In an instant, millions of people around the world vanish into thin air.
Planes plummet out of the sky. Vehicles, suddenly unmanned, careen out of control. The catastrophic event hurls the world into a state of chaos, anarchy, and panic.
Is this the opening salvo of an alien invasion? A secret military experiment gone awry? An act of terrorism unlike anything seen before?
No. This is the Rapture, the moment when God “rescues” all the faithful Christians from the planet before all literal Hell breaks loose on Earth.
In 1995, Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins released the first installment of the Left Behind series, a mulit-part saga that chronicles the “Earth’s last days” from the perspective of a group of characters “left behind” after the Rapture.
Throughout the twelve-part series, these characters become Christians and struggle to survive the seven-year “Tribulation,” a period of time in which God’s judgement is unleashed upon the Earth prior to Jesus’s Second Coming and thousand-year reign.
Oh, and in the midst of all this, the Antichrist – a charismatic political figure who is also the Devil incarnate – is deceiving the nations by uniting everyone under the banner of a one-world government.
The Left Behind series was a bona-fide publishing phenomena. The original twelve-book series spawned prequels, sequels, four films (including a reboot starring Nicholas Cage), a spin-off book series for young adults, graphic novels, and an officially licensed video game. To date, this series has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide.
Like the best seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the Left Behind series had zero qualms with dispatching major characters with ruthless and brutal efficiency. From guillotine blades and heavy-caliber gunfire to supernatural disasters and nuclear war, part of the addictive draw of the Left Behind series was seeing which characters would (and wouldn’t) be left standing at the conclusion of each installment.
In the books, the Christian characters die heroically and often as a consequence of “living out their faith” in the face of an authoritarian government regime (a pitch-perfect example of the “martyrdom fetish” that gained traction in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999). But the non-Christian characters died much much worse.
In the final book of the series (spoiler alert, I guess), Jesus returns in all of his glory and literally explodes every person on Earth who didn’t become a Christian during the Tribulation.
As teenage boy growing up in East Texas, I cannot tell you how awesome all of this sounded to me at the time.
And, if you’re Christian, there was another appeal to the Left Behind series – behind all the gory deaths, international intrigue, and epic natural disasters, there was an inescapable thrill that one was reading a fictionalized account of a very real “future history” of the world events.
Even outside of the Left Behind books (and its earlier iterations like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth), the influence of the “End Times” narrative on the Evangelical subculture is inescapable and undeniable. And, for a lot of evangelical Christians, concepts like the rapture, Antichrist, and the Great Tribulation are completely inseparable from the Gospel message itself – it’s just part of the package deal. In fact, it could be argued that an apocalyptic expectation of the End Times may be a far more influential variable on the American Evangelical worldview than anything Jesus taught during the Sermon on the Mount.
All of this derives from a particular reading of the Book of Revelation, the final book in the New Testament. According to a popular theological framework called Premillennial Dispensationalism, the Book of Revelation can be used to forecast the real-world events leading up to Jesus’s Second Coming and the final judgement of evil.
But there’s another of way reading and interpreting the Book of Revelation – a method rooted in the historical and cultural context of the time and place the book was originally written – that proves to be no less relevant and damning.
But, first, a little bit of background on the most misunderstood book in the entire Bible.
The Book of Secrets
Growing up in a conservative Evangelical environment, Revelation was one of the most mysterious and compelling books of the Bible. Part of this was due by the inescapable cultural influence of the Left Behind series, but it was also due to the puzzle-box nature of the book itself.
Because while the rest of the Bible talked about stuff that happened a time ago in the past, the Book of Revelation – I was taught and believed – talked about stuff that could happen during my lifetime (or, at the very least, the near future). And if I connected the right dots and deciphered the maddening symbolism, I could potentially unlock the secrets of the end of the world.
As I grew older and a bit more removed from the evangelical fervor of my youth, I realized that for all the time I spent in Revelation, I didn’t know a lot about this particular book of the Bible – beyond the fact that it’s weird and supposed to predict how the world will end.
