Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Apocalypse of John and Its Mediators, or Why Johnny Cash Wrote a Better Apocalypse than John of Patmos!

 In what follows, the story of a modern “apocalypse,” Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” (2002) will be outlined.[1] A resume of his life is followed by a description of the song’s origin and contents. Its reception is examined, and certain characteristics of its appropriation discussed in terms of its usage on YouTube. A comparison with the Apocalypse of John concludes the piece. Obviously then “apocalypse” is viewed here as an appropriate designation for both texts. Going further, the title also implies that it is possible to judge between them and—spoiling the ending—claims that Cash’s Apocalypse is superior to that of John of Patmos.

A Life
Johnny Cash was born into a Southern Baptist family in Arkansas in 1932. A traumatic childhood was followed by a brief army career before he married, started a family, and began his recording career at Sun Records in 1955.[2] His music combined seemingly contradictory strands from the start. On the one hand, he quickly moved to Columbia Records because they allowed him to record Gospel, while, on the other, he was also penning darker lyrics: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” (Folsom Prison Blues). The three albums, “Love,” “God,” and “Murder,” released in 2000, showcase the tensions of Cash’s songbook.

Touring, amphetamine abuse, and divorce took their toll, however. In 1967, Cash had a religious experience. Though he would claim that he had always been a Christian, his persona was increasingly marked by an evangelical tinge. In 1970, he declared his faith on national TV, in May 1971, he made a public profession at Evangel Temple in Nashville.[3]

Gospel songs and family members were already important avenues of biblical influence on Cash. In the early 1970s, however, Bible study became “an important part” of his life.[4] Cash befriended, among others, Billy Graham. According to Steve Turner, “Graham … was intrigued by Cash’s ability to be candid about his faith and yet find acceptance with sections of society that traditionally were cynical about Christianity.”[5] His view of the Bible was deeply influenced by the Dispensational Evangelicalism that Graham represented. In 1986, the man whose stage attire had gained him the name, “The Man in Black,” wrote a novel about St Paul, The Man in White. In the introduction, Cash writes: “I believe the Bible, the whole Bible, to be the infallible, indisputable Word of God.”[6] Such a statement, however, does not do justice to his Bible. As we shall see, his ability to hold disparate elements together—gospel/murder, candid faith/popularity—is also clearly evident in his statements about his Bible.[7]

Between 1975 and 1977, Cash studied Bible at Bill Hamon’s International Christian School of Theology, gaining proficiency with technical aids, before graduating and being ordained by Hamon at his own request.[8]In The Man in White, he listed his reading: “Everyday Life in Jesus’ Time; Fox’s Book of Martyrs; the History of the Earliest Church; the Twelve Apostles, the Twelve Caesars; the Jewish Encyclopaedia; and … Josephus.”[9] He had a particular penchant for nineteenth-century liberal scholarship, mentioning Conybeare and Howson’s 1852 work, The Life and Acts of Paul the Apostle, perhaps most often.

In his 1997 autobiography, Cash describes Bible study as disciplined enquiry: “I start most of my mornings with coffee, CNN, and then the Bible, and that sets me up for a good day.”[10] His methodology is clear:

What I really enjoy is the Bible. I love to set myself a test, give myself something to study. I find a passage I don’t quite understand and chase it down in the concordance and the chain references until I learn what it means, or at least what the best-versed scholars have been able to interpret it as meaning.[11]

This hint of limitation echoed again when Cash reminisces about his studies in the 1970s. He noted that “the experience was both exciting and humbling; I learned just enough to understand that I knew almost nothing.”[12] It is perhaps no surprise that Cash’s Bible could also be described differently at this point: “Once I learned what the Bible is—the inspired word of God (most of it anyway)—the writing became precious to me, and endlessly intriguing.”[13] Dangerous words for an evangelical, but not for the Man in Black. In his obituary for Cash, Billy Graham wrote that Johnny “was a deeply religious man” and that he looked “forward to seeing [him] in heaven one day.”[14] Not bad for someone with a defective view of scripture!

