Wilderness versus Pseudo-Paradise

A Reflection on the Church in Revelation, 12:13-17

The Woman Clothed with the Sun, Fleeth from the Persecution of the Dragon
by Benjamin West, 1797

Last year on March 17, 2016, the government of the United States had issued a formal statement regarding Christian genocide in our days: Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians, and other religious and ethnic minorities, in the Middle East. Speaking from the State Department, Mr. Kerry said: “My purpose in appearing before you today is to assert that, in my judgment, ISIS is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”

This Lent, we saw Islamic attacks on Christians in Egypt, and elsewhere. Since so many Christians—among other religious groups—are currently exposed to persecution and deadly distress, it seems opportune during this Easter Season to turn again to the Book of Revelation of Saint John, where we find the world’s history viewed through the prism of Theology. In it, one never fails to discover not only reasons to hope and to persevere, but also comfort and strength. What the seer on Patmos receives is a large kaleidoscope of scenarios and images describing the temporal struggle between the Lamb and the Dragon. What they are fighting about is ultimately the Bride of the Lamb, unanimously identified with the earthly community of believers, that is, the Church. The purpose of this present reflection will be twofold: to highlight the way in which this embattled Christian community will overcome the times of worldwide tribulation to share in the Lamb’s eventual victory, and also to remind us of the biblical encouragement to persevere even in the face of great hardship in view of the endless joys that await us.

While references to the Church can be found scattered throughout John’s Apocalypse, there are arguably key moments during which the apostle occupies himself, more extensively than in others, either with his churches or with the notion of “Church” as such. These are found at the beginning, namely in his letters to the seven churches, then in the middle, featuring the cosmic Woman, and at the end, in the form of the New Jerusalem. Surveying those passages, one collects the reassuring message that the Church belongs to the Lamb-Lion Jesus Christ, that she is redeemed by the Son of Man, that she is forever a professing Church through her saints and prophets, that she remains a Church of martyrs, and that she is prefigured as a Church Triumphant by the cosmic Woman glorified in sun, moon, and stars.

Among all those passages, it is Revelation 12:13-17 that is particularly illuminating when it comes to reading and understanding some of the alarming signs of our times. So, let us simply walk through these five verses trying to grasp their scriptural message for us today. One realization comes to us very quickly, and that is that the apostolic visionary holds out no prospect for peace and justice on earth before God’s triumph. Until then life will be a constant struggle with the Dragon and his two beasts, instruments of Satan. Persecution and martyrdom will remain key aspects of the Christian life.1 However, as a result of Christ’s victory over Satan, God watches over the Church, guarding her against any demonic fury and harm.

1. Woman and male child facing demonic wrath
Revelation 12:13 reads, “So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.”

This verse picks up where both verses, 6 and 12 of chapter 12, had left off: the former had narrated the fact of the saintly community fleeing to a place of divine refuge, recalling Israel’s Exodus. There was no explicit comment yet about the dragon’s persecution of the community. Verse 12 then describes how the dragon was enraged over losing his heavenly office as a result of his inability to thwart the birth of Christ. He must have had his own ultimate self-exaltation, and quasi-divine enthronement, in mind. However, he is no longer in control of its own destiny, being cast down into the world.2 In that new surrounding and position of his, he now expresses his anger by persecuting the woman who had just become the mother to a male child. 3

Three circumstances deserve to be pointed out: first, there is the Greek verb, dióko, that can be rendered as “to pursue” or “to persecute”; both meanings are actually in mind. The devil’s actions amount to both violent persecution, and fiercely intentional pursuit. Second, the object of attack is the woman and her male child. A closer look at the biblical text discloses a strong emphasis on the gender of both persons: the Latin of the NeoVulgate calls the woman-turned-mother mulier, and the male child is the masculus. Third, from this context, we understand the two to represent the community of the faithful in the Church. Therefore, the devil directs and escalates his efforts against God’s people, even more than before, angry over having lost his former heavenly privilege. He does so with ferocious intentionality, targeting the maternal-filial relationship of a woman to her male child in their gender identity and differentiation. Especially the latter, of course, takes on profound significance in our own times.

