Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Vision of the End: An Exegesis of Revelations 12, The Woman and the Dragon

Mel Gibson is prepared for the end of civilization in The Road Warrior (1981)

An expectant Mimi Rogers awaits the end of all things earthly in The Rapture (1992)

Things to Come's 1936 prophecy of World War Two is now ancient history: this is exactly what Aachen, Germany looked like in 1945

Is it the Apocalypse yet?

As of this writing, December 2008, the world financial system has broken down—Bear Stearns tanked, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac went kaput, Lehman Brothers died (and took the rest of us with it, the bastards), say bye-bye to Washington Mutual, and now Citibank is on life support. What’s next?

Things To Come? Let's hope not

Only you will know, O gentle reader of the future. Only you will know if the electricity has ended and the hot water has run out, and heating is a thing of the past. Only you will know if America and the rest of the world has leaped suddenly into a terrifying science-fiction story about a future gone terribly wrong and there’s no stopping it now. (Think of the late, lamented Tom Disch’s On Wings Of Song, inspired by the gas lines of 1979 that also inspired The Road Warrior.

The grainy black-and-white pseudo-newsreel beginning of The Road Warrior is straight of out the opening of H.G. Wells’ Things To Come [1936]—the same sense of social apocalypse brought about by political and moral failure.)

A dying world mobilizes for war: as George Seldes noted later, everyone knew after 1919 that a new world war was inevitable, but no one was allow to publish the truth--except H.G. Wells in Things To Come

The endless war: Korea, Vietnam, Central America, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq...

The war-created plague that Wells envisioned: a glimpse of radiation poisoning in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Fortunately, for readers out there who still have electricity, the Apocalypse is subject of the essay that follows, an exegisis of Revelations 12. Rev 12 contains one of the key scenes of the Christian Apocalypse, the Last Loosing of Satan and his eventual defeat.

If you’d like to understand Rev 12 and the Christian Apocalypse in general, I recommend watching an awesome (and I use that term advisedly) film called The Rapture (1992), written and directed by the brilliant Michael Tolkin.

Like The Confessions of St. Augustine, it’s the saga of a troubled soul who progresses from damnation to salvation—but then the story takes a wholly unexpected U-turn.

Mimi Rogers, in a stunning, Oscar-worthy performance, plays Sharon (the Biblical Rose of Sharon?), a beautiful, jaded telephone operator who already lives in Hell; in the film’s astonishing opening—a slow dolly shot through a maze of icy, dimly-lit blue cubicles—trapped souls in headsets repeat endlessly, “What city, please? Is that a business or residence?” It’s a purgatory written by Beckett.

To kill her mind-numbing boredom and despair, Sharon becomes a compulsive swinger who enjoys anonymous group sex with strangers she picks up in airport hotel lounges with the help of a creepy wingman/partner in crime named Vic (the victor), played by Patrick Bauchau.

But on her lunch hour in the company cafeteria, Sharon overhears co-workers at the next table discuss a fundamentalist religious sect they belong to; they follow an eerie boy prophet who preaches the imminent end of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—the Rapture, when all saved souls will rise inexorably to heaven.

Here the film does something amazing and takes the Christian vision of the Apocalypse at face value. Sharon converts to the group, marries a fellow swinger (David Duchovny, whom she converts) and awaits The End.

In the nightmarish ending of the film, after her husband is murdered by a rampaging fired co-worker who went postal (a sign of the erupting chaos of the End Times), Sharon feels she is being called to take her young daughter with her to the desert and await the Rapture.

Once in the desert, in one of the most disturbing scenes in American cinema, the daughter pleads with her mother to kill her, so she can join her father in heaven immediately—she doesn’t want to wait for the Rapture to rejoin her father.

In a grim retelling of Abraham and Isaac, Sharon is convinced by her daughter’s hysterical ranting and shoots her to death. It’s a shattering scene. She then tries to shoot herself, but then suddenly realizes that if someone else shoots you, you can go to heaven; but if you shoot yourself, you can’t go to heaven.