However, after being exposed to a historical-critical method of reading the Bible, I discovered that the Book of Revelation is actually far more interesting and possibly even more relevant than I was initially taught – albeit in different ways. But to approach the Book of Revelation with the right expectations requires some background on the book itself.
For example, as the final book in the New Testament canon, Revelation almost didn’t make it into the Bible. In fact, the Book of Revelation wasn’t officially canonized until about four hundred years after Jesus lived and died. A key point of contention among the early church fathers was who wrote the book and if it was plagiarized (some passages bear a striking resemblance to the Oracles of Hystaspes).
The Book of Revelation is traditionally ascribed to John, the “beloved disciple” of Jesus who also supposedly penned the Gospel account that bears his name. However, most modern Biblical scholars acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely that John the Disciple wrote the Book of Revelation. For starters, the author of Revelation identifies himself only as “John,” a very common name at the time (especially among the early Christian sect).
Second, the Greek syntax, literary stylings, and grammatical sophistication of the Book of Revelation are totally inconsistent from the Gospel of John. And, third, most scholars peg the original composition of Revelation to have occurred around 95 AD. For John the Disciple to have written Revelation, he would’ve had to be at least 80 years old, no small feat for a man living in era with an average life expectancy about half of what it is today.
As such, the author of the book of Book of Revelation is often referred by Biblical scholars to as John of Patmos, John the Revelator, or John the Elder. At the time he penned Revelation, John the Revelator claimed he’d been exiled to the island of Patmos by the Roman Empire.
Revelation is often cited as an example of “Apocalyptic Literature” – a genre common at the time the Book of Revelation was written. Some other examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible include the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, and some passages of Joel, Zechariah, Amos, and Isaiah.
We often associate the word “apocalypse” with the cataclysmic end of the world, but at the time the book of Revelation was written, the word “apocalypse” meant something very different. In Greek (the language and culture in which most of the New Testament was written), apokalupsis means “unveiling” or “to make known what was once hidden.”
In The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing writes,
“When Revelation was written, apocalypse was a popular type of literature for Jews and Christians. Apocalypses were easy for ancient readers to understand because people were familiar with the structure and imagery, just as we are familiar with science fiction and horror movies today.”
Part of the reason the book of Revelation is so difficult for modern readers to understand is because we don’t have a literary equivalent to the “apocalyptic” subgenre in today’s culture. We’re able to grasp the intents and purposes behind the mythological origin stories, poetry, wisdom writings, historical narratives, and letters in the Bible because we’re familiar with how those mediums are suppose to work.
A defining aspects of apocalyptic literature is its heavy reliance on symbolism. Now, these symbols would’ve been pretty clear to their intended audience in their particular time and place (if not, what would’ve been the point of writing and distributing it?). However, since we’re about 2,000 years removed from the historical and cultural context of the Book of Revelation, much of it reads like a nightmarish drug trip.
But, Biblical scholars and historians have long known what most of the symbolism in Revelation meant to the book’s original audience. And the reasons you weren’t made aware of this fact probably won’t surprise you.
Signs of the Times
Reading the Book of Revelation cover to cover is a strange and disorienting experience, but a careful analysis of the author’s literary style and historical context can provide a surprising amount of clarity to this often frequently baffling book of the Bible.
Like “apocalypse,” the word “prophecy” carries a lot of regrettable cultural baggage that often misleads modern readers. In the Old and New Testaments, a prophet was not someone who foretold the future (that would be a “soothsayer” or “seer”). Instead, a prophet was someone who delivered blistering critiques to unjust rulers and dire warnings to their kingdoms if they continued with their wicked ways.
In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes,
“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
As I mentioned above, the Book of Revelation was probably written around 95 AD. That’s a very important detail. The Roman Empire was still in control of most of Western civilization, and the city of Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in 70 AD by Emperor Vespasian after a failed Jewish revolt.
For the Romans, there was no distinction between political power and religious authority. The worship of various gods and goddesses (including the Emperor) was viewed as an essential act of patriotic allegiance and national security. However, because Christians refused to acknowledge the existence of other deities, they were deemed a threat to the sociopolitical order of the Roman Empire. Christians made easy scapegoats for various military failures and disasters (like the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD), and persecution soon commenced.
