Wilson, Mark. Victory through the Lamb: A Guide to Revelation in Plain Language. Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2014. 223 pages. ISBN 978-1-941337-01-1.
Victory through the Lamb, a nontechnical overview of the book of Revelation, is quite readable and contains enough interesting background and historical information to maintain the interest of most readers, particularly those who have not previously dedicated themselves to detailed study of Revelation’s background and content. Persons who have not already committed themselves to a particular approach to Revelation should at least find Wilson’s reading plausible. How many will find it sufficiently more plausible than alternative readings to adopt it as their own, time will tell. Since the book, though informative and interesting, did not prompt for me any epiphanies, I still await the day when an “a-ha!” moment tells me my understanding has finally reached conformity with the Spirit’s witness to Revelation’s meaning, the meaning God’s illumination makes clear (eventually) to all true believers who apply themselves diligently to understand and apply what any book of Scripture says.
Persons already committed to other interpretations of Revelation than Wilson’s will, I suspect, remain committed to their existing views. This seems particularly likely among informed believers in a pre-Tribulation rapture, whose complex dispensational system concerns a much broader set of scriptural data than addressed by Wilson’s text. (The only pre-Tribbers I know about are Dispensationalists.) Though Wilson mentions opposed readings (not always portraying the implication of those readings fairly, as we’ll see), he does not make much effort to refute them with detailed arguments. Victory through the Lamb just isn’t that sort of book: it’s clear purpose is, not to contribute to longstanding debates (consider 190, for example), but to recapture Revelation’s original function as encouragement to Christians suffering tribulation—whether the tribulation is suppression and martyrdom, as in John’s time and place and in many places ever since; less severe ostracism and reduced opportunity for this-worldly “success,” as in “free” but dominantly secular modern states; or the need to daily “crucify” one’s own sinful inclinations, as in all times and places.
What exactly is Wilson’s interpretation of Revelation? Before summarizing it, one should note that it is guided by certain expectations. Wilson writes: “From the perspective of Revelation a mystery is not something to be hidden from God’s people. While perhaps concealed in the past, it is now revealed in Christ. This,” Wilson laments, “is one of the ironies about Revelation and its arcane use by Christians today. Its visions have become notoriously mysterious, and its contents seemingly impenetrable. But that was not Jesus’ (or John’s) original intention. It was meant to be understood by the audience in the Seven Churches” (88). While it could be debated just how much “arcane” use today is the product of Christian interpreters, and how much is the product of popular culture’s mining of prophetic imagery for entertainment purposes, one certainly cannot doubt that God intends his word to be understood by his people. For Wilson, the nature of Revelation’s understandability, and the interpretive approach recommend by it, depends most importantly upon its genre. Early on, Wilson states that “a type of literature called ‘apocalyptic,’” of which Revelation is an example, is something “that ancient readers would have readily understood. Jewish readers of Revelation,” he adds, “would especially have understood [Revelation’s apocalyptic] imagery because it is found in Old Testament books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah” (12-13). If this is the case, then any interpreter of Revelation, if his understanding of the book is correct, should be able to show why the interpretation he proposes would “readily” be accepted by the original readers.
Guided by such expectations, Wilson interprets Revelation as follows. “Tribulation” or “great tribulation” is the situation of believers from Christ’s ascension to his second coming. During Jesus’ incarnation, Satan is cast out of heaven (104; citing Luke 10:18 with Revelation 12; contrasting earlier Job 1:6-12, 2:1-7, and Zechariah 3:1-2), and this “fall of Satan described in Revelation 12 inaugurates the tribulation of the church,” so that “since the ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, believers have been engaged in a spiritual battle with…Satan,” which ongoing battle (various aspects of which are portrayed “close up,” and symbolically, in Revelation) is “the tribulation” (107). There is no special seven-year “Tribulation” before which the church will be raptured. The “rapture” occurs, instead, at Christ’s second coming, at which point the saints’ tribulation ends (188-9; referencing 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; Revelation 19; and John 16:33, 17:15). (The literal duration of this tribulation will only be known to us when it is over; “seven years” is symbolic only.) Wilson identifies himself as “premillennial,” noting that, though he rejects the idea that Christ and the saints will rule on the present earth for a literal thousand years with a new temple and renewed (memorial) temple sacrifices, he does believe that “the return of Jesus inaugurates a series of events, which John symbolically calls the thousand years, whose culmination is the rule and reign of saints from every nation, people, tribe, and language in New Jerusalem on a new heaven and new earth for eternity” (Ibid.). At the end of “the thousand years,” the actual (literal) duration of which (apparently) cannot be known, Satan will be loosed, resuming his premillennial work of deceiving humans and being defeated in a final great battle (“battle of Harmagedon” or “God and Magog”). Then will follow final judgment, new heaven and new earth, and the eternal order (194-5).