Sharon's anguish after slaying her daughter: who was speaking to her?

Then follows the Apocalypse, which Tolkin makes entirely believable with minimum, but very effective, special effects. After all the Saved ascend to heaven, Sharon is informed by her daughter’s spirit that in order to be admitted to heaven, she has only to do one thing: declare that she loves God.

Sharon can’t do it. “Why should I love a God that made me kill my little girl?” she shouts. Instead, she accepts a literal eternity alone in limbo, purgatory, the waiting room for paradise.

Basically she tells God to go fuck Himself, and it’s amazing to see that in an American film—in any film, for that matter. The individual soul and conscience is declared to be supreme—and even more important than the Almighty in its sanctity.

I don’t have to tell you that a frightening number of evangelical Christians in America believe in the literal imminence of the Rapture—and an entire industry of Tribulation and Taken Away books, films, and videos have fed this hysterical frenzy, which makes many frightened, misguided Americans value the next world rather than this one.

These people hate reality and the difficulty of day-to-day life. Instead, as an abject escape, they embrace a crazed neo-Platonic vision of the afterworld that’s really only an excuse to trash this world and everyone around themselves.

Britney feels the Rapture

Idiot wind: Sherri Shephard on The View

The coming end of the world is merely a justification for their destructive, nihilistic impulsive behavior—as Nazism was solely an excuse for all the psychopaths in Germany to plunge into an orgy of hate.

* * * * * *

The family man

Render unto Caesar

A sure sign that we're in the End Times

Revelations 12: The Woman and the Dragon

1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: Gen. 37.9
2 and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. Mic. 4.10
3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, Dan. 7.7 and seven crowns upon his heads.
4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: Dan. 8.10 and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
5 And she brought forth a man child, Is. 66.7 who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: Ps. 2.9 and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.
7 ¶ And there was war in heaven: Michael Dan. 10.13, 21 ; 12.1 · Jude 9.1--0.1 and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
8 and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, Gen. 3.1 called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, Lk. 10.18 and his angels were cast out with him.
10 And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven,
Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren Job. 1.9-11 · 0.1--0.1 ; 0.3 ; 0.1--0.1 is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. 11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.
12 Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.
13 ¶ And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child.
14 And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, Dan. 7.25 ; 12.7 from the face of the serpent.
15 And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood.
16 And the earth helped the woman; and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth.
17 And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.


In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelations, John has a vision of Satan's attempt to prevent the salvation of mankind by Jesus, followed by the eventual victory of the Prince of the Next World over the Prince of This World. Chapter Twelve also gains importance because it recounts the Last Loosing of Satan and explains why "he must be loosed a little season" (Rev. 20:3, King James Version). The account is heavily laden with symbols whose meaning were obvious to John's audience; with a little work they can be readily understood by us.

From the outset we are told that Chapter Twelve summarizes an astral vision; the vision of the woman appears in heaven, and she is "adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown" (12:l). The fact that it is a celestial vision adds special significance; its appearance in the heavens reinforces its divine import. It must be remembered that the Star of Bethlehem was sighted by three magi, or Persian astrologers. (This connection to the magi is vital to this vision since it is, in part, a description of the Nativity.) The vision is also a prefiguration, since "according to astral thinking everything occurring on earth has previously happened in heaven." (1)

So much for the context of the vision. The symbols operate on two levels; at the same time, they refer to both their cosmic significance and to their meaning on earth. The woman stands for the Church and its earthly representative, Mother Mary. That she is described as "adorned with the sun, and standing on the moon" indicates the magnitude of her cosmic significance; "the twelve stars on her head for a crown" (12:1) count for both the twelve divisions of the heavens in the Zodiac and the Twelve Tribes of Israel (who in the Gospels are transmuted into the Twelve Apostles).

