One day, sometime around A.D. 90, a man named John climbed the spiny ridge that runs across the small Aegean island of Patmos. There, as legend has it, he found a cave, crawled inside and had a vision that would change the world. "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day," John wrote, signaling to his audience that he was having a sacred experience, out of time and space.
John's dream became the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible, a vision of heaven and the end of the world that is probably the most scrutinized yet inscrutable piece of literature in history. Heaven's pearly gates and gold-paved streets, found everywhere from Negro spirituals to New Yorker cartoons, have their roots in Revelation. The work, which has formed the West's understanding of the afterlife, must be read with care. Passages taken out of historical or literary context can make Christianity appear violent and vengeful, when the book is in fact rich in images of mercy and, like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, holds out the promise of ultimate order and forgiveness.
The book's potency and durability as a work of art and theology come from its terrifying and beautiful imagery. Indeed, an uninformed reader might take it for the midnight rantings of a hallucinating poet. The throne of God is guarded by four angel-monsters whose faces are filled with eyes. A dragon lies in wait to devour an unborn child. A gaudily dressed whore is drunk on blood. Jesus appears with a sword in his mouth.
In Revelation, God punishes unrighteous humankind by sending plagues to earth--locusts, fire, earthquakes, famine, drought--before the final battle between the forces of good and evil. In the end, the Son leads his armies to victory, the world as we know it ends and heaven descends to earth. But from the first, readers have fought about the book with ferocity. Is Revelation literally "true"-- a detailed, God-given prophecy? Or are its images of a universal resolution largely metaphorical, as most of America's Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants assume? Or is it a specifically topical protest against the Roman Empire? In times of worldly chaos, whether in the first century or the 21st, people tend to seek stability in the apparently clear-cut endings of apocalyptic stories.
Revelation was written asa letter to the Christians of Asia Minor and was probably read aloud wherever they gathered. For John's audience, the book would have been a dramatic step beyond the Jewish apocalypses that preceded it, like watching a Technicolor movie after a lifetime of black and white. (The character at the story's center, the shining figure of Christ, would have been entirely new.) It became part of the canon in the fourth century, but almost from the start its place there was a matter of dispute. In the 16th century Martin Luther called it "neither apostolic nor prophetic"; even today the Eastern Orthodox Church does not read from it in public worship.
Christian fundamentalists, however, are devoted to Revelation and believe that the events it describes will come to pass--perhaps sooner rather than later. Although Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins weave a variety of scriptural scenes and references into their "Left Behind" novels, Revelation is the road map for the series. (With a notable exception: the idea of the Rapture, the common fundamentalist belief that the saved will be taken up to heaven, comes from the letters of Paul.) The title of their concluding volume, "Glorious Appearing," comes from a verse in Titus, but could also refer to Rev. 19:11-16, in which Jesus rides into battle on a white horse, his eyes aflame. (The novel's hero, Rayford Steele, watches the arrival of the Son from an all-terrain vehicle.)
John was a passionate, furious Christian, and he had a very clear message, one that resonates strongly with evangelical Christians today: Do not be seduced by the temptations of secular culture. Remain true to Jesus, and God will reward you with heaven. Stray from the path, and the stinking pit awaits. When John wrote his vision, emperor worship had become commonplace throughout the Roman Empire. For Christians this presented an enormous dilemma. On state-sanctioned holidays, the residents of towns ruled by Romans had to make a sacrifice to the emperor-god--for Christians, a violation of the First Commandment. The earliest Christians would have tried to renegotiate their covenant with God in order to justify participation in the mainstream culture. Was it OK to watch the festivities but not make the sacrifice? Make the sacrifice but not really mean it? No, says John. Scholars interpret his seven-headed beast as a coded reference to the seven-hilled city of Rome. In other words, those who make sacrifices to the emperor-god are marked for an eternity in hell.
Substitute a sex-drenched mainstream popular culture for the emperor, and you can begin to understand why the "Left Behind" books have hit such a nerve with evangelicals. Jenkins, LaHaye and their readers feel driven to defend their values and way of life against the onslaught of secularism, and for them, Revelation describes the battle lines. It is perhaps useful to remember that John's vision, angry though it can be, culminates not with hell and damnation but with a whisper of hope, the same prayer that ended mass in the ancient church: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." Good guys and bad guys make good drama, but in its wisdom the Bible ends with a benediction, not a battle.