Towards an Ethical Reading of The Apocalypse:

Reflections on John’s Use of Power, Violence, and Misogyny


David L. Barr

Wright State University


The Apocalypse of John, on the usual reading, tells the story of Jesus’ return from Heaven--waging triumphant war over the powers of evil and establishing God’s rule on earth.  And who cannot but long for such a triumph? Still, the morality of this story can be, and has been, questioned on a number of fronts.   D. H. Lawrence called it "a rather repulsive work" not content till the whole world be destroyed, except that lake of fire in which those who fail to get in line might suffer eternally.[1] The American philosopher C. S. Pierce lamented about the Bible:


But little by little the bitterness increases until in the last book of the New Testament, its poor distracted author represents that all the time Christ was talking about having come to save the world, the secret design was to catch the entire human race, with the exception of a paltry 144,000, and souse them all in brimstone lake, and as the smoke of their torment went up for ever and ever, to turn and remark, 'There is no curse any more.'  Would it be an insensible smirk or a fiendish grin that should accompany such and utterance?  I wish I could believe St. John did not write it...."[2]


And more recently the feminist writer Tina Pippin has lamented:


The irony of the grotesque burning of the Whore is that the Christian utopia is itself an oppressive world (for women). .... But in the Apocalypse narrative, gender oppression is left untouched by the sword of God.[3]


She goes so far as to call it an "misogynist fantasy" and to conclude: "The Apocalypse means death to women" (86).

What these and countless other readers share is their revulsion to the images of violence and coercion in this story.  We decry the Beast's vicious destruction of the Whore (17:16); God's ultimate consignment of humanity to the Lake of Fire (20:15); the Warrior’s defeat of the armies of the nations with its gory feast where the birds of prey are invited to “gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders--flesh of all, both free and slave, both small and great." (19:17).  The ultimate value in this story seems to be power, power exercised ruthlessly.  One even has the sense that God is willing to engage in torture in an effort to induce humanity to repent.   Notice how John describes the final torments:


The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch them with fire;  they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.  The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony,  and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds (16:9, 11; see also 9:21).


Suffering does not lead to repentance, so it seems inevitably to lead to destruction.   There can be no question that this is a war story and that John uses the conventions of war, with all their repulsive details.  This is disconcerting, but the moral problem goes deeper.

The traditional reading of the Apocalypse is morally objectionable on two general grounds. First, if God triumphs over evil only because God has more power than evil, then power--not love or goodness or truth--is the ultimate value of the universe. Second, if God has the power to quell evil and end suffering and plans one day to use that power, then by what logic can God allow innocent suffering to continue? John seems to recognize this second issue in the telling of the story, for just this question is raised by the martyrs whose lives have been poured out on the altar:


 "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?" (6:10).


That such an issues is raised within the story suggests that the author is not unaware of these moral concerns.   A narrative reading of John’s Apocalypse will allow us to see new ways to address both the issue of coercion and domination by power and the issue of God’s failure to act to end innocent suffering in the interim.  While a narrative reading does not solve all the moral problems of this work, it does give us a new perspective on them, even raising other concerns.  The paper considers two moral issues raised by a narrative reading (the issue of immoral means to moral ends and the issue of human passiveness in the face of divine control).


Does God Overcome Evil by Superior Power? (The Morality of Domination)


Narrative analysis discovers meaning in the dialectical interaction between the words of the text and the scenarios of the reader.[4] Meaning is a cooperative venture of author and audience; different audiences with different experiences and different concerns will discover different meanings in a work of literature. That is what we expect. Now some have gotten carried away with this observation on the role of the reader and declare all readings valid. I reject this view, for the text constrains our readings.[5] Let me illustrate this point by giving two quick readings of the scene in Revelation 5.

 In that scene John is perplexed that no one can be found to open the sealed scroll; he is so distressed he cries:


Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals."  Then I saw ... among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (5:5-6).


