In my youth I was made to attend a First Assembly of God megachurch, which assured its congregants that the End Times were happening in the 1990s. “The End times” are an event reportedly predicted by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament which would involve the violent destruction of the Earth and her people. Though it was presumptuous to say when the Rapture was to take place, that special time at the end of history when all Christians are plucked up to the clouds to join Jesus, that it would soon take place was clear to any good Christian who bothered to follow Jesus’ command to study “the signs of the times.”
Since then I have grown up and rejected Christianity, yet I find the claim no less disturbing because, in my fellow Bible grazers, I sensed their thrill that it was all going to end, the world horribly destroyed, and that this would be a glorious “apocalypse” or “revealing” of God. The imminent destruction of the Earth they preached as desirable, and if we fasted continually and prayed earnestly we could convince God to do it. God, evidently, was so impressed by a literary genre he didn’t invent, that he wrote his own “apocalyptic hit.” I guess if he didn’t quit writing 2000 years ago he would be now writing his own Harry Potter knock-off.
For those who haven’t read the book of Revelation, they might at least know that the book is written by an otherwise unspecified “John” in which he relates his visions of the end of the world, dispensed in a somewhat poetical language, regarding angels, and vials, and scrolls, and dragons, and how they dispense God’s wrath over the Earth, resulting in plagues, poisoning, starvation, warfare, earthquakes, and other acts of divine mercy. Here is a sample:
Rev. 19.11-18: And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great.
Everybody on the face of the earth, whom Paul had already consigned as “sinners who never once do good,” and whom Jesus regarded as “worthy of eternal torture in hell,” by the just and loving “God,” who supposedly created them, is to be butchered, starved, poisoned, ravaged by demons, or cut down with the very sword of Jesus himself, riding in the sky upon a horse, followed by his henchmen, the four horseman, one of which is hell itself, waiting in heaven of all places, to destroy God’s “very good” creation—and this is supposed to be the revealing of God’s true character! Pregnant mothers, wondering in plump joy whether they will be blessed with a boy or a girl; elderly men and women, who have worked to put their children through college, and are enjoying their golden years spoiling their grandchildren; young children, learning what makes the sky blue, and why it’s wrong to cheat on a test; teens, fresh in love, feeling the thrill when a member of the opposite sex wants to go with them to the school dance, and the impossible joy of being kissed for the first time; young scholars, with their noses in dozens of books, learning of the great joys of literature, and the spell-binding power of eloquent verse; aspiring environmentalists, wishing to devote themselves to making the environment safe and beautiful for generations to come; not to mention, of course, kind Buddhists and pious Hindus and other such people John had never heard of, and especially not to mention the Native Americans and the aboriginal Australians, who do not figure in any of the numerous predictions anywhere in the entire Bible, though, strangely, Babylon and Egypt figure in quite a bit; yes, every man women and child, exploring the beauty of this world and making the most of life are to share the same fate, to be destroyed by fire, plague, famine, by monsters and demons coming out of hell, by angels dropping “stars” and comets onto them, by earthquakes, wars, by every manner of cruel death the writer can imagine (and notably, not anything like nuclear bombs or global warming or the collapse of the economy, since John had no relevant understanding of where the future might actually lead); all these men and women, both of his time, and in the minds of many Christians today, in our own time, are to be cruelly murdered, and then, not to be wept over or pitied, but to be mocked, scorned, and actually sung over by angels, Jesus, and John, for the joy of their destruction! Why, you might ask, would any man write such a thing? What inspired him to regard all of humanity, except a few thousand Christians, as deserving such brutal torture, not to mention the extinction of all animal and plant life, yes, and needless destruction of the very earth and seas.
This is meant to be God’s last word to man, the clincher, what it’s all about, the grand finale, the “Revelation” of God’s true nature—this is what we are expected to accept as “divine”? The Apocalypse of John was traditionally believed to be written by “the disciple Jesus loved,” who was also believed to have written the gospel of John, and also the epistles of John, whose most memorable sayings have been, “For God so Loved the World,” and “God is Love,” and also, strangely enough, “Do not love the world … If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” which leads naturally to the Revelation, where the known world of the time (mostly Rome), is destroyed by God in the most gruesome of manners, as I’ve already mentioned, including all manners of storms, poisoning of water supplies, plagues, demonic monsters, horses with scorpion tails, grasshoppers that breathe fire, frog monsters that come out the mouth of a dragon—whether they are metaphorical or literal is not explained, but the church of my youth favored the latter interpretation—dragons, beasts, ancient modes of warfare (using horses and arrows), the knocking of the stars from the sky to the earth, the blotting of the sun, the bloodying of the moon, and such ubiquitous torment, that the survivors on earth will attempt suicide to escape but somehow be unable to carry it out. This is what is means by “For God so Loved the World,” this is a pragmatic explication of the words, “God is Love,” this is the “Good News” of the gospel, this, allegedly, a manifestation of “justice,” and not justany justice, but the most loving and reasonable justice of all: God’s own!