 “The Man Comes Around”

As the 1980s ended, Columbia dropped Cash after twenty-eight years. Salvation came in the form of Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label.[15] “The Man Comes Around” is the title track of Cash’s fourth album with Rubin. It was released just before his death in September 2003. Recorded in the “unplugged” style, a guitar plays an upbeat tempo, with appearances by a piano during the chorus. Turner comments:

[This] could never have been as effective had he recorded it as a young man. Cash’s cracked and sometimes breathless voice sounds both urgent and compassionate. It’s not the voice of youthfulness zealousness or sheltered naiveté. It’s the voice of the pilgrim at the end of his journey.[16]

Given Cash’s beliefs, the song is undoubtedly one of hopeful expectation.[17]

The story of the song’s creation is told in the liner notes:

The initial idea for the song came from a dream I had seven years ago. I was in… England and had bought a book called “Dreaming of the Queen.” The book talked about… people… who dream that they are with Queen Elizabeth II. I dreamed that I walked into Buckingham Palace, and there she sat…. As I approached, [she] looked up at me and said, “Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” Then, of course, I awoke. I realized that “Thorn tree in a whirlwind” sounded familiar to me. Eventually I decided that it was biblical, and I found it in the book of Job. From there it grew into a song, and I started lifting things from the book of Revelation. It became “The Man Comes Around.”[18]

Despite Cash’s claim, “thorn tree in a whirlwind” does not appear in Job, nor does the reversed version that appears in the song. Biographer Dave Urbanski offers another—bracketed—explanation of its origin:

Interestingly, the Bible typically characterizes whirlwinds as a sweeping, destructive force that overtakes the wicked—and thorns are typically the emblem of the wicked.[19]

Whatever its origin, the motif was “present” in Cash’s Bible, even if we cannot locate it in our own.

Most of the song does appear in our Bibles, however. It opens and closes with Rev 6:1-2 (the “white horse”) and 6:7-8a (the “pale horse”). The words in between reflect eschatological judgement. Explicit in the man’s coming is humanity’s division by “name” (Rev 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:15, 21:27) into two, those to free and those to blame (Ezek 9:2-10:7).[20] Freedom is for the righteous (Rev 22:11), those who drink of the “last offered cup” (Matt 26:27-28). They will be gathered by the “father hen” and taken “home” (Matt 23:37), and the golden ladder is for them (Gen 28:12?).[21] Blame is for the unrighteous and the filthy (Rev 22:11) who disappear into the “potter’s ground” (Mt 27:3-8). With “Armageddon” (Rev 16:16), shalom appears, and the wise acknowledge the deity (Rev 4:4, 10). The “whirlwind” and “thorntree” are combined in the chorus with Matthew’s parable of the virgins awaiting the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 25:1-12), here called “Alpha and Omega’s kingdom” (Rev 1:8,11; 21:6; 22:13), and Jesus’ words to Paul on the Damascus Road, that “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:14 KJV).

The song, Cash writes, is “based, loosely, on the book of Revelation, with a couple of lines or a chorus, from other biblical sources.”[22] He continues:

“Revelation” by its mere interpretation says that something “is revealed.” I wish it were. The more I dug into the book the more I came to realize why it’s such a puzzle, even to many Theologians [sic]. Eventually I shuffled my papers, so to speak,… and wrote my lyrics.[23]

That this result—an admission of “interpretive inadequacy”—did not lead Cash back to Dispensationalism’s total comprehension is intriguing. He seems to have been practicing the open-ended Bible study that he described in 1997.

Whatever understanding he had gained, however, his admission of its incompleteness shows that neither the material’s selection nor its editing were the results of his coming to terms with Revelation. It appears that a cultural item now exists that both gives the meaning of Revelation according to Cash and yet is potentially tainted by ambiguities created by his partial grasp of the text upon which it is based.

Hopelessness and the Cash Apocalypse

The song became a soundtrack in 2004. Its first half, without Cash’s recitation of Rev 6:1-2 but ending with his reading of Rev 6:7-8a, plays over the opening credits of Zack Snyder’s zombie film, The Dawn of the Dead. “A better mating of music to subject matter I have never seen before in a horror movie,” writes one critic.[24] There is no upside in Snyder’s vision, no morality, no salvation—everybody dies. The man is not Christ, but only an undefined bringer of doom. Though the Apocalypse’s dark side remains, the righteous have disappeared. The song has been stripped of the hope that Cash himself would have seen in it.