There could not be a more stark symbolic contrast between the figure announced by the angel and the character actually seen by John: conquering lion/slaughtered lamb. Now on one level this is a portrayal of early Christian experience: they had heard that the messiah would come with justice and vengeance, but what they actually saw in Jesus was quite the contrary. 

But we must not miss the narrative force of this symbolic shift. There are three major characterizations of Jesus in the Apocalypse: The majestic, human-like figure of chapters 1-3; the slaughtered-standing Lamb of chapters 4-11; and the heavenly warrior of chapters 12-22.  These fit their stories, for the story of the last section is one of cosmic war; the story of the middle section is one of worship in the heavenly sanctuary (where the lamb’s sacrificial significance is clear); and the story of the first section is one of issuing imperial decrees (the so-called seven letters). If these characterizations remained constant the traditional reading might be defensible; but they do not. Once introduced, the Lamb dominates the rest of the action. It is the Lamb who gathers the 144,000 holy warriors on Mt Zion (14:1); it is the Lamb on whom the armies of evil make war (17:14); it is even the Lamb who marries and rules after the war (19:7: 22:3). My point is that this symbolic inversion is also a narrative inversion and that the narrative inversion is also a moral inversion: in this story evil only appears to be conquered by power. In this story, evil is conquered by the death of the Lamb.

This is seen clearly in the miniature scene in chapter 12 where we are told the story of a war in heaven:


 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven (12:7-8).


This is the traditional language of holy war; but the language, story, and moral situation are inverted by John’s coda to the story:


But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death (12:11).


It is poor reading to overlook this inversion and to read as if the Lamb has not replaced the Lion in this story. Similar inversions occur at every point in the story--even in the climactic scene in which the heaven Warrior kills all his enemies, for his conquest is by means of a sword that comes from his mouth, not by the power of his arm (19:21).  Surely this story is built on the mythology of Holy War (and that itself may be ethically problematic), but just as surely John consistently demythologizes the war--or perhaps more accurately, remythologizes the warrior with the image of the suffering savior so that the death of the warrior and not some later battle is the crucial event.  At every juncture in this story where good triumphs over evil a close examination will show that the victory is finally attributed to the death of Jesus.[6]


When Does God Act?  (The Morality of Justice)


This leads to a second and related point.  The actions of the Apocalypse are never arbitrary, never do they rest on simple power.  There is a logic of judgment finally articulated by the angel of the waters when the third bowl causes the earth’s water to turn to blood:


because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!"                        (16:6).


Notice both the appropriateness/justice of the retribution (blood because of blood) and also the inevitability of the retribution. This same logic undergirds our own ecological consciousness.  If our waters are polluted it is not because God is exercising some tyrannical power over us; it is because we foul our own streams.  This is the same logic of justice that undergirded Amos' visions of Israel's destruction because of social injustice.  Amos first saw a vision of locusts, but when he prayed God stopped the locusts.  Amos then saw a vision of fire, but when he prayed God stopped the fire.  Amos then saw a vision of a crooked wall, and Amos could not pray for relief.  For crooked walls--and unjust societies--fall.  (See Amos 7:1-9).

So in our story the martyrs have to wait till their "number would be complete" (6:11).  This is not because God awaits in some dispassionate indifference to the suffering of the innocent, but because in John’s story God acts through the process of suffering.  There comes a time in every oppression when the amount of coercion needed to maintain a system will itself destroy the system, as we ourselves have seen in Russia and South Africa.  So the great Whore has become drunk with the blood of the saints (17:6); Rome's very act of killing becomes her own death.  Such is John's vision.

My first argument, then, is that a narrative reading of the Apocalypse puts quite a different construction on the story and, in fact, contradicts the traditional reading. A narrative reading shows that in this story evil is overcome by suffering love not by superior power and that the apparent delay in judgment of the wicked is not due to divine indifference but to John’s basic understanding that human acts cause human downfall. This does not, of course, solve all the moral problems of the Apocalypse.