Reading the Book of Revelation without this crucial cultural background historical context is a complete waste of time.
For example, from a legion of bad horror films, you’re probably familiar with the superstitious notion that “666″ is the number of the Devil. That assumption comes from Revelation 13:18, where the John the Revelator writes, “Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
In this verse, John is using what’s known as a “gematria,” an alphanumeric code that assigns numerical values to letters. When the original Greek is translated into Hebrew, “666” is an alphanumeric reference to a particular person: Neron Kaisar, or the Hebrew spelling of “Nero Caesar.”
Nero Augustus was the Roman Emperor (or “Caesar”) from 54 to 68 AD. His fourteen-year reign is associated with tyranny, debauchery, and the violent persecution of the burgeoning Christian community. One of his more infamous tricks was covering Christians in tar, impaling them through the anus, and lighting them on fire (all while they were still alive) to provide illumination for his dinner parties.
By the time Revelation was being written, Nero had been dead for 27 years after committing suicide in 68 AD. However, conspiracy theories circulating at the time claimed that Nero wasn’t dead and would soon be returning in glory to retake his rightful place on the throne – an “Antichrist” gospel, if there ever was one.
In Revelation 12, we’re told of a pregnant woman “with a crown of twelve stars on her head.” She’s chased by “an enormous Red Dragon” who wants to devour her child. The woman gives birth to a son, and both are rescued before the Dragon can consume them. The woman represents the people of Israel (the twelves stars in her crown are the twelve tribes of Israel), and her son is the Messianic hope. And the Red Dragon is the animating force behind the various kingdoms and empires that have subjugated and persecuted God’s “Chosen People” up until this point (but ultimately failed to destroy them completely).
Another numeral-related cipher, the number seven pops up a lot in the Book of Revelation – fifty-two times, to be exact. You have seven churches, seven stars, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven plagues, seven signs, etc. Throughout scripture, the number seven is frequently used to symbolize “completion or perfection.”
The importance of the number seven doesn’t stop there. In chapter 13 of Revelation, we’re introduced to the “Beast from the Sea” and the “Beast out of the Earth.” The seven-headed Beast from the Sea is revered (and feared) for its military prowess. One of the seven heads of the Beast is suffering from “a fatal wound” that had been “healed” – a possible reference to the rumors circulating about Nero’s return.
And, in chapter 17 of Revelation, we’re told of “the mother of prostitutes” riding a atop a “scarlet beast” with “seven heads.” Later in the chapter, John writes, “The seven heads are seven hills on which the women sits.” Rome was famously known as the “City Built on Seven Hills.” The women is “drunk with blood of God’s holy people,” a reference to the Christians martyred by the Roman Empire.
In Heaven and Hell, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman writes,
“When the author of Revelation describes both the ‘the Beast rising out of the sea’ and the ‘whore of Babylon,’ he is not speaking of a literal beast or literal prostitute. And he is not referring to a figure about to appear in the 21st century. He is using these images symbolically to refer, interchangeably, to the city and empire of Rome and the empire’s rulers – the enemies of the Christians in his own day.”
And what of the “Beast out of the Earth” and its infamous “Mark of the Beast?” The Beast out of the Earth, we’re told, has been granted authority by the Beast of the Sea “on its behalf.” This is possibly reference to either the Asia Minor governor who resided in Pergamum (one of the cities John mentioned in his opening letters to the seven churches) or the entirety of the Roman Imperial Cult that also maintained a large temple in Pergamum (a city, according to Revelation, where “Satan has his throne“).
And far from a barcode tattoo or vaccine-injected microchip, the Mark of the Beast (which is to be placed on the right hand or forehead) is most likely a “satanic parody” of the mark Jesus uses to “seal” the 144,000 “redeemed from the Earth” mentioned a few verses later. It could also be an ironic twist on the Jewish practice of Tephillim, in which an observant Jew would attach leather boxes containing Scripture to their foreheads and left hands.
