Elaine Pagels discusses the Apocalypse
Elaine Pagels, author of 'Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation,' talks about the enduring vision of the Book of Revelation.
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Q: How long have people been interpreting the Book of Revelation as predicting events of their own lifetimes?
A: What's amazing to me is that for 2,000 years, people have been reading the signs of their own times into it: It was about the explosion of Vesuvius, it was about Nero. Because the images are so open-ended, it's been possible to reapply it again and again.
Q: You mention that both sides in the American Civil War turned to the Book of Revelation for support, as did those in World War II.
A: The Book of Revelation is such a dream landscape that you can plug any major conflict in it.
Q: What did you discover about "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," from the Civil War era?
"The lord is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored." It's full of battle imagery, and it's literally straight out of the prophecies of Jeremiah and the Book of Revelation. [In the King James version, Revelation 14:19 reads: "And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast [it] into the great winepress of the wrath of God."]
Q: Tell me about the Antichrist. He doesn't actually appear in the Book of Revelation, but we think of him as being part of the apocalypse and the end times.
A: The Antichrist is often identified with the second beast in the Book of Revelation that arises from the land, the beast that tries to make everyone worship the power of evil.
Q: We do find the numbers 666 in the Book of Revelation, and they've been an eternal source of fascination. What do you think they stand for?
John is a Jewish prophet, and he hates Rome. Maybe he doesn't want to indict the Roman Empire publicly, even though he does that plenty.
He puts the number in the code called gematria, which equates a number with every letter: 666 is most plausibly read as the imperial name of Nero. He was understood by everybody to be the epitome to be the worst you could get as far as evil. People would have understood that.
Q: What is the ultimate value of understanding the Book of Revelation?
A: You can look at the 2,000 years of the way it's been read, in Europe and ancient Italy and from Augustine through the Middle Ages and beyond, and write the whole history of western Christendom by the way they're reading the Book of Revelation.
What's important to me is how it shows that the religious understandings of history and meaning are really not going away. They're very durable. They have to do with emotional responses to conflict, to ambiguity, to trauma like war and natural catastrophe.
The book says, okay, there is a lot of suffering and there's a lot of terrible things are happening, but they're all under God's control. It'll only last for a certain amount of time, and justice will prevail.
It shows religion is less about believing in a bunch of things than it is about having hope.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.