Jonathan Kirsch. A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. See here to buy the book.
Jonathan Kirsch is a writer and an attorney. A History of the End of the World is about the Book of Revelation, both the book itself and also its impact throughout history. Kirsch goes from prophecy and apocalyptic in the Hebrew Bible through the twentieth century.
I decided to read this book when I was reading Kevin Timothy O’Kane’s Instigators of the Apocalypse: How Those with False Interpretations of the Book of Revelation Influenced Wars and Revolutions in the History of Western Civilization (see here for my review, and here for O’Kane’s response to my review). O’Kane argues that certain interpretations of the Book of Revelation have produced disastrous results. These interpretations hold that human beings play some role as agents in the apocalypse: that they are to set up a millennial golden age before Christ returns, that they are to fight the Antichrist themselves, that they are to purify the church prior to Christ’s second coming, or that they are to convert the outer reaches of the world. According to O’Kane, such approaches have led to wars, persecution, and oppression, and O’Kane contrasts such approaches with what he believes is the view of the Book of Revelation, and the correct approach to eschatology: to wait for Christ to come back and set up the millennial golden age.
O’Kane critiques Kirsch in his book. First, according to O’Kane (as I understand him), Kirsch regards the Book of Revelation as part of the problem, since it manifests an us vs. them mentality. O’Kane, by contrast, does not believe that the Book of Revelation is the problem, but rather that the problem is certain interpretations of the Book of Revelation, which are not faithful to the book itself. Second, according to O’Kane, Kirsch prefers the allegorical or symbolic interpretations of the Book of Revelation and views them as a step up from the Book of Revelation itself. Kirsch, by contrast, supports a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation and believes that the allegorical interpretation marked a step in the wrong direction.
As I was reading O’Kane, I thought that O’Kane’s historical case was pretty open and shut: O’Kane effectively demonstrated that postmillennial and amillennial views on eschatology played a significant role throughout history and had negative results. I wanted to read Kirsch to see if he interpreted history differently from O’Kane.
It turned out that, in terms of O’Kane’s larger thesis, O’Kane and Kirsch overlap on a lot of the data. Like O’Kane, Kirsch acknowledges that the Book of Revelation has a passive eschatology of waiting for Christ to return and set up the millennium. Kirsch on page 139 makes the point that Augustine interpreted the millennium as “The Church Militant and Triumphant.” Kirsch also refers to the medieval idea of a king who would preside over a golden age prior to the second coming of Christ, and how various kings in history were trying to fulfill that role.
There were still clear differences between O’Kane and Kirsch, in terms of their narratives and their arguments. Whereas Kirsch disputes that the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation and discusses the reluctant acceptance of the book within early Christianity (the West embraced it, but the East did not so much, according to Kirsch), O’Kane argues for Johannine authorship of Revelation and raises other considerations about the book’s acceptance. Unlike O’Kane, Kirsch does believe that Revelation is part of the problem, for Kirsch portrays its author as a fanatical, anti-sex, anti-money, misogynist absolutist who demonized others and felt persecuted (even though, according to Kirsch, he probably wasn’t). Kirsch can understand the appeal of apocalypticism to the vulnerable, for it gives them hope, but he seems to believe that Christianity should concentrate on helping the poor (which, according to him, is lacking in the Book of Revelation) rather than anxiously waiting for the end of the world.
And, overall, Kirsch does seem to prefer an allegorical or a symbolic approach to the Book of Revelation, one that interprets Revelation in light of spiritual truths (e.g., the battle between good and evil inside of us) rather than, say, seeking to identify the Antichrist. In a couple of places, Kirsch appears to suggest that a symbolic approach is consistent with John’s own intention, since Revelation has symbols (and yet, overall, Kirsch regards John as one who expected God’s judgment on the world to come soon, in a literal sense, whereas O’Kane does not seem to believe that the New Testament really manifests an imminent eschatology). Kirsch also appears to believe that a lot of the fanaticism and abuse surrounding the Book of Revelation have been a departure from Augustine’s “call for a sober reading” (page 152). (Kirsch talks about Augustine’s symbolic approach to Revelation, while acknowledging places in which Augustine appears to interpret Revelation literally.) That raises questions in my mind about what is a literal and what is a symbolic or allegorical approach, and how that fits into O’Kane’s thesis. While O’Kane does have problems with the allegorical approach to Revelation and does well to argue that it contributed to the idea of a church triumphant (with the persecutions that would accompany that), not all of the eschatological views that O’Kane critiques are necessarily allegorical, for they believe in a literal Antichrist. They may not be entirely literal, either, for they do not appear to take what Revelation says about the millennium at face value, at least not entirely. In any case, I can see merit in what both O’Kane and Kirsch argue, and I think that both allegorical and also literal interpretations of Revelation can have strengths and drawbacks, in terms of their effects.
My post thus far has been looking at Kirsch’s book in light of O’Kane’s book. What do I think about Kirsch’s book by itself, though? I appreciated how Kirsch interacted with critical scholarship about the distinction between eschatology and apocalypticism, and also the Book of Revelation itself. John Collins, Adela Yarbro Collins, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and J. Massyngberde Ford are scholars with whom Kirsch interacts. A point in Kirsch’s book that especially stood out to me was about how John was exiled to Patmos, and how some scholars have said that this was unusual in those times and have wondered why John was not executed instead; one view that Kirsch mentions is that John may have been from the aristocracy, but that John left that behind to embrace a life of voluntary poverty and to condemn the establishment from the margins.
I found Kirsch’s discussion of the ancient reception of the Book of Revelation to be informative and useful. Overall, Kirsch’s book was fascinating to me, as one who has been interested in eschatology, for it goes into how Revelation has been interpreted throughout history, and why people have found it so intriguing.
In terms of negatives, I do not think that Kirsch was entirely clear about John’s activity as author of the book. Kirsch seems to think that John received visions, while also portraying John as one who consciously drew from the Hebrew Bible, and even pagan myth, in composing his book. Which was it? Was Revelation the product of visions or more of a scribal exercise, or could it have been both? Kirsch also seemed a bit repetitive at times: I lost count of how many times Kirsch quoted Martin Luther’s statement that he did not see Christ in the Book of Revelation (though, according to Kirsch, Luther would later change his tune about Revelation and call the pope the Antichrist!). Finally, I did not think that Kirsch was particularly fair to the Left Behind series, depicting the series as anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. The anti-Catholic label may fit somewhat, since the Catholic church in the books does appear to be allied with the Antichrist; at the same time, the pope is raptured in the book, as are a number of Catholics. The anti-Jewish label, however, does not fit the books, in my opinion. Contrary to what Kirsch says, the Antichrist in the books, Nicolae Carpathia, is not a Jew (as far as I know), but is a Romanian with Roman descent. There are also a number of Jewish heroes in the series.
I found Kirsch’s book to be worth the read, and I plan to read other books by him in the future, particularly his biographies of Moses and David.