The apocalyptic literature of the Bible, which includes most notably Daniel and the Book of Revelation, exists in the popular consciousness as a sort of hitchhiker’s guide to the end times, chock-full of predictions of the historical events that will lead to the end of human history. Given the highly metaphorical language the writers use, the specifics can be difficult to pin down, but that ambiguity only feeds speculation. On various Web sites contributors weigh whether Revelation 13’s “Beast,” frequently referred to as the Antichrist, might be Vladmir Putin (revelation13.net), George W. Bush (seattleweekly.com) or Barack Obama (www. unfogged.com). On raptureready.com, one can find end-times resources like: the Prophetic Top 10—current events that suggest the imminent end of the world; “Left Behind Letters” supposedly penned by those who anticipate being taken up in the Rapture to help those who will be left behind; and chat rooms in which participants are discussing, among other things, whether the Gog/Magog war mentioned in Revelation will come before the Rapture and whether the proposed national identification card might be the prophesied “mark of the beast.”
Such ways of thinking are not as unusual as one might think. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have written more than a dozen novels imagining the events described in the Book of Revelation, books that have sold more than 60 million copies. On Web sites and television programs, such popular evangelists as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discuss apocalyptic topics, including what form the Antichrist might take and the place of the United States or Israel in the Last Judgment. And the popular press regularly churns out “documentaries” and other programs like the recent NBC mini-series “Revelations” that present biblical prophesy as a sort of scriptural Da Vinci Code indicating the world’s future course and conclusion.
Such interpretations completely misunderstand both the meaning and the value of apocalyptic literature. While apocalyptic texts do include end-of-the-world scenarios, usually in wildly imaginative terms, their primary concern is not to predict the future, but to help people survive in their own troubled times. The texts are not historical reports, “visions radioed in by means of a time machine,” in the words of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, but stories proclaiming humanity’s imminent deliverance. Evil may rule the day in certain respects, but we should live with confidence nonetheless, because God has already won the war. Both in the midst of our own world’s current conflicts and anxieties and in this Advent season, apocalyptic texts have much to offer us.
Apocalypse Then and Now
Although today the word “apocalypse” is synonymous with Armageddon, an end-times disaster of human or divine making, that is far from the biblical sense of the term. Derived from the Greek word apokalupsis, “apocalypse” literally means “revelation,” usually “revelation about the future.” Apocalypticism, broadly defined, is the belief that God has revealed the imminent end of the ongoing struggle between good and evil in history. The Book of Revelation begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John” (Rev 1:1). The latter half of Daniel, too, is characterized by visions and divine beings such as the angel Gabriel, who comes “to give you wisdom and understanding” (Dan 9:21).
In apocalyptic literature, as the biblical scholar John J. Collins puts it, an otherworldly reality is revealed to a human person through a divine mediator, often an angel. The term “otherworldly reality” has two meanings here. First, it is the heavenly realm in which the speaker finds himself. The speaker of Revelation describes himself in a bejeweled cosmic throne room “with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the thrones are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder” (Rev 4:3-5).
Second, the reality revealed in apocalyptic literature is what the seer is shown once he gets into the heavenly realm, namely our human destiny. Once in heaven, the seer hears or witnesses a decision made about earthly matters, generally a decision in the people’s favor. Couched in highly symbolic language, the decision often involves a cosmic battle between God’s emissaries and foes that the army of God wins. In Rev 12:7: “And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back but they were defeated.” Likewise, in Daniel 2 the speaker describes “a stone…cut out, not by human hands” that strikes down a statue with feet of clay and “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” Whether the vision is a prediction of a future event or an explanation of a past series of empires that have fallen (as here in Daniel), the point remains always the same—God is vindicated, God is triumphant over all, God is Lord.
The imagery of violent conflict that pervades apocalyptic literature is difficult for us to appreciate today. Taken out of context, the depictions reinforce a common understanding of the God of the Old Testament as a being of wrath and judgment. But like much of the mythological language of Revelation and Daniel, this imagery emerges out of well-defined concepts of the writers’ own times. In the ancient world, one’s status as king was obtained and confirmed through battle. Thus many ancient Near Eastern stories of creation involved a fight between two different gods. The loser of that battle would often become the substance out of which the earth and/or human beings were created; the winner was, by virtue of his victory, understood to be God the Most High.