Harold Bloom, the American literary critic and professor at Harvard, who has probably read more books than any man living, and published more literary appraisals than any scholar I have heard of, had this to say of the final book of the Christian Bible:
The influence of Revelation always has been out of all proportion to its literary strength or spiritual value. Though it has affected the strongest poets, from Dante and Spenser through Milton on to Blake and Shelly, it also has enthralled the quacks and cranks of all ages down to the present moment in America. A lurid and inhumane work, very poorly composed in the original, the Apocalypse of St. John was rightly called one of the “nightmares of anxiety and triumph” by the late Northrop Frye. It is a nightmare of a book: without wisdom, goodness, kindness, or affection of any kind. D.H. Lawrence judged it pungently: “The Apocalypse does not worship power. It wants to murder the powerful, to seize power itself, the weakling.”
The Gnostics may have well said, “the devil, to better subjugate men, invented God.” It doesn’t take a prophet to teach you it is wicked to trip a blind man, and yet these so called ‘scriptures’ trip up the spiritually weak, not once or twice, but in every generation for all time. Every generation has a series of quacks, demented and sincere, who, if they do not identify with one of the prophesied “two witness” of the revelation, or with Elijah, or the Savoir himself, at least offer ample proof, looking at “the signs of the time,” which Jesus sneeringly said were as blatant as when a fig tree will be in season, that the world is soon going to end (“within this generation”—Jesus promised many times, as did Paul). Among scholars, theologians, professors, and divines, the same conjecture in the same tone of authority is also practiced outside the mental wards, along with an endless supply of preachers, self-appointed or otherwise, who are certain enough in themselves to convince thousand and millions that their generation is to be the last. They are apparently uneasy with their place in history, but we find it more sane and reasonable to be uneasy about being uneasy. Better to accept your place in history, to make the most of it, and try if you can to improve it.
It seems the world is always about to end. In the mid 1800s, the Millerites, after carefully studying the scriptures, asking God humbly for wisdom, which James had promised God would not withhold to those who ask, convinced thousands of Americans to sell their property dirt cheap and to travel up the mountains to witness the end of the world. When the event failed to manifest, the leader, William Miller, seeing that his prediction had failed and that the world was, at least for a time, spared the greatest outpour of divine violence in all its history, called it “the Great Disappointment.” For, after all, Christianity is the religion of love.
I once heard a pastor explain how the Revelation is the most perfect ending to the Bible, since it so perfectly parallels the book of Genesis, which spoke of beginnings, by speaking a mirror image of endings. John calls the Satan of the Apocalypse, “that old serpent,” a reference to the serpent in garden of Eden of Genesis (implying that mankind’s original perfect and pristine paradise was populated with the most sinister, malicious and deceitful being that ever has or ever will exist in the universe); John predicts that the tree of life in Genesis will be planted in the paradise of Revelation; though it was there in the very beginning, before God had created anything at all, Revelation kills off the ocean, and also the sun; and just as there was a great flood to punish evil in Genesis, so God would destroy the world in the end. Christian though I was at the time, it struck me as peculiar that the pastor failed to mention that God promised never to again destroy mankind after the alleged great flood at the beginning of history. Perhaps a literalist would argue that the end times don’t destroy the world with a flood, but by other means—earthquakes, plagues, frog-monsters, scorpion demons—as if God were merely promising not to do us in by water! Isn’t this like a father baiting his son to come down from a tree, promising “I won’t lay a hand on you if you come down,” and once the kid is down, hitting him instead with a stick? Who wouldn’t prefer a flood to the sadistic fantasy of Revelation? If God planned from the beginning to pull the skies to the ground, plague the world, and evidently burn the whole place to a pile of ash, he has no right to put any rainbow of promise in the sky. As if this wasn’t breaking his promise! As if God promised very specifically only against floods, but still had plans on destroying us all again, right there from the beginning in even more gruesome manner, promiscuously killing a world much more widely populated than the antediluvial world was supposed to have been. The books are incompatible. The rainbow of Genesis nullifies the bloody moon of the Apocalypse.