If this general understanding of Revelation is one you agree with or are willing to consider, you should find Victory through the Lamb enjoyable and educational reading. If, on the other hand, you are strongly committed to the pre-Tribulation reading and its more literal understanding of many passages, you may judge Wilson’s portrayal of your perspective and its implications unfair and inaccurate. Late in the text, for instance, Wilson portrays belief in a pre-Tribulation rapture as “The teaching that has arisen in the church in the last two hundred years—that the church would be miraculously airlifted out of the world through a rapture that would exempt believers from trials and tribulations” (189). This portrayal, which informed pre-Tribbers/Dispensationalists will necessarily deem a caricature, Wilson maintains throughout the text (for early examples to add to the preceding late one, see 10-11, 14).
Wilson’s caricature may capture attitudes and assumptions found in some American Christian pop culture, but it doesn’t fairly describe Dispensationalists’ understanding, which never suggests that Christians should not expect tribulations throughout the Church age. The Christian Church is to avoid, not tribulations (even very severe ones) generally speaking, but only “the Tribulation,” a special time meant most importantly, according to this perspective (one understanding of it, anyway), to bring about the conversion of the Jews, Abraham’s descendants after the flesh. God, having brought to salvation all or most of his Gentile elect (but only a small portion of elect Jews), will then return attention to the Jews, his first covenant people. Rapturing away all true Christians means removal from the world of the salt and light that has (however partially and imperfectly) restrained Satan’s influence, setting the stage for some extreme unpleasantness that will open the eyes of the bulk of God’s Jewish elect, bring about the conversion of such few Gentile elect as remain, and serve as a definitive demonstration to those who reject Christ of just what order of things they are embracing by this rejection. Dispensationalists reject efforts to “spiritualize” or make conditional Old Testament covenant promises of earthly blessings; they also reject claims that the Church “replaces” after-the-flesh Israel. Thus, Old Testament prophecies that seem straightforwardly concerned with the Jewish people are taken to really be about the Jewish people, not symbolically about “spiritual Israel” (Christian believers, the Church), and Revelation is interpreted so as to conform with this understanding of Old Testament prophecies. One might or might not find this perspective cogent, but it is at least superior to the “Christians will have it easy then get raptured and avoid all tribulation” caricature Wilson makes it out to be.
Wilson’s unfair portrayal of alternative readings to his own extends beyond this caricature of belief in a pre-Tribulation rapture. In his discussion of Revelation 14, Wilson writes of “the 144,000” described there (earlier mentioned in 7:4-8): “Several positive characteristics are now given to describe [them]. The first is a bit unusual: they did not defile themselves with women, but remained virgins. To interpret this literally,” says Wilson, “elicits some strange interpretations” (132). Specifically, he asserts, it teaches something contrary to the Bible’s “uniformly…positive perspective on marriage…[that] views sex as a special gift for husbands and wives within the marital covenant” and that never sees “sexual relations…as defiling except when they are acts of fornication or adultery” (133). Contra Wilson, however, this “even sex within marriage is defiling” inference seems in no way required by even the most literal reading, where the 144,000 are seen as unmarried Jewish males who will serve a special function in God’s service during a special time in the future. Nothing about the literally-understood passage suggests that sex within marriage is defiling. Identification of the 144,000 as “virgins” tells us how it is that these particular men qualify as “not defiled by women.” Nothing about this implies that the following statement could not at the same time be true of other men: “they had not been defiled by women, being faithfully married to the only women they’d ever known sexually.” All that is implied is that the 144,000 are to be unmarried, hence only capable of being “not defiled” if “virgins,” which the passage (taken literally) affirms they will be.
It also seems unfair of Wilson to assert that the literal understanding “suggests [not only] that the 144,000 are only males [but also] that females are somehow tainted because of their inherent sexuality” (133). Nothing in the passage read literally suggests that the reason males are selected for this 144,000 is that females are somehow “tainted.” One must impose this idea on the passage. Wilson’s “straw man” misrepresentation of the literal reading’s implications does nothing to make his own interpretation more persuasive. One wishes he had left it out. Nevertheless, Wilson’s non-literal, symbolic understanding of the 144,000, which sees this group as “the complete harvest” of faithful believers “not defiled” by certain symbolic women (Revelation 2’s Jezebel, Revelation 17’s Whore of Babylon; 133), does have cogency. Many, upon hearing it, will judge it a more natural understanding in context than the literal reading.
Wilson’s dismissal of the possibility of identifying some post-first-century figure as fulfilling the “666” name value requirement (Revelation 13) as “not possible” (“any claim to identify a modern person as 666 is not possible,” 123) also seems overstated. Wilson proposes identifying Nero as the referent by noting how the numerical value of his name and title in Hebrew, “Neron Kaiser,” equals 666 (Ibid.). Thus, recipients of a text written in Greek were to calculate a value in Hebrew. Well, if the first readers were to calculate the value using a different language from the text they were reading, surely no later believers can be denied the privilege solely because their own language does not assign numerical values to letters. Efforts to identify later figures by this number may generally be weird, misguided, and unjustified by Scripture, but that some later figure (fulfilling literally what Nero typified) might (in God’s providence) have a name (or name and title) whose Hebrew equivalent totals 666, cannot be labeled “not possible.” Such an expectation does not seem demanded by the text, even if one thinks Nero typical rather than sole referent, any more than John the Baptist needed to be named “Elijah” (Malachi 4:5; Matthew 11:13-14), but the phrase “not possible” should only be used where real impossibility is involved.