I will now consider issues raised by two recent interpreters of the Apocalypse, both well-acquainted with narrative readings: Tina Pippin and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  Both are concerned with the political significance of reading Revelation, though in different ways.  Pippin raises especially the issue of the morality of the means to a new world; Schüssler Fiorenza raises especially the issue of the morality of reading Revelation as a religious tract and ignoring its social consequence.


How Should We Read John’s Images?  (The Morality of Violent Means)


Surely many of us, myself included, are not comfortable with John's violent images, with the easy equation of blood and wine, with the intolerable depiction of a lake of fire.  But ancient sensibilities are not the same as modern; and war stories are not polite reading.  This story is profoundly disturbing; the question is does the use of such conventions and imagery result in an immoral story?

            I will focus this question by looking at the specific challenge leveled by Tina Pippin in the work referred to above.[7] First let me note the broad agreements between Pippin and me: we both engage in narrative readings; we are both feminists; we both are deeply disturbed by the rhetorical violence of the story. Within these broad agreements we disagree almost completely on the moral implications of this story. I cannot hope to do justice to her whole critique, so let me concentrate on her analysis of the destruction of the Whore of Babylon (told in Rev 17 and interpreted in 18 & 19). After a dramatic scene of the woman clothed in scarlet riding on a great beast and accompanied by ten kings, John is told:


 they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire (17:16).


Pippin interprets this scene thus:


The object of desire is made the object of death. The Whore/Goddess/Queen/ Babylon is murdered (a sexual murder) and eaten and burned. This grotesquely exaggerated vision of death and desire accentuates the hatred of the imperial power--and of women. This story of death and desire is the most vividly misogynist passage in the New Testament. The Apocalypse is cathartic on many levels, but in terms of an ideology of gender, both women characters in the narrative and women readers are victimized.[8]


I see three issues here. First, there is the issue of contemporary reading and what such a story does to its readers. Second, there is the issue of how one should read the gender inscriptions of such a text. And third, there is the broader issue of how one should interpret the violence of this text.  These are all three issues of interpretation--that is they become moral issues when we offer interpretations of the text.  The third--the images of violence--is also a textual issues, that is, a moral issue whatever interpretation we might offer.

As to contemporary readers, Pippin is absolutely right to confront the way women are portrayed in this text.  Contemporary men can justify their mistreatment of women by such ancient texts; contemporary women draw self-images from such stories.  No one can be allowed to feel that what happens to John's whore in this story could ever be justified for any woman.  It is dangerous that John used a human image here.  We must challenge the text at this point (as we must challenge its comfort with violence generally). The question is how to challenge it, which I will return to in my third point below.

Second, I strongly disagree with the way Pippin reads the gender inscriptions of the text. I believe she makes three errors: she literalizes the images rather than grappling with their ambiguity; she minimizes the role of the feminine in the story; and she misconstrues the relationship between the violence and the final resolution.

Pippin quotes Tilde Sankovitch's claim that it is the focus on sex (rather than intellect, imagination, or feeling) that makes women subservient to men (84), but I wonder if Pippin is not doing something similar.  There seems far more sex in her book than in John's.  I would guess that a bride in John's world had far more social and economic significance than sexual, but we hear nothing of these. Instead we hear of the 144,000 entering the New Jerusalem as an image of "mass intercourse" (80).  It's a city.  Entering a city is not the same thing as having intercourse, at least for me. Only absolutizing the gender inscription of the city-as-woman allows one to misconstrue the text so completely.[9]

Pippin’s reading strategy causes her to absolutize the gender inscriptions of the text rather than to challenge them or to explore their ambiguity.[10] The Whore may be imaged as a woman, but in the story it is also a city--and not just any city. The Whore is the Great City that rules over the cities of the world. Admitting this ambiguity changes the moral equation that comes from the Whore’s destruction. 