While this is only a small sampling of the coded images and messages hidden away in the Book of Revelation, it stands to reason that John’s revelation is a not roadmap to the end of the world, but a highly-imaginative overview of his cultural moment and blistering critique of the Roman Empire written in a genre style familiar to the original audience.
The End Is Always Nigh
So, why are these fascinating historical nuggets rarely addressed in American Evangelicalism? Why, instead, have we gravitated toward a science-fiction reading of the Book of Revelation?
Those are great questions, but, first, we need to talk about fake news and conspiracy theories.
Though many people are baffled at the prevalence of conspiracy theories in today’s culture, mainstream Evangelical Christianity has been steeped in this sort of rhetoric for decades – and it’s gone mostly unchallenged by the movement’s “theological gatekeepers.” For evangelical Christians, the End Times narrative is the Ultimate Conspiracy Theory, a cosmic shadow war involving modern-day geopolitics led by the Prince of Darkness himself against the children of God.
End-time prophecies and their related theologies operate in the exact same way as conspiracy theories: There are signs to interpret, a sacred text to decipher, a New World Order to unmask, a holy war to fight, and a framework from which to make sense of chaotic world events. (And, let’s be honest, it’s a bit of an ego boost to believe you’re “living in the End Times” and know what’s really going on behind the headlines).
While apocalyptic rhetoric has always had a place in the most world religions, it didn’t become an integral component of mainstream Evangelicalism until the sixties and seventies, a period of massive cultural upheaval (Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, multiple high-profile assassinations, the Sexual Revolution, women entering the workforce, etc). For white Evangelical Christians who had benefitted from the patriarchal norms and racial hierarchies of decades past, the world as they knew it was ending.
In 1970, Hal Lindsey, a little-known campus preacher from California, penned The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book that introduced a generation of Christians to end-times prophecy and became the bestselling “nonfiction” book of the decade. In The Late, Great Planet Earth, Lindsey linked current events (like the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Communist threat, and the restoration of Israel) to Biblical “prophecies” in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.
According to Lindsey, the greatest threats to American freedom (and, by default, Christianity) were clearly the Soviet Union and Communism. Lindsey also claimed the world would most likely end before December 31, 1988. (Another bestselling Christian book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be In 1988, helped reinforce Lindsey’s claims). The 1988 date was derived from a mind-boggling complex formula related to a handful of Bible verses and the creation of the nation-state of Israel.
In Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen writes,
“With conspiracism suddenly on the rise, The Late Great Planet Earth purported to reveal the details of the evil uber-conspiracy...For Lindsey and American evangelicals generally, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was unmistakable evidence of the fulfillment of prophecies. In the 1960s and ’70s…this particular fantasy had a massive revival and eruption.“
Alongside televangelist Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye (one of the co-authors of the Left Behind series) helped form the so-called “Moral Majority” in 1979, a political organization committed to rallying white evangelical voters behind the Republican Party and ensuring American support of the state of Israel.
Though the Moral Majority disbanded in 1989, their efforts were undoubtedly successful. The organization gave birth to the “Religious Right,” cemented evangelical voters as a formidable voting bloc demographic, and made the Republican Party the political party of choice for “patriotic” Christ followers.
Accelerated by the proliferation of Christian merchandising, televangelism, and the 24/7 news cycle, it didn’t take long for mainstream evangelicalism to begin sipping a strange brew of apocalyptic paranoia, Christian Zionism, and American exceptionalism. The intuitive proximity of Armageddon, for some Christians, hinged on which political party had control of the U.S. Government each election cycle – a rhetorical strategy still used by fundamentalist Christian influencers that remains effective in U.S. politics to this day.
I suspect this is why End Times narratives have a nasty habit of fashioning nationalistic tunnel vision. Unless it involves Middle East or Israel, events that occur outside the borders of the United States (like the Chinese government’s genocide of the Uyghur Muslims or the humanitarian aid disaster in Yemen) don’t register on our “apocalyptic Advent calendar” as much as the political power struggle of our own nation.
