The last days of mankind?

Revelation Road: One Man’s Journey to the Heart of the Apocalypse and Back Again

by Nick Page

(Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99)

Hanging in the Dublin’s National Gallery is a vast Regency canvas. Painted by Francis Danby in 1828 it is entitled The Opening of the Sixth Seal. Age and faulty technique have darkened the lurid imagining of the final hours of the world. 

But at the end of the 1880s it was still powerful enough to frighten the then small boy who was James Joyce when he was taken to see it by his nurse. This image of the end of world deeply affected his imagination.   

The allusion in the title is to a passage in Revelation (6:12): “And I saw, when he had opened the sixth seal, and behold there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair: and the whole moon became as blood…”

The Book of Revelation, perhaps better known to Catholics as The Apocalypse of St John the Apostle, is one of the most mysterious books of the New Testament. It has more in common, not with the Gospels, or the Acts, or Epistles, but with the Book of Daniel – from which its ideas and imagery derive.

Today, I suspect it is more familiar to evangelicals than it is to most Catholics. Yet the imagery of those statues of the Blessed Virgin so common in churches and chapels, a lady standing on the globe of the Earth, a serpent under her foot, and a circlet of stars round her head, come directly from Revelation. 


One can understand how at the time when the canon of the New Testament was being settled in the first centuries of the Church that there should be a dispute about accepting this work. Its basic difference still stands out. It has become the source of a great many interpretations by fundamental literalists. 

Scholars believe that it carries in its allusions echoes of events after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, events in the reign of Domitian in the 80s, and the renewed persecution of Christians, many of whom looked to an imminent return of the Lord. 

Over the centuries interpretations changed. The antichrist, for instance, was at the start of the 19th Century identified with the Emperor Napoleon; by the middle of the century his nephew Napoleon II was seen as the person referred to; later still the Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden… and so on – each age finding in the images of Revelation references to its own time being the last of times.

For those general readers and students, Nick Page’s book – a theological work agreeably disguised as travel book – will provide easy access to the history of the text and the interpretations which have been imposed on it or derived from it. 

His travels take him to Patmos, where the book was said to have been written by a writer who calls himself John, who was once (when we were being taught by the nuns) identified with St John the Apostle. Scholars today prefer to call him John of Patmos.

Page then visits the seven churches in Asia Minor connected with the text, seeking insights into why the book was written, what it was thought to mean and what it might mean today. 

Ernest souls constantly announce the end is imminent. But as Page points out, and tries to explain, the end never arrives when it’s supposed to. 

The other books of the New Testament either tell of the life and teaching of  Jesus, the conversion and work of the early apostles, and attempt to define for a world beyond the Jewish communities of the day, what was seen as the eternal message of salvation that was revealed by Christ.

Lightly and amusingly written, but with a very serious intent, Nick Page’s book brings a sensible and all in all comforting message to all Christians. 

The purpose of Christianity is to engage with the here and now, its peoples and their needs. We are explicitly told not to concern ourselves with such things as the end of the world, for we know not the hour or the day. 

Yet we know that there will always be those to whom the heady images and powerful words of Daniel and John of Patmos will appeal. There will be those who want to restore the Temple, rebuild Jerusalem and who even welcome the destruction of Damascus as a sign the end is nigh. 

And doubtless there will always be small children, such as the infant Joyce was, who will be frightened to death by it all. Old-fashioned fear of the Lord’s wrath is all very well, but God’s love ought to be the real work of Christians, whoever and wherever they are.