So, too, the moral equation shifts when we recognize the positive valuation that the story gives to women.  I agree with Pippin that "the female in this story does not get enough credit" (76), but I see this is as much the reader’s fault as the author’s. Most readers--Pippin included--virtually ignore the positive characterizations of women and never seem to notice that in each instance the evil woman is paired with an evil man: Jezebel/Balaam; Whore/Beast.  In fact masculine evil characters predominate and positive portrayals of women are important.  Both the women in chapter twelve, the Queen of Heaven and Gaia, act independently, both prevail over the Dragon's attack, neither is weak or subservient.  It is woman supported by woman, as Gaia opens her mouth and swallows the river from the serpent (12:16).  It may not be as satisfying as if she had cut off the serpent's head, but it is not a negligible victory.

Still Pippin claims:


The Apocalypse falls short of complete subversion of the social order.  The female is still absent, even though she is represented in both powerful and powerless modes of being and acting.  The female is still other, still marginalized, and still banished to the edge of the text. (72)


But surely the New Jerusalem is a central image--probably one of only three images that most people remember from the story (I'd guess the four horsemen and 666 are the other two.).  Far more attention is given to describing the bride and her significance than is given to the groom.  In fact, I find it striking that this community that can image itself as a convent of celibate, virgin males (14:4) can also image itself as a bride.  In this story the male becomes the female, hardly a marginal image.

So I argue that John’s story is not so misogynistic as Pippin suggests, that her deliberate reading “as a woman” (53) too easily reifies negative feminine imagery and too easily overlooks positive feminine imagery. But this is not the heart of the problem; the crucial problem is the violence with which women and men are treated in this story. How should we understand the violence portrayed in this story?

Two issues need to be considered separately here: John’s use of violent images and the structural role of violence in the story. I have already argued that this story regularly inverts the images of violence, so that what at first appears to coercive power (Jesus slays all his enemies) turns out on closer examination to be something else (he slays them with the sword of his mouth). Those who see nothing but contradictions between John’s story and the Gospel story of Jesus engage in too literal a reading of these images. 

This does not, in my mind, justify them. I find them repulsive and morally inadequate; but I suspect that is because I read from the perspective of an educated Western person in a secure social and economic situation. John and his situation were quite different. While I do not wish to excuse John by saying he was a man of his time, nor do I wish to judge him by the standards of our time. It seems to me that these images of violence remain morally problematic whatever interpretation we might offer for them.  Still, careful reading is called for.

Thus in the scene of the destruction of the Whore of Babylon that Pippin highlights, it is human brutality that is portrayed. The Ten Kings and the Beast destroy her. Even so, this is because “God has put it into their hearts to carry out God’s purpose” (17:17). Thus in some way God must be held accountable for all the violence in the world, even human violence, for God is responsible for creation. But this is surely morally different than imagining divine violence. In fact, John signals this dialectical tension by immediately adding, “The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Those who seek to dominate others will themselves by devoured by the process; it is, John says, what God has ordained. While the image of violence is problematic for me, the understanding of violence is not.

This leads to a second consideration, to what degree does this story portray violence as the means to renew the earth?  Pippin sees war and disasters as the means whereby the reign of God comes (96-103).  I see the reverse: wars and calamities are human endeavors to avoid God's new world. In the vision of the Seven Seals, for example, John is clear on the cause of war, famine, and death (seals two, three and four); it is the human conqueror of the first seal (6:1-8).  These are not the means to heavenly city but obstacles on the way. Seal five then shows the innocent lives under the altar crying out for justice but being comforted and told to wait “until the number would be complete.” Then follows seal six, complete with all the traditional apocalyptic signs (black sun, bloody moon, falling stars, etc), and the terrible cry to the rocks and mountains:


  "Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb;  for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?" (6:16-17).


