In the last couple of days I have been hearing many different Evangelical Christians trying to explain the Coronavirus in theological terms using the Book of Revelation. One dominant view is that the Coronavirus is part of the End Times and God’s judgment. In other words, God is punishing humanity for their sins by sending the Coronavirus. The Christians who hold to this position claim that the best and main response to the virus should be one of spiritual nature through repentance. If humans repent, the virus will disappear. Moreover, they expect more catastrophes and disasters to come in the near future. Their eschatological understanding of the Book of Revelation determines how they respond to this crisis.
I have been teaching the Book of Revelation for some time now at the Bethlehem Bible College, and I often encounter similar reactions from students studying this piece of literature. On one hand, some of them are afraid and confused in dealing with its language and rhetoric. Therefore, students and indeed other Christians, decide to ignore it when they read the Bible due to its complexities. On the other hand, some students who have decided to engage with the book have completely misunderstood and misinterpreted it. A common mistake among students is to simply read the Book of Revelation in a literal manner and ignore the unique style of language. One of the first things I tell my students when we begin studying the text together is that the more I read, study and teach the book, the more I enjoy it and realise its blessings for us today. John actually says, and this is unique to the Book of Revelation out of all the other biblical literature, that we are going to be blessed by reading the words of these prophecies. And the blessed are those who hear it and take it to their heart, “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (1:3). The book has a lot to offer us. In this short article, I hope to offer three different helpful insights my students and I have discovered in dealing with Book of Revelation and times of crisis.
It Is Not Simple:
There are many different Christian schools of interpretations to approach the Book of Revelation, and as a result, affect the way we interpret the text. I will briefly sketch here four common approaches (there are more of course). (A) The first approach is the ‘historical’ approach. This method is often used in the Protestant Western tradition and is not used in contemporary interpretations, but not exclusively of course. This method seeks to interpret and understand the Book of Revelation as a complete historical account of the European Church history, starting with the apostles and finishing with the end of the world. Thus, the book is a series of revelations by God concerning the futuristic events relating to the European Church. For this reason, the fulfilment of such revelations is taking place as we speak ever since the time of the Apostles. People who hold to this position can frequently calculate and predict the dates, times, years of these events revealed by God as they are happening in our lifetime or in the near future.
(B) The second approach is the ‘preterist’ approach. This position holds that the events in the Book of Revelation have already occurred immediately after the book was written. So fulfilment is not a matter for us today or our future, since they have already been fulfilled. It is worth noting that not all affirmers of the ‘preterist’ approach believe that all has been fulfilled in the Book of Revelation, and claim that the final chapters of the book are yet to have happen. In any case, this approach argues that the rhetoric and language used in the Book of Revelation must be understood in the context of the writer’s environment in order to locate and properly understand how such prophesies were fulfilled.
(C) The third approach is the ‘futurist’ approach. Essentially, this camp claims that most of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation have not happened yet. In fact, and in most interpretations in this position, believe that most events after chapter 4 are still to come. And when they do come, they will come shortly before the return of Christ. Furthermore, literal interpretations of prophesies are usually dominating in this approach. Which helps explain why this approach is quick to interpret world events and disasters through the lenses of the immediate period before the Second Coming. We can see this approach dominate popular opinion in evangelical circles in the West and the media. Relating it to our context in Palestine, Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists often hold to the ‘futurist’ approach.
(D) The fourth and final approach is the ‘spiritual’ approach. This position does not attempt to find individual fulfilment in the prophecies, but rather understands the Book of Revelation as a series of dramatic events that relate to transcendent and spiritual realities. Thus, one can find lessons and principles for all Christians regardless to their context or era. Likewise, these events can reoccur symbolically again and again throughout history.
