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Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

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Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Course No. 6433
Professor Craig R. Koester, Ph.D.
Luther Seminary
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Course No. 6433
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Course Overview

The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Professor Craig R. Koester, Luther Seminary


Exiled to the island of Patmos over 1,900 years ago, a prophet named John wrote a remarkable letter to fellow Christians. That letter is the Apocalypse of John, also known as the book of Revelation, and Christians and non-Christians alike have been debating its message ever since.


The meaning of the Greek word for apocalypse is “disclosure,” and John’s book discloses dimensions of two age-old mysteries: the character of evil and the nature of hope. So influential was Revelation in the early Christian church that it was placed as the final text in the New Testament, and its popularity has intensified in the centuries since.


As a result, its rich language and symbolism pervade Western culture, often in ways not recognized as coming from this unparalleled biblical work:


•     The details of heaven in the popular imagination, with its pearly gates, streets of gold, divine throne, and tree and river of life, are taken from the vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of Revelation.


•     Paintings and sculptures of the Virgin Mary since the Renaissance typically portray her as Revelation’s “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.”


•     Revelation contributes some of the best-loved lyrics in Handel’s Messiah, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which takes singers and listeners to a realm of sublime mystery, just as John’s text does.


•     The words and images of many popular hymns were inspired by Revelation, including the “grapes of wrath” in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the lyrics from “When the Saints Go Marching In.”


Revelation is also a touchstone for hopes and fears about the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. And its many baffling images have been studied for clues about the end of the world. The Apocalypse is both a terrifying vision of evil and a celebration of God’s ultimate victory over the forces of darkness. It has inspired great thoughts and great misunderstanding.


What are we to make of such a book? The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History is your guide to this extraordinary work in 24 thought-provoking and enlightening half-hour lectures, divided into three parts:


•     The historical and intellectual background of the Apocalypse

•     A close reading of John’s text, focusing on the meaning of its images

•     The wide-ranging impact of the book on Christian and Western history


Your professor is a preeminent scholar and teacher of the Apocalypse, Professor Craig R. Koester of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Koester—who has translated the book of Revelation from its original Greek—draws on years of experience with students, pastors, and lay groups to engage you directly with Revelation, examining its meaning in John’s day and how it continues to be meaningful to contemporary readers.


Book of Predictions? Or Work of Literature?


Professor Koester notes that many of the questions people ask him about the Apocalypse are sparked by sensationalistic interpretations that see it as a book of predictions. Explaining that Revelation follows a literary genre with roots in the apocalyptic writings of the Hebrew prophets, Professor Koester discusses the reasoning behind the futurist perspective and why it is problematic. For example:


•     The Antichrist: The word “antichrist” does not appear in Revelation. Instead, it is a term taken from First and Second John in the New Testament, where it refers to those who have left the Christian community, not to any individual tyrant.


•     The Rapture: The idea that true Christians will ascend to heaven while others will be left behind to be ruled by the Antichrist occurs nowhere in Revelation. It is a mix of literal and symbolic readings of passages from other books of the Bible.


•     Number of the Beast: Today’s Internet continues a centuries-old search for the name encoded in 666, the number of the beast in Revelation. But the context of John’s passage and an ancient puzzle technique give the likely answer: the emperor Nero.


•     Armageddon: Now understood as a world-destroying conflict, the battle of Armageddon has a different meaning in Revelation. Instead of missiles and tanks, the only weapon is the sword from Christ’s mouth, symbolizing the power of his word.


Throughout these lectures, Professor Koester focuses on what John actually wrote in the Apocalypse, what his situation tells us about his meaning, how that meaning can be applied to our own lives, and how contemporary biblical scholars relate Revelation to the modern world.


Great Minds Struggling with a Great Book


Professor Koester also introduces major figures in history who have been powerfully drawn to the Apocalypse, among them:


•     St. Augustine: Writing in the 5th century in his magnum opus, The City of God, St. Augustine popularized a reading of Christ’s thousand-year reign from Revelation that sees it as timeless and symbolic rather than literal.


•     Martin Luther: Luther’s attitude toward the Apocalypse shifted from dismissing it to decoding it and finally reaching a remarkable theological insight. In his translation of the Bible, he included Dürer-inspired illustrations of Revelation that critiqued the papacy of his day.


•     William Miller: A former Deist, Miller rigorously analyzed the Bible, concluding from passages in Daniel and Revelation that the world would end in 1844. His ideas created a sensation in 19th-century America and sparked the Adventist movement.


•     Sojourner Truth: The African American social reformer Sojourner Truth was also a lay preacher, inspired by Revelation’s vision of a holy city to work tirelessly for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.


Isaac Newton pored over the mysteries of Revelation even as he revolutionized the study of science. D. H. Lawrence’s struggle was so intense that at the end of his life he wrote his own Apocalypse.