It is easy to imagine divine violence here, but it is important to see that none is portrayed. Instead we have a vision of the preservation of those who receive the mark of God. Renewal comes after violence but not through violence.

Were violence a means to renewal, the story would advocate such violence, but such is not the case. Even Pippin recognizes that this story advocates non-violent resistance (99) and sees the danger of a literal interpretation of the details of violence (100).  She just does not give these factors any weight in her interpretation.  For me they are crucial.

Pippin and I both want to challenge the violence of this text. She does this by taking the violence at face value and condemning it. I choose another strategy, for I read the text as a story that transforms the traditional images of sacred violence into images of suffering, faithfulness, and consistent resistance to evil.  Still I regret the violence and wish the story were not so easy to read as accepting of violence.

I do not deny that the Apocalypse can be read as a misogynist fantasy; Pippin has done such a reading. But I do not find it convincing, any more than I find the traditional reading that sees the story as one of conquest by power and coercion. Both readings fail to give adequate weight to the narrative strategy by which John utilizes and transforms the ancient story of Holy War by means of his community’s experience of Jesus. Only when we read the story in the light of this transformation can we deem the story moral.

But it is precisely this reading of the story as the story of Jesus that raises one further moral point.  Does the Apocalypse stand against real world oppression in the everyday lives of its audience or should we read it theologically.  In other words, is God’s rule in the Apocalypse a spiritual rule?


Is God in Control? (The Moral Danger of Spirituality)


Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has done much to call the guild of biblical scholarship to ethical accountability.[11]  My own effort to address these issues grows out of her challenge.  But it was only in an exchange with her at the 1996 Annual Meeting that I finally grasped one of her major concerns with my interpretation of the Apocalypse.  A little background.

My own narrative reading of the Apocalypse focuses on its fictional setting within a worship service.  I see the ending as an invitation to the Eucharist, wherein Jesus truly does come to the gathered community.  In fact, I argue that all the events of the apocalyptic narrative have already occurred in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  When John has the loud voices in heaven declare:


The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.  (11:15)


I take both the saying and its tenses seriously.  The transformation of the cosmos has already occurred. 

But of course it has not occurred.  Rome still dominates the world and the lives of John’s followers.  It is just here that my argument takes a dangerous ethical turn, as I now understand, for I argue that the overthrow of evil occurs within the liturgical setting.  The consistent theme of Revelation is “worship God” (19:10; 22:8-9; see 4:10; 5:14; 7:11, 15; 11:16; 14:7; 15:4; 19:4; 20:4 and contrast 9:20; 13:4,8, 14-15; 14:9; 16:2; 19:20).  Those who worship God do by that very act enact the reign of God, thus to worship God is to experience God’s kingdom, as I argued long ago.[12]  All the action of Revelation occurs whenever God’s people gather in God’s service.  This interpretation entails two ethical dangers: the danger of viewing John’s story as a spiritual story unconnected to the actual lives of oppressed people and the danger of viewing the world as already transformed and therefore trustworthy. 

What I saw for the first time last year was that the narrative reading of Revelation that I propose could easily be understood as a spiritual reading, that is, as a reading that locates both the problem and the solution in the theological rather than the sociological sphere. Now this is quite shocking and, it seems to me, a serious misreading of both John’s story and my interpretation.  To argue, as I do, that “In the present worship of the church, God’s reign is already realized here and now on earth”[13] need not mean that God’s reign is only spiritual.  And it is the “only” that is the problem.[14]

Perhaps the danger of this view can be seen most clearly in the Pauline tradition of Ephesians, when the writer declares:


For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (6:12)