No doubt the popular equation of Apocalypse with death plays a role in the song’s susceptibility to “hopeless” interpretations. But Cash’s lyrics may also invite such interpretations. The problem is flagged by an on-line disagreement about its words. Some web sites render talk of a “last offered cup” as an invitation, ‘Will you partake?,’[25] whereas others make it a statement, “For you partake.”[26] The American IV album is difficult to hear at this point.[27] By e-mail, Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, has confirmed that the invitation is the official version. It is noteworthy, however, that the band Knife in the Water recorded the alternative form in 2004.[28] The “unofficial” song now has a life of its own.

The horror film genre, of course, qualifies what hopelessness might mean to the Dawn of the Dead’s audience. Film makers aim to retain a paying audience and not to convince people of the hopelessness of their existence! The YouTube videos below may provide purer forms of “hopelessness.”

Identity and the Cash Apocalypse

The identification of the man with a doom-bringer exemplifies another appropriation of the song—the replacement of Christ with another. In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, for example, the song plays as a Terminator dispatches numerous FBI agents into a pool.

Not everyone brings doom, however. In the title of Dave Urbanski’s 2003 biography, The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash, it is Cash who becomes the man. A piece of Americana, Cash is increasingly depicted in mythical terms. U2’s singer, Bono, said:[29]

Johnny Cash was a saint who preferred the company of sinners…. I feel as though I’m reading about Jacob or Moses. He was so not twentieth century. He was a mythical figure. I don’t know how that happens. Elvis, Johnny Cash—they were mythical figures and they lived mythical lives.[30]

Secularization and the Cash Apocalypse

The removal of Christian hope and the person of Jesus contribute to the song’s desacralization. This was given vocal form when Knife in the Water omitted the Rev 6 quotations from their version.[31] Though much that is biblical remains, the loss of the white and pale horses renders Cash’s apocalypse less biblical, more secular.

In the 2004 presidential election, The Man Comes Around entered politics. A Republican supporter, “Bommer,” created an online slide show of Bush moments, sound-tracked with Cash’s song.[32] The man was now George W. Bush. Though no longer available, this description from a critic indicates its contents:

The … video repeatedly shows images of 9/11 and Islamic terrorists when the apocalyspe [sic] is mentioned, and displays pictures of Bush when the scriptures referring to Christ and His return are referenced.[33]

The video was removed after pressure from Cash’s estate, but this did not signal Bommer’s recognition that the equation drawn between the man and Bush was beyond the pale.[34]

Founded in February 2005, YouTube’s concept is simple—individuals upload videos for the perusal of others. By September 2006, Cash’s song sound-tracked sixteen videos. A year later, the number had doubled. They have been appearing—and disappearing—ever since.[35]

Current YouTube videos sound-tracked with the song show that all three interpretive strands exist on-line. But they also demonstrate the fuzziness of such categories.A secularized hopelessness with its often implied doombringer, “death,” can be seen (see, e.g., chemical32’s ‘Great moments in human history’ or VBpictures’ ‘When the Man Comes Around), but it remains a fine line between hopelessness and entertainment (see, e.g., XxAWOLLxX’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or Clarky2495’s ‘Total War ’).

The “replacement” theme, however, tends more towards the secular. Tributes to TV and game characters abound (see, e.g., boyNtheCorner3’s Clint Eastwood or TSG83’s ‘Gears of War). Other videos view the man as a darker figure (e.g., eatingfood1’s ‘Deadman Tribute’ or tubeman3478’s ‘No Country For Old Men), though these often remain tributes. Real “figures” are also equated—sometimes disturbingly so—with the man (cf. e.g. astridrondero’s Hitler, or DJproducti0ns’ ‘Iraq War’).

