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New Pope, Old Prophecy?


Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinian Jesuit, has been chosen as the new leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. For Adventists, this has been a time of renewed interest in the Papacy and its place in traditional Adventist prophetic interpretation.

Although slightly less prominent North America and Europe, the interpretation of Revelation 13 that pits Catholicism against Adventism in the end times is still a sine qua non of subequatorial Adventism. Recently, the leading televangelist for the South American Division stated that although the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was not a prophetic fulfillment per se, it does show the continued importance of the Vatican in eschatology. It is unclear, however, exactly how this particular event would even fit the traditional Adventist interpretation of the "importance of the Vatican"! Even George Knight, an outspoken critic of many of Adventism's "secret handshakes" also suggested that by jettisoning the traditional interpretation of Revelation 13, Adventism could end up neutering itself. [1]

But that was before the election of Francis I. Since then, the Adventist blogosphere has been ablaze with Adventist versions of Jesuit conspiracy theories. Finally, they aver, Ellen White's veiled hint (GC 215-216) that the Jesuits' may have a role in the new eschatological horizon , may become a reality.

But is the Papacy really the undeniable fulfillment of Revelation 13? Or could Francis I be the "eighth king" of Revelation 17?

As many have attempted to demonstrate, there are several problems with the traditional historicist approach to these chapters. First, projecting the importance of the message of Revelation millennia in the future all but annuls its relevance to its target audience, i.e., the seven, literal churches of Asia. This is just too expensive an exegetical move.

Revelation Applied Locally

Revelation is introduced as a revelatory work (apokalypsis means "unveiling") that needed to be read, understood and applied to the daily life of its original readers (Rev 1:3). It is at once book, prophecy and personal letter (1:4; 22:16). The church of Ephesus ran the risk of losing its status as a Christian body (2:5), the number of the beast could be figured out by engaged readers (13:6), whoever tampered with the contents of the letter would incur in severe temporal and eternal punishment (22:18-19).

Scholars have long emphasized the need to take an ever closer look at the book's Sitz im Leben, its original milieu in first century Asia. This important tenet of hermeneutics may indicate that the most sensible approach to Revelation is to read it primarily with an eye to its immediate social, religious and political background (most likely pre-70 A.D. Jewish Christianity).[2] And if we put the labels aside (e.g., preterism, futurism etc.), we may gain a new perspective on some features of Revelation. If this is correct, other entities may emerge as stronger candidates for the beasts of Rev 13 than a religious movement thousands of years removed from the churches of Anatolia.

For example, an intriguing interpretation posits that the beast from the sea (13:1-10) symbolized the Roman emperor vying for veneration as Dominus et Deus (possibly referring to Nero) and the beast from the earth (13:11-18) symbolized the local arm of the Roman government which enforced such adoration by building images and temples dedicated to the Emperor. Surprisingly, according to Suetonius, Nero's name was veiled in at least one contemporary riddle which went like this:

Count the numerical values of the letters of Nero's name,
And in "murdered his own mother", You will find their sum is the same.

Both values add up to 1,005 in Greek gematria. This is indeed a striking parallel with the riddle of 666 as "number of the beast" (Rev 13:6). This important evidence may be one more nail in the coffin of the false Vicarius Filii Dei interpretation which lingers stubbornly in the global Adventist South. But this is just one possibility. The fact is that the definitive culprit, guilty of such bestial actions and disguised in a sea of symbolism, remains at large.

And what about the seven kings of Revelation 17? Could any one Pope be one of them?

Scholars have pointed out the parallel of the harlot in Revelation 17 with coins minted during the reign of Vespasian (c. 70 A.D) which depict the Roman empire as Dea Roma, "goddess Roma", seated on the seven hills of Rome.[4] This would be hard to miss for the original readers. Several lists of possible candidates for these seven mountains which represents seven kings, five of which had already fallen by John's time, have been proposed by all schools of interpretation. But an emphasis on this misses the point of the chapter, which is meant to culminate with the fall of Babylon in Rev 18. The message is clear: worldly powers antagonistic to God will ultimately be destroyed, or, as one Adventist pastor put it, "Revelation has one clear message: God wins!"

Yet another problem for approaching Revelation as "history written in advance" is the undeniable imminence of the parousia to Jesus himself, Peter, Paul and the apostle John (cf. Mat 24:56; Mar 13:31; 1 Cor 1:17, 8; 4:5; Phil, 3:20; 1 Tess 4:13-18; 5:1-10, 23; 2 Pet 3:3-4; 1 John 2:18). To John the Revelator, all things would "soon take place" because the end was "near" (1:1, 3). How do we reconcile this fact with the view that probationary time would extend to very distantly preordained time markers (e.g., 538, 1798, 1844, 1929, 2013 etc.)?

Needless to say, a neatly organized chronology is simply not self-evident in Revelation. And the many and sundry diverging historicist interpretations in our midst bordering on wild conspiracy theories indicate that this model simply does not work.

But perhaps that is precisely the point of the symbols: the blessing reserved for students of the book does not lie in deciphering every symbol, but is rather in the continuous search to understand the deep things of God. All the symbolism militates against zeroing in on a single interpretation.

Revelation and Isaiah Seminar?

