What got me interested in this fairly small and reclusive sect was the publication of Michael Bachelard's book "Behind the Exclusive Brethren" in 2008. Bachelard was most interested in their clandestine political lobbying and their frequent flouting of the decisions of Australia's Family Court, but I decided to explore their theology, that underlies their more public behaviour.
Darby and Dispensationalism
The sect (or sects) date from the ferment of the early 19th century when many protestant groups formed that were preoccupied with the end-times prophecies of the late books of the Old and New Testaments, especially Daniel and Revelation, and the dissenting denominations were becoming increasingly rigid. One group formed in Plymouth, southern England, led by several pious men, fervent Bible students, who wanted a non-denominational group with which to mix and worship. One leader who quickly emerged was John Nelson Darby, a prolific theological writer on end-times issues, translator of the Bible and interpreter of obscure prophetic books. He developed an idea which grew into Dispensationalism, which had a strong appeal to many of the newly formed Evangelical sects. While he was on a tour of Scotland and USA, another of the leaders, Benjamin Newton, developed embellishments that Darby disapproved of on his return and there was the first of several splits in the group. Some of these splits have been over fine points of theology, and at least one was about the outrageous sexual behaviour of the worldwide leader of the sect, in 1970, when he invited the wife of one of the delegates into his closed room for a few days during a world conference.
Darby's dispensationalism is based on the Evangelical literalism that pervades modern populist religious movements. It is well expressed by David Cooper's "Golden rule of Bible interpretation" which says "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise." Which seems to mean use a literal interpretation, unless it is convenient not to. His sect has no priests and disdains training for a priesthood so anybody can get up and preach, with no expectation that the spontaneous preacher will have become familiar with the historical context in which the New Testament was written and accepted as a set of sacred texts.
Darby took the Bible as being a precise history of the world, all of it describing actual events, from the six days of creation and Adam and Eve onwards. He divided this "history" into several distinct periods of extremely variable length. This table is from his American follower Scofield who produced a very popular annotated Bible:
Creation to fall Fall to flood Flood to Abraham Abraham to Moses
Moses to Christ Church Age Millennium
His idea was that during these periods, the god of Israel organised dispensations of promises and covenants, which largely did not spill over into later periods. For example, the idealised period before Adam and Eve ate their forbidden fruit was one of harmony and innocence, followed by the expulsion from Eden and a different dispensation based on conscience, with knowledge of good and evil. This didn't work out well so with Noah and his flood the god decided to cancel the previous arrangement and start all over again. In Abraham's time of nomadic shepherding various promises were made about his descendants inheriting the Earth. From Moses' time Israel was given a large collection of laws to govern their behaviour. This period came to an end when Jesus died on the cross, the Christian church was developed by his followers and a new dispensation based on faith in the saving power of Jesus began, and the requirement to acquire merit by obeying all the Mosaic law was annulled. So the death on the cross was a kind of magical event which cancelled one "dispensation" and initiated another, just as the Noah story is seen as a magical event that cancelled all the rules for governing human behaviour and started a new set.
Darby also developed a view about the precise order of events at the end times. The book of Revelation, written about the year 100, describes a period of 1,000 years when Jesus will rein on earth before the final battle of Armageddon - this is the millennium. Serious troubles and plagues, earthquakes and monsters are expected before the millennium - the period of Tribulation - and one argument is about whether the Elect few who will safely go to their heaven will leave the earth before, or after, the pre-millennial turbulence. This bodily ascent of the faithful into heaven, apparently on a cloud, is called, in English, the Rapture (the Latin equivalent of the Greek Apocalypse), so Evangelicals can be divided into believers in post-tribulation or pre-tribulation raptures. Darby himself invented the pre-Tribulation rapture theology which now characterises the Brethren and several very energetic sects in the USA. It claims that Jesus will visit the world twice in the end-times, first to collect up the faithful who believe in him and take them off to safety in heaven before all the plagues are sent to Earth, then again after the final battle to establish the new Jerusalem. Darby and his followers have worked out a detailed scenario of all the comings and goings of Jesus, angels, devils and seven-headed beasts and other celestial beings, as though they are very sure that precisely this scenario will be played out at the end of the world, which is coming very soon, and one's life-task is to prepare for it.
He also was of the type who believe in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, except when they play with its numbers when a day can become a year, and the endlessly vague imagery of Revelation can be interpreted in a multitude of different allegorical ways. He also pored over the various promises made by Abraham's and Moses' god to Israel, and whether any of them might remain unfulfilled and are yet to be kept, and if so, to whom. This led him to develop a complex argument about Israel (before Jesus" death) and the church (after Jesus' death) being two distinct entities with different dispensations, and a complex theology based on this distinction and what would happen to whom.
Most evangelical sects take the numbers in Daniel ch. 9 as an exact prediction of some number of years to follow his vision of Gabriel (who also used to visit Muhammad quite often), and argue endlessly about when the period began and how it is counted and whether its progression has been interrupted by some event not predicted by the god. Gabriel appeared in a vision to Daniel after he had been lacerating himself about the sins of Israel, and Gabriel's words are presented in ch9:23 to 27. It is about a period of 70 weeks to be endured yet before Israel's iniquities were reconciled. Of this 70 weeks, 7 will elapse between the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah-Prince, then after another 32 weeks the Messiah would be "cut off" and Jerusalem and its sanctuary would be destroyed by a prince. This would be followed by a flood and one week to confirm a covenant, and the other 30 weeks seem to have got lost. This obscurely worded vision is pored over endlessly, with the weeks turned into years and much agonising over when they begin and end and whether it has all happened yet. As John Baskette wrote in his website on Dispensationalism defined: The 70 weeks of Daniel spoken of in Daniel 9 refers to a period of 490 years and apply only to Israel. The first 69 weeks have been fulfilled historically, ending at the first coming of Christ. When the Jews rejected the Messiah, the 70 weeks were suspended and a new age or dispensation called the Church age began. The Last or 70th week of Daniel, the last seven years, has yet to be fulfilled. This last week will immediately precede the second coming of Christ. So there it is: a week is really 7 years. The communication from Gabriel about it being 70 weeks is taken as literally true but in code, apparently, as angels only speak in code and give interpreters of prophecy much work to do in working out what they mean exactly.
There is also endless discussion as to whether the author of Revelation, and Daniel, were talking to their own age (this is the preterist belief), or the period immediately after Jesus' death (historicist) or were making predictions about what would happen 2000 years later (futurist), just when we happen to be around, so that nobody between then and now could make any sense of it all. Why you would think it sensible for preachers to go about preaching eagerly to contemporary audiences and telling them things that would not be relevant for another 2,000 years is very obscure. Imagine if I did that to you.
Revelation of St John the Divine
The writings about this issue are all directed by each side against the only other view that bothers this sect, that the Rapture event will occur at the end of the period of Tribulation, known as Post-Trib Rapture theology. The rest of the human species is not included in this obscure debate, as the only vital issue is whether the few go off to heaven before or after the tribulation times. Much of the argument on either side comes from close reading of the book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, so I have had to read it several times.
