Skip to main content

Surviving Apocalypses Past, Present, and Future

Barbara Newman gives annual Nan Osmond Grass Lecture on the meaning of the book of Revelation in the Bible.

Due to an “apocalyptic event,” as Professor Barbara Newman (John Evans Professor of Latin; Professor of English, Classics, and History, Northwestern University) put it, the Nan Osmond Grass lecture—which she was originally scheduled to give in 2020—was postponed until 2022. While the pandemic proved harrowing for many families, as apocalypses go, COVID-19 was (for the most part) far from fiery dragons with multiple heads; facing quarantine in pj’s and fuzzy slippers while tackling sourdough breadmaking and hoarding toilet paper seems less daunting than the billowing plagues, wars, earthquakes, and falling stars from the book of Revelation in the Bible. Newman’s lecture focused on unraveling the mystery that surrounds the apocalypse of Revelation.

It is easy to let the vivid, often terrifying images of Revelation cloud our understanding, but in her lecture Professor Newman described the messages that lie underneath the symbolism. She broadly covered the apocalypse in Revelation—the period leading up to the final judgment by God, marked by the appearance of four terrifying warriors and the devil.

Newman presented images from a vast array of religious iconography illustrating scenes from Revelation: plagues of poisoned water, darkness, hail, locust swarms, and water turned to blood. Many of her images were from churches or illustrated Bibles, but they all seemed to focus on the literal interpretation of what was being described, such as a dragon with multiple heads that attacks a woman. Though captivating, these images did a poor job of illuminating the deeper meaning of Revelation, a meaning which continues to puzzle even those who have studied the book.

Newman began her discussion of the apocalypse in Revelation with its heralds, the four horsemen: Plague (whom we are already familiar with), War, Famine, and Death. These horsemen are accompanied by Satan, bringing his violent revenge to the world. On earth, these events are seen as a war movie, tragic death and destruction with little hope for what comes next.

However, Newman suggests we view these events as those in heaven might. To them, rather than a violent and desolate war movie, Revelation might be seen as a victory story where the heroes must fight with valor to win. The ending comes as no shock to us; God wins and takes his faithful followers with Him. Fear evaporates when God is one’s focus. The four horsemen perfectly contrast with the four creatures seen in John’s vision, which contrast represents the adoration of the Lamb of God. These creatures are more powerful than the horsemen will ever be because they have God’s power with them.

Newman explained that God is in control throughout the events of Revelation. The devil’s instruments, including the four horsemen and the dragon, are crude parodies of what God has already created, and they cannot overcome God’s power. Intricate symbols weave this message throughout the book, with even the number of angels and trumpets (seven of each) being a symbol for the holiness of God. Twelve gates with twelve angels for twelve tribes represent the perfection of God.

Revelation proclaims God’s power through allegory and imagery. Newman’s lecture taught Revelation is not merely the literal awful scene of flames and death that we see in classic Bible iconography; rather, it conveys a joyous ending orchestrated for us by God. God paid for us through everything, symbolizing that if we come to Him, we have nothing to fear. The shocking metaphor of an apocalypse, one which may have more literal applications in the future, teaches that all hard times can be overcome with God’s help.