At Worlds End: 4 Things to Consider When Interpreting the Bible

Posted by Clark Bates
September 22, 2017

By now we’ve all read the claim:  On September 23, a unique astronomical alignment of the Sun, Moon, constellations Virgo and Leo, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Venus will fulfill a passage from the book of Revelation, thus ushering in the end of the world.  The passage in question is Revelation 12:1-2 and reads like this,

 “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”

According to those who are promoting this particular apocalypse, the astronomical event mentioned in Revelation is being fulfilled through this alignment and there is no other possible explanation. Normally, I don’t bother getting involved in debunking, or even discussing, claims like this, but the fact that this isn’t the first “biblically-based” claim to the end of the world in recent years (remember Harold Camping?), it does bring up a larger issue.  With so many different interpretations of a book like Revelation, how can we even claim to know what the Bible says?  And how do we know that just because we disagree with someone like David Meade or Harold Camping, on what grounds do we know that it’s not just our opinion? In response, there’s a few points to consider:

  1. Most disputes of this kind revolve around the book of Revelation
  2. Revelation is a unique form of writing that no longer exists today
  3. There is far greater unity in the realm of biblical interpretation than disunity
  4. We have a guide, and it’s called the science of hermeneutics

The Book of Revelation

Points 1 and 2 revolve around the nature of the book of Revelation and for good reason.  Unlike most of the remaining 65 books of the Bible, Revelation belongs to the ancient literary genre known as “Apocalypse”.  Apocalyptic literature was a genre of prophetical writing that developed in the post-Exilic Jewish culture in which the authors received divine visions (usually with very dramatic, sometimes violent imagery) detailing the end of the world and the ultimate salvation of the nation.  It was meant to give a voice to the cries of the Jewish people for salvation from their suffering.

The book of Revelation picks up this form of imagery as it describes the time in which the Lord will return and save his people from the evil of this world.  Why this causes interpretive problems for us today, is that this form of writing is extinct and even the way in which it was interpreted by the people at the time of its writing is unclear.  What is clear, is that the imagery is almost never woodenly literal and must be read with care.

Unity Over Disunity

While it’s true that the internet is full of websites, forums, and articles where Christians argue endlessly over various details of the faith, the reality is that there is far more unity than it may appear.  Certainly there is something to be said about the impression we as Christians are leaving on the casual observer, when the appearance is one of bickering and disunity, but as it regards the fundamentals of the Christian faith, we are united.  What are those fundamentals?  In short, they are:

God is one being
In three persons, Father, Son and Spirit
Jesus Christ is the second person of God
He came to earth, born of the virgin Mary
Lived a sinless life
Was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried
Three days after his death, Jesus rose bodily from the dead
Then, after a short time with his followers, ascended bodily into heaven
Where he remains to this day.
Jesus will come again one day to judge the wicked from the righteous
Until that day he and the Father sent the third person of God, the Holy Spirit
The Spirit dwells within the followers of Christ, creating the church
The church exists to act as the hands and feet of Jesus to this broken world
One day, at His return, God will remove evil from this world and restore a new world in perfection
As it was at the beginning

This is the message of the 66 books that we call the Bible, and it is the common thread of belief that defines what it means to be “Christian”.  In spite of the disagreement over outside issues like when the world will end, the church stands as one in the faith.

Hermeneutics

The science of hermeneutics is the methodology of reading a text from ancient history within its original context, as best as can be known, to derive its intended meaning.  As it relates to the Bible, there is an additional step which involves bridging the gap from the meaning for the people at the time it was written, to a meaning that is applicable for the people today.  Inherent within this process is the belief that a specific interpretation comes from the author of the text, and is not subject to the revisions of the reader.  However, from this singular interpretation, the reader can derive various applications for their daily life.  Consider this illustration:

How does this apply to the reading of Revelation?  As I said above, the first rule for interpreting Revelation is care and humility.  A sober recognition that the type of writing is foreign to our understanding and ultimately will likely never be completely clear is a reality we must accept.  Secondly, any interpretation of the text that makes it only explainable 2,000 years after it was written is unlikely.  Thirdly, unlike many other books, Revelation combines various literary devices, especially vivid imagery, to depict a message.  That is to say, it is less plausible that when John saw a woman “clothed in the sun, with the moon under her feet” what he saw was predicting an actual woman wrapped in the burning star that heats our solar system while standing on our moon.

It is worth mentioning that those who insist that this passage is referring to the upcoming astronomical alignment because it uses “real” language, tend to leave out the following verse where a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns with seven crowns attacks the woman.  What we do know about the apocalyptic genre is that it used imagery of beasts and stars to depict world rulers or wickedness that a specified deity would overthrow.  That alone removes the probability of the September 23 prediction.

So, what does Revelation mean?  There are different understandings regarding the details, but ultimately, as above, there is unity over the common message:  The kingdoms of humanity will grow farther and farther away from God, to the point that they will hate anyone who professes to follow Jesus.  This hatred is fueled by Satan who will one day be conquered by Christ when he returns to establish an eternal future kingdom.

Conclusion

Sensationalism always sells.  Therefore, we will always see headlines like the ones circulating today.  However, we shouldn’t let these dramatic headlines confuse the larger issue.  The larger issue is that we can know how to interpret Scripture, and we can understand its meaning, both for those at the time it was written, and for those of us who read it today.


The larger issue is that we can know how to interpret Scripture, and we can understand its meaning, both for those at the time it was written, and for those of us who read it today.

 

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