The danger here is not the last part of the declaration but the first.  The denial of a “blood and flesh” embodiment of evil is nearly the opposite of what John’s story portrays, for in John’s story the cosmic powers are vividly embodied in the blood and flesh of the Roman empire.  John’s story stands firmly against real economic and social oppression not just against some theological idea of idolatry, as the dirge of chapter 18 makes plain.  The dirge shows the lament of the political and economic leaders, including their inventory of the cargo of the ships of the great city:


gold and silver and precious stones and pearls and fine linen and purple cloth and silk and scarlet and all kinds of scented wood and all sorts of ivory vessels and all sorts of expensive wooden vessels and copper and iron and marble and cinnamon and spice and incense and myrrh and frankincense and wine and olive oil and fine flour and wheat and cattle and sheep and horses and chariots and bodies and lives of humans 18:12-13


These are the luxury items of the ruling elite, trafficking in human life.  John sees the hand of the dragon in the ordinary commerce of his day and his call to worship God is a call to resist such commerce (see 13:16-18).  This leads to a second, related point.  How can John affirm both that the Roman empire and Roman culture are corrupt and demonic and that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord...?”  Is the world redeemed or not or does redemption come only in the church?

It is a false choice.  For the submission to the divine will evident in the service of worship brings the characters of this story into direct opposition to the dominating powers of class and culture and their stand against such domination is understood to entail even their lives (12:11).  Rather than understanding the church in our modern sense as a separate social institution, we must explore the ancient situation wherein religion was embedded in politics and the family.  Here Walter Wink’s distinction between the outer and inner form of the Powers is useful.

            Wink has done more than any other scholar to articulate a sophisticated and compelling modern understanding of the ancient view of the “principalities and powers of this age” that were an essential part of the ancient--and especially the apocalyptic--worldview.[15]  Rather than speak in a dualistic fashion of spiritual forces and human institutions, Wink speaks of the inner and outer reality of all powers.  To use a completely modern example, we must say that the power of international business today is both a concrete physical thing (with buildings, employees, and fax machines) and a spiritual presence (a corporate culture, a way of doing business).  So too was the Roman empire.

Understood this way, it makes no sense to ask whether the reign of God imagined in the Apocalypse is spiritual or social; the answer must be both.  How then are we to understand John’s bold declaration that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of God?

First it is John’s clear conviction that the slaughtered-standing lamb has power over the powers; he alone can open the scroll (5:2-6).  While the imagined mechanism for this power is debated, Jesus’ death seems to represent for John the defeat of Satan (12:11). 

Second it is clear that John thinks that all who join their testimony to that of Jesus, even to the point of dying like him, share in that power (12:11; 6:10; 17:6).  Further, each of the letters to the seven churches contains a promise for those who conquer, so such conquest is both possible and necessary.  And there is the paradox.  Victory is won. Victory remains to be won.

A similar paradox exists in Paul’s thought.  In a convoluted argument about the nature and reality of the resurrection, Paul embraces two contradictory points: Christ reigns; the powers still reign:


 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  1 Cor 15:20-26


Christ is reigning, according to Paul, and will do so until all enemies are defeated (thus they are still in power).  The reign of Christ must eventually destroy all the powers.  Those who swear allegiance to Jesus’ kingdom stand opposed to the rule of those powers.

In John’s Apocalypse, those powers are incarnate as the beast of Roman rule (13:1-18) and a central part of John’s purpose in writing is to persuade the audience to resist those powers.  To worship God alone.  To imagine that God alone will one day end injustice in the world is to ignore our own duty to change the world we live in.

No doubt the Apocalypse of John is an ethically problematic text.  Many thoughtful people have found it wanting.  The traditional interpretation merely substitutes domination by God for the domination of Rome; and not content merely to propound another totalitarianism it adds divine indifference and delay.  A narrative reading shows how ill-founded such an interpretation is, but a narrative reading reveals other moral issues: the issue of violence (and especially violence against women) and the issue of spiritualizing the text, cutting it off from its situation of social oppression.  I have shown that these are not necessary failings of a narrative reading.  In fact, a narrative reading informed by social understanding reveals John’s text to be a call for resistance against the powers of domination in the specific social and economic circumstances of Roman Asia Minor. 

