|Preach to the choir
|Crux of the matter
|Speak of the devil
|An act of faith
“”God told me to skin you alive…
|—"I Kill Children" by Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, quoting Jack Chick
Revelation, in the simplest form, means "God told/showed me this".
As a term of art in theological studies, a revelation is what is believed by the followers of certain religions to be a divine message. Reports of revelation are pretty common throughout the world.[note 1] A revelation can take the form of words spoken by a god, voices which only the prophet can hear, a dream, or divine inspiration. People who claim to have experienced revelations are either called prophets or psychopaths, depending on what they have been told to do, and the perspective of those they tell about the revelations. Abraham might qualify as both, since he was told to kill his son, and was about to do so when the voice told him it was "just kidding".
As a code word
The argument for this usage is that from the point of view of everyone other than the prophet, it is impossible to distinguish between "God told this to the prophet" and "The prophet made this up and he/she is claiming God as the authority behind it."
Even from the prophet's point of view, we encounter the problem posed by the following theorem:
- "It is utterly impossible to validate the authenticity of any divine revelation."
In essence, due to the inability to correctly identify the revealing agent to be God, one cannot prove a claim to any genuine divine revelation. This does not stop people from having the revelations or making such claims, however. A detailed proof of this theorem can be found here.
Another related problem is that it's impossible to distinguish between a revelation sent by God (or an equivalent) and Satan (or an equivalent) acting as the former, as there are no reliable ways to do it, even if some have tried to weasel around that — claiming, for example, that Jesus cannot be imitated due to Him being unique, so, for example, what Paul saw on the road to Damascus was Jesus instead of Satan impersonating the latter.
A revealed religion is a religion based on what believers accept as divine revelations.
Examples of revelation religions, and some of their major revelators, include:
- Judaism — Moses being saved as a baby, and receiving the revealed Ten Commandments as a grownup[note 2]
- Christianity — Jesus, as God/Son of God, foreshadowed by numerous inspired prophets (up to and including John the Baptist), and announcing a New Covenant; John of Patmos, predicting the end of the world in, appropriately enough, Revelation
- Islam — Muhammad receiving messages (from God through the Angel Gabriel) which became the Quran
- Mormonism — Joseph Smith, Jr. translating the providentially discovered and subsequently lost Book of Mormon into Jacobean English by
divine inspirationstaring at a rock in a hat.
- Seventh-Day Adventism, which supplements a revealed Western-Christian Bible with revelations vouchsafed to Ellen G. White
- Christian Science — Mary Baker Eddy reinterpreting the Bible in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
- People's Temple — Jim Jones — God wants you to drink the cyanide-laced koolaid
- Heaven's Gate — Marshall Applewhite — God is an alien and wants you on board his UFO; all ya gotta do is kill yourself.
Some religions do not rely on supernatural revelation, but instead evolve/develop from their early founders working out a religious philosophy from their observations of the world. These include Taoism.
Revelations of convenience
Given the difficulty in authenticating true divine revelation, followers have traditionally had to trust that their prophet is not inventing revelations for their personal gain. This is obviously open to abuse, and some revelations appear conveniently timed to get a prophet out of a tough spot, or useful for lending authority to something a prophet wanted to do. Here are some examples of dubious revelations.
Muhammed relayed some fairly generous (at least for the men) revelations that permitted men to have up to four wives. It wasn't all fun though, since men were also required to avoid favouring any one wife above the others. Muhammed, having already reached his limit, chanced upon someone else he wished to marry, but rather conveniently received a revelation from God that allowed Muhammed to exceed the limit every other man was held to. As well as this stroke of good fortune, Muhammed was also given permission to treat his wives unequally to allow him to spend more time with those he preferred. God certainly held Muhammed in high esteem — to the point of insisting that Muhammed engage in an incestuous marriage to Zaynab (the wife of his adopted son). Based on the Qur'an and Hadith, it's reasonable to surmise that had Muhammed wished to have sexual relations with a donkey then a revelation would not be too long in coming.
As well as enhancing Muhammed's sexual enjoyment, God seemingly thought it very important to be on hand when Muhammed needed to explain away his military failures and assorted acts of brutality. Whenever Muhammed's revelations went obviously wrong, such incidents were explained away as Satan impersonating God and sending him incorrect revelations ("Satanic Verses"). This reasoning is the basis of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.
Joseph Smith, Jr.
Joseph Smith, Jr., the prophet of Mormonism, received his most convenient revelations while he was engaged in translating the texts engraved on divinely delivered golden plates in to English. To begin with, Smith was told by the Angel Moroni that no-one else was allowed to see these plates — on pain of death.
Smith's translation efforts were assisted by Martin Harris — acting as a scribe and a financial supporter. Lucy Harris, the wife of Martin Harris, was a little more skeptical than her gullible and by then heavily indebted husband, and asked to read the 116 pages that had to date been produced. The manuscript promptly vanished, and Mrs. Harris suggested that Smith and Harris should be able to translate the plates again and arrive at the same result — assuming of course that Smith wasn't simply making stuff up. Fortunately, Smith received a revelation advising him that the plates should not be translated again, and in their place he received replacement plates.
Conversely, though, some of Smith's revelations turned out to be rather poor advice from God. In a more notable case, he was told by God to found a bank. The bank collapsed within a month, leading Smith to flee an arrest warrant for illegal banking — leaving behind many bankrupted followers who'd been told that investing in the bank was a religious duty.
- I Kill Children Genius'.
- Why No Revival by Jack Chick (1970) Chick Publications (archived).
- Jack T. Chick Lambiek Comiclopedia.
- Distinguishing between God and Satan
- See the Wikipedia article on John of Patmos.
- Muhammad's Just In Time Revelations WikiIslam has a more detailed analysis of Muhammed's handy messages from God.
- Qur'an 4:3 Before those revelations, men were actually allowed to take up an unlimited number of wives. Men can have only four wives, so spayketh the Lord!
- Qur'an 33:50 The Lord spaketh that Muhammed is special and deserves to have more wives.
- Sex Life of the Prophet
- Mormonism: A Racket Becomes a Religion
- Wikipedia has a detailed write-up of the events surrounding Smith's divinely inspired bank, the Kirtland Safety Society