It is about several visions experienced by the author, who names himself John, and there has been much argument about whether he is John the apostle or some other John. The visions have a very strong totalitarian flavour and are full of bizarre imagery. The portrait of John's god which emerges from it is of a violent, bloodthirsty and murderous god who kills vast numbers of people pretty much at random, blots them out, is obsessed with blood, despises all sexuality, valuing male virgins as the only worthy humans, and is in general a very nasty, vicious and ugly person, the product of what I see as a very sick imagination. For example, in chapter 14, angels with sharp sickles thrust them into the earth and reap a harvest of "ripe grapes", being a euphemism for humans, toss them into "the winepress of the wrath of god" and tread the press, from which blood spurts out for 1,600 furlongs. In ch. 19, John has a vision of a white horse with a rider dressed in white, his clothing dipped in blood. This sort of bloody imagery permeates the whole book, as in ch. 19 in which an angel calls the vultures to gather near the site of the final battle, and when the armies of the earth are defeated the birds of prey gorge on the flesh of the slain - John seems to delight in this image, drawn very much from the Old Testament story about the death of Jezebel. The obvious standard to set in deciding the moral worth of John's concept of his god is to ask how one would rate a person who behaved like that. Is that sort of behaviour an indication of a good and admirable person?
John's Revelation and the scientific view of the nature of the universe
One of the many interesting aspects of Revelation is the picture it gives of John's idea of the nature of our universe, our solar system, the functioning of planet Earth, and a variety of meteorological and tectonic phenomena on which he had very strong opinions.
From Earth the sun and moon look fairly small and the stars are mere pinpricks of light. Several hundred years before John's time, the Babylonians developed a view of the structure of the universe which included a fairly flat plate of Earth, with a solid dome of sky perhaps a few kilometres above its surface, resting on pillars at some distant points, and a huge pit below it. John accepted this "flat earth" cosmogony entirely although it was long out of date by his time. Robert Schadewald's study of the Flat-earth Bible shows that the only source of flat-earth belief in European history is based on the Bible. So the literalists want to preserve this flat-earth picture of the world.
In his vision of the new Jerusalem John stated (21:23) that it would have no need of sun or moon to illuminate it, as the glory of his god would be ample for that. A bit further on he stated (21:25) "There shall be no night there." This implies a rather large-scale change in the structure of the solar system, in that the Earth is not to rotate on its axis any longer so we would have perpetual daylight (at least on one hemisphere) and John being unaware of the spheroid shape of our planet didn't understand there would be a corresponding perpetual night on the other hemisphere. It is just possible he imagined the sun being no longer part of the arrangement as he states a few lines earlier that sun and moon are no longer needed for illumination, which is repeated in the final chapter. Try to imagine a world of perpetual daylight, and what this would do to plant growth, the temperature of the planet's surface, the circulation of ocean currents and air masses, and the sleep patterns of diurnal animals and the whole lifestyle of nocturnal animals. It is amazing how many such statements John makes in his childish fantasy, with no real understanding of how destructive of all life on earth such a set-up would be. Just the first step, of the Earth suddenly ceasing to rotate, jerking to a halt, would be a bit of a shock to us all as it now moves at 1,600 kmh at the equator so that is a massive loss of angular momentum.
The book is full of angels, four of whom stand each at one corner of our apparently rectangular planet, controlling the four winds, which they can release destructively at their whim. And in ch. 20:8 Satan will be released from prison to deceive people in the four corners of the Earth. So it seems people lived in the corner lands where the angels kept the winds tamed, but it is still a rectangular Earth.
The bottomless pit below the earth is mentioned in several chapters, and there lives in it a nasty beast, which John's god releases onto Earth's surface to cause mayhem at times, like a lion out of the cage at the colosseum, to tear apart helpless humans. So John did not understand that our planet is a spheroid, as is the sun, and moon and all the other planets and the stars.
He describes at one point a third of the sun turning black and the day turning dark, which sounds like a partial eclipse, so maybe he had experienced one of these. They were long believed to be magical events, full of portent for the future of humans on Earth, rather than just the moon passing between Sun and Earth and creating a shadow effect. But more likely he was just repeating Matthew 24:29 about the sun being darkened and the moon not giving light, and stars falling from heaven. So Matthew was a flat-earther too and his stars were just pinpricks not far about the surface of Earth.
At one point he refers to the morning star, Venus, being offered as
a gift to any resident of one of the seven west Turkish towns in which
a branch church had been established by John's time, if that resident would
remain faithful to Jesus. So Venus was not seen as a planet only a little
smaller than Earth, but as a pretty point of light in the sky, no bigger
than it looks from on earth, that might be given as a present to put in
a little box on the mantelpiece and brought out to show curious visitors.E
describes at one stage the sun tHe desH
In two places John describes large numbers of stars falling from the sky and landing on the Earth, without apparently doing any damage, being just very little things, but showing by their fall that the usual order of things was collapsing. One of these events involved a dragon swishing its tail across the sky and knocking about a third of the stars out of it, to fall to Earth. John had no idea that the Sun is about 300,000 times larger than our Earth and is a smaller-than-average star, that some stars are larger than the orbit of Pluto so our entire solar system would disappear inside one, and they are immense distances from us, so no dragon's tail could possibly reach even the closest, even if there were dragons.
How solid is a cloud?
Jesus is described as coming to rescue his faithful few, riding on a cloud. So John seems to have believed that clouds were as solid as they seem to be to observers on the ground and did not understand they are just regions of gas and water vapour unable to support solid bodies riding on them. He also has Jesus on his cloud being seen by everyone on Earth, which implies a very flat Earth or those of us in the antipodes couldn't see him, or even his cloud.
What is a rainbow?
He has his god sitting on a throne in heaven, with a rainbow over its head, so seemed to see rainbows as magical objects signifying the glory of a god, rather than just an effect of the refraction of light rays through water vapour. It is consistent with Genesis ch. 9 in which the Hebrew god presents Noah with a rainbow after the flood, as a promise of good things to come. So apparently before the flood water refraction did not produce rainbows and the physics was different. The description of the throne is as close as John gets to giving his god a physical body, as in chapter 5 it has a book in its right hand, therefore it has a right hand and presumably a left hand and a torso for these hands and arms to be attached to, etc. Jews, Christians and Muslims claim to have an incorporeal god that is everywhere and has no physical body, so is not just in one place. Revelation shows how difficult it is to sustain this idea and say anything about what the god does or give their idea of heaven some location. Throughout the book, John's god is in its heaven and has to send angels down to earth to do its dirty work or deliver messages. The 24 elders are arranged in a semi-circle around the throne, which seems to be confined to one place and therefore is not at other places.
John and electrical storms
Whenever his god is angry, there is thunder and lightning, so John seems to have believed in a kind of storm god, which made these loud rumblings and sent lightning bolts to Earth as warnings of divine displeasure, and did not understand the workings of electrical storms or the nature of electricity - which is not surprising, unless you believe his god explained what these rumblings meant and told John they were rumblings of an angry god, in which case the god was very misleading.
John and earthquakes
The other reliable sign of the god's displeasure, which occurs several times in Revelation, is earthquakes, so these too were not natural events, caused by the slow shifting of tectonic plates on the surface over a molten interior, but were indications of decisions of an angry god to punish the erring Earthlings. So each time there is an earthquake and thousands of people are killed by falling masonry, they are slaughtered deliberately by John's god - men, women, children, undiscriminating.
John and the water cycle
At one point, the god sends two "witnesses" to preach and prophesy for the usual seven half-years and they are given magical powers to "shut up the heavens" during their 42 months' preaching tour, so it does not rain at all during this period. No doubt there were such long droughts in John's times, and he had no understanding that they were natural events, affected by circulation of ocean currents and air masses - instead he saw them as the result of decisions by an angry sky-god wanting to show its power and frighten naughty recalcitrant humans into paying attention.
