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'Armageddon' shows how literal readings of the Bible's end times affect modern times

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A lot of people have been nervously joking in the past couple of years that it seems like the End Times - with the pandemic, record-setting floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and fires, environmental crises, war and fears that democracies are becoming more authoritarian. For those who take the New Testament's Book of Revelation literally, they may actually believe this is the End Times. The End Times have been prophesied dating back to at least the time of Jesus, who preached the end was near.

The description of the end in Revelation reads like a horror film, with fantastical, monstrous beasts and giant, surreal insects, as well as plagues, wars, a lake of fire and torture. That's what those who haven't accepted Jesus as the Messiah will face. Believers will rise to heaven to be with God. Revelation is the most controversial book in the New Testament. Many scholars think it shouldn't have been included in the Bible.

My guest, Bart Ehrman, is one of the scholars who thinks Revelation presents a very disturbing and inconsistent vision of God. He explains why in his new book, "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." He writes that a literal reading of Revelation has created disastrous problems, including personal and psychological damage and has, quote, "affected our world in ways you might not expect, involving carnage, U.S. foreign policy and the welfare of our planet," unquote.

As his many readers know, he was an evangelical Christian in college and believed the end was near. He studied at the evangelical Moody Bible Institute. But while attending Princeton Theological Seminary, he stopped believing in the literal truth of the Bible. Eventually, he became an agnostic. But he's continued his work as a Bible scholar. He's the author of many books, including the bestseller "Misquoting Jesus." He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is always a pleasure to talk with you.

BART EHRMAN: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: So let's talk about the basic story of the apocalypse as told in the Book of Revelation. What brings on the apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus?

EHRMAN: So in this book, we have a prophet named John - who calls himself John. And he says he's on the island of Patmos, off of the west coast of Turkey. And he writes his book about various visions that he has had that he indicates are predictions of what is soon to take place, he says. It's going to happen very soon. He goes up - he's transported up to heaven. And while - when he's there, he sees the vision of God. God himself is sitting on the throne, and in his hand is a scroll that is sealed with seven seals.

This scroll is - appears to be holding the secrets to the future of Earth. And the thing about these seals is that nobody can break them. It turns out that there is one who can. It's a lamb who has been slain - a reference to Christ. What ends up happening is Christ receives the scroll from God, and he starts breaking the seals. There are seven seals. He breaks them, and every time he breaks one, a huge catastrophe hits the Earth - war, starvation, various kinds of calamities, you know, natural disasters.

And when he breaks the seventh seal, we're introduced to seven angels who have seven trumpets. They blow their trumpets. And every time they blow a trumpet, a disaster hits the Earth. And when the seventh trumpet gets blown, we're introduced to seven angels who are carrying bowls of God's wrath. And each one pours out God's wrath on the Earth - more disasters, one after the other.

And so masses and masses of people are being slaughtered and killed in natural disasters and so forth until the end. Finally, God intervenes and there's a big battle between Christ and his opponent on Earth, a figure called the beast, at the battle of Armageddon. And Christ slays the beast and slays the armies and brings in a new kingdom on Earth, a new Jerusalem that descends from heaven, a city made of gold with gates of pearl. And the saints, the followers of Jesus, live there then, forever (laughter). So that's the Book of Revelation in a nutshell.

GROSS: It really reads like the screenplay of, like, an action-horror film.

EHRMAN: Well, it does. And I think the thing is that most people understand where action-horror films are going, but most people have real trouble figuring out Revelation. It's really - it's one of these books that people know about but almost nobody reads. And the people who start reading it find it so confusing and so bizarre, they just give up, and they never get to the end, with the exception of evangelical or fundamentalist Christians who use it to kind of mine for - to - you know, for pieces of the puzzle that will explain what's going to happen in the future.

GROSS: You include in your book the passage from Revelation that describes the locusts. And it is very creepy and surreal. Do you want to just read that passage for us?

EHRMAN: So what happens in this account is that when the fifth angel blows his trumpet, there are these beasts that come up out of the Earth - locusts - that have the authority of scorpions, and they're told that they can torture people for five months but not kill them. And people will beg to die, but they're not allowed to die. And so they have to suffer just incredible torture for five months without being killed. And then John goes on to describe them.

(Reading) In appearance, the locusts were like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were what looked like crowns of gold. Their faces were like human faces, their hair like women's hair and their teeth like lions' teeth. They had scales like iron breastplates, and the noise of their wings was like the noise of many chariots with horses rushing into battle. They have tails like scorpions, with stingers. And in their tails is their power to harm people for five months.

