Timing the Book of Revelation

by Steve A. Hamilton

Timing is everything for the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation. Various theories have developed concerning the interpretation of the book of Revelation that have ignored when it was written or when it concludes. These theories take advantage of the symbolic nature of the book to express ideas that are beyond the scope of the book itself. We are directed to confine ourselves to the things written in the book without adding to it or taking away from it (Revelation 22:18-19). Identifying the beginning and ending points in the book of Revelation will ensure we do not step outside our given guidelines.

Timing the Beginning Point

The Apostle John, the author of the book of Revelation, opens the book defining when the prophecies will begin. In the very first sentence he writes, "things which must shortly take place." Two sentences later he adds, "for the time is near." The prophecies in the book of Revelation began shortly after John wrote the book. In fact, the first observable prophecy was near to the time he finished writing the book.

A little later in the first chapter Jesus tells John, "Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this" (Revelation 1:19). The emphasis is not on past events. A prophecy is not prophetic if it reveals those things that already took place. It would defy the very definition of the word prophecy. John declared, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy" (Revelation 1:3).

According to many historical sources, John wrote the book of Revelation about 97 A.D. This date will serve as the starting point for all prophecies contained in the book of Revelation. The first observable prophecy in the book of Revelation was recorded in the opening of the fifth seal. "When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held" (Revelation 6:9). In the year 107 A.D., less than 11 years after John wrote the book of Revelation, Emperor Trajan was persecuting Christians unto death.

"Pliny the Second … seeing the lamentable slaughter of Christians, and moved therewith to pity, wrote to Trajan, certifying him that there were many thousands of them daily put to death, of which none did anything contrary to the Roman laws worthy of persecution."1

Ignatius, an early church father, an Elder of the church in Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John, was martyred, reportedly in the ninth year of Trajan's reign.2 Trajan himself examined Ignatius and sentenced him to be fed to wild animals in the amphitheater of Rome.

Timing the End Point

The ending of the prophecies in the book of Revelation is also definable. With the exception of Chapters 19 to 22 that clearly refer to the end of time and the judgment to come, John's vision tells us the point when the prophecies end. It is described for us in Revelation chapters 17 and 18.

"And he cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!"' (Revelation 18:2). Babylon in this prophecy is the city of Rome. In the previous chapter, the woman that rides the beast is called, "Babylon the great" (Revelation 17:5) and is further identified as "that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth" (Revelation 17:18). The city of Rome was the capital of the Roman empire.

The destruction of Rome in this prophecy was so complete that its ruin was described as desolate. "They threw dust on their heads and cried out, weeping and wailing, and saying, 'Alas, alas, that great city, in which all who had ships on the sea became rich by her wealth! For in one hour she is made desolate'" (Revelation 18:19).

Arthur Ogden, a well-known preterit among churches of Christ insists that Rome could not be the symbolic Babylon because it was called the "Eternal City" and "it has never been destroyed."3 However, history would disagree.

There are at least two historical references that state Rome was destroyed. Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500 – c. 554 A.D.) was a historian who wrote this description of Rome as it existed in 546 A.D. "In Rome he suffered nothing human to remain, leaving it altogether, in every part, a perfect desert."4 This quote is believed to derive from his book, History of the Wars. Therein, Procopius wrote in some detail, "As for the Romans, however, he kept the members of the senate with him, while all the others together with their wives and children he sent to Campania, refusing to allow a single soul in Rome, but leaving it entirely deserted."5

Marcellinus Comes was a chronicler in Constantinople (d. 534 A.D.). An unknown writer wrote in his chronicle, The Chronicles of Marcellinus, this statement about Rome: "Everything that had belonged to the Romans was carried away, and also the Romans themselves were led into Campania – captives. And after this devastation, Rome was so desolate, that, for forty days or more there was to be seen in it not a single inhabitant, but only wild beasts."6 The word desolate is the same word the Apostle John used to describe the end result of the symbolic city of Babylon (Revelation 18:19).

Edward Gibbons in his work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, echoed the same understanding that Rome was destroyed and abandoned. The Gothic king Totila took Rome in December, 546 A.D. and decreed "that Rome should be changed into a pasture for cattle."7 The remaining citizens of Rome were taken captive "and during forty days Rome was abandoned to desolate and dreary solitude."8 After which a Roman general "visited with pity and reverence the vacant space of the eternal city."9

The eternal city was first given that nickname by "the Roman poet Tibullus in the 1st century BC."10 The designation was nothing more than a romantic idea of a beloved city with the hope for a long existence. The nickname has nothing to do with the reality of history.

Regardless, the book of Revelation says Rome, called Babylon, "shall not be found anymore" (Revelation 18:21). Obviously, Rome still exists to this day. However, the original site with its antiquity laden structures have not been reconstructed since the destruction took place. The sight remains an archaeological treasure not to mention the third most significant tourist site in the world.

Much of the prophetic description given in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 50 and 51) to describe Babylon's destruction is similar to the description of Rome's destruction in the book of Revelation. It seems the Apostle John is literally describing Babylon as it prophetically alludes to Rome in the book of Revelation. It should not trouble us that a phrase that historically depicts Babylon as not being found is applied to Rome as an empire.

Further, it should be argued that Rome was the capital and embodiment of the Roman Empire. As Rome goes, so does the empire. The Roman empire was never resurrected after Rome fell in 546 A.D. The Roman Empire certainly has never been found anymore.

These facts should serve as ample evidence for the ending point of the prophecies through chapter 18 in the book of Revelation. All the events or circumstances from Revelation chapters 6 through 18 should be found between the years 97 A.D. and 546 A.D. Any interpretation outside these dates for these chapters would add to the things contained in the prophecy of the book of Revelation. Ignoring the things historically contained within these dates for these chapters would take away from the words of the prophecy in the book of Revelation (Revelation 22:18-19).

Surely, the Lord is coming quickly (Revelation 22:20)!

Works Cited

  1. John Foxe, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, William Byron Forbush, ed., Chapter II
  2. "The Martyrdom of Ignatius," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts, D. D., ed., Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, Vol. 1, p. 129.
  3. Arthur M. Ogden, The Avenging of the Apostles and Prophets, Ogden Publications, Somerset, KY, 1991, p. 443, 446.
  4. John Miley, Rome as it was Under Paganism and as it Became Under the Popes, J. Maddon and Company, London, 1843, vol. 2, p. 196.
  5. Procopius, History of the Wars, VII, xxii.
  6. Miley, vol. 2, p. 196.
  7. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed. in chief, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, vol. 2, p. 57.
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. "Rome," Wikipedia.