In the same way The Late Great Planet Earth captured the evangelical imagination during a time of significant cultural upheaval, I don’t think it’s an accident that the Left Behind novels were reaching the zenith of their popularity around the same time as the non-event of Y2K, the rise of globalization, and the birth of the Internet. And then, the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001 put everything into overdrive.
Some modern interpreters of the Book of Revelation claim the Great Tribulation will end with a massive battle between the forces of Good and Evil in the Middle East (the penultimate book of the Left Behind series, Armageddon, focuses exclusively on this “action sequence”).
The United States fought a proxy war in the 1980s against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by (and I’m not making this up) arming and supporting local Afghani militia groups and freedom fighters, which may have included the earliest iterations of Al-Qaeda and a young Osama Bin Laden. Yet, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 without the anticipated endwar.
Ten years later, 9/11 helped swap out the “Great Satan” of Communism with a new ideological foe: Islam. Growing up, I heard a lot from talk radio about “sleeper cell” Muslims infiltrating the United States to put all of us under Sharia Law. (Barack Hussein Obama, of course, was probably one of those “secret Muslims”).
It shouldn’t take a divine revelation to see how these apocalyptic expectations can shape one’s response to geopolitical conflicts.
In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, theologian Brian Zahnd writes,
“If you believe there must be a megawar in the Middle East before Jesus can return, you’re going to be a lousy peacemaker. A fatalistic eschatology requiring end-time hyperviolence that slaughters hundreds of millions is more befitting of ISIS than the followers of the Prince of Peace.”
From the Vietnam War to the War on Terror, I think this attitude helps explain why Evangelical Christians are the most consistently “pro-war” demographic when polled. However, as public support of the War on Terror declined, a new unifying narrative threat emerged: Socialism and the so-called “Radical Left.” Unfortunately, this fatalistic antagonism extends beyond international relations and partisan politics.
If you believe Earth is literally “headed to Hell in a handbasket,” you have no reason to protect or care for the environment. Or love your enemy. Or alleviate injustice and suffering. Or address economic inequality and racial injustice. Or create great art. Or invest in scientific or medical breakthroughs.
As the artist Saint Julius puts it in one of his pieces: “The world will never be healed if we hope it will be destroyed one day.“
Two Cities At the End of the World
Revelation ends with the New Jerusalem descending from heavens as beautiful “as a bride dressed for her husband.”
John the Revelator describes the New Jerusalem in great detail, and we’re told of the “river of the water of life” flowing down the center of the city that nourishes trees whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.”
The New Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to Babylon (“the prostitute of the Beast”), whose downfall is also recounted in great detail. The Babylonian Empire conquered Israel in 587 BC, enslaved the Jewish people, and destroyed the first Temple (the one built by King David and completed by his son Solomon).
In The New Testament: 4th Edition, Bart Ehrman writes,
“In Revelation, then, ‘Babylon’ is a code name for the city opposed to God – Rome, God’s principal enemy. Like Babylon of old, Rome too will be destroyed. Indeed, this is the point of much of the entire book.”
So, what does that mean for Christians living in America today?
As Daniel Immerwahr lucidly reveals in his book, How to Hide An Empire, the U.S. maintains more than 800 sovereign military bases outside of the continental United States. Every year, America spends $732 billion on militarism and war – more than the next ten countries combined. The U.S. has the highest income inequality rate among the G7 nations. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1989.
In The Skeletons In God’s Closet, theologian Joshua Ryan Butler writes,
“Babylon hits closer to home than we realize. We live out a twenty-first version of it everyday. Its walls and towers are not simply a coming event for the future, but a structure we have been constructing for centuries, growing taller and taller by the day.”
If you want to read the Book of Revelation as the gut-punch it was intended by the original author, replace every literal and esoteric reference to “Rome” and “Babylon” in the text with “America.” Of course, I’m not saying America is the Babylon alluded to in the Book of Revelation, only that the prophetic critique about the Roman Empire can be applied to any wealthy nation that maintains power through violence and oppression.
