Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Contemporary Equivalent of the "Beast" in the Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation is far-and-away the most misunderstood and misinterpreted book in the entire Bible. This is due to the highly symbolic and cryptic manner in which the book was written. It was written this way due to the intense persecution surrounding the Church at that time (around 70-95 AD). The purpose of the book was to lend support to Christians during the period and serve as an exhortation to endure whatever persecution might come, holding fast to the hope that God would be victorious in the end. Unfortunately, many persons throughout the ages have tried to look into this highly complex book as if it were a "crystal ball", able to interpret events it was not meant to or precisely predict a future it never tried to. This is perhaps no more the case than with the mysterious reference to the diabolical "Beast" (13:17) and the "number of the Beast", 666 (13:18).

In today's reading from Revelation for daily Mass (15:1-4), the mysterious "Beast" is again mentioned as are those who were "victorious" over the beast. For the original audience, the "beast" would have likely represented the Roman Emperor at that time, Nero (the Catholic Study Bible and other commentaries identify the number 666 as being the "numerical equivalent" of the name "Nero"). However, down through the ages many have grossly distorted this original meaning of the beast/666 and applied it to persons or institutions they didn't like or thought were evil incarnate. This leaves us with the question, if the Book of Revelation spoke to a specific time period and events contained therein, what is to be derived from the book in our day?

With regard to this mysterious book, I think it is helpful to speak of a "specific" interpretation and a "universal" interpretation. The specific interpretation refers to what the book likely meant to it's original hearers (as far as we are able to discern this). A universal approach to the book would interpret symbols such as the "beast/666" as a general (or "universal") symbol of the forces of evil at work in the world. When we make use of a "universal" interpretative approach to the book, we can derive general themes that are applicable regardless of what time period one is living in.

For example, in a general or universal sense, the "beast" in today's reading refers to the forces or "systems" in our world that degrade, tear at, or altogether destroy the dignity and integrity of God's creation and the human person or community. Such an interpretation also sheds light on the "saints" in today's reading who are victorious over the "beast": they are the persons or groups who allow themselves to be disturbed, distressed, and moved-to-action by the troubling reality of evil and impersonal "systems" that produce it. They confront the many "beasts" of our world head-on and do whatever they can to raise awareness and bring about the change in the world that they are able. The meaning of the Book of Revelation, far from being "frozen in time", is perhaps more relevant than ever: it is meant to motivate, move, and mobilize the Christian faithful to acknowledge the impersonal and destructive "systems" that exist in our world and to work to challenge and change them into forces that are at the service of God's Reign. Pat, TOR