Thursday, April 8, 2021
Does the Book of Revelation actually belong in the Bible?
For a while, the canonical status of the Book of Revelation was debated. From the second century to the early fourth century of the Church, Christian leaders were divided on whether the Book of Revelation truly belonged in the New Testament. Revelation was suspect back then for the same reason it is suspect now. The Book of Revelation confuses people. It is hard to understand, and thus lends itself to conjecture and attracts overly-enthusiastic ecclesiastical loony birds. It took a while for a general consensus to emerge that yes, weird though it may be, the Book of Revelation is an authentic prophecy. It is a genuine word from Christ, legitimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ himself really did appear in an authoritative canon-closing vision to an apostle named John while he was in exile on the Island of Patmos.
The fact, though, that some prominent early Christian Bishops were uncertain and hesitant about accepting the legitimacy of the Book of Revelation might prompt latter-day skeptics to second-guess its legitimacy anew. A question quietly crystalizes: “What if they got it wrong? What if those old Churchmen erred when they recognized Revelation as canonical?”
In response to that doubt, I think it is necessary to start by pushing back with a simple assertion: They were not wrong when they gave the Book of Revelation canonical status. They were right. The prophecy rightfully belongs in the New Testament.
Okay… but my pious opinion and bland assertion will probably not convince anybody. Why should anyone take an unknown blogger’s word for it? So perhaps I ought to do a bit more work to convince my readers.
The first and most obvious test of its legitimacy is its historicity. As a piece of literature, is the Book of Revelation historically accurate? Or does it betray historical inaccuracies? The answer to that is yes, it is entirely historically accurate, and to a degree that does away with any doubt. The more a serious scholar researches the Book of Revelation, the more she or he realizes that it fits exactly in the time and place it claims for itself. No imposter came along later and wrote a bit of fiction that was spuriously spun as legitimate. A skeptic will look in vain for historical inaccuracies. There aren’t any. Go ahead and look into the archeology and cross-reference all the historical records. The Book of Revelation passes the test of historicity with flying colors. It is historical.
Someone could reply, “Well, maybe so. Maybe it is historical legit; but just because the Book of Revelation is historical does not necessarily mean that John the Exile really had a genuine and authoritative vision of Jesus Christ. He might have just been delusional or tripping. Other than its historicity, on what basis should the Book of Revelation be accepted as canonical?”
Theology. The intricate and nuanced theology of the Book of Revelation establishes it as orthodox and legitimate. This is precisely the point where those crusty old Churchmen had a distinct advantage over many latter-day skeptics. Most of them knew the Bible very well. And their thorough knowledge of the Bible gave them the ability to detect theological deviations.
Here I will turn to an illustration: Years ago I heard a sermon in which a preacher addressed the question of spiritual counterfeits. How can someone recognize a fake, a counterfeit? As an analogy, he claimed that the people who specialize in currency — in bank notes — are so familiar with the design and construction of authentic bank notes that they can spot the mistakes of counterfeits, and usually with ease. I do not actually know if the preacher was right about that, given that stores here now routinely test bank notes with special ink (and it annoys me when they do), but whatever. His intended point is valid and insightful all the same: Extended and habitual familiarity with the authentic makes it far easier to detect what is inauthentic. Those old Churchmen had extended and habitual familiarity with the content of the Bible. And by virtue of their extended and habitual familiarity with the other 65 books of the Bible they were able to come to a consensus: The Book of Revelation is indeed authentic prophecy. It passes the test of scrupulous theological scrutiny.
How can you be confident of that for yourself, though? Honestly, this point is where determined homework is simply unavoidable. You cannot know with any degree of confidence that the Book of Revelation is actually theologically sound unless you first know the other 65 canonical books of the Bible. This time I will confidently assert that point on the authority of my own extended and habitual familiarity with the Bible. The Book of Revelation definitely belongs in the canon of Scripture. I believe you will come to exactly the same conclusion as you grow in your own knowledge of the Bible.
Am I done? I thought I was. But I realize that I need to add one more point.
Academic knowledge, while necessary, is not enough. Academic knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. There is an intuitive, subjective aspect to spiritual discernment that must be recognized and acknowledged. A theologian named Karl Barth once spoke about hearing the voice of God in Scripture. He said that one can know that the Bible is truly God’s word because God speaks through scripture. Barth even acknowledged that his claim could be called circular reasoning: “I know that the Bible is God’s word because I hear the word of God in the Bible.” Yes, that is a circular argument. But experientially, it is true. I do subjectively hear God speak through the Bible. No, I do not hear God speak audibly; but somehow I do discern the living word of God through Scripture. And it must be said to be subjective, because it only happens on a person-to-person basis. It happens to me, as an individual person, as I delve into Scripture.
Those crusty old Churchmen had exactly that experience as they read the Book of Revelation, I dare suggest. Individually, they each experienced a nod from God. “Yes, this is the real thing. This is actually Jesus speaking, speaking to each one of us through this document.” Moreover, what validated each one’s subjective experience was the subsequent discovery that others had had the same subjective experience. And that is exactly how the Holy Spirit works — back and forth, individually and corporately, within a believer and in between believers. I hope and pray you have the same subjective experience as you read and listen to the Book of Revelation and the other 65 books of the Bible.