Apocalyptic

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn (Pt.5)

Part Four

The Function of Apocalyptic

Brent Sandy says that understanding the function of apocalyptic literature is probably the most important thing about it.[1]  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.”[2]  Sandy describes the six effects of apocalyptic upon the hearers[3]:

  1. It creates worshipful awe of the sovereign Lord.
  2. It brings hope and comfort that one day this troubled planet will be rules as heaven is ruled.
  3. It reminds hearers that they are in the midst of the cosmic battle between good and evil.
  4. It lends new courage to those under persecution and threat of death that they will be much better off one day.
  5. It creates an exhilarating image of God coming to earth to right all wrongs.
  6. 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.[4]

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.[5]   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.[6]

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.[7]   We therefore need to carefully distinguish between the real and the symbolic in apocalyptic.[8] (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn (Pt.4)

Part Three

Some Major Characteristics of Apocalyptic (with Responses)

Take up any book on the subject and you will be told that the many features of apocalyptic literature can scarcely if ever be found in one single work.  Indeed, a piece of apocalyptic can be absent many of the list of characteristics.  Still, it is worth trying to get at the criteria.  Brent Sandy has provided a list of eleven characteristics (twelve if one includes pseudonymity) of the genre[1]:  I have added some comments to temper them a bit.

  1. “jaw-dropping scenes of animals, rivers, mountains and stars that jump off the page with movielike special effects (Dan. 8:2-14; Zech. 6:1-7)”

– A star went before the magi to guide them; it was actual not apocalyptical.  While some of the animals, say in Daniel 7, are imaginary, this is not necessarily the case with the visions in Zechariah or Ezekiel.  If the prophets could see real spiritual beings (cherubim, seraphim, women with stork’s wings, etc), then apocalyptic is more a category of experience (which includes seeing the supernatural) than has hitherto been admitted.

  1. “natural catastrophes producing cosmic chaos throughout the universe, ushering in the dreadful day of judgment (Is. 24:18-20; Ezek. 38:19-22)”

– These passages describe an epic earthquake; nothing in these passages is figurative

  1. “pernicious and disruptive evil contributing to constant crises and producing a seemingly hopeless pessimism with the course of current events (Isa. 57:3-13; Dan. 7:19-25)”

– Isaiah 57 has a section full of hope for the contrite (Isa. 57:15-20), and Daniel 7 promises that the saints will possess the kingdom (Dan. 7:22, 27).  Sandy has simply ignored the wider context.  In point of fact, it is rare to find judgment or crisis passages in the Prophets which do not contain rays of eschatological hope.

  1. “an underlying determinism resting in the unquestioned conviction that somehow God is maintaining sovereign control (Is 25:1; 26:1-4)”

– It is common to identify determinism as an aspect of apocalyptic, over against the more ‘open-ended’ words of the prophet.  But while there are prophecies which are contingent, there are many others that are quite deterministic.  E.g. Jeremiah’s 70 years’ prediction.  The theology of the Bible is deterministic in terms of God’s eternal counsels.  It is also deterministic in terms of His unilateral covenants.  But it is not deterministic insofar as human decisions are concerned.  The Prophets want the people to repent (e.g. Isa. 5:12-13; Jer. 25:1-7; Hag. 1:5-11; Mal. 3:16-18).  Few people will read Isaiah 25 and 26 and come away with Sandy’s conclusions.  It hardly requires proof that all genres of the Bible stress God’s sovereignty.

  1. “ecstatic expectation that God will intervene and suppress all evil forces working against his predetermined plan (Zech. 14:3-9; Mal. 3:1-5)”

– I am not sure what “ecstatic expectation” means exactly, but I see nothing of the kind in either passage.  Zechariah 14 is a description of what will actually occur at the second coming.  Malachi 3:1-5 describes the effect of the coming of Christ, particularly upon the Levites.  Both can be classified as “literal” descriptions

  1. “ethical teaching aimed at giving courage and comfort to the faithful and confirming them in righteous living (Is 56:1-2; Zech 7:9-10; 8:16-17)”

– This is such a generic category as to be useless.  When does Scripture not give ethical teaching for these purposes?  Further, this is to be expected of a people under covenant

  1. “visions of celestial scenes and beings with an otherworldly perspective (Dan. 10:4-19; Zech 3:1-10)”

– It is not otherworldly according to the biblical outlook.  We are informed about spiritual forces operating in history which are to taken as real.  The Daniel 10 passage includes a vision of a man in linen who is angelic but real all the same.  The “princes” mentioned in the following verses are also real angelic beings.  The genre is not the main thing, the literal beings are!