The male child whom she gives birth to is Jesus; no one else in the New Testament is ever described as fated "to rule all the nations with an iron sceptre" (12:5). Yet he is more than the Son of Man; when the woman cries "aloud in the pangs of childbirth" (12:2), her cries herald the birth of a new consciousness that God is entrusting to man in an act of grace.

The "huge red dragon" that pursues the mother is both Satan and his earthly manifestation, the Roman Empire. "The seven heads of the beasts are almost certainly seven emperors," (2) since each of the seven heads of the dragon is described as "crowned with a coronet" (12:3). The dragon is also Herod, the agent of the Empire in the Nativity story, since according to Matthew 2, he sought to murder the infant Jesus, who had been prophesized to become the usurper of Herod's throne. The escape the woman makes into the desert (12:6) parallels the flight of the Holy Family to flee Herod's terror.

As a prefiguration, the attack of the dragon on the woman in childbirth signifies that Satan's assault on the mission of Jesus has been predestined since before the creation of the world. Because of its timeless nature, it can be communicated through a vision to John. It is interesting that the details of this vision closely parallel those of the births of Apollo and the Egyptian god Horus. (3)

Falcon-headed Horus

Both pagan deities had divine fathers, both of their mothers were pursued by an evil dragon that the holy mother managed to escape; and in the story of Horus, the serpent Set-Typhon sought to engulf Isis, the divine mother, with a flood, exactly like the Satanic dragon, and as in Revelation 12, the mother was saved by the earth's absorption of the water. (4)

Plainly John was influenced by these Greek and Egyptian myths; he selected details from them for the cultural resonance they would hold for his audience. The Dragon's Satanic status is confirmed in verse 4, where a third of the stars are dragged from the sky by the dragon's tail and dropped to earth—just as through his revolt, Satan caused the angels who had conspired with him against God to be evicted from heaven.

After the woman's escape from the dragon, verses 5 and 6 report that "the child was taken straight up to God and to his throne, while the woman escaped into the desert, where God had made a place of safety ready, for her to be looked after in the twelve hundred and sixty days." The child's Ascension refers to the kinship between God and Jesus, symbolized by the descent of the Spirit of God in the form of a white dove on Jesus at his baptism. Through her flight into the desert, the woman shows herself to be the Church, which God is shielding from persecution so that it can be reunited with Christ after the Apocalypse.

As if to emphasize the apocalyptic overtones of the previous verse, verse 7 describes the war in heaven between the dragon and Michael with his angels, in which the dragon is defeated. For the first time, the identity of the dragon becomes is made explicit; he is "the primeval serpent" who tempted Adam and Eve into man's Fall, "known as the devil or Satan, who had deceived all the world." Michael and his minions hurl the dragon and his fallen angels to earth, where he will be free to wreak havoc; this is the "little season" in which Satan is loosed for the last time. The proclamation by the voice in verses 10-13 explains the purpose of the Last Loosing, while in the process, it clarifies the significance of Michael's victory.

St. Michael, the divine warrior

In verse 10, the voice (divine, presumably) mentions "our brothers," who are the righteous martyrs who, through their deaths, have witnessed for Christ. (5) After the voice proclaims their triumph over Satan the dragon (thereby suggesting that Michael and his angels were really Christ and his martyrs), it speaks of Satan as "the persecutor, who accused our brothers day and night before God" (12:10). Here Satan becomes the persecuting Roman Empire.

But the above description also reveals the radical role change Satan has made between the Testaments. In the Old Testament, Satan was an agent of God, a kind of attorney for the prosecution; his name meant "accuser." Now, in the New Testament, with the infusion of Zoroastrian dualism into Christianity, Satan has become the all-destructive adversary who is a power unto himself.

