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Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Course No.  6433
Course No.  6433
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24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

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.

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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.”

View Less
24 Lectures
  • 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

Lecture Titles

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Craig R. Koester
Ph.D. Craig R. Koester
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, and a guest lecturer at universities in Europe and the United States. Professor Koester has written numerous articles and essays as well as the popular work Revelation and the End of All Things. He is also completing a major commentary on Revelation for Yale University Press, and he translated Revelation for the Common English Bible. Among his other writings are a landmark commentary on Hebrews and Word of Life: A Theology of John's Gospel. Professor Koester is known for interweaving the study of biblical texts with their impact on art, literature, and music. A frequent presenter at conferences in the United States and Europe, he has also appeared in series for popular audiences, such as The Life of Apostle Paul with travel writer Rick Steves.
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Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 33 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Wonderful Course! I would recommend this course for anyone who has been trapped in the fearful wild speculation that goes on about the Book of Revelations and the Apocalypse. While not holding pat answers to everything, he presents logical answers to things that I have not only wondered about, but things that left me in fear. This is a really great course for those who need it. January 5, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by better than I expected some of the reviews were a little toxic about this so I wasn't entirely sure how it would go. I am a 58 year old professional, happened to be a religion major in college (concentrated on eastern Religion); studied the Book of Revelation once; i'm an agnostic and Jew. So that's my background. I thought this was pretty good overall. I thought the professor was pretty animated, pretty focused; the content flowed well. I didn't entirely agree with some of his interpretations, but he's a scholar and I'm not, and I'm not bound by much of the exegeses about Revelation. I thought it was an interesting and well done approach - basically you have to interpret the Book in the context of the history and the time. I think that has merit, although I don't entirely agree. Furthermore, I thought the format of the course - the first half was more or less devoted to reviewing the actual history and text, and the second half devoted to reviewing the how the book was interpreted and how it influenced subsequent history and civilization -e.g. Revelation and music, revelation and slaves, revelation and social change in the 20th century....was an interesting take. Ths is not comprehensive, and he obviously has his own bias, but I thought this was worthwhile and recommend it. December 4, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding The material here is outstanding. I have studied theology for 4.5 years, and have two master's degrees, and this is one of the finest courses I have ever taken. Dr. Koester does an outstanding job of giving background, and explaining the meaning of revelation to its original readers, which was the reason the book was written. He is an great New Testament scholar, and this course helped me better understand the context of the book, its meaning for its original readers, and its usefulness today to the church. I am very grateful for the course. I am about to finish a Master's in Theology at Duke, and plan to quote Dr. Koester in my thesis. I would gladly listen to any of his courses. I want to read his book on Hebrews also. He communicates very clearly, and has a great balance between the ancient background and the meaning of all the complex images, making it easily comprehensible. Highly recommended!!! November 14, 2013
Rated 1 out of 5 by Controversies I had previously read "Revelation and the End of All Things" by Koester. I wasn't very impressed by the book, but I couldn't resist 12 hours of lecture on one of my favorite topics. There are three parts to the series. He examines apocalypse in Judaism and Christianity, the text itself in a political sphere, and its impact on western history. Koester acknowledges that Revelation has been looked at in basically two ways, spiritual and historical. By historical he means those who have looked at Revelation as an unfolding of earthly events of the past that usually culminate in the interpreters own time or near future. He notes that historical interpretation has never proved right, but he opts for that method himself by using methods developed in early 19th century Europe. The difference is that Koester doesn't believe the events are happening in his own time, but were part of the first century Roman political situation. It seems unlikely to me that Revelation was written with 19th century theories in mind because the early Christians didn't interpret the Old Testament that way, and they were more concerned with correct doctrine and behavior than with outward persecution. The is evident in the writings of the New Testament and the early church fathers. Early Christians compared scripture to scripture while looking to the Holy Spirit for guidance (Act 17:11, John 5:39). In his interpretation Koester relies heavily on the idea that the beast of Revelation 17 is Rome be cause of ancient medallion that portrays Rome as a woman on seven hills. Technically, Rome never ruled over all the kings of the earth and, Revelation doesn't say seven hills but seven mountains. You'll see that is the way most translations give it. Daniel's beasts have seven heads (ch 7), and the book of 1 Enoch (ch 18, before 200 BC) also has seven mountains associated with the same type of symbolism given in Revelation. It is unlikely that these refer to the city of Rome. The first person to directly associate the woman in purple and scarlet of Babylon with Rome was Hippolytus, and he said the seven heads referred to seven ages. A hundred years before him Hermas said one of the aspects of the tribulation beast was a progression of ages. So we can't assume early Christians identified the seven mountains with Rome. The first Christian writer to identify the seven hills with Rome was Victorinus in the fourth century, over a hundred years after Hippolytus. Koester also blames early church fathers Irenaeus and Hippolytus for the modern understanding of antichrist, but research doesn't bear this out. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD, Dial. c. Trypho, cxx. 14, 15), who wrote before Irenaeus, mentions the Martyrdom of Isaiah, an earlier Christian writing with an apocalypse section. In it the author ties together the writings of Paul, Daniel, the Gospels and Revelation with the Belial/Beliar tradition to describe an evil antichrist type ruler. 1 John 2:18 says that christians were already expecting antichrist before John contrasted the idea by saying there were already many antichrists and a spirit. The church historian Eusebius (Theophania IV.35)confirms that the apostles were expecting an antichrist which Jesus spoke of (John 5:43) and it was the same one Paul spoke of (2 Thes 2:3). Overall I enjoyed listening to the lectures, but I don't recommend the course for accuracy. July 30, 2013
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