  1. “heavenly interpreters explaining the scenes in language that may be figurative (Ezek. 40:3-4; Dan 8:15-17)”

– Ezekiel 40 is not figurative.  It is a literal description.  Jesus used figurative language about real things.  Speaking about language which may be figurative is hardly a solid base for a characteristic of apocalyptic.  Ezekiel 40ff. was not taken figuratively in ancient Judaism.  Daniel 8:16-26 provides the interpretation of his vision.

  1. “a dualistic perspective that characterizes things into contrasting elements such as good and evil, this age and the age to come (Dan 12:2; Zech 1:14-15)”

– We should be wary of imputing dualism to the Bible without qualification.  There is good and evil, but evil is not eternal as it is in non-Christian dualism.  There is of necessity a biblical dualism between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons.  We see this in Ephesians 6.  “The age to come” is a favorite phrase of Jesus.  You cannot be an orthodox Christian without holding to these things.  Ergo, how can this represent a genre?

  1. “visions presented in a very stylized structure, with events and time organized in numerical patterns and repetition of similar sets (Ezek 38 – 39; Dan 9:24-27)”

– What does it mean that battle scenes and historical predictions are stylized?

  1. “foundational to all the above, God’s promise to act in the last days to restore his people and establish a new and glorious world order (Is 27:12-13; Zech 8:1-8)”

– If this is foundational, then it is also utterly obvious to any attentive reader of any genre of the Hebrew Bible.  Is Isaiah 11 apocalyptic?  Or even Zechariah 14?  There are in fact numerous cases where the term “apocalyptic” begins to mean very little.  Besides this, some prominent voices declare that eschatology is not the most distinctive feature of apocalypses.[2]

When one steps away from the list for a moment and reflects upon the Bible’s teaching generally there is little new here.[3]  One should also note that about half of the passages Sandy adduces are not really apocalyptic.  At best they are proto-apocalypses.  We may wish to ask how many of these passages are not to be taken literally?  If we are answered by someone who declares, “None are literal, this is apocalyptic”, we begin to see the real problem.  It suits certain positions to deftly consign passages they do not wish to take prima facie to a particular non-literal genre.   (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn (Pt.3)

Part Two

Going Far Beyond the Bible

All of the major advocates of apocalyptic gather data, albeit not exclusively, from outside of the Bible.  Brent Sandy demonstrates his procedure of going beyond Scripture when he says, “In order to understand the language of apocalyptic, we must review the period of world history relevant to Daniel 8 and then examine Daniel’s language.”[1]  He is not alone.  Notice what is entailed in this statement about the genre:

Apocalypse was a literary genre that flourished in the period between the OT and NT (though apocalyptic visions of the future can be found in the OT as well as the NT).[2] 

Here is another statement from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:

Apocalyptic forms of expression were very common outside the Bible, and contemporary readers need to become familiar with that mindset to understand biblical apocalyptic literature and symbolism.[3]

What the author of this article is saying is that one cannot comprehend large parts of Daniel and Revelation, not to mention certain parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Matthew, and some Pauline letters[4], unless one goes beyond the Bible for clues of how the ancients used this sort of imagery.

Holding to this understanding of apocalyptic involves an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.   Whenever we go foraging into profane history, for example, to try to determine genre[5], ideas which are foreign to the Bible are inevitably brought to bear on the text of the Bible, thus essentially undermining the Bible’s own ability to explain itself.

