“A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” –Mark Twain
Last week Deb introduced us to the subject of Eschatology. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to start here.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on Revelation, but few people actually understand what the Book is about, who the original audience was, and why the author chose to use such cryptic language. Before we consider the merits of each end-times view, we have to understand apocalyptic literature.
What is apocalyptic literature?
The book of Revelation is considered apocalyptic literature. A few other books in the Bible have apocalyptic passages. Apocalyptic literature is a certain style of Jewish writing that developed in the time of the Exile and remained popular through the Middle Ages. It was particularly popular during times of persecution. In fact, “every age of great political agitation had its apocalypses,” (Jewish Encyclopedia).
Apocalyptic literature was used as an encouragement for believers because it focused on the rewards of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. ” This…was for the purpose of awakening in the hearts of their readers, who were living in a period of gloom and bitter trial, that belief in the blissful future promised them, which filled their own souls. For in times of oppression and persecution the apocalypse was essentially the literary medium through which the minds of the faithful were appealed to….” –Jewish Encyclopedia.
Characteristics of the genre include:
- Time divided into 2 ages: the present age ruled by Satan, and the age to come ruled by God
- Claims to reveal new or hidden knowledge
- Uses prophetic vision to “see” the future
- Uses mysterious and symbolic language
- Authors use pseudonyms
- God’s victory over evil
- The sovereignty of God
- Preoccupation with the future
- Emphasis on resurrection and/or afterlife which will ensure final justice
- Messianic expectations
The basic message of apocalyptic literature is the promise of God’s future victory over evil. It was written in times of great distress. The promises of coming victory encouraged believers to remain faithful. They would see justice for all their suffering, even if not in this lifetime.
There are several apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament (Daniel, Zechariah, parts of Isaiah, Joel, Ezekiel) and the New (Matthew, 1 Corinthians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, Jude). There are also extra-Biblical apocalypses.
Why does it matter what literature Revelation was written as? Anytime we try to read and understand a passage, it’s important to know what literature it’s written in. You wouldn’t read a phone book the same way you read the daily comics. You wouldn’t read an instruction manual the same way you read a love poem. You have to understand the literature of what you’re reading.
Psalm 6:6 “I am weary with my sighing; every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with me tears.” The Psalms are poetry. If you do not understand this you might think that David had an eye disorder that caused him to cry so much.
Proverbs are short, wise sayings that are generally observed to be true, but not always true. “A generous man will be prosperous” (Proverbs 11:25). It’s true most of the time, but there are some exceptions: a generous man who does not prosper, or a prosperous person who is not generous.
How did the Early Church interpret apocalyptic literature?
The end times view of the early church was an emphasis on the immanent return of Christ, and a belief in a literal thousand year reign, known as chialism. If the early church fathers had any end times views besides the immanent return of Christ it was premillennial. They believed Christ would return before the millennium.
The prevailing end times view of the church has been Amillennialism—the view that the millennium referred to in Revelation is the current church age and will eventually culminate in the return of Christ to earth.
This view relies on a largely symbolic interpretation of Revelation. As apocalyptic literature it doesn’t give a timeline of upcoming events. Instead it is about the conflict of good and evil and the promise that God will one day prevail over evil and faithful believers will be rewarded.
Another popular view of the end times is postmillennialism. This became popular during the Industrial Revolution in the 1870s and remained popular until World War 1. This is the view that the return of Christ will happen after the millennium, a time when all or most of the earth has become Christian and the Kingdom of God is realized on earth.
This view also relies on a symbolic interpretation of Revelation. It is very similar to amillennialism. Revelation is not to be taken literally, but understood as a promise of God’s coming victory over evil. The difference is that Postmillennialism teaches that there will be a universal acceptance of the gospel on earth before Christ’s return, while Amillennialism teaches that Satan will not be defeated until the return of Christ.
This is the view that Christ will return before the millennium, a time of peace and acceptance of the gospel, which will come to an end with a final rebellion. A form of this view was held by the early church, but was largely rejected until the rise of Dispensationalism with the teachings of Darby in the 1830s. This is currently a popular theory, especially known for its teaching of a rapture of the Church.
Instead of seeing the symbolism of Revelation as a general conflict between good and evil, Premillennialism relies on symbols to have direct correlations. It is also more literal in its interpretation of the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20.
So you can see that:
- Revelation is consistent with other kinds of apocalyptic literature
- Type of literature is important for understanding interpretation
- Different interpretations of Revelation have led to different views of the end times
So, how do you read Revelation? As a static timeline of events? As a fluid narrative of the big conflict between good and evil? Somewhere in between? Does it matter that Revelation has been included in the canon (the final list of books in the Bible) and should it affect how we interpret the book?