The liturgical calendar begins with the season of Advent and culminates in the celebration of Christ the King. The lectionary appropriately corresponds to these settings. While a new liturgical year begins with much from the prophets (especially Isaiah)—featuring themes of waiting and coming—the weeks that precede it carry a different tone. As the liturgical year nears its end, the lectionary follows, with readings about the end, that is, the end of all things—most notably found in the book of Revelation. We’ve just now entered the season of Advent on the heels of readings about mystical visions, heavenly scrolls, cities falling, and a Lamb reigning. After hearing such things, we might be wondering what did that all mean? In this article, I attempt to answer that question by bringing the reader into a deeper love and familiarity with what God reveals to us in this fascinating conclusion to the Biblical drama.
1. Our Context
Pandemics. Politics. Scandals. Massacres. Natural disasters. It is not difficult to wonder either from a religious or a secular position: “Are we, in fact, witnessing the end times of the world around us?” Although the world has always been a troubled place, the twenty-first century has already seen what seems to be an especially large number of calamities. Perhaps it has always been this chaotic and the emergence of mass media has only made us more aware. In either case, there is no denying the tumultuous character of the present world—one that gives sufficient reason to pause and consider if there lies a deeper narrative to the crescendo of tragedies occurring all around us.
To the biblically formed mind, there is indeed a deeper narrative underwriting the events of the world. YHWH (‘LORD’ in our English Bibles), the God of Creation, enfleshed before our eyes in Jesus Christ, has put into motion a saving plan for His creation—a rescue mission—to redeem His chosen race, renew the whole of creation, and dwell with mankind in a newly united heaven and earth (cf. Rev 21-22). At the climax of those divine writings (i.e., the Bible) which reveal this drama of creation, salvation, and redemption, is a mysterious and exciting account of the end of this creation as we know it, detailed in a book we commonly know as Revelation, or the Apocalypse. Throughout this book are seemingly countless episodes of natural disasters, wicked rulers, and pandemic-like plagues that run amuck—all of them issued as various expressions of God’s judgment—and function as catalysts that move the narrative along to the end that is “coming soon” (Rev 22:7). They are events that, even to the secular reader, can be jarringly similar to events of the world around us today. What is the modern reader supposed to make of these connections? Are they mere coincidences? Or, dare we ask, are they indicative of something more imminent?
These questions call for a careful study of Revelation, grounded in prayer—though this, to no one’s surprise, can be a daunting task. Many individuals throughout history have attempted to do this very thing in order to make sense of the world around them, and they did so with often disastrous results. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”1 Biblical scholars Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson develop this issue in greater detail, observing:
Perhaps no NT document simultaneously engages the imagination of its readers and frustrates their understanding as much as Revelation, the last book in the canon…. No book is quite so intense, vivid, full of material to engage the senses – and enigmatic to its readers. Its mysterious puzzles have opened the floodgates for all sorts of imaginative and fanciful interpretations, some that stretch the imagination far beyond anything found in the book itself…. But the exotic features of the book of Revelation are less responsible for outlandish interpretations of it than are the mistaken expectations so often brought to it by its modern readers. Because commentators past and present have assumed that their own experience and contemporary events of their world will unlock its secrets, Revelation has been interpreted in light of everything from the Reformation to Hitler, atomic weapons, and the European Union. Ironically, however, the more commentators have sought to make the book relevant by applying its prophecies to their own times, places, and situations, the more they have missed the paths that lead to genuine understanding and appreciation of the power of this mysterious book.2
The task of reading Revelation well, with the mind of the Church, is not to be taken lightly. The aim of this essay is to treat selected examples from the Apocalypse as signs of the end times as well as assessing the question of whether we find ourselves in the so-called “end times” now or not. Before doing this, though, it is necessary to provide a brief but foundational understanding of the book as a whole, so that the ideas we develop later will have solid footing.