We encounter this again in a recent evangelical work:

Old Testament apocalyptic literature belongs to a genre of Jewish writing that includes both canonical and non-canonical texts.  For a proper understanding of this genre within the context of its historical development, neither of these groups of texts should be examined in isolation from the other.[6]

Notice the position that inspired Scripture is being forced to take.  It must remain content to be analyzed alongside of non-inspired writings and until the accidental artifacts of ancient history have been sifted through.   But letting the Bible be its own interpreter clears away a lot of confusion.  For one thing, one sees the likelihood that later Jewish apocalypses (e.g. The Book of the Watchers; The Testament of Levi) are attempts to copy the biblical writings and put them to use in circumstances of hardship and hopelessness.[7]

Again, if we are going to insist that it is wrong to think of apocalyptic as serving up specific prophetic content, but rather leaving us with an image or impression of something it seems natural that we ask just how God will wrap up history, since basically all the passages that speak of it are lumped together as “apocalyptic” texts.  Will He do it by “rolling up the heavens as a scroll” (Isa. 34:4)?  Will Jesus really come “in the clouds with great power” (Mk. 13:26)?  Will the armies of heaven really follow Him (Rev. 19:14)?  Will there be a great earthquake (Rev. 16:18)?  Will the moon become blood red (Rev. 6:12)?    The answer coming from the apocalyptic corner is No, these are symbols meant to create impressions.  For the record, my answer is Yes!

Reminding Ourselves of the Bible’s “Wild” Worldview

Let us assemble some of the things that people actually saw and experienced in Old Testament times.  It would be a salutary exercise to ponder these events before considering apocalyptic as a genre. (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn – Pt.2

Part One

The ‘Apocalypse’ of John and Picking Sides     

The first composition to call itself an “apocalypse” was the Book of Revelation, written by the Apostle John circa 95 A.D.[1]  “And even there” says Collins, “it is not clear whether the word denotes a special class of literature or is used more generally for revelation.”[2]   But right here at the start I believe we are misdirected.  John expressly tells us that his book is a “prophecy” (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19), and is “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2), which “is the spirit of prophecy” according to Revelation 19:10.  So every indication within the Book of Revelation itself is that it is a prophecy.  Hence the term apokalypsis as John uses it does not refer to a special class of literature, but rather does stand generally for a revelation from Jesus Christ.

After the time of the dissemination of John’s Revelation, other writings used the term,[3] though arguably in service of the genre.  The decision that modern readers have to make therefore is whether to interpret Revelation as if it were self-consciously penned as a piece of “apocalyptic” literature in a continuum with a genre established in the inter-testamental period, or as a straightforward account of what John thought of as a prophecy.  What goes for John’s Apocalypse also goes, for example, for the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah.  The decision will inevitably divide one group of interpreters off from the other.

If we take a sketch of the two sides; the “prophecy side”[4] will declare that only the Bible is needed to decipher the writing and its message, while the “apocalyptic side” will generally see such an approach as obscurantist “biblicism” which disregards the cultural setting in which the writing was given.[5]  This thorough-going biblicist has no difficulty in laying aside the partial understandings of the ancient mindset and listening with both ears to the Bible’s own interpretation, which it provides with reassuring regularity.  As one commentator of the “prophecy” school put it,

In interpreting visions, symbols and signs in apocalyptic literature, one is seldom left to his own ingenuity to discover the truth.  In most instances an examination of the context or comparison with a parallel biblical passage provides the Scripture’s own interpretation of the visions and symbols employed.[6]

But that is a naïve way of looking at the literature according to the apocalypticists:

Biblical scholarship in general has suffered from a preoccupation with the referential aspects of language and with the factual information that can be extracted from a text.  Such an attitude is especially detrimental to the study of poetic and mythological material, which is expressive language, articulating feelings and attitudes rather than describing reality in an objective way.  The apocalyptic literature provides a rather clear example of language that is expressive rather than referential, symbolic rather than factual.[7]

Of course, Collins et al do not believe that works of apocalyptic literature are describing actual events.  He views Daniel for example as ex eventu prophecy, written centuries after the protagonists were dead.  Neither does he hold that books like Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah record genuine predictions.