The entire book is hateful from start to finish. Jesus appears in the first chapters glowing and shouting and coughing up swords, to tell John that he is either pleased, or more often displeased, with certain churches (of whom we have no idea who or what they were historically, nor what their relevance is to us). The macabre image from the gospels, which offers the chief symbol of the Christian religion, the autocrucifixion of man in gore and agony, euphemized into the sacrifice of a lamb (which, by the way, was not the Lawful animal of sacrifice for a sin offering, the goat being the divinely sanctioned victim), was replaced with the slain lamb of Revelation, a sort of undead beast, with its slit neck still exposed, gore-spattered yet alive and raging, covered over with eyes and seven horns, who is utterly bloodthirsty and bent on violent revenge, from beginning to end.
What had the epistle of John to say on this? That John, again, was not John the disciple, and if modern textual studies hold more weight than ancient hearsay, has nothing to do with the John of the Revelation either—though the book was canonized, after much debate, on the mistaken identification of the disciple as its author, since he was, after all, named “John” (this, apparently, is how God wanted his Holy Canon to be decided). But tradition thinks they are all the same John. “Perfect Love drives out fear” said the John of the epistle. Well if love drives out fear, why is the book of Revelation a book of fear and terror, so that John, when he sees Jesus, falls on his face trembling? Isn’t Jesus gentle and meek? Wouldn’t the sight of him fill one of his devoted followers with joy and happiness? Apparently not, and this Jesus of the apocalypse bears out his terror.
The gospel of John calls the Jews “sons of Satan,” and this John calls the Jews “the synagogue of Satan,” though Yahweh had put a curse on anybody who cursed the Jews; Jesus says straight out that he “hates the Nichomachians,” a group of Christians, giving the prototype of sectarian warfare, though allegedly in the gospels he says “love your neighbor”; and of a certain Christian preacher named Jezebel, he is so angry with her that he wants to throw her on her bed, strip her, and murder her children before her very eyes, before also doing her in, though he was supposed to have said to “turn the other cheek” rather than striking one’s enemies.
Heaven above isn’t much better. The martyred Christians hide under God’s throne and “cry out constantly” for violent vengeance upon those who killed them. This is Christian forgiveness? Is it forgiveness to say “I forgive you,” being too weak and impotent to exact revenge now, but believing that in the afterlife your enemies will be forever tortured? Could you imagine Buddhists doing this? But the Buddhists have a story of one of the Buddha’s previous lifetimes where he is viciously killed by a woman, and in a subsequent lifetime they reincarnate as husband and wife. When they both realize her previous treachery, he laughs kindly, gently mocks her embarrassment, and loves her as if nothing had happened. That is Buddhist forgiveness. Is this Christian forgiveness? Should we take Paul at his word when he says, “Do kind things to your enemies, so that you may pour burning coals on their heads?” Is this Christian “requiting of good with evil,” which the Tao Te Ching had already recommended centuries earlier (also recommending the good man to appreciate the bad man as an opportunity to teach and better another), but for Christians, really meant as a passive-aggressive waiting game for the utter destruction of their enemies? Again, the Tao Te Jing said we ought to learn from our enemies, to be willing to learn from and instruct a bad man, yet even the gentler Jesus of the gospels never learns from the Pharisees, but orchestrates himself to always have the zinger, to shame them, and often enough calls them “vipers” “fools” and “hypocrites.” But at least there he doesn’t cough up swords and ride a white horse and actually kill people. As the psychoanalyst Jung wrote, who himself was somewhat sympathetic to Christianity:
From this there grew up a terrifying picture that blatantly contradicts all idea of Christian humility, tolerance, love of your neighbor, and your enemies, and makes nonsense of a loving father in heaven, and rescuer of mankind: a veritable orgy of hatred, wrath, vindictiveness, and blind destructive fury that reveals, in fantastic images of terror that breaks out with blood and fire, that overwhelms a world which Christ had just endeavored to restore to the original state of innocence and loving communion with God.
Yes, the wrathful lamb paradox of Revelation makes God not the God of love at all, compared with other religions. Jesus is less perfect and lovable than even Baldr, the God of the Vikings, who, after their version of the end of the world, Ragnorrak, where the gods at least fight against an evil that is trying to destroy the world, Baldr himself doesn’t fight, but is resurrected from Hel afterwards to rule the new creation with love, gentleness, and kindness, having never damned an enemy, nor harmed, let alone killed, anyone. Instead, Jesus’ robe is “dipped in blood,” and he rides a white horse, carrying a sword, mowing down his foes. For it is imagined that somehow the alleged creator of a billion galaxies would deign ride a horse and engage mere humans in (archaic) hand to hand combat—as if an honorable man would engage in such unequal combat, or glory in such an unfair fight!
