Adventists all over the world are watching with interest the events unfolding this week in Washington D.C. as Pope Francis is visiting the United States and speaking to Congress. In preparation for this event, independent ministries have mailed out thousands of unsolicited Great Controversy paperbacks to mailboxes in Philadelphia. The web and social media have exploded with links to Revelation seminars, videos and articles.
For conservative Adventists, the implications of the auspicious visit are unequivocal: This is a clear fulfillment of the prophecy Revelation 13. The beast of the earth (America) is finally paying homage to the beast of the sea (Papacy).
Or is it?
Our official reading of Revelation 13 pits the Adventist remnant against monstrous beasts of the end time. The beast that rises from the sea is Catholicism led by the Pope and the beast from the earth is the modern day America. As they unite to persecute the little flock of the faithful in the end time, they impose the mark of the beast (Sunday Law) and trigger the second coming of Christ.
Ellen White practically canonized these interpretations by Uriah Smith and John Andrews when she admittedly copied and pasted them in The Great Controversy as emblematic of the best Adventist thought at the time.
But the traditional Adventist interpretation of Revelation 13 as applied to modern day Papacy and America faces many challenges. I will briefly focus on two.
The first is the fact that a prophecy portending events 2,000 years in the future would be utterly irrelevant to the seven churches for which Revelation was originally intended. The book was supposed to be read out loud in the churches in the first century, probably enacted, but most importantly, understood.
Thus the likelihood that John intended to refer specifically to a nation in a then unknown part of the world (America) in the 21st century and modern day Papacy in Revelation 13 virtually ignoring 2000 years of church history is next to nil. Prophecy may be predictive, but it must be grounded in relevance to its original audience.
A second reason why Revelation 13 probably does not predict entities and powers in the distant future specifically is that, in general, the symbolic prophecies of the book of Revelation were not really meant to be decoded in terms of events, entities or future world powers. The language of the book is just too ambiguous and highly symbolic for narrowing down fulfillments. In case a specific entity seems to be referred to, then a source must be found in the immediate context of the original readers, such as Jezebel (Rev 2:20) an actual person in the church of Thyatira.
Take for example, the number of the beast in Rev 13:18. An intriguing interpretation posits that the beast from the sea (13:1-10) symbolized the Roman emperor vying for veneration as Dominus et Deus (possibly referring to Nero) and the beast from the earth (13:11-18) symbolized the local arm of the Roman government which enforced such adoration by building images and temples dedicated to the Emperor. Surprisingly, according to Suetonius, Nero's name was veiled in at least one contemporary riddle that went like this:
Count the numerical values of the letters of Nero's name, And in "murdered his own mother," You will find their sum is the same.
Both values add up to 1,005 in Greek gematria. This is indeed a striking parallel with the riddle of 666 as "number of the beast" (Rev 13:6). This important evidence may be one more nail in the coffin of the false Vicarius Filii Dei interpretation which lingers stubbornly in the global Adventist South. But this is just one possibility. The fact is that the definitive culprit, guilty of such bestial actions and disguised in a sea of symbolism, remains at large.
This is one of the many possible sources for imagery in the book of Revelation. The high symbolism in the book is precisely the pitfall of historicism as Adventists practice it. The cryptic language leaves the interpretative field wide open to those historicists who would like to place their own favorite modern-day protagonist as the ultimate fulfillment of any given prophecy. Case in point, the beast carrying a harlot in chapter 17 has given rise to the wildest applications and a morass of theories, most of them involving a sequence of popes as the beast’s heads.
As scholars of Revelation have been pointing out for the last few decades, the book seems to be more preoccupied with the "psychology" of Christianity than its dogmas. In other words, by concocting an expressive visual, auditory masterpiece, Revelation's author wants to impact readers to stand up to the many beastly powers menacing their allegiance to Christ from the dawn of the Christian era to the end of time. Even Ellen White hinted at this when she suggests that the messages to the seven churches have elements that are applicable to all churches in all ages.
So the principles of Revelation 13 may be applicable to the U.S. and to the Papacy but such applications are just not meant to be “absolute.” Thus the "idealist" school of prophetic interpretation provides a much more sensible reading of Revelation. Idealist readings are more concerned about the overall principles of the text rather than specific interpretations.
As attractive as it seems to be able to identify characters that may confirm our own theological biases, our first task as Bible students is to respect the intention of the author. If you can't be sure, as is often the case in the most enigmatic passages of Revelation, the safest way forward is to be less dogmatic. Instead, we should look for the general principles of the kingdom of God portrayed in the passage.
We should be concerned that in attempting to enforce our only interpretation of Revelation 13 to the Papacy and America, we have effectively neutered the text. It can no longer speak dynamically today, but must apply either to a medieval religious power or a future triumvirate of devilish politico-religious powers. Surely having the Pope as a collective target to shoot at has strengthened our sense of “community” and “prophetic movement". But was that really the intention of John the Revelator?
The Papacy has also been called the fulfillment of all “antichrist” prophecies in the New Testament. But that view also has its own problems. The obvious meaning of antichrist is to be “against Christ". Is the Pope really “against Christ”? We may take issue with the Pope’s interpretations of many doctrines but this does not mean he is against Christ.
The Pope’s Christology may be faulty, but so is that of many Adventist preachers who advocate a Christ with sinful human nature for example; or a Christ whose sacrifice on the cross was insufficient for salvation. Are they not preaching a diminished Christ? Are they “anti” the Christ of Scripture? How do we decide what qualifies one to be antichrist? Does not fully understanding who Christ is and what he did qualify one to be an antichrist? Or is an antichrist someone who lives in continuous rebellion against the principles of the kingdom of Christ? In that case, I fail to see how the Pope could be described as THE antichrist.
Okay, I get the adrenaline rush such readings of the end times provides. I was born and raised in that milieu. I was in the last generation theology camp for a long time; in those quarters, one needs the theological high this approach to prophecy provides. But we must temper our desire for the dawn of end time with careful application of the prophetic message as the author intended it, especially when considering his original readers.
I remember vividly that when G. W. Bush took office, I preached a sermon in which I showed a photo of him greeting Pope John Paul II. I spoke in ominous terms alerting the congregation that this was a clear fulfillment of prophecy.
But nothing came of it.
And I suspect that nothing prophetically significant will come out of the Pope’s visit to the US this week.
André Reis has degrees in theology and music and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Avondale College. His thesis is on the book of Revelation.
Jon Paulien. The Deep Things of God. Review and Herald, 2004.
Richard Bauckham. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993.
Adela Yarbro Collins. Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburger Press, 1998.
________. Revelation: Justice and Judgment. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
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