John's knowledge of Earth geography was very limited as his idea of a great river was the Euphrates, the only river mentioned by name, so he seems to have been familiar with Mesopotamian geography and probably its myths, too, as these appear very strongly in his views of the shape and structure of our universe. It is surprising he doesn't seem to have had any interest in the Nile, as he doesn't mention it as a great river, though its volume is many times that of the Euphrates. Ignorance of the Amazon, the Brahmaputra, the Murray Darling and the Ganges is forgivable in a parochial Israelite on Patmos, but ignorance of the Nile is surprising, and probably indicates which set of myths influenced his ideas. John wrote of four angels which he believed lived in the Euphrates and were released from its waters in one of his visions, to set about killing a third of Earth's human population. So he seems to have absorbed some of the idea of nature spirits, which inhabit trees and rivers, into his cosmology.
In ch. 21, his description of the final state of the new earth, he states "there was no more sea". So apparently the entire water cycle that brings rain, creates rivers, waters valleys and deltas and refills oceans, has disappeared, plants will not grow and there will be no water to drink. It is not clear why the disappearance of the sea is so important to John, but it is most likely he didn't think through the consequences of an Earth with no oceans.
How many eyes do animals have?
At several places he conjures up beasts which are "full of eyes, before and behind". He does not offer any function for all these eyes, but they are clearly the invention of a totalitarian mind, anticipating Orwell's Big Brother, watching and seeing everything and from whom nothing is hidden. For example, in the first chapter, with messages for the seven Turkish churches, one to Sardis warns that their bad behaviour is known and they should take care they do not get their names "blotted out of the book of life", with the consequence spelled out in 20:15 that they end up in the lake of fire for eternal torment. This is reminiscent of the Soviet pattern of having newspaper archivists go through old newspaper photos and paint out anyone who fell from favour, as they then became non-persons and not only are now out of favour, but they were presented as having never existed.
John obviously was not impressed with animals having merely two eyes as they cannot see behind or above or below or either side, so multitudes of eyes must be more effective in keeping an eye on things than only two. He offers no thoughts on how an animal brain might process the visual input from all these eyes and form a picture of its surroundings, perhaps like the modern 360o camera which can give an all-round view of anything. He had obviously not thought much about why humans and all other mammals and reptiles have two eyes, and only on their heads, rather than all over their bodies, and was not interested. It is not a description of a coherent concept of an animal body, but a totalitarian metaphor - everything you do is being watched.
How many heads does an animal need?
There are beasts with seven heads and ten horns, so John had no real understanding of the function of heads or whether having seven heads would improve one's ability to feed, or see, or sneeze, or think, or manage life in general. He just wanted to think up horrific beasts, to frighten his readers. Instead he inspired multitudes of artists who love dragons as much as John did, especially red ones. One little amusement I found while browsing around the web was the Creation Ministries site which claims the Bible does not have fantasy animals, and this focuses on the unicorn, which is mentioned in Job and various other places, and they seriously suggest it was referring to a real animal, but totally ignores all the weird fantasy animals in Revelation.
Animals clean and unclean
The early books of the Old Testament have much to say about what Israelites might or might not eat, dividing animals into the clean and the unclean. Their god supposedly made them all, but apparently decided to make some unclean ones. There are several references to this antique way of classifying animals in Revelation: in chapter 16 three unclean frogs emerge from the dragon's mouth, and in chapter 18, unclean birds are mentioned. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 a long list of birds, nearly all predators, are put in the unclean list, not to be eaten: vulture, eagle, osprey, hawk, kite, cormorant, owl, heron, pelican, stork. It is not a classification anybody other than orthodox Jews would use nowadays.
Vertebrate and invertebrate hybrids
John conjured up many bizarre beasts, composites of many animals known in the Middle East at that time - at one point his god sends a plague of locusts to pester the humans. Plagues of desert locusts were well-known in the hot months from May to September, a period of 5 months, and John's locusts plague people for just this period, so he was familiar with the active period of insects, but probably never gave any thought to why it is just those five months and not others as well or instead. But his locusts were special, and did not eat any grass, which preoccupies real locusts to the exclusion of all else. And they had the bodies of horses, the heads of lions, the faces of men, long hair like women and tails like scorpions. With all these extras it must have been difficult to know they were really locusts, except they flew so probably had four insect wings. John has here mixed up invertebrates of the Acrididae order with scorpions which are Arachnids in the same order as Spiders but in the sub-order Scorpiones, and finally with vertebrate mammals, both herbivores and carnivores, so the human heads would have skulls located in a boneless body. All these animals have very different internal organs, the invertebrates lack bones and the mammals of course have lots of bones. But John saw no anomaly in uniting these incompatible bits and pieces in a single fantastic beast, with even men's faces and women's hair, like some anthropomorphised Disney cartoon. These were also literate locusts which could recognise and read the seals on the foreheads of the people they were forbidden to pester.
John and reincarnation
John also believed in bodily reincarnation, with the dust and bones of the dead, including the long dead, miraculously reassembling into living breathing, pulsing bodies and going off with their still-living descendants to heaven. He had no understanding at all of what happens to organic matter when an organism dies. Some of it, as is well known, ends up as dust. But most probably is eaten by worms (also well known), then by birds or fish or other organisms that eat worms, and so becomes part of the corpus of other organisms. All of us are recycled matter which has passed through many other organisms before becoming part of us. As Hamlet so delicately put it, when asked the whereabouts of the carcase of Polonius whom he had just slain:
"Not where he eats, but where he is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us and we fat ourselves for maggots; your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service; two dishes but to one table: that's the end….A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm…to show you how a king can go a progress through a beggar."
Given that all of us are reassembled matter from other organisms, including past humans, resurrection of any one deceased person would involve ripping material out of millions of other organisms, including many other humans. This is quite apart from the problem of reassembling the complex DNA from dust and water vapour.
After I finished writing this, I stumbled on a website called Skeptics Annotated Bible, which has a little section of unscientific nonsense in the Bible, much of it in Revelation. It is just one-liners and very laconic, but pretty much along the same lines as some of my criticisms.
John and angels
John accepted that his god had created a large number of angels, a concept which had leaked into Israel from further east and been invented by the Zoroastrians several hundred years earlier, though it had developed somewhat from their early ideas. Isaiah ch. 6 has a description of seraphim, some kind of angel of uncertain function, which had six wings, and John's angels follow Isaiah's model, with two wings to cover their feet, two to cover their faces, so they could not see where they were going, and a final two to fly with. John (and Isaiah) had no understanding that the wings of birds and bats are just modified limbs, placed where we have arms ending in hands and fingers, and are not additional limbs. His angels stand on feet and carry things in arms, so with their six wings they therefore had ten limbs, even more than spiders, so perhaps they were isopods like millipedes or centipedes. Four of these wings seemed to have no function and were merely decorative, but as he just took the idea from Isaiah he probably didn't think about what the extra wings were for.
John and walled towns
John's vision of the new Jerusalem is of a city surrounded by "a wall great and high, and twelve gates". No doubt all the cities in John's experience had walls but he does not seem to have understood what city walls were for - mere protection against raiding neighbours and hostile invaders, symptoms of an insecure world in which cities occasionally sent out armies to sack other cities and bring him all their virgins and other treasures. He imagines his new Jerusalem as the centre of a world at peace, with no marauders left to be feared, yet still somehow in need of a wall great and high and gates to lock out unwelcome intruders, which should have all been safely scorching in the lake of fire by then.
