Type of biblical literature that emphasizes the lifting of the veil between heaven and earth and the revelation of God and his plan for the world. Apocalyptic writings are marked by distinctive literary features, particularly prediction of future events and accounts of visionary experiences or journeys to heaven, often involving vivid symbolism. Later apocalypses often build upon and elaborate the symbolism employed by earlier ones. This is particularly the case in the Book of Revelation, in which not only earlier apocalypses but the whole Old Testament is plundered for ideas and symbols. Readers need to be alert to discern allusions.
It has often been argued that apocalyptic is a response to distress, enabling suffering people to see that God is in control of their circumstances and that ultimate deliverance is assured. There is certainly truth in this. However, as a total explanation it may be questioned. Apocalyptic is not the only biblical response to suffering, and therefore other factors must prompt it as well. Furthermore, the apocalyptic movement seems to have flourished also at times when particular suffering was not experienced. It is not clear, for instance, that Revelation is a response to suffering, although suffering is predicted in it ( 2:10 ; 13:10 ). Sociologically, it seems better to say that apocalyptic is the product of a prophetic movement, which claims to reveal the way things really are, both in heaven and on earth (the term "apocalypse, " the Greek name of the Book of Revelation, means "unveiling").
The biblical apocalyptic writings are characterized by certain distinctive theological ideas, which we will survey below. These concern particularly the relation between heaven and earth, the rule of God over both, and his ultimate victory over evil. However, these ideas are not found only in apocalyptic, but are themes of the whole biblical testimony in different ways. The mere appearance of these themes, therefore, cannot provide us with an adequate definition of apocalyptic. It is their appearance in this distinctive literary form, arising from this distinctive prophetic movement, which makes apocalyptic what it is.
The Bible contains two great examples of apocalyptic: Daniel and Revelation. But just as the distinctive themes of apocalyptic appear throughout the Scriptures, so we find that its literary forms have walk-on parts in many other books (Eze 1-3; Zech. 1-6; Matt. 24; Eph 1:15-23 ; Heb 12:22-24 ). Extrabiblical apocalyptic works like 1 Enoch (first century b.c. plus later additions) and 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch (both first century a.d.) are matched by apocalyptic passages in many other works. There was a flowering of apocalyptic in the late first century a.d., following the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, as Jews sought revelation from God to explain that horrifying disaster. It is interesting that this is when the Book of Revelation is usually dated undoubtedly the greatest example of apocalyptic.
Within Judaism apocalyptic faded out, but an apocalyptic visionary tradition has remained alive within Christianity ever since. No subsequent work, however, ancient or modern, attains the grandeur and power of the canonical Book of Revelation.
Apocalyptic and Revelation The fundamental conviction of apocalyptic is that the world may be understood, but only by revelation that enables understanding. The mode of revelation varies. Daniel usually receives visionary dreams in his sleep ( 2:19 ; 7:1 ), but he also has day-time visions ( 10:4-5 ) and is able to pass on words from God like a traditional prophet ( 5:25-28 ). John receives his revelation while "in the Spirit" ( Rev 1:10 ), which seems in his case to indicate an out-of-body journey to heaven ( 4:1 something claimed in other apocalypses of the period).
Apocalyptic is distinguished from other forms of prophecy in that God himself rarely speaks. The revelation is communicated through angels or other heavenly figures. Both Daniel and Revelation are full of speech, but in both books the only occasion on which the voice of God is unequivocally heard is Revelation 21:5-8, a passage all the more climactic because of this rarity. In both books a particular angel Acts as a guide and instructor ( Dan 9:21 ; Rev 17:1 ; 22:8 ).
One interesting difference between Revelation and all other apocalypses is the extent to which it leaves visions unexplained. The usual pattern, both in Daniel and in the extrabiblical apocalypses, is that a vision is followed by an explanation of the symbolism ( Dan 7:15-27 ; Zech 1:7-21 ), rather like the instances in which a parable of Jesus is followed by an interpretation ( Matthew 13:24-30 Matthew 13:36-43 ; Mark 4:1-20 ).
This is only occasionally the case in Revelation. In 7:13 a heavenly figure actually asks John for an explanation of what he has just seen (but then provides it for him). In most cases the visions are just related, so that the reader is challenged to provide the interpretation, as in the case of the majority of Jesus' parables. It is not by accident that each of the letters to the churches ends with the appeal associated with the parables: "He who has an ear, let him hear." Right interpretation demands spiritual capacity and insight.
The Interconnectedness of Heaven and Earth This follows as much from the mode of revelation as from the fact of it. John's entry into heaven is a token of the closeness of heaven to earth. Having entered it, he is able from that vantage-point to survey both heaven and earth and to see how, really, earth can only be understood when it is seen as one-half of a much greater reality. The same is true, though less clearly, in Daniel.