Finally, although most videos trade on the song’s desacralization, some occur where there is no religious referent (see, e.g.,DisturbedAiden2’s Monty Python skit or ddbdancer’s bellydancing video!).
John’s Apocalypse

Turning to Revelation, we find that our second author left no account of his work’s origins. Indeed, Leonard Thompson suggests that our interest would have puzzled him.[36] So how do scholars reconstruct him? How is his method evaluated? (The Apocalypse’s impact is taken as read here.)

Despite speculation about its coherence, Revelation’s unity is usually assumed. Our author calls himself “John.” As context, he offers a place, “Patmos” (1:9); a time, “the lord’s day” (1:10); and a social location, he is an exiled Christian (1:9). Chapters 2 and 3 appear to describe actual situations, suggesting an intimate knowledge of the seven churches. John’s remonstrations show a pastoral interest in, and an authority to speak to, their circumstances. The former suggests that his text would have been tailored to his audience(s). The latter is implicit, but whatever his authority, it had not gone unchallenged; the Thyatiran church tolerated the prophetess, Jezebel (2:20-21). Though John never calls himself a prophet, his words are “words of prophecy” (1:3). Underlying his text is an ideology that sees assimilation to the imperial world as embracing another gospel. He also assumes that persecution is what his gospel entails.

Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland note:

Given the many references to visions in early Christian texts, it would be an excessively suspicious person who would deny that authentic visions lie behind some or all of these literary records. This is especially true of the Apocalypse itself. It is likely that actual visions, rather than literary artifice alone have prompted the words we now read.[37]

Revelation is not simply transcribed visionary experience, however. As conservative an exegete as Leon Morris has suggested that the visions took place over several years[38] and that behind the text lies “much apocalyptic reading.”[39] Others have pointed out the allusions to Ezekiel and Daniel and suggested that John meditated upon these works.[40] John Sweet speaks for many when he writes that John was an author “in general control of his materials.”[41] On his use of Ezekiel, for example, Sweet writes:

[a] study of the references … shows that [John] had a creative grasp of that diffuse and obscure book; he has clarified and concentrated its message and enlarged its vision.[42]

That John would have admitted “interpretive inadequacy” seems unlikely.

In comparing the two, it is clear that similar processes occurred. Originating texts—John’s scriptures (and any available apocalyptic texts) and Cash’s dream book—initiate the process. A dream/visions provide “words.” These tap into specific scriptures, interacting with them over time to produce the final texts. These generate a reception history.
Conclusion: The Better Apocalypse!? 


Saying someone wrote the better apocalypse is like a bar argument about heavyweight boxers. But here goes:

I suggest that those who see Revelation as expanding Ezekiel fail to see that John did not enlarge that text’s visions. Rather he repackaged it for the Church. In one traditional song, “John the Revelator,” we hear the lyrics (as recorded on

Now who art worthy, crucified and holy
Bound up for some, Son of our God
Daughter of Zion, Judea’s Lion
He redeemed us, Jesus bought us with his blood.[43]

The lyrics of Depeche Mode’s alternative “John the Revelator” (as recorded on exemplify the difficulty of seeing this as an enlargement of Ezekiel’s vision:

John the Revelator

He’s a smooth operator
It’s time we cut him down to size
Take him by the hand
And put him on the stand
Let us hear his alibis.

By claiming God as his holy right
He’s stealing a God from the Israelites
Stealing a God from a Muslim, too
There is only one God through and through….[44]

Taking “vision enlargement” as my criterion, I suggest that Cash’s Apocalypse—whatever his intention—achieves that “aim” more successfully than Revelation does. Precisely because Jesus’ name is implicit, Cash has truly universalzied the apocalyptic vision. His song offers hope to Christians, but does more. It offers hope to anyone who sees the man as their man (as Bommer’s story shows). But it also offers a fully fledged despair to those hearing it as the damned. Anyone watching the Dawn of the Dead or YouTube videos without hope witnesses Cash’s universalization of Revelation’s dark side. It is this achievement—retaining the original audience while opening up the global one—that suggests to me that Cash wrote the better apocalypse![45]

William John Lyons, University of Bristol


[1] Much of the material here is treated in considerably greater detail in my “The Apocalypse According to Johnny Cash: Examining the ‘Effect’ of Revelation on a Contemporary Apocalyptic Writer,” in The Way the World Ends? The Apocalypse of John in Culture and Ideology[ed. W. J. Lyons and J. Økland; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009], 95-122. Too many people have commented on this piece to list here. Suffice to say, they have my gratitude for their comments and suggestions, but should bear no blame for the uses to which I put them.

