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 and pestilence 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....
Author: Jonathan Kirsch
Jonathan Kirsch is the author of ten books, including the national bestseller The Harlot by the Side of the Road and his most recent work, the Los Angeles Times bestseller A History of the End of the World. Kirsch is also a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a broadcaster for NPR affiliates in Southern California, and an adjunct professor at New York University.
"A learned, lively, ... literary tour of the life and the improbable afterlife of the greatest apocalypse of them all." - Jack Miles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of Go
"[A]n important book that is essential reading in our torn, conflicted world: it is articulate, learned and balanced." - Karen Armstrong, New York Times bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase
"This book does what history is supposed to do...A truly fine book." - John M. Barry, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Influenza
"[A] delightful, 2,000 year journey.... a fine book that merits wide readership." - Publishers Weekly
"Kirsch's splendid examination of this dark corner of religious resentment holds out a new perspective and, mercifully, some solace." - Los Angeles Times
"A thorough account of the intellectual and spiritual mischief that Revelation has spawned." - Washington Post
"Kirsch traces Revelation's 2,000-year history --- a "romantic tale, full of intrigue and suspense" --- in lucid, captivating prose." - Atlanta Journal-Constitution