This interconnectedness is expressed in various ways. There are heavenly counterparts of earthly realities, like the "angels of the seven churches" ( Rev 1:20 ), and the four living creatures by the throne ( Rev 4:6 ), and the "son of man" of Daniel 7:13, who to some extent represents God's people in heaven ( Da 7:18 ). Similarly there are earthly counterparts of heavenly realities, seen for instance in the ghastly pairing of the two women who are also cities in Revelation 17-21: on the one hand the Great Whore, who enslaves the world by war and commerce, and on the other the Bride of Christ, who brings healing to the nations.
There is mutual penetration, expressed both by the presence of the risen Christ in and with his church (Rev 1-3), and also by the way in which earthly powers are seen as nurtured by the power of the beast ( Rev 17 ). Life on earth is determined from heaven: Decrees are issued from the throne that affect the earth ( Rev 16:1 ; cf. Dan 7:26 ), and events in heaven have a radical effect on earth (such as the ejection of the defeated dragon from heaven, Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:12 ).
Although earth is the sphere of the dragon and the beast, yet heaven and earth are seen as a single organism. This appears vividly in the compelling vision of uNIVersal worship in Revelation 5, where John sees (and hears) the worship spreading from the throne in concentric circles outward, from the living creatures to the twenty-four elders, then to the myriads of angels (v. 11), and finally to "every created thing in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (v. 13), with this final shout of praise echoed by an "Amen!" back at the center. At the end heaven and earth will be recreated together ( Rev 21:1 ).
God's Rule over a Chaotic World The basic message of Daniel 2-5 is that "the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes" ( Da 5:21 ). Similarly, but by very different means, the seals visions in Revelation 6 teach that the decree of God underlies all the chaotic horrors of human experience, including imperial conquest ( 6:2 ), war ( 6:3 ), violent and premature death ( 6:7 ), and the supreme (inexplicable?) injustice of being murdered for loyalty to the Creator ( 6:9-11 ).
As in the Book of Job, no reason is given for the presence of such things in God's world, but a profound answer is provided nonetheless: All these things issue from the scroll that only the slain Lamb is worthy to open ( 5:1-10 ). Such evils are permitted to exist in the world only because the Lamb God himself in Christ has suffered them all firsthand (especially the final one).
Ultimately, God's rule over the world is to be expressed by the overthrow of the powers that produce such evils ( Rev 6:15-17 ; foreshadowing the climactic overthrow of Babylon the Great in chapters 17-19 ).
The Protection of God's People The presentation of the "son of man" before God assures the status and security of "the people of the Most High" ( Daniel 7:13 Daniel 7:22 ). This does not mean that they are preserved from suffering. The great beast, whose power Daniel sees being transferred to the "son of man, " will still wage war on the saints and prevail over them ( Daniel 7:21 Daniel 7:25 ). But because the vision has been given in which the power of the beast has already been destroyed, God's people can be assured that they will be kept safe under its rule.
In Revelation the same idea is conveyed immediately by the vision of the risen Christ patrolling among the lampstands that represent the seven churches ( 1:20 ), and by his direct messages of warning and encouragement. He holds their "angels" in his hand. This is also the function of the dramatic interludes that intrude into the structural pattern of repeated "sevens." Between the sixth and seventh seals, John witnesses the "sealing" (play on words) of "the servants of our God" ( 7:3 ), so that they will not be harmed by the calamities he has just seen. A mark of ownership is set upon them, not to save them from the experience of war, famine, and disease, but to ensure that they will be among those who "come out of the great tribulation" ( 7:14 ), and who will no longer hunger or thirst ( 7:16 ).
Similarly between the sixth and seventh trumpets another interlude occurs ( Rev 10:8-11:13 ) that concerns the preaching of the gospel before a hostile world. While they give their testimony, the two witnesses are kept safe, even though they are defeated by "the beast from the abyss" and follow their Lord through death and resurrection ( 11:5-12 ).
The message of the book is that, even though we cannot avoid bearing the mark of the beast as inhabitants of this world-order ( 13:16 ), yet, viewed from heaven, we also bear the name of God and of the Lamb on our foreheads, and are secure with him ( 14:1-5 ).
The Ultimate Victory of God. This is the theme that unites the biblical apocalypses with all others of the same period. The powers of this world will be overthrown and replaced by the kingdom of God. This means both secular world powers and the power of evil that lie behind them. The vision that energizes apocalyptic is the day when "the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ" ( Rev 11:15 ).
See also Revelation, Theology of
Bibliography. J. Bloch, On the Apocalyptic in Judaism; F. C. Burkitt, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses; R. H. Charles, The Book of Enoch; idem, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; S. B. Frost, Old Testament Apocalyptic; D. Guthrie, The Relevance of John's Apocalypse; J. R. Harris, The Odes; idem, Psalms of Solomon; P. S. Minear, New Testament Apocalyptic; F. C. Porter, The Message of the Apocalyptical Writers; C. Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity; H. H. Rowley, Jewish Apocalyptic and the Dead Sea Scrolls; idem, The Relevance of Apocalyptic; D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic; L. L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Apocalyptic'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".