2. Flight from worldliness in the love of God and neighbor
Saint John’s vision continues: “But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time,”Rev 12:14.

As is obvious, the purpose of her flight into the wilderness is to find shelter from persecution.4 In allusion to Daniel 7:25 and 12:7, the three and a half years (“time, times, half a time”) are symbolic of the Church’s entire eschatological existence on earth, a period during which the beast is allowed to wage war against God’s people (cf. Rev 13:5), all the while the Church is under divine protection.

There can be no uncertainty that those “two wings of the great eagle” signal God’s determination and power to preserve her on her historical journey, just as he looked after the ancient Israelites in the desert (cf. Exo 19:4; Deut 1:31-33; 32:10-12; 33:12; Psa 54:6-8; 103:5-7; Isa 40:29-31). In that same vein, he had also provided them with nourishment in the form of manna as a reward for perseverance (cf. Exo 16:32; Deut 8:16; Jn 6:31.49; Rev 2:17). This food can be said to be God’s own sustaining presence among his people throughout the ages. While in the Old Testament, he chose to dwell in their midst in Tabernacle and Torah, and, in the New Testament, he can be found in Word and Sacrament. Moreover, the idea of a soaring eagle naturally inspires elevation of thought and worship, contrasting with earthiness and idolatry. It is equally a fitting symbol of the authority, swiftness, and universal reach of divine assistance, as is also prayerfully expressed in Psa 55:4-8:

My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yea, I would wander afar, I would lodge in the wilderness, I would haste to find me a shelter from the raging wind and tempest.”

In addition, Psalm 68:13 sings about those wings’ exceptional pulchritude: “the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with green gold.”

In the writings of the church father Saint Methodius of Olympus, the wilderness represents the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is barren of all evil and desire, and which all true virgins imitate, and so receive the crowns of virtue. Other ecclesiastical authors such as Primasius of Hadrumetum, Andrew of Caesarea, and Bede the Venerable write about the Church who, taught by the two Testaments, escapes the world by the affection of her mind, the absence of lust, and the vision of God in a pure heart. She enjoys continual guidance by the twofold love of God and neighbor, and thereby flees from worldliness and idolatry.5 The 10th century commentator, Oecumenius, sees in the phrase “wings of an eagle” a reference to the visitation of the holy angel who urged Joseph to take the boy, and his mother, and flee into Egypt. In our days, this association spurs us on to fervently ask for the intercession of Saint Joseph, protector of the universal Church.

3. Refusal to succumb to a self-delusional Pseudo-Paradise
Let us listen again to the visionary of Patmos: “Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood,” Rev 12:15.

The disastrous and even lethal nature of satanic pursuit is epitomized by the figure of the serpent casting a torrent of water from its mouth in order to sweep away the woman, reminiscent of the destruction wrought by the primordial flood sent by God. Unmistakably, the intent here is to exterminate the Church.6 Elsewhere, Saint John also employs the metaphor of weapons, or frogs, proceeding from someone’s mouth, figuratively meaning words of judgment, or diabolical deception. Tellingly, in Rev 3:16, those believers who are found lacking in holy zeal for the Kingdom, are vomited from the divine mouth: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

In biblical terms, the figure of a menacing river can have the following connotation: an army spreading out to conquer a country (cf. Dan 11:; divine judgment (cf. Psa 32:6; 90:5); persecution of God’s people by enemies from whom God delivers them (cf. 2 Sam 22:5; Psa 66:2; Isa 43:2); the firstborn male infants of the ancient Hebrews threatened to be drowned in the river Nile (cf. Exo 1:22); Israel’s flight into the wilderness hampered by the barrier of the Red Sea, which God overcame for them by the mighty leadership of Moses (cf. Exo 14:21); the “many waters” deceiving the multitudes who follow the whore and the beast (cf. Rev 17:1-2.8.15); as well as the beast itself residing in its watery abode (cf. Rev 13:1-2; see also the sea monster, Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab, at Gen 1:21; Isa 27:1; Eze 32:2; Psa 74:13f).

