Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth. (Revelation 12:1-2)
When asked where the Bible teaches Mary was assumed into heaven, Catholic apologists typically use Revelation 12 as a primary proof-text. Sometimes though, what may seem like a helpful solution does more harm to one’s cause than good. Consider this secondary issue- if Mary is literally whom the apostle John is referring to, then it follows that when she was with child, “she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.” Think back to what God said to Eve in Genesis 3:16 as the result of her fall into sin, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children.” So if Revelation 12 proves Mary was assumed into heaven, it also refutes the dogma of the immaculate conception. Mary was subject to the curse of sin explicit in Genesis 3, and Revelation 12 corroborates this.
Recently on Catholic Answers live, Patrick Madrid addressed this very issue (I have included the brief MP3 clip here). Madrid states:
“Pain in childbirth was one of the maledictions God pronounced in Genesis chapter three, but so is death. Keep in mind, that Jesus himself, who is perfect in every respect- he suffered death. So I don’t think we can be quick to say that because Mary was immaculately conceived and sinless that therefore God did not permit her to suffer in the ways that are foretold in Genesis chapter three.”
This is a striking example of private interpretation. Rome’s apologists may claim to be part of a monolithic church in which all her devoted apologists are on the same page, but when one surveys their writings it becomes quite obvious such is not the case. Catholics are free to follow Madrid, or not, and I would posit even some of Madrid’s closest allies would not follow. For instance, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin interprets the woman of Revelation 12 quite differently. For Akin, The woman is not only Mary, but also Israel, the Church, and Eve. This gives him the freedom to affirm and deny almost any interpretation of the text:
Because the Woman is a four-way symbol, different aspects of the narrative apply to different referents. Like Mary, she is pictured as being in heaven and she flies (mirroring Mary’s Assumption). Like the Church, she is persecuted by the Devil after the Ascension of Christ. Like Israel, she experiences great trauma as the Messiah is brought forth (figuratively) from the nation. And like Eve, it is her (distant) seed with which the serpent has his primary conflict.
Conversely, portions of the narrative do not apply to each referent. Mary did not experience literal pain when bringing forth the Messiah, but she suffered figuratively (the prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart at the Crucifixion). Eve did not ascend to heaven. And the Church did not bring forth the Messiah (rather, the Messiah brought forth his Church).
So for Akin, the text means whatever it needs to mean. If it needs to mean Mary’s assumption, it does. If it needs not to mean a denial of the immaculate conception, it does. If “the woman” needs to mean “the church” in order to harmonize with the view of the early church, it does.
In a logical Catholic worldview, Akin and Madrid can’t both be right. One of them is wrong. This is the same worldview that chastises Protestants for private interpretation, and holds the door open for Protestants to embrace the alleged theological certainty Rome offers. Rome’s apologists are certain of Mary’s immaculate conception and assumption, but they are so only because Rome has told them so, not because the Bible teaches it. Their interpretation of Revelation 12 serves as an example of what happens when one takes non-biblical dogmas and forces them into the Bible.
Madrid and Akin are only two of a number of differing Catholic interpreters of Revelation 12. To read a concise overview, I highly recommend Eric Svendsen’s overview in his book, Who Is My Mother? The Role and Status of the Mother of Jesus in the New Testament and Roman Catholicism (New York: Calvary Press, 2001) pp. 209-233. Svendsen works through the major views present in church history, and it appears neither Madrid’s novel view or Akin’s all-inclusive view find a champion in the early church. Rome’s apologists are therefore forging new roads of interpretation. Neither though can show where the immaculate conception or the bodily assumption are deposited in apostolic, enscripturated revelation. The best they can do is privately interpret passages they think may allude to these gnostic tenets. One must seriously consider whether Madrid’s interpretation of Revelation 12 falls under the curse of Revelation 22:18.
Hilary of Poitiers (c 315-67): For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text. Is not truth indestructible? (NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book II, §3)