I remember growing up thinking that the Book of Revelation was impossible to understand. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to acquire a “toehold” on the meaning of the text. This came through a better understanding of the history of apocalyptic writing and a few of its distinctive markers.
What does the word apocalyptic mean?
Often we think the word “apocalyptic” refers to the end times or the destruction of the world. This is partially correct. But a more accurate description defines apocalyptic as the transition between historical ages. As a description of a historical transition, apocalyptic literature describes the old age coming to an end as it experiences destruction and then the beginning of a new age.
Although there are many distinctive characteristics of Apocalyptic literature, I want to consider two: that it originates in oppressive situations and that it uses insider language.
- Apocalyptic Literature and Oppression
By exploring oppressive situations and the type of writing they inspire I hope that we can begin to understand that God's judgement is never about punishment or damnation but it is always orientated toward reconciliation. This idea, that God’s judgement is for the sake of justice, can be understood by considering an abusive relationship: when we’re being hurt by someone else, a loved one or a cultural system for example, it’s important to understand what’s happening so that we stop the abuse and imagine a different way of life. Part of understanding abuse is naming and condemning it, saying to others that certain actions hurt and need to stop. This is difficult because our concern for the other often obscures the situation—we are afraid that we might hurt them, or that our words will only make the matter worse. Or perhaps, we just don’t want to believe that someone we love would hurt us. Apocalyptic literature tries to address the difficulties associated with judging evil from within an oppressive relationship and imagining what it would look like if life were to be restored. Nik Ansell, a professor of mine, and a theologian named Jürgen Moltmann calls this “judgement unto salvation”. Before we go any further, let’s try to understand this idea as it is worked out in three Biblical examples of apocalyptic literature: the first from Isaiah, the second from an apocalyptic prophet, Christ, specifically his parables in Matthew, and the third from the Book of Revelation.
First, Isaiah. Much of this book is written at a time when parts of Israel have been taken hostage and enslaved. The majority of Isaiah is spent describing the judgment of God on Babylon, the abuser. God’s wrath and judgement are described in gruesome detail as he promises to make the abusers eat their own flesh and drink their own blood. This prophetic language is both a stern warning of the consequences of sin as well as an expression of the pain the sin inflicts on the abused. The end of the book, however, draws a very different picture of the relationship between Israel and its enemies. In this new future, we’re told that Babylon, and all of Israel’s enemies, will act as a wet nurse to Israel. In the new creation, Israel and its enemies are called to become as close as a mother and her newborn child. This vision of reconciliation demonstrates that although God judges Babylon’s actions as evil, God desires reconciliation between these two nations rather than the damnation and punishment of the enemy, Babylon.
Second, in the parables found in Matthew, Christ, like Isaiah, speaks on behalf the captives, but this time rather than being captives of a foreign nation (Babylon) Israel is being oppressed from within by the temple system and their own Jewish leaders. Matthew says that the leaders are literally devouring the homes of widows and the poor. In these parables, Christ compares the judgement of the Jewish leaders--that they will be thrown into the valley of death--with God’s wrath towards the Babylonians. In fact, Christ uses the same word to damn Israel (hell or gehenna) as is used to describe the destruction of Babylon. Also, like Isaiah, Christ accompanies his judgement with a vision for the kingdom of heaven.
Finally, like Isaiah and Christ’s warnings to the Pharisees, the Book of Revelation comes out of a community where Jews and a new Jewish sect (Christianity) is experiencing severe persecution at the hands of the Roman empire and the temple system.* The persecution experienced in Christ’s day has only intensified. Revelation is patterned after Christ's warnings in that it too condemns Jerusalem the “great city”, comparing it to Babylon and Rome. Following the pattern of our first two examples, Revelation ends with a picture of reconciliation. Unlike the Jewish system of the time that had very stringent rules about who was in and who was excluded, the picture we get in Revelation is a picture of heaven that is forever open to all—“the gates will never be closed” (Rev. 21:24).
