Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible’s book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse) offers an account of what is to come sometime within their lifetime. This is not unique to the Witnesses, but shared by several other so-called “millennial” religious groups.
A fact that is not well-known (except by historians and serious Bible scholars) is that every generation for the last 1900 years has believed that “the end” would come during their lifetimes. It is obvious that every generation has been wrong. And yet each successive generation is convinced that the end-time prophecy is about them and their generation – including ours.
A majority of reputable Bible scholars believe that the book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John) was not written to describe the future for people living today. Rather, they feel it was written for first century Christians who lived in and around Rome.
While the Bible’s book of Revelation is a rather bizarre document by today’s standards, all sorts of apocalyptic books were quite common in the ancient world.
It’s a fact that there were many Jewish and Christian “apocalypses” written in antiquity, so it’s not difficult to decipher the literary genre for these kinds of books. An “apocalypse” reports bizarre visions or dreams experienced by a “prophet.” The prophet uses those visions to explain the nature of some reality, often in an attempt to show “the true meaning of life here on earth,” or (as in the case of Revelation) by describing how God will soon destroy all life on earth.
Apocalyptic writings contain strange symbolic visions, where future events are described in metaphorical terms. An example of this is in Revelation 17 where John sees “the great whore of Babylon.” He reports that Babylon’s “whore” committed fornication with the kings of the earth and that he sees her seated on a “scarlet beast with seven heads.” He explains later that she’s “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.” So how can we determine who was the “great whore” that John was describing?
Ask yourself, as Bible historians have, which city ruled the world at the end of the first century? What city persecuted Christians and was built on seven hills? Readers living during the first two centuries would have immediately recognized the then powerful city-state of Rome to be “the whore” described by John.
Apocalypses are written to stress that the “end of all things” is imminent. They promise deliverance and that the reader’s suffering won’t last long because God will soon bring all of human history to a resounding climax. In the Bible’s book of Revelation, emphasis is focused on just this point: “Lord Jesus come quickly.” The author wrote to encourage readers in the throes of their own suffering and that “God is in control and he will soon bring your pain to an end. Do not give up hope. God can be trusted to bring all things to a happy ending.”
Early Christians would have known that “666” was the numerical code name for Rome’s emperor Nero. The symbolic “beast” mentioned in Revelation 13, Nero was “the great enemy of God” because he had chosen to persecute Christians throughout his empire. Revelation promises that God’s help was on the way to destroy “the beast and the harlot.” John’s real purpose for writing Revelation was to bring comfort and hope to readers living during his lifetime.
If you’re looking for the truth and a better, more detailed understanding of Revelation, several good books are available. Two excellent researchers who write in easy-to-understand language are Craig Koester and Bart Ehrman.
If you are resolute in your belief that John wrote Revelation for you and me and our particular generation, then you can be assured that you have the Watchtower Society’s full support.
On the other hand, be aware that the Watchtower is busy rewriting their 133-year history of failed interpretations of Revelation going back to the days of Pastor C. T. Russell and Judge J. F. Rutherford. Although they don’t exactly deny that history, current Watchtower publications consistently try to gloss over or erase any memory of their past failures to properly understand Revelation.
I could be wrong. Maybe they do have it right this time. It could even be possible that it really is all about me and “my generation.”
An After Thought and a Question
It’s interesting to note that most “apocalypses” were written under the names of famous people from the past like Moses, Abraham, Elijah – and yes, even Adam. One book that almost made it into the Bible is the Apocalypse of Peter – by an author who claimed to actually be the apostle Peter. Christian communities existing as late as the 4th century believed this book should be included in the canon, either to replace the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), or included alongside it in the approved canon.
If the Apocalypse of Peter had become a part of the Bible instead of John’s book of Revelation, would it have been possible for a religious group like Jehovah’s Witnesses to have ever seen the light of day? Without John’s book of Revelation there is no Armageddon, no 144,000, and no “righteous new world” where Armageddon survivors will live forever.
Let’s face the fact that without John’s book of Revelation there would be no Watchtower, no Awake! – and no Jehovah’s Witnesses.