AUSTIN — Vernon Howell says he can break the Seven Seals and unleash the cataclysmic end of the world. The Bible says only Jesus Christ can break the seals. Therefore, Vernon Howell is Jesus.
The Branch Davidian leader arrived at his logic in a time-honored tradition — he opened the Bible and interpreted what he found. And like many before him. Koresh’s text of choice was Revelation, the fast-paced and gory final book of the Bible.
Revelation, rich in symbolism and imagery, has arrived centuries of serious scholars and other seeking clues about how — and particularly when — Jesus will return and the world will end.
“This book has had a rocky road of interpretation,” said John Alsup, professor of New Testament studies at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
“It certainly is commonly abused,” said Robert Sloan, a religion professor at Baylor University.
Grotesque monsters, free-flowing blood and a world-shattering battle of good and evil leap from Revelation’s 22 chapters. Howell’s unique interpretation of these events may have focused popular attention on Revelation, but biblical scholars have spent centuries trying to understand the enigmatic book.
Robert Fastiggi, associate professor of religious studies at St. Edward’s University, said four common methods of interpreting Revelation have emerged:
-As a cryptic puzzle that points to actual events in the future or past. Often, with enough study, it can be determined where the Earth is, on and end-of-the-world timeline, according to this approach.
-As a book that made sense when it was written but has little relevance today.
-As a metaphor that depicts the spiritual battle waged in the lives of Christians and in the life of their church.
-As a depiction of the sequence of events of the end of times, but in symbolic form.
For all the controversy stirred by Howell’s message, Revelation begins tamely as a letter to seven major Christian churches.
So Alsup believes Revelation should be read as a story of the present and future of the church, with the underlying message that no matter how difficult life becomes, times will get better.
It is a message that had particular meaning 19 centuries ago, when Christians were undergoing intense persecution, Fastiggi said.