The Book of Revelation - The vivid dreams of a tormented soul

As far as the Acts of the Apostles is concerned, John more or less drops out around chapter 8. He doesn't reappear in the scriptures until some sixty years later. Here's why: John had never seen the resurrected Christ.

Nobody had really seen the resurrected Christ, but for John, the lack of any sign, of any kind of revelation from God of the sort that Peter claimed to have experienced shortly after the death of Jesus, almost sent him mad with concern. John was a man struggling with personal demons. There was a rivalry between him and Peter. He was insanely jealous.

It could even be he was obsessed with the idea of revelation - an inner conviction. How had Peter described it? Day dawning? A morning star rising in your heart? Today, we would say, "a light went on". Even Paul, a rabid persecutor of Christians, had claimed to have God "reveal his Son in me." Why couldn't John lay claim to such an experience? Jesus said John would "drink the cup" of persecution - and he had done, receiving at least one flogging. But Jesus had also said the reward was "not for me to grant", and John had begun to believe there was no place prepared for him after all. Where was God and his reward? Instead, he felt only rejection, and it was more than he could bear.

A tormented soul
The bible book of Revelation contains the fully remembered dreams of a distressed psyche. Peter and Paul had both died the glorious deaths of martyrs some forty years earlier. His own brother, James, martyred a decade or so before that. Here was John, still alive at 100 years of age, left alone on a tiny island. For an extravert like John, being left alone on an isolated island, cut off from human contact, was in itself the stuff of nightmares. John needed people to validate his life. Without people and their approval his life would begin to disintegrate.

If you can't search for your inner voice and have a peaceful and calm internal dialogue about what is going on, then your inner voice is going to come looking for you.

He couldn't sleep. He was sleep deprived. Whenever he slipped into slumber he was terrorised by fearsome images. His sleeping mind was alive with activity. His unconscious was desperately trying to tell him something. It was something he already knew, but in his waking state he would not allow it to surface. He wanted things to remain in the dark. Such a terrible irony that John should choose "light" as his watchword throughout his gospel, when he himself is so much in the dark.

As far as accounts in the Bible are concerned, John was clearly a man of turbulent character. Intolerant and ambitious, with a violent temper. William Barclay describes the John of the Bible as "a figure of fiery temper, of wild ambition." It is only by referring to legendary and somewhat romantic stories that Barclay can find a man of "undoubted courage, and in the end, gentle love."

John wanted to be like the prophets of old. His mind is preoccupied with thoughts of the prophets. In Revelation chapter 4 he sees cherubs with similar features to the ones seen by Ezekiel. In chapter 10, like Ezekiel, John is made to eat a scroll. In chapter 9, like Joel, he sees an army of locusts that have the appearance of horses. And in chapter 13 he sees awe-inspiring wild beasts, as did Daniel. Above all, John particularly imagined himself to be a further incarnation of the prophet Elijah, sent as a forerunner to Christ's second coming. He desired the ability to control the heavens at will, like Elijah did. In chapter 11, the two witnesses have power to "shut up the sky so it will not rain." But when it rains in the book of Revelation, it is fire and plagues that are constantly raining down from heaven. With such ambitions to be a prophet, John's interpretation of these dreams was that they were heaven sent.

The reality is altogether different. Today such dreams could be discussed with a therapist, a specialist who could help him through his issues.

Devil out, Devil in
His unconscious was telling him he needed to repent. It was trying to tell him something he knew, something buried deep within his tormented soul: He is not close to God. He does not feel close to God. In the book of Revelation, all manner of horrors come out from the abyss, that great chasm separating man from God - separating John from God. Even when a great army of locusts swarm from the abyss intent on carrying out the Lord's work, it is because all of John's attempts to please God, to work for God, to do something for God, arise from his great fear that he is alienated from God.

Even the solution comes to him in his dreams: Devil out, Devil in. He is being lied to by himself. Find the source of those lies and put them to rest. Where do these personal demons come from? In chapter 20 he is shown that he needs to seize the devil, bind him, throw him into the abyss and lock it and seal it over him. Only then can there be any sort of peace in his life.

The "response" gospel
It would be lovely to think that John experienced a spiritual awakening because of his dreams, that they did open the way for him to see his situation more clearly. The evidence, however, indicates that this did not happen. John did not believe in change from within. He was still blinded by the belief that God would do something dramatic from without. Isn't that the way he had worked in the past? Weren't these visions evidence of God's powerful works?

The problem facing John was that all the written material in existence presented him in a very poor light. True, he was a competitive fellow who yearned for the approval of others, but there he was in the available accounts about Jesus depicted as some sort of over-ambitious bigot who wished destruction on a village of Samaritans. The gospel credited to Mark even spoke of his unflattering nickname - Boanerges, son of thunder. Luke the physician had penned a history of the early church, and even in that John had come out of it looking like little more than Peter's mute sidekick. Infuriatingly, he probably wasn't even present on most of their adventures together - Luke just made an assumption - but it would do his cause no good admitting to that.