Turning now to its spiritual meaning, the fact that this ominous tidal wave proceeds from the serpent’s mouth suggests that it is a flood of lies. This fits well with texts that speak of Satan as a deceiver (cf. Jn 8:44; 2 Thess 2:9-16), as well as with the tradition that the final period of history will be characterized by satanic deception. 7 Taking into consideration that the image of a deluge of water is diametrically opposed to the concept of a wilderness,8 it appears to symbolize the demonic scheme of pandemic delusion, namely, to fatally mislead the woman by creating the impression of a temporal pseudo-paradise. She is to be duped into believing that life on earth is a perpetuated garden of Eden, watered by the four rivers of Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates (cf. Gen 2:10-14), as if humanity had never fallen into sin. In reality, however, the earth after the fall is no longer a paradise, but an austere spiritual desert.

Just as the primeval serpent had deceived the first woman with words, so he now tries to trick the eschatological Church with an inundation of words. Here is, therefore, the insidious attempt to elude and paralyze her by a mirage of false teaching: the association with a viper’s venom spontaneously comes to mind. Furthermore, the Greek word potamofóreton means not just “to be swept away by a stream of water,” but also “to gain buoyancy and to float on the river’s surface” (trahi a flumine): the devil, therefore, can be seen as making every effort to have the Church give in to the dreamlike thought of being carried along on a bed of comfort, and in due course to make her oblivious of, and antagonistic to, the tribulations that are necessary companions during her earthly pilgrimage.

Consequently, in their ongoing exposure to this diabolical stratagem, Christians have to persistently choose the adversities of the wilderness over any enticement to pseudo-paradisiacal peace and fruition; or, perhaps in more modern terms, in God’s grace to paradoxically opt for dystopia over utopia. For the sake of her own survival and subsistence, she cannot subscribe to the untenable misconception of Babylon’s great harlot, who propagates the inebriated concept of “never to see grief” (Rev 18:7). The cosmos, and this its worldly capital, will always pretend to be the tópos of definitive consolation and relief, a place devoid of tears and death. This inevitably clashes with the faith of the saints, who reject that worldview. Faithful to her divine calling, the Church has to remain Ecclesia pressa, the persecuted Church. A worldwide anti-church knows of only one goal: to destroy the Church of Christ. It is mainly the idolization of political power that has always degenerated into sacrificing Christians in its wake.

Yet, above all, the Christian community must persevere in a loving attitude towards God and neighbor. Only by embracing her lot as a desert pilgrim will she prevail: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Cant 8:7). By resisting all hallucinatory disorientation of the evil spirits, she will be able to transform this present wilderness into a place of new life: “As they go through the valley of {thirst9} they make it a place of springs” (Psa 84:6). Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the whale is inspiring in this regard:

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. (Jon 2:3-6)

4. The “earth” of Christ’s humanity as the guarantor of success
It is not difficult to imagine the apostle being surprised by what he sees next:

But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. (Rev 12:16)

The earth swallowing the stream of water is a further allusion to Israel’s exodus and wilderness experience: the earth swallowed the Egyptians when they pursued Israel through the Red Sea (cf. Exo 15:12). Also coming to mind is the judgment inflicted on the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram because of their rebellion against Moses, according to Psa 105:17; it represents an attempt to frustrate God’s redemptive plan of creating Israel as his own people in their own land of protection. Likewise, we trust that God guards the Church from compromising in the face of seductive teaching and persecution. Any opposition to the truth and to the Gospel, inspired by the devil, will ultimately not succeed. God will bring his people to their heavenly resting place, even through miraculous preservation and deliverance.10

Church fathers have speculated about the spiritual meaning of this “earth,” maintaining that it represents the tomb that “swallowed up” the lifeless body of Christ prior to his resurrection. Hence, in the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation, in his humanity, and specifically through his redeeming death, descent to the netherworld and resurrection, the Church will always experience his saving presence and provision until the day when she is transitioning into eternal life.