The Revelation was the Gospels unwritten, the antithesis of the very word “good news.”
Not that John takes it as bad news. When the world is destroyed in John’s vision, does John weep? Does he mourn over the human life lost, the destroyed creation, or like Noah pray for mercy on the land? No. He cries out “Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.” There isn’t even Jesus’ gentle (if smug) last words of “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Jung summons his psychoanalytic experience in and out of the institutions to say:
A sheer will for destruction such as was evident in John is not to be expected in our own times. In all my experience I have never observed anything like it, except in cases of severe psychoses and criminal insanity.
Nietzsche is as usual more psychologically insightful:
How did the Jews feel about Rome? We can guess that from a thousand signs, but it is sufficient to treat oneself again to the Apocalypse of John, that wildest of all written outbursts which vengeance has on its conscience. (Incidentally, we must not underestimate the deep consistency of the Christian instinct, when it ascribed this very book of hate to the name of the disciple of love, the same man to whom it attributed that wildly enthusiastic amorous gospel—there is some truth to this, no matter how much literary counterfeiting may have been necessary for that book to make its point).
Resentment against the Romans inspired this hateful book, and not only that, but also the cognitive tension in John’s mind that Jesus had not come on cue (he was scheduled back before the generation had closed), the fact that Rome seemed anything but diminishing, and that he doubted his own faith.
Yet Jung was correct to allude to psychosis, for though Apocalyptic literature was an established genre, never was it this heartless and sadistic, and I myself have long wondered if the author of the Apocalypse was not a paranoid schizophrenic. Anybody who has worked in a mental ward, or is related to a person who has gone psychotic, knows that of all the Bible, which is already the favorite book of the mentally ill, it is invariably the Book of Revelation which the delusional turn to. I knew a confused young man who wouldn’t touch anything electronic because “Computers are the Beast.” I’ve known a schizophrenic who thought the scar he got from a bicycle accident was the mark of the beast. I have known a devout woman who sang on a worship team with me in college who later developed symptoms of bipolar psychosis and believed she was one of the two virginal witnesses John predicted would “speak fire” to incinerate their enemies. I have heard of dozens of crackpots who had figured out the identity of the antichrist and the true meaning of 666, the mark of the beast.
Even Robert Graves, that sometimes poet, seems especially eccentric when he tests his “poetical powers of divination” by interpreting what the mark of the beast really meant (apparently it was Latin, not Greek, and referred to Nero and Domitian— a banal answer despite his peculiar method):
I addressed myself schizophrenically: “I’ll tell you what Robert. I’ll propound a simple, well-known, hitherto unsolved riddle and if you can make sense of that, very well, I’ll pay attention to your other discoveries” [regarding other poetical “riddles”].
His “analeptic self” was then summoned to do the dirty work of satisfying himself and others “that I had not slipped into certifiable paranoia,” and so, in his own eyes, he had alone of all people fully solved the “riddle” of the nature of the mark of the beast. Not all “riddles” have answers, though we can amuse ourselves by continual guessing (“how is a raven like a writing desk?” the mad hatter asks Alice, apparently not knowing nor even caring to know the answer to the riddle. My guess: they both have inky feathers).
Robert Graves is a popular and (more or less) respectable scholar. Most people who are likewise certain of the hidden meaning of this book are less convincing. How fitting that the verse reads, “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast: for it is the number of man and his number is 666.” As if this whole charade were not the very antithesis of “wisdom,” and as if anybody who has commented on this number had anything resembling “understanding.” Every great man in history has been decisively proved by some pious man of “wisdom” to be the certain antichrist, not just such likely candidates as Hitler and Stalin and Mao, but even such kind-hearted atheists as Bill Gates, such misguided Christians as president Bush, and just about every pope since Martin Luther suggested the idea (and was reciprocally charged in the same terms).
Thomas Jefferson was thus right to say:
The book of Revelation is merely the ravings of a maniac no more worthy of explanation than the incoherences of our nightly dreams … I do not consider them as revelations of the supreme being, whom I would not so far blaspheme as to impute to him a pretension of revelation, couched at the same time in terms which he would know were never to be understood by those to whom they were addressed.
And Paine was less witty than literal when he quipped that Revelation was “a book of riddles that requires a revelation to explain it.”