GROSS: That is surreal and brutal. And I'm wondering, do you think if this was written today that somebody would be sending John to a psychotherapist for a diagnosis and medication? And I don't mean to be flip about it, but this is the kind of paranoid, detailed story that some people come up with who are really seriously troubled. And my apologies to people who, you know, believe, in the rapture and the Second Coming. I don't mean to take away from their belief. But I'm just saying, today if somebody wrote that and took it seriously, they might be sent for psychiatric help.

EHRMAN: Yeah. I think that's probably right. Or at least the, you know, the police would be - keep their eye on them for, you know, what kind of guns they're stockpiling. But the - I think the reality is that, you know, when we're - we're in such a different culture now that it's hard for us to get our mind around people who are thinking like this.

But John is not unusual in the ancient world. He would not have been thought of being anything like psychotic in antiquity because there were lots of other books like this being written that are using high-level symbolism and very violent imagery to describe what's going to happen in the future. And so he's actually participating in a fairly broad movement. And that's one of the reasons that most people don't understand the Book of Revelation, is because we don't have anything quite like this anymore. Apart from something like science fiction novels, there just isn't something like this.

And in antiquity, it was a common genre among Jews and Christians. And so I'd be hesitant to diagnose him today, but if he were writing this today, I'd be very bothered, yes (laughter). And, you know, you could argue that it was bothersome back then, too, because a lot of this imagery is really very, very not just violent, but sometimes gratuitously violent and attributing this kind of horrible violence to God and to Christ. And I think a lot of people didn't like that in the ancient world, either.

GROSS: So the people who are saved from all these horrors on earth are the ones who are believers and have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, right?

EHRMAN: Well, not - no, not quite. (Laughter) This is the thing. This is this is really one of the surprising things about this. Two things that I'll say that are surprising about the book. One is that this view that there's going to be a rapture is not in the Book of Revelation. This is something that - it's a modern idea of the rapture. We can actually date it. It was originated in the 1830s, the idea that Jesus will come back, take his followers out, and then it's just the nonbelievers who are going to get all this. In fact, the Christians are still here on Earth. And the second thing is that a lot of them suffer very badly and in the end are thrown into the lake of fire. So believing in Jesus isn't going to be enough because for this author, you have to believe just like he himself, John, believes and practice your faith just like he practices it. And a lot of people in the churches - he tells us people in the churches are going to be destroyed with all the pagans.

GROSS: This emphasis on, you know, pearly gates and a city of gold and Christ himself as bejeweled in the image that John describes of him - it seems very counter to the anti-materialistic Jesus of the New Testament. How do you reconcile that?

EHRMAN: Well, I don't (laughter). I don't think you can reconcile it. A lot of people try to. And people always have. I mean, the reality is that in the Gospels, as you say, when Jesus talks about wealth, he's against it. He thinks that people should not live for material things. And so he tells people - a rich man comes up to him and says, you know, what must I do, you know, for eternal life? And Jesus says, if you want to have treasure in heaven, sell everything you have and give to the poor. That's - and that's what Jesus did. He left everything to - for his mission. His disciples left their homes and their families and their jobs. And Jesus praises them for it. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus embraces a gospel of spirituality that is anti-materialistic.

And it's not the way people have interpreted. People today interpret it as saying that Jesus thinks that if you give some away now, you'll have even more material wealth in heaven, you know that treasures in heaven means you're going to have palaces and things. And that's not what he's talking about. The point is the material things are not what you're supposed to live with or live for. And you won't have those in heaven. You'll have a spiritual existence in heaven. So that's Jesus's teaching. But when - that you should give up material things and that wealth is not to be sought after.

The Book of Revelation has just the opposite view in some ways. The Book of Revelation does have a problem with wealth. It has a problem because the enemy of God in Revelation, the city and empire of Rome, is fantastically wealthy. It has exploited all the provinces of the empire. It has accumulated huge amounts of wealth. And so the problem in Revelation with wealth is not that wealth itself is bad. The problem in Revelation is that the wrong people have it. The Romans have it, and, you know, we should have it. We're the Christians. And so what ends up happening is God takes the wealth from Rome, destroys the Roman world, destroys - takes away all their wealth. And the Christians then have a city of gold and, you know, gates of pearl and eternal life living in fantastic wealth. So I don't think that's the gospel of Jesus at all. I think it's contrary to the gospel of Jesus.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "I")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

You used to be an evangelical during your teens and college years. Did you take the Book of Revelation literally?

