When NBC airs the first episode in its new “Revelations” TV drama Wednesday night, don’t expect to learn much about the New Testament book of Revelation.
The six-part series may have been inspired by the imaginative, puzzling and complex apocalyptic writing in the final book of the Bible, but the TV show’s take on Revelation can’t possibly reflect what Christianity thinks about it. That’s because Christianity as a whole has never quite decided what it thinks about Revelation.
Well, parts of Christianity are absolutely certain what the book means, though some of those segments of the faith disagree with each other profoundly. Other parts of Christianity readily admit they don’t understand the book, though they still can draw some useful meaning from it and they, too, consider it part of God’s word.
The great 16th-century reformer John Calvin wrote a commentary on every book of the Bible except Revelation. He found its meaning too difficult to uncover. Similarly Martin Luther didn’t like Revelation. He said his “spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.”
Christians might do well to follow the reluctance of Calvin and Luther to claim to understand much of it. But the book has become a major source of theology for parts of the faith. In fact, the wildly popular Left Behind novel series adopts a particular reading (called “premillennial dispensationalism”) of Revelation as the basis for its end-times adventures.
The new NBC series features a Harvard professor who joins forces with a nun to stop Armageddon from happening. Armageddon represents the final battle between good and evil, according to some interpretations of Revelation, and ushers in the end of time.
Some elements of Christianity no doubt will find it odd and even offensive that anyone would try to stop Armageddon. After all, they look forward to it precisely because it means the Second Coming of Christ.
Probably no book in the Bible has been the source of more controversy than Revelation. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, put Revelation at the center of his theological views and even said he found himself in the book. Koresh and many of his followers died in a government attack on their home outside Waco, Texas, in 1993.
As M. Eugene Boring, former professor at the Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, once wrote about Revelation, “no other part of the Bible has provided such a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations.”
Some religious scholars already have begun weighing in on the impending TV series. Frederick W. Schmidt, who teaches at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has said that the NBC series represents a “minority view” on Revelation by treating traumatic events in today’s news as evidence that the end of time is near.
All of which raises the question of why anyone should read Revelation today.
I asked that of David May, professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan. May has written extensively on Revelation.
“One good reason to read Revelation,” he said, “is that it deals with an issue that is universal: allegiance. To what or to whom will one give allegiance?” Revelation, he said, “makes us re-evaluate the objects, persons or entities in which we invest our lives.”
But Revelation is often used as a way to predict the future. Is that a misuse of a book written more than 1,900 years ago?
“We shouldn’t expect to find a blueprint for the future” in Revelation, May says. “To immediately jump into the 21st century and expect that it will speak a psychic and horoscopic word about what will happen in the future is wrong. Revelation isn’t a cryptogram.”
And yet there’s a whole industry rooted in reading Revelation in exactly that futuristic way — an industry that’s both prophetable and profitable. May, however, says readers “should not project into Revelation the particulars of a current situation. … Contemporary interpretations skew the original perspective that John (the author) was attempting to convey to our ancestors in faith.”
But, of course, approaching Revelation with such caution and careful scholarship doesn’t make for exciting TV. And it’s exciting TV that attracts viewers and advertisers. Imagine that.