Judgement Unto Salvation
Generally, when prophets give warnings or judgments they hope that the oppressors--the bad guys, the abusers--will listen to the warning and turn from their sinful ways. In fact, many of the prophets in the Old Testament are, like Christ and Revelation, pleading with Israel to turn from its sinful ways. It’s important to read God’s judgement alongside his vision of reconciliation. Read in this way, judgement doesn’t so much anticipate hell or eternal damnation, but rather calls for life and a movement into salvation, hence, “judgement unto salvation”.
Recently, I read a lecture by a Jewish scholar who described the difference between a prophecy and a prediction. The difference he claimed, was that prophecy is successful when it fails and a prediction is successful when it is correct.** He used Jonah as an example: Jonah is asked to go to Nineveh to warn the city that if it continued on its evil course it would be destroyed. He was successful because the city ultimately turned from its evil ways and was saved. The prophecy, “that Nineveh will be destroyed” is successful because Nineveh isn’t destroyed. The prophecy points out the evil in Nineveh and Nineveh is able to recognize it and turn towards the good; thus, it is saved.
This emphasizes/teaches that “God’s judgment is not about damnation or punishment—it’s not about making a division between those who are in and those who are out. God’s judgment is always about putting things right, and it’s always in the service of life, opening life up again where life has been closed down.”***
2. Apocalyptic Literature and Hope
The second character of apocalyptic literature that I want to look at is the use of insider language and how this language can point to hope.
The language and symbols used in Revelation are Jewish and reflect cultural meaning that only Jews would really appreciate. In many ways, Revelation, like much of the New Testament, is a Jewish self-critique. In other words, Revelation is a book written by a Jew for Jews, warning them of what is to come and helping them find hope in their desperate situation. [The ability to participate in self-critique is an amazing characteristic of the Jewish religion and culture, an area Evangelicalism could learn from and improve in.]
A few implications of this insider language:
First, it requires patient interpretation. The meaning isn’t obvious. It forces readers to use their imaginations. It stimulates our minds by making unusual connections. We certainly see this in the parables. They help us stretch the muscles we’ll need to imagine new futures.
Second, as seen in political cartoons, for example, imaginative images can be subversive. In Matthew this is precisely what Christ does with the parables. He uses the word gehenna (hell), a word that Isaiah and Jeremiah use to describe the destruction of Israel’s captors, to describe the destination of Israel’s leaders. In other words, if, Israel’s religious leaders continue to devour the homes of the poor and the widows, they will be thrown into hell and the old age of the temple will experience a destruction. If the temple system is destroyed or reforms itself, however, then the poor and the widows will be liberated—hence the destruction of the old is the birth pains of the new creation. In imagining a new world the imaginative nature of insider language subverts the old.
This brings us to the third implication of insider language: it helps us reimagine the future in new and more hopeful ways. When you’re being oppressed, when you’re in an abusive relationship for example, it’s hard to imagine life apart from the abuse. As mentioned above, the abused can deceive us into thinking that it’s the norm. In order to imagine a new future, we need new words and we need to give old words, images, and thoughts new meanings. The reimagining done in apocalyptic literature helps with this tricky task. It helps us imagine a future full of hope in spite of present hardships. Parables, for example, help us imagine the nature of the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom where the first are last and the last first. Isaiah compares new creation to the relationship between a wet nurse and an infant, Revelation describes a city open to all. Apocalyptic literature makes unexpected and surprising connections that provoke hope.
Christ is an apocalyptic prophet, but as Revelation demonstrates, the apocalyptic tradition doesn’t end with Christ. It continues to this day. As with The Book of Revelation we are still called to root out injustice and imagine new futures, futures full of justice, peace, love, hope, and “nonsense”.
* Side note: although uncommon, Nik believes the book to be written in 68 A.D. two years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple--the very event that Christ prophesizes in his condemnation of the temple system. It is in 70 A.D. and the fall of Jerusalem that the Jewish leaders are thrown into the valley of death.