War in heaven and the guarantee of peace when humans are raptured
In chapter 12 he refers to a war in heaven between two armies of angels, though he has no description of the weapons they used so it is not possible to tell whether they could wound one another and bleed ichor like the Greek gods in Homer's Iliad, or just wrestle as Jacob did with his angel in Genesis. The only outcome is that Satan, the defeated leader of the rebellion is cast out of heaven and it is not mentioned that he was wounded. So we don't know whether they used swords and spears and had a metal-working angel, counterpart of Hephaestos or Vulcan, or used laser guns and light sabres. What is interesting is the reflection of the Greek pantheon in which their gods are often warring with one another and ever squabbling jealously, unable to get along with one another. Quite different from the monotheistic belief system that Judaism and Christianity are supposed to be. It is not clear what the war aims were on either side, given that both sides in this fantasy must have understood that the god was powerful enough to manipulate the outcome and even squish an angel it wanted to eliminate. He presents a picture of a god unable to manage its junior messengers, the angels, which engaged in open warfare while the god was there, yet somehow John believed the same incompetent god could guarantee a peaceful happy heaven for a large number of humans.
John and number magic
Much of the book is devoted to number magic, as John was particularly fascinated by the number seven, but he also believed in the old Babylonian measure of the length of a solar year as 360 days, so when he wants something to endure for 7 half-years he makes this 1,260 days, instead of 1,295 days. The reform of the calendar ordered by Julius Caesar, which established our 365 day plus leap year calendar system was put in place over a century before John's time, but he had not caught up with it.
But John was also obsessed by numbers, and seems to have believed them to have had magical properties as some numbers were strongly preferred by his god, which orchestrated his bizarre scenarios and liked to have some unity in the numbers which indicated the durations and counts of various events and phenomena. So there are loads of sevens - seven churches in Turkey in the first chapter, seven golden candlesticks and seven stars, seven seals and seven trumpets, and many of the periods of his pseudo-historical account of the end times are of seven half-years, or 42 months, or 1,260 days. All those sevens and three-and-a-halves give some semblance of unity to his hotch-potch bit of fiction, but he believed there was magic in numbers, with some numbers being more appealing to his god than others. These numbers have been picked up the Evangelicals, including the Brethren, who play endlessly with them in trying to work out what will happen when, as though this visionary fantasy is actual history in anticipation, an account of what will really happen, described in exact detail
An odd one is his fascination with twelves. He believed there were 12 tribes of Israel, which he got wrong, as there were actually 13, but he left out two and added one of his own to make it twelve. And he foretold that 12,000 people of each of these tribes would have the seal of god embossed on their foreheads to protect them from various evils being organised by the nasty god, making a total of 144,000 sealed people all told. It is not obvious why, if these were all exceptionally good people, that each Israelite tribe would produce exactly 12,000 of them, not one more or one less.
The most famous number in the book is in chapter 13 and is introduced in an odd way. A beast is given power to mark all people with some symbol, either on their right hands or their foreheads, then to ban anybody without this mark from buying or selling - why just this activity and no others is one of the many curiosities of this weird book, though it becomes very clear later on - or, if they had the number of the beast's name. This is the first and only reference to names having numerical values, which has since become an obsession of cabbalists who play number games endlessly. In the next sentence are the famous words "Here is wisdom. Let him that has understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred, threescore and six." It is astonishing how much attention this sentence has received over the centuries, with polemicists of all sects writing lengthy works to prove that the reigning Catholic pope is this beast, or Martin Luther, or whoever. It has brought out totally cracked behaviour in so many people! Around 2005, a fragment from Papyrus 115, taken from the Oxyrhynchus site, was discovered at the Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum. It gave the beast's number as 616. This fragment happens to be the oldest manuscript (about 1,700 years old) of Revelation 13 to date (Wikipedia, from National Geographic report of Oxyrhynchus find) So here is an opportunity for those who have devoted all their lives to the arid task of proving that the Pope, or Martin Luther, is the Beast, to go back and do their calculations again and waste even more of their lives on this stupid task. One of the more absurd manifestations is the appearance of frantic websites warning people to beware of barcodes and microchips.
John and the future
In chapter 13 is the odd statement, describing the reign of one of the hybrid beasts which was given power, apparently by John's god, to blaspheme for 42 months - a very strange god to deliberately set up this situation - that it was worshipped by people of all nations, those who were "not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." This is a statement that the Romans did not kill Jesus, nor did the Jews, but it was something planned and executed by John's god, on the date it created the world. So the god apparently knew there would be a Jesus during the occupation of a small part of planet Earth by the Romans, and planned Jesus' entire life including his death. The future has already been fore-ordained, nothing is outside the plan created by the god. As Muhammad said so often, nothing happens on earth unless the god makes it happen. So all the good things, all the bad things, all the destructive earthquakes, the evil deeds of humans, are all planned and forced to happen by the god managing its little puppet show, with multitudes of historical threads coming together just so Jesus can appear on earth at the right time and get crucified. The modern view is to see the future as a bundle of possibilities, which gradually change as events build up in the present, opening new opportunities and closing some. So nothing is fore-ordained. But John was a fatalist. This was very common in his time, but still found here and there in ours, though the belief in strict predestination has largely faded out of our culture. It has been replaced by the view that people are to a significant extent in charge of their own lives and have real choices to make, and are not just puppets acting out somebody else's plan for them.
John and blasphemy
John is fascinated by the concept of blasphemy - the valuation given to the power of words was far greater in his times than in ours, when we see words as just sounds, with no cosmic significance to them. In chapter 2, in his letter to the church in Smyrna, he describes the Jews as blaspheming, though doesn't say what terrible things they uttered. Then his strange absorption in the horrors of blasphemy reappears in chapter 13, in which John recounts yet another vision, in which he "stood upon the sand of the sea, and a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, (like the great red dragon of the previous chapter) and upon his heads the name of blasphemy." It is not clear what this means, but presumably its ugly attitude of irreverence showed in its face. Then the dragon reappears and we are told "there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months" - so the obsession with sevens reappears in yet another form, of seven half-years. "And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against god, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven." It was only in very recent times that parents everywhere worried about children saying naughty irreverent things and threatening to wash their mouths out with soap - a faint echo of John's horror of the power of irreverent words. He also has his god being hypersensitive to mere humans uttering naught irreverent words about it, a very thin-skinned and prickly god, not above descending to rate at cheeky children.
John and the scapegoat
Revelation is the main source of the idea that Jesus' death cancelled the sins of the rest of the human species - as John puts it, they now all wear pure white garments, which were washed in the blood of the lamb - washing in blood is a fairly sick idea, but John is like that. This business of one person being sacrificed to ritually purify others of their bad deeds is something with a long tradition in Judaism, ever since Moses' brother Aaron was a very naughty boy and sent a scapegoat out into the wilderness to banish his badness and purify himself, as described in Leviticus 16. It is one of the most disgusting aspects of Christianity, that one innocent person should suffer to cancel the bad deeds of others, as opposed to the view that the offender should be punished in some way for his/her misdeeds and innocents should not be punished at all. The whole idea is quite sick. How would we rate a person who did that? - who convicted some other person of some evil act and to expiate the crime, severely punished a third innocent person then declared that the criminal offender had been washed clean again.
