The Book of Revelation is our finest example in existence of an apocalypse. Apocalypses cannot be easily categorized as having common characteristics or themes, mostly because the term has been used so broadly and defined so loosely. In fact, in many cases, the common use of the word is not what the word means, at all. We have used the word apocalypse to mean end of the world or a cataclysmic event or something strange and dire. It has been used regarding prophecy and visions of the next world.
The truth is, apocalypse refers to a specific type of literature. We are most familiar with Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings, such as the book of Daniel and, of course, the Book of Revelation. But there are also Persian and Muslim examples of apocalyptic literature and these take on distinctive and easily identifiable patterns of thinking. According to that pattern, apocalypses usually reveal the struggle between the power of evil and people of goodwill. It usually involves some direct action from God on behalf of good people and is aided by angelic beings, just as the power of evil is supported by demonic powers.
The word apocalypse itself means “to draw aside,” as in pulling aside a curtain to reveal what is behind it. The fundamental characteristic of apocalypticism, however, is the knowledge that we are not in this struggle alone. Our simple worldview is pulled back to show the way things really are.
The first Jewish apocalypticist was the author of the book of Daniel, written around 165 BC. Other apocalypses that were written sometime later included Jewish works like 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, and 4 Ezra. Aside from the Book of Revelation, there were two other important Christian apocalyptic writings: the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter.
Of course, what separates Jewish apocalyptic writings from Christian apocalyptic writings is that, for Christians, it is Jesus who is the key figure and is instrumental in making the change that the world cries out for. One of the things that is common to all of these books is that they were written in times of national (or churchwide) distress. Daniel was written during the persecution of the Jews at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The Book of Revelation, on the other hand, was written during the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire.
These apocalyptic writings, therefore, were written in protest of the powers that dominated the current era. These powers were seen to be an opposition to God and, because of the suffering of God's people, God was soon to intervene.
The apocalyptic writings, then, were to encourage those who were experiencing persecution, to continue to hold fast to their faith, and to remember and be assured that their suffering was not in vain. Soon, God was going to vindicate the faithful.
Professor Bart Ehrman points out that some readers of the Book of Revelation believe the mysterious symbols suggest that the book was actually “underground literature.” According to this thinking, the symbolic language of the book was used to keep the Roman Empire from realizing that it was they (the Romans) who were under literary attack.
There is undoubtedly some truth to this view but the main function of the symbolism must be something else. In fact, these symbols and images are used to convey the heavenly secrets that cannot be understood from our simple standpoint. The mystery and grandeur practically required them to be reported in celestial, unearthly, strange imagery in order to present the higher realities of heaven.
The various apocalyptic writings of both Judaism and Christianity bear a number of similarities. They are almost all first-person narratives by so-called prophets who have been granted symbolic visions or dreams. The visions or dreams are almost always interpreted by a heavenly being who acts as an interpreter or a mediator. Those visions are used to explain the current realities of earth from a heavenly perspective. And these narratives almost always carry a triumphal movement from the suffering of life here and now to the glorious life that is to come, moving away from this pain-ridden life to the bliss that will be eternity.
There are two major kinds of ancient apocalypses: The heavenly journeys and the historical sketches. In the heavenly journey kind of apocalypse, the narrator is taken up into heaven and given a tour of the heavenly realm bye a celestial guide. Think of the book of Isaiah, “I saw the Lord high and lifted up and his train filled all of the temple.” Isaiah then goes on to describe the Serafim with six wings that flew about and cried holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
The idea of this type is that life on earth mirrors life in heaven, that it is some sort of earthly shadow of heavenly reality. It makes one think of Plato’s Allegory of The Cave wherein the shadows on the wall are only a reflection that we see and not reality.
In the historical sketches, the narrator offers a symbolic vision of the changing course of history with a divinely appointed future.
It is not very often that apocalyptic literature describes the layout of heaven or the future events in easily understood terms. Rather, it is the mystical and symbolic language that permeates the literature. That in itself makes the writings open to a wide range of interpretations.
Even more, apocalyptic literature uses violent and repetitive imagery. This violent imagery is often used as a line of separation or demarcation in the narrative. If we were to take the Book of Revelations’ descriptions of so-called future disasters too literally, it would be impossible to map them out chronologically on a timeline.
For example, at the breaking of the 6th seal, the sun moon and stars are all destroyed. That must certainly be the end as no life could go on existing on earth. And yet, life does go on and we enter a new phase of suffering on the earth with all those heavenly lights still shining brightly.
This is the remarkable impact of such writing, that we wind up with a spiral effect in the narrative. The catastrophes, vague warfare, and such cannot be stretched out on a simple line as if one thing occurred and was followed by another thing and then another thing. Many of them are happening simultaneously with each other. One important aspect or benefit of that kind of repetition is that it allows the narrator to use certain important numbers that appear several times.
In the Book of Revelation, for example, there are three major sets of seven disasters each. That number 3 has been always interpreted as symbolizing divinity and seven has been said to symbolize perfection or completeness. That is in contradiction to the number 6, one short of seven, which therefore represents human imperfection. State that number three times and you have the number 666, the number of the beast.
Bruce Metzger pointed out in his book Breaking the Code that the Bible uses different types of literature to appeal to the reader through different avenues. The Psalms touch our emotions. The so-called books of the law speak to our will and the letters of Paul often appeal to our intellect. The Book of Revelation, however, appeals primarily to our imagination—not, as Metzger says, a freewheeling imagination but a disciplined imagination. “Many of the details of the pictures are intended to contribute to the total impression and are not to be isolated and interpreted with wooden literalism.”
[Next time: John’s Symbolic Language and Revelation’s date and authorship]
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