Lawrence Garcia asks why pastors in America don’t teach Revelation contextually. It’s a good question. He gives a good answer, concluding that the contextual message of Revelation is going to run head-on into our civil religion. We have divided loyalties, and if we see our idols—imperial power, perhaps?—condemned, we get tense. If our pastors started to tell us that the message of the cross said that our dependence on the power of this world is bad, we might start finding other pastors, presumably ones with a less startling message.
I agree that the message of Revelation runs directly into many of our favored activities and attitudes. But I think there’s another reason we don’t want to read Revelation contextually.
It’s not as much fun.
It’s not as comforting.
You may be thinking “Revelation? Comforting?” but first let’s consider the matter of fun. We really like to know the future. At least we like to think we know the future. That’s why sports analysts and political pundits can make so much money. We don’t really check the accuracy of what they say, but we like to find a prophet that tells us what we want to hear. Knowing the future makes us feel special.
Ever since we got this kind of dispensational view of Revelation that results in the Left Behind series, we’re stuck with that as the popular vision of Revelation. I recall being invited to teach a youth class shortly after I joined my first United Methodist congregation. I was there to talk about Bible translations, but when I asked for questions at the end of my presentation the first one was this: Are you pre-, mid-, or post-trib? The folks were somewhat disappointed to know that I didn’t believe in a separate rapture of the church at all. Since that time I’ve found that most discussions of Revelation are in the context of some form of futurism, with the debate being over which particular futurist view you take.
I taught Revelation from my study guide (this web site is dedicated to that guide), which does not deal with the rapture or the seven year tribulation, neither of which can be found in Revelation, in my opinion. The group insisted on a 14th lesson to specifically discuss that question. The tribulation and who was going to be in it was the critical question. Or more precisely the critical question was who could get out of it.
It’s just disappointing to realize that Revelation doesn’t provide a detailed road map of the future. We’d so much rather it did that! In fact, when it doesn’t, we insist on pretending that it does. It’s just more fun!
And it is comforting. Yes, I know there are all kinds of disturbing images in the book, but if you can figure out precisely where you fit in, and if you can convince yourself that you know the future and how you’ll handle the tribulation (it won’t trouble you!), that’s comforting. We want so badly to know the future that we’ll believe almost anything.
And the prevalence of a pre-tribulation rapture speaks to that desire for comfort. It tells modern Christians that unlike millions of Christians before them, and those living in other lands right now, they will indeed be able to avoid the nastiest events. They’re going to be sitting comfortably off in heaven while everyone else passes through disaster after disaster. Take that all you people who didn’t listen to us!
But the bottom line is precisely what Laurence Garcia says: Taking the message of Revelation as it would appear in its historical context brings the message much too close to home. It’s much more relevant than the futurist understanding, but it just doesn’t make us nearly as happy.
For those interested in digging deeper into eschatology, I’d like to recommend the latest volume in the Participatory Study Series, Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide. This book will introduce you to the ideas and terminology that will make it possible to sort your way through the incredible amount of drivel that’s put out on this subject on a daily basis.