[2] The details that follow are largely drawn from three sources, Cash’s second autobiography, written with Patrick Carr (Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash [London: Harper Collins, 1997]) and the biographies of Steve Turner (The Man Called Cash: The Authorised Biography [London: Bloomsbury, 2004]), and Dave Urbanski (The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash [Lake Mary, FL: Relevant Books, 2003]).

[3] Turner, Man Called Cash, 184; Urbanski, Man Comes Around, 99.

[4] Cash, Cash: The Autobiography, 211.

[5] Turner, Man Called Cash, 180.

[6] Introduction, The Man in White (San Francisco: Harper & Row), 12

[7] This ability is taken with utmost seriousness in Rodney Clapp’s recent book, Johnny Cash and The Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), effectively forming the volume’s organizing principle.

[8] Turner, Man Called Cash, 203-4.

[9] Cash, Man in White, 2.

[10] Ibid., 247

[11] Ibid., 204-5.

[12] Ibid., 245.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14], no pages, accessed on December, 18, 2008.

[15] Cash, Cash: The Autobiography, 274-77; Urbanski, Man Comes Around, 137-43, 191.

[16] Man called Cash, 266-67.

[17] Slavoj Žižek’s description of the song as “an exemplary articulation of the anxieties contained in Southern Baptist Christianity” suggests some of the underlying stresses contained within that hope, but it remains a viable hope nonetheless (The Parallax View [Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006], 86).

[18] Liner notes, American IV (2002).

[19] Urbanski, Man Comes Around, 167.

[20] I am grateful to Chris Rowland for the pointer to “the man” of Ezek 9-10.

[21] The ladder’s composition and color are not specified in Genesis itself, but the idea of it being “golden” was certainly developed early on in the Christian tradition (cf., e.g., Perpetua’s vision of a “golden ladder” in Tertullian’s The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas) and is standard fare today.

[22] Liner notes, American IV (2002).

[23] Ibid.

[24] thedead2004.html, accessed on 13th July 2006.

[25] Accessed March 23, 2009.

[26] Accessed March 23, 2009.

[27] Two additional versions of the song by Cash were subsequently released on the Cash: Unearthed five CD set in 2004 (Mercury). On the version on disc 5, the wording is similarly obscure, but on the disc 3 recording Cash clearly use the question form. Such clarity clearly came too late for Knife in the Water, however.

[28] Cash Covered (Mojo).

[29] On Cash and U2, see Turner, Man Called Cash, 240-42; Urbanski, Man Comes Around, 132-35.

[30] Man Called Cash, 241 (presumably in a private interview; cf. p. 333).

[31] Cash Covered (Mojo, 2004).

[32] (now defunct).

[33] Accessed September 26, 2006.

[34] Cf. http://www.freerepublic. com/focus/f-news/1250832/posts. Accessed September 26, 2006.

[35] All of these clips were accessed in December 2008. But copyright claims by third parties or an unexplained decision on the part of their creators may result in any of them being taken off at any time, making my best efforts to keep the essay up to date inevitably futile.

[36] Revelation (ANTC; Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 23.

[37] Revelation (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 12.

[38] Revelation (TNTC; London: The Tyndale Press, 1969), 41.

[39] Revelation, 30.

[40] E.g. John Sweet, Revelation (TPINTC; London: SCM Press, 1990), 42.

[41] Revelation, 44.

[42] Revelation 40.

[43] Accessed March 10, 2009.

[44] Accessed March 10, 2009.

[45] Of course, the Apocalypse of John has also been desacralized over the years and applied to a wide variety of situations, but not as a whole text. In that form Jesus continues to interfere, if only occasionally!


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.