2. Sometimes It Takes the Sky to See What’s on the Ground
In his book Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed gives a somewhat startling but effective depiction of what it means to behold something as beautiful. He maintains that something is only perceived as beautiful when it is received in its appropriate context, that is, “in its place in the totality to which it belongs.”3 A patch of cloth, for example, can be unappealing, tasteless even, until it is observed within the pattern of a quilt. A tree by itself is hardly excitable, yet a forest can be breathtaking. Sheed uses the example of the human eye:
The human eye is very beautiful, as all lovers have seen. But the most ardent lover might find it hard to recapture his emotion if the lady, taking his praise of her eye too literally, decided to present it to him on a plate. The eye needs to be seen in the face; its beauty, its meaning, its usefulness all come from its position in the face; and one who had seen eyes only on plates would never really have known them at all, however minutely he might have examined the eye thus unhappily removed from its living context.4
The same principle of beauty applies equally to the study of sacred Scripture. Unless a word, verse, chapter, or even an entire book is understood within a larger contextual framework, it is stripped of its beauty and can be made meaningless, or worse, even dangerous. This is largely why Revelation has become an abandoned book by many Bible readers. Its images and depictions of the end times have been plucked out and isolated—taken away from their contextual beauty—and twisted to purport dangerous and wild beliefs about current affairs or the end of the world. Like a grape plucked off its vine and left to shrivel, these wild interpretations often come with a sour taste, dissuading its consumers from ever returning for more.
This is why Revelation, perhaps more than any other biblical book, stands in most need of careful study and prayer so as to provide its proper spiritual and literary context. And much like the quilt or forest, the most helpful place to start is not by picking apart its verses and chapters, but by observing its message from an aerial view, that is, its larger context. Since the length of this essay does not afford the room for a thorough treatment of how to read Revelation, I will simply propose here at the outset what I am convinced to be the single most effective key to unlocking the meaning of this mysterious book: Revelation is about the Cross.
The Cross of Christ is the climax of the entire drama of creation. In the Cross of Christ, all the hopes of humankind are consummated into a covenantal promise. It is the Cross of Christ that destroys death itself (cf. 1 Cor 15:54-55); that judges the world (cf. John 12:31); that brings salvation (cf. Heb 2:10); that restores all brokenness (cf. Col 1:20); that defines wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25); and ultimately reveals the very nature of God Himself (cf. Phil 2:5-11). And in the book of Revelation, the final chapter of the biblical drama, it is this Cross, this sacrifice of Christ, that stands before the throne of the Father for all time: “between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…” (Rev 5:6). It is this “pierced” One that is revealed to John on the island of Patmos (1:7). It is the blood of this One, flowing from the winepress outside the city gates (14:20) which purifies believers (7:14), destroys the enemy (12:11), and dignifies His kingly robe (19:13). The sacrificial Cross of Christ permeates the language and symbolism of this entire book.
This Paschal sacrifice of Jesus, which took place within time (A.D. 30-33) and space (outside of Jerusalem) had such an effect on all of creation that it pierced through and transcended the restraints of that very created order in which it took place. This magnificent effect, though, could not have been fully detailed in any Gospel account. The apostles of the Lord saw the Cross with human eyes, transmitting their witness from such a perspective. That perspective, though, bound by time and space, could not behold at the time the cosmic effect that issued forth from the death of their Lord and Master. Another perspective, a heavenly perspective, is necessary to see the Cross in this way. We understand, then, the Gospels as the accounts that look at the Cross from “below” (i.e., from an earthly perspective) and Revelation, on the other hand, as the account that presents the Cross from “above” (i.e., from a heavenly perspective)—the same singular event being cast from two different vantage points. It is in this understanding that Catholics recognize the liturgy of the Mass to be a real participation in the liturgy of heaven—they both celebrate and make present the same event, marrying the timebound and the timeless on the one altar of the Cross.5
The many bizarre images and winding narrative of Revelation, then, are only properly understood once they are read through the lens of the Cross. The salvation of the righteous, the judgement of the wicked, and the renewal of the cosmos itself all find their source in the sacrificial offering of Jesus on the Cross. Revelation is the spiritual camera lens displaying the power of the Cross rippling throughout space and time. It is as if a shockwave went out from the Cross two thousand years ago that is still surging throughout the world, effecting salvation and justice on men and women of all ages, until time itself comes to an end. Since no amount of parchment and ink could detail such a story, Revelation conveys this metanarrative through the use of carefully constructed symbolism to depict the power of the Cross.