5. A Spirituality of perseverance
The vision then draws to a close with this image:

Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God, and hold the testimony of Jesus… (Rev 12:17)

Here, we have the clearest cross-reference to the so-called Proto-Evangelium at Gen 3:15,

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.

The word “enmity” in Genesis deteriorates into “war” in the Apocalypse, reminding us, the “rest of her children (reliquis de semine eius), that we are members of a “militant” Church: we are tied into the epic dimension of spiritual warfare, yet, at the same time, vigilant and confident of final victory. Thus, the Church militant is a Church persecuted, and a Church protected all at once.

This verse offers us a welcome reminder of the backbone of all Christian spirituality, namely, to keep God’s commandments, and to hold the testimony of Jesus. With God’s help, we will then be able to persevere until we are gathered into the New Jerusalem of an eternally triumphant Church!

We began this reflection by being conscious of contemporary persecution, and even genocidal extermination, of Christians in different parts of the world. After having read and pondered the passage in Revelation 12:13-17, we must now realistically conclude, and trustingly acknowledge, that God’s protection of the Church does not prevent him from allowing the ultimate sacrifice of some of his and her sons and daughters. Although this is a distressing reality to absorb and accept, we are reassured that their suffering and death is not in vain. On the contrary, they live out to a faith-filled maximum, that which is declared about them in Rev 12:17, namely, “they hold the testimony of Jesus.” As we all know, the Greek original of this text is “martyrdom” (martyría). In God’s providence, therefore, the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters will redound to even more abundant graces for the entire Church during her arduous sojourn in the wilderness of this world.

  1. Cf. Kealy, S.P., The Apocalypse of John, Michael Glazier: Collegeville 1987, pp. 41-44.
  2. Cf. Williamson, P.S., Revelation, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Baker Academic: Ada, MI 2015, p. 218.
  3. Cf. Beale, G.K., The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted edition 2013, p. 668.
  4. Cf. Beale, Revelation, pp. 669-671.
  5. Cf. Weinrich, W.C., ed., Revelation, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, IVP Academic: Downer’s Grove, IL 2006, pp. 190-195.
  6. Cf. Beale, Revelation, pp. 671-674.
  7. Cf. Williamson, Revelation, p. 219.
  8. Although, due to the topography and climate of the Palestinian desert, there is a rare possibility that streambeds may lie arid for months, and then become filled with several feet of rainwater, causing flash floods.
  9. Author’s own translation, based on the NeoVulgate’s sitientem; most Bibles render it as “valley of Baca.”
  10. Beale, Revelation, p. 675.
Fr. Andreas Hoeck, SSD About Fr. Andreas Hoeck, SSD

Andreas Hoeck, born 1964 in Cologne/Germany, studied Philosophy, Theology, and Exegesis in Bonn/Germany, Anápolis/Brazil, Rome, and Jerusalem. After his priest ordination in 1992 he earned his doctorate at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 2002. Member of the clergy of the Archdiocese of Denver in Colorado, he has served as the Academic Dean at Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary from 2010 till 2015. After a Sabbatical, he has resumed his full time position of Seminary teaching as an Associate Professor in the spring of 2016. Fr. Hoeck has contributed to the field of Scriptural Exegesis by publishing books and articles, both in scholarly periodicals, as well as in popular journals. His field of specialized research is the New Testament literature of Saints John and Paul.


  1. Avatar Kathy Maxwell says:

    Thank you Father. This was wonderful! I had never considered carefully, that we are the seed of “the Woman.” It is bracing!

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Fr. Hoeck for a clear treatise on the spiritual life that catholics especially One must be spiritual in order to practice Religion and Jesus Christ gives the latria to His Mother who can help us to practice truth of the Catholic Church