Apocalyptic Thinking

Unfortunately, most of the time people hear or see the word “apocalypse” today they immediately associate it with some sort of catastrophic, end of the world, event that’s portrayed in movies like I Am Legend or the forthcoming Left Behind movie. This is unfortunate considering the menial amount of work required to clarify such confusion. Most of you readers should know that the last book in the Bible is named The Revelation to John (not “Revelations”). The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word that we get “apocalypse” from. Ultimately, the word “apocalypse” means “reveal”, hence the name of the last book of the Bible is The Revelation to John & opens by stating “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Rev. 1:1a). Another translation of the first sentence in The Revelation of John goes like this: “Apocalypse of Jesus Christ…” (Wycliffe Bible). The words “reveal/revelation” and “apocalypse” are synonymous. This means that when we are looking at “apocalyptic” literature we aren’t necessarily trying to figure out what it is telling us about the end of the world. Instead we should be asking what it is trying to reveal to us about the world we live in (or more correctly, the world the apostle John lived in).

In his book Desiring the Kingdom James K.A. Smith does a fine job correcting some of the modern misunderstandings that surround the word & idea of “apocalypse”. Here’s what he has to say:

Apocalyptic literature—the sort you find in the strange pages of Daniel and the book of Revelation—is a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment, in order to see them for what they really are. Unfortunately, we associate apocalyptic literature with end-times literature, as if its goal were a mater of prediction. But this is a misunderstanding of the Biblical genre; the point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. So apocalyptic literature is a genre that tries to get us to see the world on a slant and thus see through the spin. I imagine it as a bit like the vertical louvered blinds in my room: if the blinds are tilted to the left on a 45-degree angle, then from straight-on they’ll appear to be closed and shutting out the light. But if I move slightly to the left and get parallel to the louvers, I’ll find that I can see right through them to the outside world. Apocalyptic literature is like that: the empire (whether Babylon [Daniel] or Rome [Revelation]) has something to hide and so tilts the louvers just slightly to cover what it wants to hide. But apocalyptic is revealing precisely because it gives us this new perspective, just to the left, which lets us see through the blinders. Thus Richard Bauckham observes that the book of Revelation was meant to provide a set of “counter-images” to the official image purveyed by the Roman empire:

Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of the cleverly engineered “miracles” (cf. Rev. 13:13-14) in the temples—all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendor of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be. (Theology of the book of Revelation, pg. 17)

(Desiring the Kingdom, pg. 94)

Once this vision of the apocalyptic is understood floods of clarity come rushing in. When one adopts this [correct] understanding of the apocalyptic they can not only apply it to the apocalyptic literature in the Bible (Daniel/Revelation) but also to the empires of our day. We too, just like the Christians in Rome & the Jews in Babylon, are surrounded by powerful images of the American/Western vision of the world. We need to view these images through an apocalyptic lens in order to “see through the spin.”

Food for thought.

Michael

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