EHRMAN: Well, yeah, I did. In fact, you know, when I was going off to school, I was 17 going off to Moody Bible Institute after high school. And I - you know, I had read the whole New Testament, but I had avoided the Book of Revelation because I just thought, man, this is too bizarre. I can't get a handle on it. But then I - when I was going to Moody, I knew that there was going to be an entrance exam. I thought, oh, my God, if they ask a question on Revelation, I haven't even read the thing. So I read it, and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. (Laughter) It was so unusual, I didn't know what to say.

But when I got to Moody, everybody there had a pretty good handle on it because there was a book that had been in circulation for a long time at that point - not a long time, a few years at that point - Hal Lindsey's book, "The Late Great Planet Earth." Many people don't know this, but this book, "The Late Great Planet Earth," was the bestselling book of nonfiction in the English language in the 1970s (laughter), apart from the Bible. Oh, really? Yeah. And so this was a book that explained Revelation. And it explained - and the rest of the Bible - to show that it was predicting what was going to happen by the end of the 1980s.

And what was going to happen, according to the Bible, was that Israel was going to take over the Temple Mount and was going to destroy the Dome of the Rock and build the temple there. And this would this would create a - in response, there'd be a coalition of Arab nations that would come together to attack Israel. And a 10-person European commonwealth would then intervene in support of Israel. And then Russia - the Soviet Union back then - the Soviet Union would get involved. And, you know, then China would see its chance. And basically, there'd be hell breaking out in the Middle East. The nuclear bombs would start dropping. And then Christ would come at the last minute before we wiped ourselves off the face of the planet. This was all in the Bible.

And, you know, a lot of people treated this book, "The Late Great Planet Earth," as the 28th book of the Bible. It was just telling the truth. And that's what I thought. I thought Jesus is coming back before the end of the 1980s, and this is all going to happen.

GROSS: So was the addition of, like, nuclear weapons as part of the scenario, like, one of Hal Lindsey's innovations, so to speak, in his books?

EHRMAN: I would say it wasn't an innovation of his, but he's the one who really pushed it. The deal is that as - I try to explain in my book that throughout most of Christian history, to the surprise of readers today - throughout most of Christian history, people did not read Revelation as a prediction of what's going to happen in our future. Since the fourth, fifth centuries, almost everybody read it as an indication of what was already going on now in symbolic language. But in the - it ended up changing, strangely, with the French Revolution.

When the French Revolution hit, the reign of terror was just so incredibly violent that British theologians started thinking that this was a fulfillment of scripture, and they started talking about Revelation as a prediction of what was happening in their day, with the signs now being fulfilled about the end. And after that point, there were evangelical Christians who thought that revelation is predicting our future. That all took a serious change in 1945 because the atomic bombs dropped, showed people that, in fact, we really might put an end to all this. And so that's when nuclear weapons started getting into the picture.

And after 1945, almost all of the scenarios that get painted by all the prophecy writers, who are still publishing all these books, almost always are focused on nuclear exchange as being at - coming at the end. So Lindsey built this up and came up with this scenario that everybody bought for a while. But he didn't invent the idea of the nuclear bombs being the thing.

GROSS: Can you name some political leaders in America who not only believed in the Book of Revelation, but who took Hal Lindsey's interpretation at face value?

EHRMAN: Well, apparently Ronald Reagan did. He apparently actually consulted with Lindsey on occasion. And he and Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, apparently thought that, you know, this is being predicted, that the nuclear bombs are going to fly. And, you know, I'm not saying that they were, like, trying to hasten it, but it's not a very comforting thought if the commander in chief really thinks it has to happen. You'd prefer somebody to think that, you know, we'd - you know, it's not going to happen.

But so anyway, yeah, Reagan apparently did, and Caspar Weinberger and other people especially. I'll tell you, I mean, the one everybody does know about is James Watt, who was appointed by Reagan to be the secretary of the interior, who famously, during one of his confirmation hearings, was asked whether he believed that we needed to preserve our natural resources for future generations. You know, he's responsible for preserving our national resources as the secretary of interior. And he replied that, yes, it is important for us to preserve our resources for future generations. But then he said, but I'm not sure how many future generations there are before Jesus comes back. And, oh, man, did that cause some consternation.