Rather than trying to figure out the riddles of madmen, Alice in Wonderland style, why not discuss what the book is really about? Clearly it’s a fantasy about destroying the kings, and mighty men of the world—the book is explicit on this. But in fact, the apocalypse is about Jesus destroying John’s integrity. To escape their lack of intellectual integrity, Christians want it to be about the “bloody winepress” of the whole world; that is, of God smashing our bodies as if we were grapes, so that our blood is stomped out of our mangled corpses, and presumably drank like wine by God and his saints, vampire style. Will they make it happen? Can they? Religion has once already brought a near end of the world, or so it seemed to millions of Europeans:
Jesus said to his disciple who wished to be bathed: “he who has been baptized need not be washed again.”
Did he not also say “He who has cleaned the inside of the cup need not clean the outside”? (A dishwasher at any respectable restaurant would be fired if he insisted on following such advice.)
“The soul is everything, the body nothing—one thing is needful!—therefore, outlaw the public bathe. No, fellow Romans, public bathes are wrong. No fellow Muslims, bathing is now against the law. Bring in … the black plague!” And most of the divines at the time took the black plague to certainly mean that the end of the world was at hand. Hadn’t this been what the inspired disciple of love predicted? There will never be an “end of the world” short of the death of the sun, a billion years hence, but poor morality and bad hygiene has often caused major setbacks.
One may live quite impractically if he thinks the world is soon to end. Many sincere Christians have in good conscience felt the scriptures were about to be “fulfilled,” and ruined their livelihood and public standing on account of it (sometimes borrowing large sums of money they never intended to pay back). It seems God should have sent Christ with a more practical morality than to “worry not about tomorrow …y work not for food and clothing. Let tomorrow worry about itself, each day has enough troubles of his own.” Not only is this poor advice for practical life, since it negates saving for a rainy day, establishing a last will and testament, planning for retirement—in fact even holding a job at all, let alone keeping it—but it is directly contradicted by the vision Jesus gives John in which we are told to worry very much about tomorrow, for it will have more trouble than you could have guessed.
When I catch a line from the Left Behind series, these popular novels about the immediate ending of the world, nothing could reassure me more warmly that the world is going to last a very long time. For insofar as an all-wise, all-creative, all-beautiful divine intelligence wanted to destroy his beautiful creation—perhaps for his greater glory, if you could believe it!—such a vain God would never let the world’s ending be predicted by such hack, half-wit, no-talent writers as these! Insofar as there is a God, and insofar as he glories in destroying planets, he would at least hire a better press release.
The same judgment goes for the book of Revelation itself, a sort of orgy of mishmash revenge, self-disintegrative stream of conscious writing, inconsistent symbology, mixed metaphors, and ugly imagery—such as Jesus symbolized as a slain and bleeding lamb, full of wrath and eyeballs, wearing five horns too many. Would God let such poor writing reveal his will to man? So we must ask: if God is so glorious, why did he write such unimpressive books? It may well be “the insanest of all books” as Robert Ingersoll opined, but it is also poorly written, with structural flaws and evidence of multiple authors who didn’t respect each others’ work especially well. Why would God, who is supposed to have authored the ethereal milky way, penned the subtle logic of the finely twined DNA, and set in place the very mind of man, mysterious and limitless, reduce himself to writing such poorly organized, over-blown, and downright ugly rhetoric?
And the same question must be demanded of the Charismatic Pentecostal movement, which collectively claims they are “baptized of the Spirit,” and “inspired by the Holy Spirit,” and yet consistently write such trite and boring books, with poor predictive powers and a knack for misreading “the signs of the times.” Milton perhaps was inspired by the Spirit. But these people? They blaspheme the Spirit! One Pentecostal book of genius, yes, and I would bow my head in respect to their prophetic ability and to the spirit who fed it. Instead, they eagerly predict that their own yammering “in tongues” is the sign that the world is soon to end, that they are the Pentecost of the gift of tongues, that they even speak the language of angels (believing their gab to be more divine and more historically significant than the music of Mozart and Beethoven).
So what is the apocalypse really about? Perhaps D.H. Lawrence was right when he said “It is very nice if you are poor and not humble … to bring your enemies down to utter destruction, while you yourself rise up to grandeur. And nowhere does this happen so splendiferously than in Revelation.” And yet I suspect that the author hated something other than mankind. The Revelation is really an allegory for the destruction of the author’s own integrity. His belief, his humanity, his place in the world, is dissolving. What is being revealed to him is the uselessness of his own beliefs. This is the palpable meaning behind his convolutions. Perhaps this is also what it means to Christians today.