Covid, Vaccines, and Revelation: Pt I The Context of Revelation / Rev. Grant Ridout

I must start by acknowledging that I am not a biblical scholar with a PhD. However, I ‘piggy-back’ on giants in the world of biblical scholarship. I am simply a naïve theologically-trained Presbyterian Minister who thought it was a good idea to go through the book of Revelation with my congregation in my first year of ordained ministry back in 2019. I have no regrets, ha!

When the Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 people were very quick to jump into frenzied ‘end of the world’ proclamations. The year containing the numbers ‘666’ added fuel to the fire of speculation. A considerable number of Christians at the time believed that the end of the world was indeed ‘nigh.’  Many saw this as fulfilment of biblical ‘prophecy.’

For those of you who were of age during the new millennium, apocalyptic anxiety swept around the world then too. As the clock ticked over and 2000 hit, nothing of note really happened. The most apocalyptic result was that we had to stop putting ‘2000’ in product titles, as that no longer looked futuristic or progressive (how about the ab-master 3000?). Additionally, the term Y2K soon became a forgotten (joke-worthy) blip in time.

Fast-forward to today and such catastrophising continues as various people speculate about Covid-19 and vaccinations. I guess, it’s to be expected that Covid and mandatory vaccines would spark the imagination of certain segments of popular Christianity. ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Accusations against certain governments, figures and events have come and gone for centuries unsubstantiated. Grab a drink, settle in and google something like ‘past end of the world predictions’ and before too long you’ll find yourself snorting that drink through your nose. Hindsight is a great comedian. As mathematician Eric Temple Bell says, “Time makes fools of us all.”

I acknowledge that not everyone who has issues with lockdowns, vaccines and mandatory vaccination fall into the conspiracy or ‘end of the world’ camp. This article is not addressing those people who have real concerns. Instead it addresses conspiratorial thought based on false allusions about the book of Revelation and ‘end-times.’[1]

The problem with popular talk of the ‘apocalypse’ is that we’ve taken a genre of literature and turned it into a singular future event. Let me clarify. The book of Revelation is classified as apocalyptic literature. We get this name from the Greek word ‘apokalypsis’ (ἀποκάλυψις). Apocalypse simply means ‘to uncover’ or to ‘reveal,’ hence the title of the book: Revelation. An apocalypse is a revelation not an event. Excuse the density of his writing but biblical scholar J. J. Collins defines the literary genre apocalypse in this way:

‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.’

The book of Revelation is a revelation to John for the churches in Asia Minor and it is very much attuned to their context, not ours. Just as a novel sets the scene and context in its opening chapters, the first three chapters of Revelation follow suit. They ground this book in the earth; setting out the specific context of who this book was written for and where they were situated. The intended original audience of Revelation is recorded in those first chapters plain for all to see; the seven churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

Revelation is a book that pulls open the curtain between the heavens and Earth for these churches in Asia Minor revealing what is going on behind the scenes. As respected bible scholar N.T. Wright has said, the book of Revelation came to the early Christians who were like an audience waiting in a dark theatre to catch a glimpse of ultimate reality.

 I grew up in Whanganui in the eighties and nineties. Going to the movies for me was a combination of emotions. Firstly, entering the dimly lit theatre was quite eery, you had to scuffle your away around the maze of seating careful not to trip. Covering the movie screen was a giant curtain. If you got there early enough, it meant sitting in the dark patiently waiting for that curtain to begin its ascent. This liminal space was the nexus where anxiety cross-faded into anticipation of what was coming. Then as the curtain started to move upwards it revealed the screen underneath. Light from the projector slowly filled the theatre. Anticipation turned to excitement and the audience would begin to cheer. The movie was imminent.

For the churches in Asia Minor Revelation was like the pulling up of that curtain. They were sitting anxiously in the dark. The world around them had become hostile. The Roman Empire was growing colder towards Christianity. They were being severely persecuted, oppressed, even killed for their beliefs and life was only getting harder for them. Then comes John with this written revelation from God. The curtain begins to rise, anxiety turns to anticipation. The movie about to be played reveals how things really are. How it is in the spiritual realm, which is seen as the ultimate reality.