That's not your typical Washington speak, you know, because if you think - even if you don't think he's coming back on Thursday, you know, if you think he's coming back in about 40 years, why preserve your resources? You know, I mean, why skimp? Why not just go for it? Because in 40 years it's not going to matter anymore. And as it turns out, in 2010, there is a survey of Christians in America, and 47% thought that Jesus either certainly or was likely to come back in 40 years. I mean, almost half of the Christians in America. And so if you've got Christians in America who say - you know, half of them don't think, you know, we're going to be around after 40 years, that certainly changes your attitude toward environmental concerns and climate change. And, you know, who cares? It doesn't matter.

GROSS: Especially if you believe that you're one of the people who are going to be raptured.

EHRMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. No, you're going to be taken out of the world. That's not a problem. But even if you aren't taken out of the world, it'll just be seven more years before - you know, before the whole thing collapses. So it's 47 years.

GROSS: OK. Well, let me reintroduce you again. My guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYUICHI SAKAMOTO'S "GERMINATION")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." His book interprets the Book of Revelation from a historical perspective and writes about what he finds very disturbing about the image of God in the book and how inconsistent it is with the Gospel's stories about Jesus. He thinks Revelation's depiction of the end times and the wars, plagues, beasts, locusts and conflagrations that will torment those who have not accepted Jesus as their Messiah has created disastrous problems, including personal and psychological consequences. Ehrman is a former evangelical. He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the author of several bestselling books, including "Misquoting Jesus" and "How Jesus Became God."

Let's talk about the role of Israel in the narrative of the end times as described in the Book of Revelation. What has to happen in Israel before the end times are set up and Jesus returns?

EHRMAN: One of the issues I deal with in my book is the historical question of why it is that American evangelicals are so supportive of the state of Israel. And I trace the history of it because it completely relates to Christian understandings, evangelical understandings, of what's going to happen at the end of time. And so people don't realize this because they think, well, of course there are all sorts of reasons to support Israel. We have the issue of, you know, wanting a supporter in the Mideast. You know, they're - got to protect oil issue. You know, there's issues about oil. There's issues about, you know, stability. And all of that's right.

But American evangelicals are disproportionately in support of Israel. And the reason has to do with the Bible. It's because evangelicals have long read biblical prophecies as - indicating that Israel has to be established and strong before Jesus can return. Israel was destroyed in the second century C.E., and it hadn't been a nation. And so Christian Zionism, the idea that - Christians saying that Israel has to become a state again, that actually started before there was, you know, the Zionism we're all familiar with at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century. And the Christian Zionists absolutely supported Jewish Zionists because they believed that the prophecy had to be fulfilled. Later, after 1948, which Christians continue to - evangelical Christians continue to see 1948, the establishment of Israel, as a fulfillment of prophecy.

But there's one more thing that has to happen. According - in a kind of obscure reference in the New Testament - it's in Second Thessalonians, Chapter 2 - the author, claims to be Paul, says that Jesus cannot return right away. But there's some things that have to happen first before He returns. The main thing that has to happen is that there's a figure named the lawless one. He's not called the Antichrist, but people identify him as the Antichrist. The lawless one must go into the temple. And he will declare himself God. And after that happens, then Jesus can return. The problem is that, of course, there is no temple. There hasn't been a temple since the year 70 of the common era. And on the Temple Mount today in Jerusalem, the site of the temple, that's where the Dome of the Rock is.

GROSS: Which is a Muslim mosque.

EHRMAN: There are Islamic sacred sites on the Temple Mount. And so for Israel to take over the Temple Mount means they've got to wipe out these Islamic holy sites. And that means that, you know, Israel has become very strong. Evangelicals think that God promised all of the land of Israel to Israel, and so the Palestinian territories need to be taken over. Jerusalem has to be controlled by Israel completely. The Temple Mount has to be taken over. They have to destroy the Dome of the Rock and build the Jewish temple there so the Antichrist can go into it and Jesus can come back. And so all of this is just - this is historically why American evangelicals for the entire 20th century, but especially starting in the 1970s in a big way with the Moral Majority - the Christian Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell and company - that's why they've always been supportive of Israel.

And it's why in the - especially in the 1980s, Israeli politicians realized, you know, there are a lot more American evangelicals than there are American Jews. And that's who we need to go for. And so starting with Menachem Begin, but especially - I mean, Netanyahu in the 1980s was going to evangelical prayer breakfasts and making common cause with evangelicals, saying, you know, we are fulfilling scripture now, you know? And we're all on the same page. You need to support us. And so the support of Israel among evangelicals is driven by this eschatological concern that the temple has to be rebuilt or Jesus can't return.