John and tribal separateness
One of the developments of our modern world has been the detribalisation of many cultures, especially as growing percentages of national populations become urbanised and mingle with descendants of other tribes and come to identify themselves as urbanites and see their tribal identification fade out of consciousness. But John does not imagine this ever happening. Israel had become fairly urbanised by his time, though far less than in any modern nation, but the tribal basis of the original invasion of Israel under Joshua was still at the forefront of John's idea of the structure of Israel as a nation of 12 still-distinct tribes. So even his New Jerusalem, the Emerald City of his dreams, has twelve gates with the names of twelve tribes inscribed over their lintels, as though the original tribal structure was a permanent feature of the national structure, preserved even in the heavenly dispensation. John lived at a time of fairly static social structure and did not glory in progress and change but gloried instead in stasis and a conservative love of ancient ways, and this is one expression of it. It is the product of an age long gone, of intense tribal loyalties passed down through the generations. It is interesting that virtually none of the Evangelicals who claim Revelation as their own almanac of the future could possibly claim descent from any of these long-disappeared tribes, just as even current Jews cannot, although they claim to still be able to identify descendants of the priestly tribe of Levi.
The puppeteer god
John's presentation of his little fantasy vision reads like a puppet show - his god sets up a bottomless pit beneath the earth, all of which it supposedly created, and put a big nasty beast in it, to be released at a planned time when humans were to be terrified and then largely slaughtered; his god also supposedly created all the angels, good and bad, and set them up to fight one another, and foreordained which team would win and that the loser would be cast onto the Earth for a time to create mayhem there. It knew in advance what proportion of the humans it created would succumb to be corrupted by the dragon/devil when it was cast to the earth and prepared a lake of fire to torture endlessly the frail humans it knew would be unable to resist the great tempting powers of the devil - that is, the overwhelming majority. It set up a dragon/devil to persecute a pregnant woman (obviously Jesus' mother Mary), then gave her wings to help her escape to her wilderness hideaway - playing games like a chess-master playing a solo game. It enabled the dragon to gush out a flood of water to drown her, then amused itself by opening a gulf in the earth to swallow the huge volume of water and save the woman from drowning. It had strange amusements, like a war-games enthusiast playing with tin soldiers on a plastic map of a battlefield. And all its games are vicious and nasty, the product of a depraved and corrupt imagination in the mind of author John
John and sex
John's attitude to human sexuality is really revealing. In his first chapter, of the letters to the seven Turkish branch churches, he snarls at the Pergamos church members for turning the church into a den of fornication by incorporating the "doctrine of Balaam" which apparently involved fornication. Similarly with the church of Thyatira, which allowed someone named Jezebel (with echoes of Ahab's infamous queen) who was a prophetess to goad the people into fornication. In chapter 9, presenting a list of the evil doings of the doomed, which are obviously taken from the 10 commandments of Exodus, he transforms adultery (stealing another man's female property) into fornication, giving it his own personal twist. Later in chapter 9, despite very serious calamities of earthquakes and mass deaths, the depraved human communities would not give up their fornication. In chapter 14, recounting how the hour of judgment has come, he froths that "Babylon is fallen, which made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication". Sex for him is a filthy thing. Chapter 17 is full of frothy hate about the "great whore that sits on many waters", fornicating with kings and the inhabitants of earth. An angel carries John to show him the figure of a woman sitting upon a scarlet coloured beast, and "having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication." There is more of the same in chapter 18. In chapter 19 he shows what should happen to fornicators, describing the judgment of his sex-hating god, "for he has judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication…And her smoke rose up forever and ever". She is tossed into the lake of fire, which burns but does not consume, causing perpetual pain of flame and burning, so the smoke of it does not form a brief cloud but continues forever, while she goes on suffering for her sexual appetite forever. He seems to believe that all sexual expression is fornication as no healthy sexual relationships are mentioned in the entire book. The 144,000 he gives as the chosen to stand with Jesus in heaven are those "which were not defiled with women" (chapter 14) "for they are virgins". So anybody who has had sexual intercourse will automatically end in the lake of fire, as apparently will all women. In the middle of chapter 16, with angels pouring poisonous vials to destroy various parts of the Earth there is inserted a curious sentence "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame." It does not fit into the rest of the chapter, but reveals yet again John's horror of nudity that reveals us as sexual beings, and is reminiscent of the much older story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the mythical Eden, after they ate their forbidden fruit and suddenly realised they were naked and were ashamed, even though at the time there were just the two of them, as the story goes.
It is often said of the Qur'an that it is addressed to a male readership, as its vision of heaven is of cushions and wine and unlimited virgins laid on for the virtuous males who merited their place in heaven. The same can be said of John's vision of his heaven. In ch. 14, John writes of the 144,000 who get redeemed from the earth and carried up to heaven on a cloud, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. In 14:4 he states "These are they which were not defiled with women, for they are virgins." This seems to imply they are all male, that heaven is a reward for males only and no women are allowed in. Given John's extreme hostility to all things sexual, this would fit in quite well, but is, of course, quietly glossed over by the Evangelicals of a different age who want heaven to be a place for family togetherness, and for whom "family values" is a mantra as though that is central to Christianity, rather than suppression of women and loathing of sexuality.
In John's imagined heaven, he is taken for a tour by one of the angels carrying the poisonous vials, to see "the bride, the Lamb's wife," but that turns out to be the faithful humans who are carried up to heaven, not a woman for Jesus to cohabit with.
How to bring up your children
John's attitude to love of children is also repressive and stern. Taking his cue from Proverbs 13:24, the well-known advice that "He that spares his rod hates his son; but he that loves him chastens him betimes", he froths in chapter 3 that "as many as I love, I rebuke and chasten" but to John chastening is not about correcting a child so it grows to healthy adulthood, it is about sending earthquakes to kill thousands at a time, sending angels to bring plagues which kill a third of humans, stopping the rain for years and bringing on long-lasting famines, flinging the chastened into the lake of fire and condemning them to eternal torment. His punitiveness is very vicious. In our own age we have developed a very different attitude to corporal punishment, outlawing flogging and seeing people eager to whip and flagellate the bodies of others as deviant and mentally twisted.
John and Lenin
I have just finished reading a biography of Vladimir Ulyanov, Lenin, and the parallels between his vicious intolerance of anybody who deviated by a hair's breadth from his own views and that of John are amazingly close. He refused all co-operation with fellow social democratic parties, denounced their leaders as bandits and reactionaries, deserving only to be shot if they disagreed or questioned any position he took. John's god is just like that - a person is either totally pure and destined for bliss in heaven or unutterably evil and destined for the lake of fire. And the Brethren and fellow evangelicals seem to fully accept this polarised description of the species and even delight in it, sure they are among the few pure ones destined for bliss in heaven, and sure that even sects which differ from them by a hair's breadth are destined for the lake of fire, so they refuse to have anything to do with them, refuse to participate in joint missionary ventures or any other community of churches, exactly as Lenin did. Lenin directed all his vigorous denunciations against fellow socialists in other splinter groups, ignoring the rest of the people as not even worth bothering with. Evangelicals, including the Brethren, do exactly the same, arguing intensively with sects that espouse slightly different ideas and ignoring the rest of the world.