Within this symbolic depiction of reality, it is anyone or anything in human history that stands opposed to the Cross of Christ that is marked off as wicked, unholy, or anti-Christ (what I mean by this is simply, “something or someone that stands opposed to Christ,” as opposed to a characterized individual known as “the antichrist.” It should be noted that nowhere in the book of Revelation is the word “antichrist” used). It is this battle between good and evil, between Cross and anti-Cross, which moves forward the narrative of Revelation—and so creation—to its end. An inevitable distinction is made as the end draws nearer between those who follow the Conquering One, Jesus, and those who oppose Him. At the helm of the opposition is Satan, that ancient serpent, “the deceiver of the whole world,” depicted in the form of a great dragon (Rev 12:9). The dragon set out to make war against the Lamb and his followers (12:3-4) only to be thrust down to the earth in defeat. This defeat, though, did not usher in the consummation of space and time—at least not yet—but instead brought forth the great time of testing for those left on the earth; the end times before the end time.
3. A Beastly Travesty
This great time of testing is ushered in by the summoning of two wicked beasts, called forth by the dragon; one is summoned out of the sea (13:1) and the other by land (13:11). The dragon (Satan) and his two beasts—this anti-trinity—become the conduits of evil and suffering in the world and stand as the final enemies to be defeated before the final victory of the Lamb. It is here where we will now turn our attention, to investigate the character and symbolic nature of these beasts, how they are indicative of all that is opposed to Christ, and how they relate to the induction of the end times.
Of the first beast it is said:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. (Rev 13:1-2)
Out from the sea comes this first beast who will now accompany the dragon in his evil pursuits on the earth. The “sea” in biblical terms is understood as the place of chaos or disorder. For example, recall the primordial waters of creation (Gen 1:2)—symbolic of chaos, the absence of order, formlessness, and void. While the things of God are marked by peace and orderliness, the nature of this beast are chaos and disorder, the very opposite of the God of creation. It is also important to note that the beast is described in strikingly similar language to the beasts of Daniel 7:
3 And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it. 5 And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ 6 After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. (Daniel 7:3-7)
What is accomplished in refashioning this Danielic language to describe an apocalyptic beast? A great deal, if we allow it to be received in its proper context. The prophet Daniel received his visions of the elements (Dan 2) and the beasts (Dan 7) to warn King Nebuchadnezzar of certain mighty kingdoms that will come after him (e.g., Persia, Greece, or Rome), none of them mightier than the kingdom that God Himself will establish (the stone that was “cut from a mountain by no human hand” [Dan 2:45]). Both Revelation and Daniel describe these beasts with heads and horns—symbols of strength and power—fashioned in the likeness of mighty creatures. Their heads and horns are decorated in crowns and diadems (kingdom rulers), numbered in tens and sevens—numbers of fullness or completion. In Revelation, then, this first beast signifies any kingdom of the world—political authorities, especially those of great power—who stand opposed to the Cross of Christ. This dichotomy is further exemplified in a most tragic turn detailed out in Revelation 13:
4 And they [the people on earth] worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” 5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. (Rev 13:1-6, emphasis added)
In full mockery of the God of heaven, the dragon and its minion deceive the people of earth to worship themselves. If this book has revealed anything plainly thus far, it is that the Lord God is the only One worthy to receive worship. This pseudo-worship of Satan and his beast is a mockery of God, a parody of the song of Moses after crossing the Red Sea: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exod 15:11). Further, the worship of the beast stands in direct contrast to the preceding battle scene just before it in chapter twelve, where the dragon was thrust down to earth by Michael, the archangel, whose name literally means, “Who is like God?”
This beast, adorned in the regalia of political power and worldly might, not only draws the people of the earth away from their Maker, but forcibly opposes His name and followers, attempting to claim a false victory. “Evil presents itself as good (2 Cor 11:14),” says Peter Williamson. “Satan imitates because he cannot create. The beast attempts to counterfeit the victory of the Lamb in order to deceive. Revelation shows that these efforts are doomed to failure.”6
Tensions only increase with the calling forward of a second beast:
11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. (Rev 13:11-14)
The second beast comes out of land now as opposed to the sea. In a most frightening depiction, it bore the appearance of a lamb (Christ), but it spoke like a dragon (Satan). Instead of wearing many crowns and joining in the political power of the first beast, this second beast comes in the form of a religious deceiver: it promotes worship of the first beast, it performs miraculous signs (e.g., fire coming down from heaven), and is later referred to as the “false prophet” (see 16:13).