Ralph Richardson as the Boss, the swaggering post-apocalyptic warlord modeled on Mussolini and Hitler: as a result, Mussolini banned Things To Come

Peter Sellers in Rod Serling's little-seen bitter 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame teleplay Carol for Another Christmas as the Imperial Me, the post-Bomb dictator who mirrors Ralph Richardson as the Boss: dressed in a ten-gallon hat and a Puritan costume and spouting the virtues of individuality, he's clearly a spokesman for Barry Goldwater and a prefiguration of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush

In verses 11-12, the voice implies that Satan is being allowed to descend to earth to destroy, since the only slain souls who will end up damned will be pagans; any Christians who are annihilated in the process will be saved, since "even in the face of death they would not cling to life" (12:11). God is letting Satan massacre mankind in order to make way for the Last Judgment.

In verses 13 and 14, Satan enacts on earth what he played out in the heavens; he chases the woman, but through divine providence, she evades him. The eagle's wings with which the woman (the Church) flies are away are the same wings that God told the Israelites that he, metaphorically, granted them to flee Egypt in Exodus 19: 4. (6)

As mentioned before, the action of verses 15 and 16 reproduces Set-Typhon's attempt to sweep Isis away by vomiting out a river and his failure owing to the intervention of the earth. The incident signifies the triumph of solidity, stability, and fertility, embodied in the woman as well as the earth, over the forces of Chaos (fluidity, sterility, and irresistible force), represented by the dragon and the water.

The birth of Horus, Louvre

In the creation myths of the Fertile Crescent, chaos is often represented by a dragon (such as Tiamat) and by water. The Flood myth of the Bible, derived from other Mesopotamian flood myths, gains its mythic resonance from the ancient Middle Eastern belief that the earth was a globe surrounded by a cosmic waste of water, symbolizing chaos, which could engulf the world at any whim of the gods.

In revenge for God's sparing of the woman (the Church), the dragon lumbers off to consume the Christians of the world, "the rest of her children, that is, all who obey God's commandments and bear witness for Jesus" (12:17). Out of his thirst for evil, because of his frustration at not being able to devour Jesus, Satan will slay all those who would follow in Christ's footsteps; having failed to destroy the child of the Church and of Mary, Satan, embodied in the Roman Empire, will now seek to wipe out the remaining of the woman's (the Church's) spiritual children, who are the righteous Christians living on earth.

Satan's annihilation of humankind is inevitable, John is saying; but he is also implying at the end of Revelation 12 that as God protected Christ (the child) and the woman (the Church), so will He guard the souls of those who would fashion themselves after Jesus. Their flesh will be blasted in the Apocalypse, but on the Day of Judgment, their spirits will remain intact.

To communicate his message of salvation. John (or his unconscious, in the form of his vision) reinforced his narrative with powerful symbolism. He drew upon contemporary mythology to imbue his preachment with a deeper meaning for the audience of his time and place. As a result, it had no problem deciphering his symbols.

As moderns we may reject his supernatural theology or ridicule his fantastic symbols; but before we do so, we must fully appreciate the weight of his achievement. At least John and his intended audience shared a common culture through which he was able to reach them, and at least he sought to reveal an explanation for evil in the midst of the suffering of this world and to provide a satisfying road to salvation.

* * * * * *


  1. Martin Rist, Exegesis, "The Book of Revelations," The Interpreter's Bible. Vol. XII (New York, 1957), p. 452.

  1. Howard Clark Kee, Franklin W. Young, and Karlfried Froehlich, Understanding the New Testatament (Englewood Cliffs, 1973), p. 409.

  1. Rist, op. cit.

  1. Ibid., p. 459.

  1. Ibid., p. 457.

  1. Ibid., p. 459.


Jones, Alexander, General Editor. The New Testament of the Jerusalem Bible. New York, 1969.

Kee, Howard Clark, Franklin W. Young, and Karlfried Froehlich. Understanding the New Testament. Englewood Cliffs, 1973.

Rist, Martin. Exegesis. "The Book of Revelations." The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII. New York, 1957.

A Horus tattoo

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this essay in May 1976 as a Religion paper for Prof. Philip H. Ashby while a junior at Princeton.