John and idolatry
He also fulminates about worshippers of idols, which is no doubt where Mohammad got his preoccupation with this supposedly worst of all evils. In his opening letters to the churches, he snarls at them for allowing their members to eat food sacrificed to idols, which is a common practice in countries where offerings are made to gods - the offerings sit there for a decent interval then become human food. The churches at Pergamos and Thyatira are accused of this. He describes calamities in which a third of humans are killed in chapter 9, and the survivors do not repent of their evil ways, continuing to worship devils and idols of gold and silver and brass, and stone, and of wood which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk. This is straight out of Exodus 20 with its commandments given to Moses, of which 2 and 3 are about making graven images and bowing down to them. In the culminating scene, of the establishment of the New Jerusalem and the final division of those blessed with heaven and those doomed to the lake of fire, John describes who goes where: "Those who overcome will be my sons, but fearful, unbelievers, murderers, whoremongers, sorcerers, idolaters, liars, go to the lake of fire." But also, very curiously, in chapter 13, John has a story about a beast which had the power of speech and commanded people to make an image of the dragon, and the power to ensure that any refusing to worship this image would be killed. What sort of vicious god would command people not to worship idols then give power (and permission) to a beast to kill anybody who obeyed the god's command? That is a devilish game John has his god playing. How would we feel about a person who presented another with near-irresistible temptation, with the threat that, if the tempted person succumbed, this would give us permission to impose unbearable torture forever?
John and the four horsemen, and death
Part of the dramatic build-up of Revelation is the steady opening of the seven seals locking up a book held by the god, with terrible consequences for humans as each is opened. It is interesting to compare John's vision of the violent end of most humans, starting with the four horsemen of the apocalypse loosed by the opening of the fourth seal, spreading war, pestilence and famine over the earth, and the very different vision in the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna grants a vision to Arjuna of his godhead in its universal form. Arjuna is overwhelmed and cannot cope with the horrific vision of Reality:
"Universal form, I see you without limit, infinite of arms, eyes, mouths and bellies - see, and find no end, midst or beginning…Million-armed, the sun and moon your eyeballs, fiery-faced, you blast the world to ashes…
"Now, with frightful tusks your mouths are gnashing, flaring like the fires of Doomsday morning - north, south, east and west seem all confounded, Lord of devas, world's abode, have mercy!..[he names various eminent warriors in the opposing army] There they go with our own warriors also - hurrying to your jaws, wide-fanged and hideous - see where mangled heads lie crushed between them! Swift as many rivers streaming to the ocean, rush the heroes to your fiery gullets; moth-like, to meet the flame of their destruction, headlong these plunge into you, and perish." Krishna replies to the cowed Arjuna that he "is come as Time, the waster of peoples, ready for that hour that ripens to their ruin. All these hosts must die; strike, stay your hand - no matter."
The Gita author's message is that death is just a natural part of the world - billions of organisms have died since the world began, that is just the way of things, though to contemplate it all at once is terrifying, yet it is just the way life is. By contrast, the vicious John sees death as a punishment for evil ways, and it should be as excruciating and long-drawn out as possible. He holds out the possibility of pain-free eternal life for a chosen few, in his denial of the reality of the way of the world: Rev 21:4 - "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." And this from a man who believed in a god which created a large number of angels and could not guarantee peace even in heaven, where some angels went bad and made war on the others. He sets up a picture of heaven full of unruly angels with a god apparently uninterested or impotent to control them or create them with nice personalities, and expects readers of his book to believe that it won't be like that when multitudes of quarrelsome humans are transported into this heaven.
John also had no understanding of the function of death on an evolving planet, which is partly bound up with our organic matter being recycled into later bodies, as happens with rotting wood broken down by fungi and termites forming humus in soil which gets reused to grow the next generation of trees. It is also involved with the relationship between predators and prey, as the death of prey provides food for predators. So if there is no death, there must be no more predators, and eventually all the organic material will be used up leaving no more material from which to make the next generation. John seems to have imagined a final state of the world in which the business of reproduction has come to an end, especially if it is reserved for virgin males.
John was also unaware of the function of pain and its relationship to animals with sensitive nervous systems needing signals warning of danger or damage to the organism. If you prick yourself with a needle and feel no pain, you will continue pushing the needle into your finger as there is no signal that harm is resulting from your action. A world without pain sounds nice but is really a nonsense and would soon become a nightmare world, as would a world without death.
John and non-human species
In his account of the various plagues sent via the angels and their trumpets, preliminary to the final battle for control, all of which are remarkably similar to those in the story of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery 1,300 years earlier, John describes the angel blowing the first of seven trumpets in chapter 8, releasing "hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth; and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up." John apparently has no interest in the billions of invertebrates living in these trees and grass, or the millions of herbivorous birds, reptiles and mammals that feed on leaves and grass, or the carnivores which rely on the abundance of well-fed herbivores - this is a punishment and a sign for humans, the only species that matters, among the 30 million species on earth. The total disregard for man as merely one species in a rich natural world does not concern John at all - no other species matters in the slightest. In chapter 16, in which seven angels pour from golden vials matter which poisons the earth and the sea, the second one pours its vial's contents into the sea, which "became as the blood of a dead man; and every living soul died in the sea." It looks as though this is to make life difficult for a fishing people, but the disregard for the lives of the sea creatures, which had no part in the evils humans did among themselves, is appalling. The following sentence has the third angel pour its poisonous vial over rivers which also become blood, no doubt asphyxiating all the riverine fauna and depriving all humans of drinking water. What sort of a god did John imagine that would do a thing like that? Yet in the next sentence the same angel announces that the god which ordered this murderous poisoning of seas and rivers is righteous. It is hard to believe anybody would have such a twisted value system. The reason given is that "they", the surviving humans, "have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and they are worthy" of such treatment. This apparently includes every human, newborn babies, children, the cretins and cripples, as well as all those able-bodied people who in all societies do not engage in criminal behaviour. No wonder genocide has only recently come to be seen as the ultimate evil, given the genocidal values screaming out of this vicious book. The 4th angel scorches men with fire and the obstinate humans still refused to "give him glory" - expecting people to acknowledge someone who burns them with fire as being glorious is crazy. It is a psychopathic god that John had invented here.
John and blood
In the next sentence in chapter 8, John envisions the second angel sounding its trumpet and releasing "a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea; and the third part of the sea became blood". John's sick fascination with blood saturating everything as a symbol of death is just amazing the way it manifests - he doesn't seem to mean the sea turned red, but became, in his weird vision, actual blood, with plasma, red and white cells, platelets and possibly if a sample was taken, one could work out its blood group, A, B or O. He doesn't say it's human blood, but that's fairly obviously what was intended.
John and judging the dead
In chapter 11 the 7th angel finally blows its trumpet and to Hosannas and cheering by the Greek chorus of 24 elders who mostly just fall on their faces and say sycophantic things to their invisible god, who on this occasion are true to form. John comments "And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead that they should be judged." The judgment is described in 20:12, deeds of the dead recorded in books. This business of the dead being judged, long after their deaths, to see whether they are fit to enter the afterlife is very Egyptian, and depicted very beautifully in Egyptian papyri of the Book of the Dead and many texts from Sumer and Babylon. It is not a Jewish idea, and appears in Israel only around the time of the Roman invasion, when ideas from many nations mingled in their polyglot empire. The Egyptians had the heart of the dead man weighed against a feather, to see whether the heart was weighed down by enough sins to make it heavier than the feather.
John and the black-and-white world
John's view of his fellow humans is full of loathing about depravity and corruption, and he saw all people as vile, all idol-worshippers, murderers, fornicators, liars, thieves. It is characteristic of his totalitarian mind: people are either perfectly pure or perfectly evil, nobody is basically good with a few flaws, or a mix of good and bad. He lived in a very black-and-white world.
John and the Accuser
In chapter 12 there is a very obscure statement at the end of the war in heaven, and the onset of the final transformation of the world, dividing it into the saved and the damned. A loud voice is heard from John's imagined heaven which announces that the kingdom of heaven is beginning "for the accuser of our brethren is cast down". There is no information about what the accusations were or why making accusations is so important - just one of those private images in John's fantasy world. But some preachers have built whole castles of rhetoric on the strength of this one phrase.