The anti-trinity is now complete. The dragon and his two beasts, depicted in corrupted political and religious symbolism, are sent to test the hearts of humankind before the end of all things; thus, the author’s stark warning: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10). The presence of these beasts set into motion the final septet of punishments issued from the throne room of God (the seven bowls), finally ushering in the consummation of human history and the victory of the Lamb.
Political corruption, false worship, and religious deception? That sounds an awful lot like the world today, perhaps a bit too close for comfort. What can be even more disquieting is their relation to the ushering in of the final end. If that truly be the case, we must return to the question we began with: are we in the end times?
4. Are We in the End Times?
Finally, I am compelled to answer the question that has been teased throughout the whole of this essay. What are we to make of what Revelation says about the end of all things when it seems so dauntingly similar to a portrait of the world around us? Allow me to conclude this essay by answering that question in three parts.
Concerning the “end.” Are we in the end times? Well, yes and no (a truly Catholic answer, no?). If by “end” we mean that, in real time—say within the next generation—the second coming of Christ will take place and we will witness firsthand the heavens and earth being renewed? Then no, this is not what I mean by the end. If by “end” we mean everything that takes place after the Cross of Christ? Then yes. I believe that the Church under Caesar Nero was just as much “in the end times” as the Church of the twenty-first century finds herself to be today. I remain convinced that no matter how studied a reader one may be of Revelation, it is necessary to take for face value the words of our Lord: “[C]oncerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. . . . for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt 24:36, 44). To think that one can “crack the code” of Revelation and predict the time of the second coming is to make a mockery of the words of our Lord. We must not think of the “end” as depicted in terms of times and locations, but as characterized by the cosmic battle between good and evil—between the Cross and all who stand opposed to It. One day that cosmic battle will indeed end at a certain time and in a certain place. Whether that will be in the next generation or the next thousand generations, I leave that to God’s mercy and wisdom.
Concerning the beasts. But what about the two beasts and their similarities to our modern age? Doesn’t that indicate something about the end being near? Answering these questions with contentment requires us to be attentive readers to the many callings of St. John in Revelation to persevere. Although there seems to be a growing obsession among media fanatics with applying the term “unprecedented” to a growing number of issues, it would be quite silly, and surely ignorant, for any of us to see our times as genuinely unprecedented. Corrupted politicians and wayward religious leaders will walk this earth as long as the sun still shines. It is, all too unfortunately, a byproduct of the human experience tainted by sin. What do we do, then, when these marks of the beasts are manifested in our time and among our circles? We interpret them through the lens of the Cross and adhere to the calling of Christ to endure: “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life” (Rev 2:7). Notice it is not the policy reformers or revolutionaries who gain access to the paradise of God in Revelation, but the martyrs.
Concerning the victory of the Lamb. Finally, I would like to end with a word of encouragement, related to the points above. When we read Revelation through the lens of the Cross, it shields us from any attempt of the enemy to frighten us in the face of evil. Trials and tribulations are sure to come, our Lord made that expressly clear. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised when they do. But when they do come—whether they be trials of personal sin, suffering, worldly calamities, or natural disasters—we can persevere with the confidence that the victory of the Cross is at hand. Whether we behold it with our earthly eyes or not, the Cross is announcing its victory in every moment, against every opposition. Though the beasts may seem to prevail for a time, they do not carry the final word. As Williamson puts it, “Revelation reminds Christians today, as it did its original readers, that despite appearances, Jesus Christ is Lord. God is seated on his throne, directing history toward the goal he intends.”7 So long as we carry the mark of the Lamb and wash our robes in His blood, the schemes and attacks of the enemy are seen for what they truly are—facades, smoke and mirrors, counterfeit victories that delay their inevitable end. Like a wailing toddler, the dragon and his beasts will make war on mankind and creation so long as they are allowed, attempting to sweep away as many as they can before their pending destruction—subdued beneath the feet of the Lamb and His armies. Then, when sin and death are no more, when the end has finally come, God and mankind will at last dwell together, free from any remnants of the enemy. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Rev 21:4-5).
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1947), 29.
Paul Achtemeier, Joel Green, and Marianne Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 555-556.
Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 26.
For a fuller treatment of the relationship between the Catholic liturgy and the book of Revelation, see Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth (New York: Doubleday, 1999), as well as Michael Barber, Coming Soon: Unlocking the Book of Revelation and Applying Its Lessons Today (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2005).
Peter S. Williamson, Revelation, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 224.