The Real Revelation


Describing the Apocalypse as a roller coaster that hurtles you down into the abyss amid scenes of monsters and plagues, only to send you flying upward toward views of pure light, Professor Koester stresses that if you are reading Revelation and want to despair, then you’ve stopped reading too soon; you’re still in the abyss. You need to turn the page and look to the next chapter, because there will be a wonderful message of hope waiting for you.


And as you read, you will find that the Apocalypse you’ve heard about pales beside the real one. “People tell me time and time again,” says Professor Koester, “that when they actually read the book, study the book, reflect on the book, it really doesn’t look much like all of the impressions that are generated by the popular media, the Internet, the contemporary discussions. You find something much more life-giving.”

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    Revelation and the Apocalyptic Tradition
    Professor Koester introduces one of the most discussed books of all time: the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. Learn the original meaning of "apocalypse" and the importance of the apocalyptic tradition. Also survey the three-part structure of the course. x
  • 2
    Apocalyptic Worldview in Judaism
    Investigate the world of the Hebrew prophets, whose writings deeply influenced the author of the Apocalypse. First, focus on the themes of evil and hope in such works as Ezekiel and Isaiah. Then, see how these themes are taken up in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the apocalyptic book of Daniel. x
  • 3
    Apocalyptic Dimension of Early Christianity
    Consider how the apocalyptic worldview, with its strong sense of conflicting powers, was taken up and transformed by Christian writers in the New Testament. Apocalyptic themes had an important place in the early church, creating the religious matrix out of which the book of Revelation arose. x
  • 4
    Origins of the Book of Revelation
    Begin your close study of the text of the Apocalypse by looking behind the legends to surmise what can be said about its origins and author, identified only as John. Also examine the peculiar quality of John's Greek, which is not apparent in most translations. x
  • 5
    Issues Facing Revelation's First Readers
    The first two chapters of Revelation discuss the issues facing the Christian communities that first received the book. Delve deeper into the experiences of the men and women addressed by John. What was the nature of the persecution and other problems they faced? Who was this book written for? x
  • 6
    God, the Lamb, and the Seven Seals
    John's distinctive images—his "word pictures"—have captured the imaginations of readers for centuries. Plunge into some of John's most vivid scenes, including the breaking of the seven seals, which unleashes the four horsemen and other startling visions. x
  • 7
    Seven Trumpets, Temple, and Celebration
    Analyze the middle section of the Apocalypse from two contrasting perspectives: first, from the futurist view that Revelation is a book of ominous predictions; then, from the literary perspective that seeks to understand how John organizes his details into a narrative that is surprisingly hopeful. x
  • 8
    The Dragon and the Problem of Evil
    Turn to some of the most dramatic scenes in the Apocalypse, which deal with the problem of evil, personified by Satan, the great red dragon. John's account draws on an ancient fascination with stories of good battling evil, but he gives a bold new interpretation to the conflict. x
  • 9
    The Beasts and Evil in the Political Sphere
    Trace John's depiction of evil through the images of the two beasts. The beast from the sea, whose name equals 666, works in the realm of politics. The beast from the land supports the beast from the sea through practices that serve worldly empire. x
  • 10
    The Harlot and the Imperial Economy
    Encounter Babylon the harlot, one of the most remarkable figures in the Apocalypse. She symbolizes the city of Rome in all its ancient opulence. Two literary forms useful for understanding John's metaphor are satire and the obituary. John is both satirizing Rome's decadence and sounding its death knell. x
  • 11
    The Battle, the Kingdom, and Last Judgment
    Revelation's final chapters feature scenes that have had a powerful effect on the modern imagination, ranging from the battle of Armageddon to the final defeat of Satan and the Last Judgment. Learn the ancient context for these images, which mark the climax of God's battle against the forces of evil. x
  • 12
    New Creation and New Jerusalem
    Conclude your close reading of the text of Revelation with John's vision of the new creation and the New Jerusalem. Professor Koester explores this triumphant ending, which is the source for the popular image of the pearly gates—along with so much more. x
  • 13
    Antichrist and the Millennium
    Start a new section of the course in which you probe the impact of the Apocalypse on Western history. Study the early debates about the nature of the Antichrist and the Millennium, two ideas that drew heavily on writings outside of Revelation. x
  • 14
    Revelation's Place in the Christian Bible
    How did Revelation get into the Bible? Discover that, although it is unlike any other book in the New Testament, the Apocalypse met three broad criteria that early church leaders used to determine which books were authoritative and which were not. x
  • 15
    The Apocalypse and Spiritual Life
    By the 4th and 5th centuries, leading Christians were reading the Apocalypse for its spiritual truths, rather than what it had to say about coming events. Explore three topics that were especially important to this view: Revelation's symbolism, internal repetitions, and timeless message. x
  • 16
    The Key to the Meaning of History
    Trace medieval responses to Revelation through the ideas of several influential thinkers, including the controversial monk Joachim of Fiore, whose struggle with the Apocalypse led him to the mystical insight that it was the key to the meaning of history since the Creation. x
  • 17
    Apocalyptic Fervor in the Late Middle Ages
    See how certain followers of St. Francis of Assisi carried Joachim's ideas even further, styling themselves players in an apocalyptic drama and predicting that the present age would end in the 13th century. x
  • 18
    Luther, Radicals, and Roman Catholics
    Move into the world of the Reformation, where a renegade monk named Martin Luther first rejected Revelation but later used its imagery in his controversy with the papacy. During this period, Catholics discovered much of their standard iconography for the Virgin Mary in John's text. x
  • 19
    Revelation Takes Musical Form
    Explore Revelation from a completely different perspective: its rich musical heritage. There are many songs within Revelation, and much music has been inspired by it. Examine Handel's Messiah, the hymns compiled by Charles Wesley, and gospel songs such as "Shall We Gather at the River?" x
  • 20
    Revelation in African American Culture
    The Apocalypse has played a vital role in African American culture. Its visions of hope inspired the spirituals sung by slaves in the American South and the Dixieland favorite, "Oh when the saints go marching in." Scenes of New Jerusalem caught the imagination of Sojourner Truth and others who worked for social change. x
  • 21
    The Apocalypse and Social Progress
    In the 18th and early 19th centuries, many Americans believed that Revelation outlined a progressive social destiny pointing to the great millennial age of peace on Earth. Meet leaders in this movement, including Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and Julia Ward Howe, who wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic." x
  • 22
    Awaiting the End in 1844 and Beyond
    Chart a pivotal end-times crusade in America led by William Miller, who drew on the Apocalypse and book of Daniel to predict that 1844 would see Christ's Second Coming. The heirs to this movement include the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. x
  • 23
    Rapture, Tribulation, and Armageddon
    Turn to today's most popular futuristic perspective on the end times, Dispensationalism, held by those who believe that all true Christians will be spirited up to heaven in an event called the Rapture. Examine the origins of this view, its connection to Revelation, and its mix of literal and symbolic interpretation. x
  • 24
    The Modern Apocalyptic Renaissance
    Finish the course by meeting some of the contemporary theologians who show how dynamic and engaging the study of Revelation continues to be. The book has an unparalleled ability to both challenge and encourage, proving that the Apocalypse is as powerful today as it was 1,900 years ago. x