Perhaps we can see this situation more clearly if we return to one of John’s opening sentences by which he introduces himself to the audience.  In explaining his presence on Patmos he uses two family metaphors to relate to the audience:


o adelfoj umwn kai suykoinwnoj


As brother and partner, John claims the strongest possible relationship with the audience, but the surprising turn comes next when he gives the terms of the partnership:


en th qliyei kai basileia kai upomonh en Ihsou


qliyij belongs to the language domain of trouble and suffering; Louw and Nida suggest “that which causes pain” (22.2).[16]  It is regularly used to refer to the period of tribulation imagined to come at the end of the age (e.g., Matt 24:21).  basileia, by contrast, belongs to the domain of power and rule--nearly the antithesis of qliyij.  Then to this oxymoronic pair, John adds a third.  upomonh  is usually translated endurance; Louw and Nida suggest the ability to bear up under difficult circumstances.  It is, for John I think, a more active quality of standing up to evil; it is one of the works of the faithful (2:19).

Now the pairing of  upomonh  and qliyij makes perfectly good sense, but what of basileia?  Only an apocalypse can show life as simultaneously qliyij and basileia, for an apocalypse allows the audience to look behind the veil of ordinary experience (an unredeemed world) and see the true order of life (God’s rule).  John’s audience is imagined to live in two worlds, corresponding to the basic dualism of John’s world.  But this is not a dualism of spirit and flesh or even of secular and spiritual, for the way to live in both is  upomonh  .  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that life in the basileia provides power to live the resistance to evil (upomonh) that is necessary in the time of qliyij. (See 2:2-3; 3:10; 13:10; 14:12.)  Let me try to clarify this further by considering the implied audience of this work, or more specifically, the naratee.


I see John’s story moving at three basic narrative levels, each with its own narrator and naratee.  The three levels of narration are the telling of the whole work by a public reader (1:3); the telling of the stories by John on Patmos (1:9); and the telling of things by characters in these stories (for example, the voice addresses the souls under the altar in 6:11).  To whom does the narrator speak at each level; who are the narratees?

At the outermost level the narrator is the reader and the narratee is the audience gathered to hear the reading (1:3).  This narratee corresponds most closely to the implied audience of the work, but we know almost nothing about it.  The story leaves this narratee largely undefined.  

The second-level narratee, however, is carefully defined, for that is the listener to whom John narrates his vision of the risen Christ.  This narratee is explicitly named as the seven churches and extensively characterized in the messages to the churches (chapters 2-3).  This narratee is a complex group, both rich and poor, both zealous and lax, both loving and cold.  They are carefully distinguished from the people John calls Jezebel and Balaam, precisely because they are folk who might be tempted to follow such accommodating leaders.[17] 

At the third narrative level, the narratees are the people addressed in the stories told to these second-level narratees--that is, the saints and martyrs who struggle to conquer the beast (see 6:10, 15:2, and the constant references to saints and servants). They are characterized as suffering and oppressed.  These saints and martyrs are the focal points of the story and both the second and first level narratees are encouraged to identify with them, leading one narrative critic to assert that ideal audience takes on the role of the martyr.[18]  This is something of a poetical exaggeration, but it is clear that by telling the story through the point of view of those abused by Roman power, the discourse persuades the audience to resist such power.

The purpose of the Apocalypse is to remind these people of the vile things Rome has done and is doing.  It was Roman power, after all, that crucified Jesus; it is Roman power that constitutes the totalitarian state in which they now live.  If, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows, John wanted his audience to know just whom they were getting in bed with.  John's apocalypse is a revelation of the true nature of Roman power and Roman culture.  Seeing Rome in this light could lead to despair, but it is a measure of John's achievement that he has created a story that both reveals the mistake of accommodating to Rome and provides a rationale for resistance. For the prayers, the patience, the persistent resistance of the saints overthrow the powers of evil and bring God's kingdom into reality. 

