Symbols, not Riddles: A Review of William Hendriksen’s “More Than Conquerors”

more than conquerors

The son of Dutch immigrant parents, William Hendriksen (1900-1982) obtained his BA at Calvin College and went on to earn a doctorate from Princeton Seminary. In the early 1940’s, he was appointed Professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, where he served for nine years before returning to full-time pastoral work. He is remembered both for his scholarly commentaries as well as for his 1939 book, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation.

In the 75th anniversary commemorative edition of More Than Conquerors, the included biographical tribute shares with readers that Hendriksen was a disciplined and prolific writer who could read in twenty(!) different languages and worked on his biblical commentaries even into his final years (p.8).

Written as the escalating rumbles of violence and warfare echoed ominously throughout Europe and the rest of the world, More Than Conquerors gives readers a clearly-written exploration of Revelation that seeks to show why Christians of John’s day found this apocalyptic work full of hope and comfort, rather than fear and confusion. Hendriksen explains:

The theme is the victory of Christ and of His Church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The Apocalypse is meant to show us that things are not what they seem… Throughout the prophecies of this wonderful book Christ is pictured as the Victor, the Conqueror… He conquers death, Hades, the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, and the men who worship the beast. He is victorious; as a result, so are we, even when we seem to be hopelessly defeated. (pp.14-15)

However, this focus on eschatological hope for suffering Christians lacks the sensationalism of much apocalyptic-minded talk, where it’s more common to find speculation on the secret identity of the antichrist or debates about the latest candidate on the world stage for being Gog or Magog. These trends aren’t so new. Decades before Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkin’s Left Behind series appeared on bookstore shelves, Hendriksen acidly commented on the apocalyptic speculators of his own day:

On my desk lies a recently published commentary on the Apocalypse. it is a very “interesting” book. It views the Apocalypse as a kind of history written beforehand. It discovers in this last book of the Bible copious and detailed references to Napoleon, wars in the Balkans, the great European War of 1914-1918, the German ex-emperor Wilhelm, Hitler and Mussolini, and so on. But these kids of explanations, and others like them, must at once be dismissed. For what possible good would the suffering and severely persecuted Christians of John’s day have derived from specific and detailed predictions concerning European conditions that would prevail some two thousand years later? A sound interpretation of the Apocalypse must take as its starting point the position that the book was intended for believers living in John’s day and age. (pp. 15-16)

Hendriksen wrote More Than Conquerors from both within the Reformed tradition and as a member of the amillenial camp. The term “amillenial” basically means that he viewed the emphasis of Revelation as spanning from Christ’s ascension all of the way to His second coming at the end of the age, rather than being solely concerned with far off, future events. More specifically, amillenial interpreters view the millennium spoken of in Revelation ch. 20 as being symbolic for the period of the church age, rather than a literal one thousand year period still yet to come.

This brings us to another interesting aspect of how Hendriksen approaches the biblical text. He views Revelation as being intentionally composed in seven sections (ch.1-3, ch.4-7, ch.8-11, ch. 12-14, ch. 15-16, ch. 17-19, and ch. 20-22) that in some ways parallel each other. Commenting on them, he writes:

A careful reading of the book of Revelation has made it clear that the book consists of seven sections, and that these seven sections run parallel to one another. Each of them spans the entire dispensation from the first to the second coming of Christ. This period is viewed now from one aspect, now from another. (p.25)

Let’s look at a quick example to see how Hendriksen interprets the text so as to find it equally applicable to Christians both in John’s day and our own. When Revelation speaks of “Babylon,” Hendriksen views it as being symbolic for Rome in John’s day. In his chapter commenting on Rev. 17, he explains, “That the harlot, Babylon, was present in one form or embodiment in John’s day is clear from Revelations 17:9: ‘the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.’ Here the reference is clearly to Rome” (p.186). However, he goes on to also say that “Babylon, then, is the world as the center of seduction at any moment of history, particularly during this entire present dispensation. The harlot, Babylon, always opposes the bride, new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:9ff.)” (p.186). Another example to mention is his interpretation of symbolic figures like the beast of the sea and beast of the earth in Revelation 13:

The beast that comes up out of the sea is Satan’s persecution of Christians, embodied in world governments and directed against the bodies of believers. In John’s day this was the Roman government. The beast that arises out of the earth is Satan’s anti-Christian religion which aimed to deceive the minds and enslave the wills of believers. At the time when these visions appeared to John, that beast out of the earth was incorporated in the pagan religion and emperor worship of Rome. (p.26)

There are certain moments where Hendriksen’s language feels a bit dated, and readers who aren’t of a particularly Reformed persuasion will probably find themselves differing with some parts of his interpretations, but that’s alright. I firmly support reading across traditions, both in order to find unexpected common ground and to more fairly represent the views of other theological camps.

I think there is much to be said for the overall approach Hendriksen takes toward Revelation, viewing it not so much as being full of riddles as symbols. Given its readability and short length (229 pages), More Than Conquerors is a pretty satisfying and interesting introduction to both the amillennial perspective and to less sensational ways of reading Revelation in general. This book of Scripture should speak to modern Christian readers not as an esoteric codebook to be solved but as deep encouragement for weary souls. As the title of his book suggests, Hendriksen sees the heart of Revelation being echoed in Romans 8:37-39, and it’s with those words that we’ll end:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NRSV)

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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