I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture that is obsessed with the final book of the Bible, Revelation. People in my family and church often spoke of Revelation as the blueprint for the end-times, which are certainly going to happen soon. This fervor increased with the release of the Left Behind book series. These books popularized the “futurist” and “dispensationalist” interpretation of Revelation.
In some way, those books began my movement away from such understanding. As a teen, I found them to be poorly written fiction. When I went to seminary my New Testament professor was known for opposing the theology of the likes the Left Behind series promoted. Studying Revelation with Dr. Lowery opened my eyes to a different way of understanding Revelation, a way that was much more historically grounded, recognizing the book had to mean something to those who first read it, as well as much more challenging, in that it has a message for us today, right now, and not just about the future.
One could say that my understanding of Revelation has been moving from a futurist perspective, where the whole of it takes place in the future, towards more of a preterist perspective, where the whole of it, or at least much of it, took place in the first century.
This is the background I brought to my Goodreads’ friend Lee Harmon’s book, Revelation: The Way it Happened. Interacting with Lee on Goodreads has been fun. Lee is a liberal Christian, bringing a completely different perspective to the scripture then I am used to. Thus I was not sure what to expect from his book. To be blunt: I loved it.
Lee brings a unique view to Revelation. While scholars debate over whether Revelation was written prior to 70 AD or around 95 AD, Lee argues it was probably written in 79 AD. This is a minority view for sure. For Lee, the first half of Revelation tells a story that has already happened, centered on the Jewish War with Rome and the persecutions of Christians by Emperor Nero. Revelation can tell this story not because it is predicting it with God’s help, but because it has already happened.
Lee then sees the second half of Revelation as a prediction of the immanent end of the world complete with the return of the evil Nero leading an invasion from the east to take revenge on his enemies. But Nero will be defeated by Jesus Christ, leading an army of martyred saints delivering justice to God’s enemies. But of course, none of this happened and the world did not end, which is why Lee sees Revelation as a failed prediction. The world kept plugging along, the end did not come.
This is not a scholarly commentary, though it is clear Lee has read many scholarly commentaries. Lee places his commentary on Revelation in the context of a discussion between a father and a son. The father, Samuel, fled from Jerusalem prior to the Jewish War, and has lived in the city of Ephesus ever since. Samuel and his son, Matthew, are Jews, but have joined the fledgling Christian movement. The most interesting part of the book is their interactions, as well as flashbacks that tell the story of Simon’s other son who died during the war.
What I most found intriguing about the book is how it weaved a variety of genres together: there was the story of Samuel and Matthew, the actual text of the book of Revelation as well as Lee’s commentary notes on it. One thing my professor used to emphasize about Revelation itself was its weaving of genres as well as its movement around in time. Lee’s story has Revelation jumping around, taking the reader back in time before returning to the present and then zipping into the future. I believe even futurists would not see Revelation as linear, since chapter 12 is the story of Jesus’ birth. But my point is that the style of Lee’s book in some way mirrors the style of Revelation. At times it was not easy to follow Lee’s story and commentary with flashbacks and footnotes thrown in (I would not recommend it as an e-book). Then I realized that is kind of how Revelation is: it is not easy to follow because it jumps between the past, present and future. Lee, I’m not sure if you intended that, but I liked it.
Of course, there are a few points I would not agree with Lee on. His theology and mine are different. That said, I think this book could be a fruitful read for any student of scripture. There were times when I do wish Lee had included more references to his sources, explaining a bit more how he made a connection from a passage in Revelation to a specific interpretation. But again, a scholarly commentary this is not and Lee does include a list of sources at the end of the book for further reading. If anything, this book has made me want to explore preterism even more, so I am appreciative of that. Overall, thanks Lee for an entertaining, thought-provoking and enlightening book.