A History of the End of the World chronicles the history of the Book of Revelations and its impact on Western Civilization. Characterized by Kirsch, and in the minds of many readers rightfully so, as the single scariest book in the Bible (and arguably in all of Judeo-Christian writing), Revelations is a strange book that is both at odds with the rest of the Bible and yet surprisingly the biggest attraction in the Bible.
To serious scholars, much of what Kirsch discusses here is old news. He covers in great detail the theories behind the origins of Revelations and the identity of its author, and points out how Revelations borrowed and adapted the apocryphal works of the time period. But the bulk of Kirsch book is less about the Book of Revelations itself than how it has been used, and misused, by the Catholic Church, politicians, and most recently the Religious Right to both soothe the minds of the faithful and as a weapon against the “enemy,” whomever that enemy might be.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the fact that, despite several millennia of biblical scholars and street corner preachers’ claims; the world has “failed to end on time.” Kirsch exhibits a slightly sarcastic tone on occasion as he goes through the litany of previous attempts to determine the end of the world, and how the world refused to cooperate. For casual readers, the history lesson is enjoyable and provides some perspective with which to view the current cries of the impending Apocalypse. “True Believers” will take offense to the tone, however as Kirsch points out they want to be offended. And in truth, need to be for Revelations to be legitimate.
One of the key elements of Kirsch’s arguments focuses on how the Book of Revelations, and the belief in the end of the world, feeds the psychological needs of the believer. He notes that the book is written for an oppressed audience. The original audience of the Book of Revelations were early Christians who still felt the sting of persecution. However Revelations has become the favorite book of those who simply believe they are oppressed, but aren’t necessarily being persecuted. Revelations is a book that does not seek to uplift the spirit of the reader, but instead seeks to sate the hunger for revenge against all the non-believers and allies of Satan that have wronged them. While violence is a normal topic in the Old Testament, nowhere do we see a Biblical author revel in depicting violence against the enemies of God like we do in Revelations. If Revelations was a “fiction” book, it would be banned from most schools.
Revelations, as Kirsch points out, is meant to provide a feeling of empowerment to those who feel they have no power; whether that feeling is based on fact or delusion (and as Kirsch explains, more often than not it is delusion). It allows the reader to shift blame for all of societies’ real and imagined ills onto otherworldly forces, and provides a succor that these forces will be overcome by God for them.
One interesting point addressed by Kirsch is how Revelations factored into the push by Christian Zionist after WWII to establish the Israeli state. Kirsch notes that at the time, many Jewish leaders would have been happy with a land anywhere and were not themselves pushing for the lands of Israel, because they believed only God could restore their homeland. But for the Christian Zionists, it was vital that the Jews return to Israel in masse not out of compassion for the Jewish people, but because they considered it a prerequisite for the Apocalypse. Kirsch discusses the beliefs of these Christian Zionists when he notes “…that the Jews who returned to the land of Israel were destined to suffer and die during the reign of the Antichrist and to burn in hell for the rest of eternity.” Further, he notes that “Christian Zionists, in fact, tend to regard the prospect of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors as an obstacle to the second coming of Jesus Christ and, therefore, the work of the devil.”
The book does, however, suffer a stylistic flaw. Kirsch has a tendency to pound away at a thought, rehashing it dozens of times after the point has already been made and explained. There is also an annoying tendency to overuse the phrase “as we have seen” and its evil cousin “as we shall see.” Having read his previous work “God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism,” which was much more succinct in its arguments, I can only chalk this up to a bad editor. Someone should have slapped his typing fingers with a red pen over this.
But that issue aside, readers with an interest in understanding the psychology and history behind the Book of Revelations will find a book written with the casual reader in mind. It is very accessible to the reader and presents complex issues in a manner that is clear without oversimplifying.