From this starting point it is a foregone conclusion that Collins and those who agree with him will entertain very different opinions about the nature of apocalypses than the biblicist.  The effect that presuppositions about dating, divine inspiration, predictive prophecy, and borrowing from Canaanite myths[8] has upon ones understanding of the genre is very profound.  But many conservatives have bought into the conclusions of such scholars while trying to hold on to traditional dating.  Moreover, those evangelicals who have drank most deeply from the liberal wells are the ones who end up sounding more and more like their critical mentors. (more…)

The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn – Pt. 1

This is a draft chapter from the forthcoming book ‘The Words of the Covenant’ 

The purpose of this article is to cast a little doubt upon the generally received view of the reading of biblical apocalyptic literature.  As the unique Word of God, the Bible itself is its own interpreter, and much of the edifice of genre criticism and particularly apocalyptic genre is not based on biblical premises, nor should the “apocalyptic” sections of the Bible be read as if at odds with the understanding of God’s covenants that we have been considering.  In point of fact, read against the backdrop of the divine covenants apocalyptic presents few problems for the interpreter and makes its own contribution to the prophetic big picture of the Bible.

Apocalyptic as We are Supposed to View It

According to the leading writers on the subject, the study of apocalyptic literature only gained impetus in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and really began in earnest in the second half of the twentieth century.  Though there has been some shift in opinion over the past fifty years, the overall consensus is fairly stable.  Mainline scholars have broken down their study into three major strands:

Apocalypse is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”[1]

Apocalyptic includes the “language and conceptions” of the genre of apocalyptic literature.[2]

Apocalypticism is the worldview or mindset of those who wrote apocalypses, and the community for whom they wrote.[3]

John J. Collins, who is the most recognizable scholar writing on the subject, says that,

“A movement might reasonably be called apocalyptic if it shared the conceptual framework of the genre, endorsing a worldview in which supernatural revelation, the heavenly world, and eschatological judgment played essential parts.”[4]

This way of speaking is so inclusive as to embrace nearly everything in the Bible.  Yet only in this sense is Ernst Kasemann’s statement that “apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology” true.[5]

The Bible and “Apocalypse”

In historical-critical assessments of the genre the story goes that a movement sprang up in the centuries before Christ of which some biblical writers were a part.  Some scholars, like P. D. Hanson, believed that the movement had its roots in the 6th century B.C.[6], but for all intents and purposes it is held to have truly sprung up in the 3rd century B.C., thus making all the Jewish writers (including, as they believe, Daniel and Second Isaiah) pseudonymous.[7]  For reasons that have been debated, but which often include pious mysticism, fear and persecution, or plain confusion[8], some writers developed this genre of apocalyptic literature.  Briefly stated, the genre,

…focuses upon a dramatic revelation (Gk apokalypsis) to an outstanding religious figure …a revelation that typically anticipates the climax of history for a deteriorating world with the destruction of the forces of evil and the victory of God.  This revelation is characteristically coded with striking images and mediated through angelic mediators.[9]      

It is not my purpose in this chapter to question the whole genre of apocalyptic.  I do think that for example, Daniel 7 and 8 and Revelation 12 and 13 contain visions and images (e.g. composite beasts) which may represent a certain literary genre.  Also, the angelic messengers to Ezekiel (Ezek. 40 – 48) and to John (e.g. Rev. 17 – 22) appear within a genre of divine disclosure which one may wish to call “apocalyptic.”  But I am of the strong opinion that the angels in both cases were real, and so was much of what they revealed (in the sense that it was not symbolic), so that both the temple in Ezekiel and the New Jerusalem in Revelation should be taken literally.  There is little clear evidence to suggest that the generally accepted perspective on apocalyptic genre should be foisted upon the biblical materials.  For example, although the beasts of Daniel 7:3-7 are figurative in that they stand for something else (i.e. kings and kingdoms), there is no reason to think of the “living creatures” in Ezekiel 1 and 10, or the supernatural horses of Zechariah 1:7 or even the stork-winged women in Zechariah 5:9 in the same way.  In other words, I view Daniel’s “beasts” as impossible creatures[10], but these other beasts as entirely possible.[11]  Discerning the difference is an important part of the literary study of the genre, but it produces little to improve one’s comprehension of the revelation. (more…)