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Your professor

Craig R. Koester

About Your Professor

Craig R. Koester, Ph.D.
Luther Seminary
Dr. Craig R. Koester is the Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. He attended St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary, then earned his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York before returning to Luther Seminary to teach. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, a scholar-in-residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey,...
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Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 40 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Revelation is a message of hope! I have studied Revelation many times, from many prospectives, and with many teachers. This is, by far, the best and most meaningful study I have ever done. This study with Professor Koester brought all of those studies together, added a prospective that I had never even considered before, and gave me a huge, "AH HA." I now believe that, "I get it" -- it truly is a message of hope! Professor Koester is one of the best teachers I have had the privilege of studying with. Please, please, please, have him do more Great Courses. May 29, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent content. Over the years I had read the book of revelation several times and also came across some interpretations of what the content's message is. It is my opinion that this interpretation is excellent and reflects the presenter's deep understanding of the subject.. January 17, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by An Enlightening Course on a Compliated Topic Dr. Koester's presentation of material dealing with the Apocalpyse is both clear and detailed. This topic, by its very nature, is controversial and his findings (nor those anyone else) will be universally embraced but Dr. Koester does an excellent job of brining out the historic background of the topic. I found his approach refreshing and fair to the numerous viewpoints that surround both the Old Testament prophets and the writings of the New Testament. At the end of the day I felt as though Dr. Koester had covered the topic well and planted the seed for further study. For this I am most appreciative. January 13, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by Too little respect The instructor interprets The Revelation from a purely historical point of view. As should be the case for all of the Bible, no book should be interpreted out of the context of the rest of it. It seems as if Revelation is nothing other than political commentary/satire/cartoon. There is absolutely no effort to present the spiritual message. it certainly cannot be exclusively a commentary on the corruption of Imperial Rome, although this could be part of it also. Place it in the context of Genesis where God created the world, people declined to obey God and were thus separated form God. Reunification with God was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the Creation is still suffering. Revelation brings the Biblical narrative to a logical spiritual conclusion. Believers spend and eternity with God, unbelievers spend eternity without him, just as they want. Creation is regenerated into something good again, without suffering and pain. The instructor does not appear to believe Christianity has a spiritual message, only a psychological and historical message. All it can do is encourage us to become better people, but God has no power. Material on the way society interpreted Revelation through history was good, and in keeping with his views that it can only be interpreted from an historical perspective. It is too bad there is no respect for religion as truth here. January 9, 2015
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