Let me conclude with a personal anecdote.  I grew up with and internalized the popular reading of the Apocalypse.  But of course I did not regard this as “a reading” but simply as the what the Book of Revelation taught.  As I eventually found that understanding of life untenable, I simply stopped paying any attention to this book--a time-honored strategy.  But in the early years of my teaching students would pester me to teach it.  I taught special courses on just about everything else in the New Testament, but ignored Revelation.  Finally, after several years of teaching, I relented.  Much to my surprise, when I applied the historical, social, and (especially) literary methods that worked so well with the gospels to the Book of Revelation, an exciting and sophisticated story emerged.  The book had been transformed because the way I approached it had been transformed.

A narrative reading, intersecting with a social reading, turns the popular American understanding of the Apocalypse on its head.  For in the popular imagination, God conquers by power and the violence of holy war is justified because it leads to a good end.  In popular thought the end comes only as the work of God and in God’s own time.  I have tried to show that each of these ethically tenuous positions can be rejected on the basis of a narrative and social reading of John’s story.  John’s story stands firmly against violence and domination and calls the audience to active resistance to the powers of Rome.


     [1]D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse (Penguin Books, 1976:103).

     [2]Charles S. Peirce, "Evolutionary Love," The Essential Peirce: selected Philosophical Writings. Vol 1 (1867-1893), Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel, eds. Indiana University Press, 1992: 365-66.

     [3]Tina Pippin, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992:105).

     [4]For a beginning introduction, see Mark Allan Powell,  What is Narrative Criticism? (Fortress Press, 1991). For a more advanced analysis and demonstration of the interaction between narrative and other criticisms see, Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore, Mark and Method: New Approaches to Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). For an application see David M. Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Fortress Press, 1982).

     [5]For a careful articulation of this viewpoint see Wolfgang Iser,  The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974) and especially   The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

     [6]For a consistent reading of Revelation as narrative see my forthcoming EndStory: A Narrative Commentary on John’s Apocalypse (Polebridge Press).

     [7]Death and Desire.

     [8]Death and Desire, 58.

     [9]The whore is certainly a sexual figure and her fornication is highlighted, but John's amazement--judging from the angel's response to it--relates to her power and wealth not her sexuality.  But we hear little of these.  Nor do I see any evidence that thaumadzo has erotic connotations.  It means to marvel or wonder and it is an aorist indicating that it was an initial reaction not a present longing.  This is only one example of where I find Pippin forcing the text into a unified interpretation in spite of her desire not to do so (88).

     [10]See the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Fortress, 1991, esp. 12-15) , and the theoretical basis in “The Will to Choose or to Reject: Continuing our Critical Work,” Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, L. M. Russell, ed. (Westminster, 1985, 125-36).

     [11]See her SBL Presidential Address, published as "The Ethics of Interpretation: De‑centering Biblical Scholarship," Journal of Biblical Literature 107 1988:3‑17.  But one finds these concerns address throughout her extensive writings on the Apocalypse.

     [12]David L. Barr, "The Apocalypse as a Symbolic Transformation of the World: A Literary Analysis," Interpretation 38 1984:47.

     [13]Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,  Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991:126).

     [14]I owe a good bit also to Neil Elliott, whose book, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993), helped me think through some of these issues.

     [15]Walter Wink,  Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).  Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986).  Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a world of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

     [16]Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, editors, Greek‑English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies 1989).

     [17]I do not regard Jezebel and Balaam as part of the intended naratee because John’s characterization of them is through insult and name-calling, devices designed to make them appear as outsiders.  See Adela Yarbro Collins, "Vilification and Self‑Definition in the Book of Revelation," HTR 79 1986:308‑20.

     [18]See the excellent, if technical, discussion of the reader as martyr in chapter four of Michael A. Harris. 1989. “The Literary Function of the Hymns in the Apocalypse.” Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 227-301.