Q: The images of the Book of Revelation remain major touchstones in our culture. Why do you think that is?
A: It's very visceral. It doesn't appeal to the brain. It appeals to the bloodstream, as the Muslims say of the devil. It's a book of dragons, seven-headed beasts, monsters, whores, armies of insects fighting, angels and demons, and pits of fire.
Q: What was going on in the author's mind?
A: A lot of people say, "Is this guy on hallucinogenics or what?" But it's not an individual's fantasy. These are imaginatively transformed versions of ancient prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.
It's a book of prophecy. It's supposed to inspire people who have given up hope on any justice in the world. John wants people to hold onto that hope.
Q: He wrote the Book of Revelation at a time when there was intense debate over the future of the church and whether it was something different from Judaism. Where did John of Patmos fit in?
A: He's not somebody who'd call himself a Christian. He's somebody who's very proud of being a Jew – but one who knows who the messiah is – and sees himself in the line of the prophets.
He's a fierce, angry, conservative, passionate prophet. He's ferocious, with a kind of puritan sense of the importance of sexual purity and ethnic purity, compared to Paul, who's willing to eat unkosher food and eat with Gentiles and open up the movement to everybody. John doesn't think so.
Q: What do people misunderstand about the Book of Revelation?
A: A lot of liberal people think it's just crazy, and they can't understand how people have ever taken it seriously. They don't see that it is about war and politics, full of imaginative images of the political world of that era.
We'd have to think of ourselves as people whose families have been slaughtered to see how this author is seeing the forces of good and evil.
Q: Was he living in an era akin to our modern Holocaust?