"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
February 7, 2008
Revelation is pure, but words are translation
by Orson Scott Card

It was the last Sunday of 2007, and I was preparing to substitute for our gospel doctrine teacher, who had just had her second child. The text of the lesson was the book of Revelation, chapters 5-6 and 19-22.

I read of the "golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints" (5:8), and I thought: Wouldn't it be much more convenient if all the images in this book could come with a nice little explanation like that?

And then it dawned on me: Maybe the explanation was given only where the meaning would not already be plain to those whom John was speaking to.

Isn't it strange that in speaking of the most difficult and obscure books in the scriptures, the Lord or his prophets call them "plain" and "clear"? (1 Ne 13, 2 Ne 25)

In that moment, as when you look at an optical illusion and it suddenly reverses, I saw chapters 5 and 6 of Revelation in a new way that seemed to me plain and yet precious.

What if Revelation is not just a depiction of the end of the world? What if it is a revelation of the whole course of "this heaven and this earth" (Moses 2:1)?

John saw in the right hand of the Father a book, sealed with seven seals, and the question was asked, "Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals?" ("Whom shall I send?" [Abr 3:27).)

And in answer came the Lamb, who took the book from the hand of the Father. ("Here am I, send me.") And all the creatures of heaven and earth rejoiced, saying, "Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb" (cf. Handel).

The Lamb opens the book, seal by seal, and with each we get an image:

A ruler on a white horse, conquering.

The red horse, ridden by a man with a sword to take peace from the earth.

The black horse of money and commerce, which brings wealth to some and poverty to many.

The pale horse of death by sword, famine, disease, predation.

The souls of those slain for their faith in God, crying out for vengeance.

The quaking earth, the sun gone dark, the moon red as blood.

How are any of these events possibly tied to the end of the world, seeing as how all of human history is marked with death, famine, disease, martyrdoms, earthquakes and other natural disasters, commerce through which some prosper at the expense of others, and men who seek war and conquest?

How could we possibly tell the difference?

But the Lamb who opens this book is the Word by whom the world was made, and so the book is the whole course of mortal life, unfolding from the beginning. Mortality means war, conquest, injustice, famine, plague, earthquake and storm, and the martyrdom of the faithful for their testimony.

In every age of the world, the souls of good folk who died for their faith are told: "Rest for a while yet, until the martyrs of this time are killed as you were" (cf. Rev 6:10-11).

When John sees the stars fall from heaven down to earth, and heaven disappears like scroll rolled up, and every mountain and island moved, could he not be seeing the great vision of creation that was shown to Moses?

Could he not be expressing the experience of the spirit children of the Father, as they fall to earth and find that in this mortal body, the heavens are now invisible?

The "stars of heaven" have become kings and great men, rich men, chief captains, mighty men -- and also slaves and ordinary people. And in their ignorance, this world is terrifying, and the idea of the coming of God frightens them, and they hide wherever they can.

But in every age of the earth, the righteous are sought out and found, and they will all receive a heavenly reward, which is gloriously described in chapter 7.

It is the course of human life, all of it, which ends in judgment -- in every age of the world.

Seen this way, the book of Revelation is about the end of the world, in the sense not only of its termination, but also of its purpose. Mortality is a life fraught with peril, where evil people seek to conquer and dominate, to kill, to gain wealth at the expense of others; where disease and famine and natural disasters make life precarious; and where the righteous are slain or oppressed for the sake of their faith.

But at the end of life -- each life -- there is the promise of reward for the righteous.

John's Revelation is not safely contained in the future, where we can regard it with awe and treat it as irrelevant for now.

Rather it is the story of all of human life, from the council in heaven to the winding up scene, and from our first coming forth as children of God in heaven to our final judgment, where some will rejoice and others, having rejected the atonement of Christ, must pay the price of their own sins.

I don't suggest for a moment that this insight is the interpretation of the scripture, or even that it is "correct." It was merely what came to my mind as I prepared to teach; and for that day, for that lesson, for that group of saints in that class, it was what I had to say -- with the statement that it was my idea, not to be taken as doctrine.

In this view, the seeming inclarities of the book of Revelation, as of Isaiah, are not by design. The Lord does not give us revelations to obscure the truth or to confuse us.

All revelation is translation. It begins with pure knowledge, communicated by the Spirit of God to the spirit of one of his children. The spirit apprehends as it has the capacity, and is filled with light.

Immediately, though, the truth that was seen must be passed from the spirit into the human brain, which cannot comprehend it. The human can only understand based upon the images he has seen, the stories he already knows, his understanding of how the world works and why things happen as they do.

It is like the dream that is so vivid as you begin to waken; you are excited by it, but even as you attempt to remember it, the dream fades and slips away, until you are left with a phrase or a single image which, by itself, has lost its power and vividness. A shard of a broken urn.

By the help of the Spirit of God, revelations do not recede entirely; but the human brain cannot contain pure knowledge, and so all that is left is a translation.

And then the prophet faces yet another difficulty: What the Spirit has helped his mind comprehend, he must now translate again into language that can be understood by people who have not had the vision he received.

The Spirit of God can only work within the language that is in the prophet's mind; and what good would it do to give him a clearer, better language, if there is no one else who speaks it, and so no one who could understand his words?

The words on the page become obscure, and subject to malicious or erroneous interpretation. The plain language can now be twisted by those eager to deny the meaning.

That is how a statement as plain as "Love your neighbor as yourself" can be twisted to mean its opposite, that you must "love yourself first."

The words are not a code to be unencrypted, nor a mystery to be viewed with ignorant awe. They are a man's best attempt, aided by the Spirit of God, to translate pure knowledge into human language.

And when they are read with the help of the same Spirit, their meaning to each reader at each moment comes clear. Moments of illumination come as we need them, in answer to our prayers.

We are not given, individually, a master code that can then be passed on to the whole world as the final meaning of a passage of scripture. If such a code could exist, the scripture itself would already be that code, open to all.

What we are given is as much of the truth as our minds can hold, as much as we need in order to accomplish the purpose the Lord has for us at this time. So the prophets, seers, and revelators are given their understanding for the whole world in their time of service, and teachers for their class in one lesson, and parents for their children at one moment in their lives.

"Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven" (D&C 121:45).

In his imperfect language, that is what Joseph Smith is describing: how pure knowledge condenses, as it were, within our soul -- our spirit-and-body. We try to put it into words, but only those who are also awake to the Spirit of God are able to receive the same meaning.

The mere words on paper are not, in themselves, "the word of God." Scripture is more the placeholder, the bookmark into the word of God. From the words alone we can indeed learn much that is important and true, but we must lay hold on the text with faith and virtue and prayer before the Spirit of God is likely to open to us some portion of what the prophet saw and attempted to tell us when he wrote.

This is what the world misunderstands. Our religion is as scientific as science, and proceeds by the same method. You have an account of why things happen and what they mean, and then you perform experiments to test your understanding and improve it.

Your account must be public, and able to be tested by anyone: And with our religion, this is absolutely the case. We devote ourselves to trying to bring people to make the test.

But the experiment is performed by living your life according to a clear pattern, and those who refuse to perform the experiment will never know the result of the test. "With a sincere heart, with real intent," those are the conditions of the experiment, and those who will not meet the conditions will always stand outside and declare that the believers have deluded themselves.

They simply do not know what it feels like to have pure knowledge distill upon their souls. All they ever see are the translations -- the best that could be done, but never more than a poor approximation, as the prophets themselves repeatedly declare.

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More by Orson Scott Card

About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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