The reason of introducing these four common approaches is not to point to one and undermine the others. Rather, I have briefly summarised these positions to illustrate to the readers, who might not be familiar with the Book of Revelation, that there are many ways to approach the text. Moreover, we may find strengths and weaknesses in every single approach, and therefore, must apply different approaches and discern which elements of each approach is most convincing. Thus, if one will try to interpret the Coronavirus through the lenses of the Book of Revelation, one must be aware of all the approaches mentioned. For we can completely misunderstand the message of the Book of Revelation at a time of crisis. This is an encouragement to all Christians to pick this book up and other literature on the subject, and critically explore for themselves different interpretations.
No One Knows:
Scary, uncertain and catastrophic events like the coronavirus have been happening throughout history. In fact, the coronavirus is probably a soft version compared to other tragic events in history. Ever since my university years, I have been told that Jesus is coming in 1988 because it is 40 years after the establishment of the State of Israel. When he did not come, they told me that he will be coming in 2007, 40 years after the 1967 war. But once again, he did not come, and I continue to hear all sorts of new dates for the Second Coming. Hence, we should not be quick to try and predict events and disasters with the Book of Revelation. With that said, what we can learn about the Book of Revelation is that Churches are constantly challenged. And one main challenge that is presented in the text is between the Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God, as well as the Temple-religious establishment and the Kingdom of God. What is certain however, is that these clashes are not on the induvial level in the text but are always on a more communal and transcendent level. So the visions that John sees are there to help the Church in facing these challenges. It is not there to instil fear in us, but free us from the fear imposed on the Church by other earthly kingdoms in order to control us.
So how should this relationship look like between earthly kingdoms and the Church? People often misunderstand Romans 13 and suggest that we must always obey and support political authorities on earth. This is a compromise and misinterpretation of what God is doing. What the Book of Revelation is trying to convey to us is that these powers can be deceptive and corruptive. In chapter 13, John describes these powers as the ‘beast’. They can pretend to not be against God, but in reality conspire against his Kingdom and its values. This reminds us to be critical and discern whether the powers in our time are producing fruit that are in line with the Kingdom of God. For in many cases, they seek to use their power, wealth, religion and influence to subject us to their will and not to Jesus and His kingdom. And when we are faithful to Jesus and His kingdom, we are going to experience persecution and challenges.
For this reason the Book of Revelation shows that God loves us and that we should be faithful as Jesus was. John is trying to encourage us and cast any fear away, including fear of death. So we must not read the Book of Revelation as God’s judgment and wrath on us or as some catastrophic and futuristic events to come only. He loves and cares for us and is still King over the whole world, despite the challenges we face. So we must not be quick to conclude that the coronavirus is a punishment and judgment from God. On the contrary, God is restoring the world and caring for us in the midst of hardships.
The Book of Revelation indeed emphasises God’s love. In this love we are empowered to be faithful to him, his kingdom and witness to his glory until death. Instead of being closed minded and wanting to separate ourselves from our immediate surrounding and society, we need to reach out actively by serving the weak, poor and voiceless. And at the same time, resist the oppressive powers that are acting against the Kingdom of God.
For instance at the time of the Coronavirus when panic and fear spreads rapidly, we should take upon ourselves the role that we have been called for as John writes, “he made us kings and priests” (1:6). In other words, we are called to heal and care for all people like the priest, and by doing so, also bringing them closer to God. Likewise, we ought to also demonstrate the principles of the Kingdom of God to every aspect of our society, especially to those segments we are uncomfortable with and hostile to.
Some of the readers of the Book of Revelation think that it depicts the destruction of the world, yet the last two chapters of the book are informing us that God is restoring his creation to be the new heaven and new earth. With all the injustices in the world enforced by evil powers, John in the Book of the Revelation wants to insure us of the vindication of the faithful, punishment to evil doers as well as Satan. That is to say, God’s justice will be demonstrated and assured. All that has and is being corrupted in the creation will be healed and restored. More than that, the separation and alienation between humanity and God will be eliminated, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (21:4). The resurrected Christ is the one who gives us the hope, motivation, power and energy to keep on witnessing and serving his kingdom until we will all be restored and renewed.
 Taken from: Gregg, Steve. “Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary, 1997.” Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.