GROSS: So one of the things that Trump did when he was president back in 2018 was move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And one of the people who not only spoke at the ceremony for the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem, he actually gave the benediction, was Pastor John Hagee, who is the founder of Christians United for Israel, which is the kind of Christian evangelical pro-Israel group for all the reasons that you just mentioned. It's really all about the apocalypse and the Second Coming. So what does it say to you that Trump moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Was that because of lobbying from Christian Zionists like the group Christians United for Israel, CUFI?

EHRMAN: Trump, of course, very, very much wanted evangelical support. And so many of his policies, of course, are directed toward getting the evangelical vote. His opposition to abortion is the most famous one, but also his support of Israel. And he wanted to - very much wanted to show the evangelicals that he was on their side. And the evangelicals want Jerusalem to be the capital. It was the capital in the Old Testament. It's the place that deserves to be the capital. It is the place where America should focus its interests. And so, of course, the embassy should be in Jerusalem. So John Hagee, I mean, this fellow who did the benediction, he's a very strong supporter of Israel. He's written books supporting Israel. He's a very strong Christian Zionist. But he's one of these ironies. That he believes in American - he believes absolutely that Israel has to be supported. And he believes absolutely that Jews are going to hell.

GROSS: So we've been talking about John Hagee, the Christian Zionist who founded CUFI, the acronym for Christians United for Israel. I interviewed him in 2006. And among the things he told me was that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment on the city of New Orleans because, quote, "there was going to be a homosexual parade on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any other gay pride parades."

So Katrina was God's retribution because of this planned gay pride parade. So that's one of the things he believed. And I want to play an excerpt of his audiotape of sermons called "Jerusalem Countdown to Crisis."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN HAGEE: In two minutes, let me tell you where we're going from here. This prophetic portrait paints the following sequence of event for the future. America and Europe become weakened and cannot respond to Israel in the time that Russia and the Arab invasion begins against Israel. This is God's plan. Why? Because he wants the Jewish people in Israel and around the world to know that He, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saved them, not America. Secondly, Russia, with Arab allies, will plot and plan Israel's destruction. That's happening right now. It has been happening for 10 years. Iran's nuclear weapons have been produced with Russian scientists. The Islamic Arabs are using the road map to peace to get all of the land of Israel they can get.

And when Israel finally says enough, you're going to see the beginning of the implementation of Ezekiel's war in 38-39. The critical point is the church is raptured before this war begins. I am telling you, that makes this message one of the most thrilling prophetic messages you've ever heard in your life. You could get raptured out of this building before I get through finished preaching. We are that close to the coming of the son of man.

GROSS: Among the things I want to point out in that is that he's talking about this, like, horrible war in Israel and nuclear weapons. And he's saying, this is the most thrilling prophetic message you've ever heard in your life. Sure, it's thrilling for the people he imagines, including himself, 'cause I'm sure he expects to get raptured. But, you know, how can you call thrilling anything that involves nuclear weapons and war?

EHRMAN: Well, right. I mean - and, you know, that's right. And, you know, he also, at one point, indicated that the reason for the Holocaust is that it was God's plan. God planned the Holocaust because that would facilitate the establishment of Israel as a state. And so that's why 6 million Jews got slaughtered is so that Israel could be founded again in 1948, because that would fulfill prophecy. And if that fulfills prophecy, then, you know, it's coming soon, and we can just rejoice because we're going to be taken out of here. It's really - it's pretty disgusting. Late - after that, somebody pointed out that maybe that wasn't a good move to talk about God's plan for the Holocaust. But, you know, it didn't even occur to him at the time, apparently.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "Armageddon: What The Bible Really Says About The End." He's a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the author of many books interpreting the Bible.

One of the things about the Book of Revelation is that there are so many references in pop culture that come out of it. And a lot of us don't even realize that it's from the Book of Revelation. Like, I saw the Ingmar Bergman classic film "The Seventh Seal" back in college. I've watched it several times since. It's a remarkable film that has a lot to do with, like, questioning God and a strange, like, religious cult, and playing chess with death is a famous scene. I didn't understand that "The Seventh Seal" was directly out of the Book of Revelation, or "The Grapes Of Wrath" - I didn't know that either - or "A Thief In The Night" or "The Whore Of Babylon" or "The Lake Of Fire" or "The Pearly Gates Of Heaven."

Why do you think that - as you said, so few people actually read the Book of Revelation because it's so mystifying and complicated, and a lot of it doesn't make easy-to-understand sense. Why do you think so many references in pop culture, in songs and movies and books have come out of that book?

