To this question, answer would be a Revelation
For nearly 2,000 years, each succeeding generation of Christians has tried to puzzle out whether the Book of Revelation’s spooky riddles and symbols has meant its own time was the end of time.
Over the last six decades alone, the beast with seven heads and 10 horns rising out of the sea at the start of Chapter 13 has been variously pegged as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Saddam Hussein, or the nations they represented.
The debate over Revelation has continued for generations; and given world events and the ease of communication in the media age, the discussion shows no signs of abating. Books about Revelation remain brisk sellers; and two recent publications, by John Hagee and Jonathan Kirsch, highlight the differing analyses of the text.
It’s easy to see why, of the 27 books in the New Testament, Revelation remains the most disputed. Arguments abound over the meaning of mysterious phrases, such as “the seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.”
For many Christians, the Book of Revelation, attributed to the apostle John, continues to serve as God’s countdown to his son’s return to Earth in a final triumph over evil. Without it, they say, Christianity would be an incomplete story.
But is humanity finally facing the final chapter? Depends on who is asked.
Malcolm Yarnell, director of theological research at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, acknowledged that “these are very unsettling times, and I often wonder, ‘Lord, is this it?’ But I also think it’s an incredible waste of time to speculate on whether today’s headlines are mirrored in the Book of Revelation. Of course, if I wanted to make a lot of money in a hurry, I’d write a book saying they are.”
In Revelation, John reveals the mystical origin of the text. He describes how Jesus appeared to him on the island of Patmos, off Asia Minor, with a punishing vision of the plagues, famine, earthquakes and Satanic armies that will set the stage for Judgment Day.
“What thou seest, write in a book,” he commanded John, who did just that. John then went on to cast a curse on anyone who would tamper with his 404 verses about “things which must shortly come to pass.”
Essentially, the plot goes like this: Billions of people perish in seven years of natural disasters and plagues, an antichrist arises to rule the world, the battle of Armageddon erupts north of Israel, Jesus returns to defeat Satan’s armies and preside over Judgment Day.
The text never fully explains its monstrous key characters and clashes -- the Great Whore of Babylon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon -- or any of the other eerie images, numbers and colors.
With apocalypse in mind, Hagee, senior pastor of the immense Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, in July gathered 3,400 evangelical Christians to lobby Washington politicians on the “biblical imperative” of supporting Israel.
The latest book of the best-selling author, “Jerusalem Countdown,” predicts an impending battle “that will usher in the end of the world” and turn a huge chunk of the Middle East into “a sea of human blood!” It has sold more than 1.1 million copies since its release in 2006. A revised version was published in January.
“The last time we see Jesus Christ in the Gospels,” Hagee said in an interview, “he’s hanging in shame on a Roman cross wearing a crown of thorns; his face is covered in blood as he sobs in total agony, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
“In the Book of Revelation, his face is shining like the noonday sun. His eyes are like flames of fire, his voice the sound of thunder, and on his head is a crown upon crowns. He is king of kings and lord of lords.”
Revelation, Hagee said, “is the story of truth over deception, and of hope over despair. The Book of Revelation, when we truly know it, is a thunderous applause of God’s victory over the world, the flesh and the devil.”
Hagee’s peers include Mark Hitchcock, pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla., and contributing editor for the Left Behind Prophecy Club, whose new book “Iran: The Coming Crisis” outlines an “apocalyptic vision of Islam.”
Both pastors believe that Revelation and other prophetic books of the Bible, including Ezekiel and Daniel, are previews of epic history confirmed by current world events. As evidence, they point out that the creation of Israel -- which achieved nationhood in 1948 -- was listed in Revelation as a precondition for the onset of the end times.
“In fact, history is unfolding exactly the way you would expect it to if the Bible is true,” Hitchcock said. “You’d have to be blind not to see the parallels.”
Not so fast, argues Kirsch, an intellectual property attorney and author of “A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization.” Published in August, it chronicles what Kirsch calls the use and abuse of Revelation from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the religious right.
On the question of Revelation’s author, Kirsch said, “We actually know more about who is likely to have written it than we do about who authored most other books of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Scriptures.”
Revelation, he said, was probably the work of a single author, most likely a brilliant middle-aged prophet and poet born in Judea and a witness to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by a Roman army in AD 70. He spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and was “among those Jewish Christians who believed Jesus of Nazareth was the long prophesied messiah of Jewish tradition,” Kirsch said.
The fact that the little book is crammed with more than 500 references to the Hebrew Bible indicates the author was deeply familiar with Jewish traditions.
Kirsch, who frequently reviews books for The Times, also suggests that Revelation was a product of its own time. It wasn’t meant to predict the future, he said, but to explain the present -- the ultimate good news/bad news story aimed to help early Christians cope with their Roman oppressors by providing them with a promise of better times to come and a warning: There was little time left to do anything but purify themselves in preparation for heaven.
“It’s fair to say that Revelation began as an oral tradition that was eventually transcribed and used as a way of making sense of the chaos in the world,” Kirsch said. “But I find it fascinating that many of the ardent readers of Revelation in America today are not suffering much of anything. With good jobs, nice homes and cars, they are among the most comfortable people in the world.”
In any case, Kirsch said the biggest flaw in Revelation is that the world hasn’t ended yet.
“Nonetheless, each generation concludes that John got it wrong and it was really their own lifetimes he was writing about,” he said. “They continue to use the book out of context and point to daily headlines saying, ‘Look! It’s all there!’ ”
If the viewpoints of Kirsch or Hagee don’t mesh with a reader’s belief system, there probably is a book somewhere that does. Even a casual look at amazon.com, for example, produces thousands of titles for commentaries on Revelation -- as well as some fiction.
And they tend to carry weighty titles, such as “Controversies in the Book of Revelation: A Comparative Analysis of Premillennial Interpretation.” On the other hand, there’s also “The Book of Revelation for Dummies.”