents of the Left Behind novels turns out to be nothing like what John of Patmos had in mind.

Once you have a sense of what to expect with apocalyptic, you read Revelation and other biblical talk of the end times with new eyes. With a little historical spadework, for example, it becomes clear that the famous number 666 referred not to some future world leader, but to the Roman emperor Nero. “Babylon,” a city with a major role in Revelation, turns out to be a stand-in for Rome. While Ehrman uses the Old Testament book of Daniel, which plays a critical role in Revelation, as an example to help us understand the genre, the reader unfortunately never gets a fuller treatment of apocalyptic.

Perhaps this is because Ehrman, a gifted writer with a keen ear for the concerns of the non-specialist, wished his work to have direct application to the world today in ways Revelation itself may not. He lingers over the theory of the rapture, a belief that first emerged in Upstate New York less than 200 years ago, and the effect evangelical author Hal Lindsay, Left Behind, and other propagators of the theory have had on the culture. He rightly worries about the politics of climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shows how impoverished evangelical readings of Revelation have affected the political calculus of past U.S. administrations. He also concerns himself with the evangelical tendency to baptize political dominance.

But the most interesting — and, indeed, disappointing — part of Ehrman’s book involves the stark contrast he draws in the closing chapters between the Jesus of the Gospels and John of Patmos’ Jesus. John, Ehrman argues, crafted an apology for Christian imperialism. His Christ is “out for blood, ready to torture people into submission and then destroy them with the sword before raising them from the dead and having them thrown into burning sulfur.” His followers are his “minions” and “slaves,” who indulge in “exalted schadenfreude” at their enemies’ suffering. The Jesus of the Gospels, by contrast, is “loving, peaceful,” and serves the poor and the poor in spirit. He calls people but “does not threaten to attack them with the sword if they refuse.” His people live “in service to others” and are saved “based on the commandment to love.”

In making this argument, however, Ehrman bypasses the one thing that interests the Gospel writers more than Jesus’ service to the poor and poor in spirit: that Jesus claimed to be a king. He was a strange king, to be sure, but today, one must confront the fact that this was indeed his claim. His kingdom, too, would be strange. Some of the last would be first, and some of the first last, and while he called his followers to nonviolence, he was abundantly clear, as Ehrman acknowledges, that judgment would one day fall upon those who perpetrate injustice. Everyone who followed him awaited the day when wrongs would be righted, the sheep and the goats separated.

This, too, is Revelation’s claim. Rome and its political machine that so effectively facilitates oppression will fall. John of Patmos’ message, far from being the balm for the powers-that-be or a mere christening of Christian vindictiveness, is both hope-filled and anti-imperialist to the core. A few noteworthy slip-ups in interpretation arise because of Ehrman’s insistence on reading Revelation this way.

The reader of Armageddon will encounter the usual crisp prose, engaging stories, and impressive learning we have come to expect from Ehrman. They will also encounter his usual interest in combatting fundamentalists and his sometimes exasperating tendency to read the Bible through the lens of this longstanding personal conflict. Perhaps this is why one line from Jesus kept coming to mind as I read Armageddon, one for which neither Ehrman nor his opponents seem to have much use: “The meek will inherit the earth.”

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Joel Looper is the author of Bonhoeffer’s America: A Land without Reformation.

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