Adventists have long held that by placing Revelation as a transparency over the book of Daniel, a clear and unequivocal eschatological picture will emerge. But is Revelation solely dependent on Daniel? In fact, in order of sheer number of allusions, Revelation alludes to the book Isaiah more than it does Daniel, followed by Ezekiel. And although alluded to less than Daniel, Ezekiel exerts more influence on Revelation.[5] Obviously, this does not remove the importance of Daniel as a warehouse for some of the most important imagery in the book, it simply expands the interpretative horizon by adding those other apocalypses of the OT. And if Isaiah and Ezekiel do not seem to contain timetables for the end times, how does this impact the interpretation of Revelation, which draws heavily on them as well for its eschatological visions? In other words, the historicist interpretation of Daniel may not provide the key for the interpretation Revelation after all.

Another metaphor may help. What if Revelation is a first century version of an autostereogram, you know, those "abstract" paintings that require you to relax your eyes, focus on the whole, and be patient? When done right, all of a sudden, voilà!, a 3D-picture pops up out of nowhere. The same with Revelation, all those intriguing, sometimes confusing and terrifying images are meant to show one thing: the reign of Christ, the Pantokrator.

Sadly, however, whenever new attempts are made to grapple with the biblical text and what it has meant to Christians from all ages (and not only to self-proclaimed end-time Laodicea), the outcry is loud and clear. "We should not move away from the landmarks!" Most of this rejection clearly stems from the pages of The Great Controversy, where Ellen White, the infallible interpreter of Scripture to large swaths of Adventism, has laid a clear and scathing condemnation of all that Catholicism stands for.

But Ellen White was far from the rigid interpreter of Scripture some have made her out to be. She insisted she was not infallible[6], that we should lay her writings to one side and never quote her again unless we prioritize the Bible,[7] that her writings were not as inspired as the Ten Commandments,[8] that we should continue studying Scriptures to see "if these things are so" and accept every ray of new light, even if it contradicts what we have held in the past.[9] She acknowledges that her interpretations of prophecy were largely dependent on Adventist theologians of her time (such as John Andrews and Uriah Smith)[10] and cautioned her readers to avoid demonizing the Catholic church.[11]

I find strength in the fact that Adventism emerged because a group of students of Scriptures took the promise of the Second Advent seriously. I'm glad this gene has been passed on to future generations of Adventists. Nevertheless, our, at times, overzealous stance on prophetic interpretation stretched historicism to its very limits, something Ellen White was apparently reluctant to revise. And while I agree with Knight that apocalypticism has often been a successful way of stating a movement's raison d'être (and often tragically so, remember Jonestown and Waco?), Adventists need to take a closer look at our motives when approaching these ancient sacred writings.[12]

The characteristic sectarian overtones we often hear in our midst, similar to that of other apocalyptic movements of the past (e.g., c. 100 B.C. Qumran) may well be the product of a psycho-social phenomenon rather interpretative prowess. And when we put these theories to a strict exegetical method (even by the grammatical-historical standards) there is simply not an unequivocal scriptural thread running from the pages of Daniel and Revelation to buttress our sense of prophetic security, let alone the most extreme Adventist doomsday tracts and TV campaigns.

By attempting to pinpoint the correspondence of Revelation's symbols to historical figures, in part, in order to meet our need of corporate reassurance rather than unveiling Christ, we end up weakening its raw eschatological relevance. And no doubt having the Pope as a collective target to shoot at has strengthened our sense of "community".

But despite being the advocate of questionable doctrines and having a shady political past in Argentina, I wonder what role Pope Francis will play in the spiritual lives of our fellow Catholic Christians all over the world. One thing we can be certain about: if he fulfills the promise of modeling the altruistic example of St. Francis of Assisi, his impact could be quite profound on the whole of modern Christianity.


Notes & References:

[1] George Knight, The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism (Review and Herald, 2008).

[2] There is strong textual evidence that the Apocalypse was written in the early decades of the first century rather than in 95 AD, possibly even before the fall of Jerusalem, when Christianity was still strongly connected to Judaism. Such intimate relationship with Judaism had been noted by R. H. Charles in his seminal early 20th century commentary on Revelation; another author calls Revelation the "Jewish Apocalypse" (Cf. John W. Marshall, Parables of War (Wilfrid Lauer University Press, 2001).
[3] Cf. J. Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010), 54-62, 67.
[4] Cf. David Aune, Revelation 17-22. Word Biblical Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1998), 920-922. Aune's massive, three volume commentary has nearly exhausted the literary, social, historical and cultural background of the book of Revelation.
[5] Cf. Greg Beale, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 77.
[6 RH July 26, 1892.
[7] Manuscript 43, 1901.
[8] Selected Messages 1:24.
[9] "If ideas are presented that differ in some points from our former doctrines, we must not condemn them without diligent search of the Bible to see if they are true. We must fast and pray and search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans, to see if these things are so. We must accept every ray of light that comes to us." (ST May 26, 1890).
[10] See the Introduction to The Great Controversy
[11] Testimonies to Ministers, 112.
[12] See Kai Arasola's "The End of Historicism: Millerite hermeneutic of time prophecies in the Old Testament" available here Paulien, "The End of Historicism"? series at Adventist Theological Society Part 1 and part 2
André Reis has degrees in theology and music and is currently finishing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Avondale College. He contributed two chapters to En Espíritu y en Verdad, a book on music and worship recently published by Pacific Press.
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