The Function of Apocalyptic
Brent Sandy says that understanding the function of apocalyptic literature is probably the most important thing about it. He says that the main thing is to bring hope in adversity. As he puts it, “The lofty heights of the [rollercoaster] ride – so unlike anything known on this earth – help the persecuted put their misfortunes in perspective.” Sandy describes the six effects of apocalyptic upon the hearers:
- It creates worshipful awe of the sovereign Lord.
- It brings hope and comfort that one day this troubled planet will be rules as heaven is ruled.
- It reminds hearers that they are in the midst of the cosmic battle between good and evil.
- It lends new courage to those under persecution and threat of death that they will be much better off one day.
- It creates an exhilarating image of God coming to earth to right all wrongs.
- It encourages to ethical purity since the faithful will receive honor in the new creation.
I personally do not find any of these things convincing. There is nothing here that straight prophecy doesn’t do also. In fact, God’s covenants do all this far more legibly and cogently. If the people will not believe the covenants why would they believe apocalyptic visions? And do these visions truly bring hope, or do they more usually leave a burning impression of the divine activity?
I submit that the function of apocalyptic is often to reveal the actual supernaturalness of reality and the processes running invisibly behind the Creation Project. As I will show, certain chapters (e.g. Dan 7 & 8; Rev. 12 & 13) do employ powerful images to get our attention. But they are all explained in the context.
The Influence of the Covenants
What influence, if any do God’s covenants have upon our understanding of apocalyptic literature? My position in this book is that the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic covenants, mediated via the New covenant in Christ, provide the road map of the Creation Project. Because these covenants possess a normative hermeneutical status, nothing in Scripture can contradict the oaths expressed in these covenants. That is just to say that no genre within the Bible will produce teachings that will contradict the expectations aroused by the things that God has unilaterally sworn to do.
Let us take a look then at the covenantal background found in the major apocalyptic passages. As we do so I will make some comments on the visions themselves.
Examining the Books
If we examine the “apocalyptic books” of the Bible without reference to critical scholarship what we see is something different than the recommended formulae. Ezekiel shows us the cherubim, which have been mentioned previously in e.g. Genesis 3 and 1 Kings 6, but we did not comprehend their strangeness until he described them (Ezek. 1 & 10). This appears to be a simple case of progressive revelation rather than anything connected to genre. An important question is, can a genre define whether or not a biblical writer decides to describe what he actually saw? We can admit that the composite beasts of Daniel 7 and 8 are figurative, but as Murphy has said, the figurative and metaphorical convey literal meanings. He writes,
Do the writers believe in the unseen worlds they depict? They do. Do they believe that seers are granted visions into and tours of the unseen world? Yes. Do they believe that the specifics of that world are accurate as described? Yes and no… They symbolize things, such as empires and kings. At the same time, even if an empire can be symbolized by a beast, it can be symbolized in other ways as well. And both are true and revelatory. The superhuman power of empires, angels, and demons is real. How it is presented can change.
Granted that empires are depicted as beasts, these meanings are not difficult to locate, since the prophets give us enough data to know what is intended. However, for the most part, what the prophets see (e.g. angels, cherubs, fiery horses, temples), are what they seem to be. They are often not representations of something else. We therefore need to carefully distinguish between the real and the symbolic in apocalyptic. (more…)