And there’s a reason Christians in America are so averse (willfully or not) to the historical-critical reading of the Book of Revelation: It wasn’t written for people like us.
In What Is The Bible?, Rob Bell writes,
“Can you see how citizens of the most powerful global military superpower the world has ever seen might miss some of the themes of a library of books written by people under the rule and domination of the military superpowers of their day?”
For all of its disturbing imagery and divine violence, the Book of Revelation is a letter of eschatological hope written to an oppressed people being crushed underneath the boot heel of a power-hungry and violence-addicted empire. For its original recipients, the “secrets” of Revelation were equal parts terrifying and comforting.
The way of Babylon will eventually fail.
And the Kingdom of Heaven will prevail.
Addendum: Stop Talking About the Rapture
In 1827, an Irish pastor named John Nelson Darby fell off his horse.
The injuries he sustained from the fall were severe, and he spent two years recovering. During that time, he came up with a “new” way of reading and interpreting Biblical prophecy. It was from John Darby that dispensationalism and a “premillennial rapture” were born and popularized.
In The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing writes,
“According to Darby’s view, God has divided all of human history into seven distinct dispensations, or ages, and during each time God has dealt with people according to a different set of rules. Dispensationalism thus lays out a rigid master plan for all of history.”
Darby’s theories gained prominence after catching the attention of Cyrus Scofield, a former Confederate soldier and grifter, who included Darby’s notes in an annotated version of the King James Version Bible. Published in 1909, the Scofield Reference Bible went on to become one of the bestselling study Bibles of the century and the seminal Biblical text for the newly-formed Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, where its dispensationalism theology influenced generations of pastors, church leaders, and lay theologians – including evangelists like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Tim LaHaye.
So, yes, this means one of the core tenants of modern American Evangelicalism can be traced back to a guy who fell off his horse less than two hundred years ago. And, yet most Christians don’t have a clue that this is the origin story for their apocalyptic expectations and political framework. (Imagine how you’d react today to man who fell off his moped and, while recovering from his injuries, claimed to have discovered a “new way” of interpreting Scripture that involves the end of the world).
There are only a couple of Biblical passages that tease anything resembling “the Rapture” in Scripture, and none of those verses were interpreted as such prior to Darby’s horse accident:
- In Matthew 24:38-42 (and Luke 17:34-35), Jesus speaks about people being “taken” as “the flood came and swept them away.” He talks of two men in a field (and two women in preparing dinner), and suddenly “one is taken and one will be left.” The context of this passage makes it clear: To be “taken” is not a good thing. This is not a reference to a “rapture of the saints.”
- In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the apostle Paul writes about the “Lord descending from heaven” with “the sound of trumpet” and “all who are alive…will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” In this passage, Paul’s talking about the eschatological hope of early first-century Christianity: The literal resurrection of the dead at Jesus’s Second Coming. Some members of the Thessalonica church were apparently worried about the fate of those who died before Jesus’s return. The “them” Paul references in v. 17 are the resurrected dead. Furthermore, there’s no reference to anyone being “left behind” or seven years of Tribulation. Paul’s words are an encouragement, not a warning.
Reading the Book of Revelation as literal guidebook to the end of the world is as intellectually irresponsible as reading the origin stories in Genesis as a science textbook. It makes Christians no better than a roadside fortune teller or tarot card reader. And our apocalyptic fetishization transforms Christianity into a doomsday cult, with nothing more to offer the world than an escape from impending Armageddon.
The Good News has to be better than that.
For deeper research (and a more hopeful eschatology), I recommend: Surprised By Hope – N.T. Wright; Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brian Zahnd; The Skeletons In God’s Closet – Joshua Ryan Butler; The Rapture Exposed – Barbara Rossing; Revelations – Elaine Pagels; The New Testament In Its World – N.T. Wright & Michael Bird; Reversed Thunder – Eugene Peterson; Reading Revelation Responsibly – Michael Gorman ; Her Gates Will Never Be Shut – Bradley Jersak ; Unraptured – Zack Hunt; Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond – Counterpoint.
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