In the ancient world, then, being God meant, by definition, being a victorious warrior. One of the bold innovations of Genesis 1, in fact, is that Yahweh rules over creation without ever engaging in battle. The sea—a primeval image of chaos and destruction—God gathers without difficulty; sea monsters, which in other stories might have been God’s opponents, are in Genesis 1 God’s creation: “God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves” (Gen 1:21). The underlying assertion is that unlike the gods of Babylon, Persia or Assyria, the God of Israel is so powerful that nothing can legitimately challenge him. From the beginning everything is under his control, subject to his whim.
The writers of Revelation and other apocalyptic texts return to battle imagery because invading armies, idolatrous Israelites or other hardships have challenged this notion of God’s kingship. The Temple lies defiled (Daniel); Christians suffer persecution from the Romans (Revelation); and the world no longer seems under God’s control. Drawing such historical conflicts into the cosmic context of a war between good and evil from which God emerges victorious, these stories acknowledge the evil and suffering in the world but discount its ultimate significance. God remains the king who will rescue his people.
Though seemingly wild-eyed and fanciful, apocalyptic texts have a concrete pastoral purpose. They were written to respond to that gap between what the faithful believed—that God is a deliverer who redeems the faithful and punishes the wicked—and their ongoing experience of persecution and suffering. Apocalyptic writings intend to exhort and console. Believers may feel powerless and beleaguered; yet viewed from a cosmic perspective, as Daniel Berrigan, S.J., writes regarding Daniel, that sense of powerlessness is transformed from a cause for grief into a reason for hope:
Let the human know its limits, God’s word seems to say—and thus its salvation. Neither we nor any human striving, no matter how virtuous, nor any system nor political amelioration—no human effort can usher in the era of justice and peace known as the realm of God.... Neither believer nor unbeliever is able to bring the end to pass.
But the visions of apocalyptic literature remind us, God can do this and has done it. Ultimately we will witness a radically different and better situation. As the last chapter of Revelation begins: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1).
Apocalyptic Writings Today: So What?
The topic of apocalyptic lierature is particularly relevant this December because of both the Advent season and the state of our world. Social questions, political divisions and terrorism challenge our faith in God and in one another. Yet if Revelation imagines God’s kingdom as sometime in the future, the readings for Advent and Christmas bring that expectation to the present. “The days are coming,” says God to Jeremiah in the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “when I will fulfill the promises I made” (Jer 33:14). The Gospel for the second Sunday suggests that day is now; it presents John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy of the one who will come to prepare the way. On the third Sunday we hear that “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zeph 3:15), and that we should “Rejoice!... The Lord is near”(Phil 4:4). The final Sunday presents signs and wonders—this liturgical year, the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb; in other years, the angel’s visitation to Mary or Joseph’s dream—each a further indication that God’s promise is being fulfilled right now. At midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the moment arrives: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” writes Isaiah (Isa 9:1). In the Gospel the angels announce to neighboring shepherds that “this day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11). Using apocalyptic themes and imagery, then, the Scriptures of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany point to the birth of Jesus, as God acting conclusively in history for our salvation.
They also teach us something about what our salvation looks like. Living in a culture saturated with “Left Behind”-style interpretations of Revelation, one might expect deliverance to involve wars, meteor showers and lots of drama. Instead, in Advent we hear that it begins with small, largely unseen events—a strange, bug-eating preacher wandering around in the desert, a baby moving in its mother’s womb and the birth of a child in some sleepy corner of the universe. Contrary to our expectations, the world the day after Jesus’ birth looks pretty much the same as it looked the day before. Yet we believe it has fundamentally changed.
In the face of forces that trouble us today, whether terrorism, natural disaster, our own mortality or persistent divisions in our church and government, we are tempted to doubt or—another form of despair—to take matters into our own hands. If God is not coming to save us from evil, we will have to save ourselves.
Apocalyptic literature offers a needed corrective. Reading Revelation or Daniel, we discover that we are hardly the first to struggle mightily against forces that we cannot overcome on our own. These texts also exhort us to remember what we believe—that God acts in history, promises to redeem our suffering and is faithful—and to proceed accordingly. We do not see our troubles coming to an end, but the kingdom of God now grows in our midst. Though its timeline remains unknown—we “know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt 24:42)—the conclusion to be drawn is clear: we are being delivered by God into glory, and we are called to proceed in hope out of that faith.