Something needed to be done to redress the balance, and the result was the Fourth Gospel. John's gospel is a "response" gospel. Having the majority of the material be new guaranteed his gospel would be read - a sort of "Jesus - the untold story" - and it would do John's image no harm either. So although it features Jesus, the fourth gospel is really all about John.

No less than five times John refers to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." On one of those occasions, he has Peter deferring to him.
"One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, 'Ask him which one he means.' Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, 'Lord, who is it?'"
(John 13:21-25)
Throughout John's gospel, it is Peter who is subtly diminished, and John raised up. John's account of Jesus walking on water does not include Peter's supposed attempt. Where in Luke's account of the visit to the empty tomb only Peter is mentioned, John's gospel sets the record straight by showing that John was there too. In fact, he was more concerned about the matter and proved it by outrunning Peter, and reaching the empty tomb first. His portrayal of Peter's denial of the Lord is a cleverly artful piece of prose. See how John juxtaposes Peter's denial with Jesus' steadfastness, weaving the two scenes in and out of each other in chapter 18 of John's gospel. Although all the other disciples abandoned Jesus at his death, John makes sure to include the detail that he was there right up to the end. It is John alone among all the disciples who is there at the foot of the cross. Not only that, but the dying Lord had a special commission just for John - some hallucinatory message about John and Jesus' mother - and that "from that time on, this disciple took her into his home."

Blueprint for a religion
All of this makes John the Patron Saint of the Christian church as we know it. William Barclay imagines a John who for seventy years has been having thoughts about Jesus.
"Day by day the Holy Spirit had opened out to him the meaning of what Jesus said."
William Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 1
What we really have is the picture of a man who for seventy years has not been able to let go of resentment and ambition. John draws up the blueprint for Christianity: the deification of Jesus; Christian intolerance; the glorification of man, and the struggle for first place which Jesus so fervently tried to discourage. So we have a religion that reflects John's vindictiveness, his petty jealousies, resentment, rivalry, and one-upmanship.
"About the year A.D. 100 there was a group of men in Ephesus whose leader was John. They revered him as a saint and they loved him as a father."
William Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 1
Unable to leave the old religion behind, John and his company fashion a new one in its image. The Christian church, like the nation of Israel before it, becomes the self-appointed sword of God. John puts the pieces in place. Love becomes an identifying mark of discipleship, with room for exclusion. "By this all will know that you are my disciples," John has Jesus say, "if you love one another." Taking it even further, John claims, "This is love for God: To obey his commands." What commands? Jesus hadn't laid any down. But, there would be commands. Church hierarchy was already under construction.

Any who do not recognise the Christ are labelled "antichrist". A theology was being installed and heresies had to be extinguished. John reckons on finding favour with the Lord by being a more militant Christian. The road is paved for the Christian church to become the blood-soaked power it would forever be known as. Fire would indeed rain down from heaven.

John puts Jesus out of reach of the common man by imagining and emphasising his divinity and his pre-existence. He makes the Christian church the gate-keepers of the faith. He makes the teaching of Jesus something which has to be interpreted, translated and understood, and only those with a particular authority are in a position to convey what Jesus really meant.
"Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!'
Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'"
(John 20:24-31)
The vivid dreams in the book of Revelation are the sound of God knocking hard on the door of John's heart. But why should John open the door to someone who he believes is already there? John has no grasp of real faith. Faith is knowing something to be true without needing proof. With his repeated emphasis on "belief", "testimony", "witness", and "truth", John all but kills off the need for faith. Very soon it would become "the faith" which is synonymous with "the church", which John also now refers to as "the truth". His gospel is a constant exhortation to "believe". Believe in the testimony, believe in the witness being given - by John, of course. This is the truth, and you are dared to challenge it. Who would dare to accuse John of lying when the man is so insistent about the truth, defining and damning "the liar" the way he does throughout his letters?

The writings of John are not articles of faith, they are acts of desperation. In the end, John makes the doubt of Thomas the vehicle for John's own salvation. The solution to not seeing the resurrected Christ is to say that seeing is not necessary, only "believe". The solution for John's feeling of alienation from God is to deify Jesus, because John, after all, was "the disciple who he loved". Using the persona of Thomas - in Greek, Didymus, meaning "twin" - John is the one who says, "My Lord and my God." The sad reality is this: the deification of Christ; the glorification of man; the determined obliteration of faith; all are inventions of a man on the run from God.

This is the tragedy of John. One of the first to follow Jesus, and the last to survive. He walked the dusty roads with him and was in his intimate company. He was there when Jesus spoke, and he didn't hear a word he said.