 Typical of apocalyptic literature Revelation’s rich imagery and dream-like sequences enabled the church to see that this movie -they called Christian life- ends with victory. In this time of persecution, the churches in Asia Minor really needed to see that curtain pulled back, to see that light flood their theatre and to be able to cheer in excitement as they saw that God was still sovereign, working behind the scenes and that justice was not forgotten. This was the aim of Revelation.

Revelation is not about predicting our future, but giving those ancient Christians a glimpse of ultimate reality and to encourage and guide them as they struggled under persecution via the Roman Empire. Much of the book’s symbolism is direct reference to the Roman Empire or their surrounding environs. Some scholars say that Revelation is highly coded to protect the early Christians from further Roman backlash as anything too obvious could have been considered anti-Roman propaganda. Maybe so, but its symbolism is typical of apocalyptic literature and relies heavily on Old Testament symbolism, especially the book of Ezekiel.

So, as we approach Revelation we are tasked from the outset to read it through the eyes of these ancient churches, rather than our own contemporary world. These churches are not metaphors for today, they are not symbols for ‘types’ of church, they are historically-grounded, real congregations living in Asia Minor at the time Revelation was written.

So how did we get from there to here? To put it simply a populist literary diet fed to Christians by the likes of (but not limited to) Tim LaHaye,[2] Chuck Missler,[3] and Barry Smith[4] influenced Christians across the world. This came on the back of the theological work of J.N. Darby (1800-1882) and C.I. Schofield (1843-1921). Darby was an Anglo-Irish theologian who later created the Exclusive Brethren. Schofield was an American fundamentalist theologian. This type of teaching can be identified as FuturistDispensationalism.  

FuturistDispensationalism sees the book of Revelation, Daniel and Ezekiel as predicting future events in a literal, physical, and global context. Although the idea was toyed with, by various Christians throughout the centuries, it was always ever a minority view and often dismissed by prominent theologians. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that it gained any real traction. Somehow, in an industrialising, colonising world, it captured the popular Christian imagination of Britain and America. Its influence is waning, but it still reverberates around the world today. It is responsible for helping to generate the ideas of; a one-world government, a rapture, a worldwide humanly orchestrated conspiracy, and literal marks on hands and foreheads etc.

There are very few credible New Testament scholars who hold to ­Futurist-Dispensationalism or similar understandings today. Yet, somehow it continues to be perpetuated by church traditions, and individuals that are less likely to engage with Christian scholarship. My advice! If you want to understand Revelation, the beast, the mark etc don’t go to a YouTube video, or populist preacher or an internet page that still uses Microsoft Word 2000 word-art. I recommend you read Richard Bauckham’s penultimate book on Revelation.

It is reasoned and contextual. It is a little hard-going. If you are not academically inclined maybe start with N.T. Wrights book, Revelation for Everyone.

Most of what is described in Revelation was immediate to its original audience. Most of what is described in Revelation had already happened or was about to happen to that original audience. Most of what is seen in Revelation is far from literal. Therefore, applying it directly to our context is foolhardy and as history has shown; fruitless. Trying to create schemes and read contemporary issues back into the text is fantastical at best. The conspiratorial nature of futurist-dispensationalism is unhelpful and simply creates suspicion and division. In fifty years when someone googles ‘end of the world predictions,’  avoid being the butt of those jokes. This is easily remedied by reading the book in it’s obvious and stated context; a prophetic letter, revealed to John, addressed to the seven churches in first century Turkey. Don’t allow time to make a fool of you.

 In my next instalment I will look specifically at the beast and the mark in Revelation and how scholarship deals with these symbols in its context. HINT: It has very little to do with Jacinda and vaccines, or even Donald Trump for that matter, but it may relate to wearing crocs!

[1] Technically, the ‘end-times’ began when Jesus ascended into heaven.

[2] The infamous ‘left-behind’ series of the mid-nineties and early two-thousands.

[3] Popularist preacher of 70’s-early 2000s.

[4] Famous NZ Christian author of the 80-90’s who tried to predict and interpret how Revelation would unfold in contemporary society.

Rev. Grant Ridout is an ordained Minister in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa. Father of four, husband of one and Minister of St. Stephen’s Ponsonby, Auckland. He loves vintage suitcases, single malt whisky, justice, mercy and Jesus Christ.

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