As suggested in the previous paragraph, those who see much in Revelation as taking place literally in a still-future time would not have to reject the association of Nero with the “number of the beast”; rather, they could see Nero as a type of some still-future personage more literally and truly fulfilling what Nero was only portrayed as fulfilling by pagan legends. Concerning Revelation 13:3, which describes “the beast” (“a beast…out of the sea,” Rev. 13:1) as having “one of his heads…wounded to death,” which “deadly wound was healed” so that “all the world wondered after the beast,” Wilson identifies legends that arose after Nero’s suicide in AD 68, which held that Nero either had not really died and would return or that he had died but had since risen from the dead (Nero redux and Nero redivivus legends, respectively), as “underl[ying] the description that John gives…in [Revelation] chapter 13” (117). Reflection reveals why some might prefer to see a future figure whom Nero typified as fulfilling John’s description. If Nero himself is the sole referent, then (it seems) John’s inspired description of God-given visions lends credence to pagan legends. One might hold that Revelation here merely portrays what pagans happened to believe, but the visions of Revelation are supposed to be telling John, in the early chapters, “things which must shortly come to pass” (Revelation 1:1) and, in such later chapters as 13, “things which must be hereafter” (Revelation 4:1), not “things which superstitious pagans believe have or will come to pass but really haven’t and won’t.” (Similar discomfort might arise from Wilson’s discussion of Revelation 16, which says that 16:12 “reflects traditions related to a fear of Parthian invasion that residents of the empire still had at that time” . Traditional fears that, apparently, are never to be literally fulfilled might strike some as an odd basis for a vision of “things which must be hereafter.”)
One thing that motivates many who turn to maximally literal interpretation, even in the case of apocalyptic literature like Revelation (where literalism can seem unnatural and even strained), is the way persons engaged in non-literal interpretation often seem dismissive of much that texts say. For example, concerning the measurements of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21, Wilson writes: “The exact measurements, though gigantic, are unimportant because the numbers themselves are symbolic” (209). This non sequitur exemplifies a fundamental but not uncommon error: the assumption that if one can discern symbolic value in biblical descriptions of what God does or has sovereignly ordained should occur, one may disregard (deem unimportant) what is literally said. Where God is concerned, however, one cannot legitimately assume that something must be either literal or symbolic. If something, such as this description in Revelation 21, is likely or obviously symbolic, it does not follow that it is not also literal: it might or might not be; this must be determined separately. No one doubts the symbolic importance of Christ’s selection of twelve persons as his inner circle of disciples, yet everyone (who believes the Bible) accepts that he literally did select that number of persons. No matter how strongly symbolic one recognizes the number seven to be, the week (portrayed by Scripture as divine bestowal, not human invention) doesn’t stop being literally seven days long.
Additional areas of discomfort or dissatisfaction might be discussed. One might question, for example, why John’s visionary measuring of the temple should be taken as evidence that he wrote Revelation before the second temple was destroyed in AD 70 (89; Revelation 11:1) when Ezekiel made visionary measurements of a not-yet-built temple after the first temple was destroyed (Ezekiel 42:15). (In earlier visions, of course, Ezekiel had visited, and seen measured by an angel, the first temple before it was destroyed [Ezekiel 8:3, 9:3-6], as Wilson notes [Ibid.]. Taken together, all these data seem to indicate is that visionary measurement of temples is no evidence that temples either exist or do not exist at the time they’re measured.) If one believes miraculous sign gifts were specific to the founding era of the church, not something permanent, one might also balk at the combined implication of these two statements: (1) “they [the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3-12] also [in addition to being Peter and Paul, martyred under Nero] serve as a figure for the witnessing church during its time on earth” (91) and (2) “note that ‘witness’ in Revelation is more than speaking; it also includes the working of miraculous signs and wonders” (93). Wilson’s past affiliation with Oral Roberts University (ORU), and his description of an experience he had there where he “felt [he] was being lifted up in the Spirit to leave the physicality of earth behind” and when “Time seemed to stand still,” which he sees as “in a small way” like John’s own experience of being “in the Spirit” (52), might also make some readers uncomfortable. (Other readers might wish Wilson had discussed how this experience at ORU differed, or failed to differ, from any experiences he had at Native American church peyote meetings .) However, what has already been said should be sufficient to give potential buyers a sense of Wilson’s perspective and aspects of his book that might not satisfy all readers. Multiplication of minor objections would serve no useful purpose.
In sum, then, Victory through the Lamb, though not without weaknesses, and though not prompting any epiphanies for the reviewer, is pleasant to read and contains much interesting and useful background information. Many readers should find it worth buying.
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