John and merchants
Chapter 18 is one long celebration of the total destruction of commercial civilisation and culture, that John seems to have loathed as it corrupted people, as he saw it - he celebrates that, when the hated city of Babylon (read Rome) is destroyed in his vision, the merchants are no long able to trade, all maritime trade comes to an end and the trade in luxuries which the affluent society enjoyed has collapsed, all craftsmen are out of work as nobody wants their skills any more, there is no music or even a lighted candle in the city. Given how people now feel about the importance of sustaining the economy and keeping people employed, this euphoric celebration of the total collapse of urban society and its economy seems insane. Given the importance the Brethren put on success in business, it also seems somewhat contradictory to accept the bizarre values of John's vision as their own.
John's needy god
Another little oddity about Revelation is the frequent insertion of comment that someone or other bursts out with "Praise the lord" and shouts a command to praise John's god on its throne, and give it honour and power and glory. It is a strange anomaly that John saw his invented god as a very powerful being yet thought there was some value in the 24 Elders doing their thing every so often of falling on their faces and singing the praises of the god, and asserting they wanted to give it power and glory, as though the god needed that and enjoyed all this adulation. The contradiction of seeing a god as already powerful, and at the same time seeing it as needing inferior beings to give it power, as though they have something to confer like anointing a human king to a position of rulership seems very common among religious people. And the oddity of all this praise, too - at the beginning of Revelation is a plaintive cry from apparently the souls of martyred saints, as to why it is taking so long to give them justice, which seems to mean retribution, which seems a criticism of an unjust god that allows very nasty things to happen on Earth, but at every opportunity the clownish Elders fall on their faces and utter praise, as though there is nothing to complain about and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. In this merely human community of ours we see justice long delayed as not really justice. But John seems to have had a different value system. But the important point is that the god is somehow seen as needing praise and adulation from humans, and feels incomplete or unsatisfied without it. A remarkably needy phenomenon, it seems to be.
This is the book the Brethren pore over most to work out what will happen in their longed-for end-times. Darby developed a theory that the Elect would be taken up to heaven with Jesus, on a cloud, of course, just before the trumpets sounded, and would be safe from all the ugly goings-on down here.
Consequences of their beliefs:
So what are the consequences of having this bizarre set of beliefs?
Personal purity is all-important, and avoidance of contamination is the greatest essential of life, as it will decide whether one goes to heaven with harps and comfort (if one is s virgin male) or to the lake of fire where the smoke of one's burning will rise to the sky forever more, watched by all the angels and by Jesus, who apparently all enjoy watching torture Rev. 14:11. So what can contaminate a person? Having anything to do with someone who is not a member of the sect - becoming friends, visiting their homes, inviting them to yours, sharing a meal with them. So the Exclusives shut themselves away, to keep their purity.
What if a member lapses? He/she becomes instantly a contaminating influence as the lapse must be the work of Satan, and is an indication of Satan infiltrating into the midst of a near-pure community. So the lapsed member must be evicted - if this means breaking up families, then that is what must happen, and the remaining family must learn very quickly to fear and hate the lapsed member, and have nothing to do with this contaminant. This explains the ferocious shunning practices so well documented in Bachelard's book.
Taking no part in secular community organisations, including government, as these are preoccupied with things of the flesh and are distractions from the one preoccupation that matters, which is the purity of one's own soul and preparing for the rapture, and of course all these secular organisations are bursting with agents of Satan, who would contaminate any Brethren who participated.
Not caring anything about the long-term condition of planet Earth, as they believe it won't be here much longer and has no long-term future. So worries about carbon dioxide pollution or depletion of the oceans or the collapse of ecosystems or crime rates do not interest them at all, as these have no relationship to the purity of human souls. An English commentator on the Left Behind series of books produced by Tim LaHaye wrote: ‘When it comes to real problems like poverty, or war, or disputes over natural resources, the sub-text of the left Behind series is plain: who gives a toss? Jesus is coming soon for his chosen followers, and everyone else can rot for eternity."
One of the signs of the end times is the recreation of a theocratic state in Israel and the re-gathering of the people of Israel into their gifted land, so evangelicals are very enthusiastic Zionists. As John Baskette wrote: The generation that has seen the restoration of the nation Israel to the land is the last generation before the return of Christ. They also see all conflict in the Middle East as portending the kinds of troubles described in Revelation and these are extremely welcome as they mean their own translation into their god's heaven is looking more imminent. Peace in the Middle East would mean the imminence of their rapture is receding and is therefore unwelcome. So while most of us are keen to see issues of conflict settled so people can live free of danger of sudden violence, the Brethren and other Evangelicals are hoping for increasingly frequent signs of such violent turbulence and cheer whenever there is an earthquake that kills thousands as it might mean the millennium and the rapture are near-at-hand.
A little quote from a file I found on the web, called "How did we get the idea of a pre-trib rapture?" by Sandy Fiedler:
The pro-Darby force was aggressive at organizing new conferences and publicizing their message, which appealed to the wishful thinking of the masses. The foundation of the Darbyite message was that when evil is seen in society, Christians are to rejoice because that is a sign of the imminent return of Christ. To illustrate, there was even some concern that at the outset of the United States' involvement in WWI that Americans would not respond because they might think they were fighting against the evil which was needed to bring Jesus back. A paralysing religious neutralism had set in.
Contrary to the time of the Revolutionary War when pastors strongly preached that citizens should battle the evil British oppression, 19th century pastors refrained from preaching topics drawn from current events and ceased to teach their flocks to be the light of the world. Rather, Christians withdrew into the four walls of the church building and let society and government run its godless course.
This makes them a very anti-social sect, whose values are very far removed from those of the secular state and civil society. The most disturbing aspect, for me, is that these people live among us, shop where we shop, travel around on the same roads, and for all the world appear to be civilised fellow citizens living peaceably with their neighbours, while all the time they are consumed with loathing and dread of having any contact with any of us because every one of us is an agent of Satan. And they are sure we are all destined for the lake of fire and are quite happy about that, that these neighbours of theirs will suffer eternal torment, in the hell they imagine. And they all want it to come on as soon as possible, so they can go off to their blissful eternity in their imagined heaven while we go off to our eternity of torment in the lake of fire. So they don't see us as fellow humans, with whom they might have productive relationships and form communities together, they see us as Satanic contaminators who might destroy their chance of heaven and drag them with us into the lake of fire unless they keep us totally out of their lives.
Another way of looking at them is to notice the imagery used in the current generation of violent comics - they are remarkably similar to those of Revelation, filled with dangerous highly sexualised women and great long-fanged monsters eager to devour helpless little humans, and do battle with hairy-chested muscle-bound warriors. The attitude towards women, and about violence, involves building a fantasy world with cathartic effect on the frustrated needs for violent and sexual fantasies in our humdrum peaceable, urbanised world. It may be that the violent sexual fantasies of John in his Revelation serve much the same purpose for the peace-able urbanised Brethren - an outlet for fantasy, while they live their non-violent suburban lives. There is a major difference in that the Brethren (and other Evangelical sects) translate their fantasies into decisions about political involvement or non-involvement, whereas for comic readers it is probably just fantasy, and a substitute for going out and doing violence and looking for dangerous women. But there is a strong similarity in that many of the comic book themes are obviously drawn from the violent sexualised imagery of Revelation, which appeals to the imagination in much the same way - themes of cataclysmic violence and excitingly illicit sex. Two examples - much of Revelation is about fallen angels and the war in heaven between them and the angels still loyal to their god, and in Revelation chapter 8 there is a little story about the angel with the third trumpet setting off a great flaming star falling to earth and smashing into the rivers and "fountains of water" and making all the water bitter - the star had a name (as stars tend to do) and it was Wormwood, and many men died from drinking the bitter waters.
