[As I was going through my files, I found this draft that written four years ago. As it has about 24 hours of relevance left, I’m publishing it now. Happy New Year.]
When I teach Revelation 1-11 to my youth Sunday School class, I’ll probably start off by saying something about gasoline.
Gasoline is powerful stuff. You can drive an average-sized car with an average-sized tank well over 400 miles using gasoline. A little goes a long way. But if you start splashing gasoline around your house and light a match, the whole thing will go up in flames within minutes, and the fire department won’t be able to do much when it arrives except sift through the ashes.
Expectation of the end time is spiritual gasoline. It can be spectacularly destructive, or it can be a powerful driving force. Given the Church’s strong commitments to situating itself in the world’s latter days, we can’t avoid dealing with the end time altogether, but we need to treat it carefully, as church leaders have generally done beginning with Joseph Smith. Calculating dates for the Second Coming based on Revelation of Daniel isn’t our style. As with many things in the scriptures, the challenge is to preserve the concreteness and power of the message instead of turning it into vague platitudes, but without going to fanatic excess. Jesus taught some radical, even impossible things – give away all you have, forgive endlessly, be born again – and we shouldn’t reduce them to “be nice and kind.” Water is a very safe liquid, but if you fill your gas tank with water, you will not drive far. So we need to treat Revelation in a way that provides spiritual power, but without burning our houses down.
The book of Revelation meant something to early Christians, but we can’t simply say that Revelation is all about the first century and has nothing to do with us or the end of the world. Nephi’s Vision in the Book of Mormon commits us to the legitimacy of an eschatological reading of Revelation rather than a strictly historical one.
And that’s a good thing, since it is the apocalypticism of Revelation that makes it so important. It’s easy to think of Revelation as that one weird book at the end of the New Testament, but apocalypticism is actually the glue that connects the later books of the Old Testament, intertestamental Jewish writing, and the Book of Mormon. The end time is a thread that runs throughout the New Testament, from Matthew 24 to the later epistles to Revelation. We miss something essential about the book and its connection to other scripture if we deny its relevance to our own time and to times yet to come.
“Apocalypse,” as you have probably already heard, is from a Greek word for “unveiling” or “uncovering,” but an apocalypse reveals a few specific things. It reveals that the world as we know it will eventually end, possibly sooner than we think. We can see this happen in small ways fairly often. Today, high school is important to you; your teachers and grades matter; you’re invested in your clubs and teams. In six months, or two years (which is to say, in nearly no time at all), it will be over and will matter very little, if at all. The same is true of college and careers and government and geopolitics. I grew up with a world organized into the free and democratic Us and the totalitarian Them, with the Berlin Wall separating us and mutual destruction only a matter of time until someone miscalculated. That was the world I lived in – until one day in 1989, it wasn’t. The end of the world is not always a bad thing.
I’m not saying none of these things matter – far from it. They all matter tremendously, including high school. An apocalypse also reveals that the things we do every day have cosmological significance. At school or work or anywhere else, we make choices that are part of a long struggle between good and evil, mostly fought in our hearts.
So John’s situation as author of Revelation is not entirely unlike our own. He has seen the attempt to establish Christian communities around the Mediterranean meet with some success, and much failure. The early church had already been subject to intense persecution, with worse to come, and powerful opponents looming and a measure of success still centuries in the future. Revelation is not just a coded statement about first-century Palestine or about the twenty-first century: it lays out a pattern with relevance to both and provides a model for how we can deal with the world ending (as it usually seems to be doing). When the world is ending (in ways both great and small), fear, opposition, and uncertainty are part of the territory. But the message of Revelation is ultimately hopeful. God is greater than any power that opposes him. Sacrifices will be rewarded. There is safety and salvation in Jesus.