In the distant future, a quartet of supernatural beings will pierce the veil between the heavens and the Earth, entering our world atop powerful steeds.
Below, a vast battle will later play out, with the forces of the Dragon—Satan—battling Jesus Christ, the God of the universe in human form.
And somewhere in between, angels will pour bowls of contagion upon the Earth, a seven-headed beast will arise from the sea, and the number “666” will serve as a mysterious mark of evil.
This is the apocalyptic vision which the Biblical Book of Revelation says will come to pass, according to the understanding of many Christians. In this view, Revelation is a sort of crystal ball that gives a timeline of literal future events.
But the truth is this: Revelation doesn’t mean what many readers think it does. When we delve into this enigmatic book of the Bible, we find that the fantastical surface imagery is just the beginning—there’s so much more to this book than dragons, beasts, and horsemen.
Revelation is filled with some pretty colorful imagery. There are monsters, plagues, angels, and much more. But the thing to remember here is many of these images are symbols—things that represent something else, often something larger and more complex.
Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature, which was popular amongst Jews and Christians from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, and is marked by the use of symbolic language. These symbols take abstract spiritual meaning and put it into concrete form, communicating spiritual truths to readers.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article to examine every symbol in Revelation, we can look at a few so that you can get a handle on how to interpret them.
For example, the seven-headed, ten-horned beast which rises from the sea most likely refers to a coalition of nations which are under Satan’s control. This beast will go to war against God’s people, winning for a time, and will claim authority over the world.
How do we know this? In earlier books of the Bible, corrupt nations are sometimes described as beasts. In Daniel 2:31, Daniel is granted a vision of worldly kingdoms as grotesque monsters. This symbolic language conveys corruption and viciousness in a way that literal language does not.
This same method of interpretation can be applied to most of the imagery of Revelation, from the four horsemen, to the Dragon, to the bowls of pestilence.
But despite being symbolic, these images describe very real events. Just because there won’t be monsters rising from the sea and horsemen riding through the air doesn’t mean that Revelation doesn’t have something meaningful to tell us.
But is Revelation’s message pointing to the future, as many believe, or does it point to events in the past?
Prophecy or History?
Most Christians believe that the book of Revelation refers to events which are to take place in the future, but this view may be only partially right. Let’s look at why.
Revelation was written by John the Apostle, wherein he describes a series of prophetic visions. But these visions seem to strongly correspond to events that were happening not in the future, but in John’s time.
This view that Revelation is a prophecy of Church history from the first advent to the Second Coming of Christ means that some of Revelation’s prophecies have come to pass, where others still lie in the future.
How can we know this? Well, Revelation tells us! In Revelation 1, John writes that the events of the book must “soon take place.” It doesn’t begin the way the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch does, with the promise that the described events are for a future generation. John points to imminent fulfillment.
And so we can gather that Revelation isn’t just predicting the future, but also had relevancy to the 1st-century Christian Church. Many scholars believe that the Beast of Revelation 17:7 represents the Roman Empire, which persecuted Christians at the time. The seven heads are seven emperors of Rome, and the sixth king, “who is” is Nero, who was likely to be the reigning emperor at the time Revelation was written. Rome was also known as the “city of seven hills.”
Further reading shows that the beast was given a mouth with which to blaspheme against God—Nero was one of only two Roman emperors to demand to be treated as divinity, and, in fact, claimed to be Apollo, the sun god. He mocked and executed Christians, fulfilling Revelation 13:7’s promise that the beast would be given the power to make war with the saints.
Other parts of Revelation, such as Christ’s return and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth haven’t yet come to pass, and thus, still remain within the realm of future prophecy. We must not make the mistake, however, of automatically assuming that everything in the book of Revelation has yet to take place—to do so would be to miss out on the overall message of the book.
The Message of Revelation
Despite the fact that some aspects of Revelation are still hotly debated by scholars and misunderstood by the general public, the main point of the book is clear: Jesus will return again, the dead in Christ will rise in order to be judged by God, and God’s beautiful, perfect kingdom will be established on Earth.
Revelation is a hope-filled, poetic work that points to the triumph of Jesus, and the coming of a better time, despite our current circumstances. It acknowledges that history has been difficult, and will remain so, but that at the end of it all lies a time where God will “wipe every tear,” and “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
This is the message of the prophecies given to John, and if you take nothing else from this book, take hope. God’s ultimate victory over evil, yesterday and tomorrow, is an image we can all appreciate.