A couple of samples of the sort of argument that is used in selecting a sentence here, a sentence there, to prove that the theology of Mr Darby, that the Elect will be carried off to heaven before the Tribulation times, is the right interpretation. These are from a website by Don Koenig titled
Jesus is coming in the clouds to rapture His Church
Proofs for pre-tribulation rapture theology:
Proof #1: Revelation 19:11-21 doesn't mention a resurrection. The rapture is a resurrection of those "in Christ" (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Isn't it a little bit odd that in Rev. 19:11-21, which is the clearest picture of the second coming of Christ, there is no mention of a resurrection? The rapture will be the biggest event since the resurrection of Jesus where hundreds of millions of Christians will be resurrected and translated, yet there isn't any mention here. Don't you think it deserves at least one verse? The rapture isn't mentioned because it doesn't happen at the second coming.
Proof #8 Holy ones are already with Jesus in heaven (Zech. 14:5, Rev. 19:14).
The armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, follow Jesus out of heaven at His second coming (Rev. 19:14, Zech. 14:5, Col. 3:4). These are not angels because Rev. 19:8 tells us the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints. In order to come out of heaven we first have to go in, indicating a previous rapture.
Proof #10: Angels don't resurrect people when they gather them for judgment. When the angels are sent forth to gather the elect at the second coming (Matt. 24:29-31), some have wrongly interpreted this as the rapture. There is one huge problem with this interpretation. If we are resurrected at this time, why would we need angels to gather us? In the resurrection, we will be like the angels (Matt. 22:30), able to travel in the air at will. Obviously, these people who are gathered are not resurrected, therefore it can't be the rapture. No one would claim the wicked are raptured at this time, yet Matthew 13:39-41, 49 says the angels will not only gather the elect, but also the wicked. This gathering is not a resurrection.
Koenig seems quite serious about all this and doesn't see it as comical, as I do. Religious sects trading nonsense like this to persuade the pious their views are soundly based in careful reasoning and they really understand their god's plans seems such a huge waste of human brain-power, but some 15,000 or so people around Australia eagerly accept all this absurdity as the truths around which they should structure their lives. And they also eagerly await the time when we murderers, idolaters, fornicators and thieves go to our just deserts in the lake of fire, while they, upright and sensible people that they are, go off on their fluffy cloud to sit with their unspeakably vicious god and live happily ever after.
In the past few years an American pre-trib rapture advocate, Tim LaHaye, has co-authored with Jerry Jenkins 16 novels in a series called Left Behind, which has spawned a film and a video game for children. The first book in the series "opens with the rapture. The hero of the series, a brawny, handsome pilot named Rayford Steele, flies across the Atlantic in a 747. Though married, he audaciously flirts with the ‘drop-dead gorgeous' flight attendant. His wife was becoming such a religious bore, he confided, always droning on about the rapture. Steele learns that dozens of his passengers have vanished, leaving behind clothes, jewellery, fillings, and pacemakers in their empty seats. From then on calamity after calamity befalls those who remain. Plagues, war, and natural disasters wreck civilisation in the run-up to the Second Coming." The series has sold 70 million copies and topped the hardback lists several times. As well as the film, comics, "graphic novels" audiotapes and internet sites, and a Left Behind series for children, the team produced an inter-active video game which has proved a little controversial
"The game "allows gamers to make their way through a post-rapture New York City. Players joined the Tribulation Force and took control of the action, killing or converting the opposition. ‘Recover ancient scriptures and witness spectacular Angelic and Demonic activity as a direct consequence of your choices', the game's developer enticed buyers. Waxing hyperbolic, LaHaye hailed it as ‘the greatest invention developed in my lifetime to reach this generation.' The game won the endorsement of Focus on the Family, Women of Faith and Promise Keepers. Critics - both evangelical and non-evangelical - vented. How could a Christian promote a videogame so at odds with the gospel? One leader of a progressive Christian advocacy group lamented, ‘This is the first time any Christian religious instructional video has recommended killing all non-Christians who refuse to convert to Christianity.' The game's developers and supporters cried foul. A player could lose points for wanton killing, they responded, although those points could be recovered if a player's avatar prayed. Unconvinced, another critic countered, ‘The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one's foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people.' Opponents asked Walmart to pull the game from shelves."
There are serious issues in being part of a reclusive sect that sees itself as being contaminated by contact with the rest of the human species, such as lack of empathy and lack of interest in tackling common human problems, and a tendency to support continuing conflict because they imagine it will bring on the destruction of the world and their translation into their imagined heaven, which is all they want.
To finish up, what was really going on in John's Revelation if he was not writing a factual history of the future? The ancient Akkadians had a creation myth involving a mighty serpent/dragon, Tiamat, which was the originator of chaos, the sort of chaos described in Genesis 1, before the world was put into order at the commands of the god - the Hebrew word for the primeval chaos is tehom, an obvious derivation of Tiamat. The Akkadians had a polytheistic religion, in which Tiamat was one of the creator-gods, and got into conflict with others, generating a host of monsters to unleash on the world. She is, in the end, killed by Marduk in single combat. Marduk creates order in the universe after Tiamat's defeat. There are strong echoes of this mythic saga in the Genesis creation story and it reappears in Isaiah 27, where the god "with his sore and great strong sword, shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea." Isaiah resumes the story in 51:9-11 where he urges the god to awake and "put on strength, as in the ancient days in the generations of old. Art thou not it that has cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which has dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that has made the depth of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? Therefore the redeemed of the lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away." There in a nutshell is Revelation's theme, the beast rising from the sea, the slaying of the chaos dragon and the initiation of a blissful and untroubled paradise, the disappearance of the sea. John brought his twisted imagination to the reinterpretation of this ancient myth and created an epic which preoccupies Evangelicals who pore over it as though it is factual future-history and not a reworking of an ancient myth. As Sidney Hooke wrote, the reworking of the myth "reaches its climax in the great Christian Apocalypse of St John, where all the images of the ancient myth and ritual pattern, the ritual combat, the slaying of the dragon, the sacred marriage, the triumphal procession, and many others, are gathered up into one tremendous description in wholly mythical terms of the winding up of human history." The myth also seems to have influenced the Canaanite myths of Baal and Lotan, which is probably a more direct source of Isaiah's words about Leviathan, which is just a variation on Lotan:
From: Môtu's Reply to Balu (viii 48 -?5 i 8 )
When you smite Lôtan,?? the fleeing serpent,
finish off the twisting serpent,?
the close-coiling one with seven heads,
The heavens wither and go slack
like the folds of your tunic.?
(Then) I, with groans, am devoured,
(like) a piece of dung I die.?
(So) you must (for your part) descend ?into the throat of Môtu, son of Ilu,
into the watery depths? of the beloved warrior of Ilu.
The Evangelicals, including the Brethren, have the view that every word of the Bible, including the visions of John were dictated by their god, they are all perfectly correct and factual, and can be read as promises of the exact nature of the future of the universe. Once it is accepted that they are just reworkings of Mesopotamian and Canaanite myths, the claim of direct revelations from a god are untenable. Devoting one's life to interpreting these mythical works as fact is a foolish activity, wasting the one life we all have on chimeras.
Presented to the Atheist Society,
8 November 2011