EHRMAN: Yeah, I know. And it's - you know, it's gotten more and more. I mean, especially, I think, since the 19 - since 1945, it's become even more of a part of popular culture because people realize that, in fact, we might blow ourselves off the planet or now, you know, we think we might - you know, that we might actually destroy the planet. It's a burning world we're in. And so people naturally think about end-of-the-world things and it turns their head to Revelation. It's been a very influential book throughout history because in the Western culture, of course, this is a - you know, it's a - whether a person is a Christian or not, it's been a Christian culture. And Revelation has had very long tentacles.

In my book, I talk about - here's one people wouldn't expect - D.H. Lawrence. You know, D.H. Lawrence - I mean, he's famous for the racy novels. But his final book was "The Apocalypse." He was very bothered by the Book of Revelation. And he wrote a book - two weeks before he died, he published it, his last book. And it's about it because he found it so disturbing. And I think a lot of the apocalyptic references you get today from even, you know, post-apocalyptic movies and just - you know, you just kind of go down a huge list that most anybody could probably cite. You just - it is tied to this apocalyptic vision.

And it's not just Revelation. It's because the entire Christian tradition has been, from the very beginning, apocalyptically oriented in the sense that the understanding is that God created this world, and he's going to destroy this world, and we're just waiting for it to happen. And so you - in the modern times, you imagine scenarios where it could happen. And the scenarios today are very different from what John had in mind. But it's still - it's the same basic idea. It started with God. It's going to end in God. It started with paradise. It's return to paradise. Humans introduced evil. God's going to destroy evil. And so it's all part of the larger arc of the biblical narrative.

GROSS: It's also very colorful. Like, the language in Revelation is colorful.

EHRMAN: It's hugely symbolic. And it's kind of ironic because the symbols really stand out and make you think that this is a literary genius. But one of the realities is that it's a very badly written book. The Greek of the Book of Revelation is the worst Greek of the New Testament, and most of the New Testament Greek isn't that great. But, you know, he just makes grammatical mistakes. So this - but it's funny because he has all of these images that, as you say - you know, it has these terms that just become huge cultural symbols, really. And - but it's from somebody who doesn't write very well.

GROSS: So a question you ask at the end of your book is, which Jesus do you model yourself on, the Jesus who was anti-materialistic, who said, turn the other cheek, or the Jesus who participates in this incredible wrath and retribution, vengeance, violence, bloodshed, plagues, catastrophes, lakes of fire? That's a really interesting question to ponder because - I mean, can you reconcile believing in both at the same time? And is that a question you asked yourself when you were still a believer?

EHRMAN: When I was a believer, I thought that God was both loving and just and that we could experience his love if we would turn to him, but if we didn't, then, necessarily, he had to implement his justice, so that the Book of Revelation was his justice, and the Gospels were his love. And, you know, I really don't see it that way anymore. I think that the Book of Revelation is not really about God's justice. Justice is not the word that gets used in Revelation. The word is wrath.

The book itself claims that it's about the wrath of God and the Lamb in Christ. The common words in Revelation are not words like love or hope or justice or mercy. The words are wrath, vengeance, revenge, blood, you know? So these are the terms, and they're not the terms that you find on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus certainly thought that a destruction of the world was going to come, but he didn't think that God was going to be torturing people for five months without allowing them to die, as in the Book of Revelation.

So I think it really comes down to a choice. And the frightening thing is, I think increasingly in Christianity, especially in American Christianity, people are really more entranced with the violent, vengeful, wrathful Jesus of Revelation, even if they don't read it. That's the side they take, rather than the loving, caring, merciful Jesus of the Gospels.

GROSS: How are you seeing that expressed?

EHRMAN: Well, there's a lot of violence being sponsored by conservative Christians who are in support of, well, taking over the government, for example, who are in support of all sorts of opposition to social policies that might help people - so opposition to immigration, wanting to cut the budgets so that we don't help out the poor. We cut down on helping those who are desperately in need. But let's build up the defense budget, and let's invade some more.

And so I'll just say, you know, there are some wars that I think are completely justified. I think America has been in wars that are not justified. And most of these unjustified wars, in my experience, have been supported by people who call themselves Christian who want to take over the world in one way or another. So I think the violent Jesus of Revelation resonates with people more than the innocent Lamb of the Gospels.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman, it's really been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

EHRMAN: Oh, it's my pleasure. I always enjoy it.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman's new book is called "Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End." After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new rom-com he says marks the arrival of a new wave of Black British talent. This is FRESH AIR.

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