Rewind book: Book of Revelation, by St John the Apostle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 4:34pm

Book of Revelation
St John the Apostle

Atheists may not believe what's written in the Bible to be true, but that doesn't mean it can't be appreciated as a work of literature. What reader, religious or not, could fail to enjoy the exotic lyricism of the Old Testament's Song of Solomon, or the esoteric beauty of the wondrously strange Gospel According to St John?

Even if you disagree with its philosophy, a humanity and compassion that speak equally to believer and non-believer alike can often be found in its verses. These qualities also happen to be one of the hallmarks of great literature.

But that's not so in the Book of Revelation, the 22-chapter work that concludes the New Testament. It is a vision of excess which details the horrors that the Christian God will visit on those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their saviour. Compassion for non-Christians is not in evidence here: its exclusive approach to religious salvation and fiery, fearsome language will shock.

The New Testament effectively finishes with a threat: kneel down before me, or be damned forever.

The book is part epistle, part prophesy and part apocalyptic. It begins with God instructing John to write a book about the vision he is about to see. The next two chapters are epistles to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna and others, admonishing them for their mistakes. The apocalyptic vision begins proper in chapter five and from then on the wildly hallucinogenic imagery comes thick and fast: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Lamb of God appear, and Death and Hell are sent out into the world; angels sound their trumpets and hail and fire are hurled at the world, and mountains are destroyed; giant locusts with the heads of men, who have the power to inflict pain for five months, are unleashed; and a dragon, which represents Satan, makes war on heaven and is defeated.

Finally, a new heaven and earth are created.

The book is generally credited to John the Apostle, although there is some dissension about this as the ancient Greek text is said to be much rougher than St John's Gospel.

Revelation has always been a controversial work, and Christians have interpreted it in a number of ways: as a vision of the future, as a story of the history of the world, or as a symbolic work about God's capacity to prevail over evil.

But the crazed language is certainly its most salient property.