The Washington Post
A History of the End of the Worldby Jonathan Kirsch
"[The Book of] Revelation has served as a "language arsenal" in a great many of the social, cultural, and political conflicts in Western history. Again and again, Revelation has stirred some dangerous men and women to act out their own private apocalypses. Above all, the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one's enemies, the… See more details below
"[The Book of] Revelation has served as a "language arsenal" in a great many of the social, cultural, and political conflicts in Western history. Again and again, Revelation has stirred some dangerous men and women to act out their own private apocalypses. Above all, the moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one's enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. For all of these reasons, the rest of us ignore the book of Revelation only at our impoverishment and, more to the point, at our own peril."
The mysterious author of the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse, as the last book of the New Testament is also known) never considered that his sermon on the impending end times would last beyond his own life. In fact, he predicted that the destruction of the earth would be witnessed by his contemporaries. Yet Revelation not only outlived its creator; this vivid and violent revenge fantasy has played a significant role in the march of Western civilization.
Ever since Revelation was first preached as the revealed word of Jesus Christ, it has haunted and inspired hearers and readers alike. The mark of the beast, the Antichrist, 666, the Whore of Babylon, Armageddon, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are just a few of the images, phrases, and codes that have burned their way into the fabric of our culture. The questions raised go straight to the heart of the human fear of death and obsession with the afterlife. Will we, individually or collectively, ride off to glory, or will we drown in hellfire for all eternity? As those who best manipulate this dark vision learned, which side we fall on is often a matter of life or death. Honed into a weapon in the ongoing culture wars between states, religions, and citizenry, Revelation has significantly altered the course of history.
Kirsch, whom the Washington Post calls "a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing to modern audiences," delivers a far-ranging, entertaining, and shocking history of this scandalous book, which was nearly cut from the New Testament. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Black Death, the Inquisition to the Protestant Reformation, the New World to the rise of the Religious Right, this chronicle of the use and abuse of the Book of Revelation tells the tale of the unfolding of history and the hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares of all humanity.
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A History of the End of the WorldHow the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization
By Jonathan Kirsch
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Kirsch
All right reserved.
Something Rich and Strange
Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.
"I know the ending," goes the slogan on a license-plate frame that can be spotted here and there on the streets and highways of America. "God wins."
It's a credo that pious Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold in common, although they might quibble on exactly what is meant by the word "God." But the plainspoken slogan conceals a profound and enduring mystery: human beings of all faiths, in all times and all places, have wondered when and how the world will come to an end. Nowadays, of course, the very same questions are being asked (and answered) by scientists rather than theologians. For the Christian true believer, however, "the ending" refers to a scenario that is described in horrific and heart-shaking detail in the single scariest book in all of scripture, the book of Revelation.
The beginning of the end, according to Revelation, will be augured by mysterious signs and wonders--a black sun and a blood-red moon, the stars falling to earth, persecutors and false prophets, plague andpestilence and famine. Then the satanic arch-villain who has come to be called the Antichrist will rise to absolute power on earth. After seven years of oppression and persecution under the Antichrist, Jesus Christ will descend from heaven in the guise of a warrior-king, lead a celestial army of resurrected saints and martyrs to victory over the demonic hordes at the Battle of Armageddon, drape Satan in chains and confine him in a bottomless pit, and reign over an earthly kingdom for one thousand years.
At the end of the millennium, Satan will break out of his bonds, and Jesus Christ will be compelled to fight a second and final battle. At last, the dead will be resurrected, the living and dead alike will be judged, and the earth as we know it will be destroyed once and for all. The end of the world, according to Revelation, will be followed by the creation of "a new heaven and a new earth," a celestial paradise where the Christian saints and martyrs will spend eternity in perfect bliss. Everyone else will sizzle forever along with Satan in a lake of fire and brimstone.
That's the pitch line for the book of Revelation, so to speak, but the text itself is something even richer and stranger. The nightmarish landscape conjured up by its author is stalked by God and the Devil, the Lamb and the Beast, a lascivious whore and a woman in labor, angels and demons in the countless thousands, and a bestiary of monsters so grotesque and so implausible that they would not seem out of place in a comic book or a horror flick. At certain moments, in fact, the book of Revelation resembles nothing so much as an ancient prototype of the psychological thriller and the monster movie, and its imagery seems to fire the same synapses in the human brain.
Nowadays, Revelation finds its most ardent readers in Christian fundamentalist circles, but even someone who has never opened the very last book of the New Testament is likely to find the plot and characters to be hauntingly familiar. The idea that the world will end (and soon)--and the phantasmagoria of words, numbers, colors, images, and incidents in which the end-times are described in the book of Revelation--are deeply woven into the fabric of Western civilization, both in high culture and in pop culture, starting in distant biblical antiquity and continuing into our own age. The Battle of Armageddon, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seventh Seal, the Great Whore of Babylon, and, more obliquely, the Antichrist, the Grim Reaper, and the Grapes of Wrath have migrated from the pages of Revelation to some of our most exalted works of literature, art, and music as well as the sports pages, the movie screen, and the paperback best seller.
Above all, the book of Revelation has always been used as a kind of codebook to discover the hidden meanings behind the great events and personages of history--war and revolution, kings and conquerors, pandemic and natural disaster. And the words and phrases of Revelation, its stock figures and scenes, have been recycled and repurposed by artists and poets, preachers and propagandists--all in ser-vice of some religious or political or cultural agenda. The conquest of Jerusalem by medieval crusaders, the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence during the Renaissance, the naming of the newly discovered Americas as the New World, and the thousand-year Reich promised by Adolf Hitler are all examples of the unlikely and unsettling ways that the book of Revelation has resonated through history. Even today, end-of-the-world fears and fantasies are peddled by Hollywood moviemakers and best-selling novelists, hard-preaching televangelists and presidential hopefuls.
Still, the book of Revelation is regarded by secular readers--and even by progressive Christians of various denominations--as a biblical oddity at best and, at worst, a kind of petri dish for the breeding of dangerous religious eccentricity. Most Jewish readers have never bothered to crack open a copy of the Christian scriptures, and when they do, they are deeply offended to find that Jews are described in Revelation as members of "the synagogue of Satan."1 Indeed, the fact is that Revelation has always been regarded with a certain skepticism--as "a curiosity that accidentally and embarrassingly belongs to the New Testament"--even within pious Christian circles, and even in antiquity.2 So the ironic and disdainful treatment of Revelation in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, a darkly postmodern motion picture that questions whether God exists at all, is not wholly anachronistic.
"Death is behind your back. His scythe flashes above your heads. Which of you will he strike first?" cries an overwrought preacher of the High Middle Ages as he wanders through a plague-ridden countryside in the company of flagellants and penitents. "You are all doomed, do you hear? Doomed! Doomed! Doomed!" And a battle-scarred squire, newly returned from . . .
Excerpted from A History of the End of the World by Jonathan Kirsch Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Kirsch. Excerpted by permission.
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