For some the year 2000 is a magical date—irrespective
of the fact that its computation is arbitrary. There has been
much talk of the millennium, which in fact means only that ten
centuries have gone by! To me, it—s no big deal, but evidently
others see it differently. Fair enough. My concern, however,
is that some of those spooked by the prospect of an imminent
millennium are capable of spooking others. They can do serious
hurt. Without generalizing, one can say, assuredly, that we
face an apocalyptic perspective. Apocalypticism has its own
respectability. What is dangerous is a misunderstanding of it.
Defining the Terms
We have not only to define an already elusive
word; we need to distinguish between apocalypse and apocalypticism.
This is not a pedantic exercise. We must know what we are talking
about. A lot of nonsense has been talked about apocalyptic—and
not only by fundamentalists. Let us come to grips with the terms.
Apocalypse is a literary genre or form—the kind of literature
in which apocalyptic views are expressed. Apocalypticism
is the worldview of an apocalyptic movement or group.
The most inclusive term, perhaps, is apocalyptic,
which would encompass both of these terms. It might help to
view apocalyptic in relation to providence and eschatology.
Providence has to do with looking ahead; the providence of God
means that God sees the course of history. Eschatology, from
the Greek eschaton ("final," "the end"), means that God
has a final goal in view. Apocalyptic affirms that the final
goal is near at hand.
Disclosure of heavenly secrets is a feature of
apocalyptic. This is because Scripture, though the word of God,
does not have all the answers. In the apocalyptic view, God
reveals his mysteries directly to humans and gives them knowledge
of the true reality so that they can organize their lives accordingly.
The two biblical apocalypses (the Book of Daniel and
the Book of Revelation) support such a view of apocalyptic.
A Literary Type
The word apocalypse, then, designates a
type of Jewish literature that flourished from about 200 B.C.
to the end of the first century A.D. The Christian Book of Revelation
fits the pattern. Apocalypse has been defined as: "a genre of
revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which 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."
Quite a mouthful! A brief analysis of the definition
will clarify its content.
The narrative framework of an apocalypse describes
the manner of revelation. An apocalyptic visionary claims to
have been let into the secrets of the heavenly realm. He has
access to these heavenly secrets either by means of visions
or hearing the heavenly word, or through an otherworldly journey—in
effect, a guided tour of heaven. A constant element is the presence
of an interpreting angel. This is to underline the fact that
revelation alone is not enough; the visions are beyond the power
of human interpretation. The content of the revelation is typically
in the form of a "prophecy" of an event long past and often
involves the division of history into periods (for example,
a series of "weeks" of years). Angelic and demonic forces also
play a significant role.
It is taken for granted in apocalyptic writings
that a supernatural world stands above our earthly world. That
heavenly world is the "real" world. There is, indeed, a twofold
dualism: vertical (the world above and our world) and horizontal
(our age and the age to come). In short, the presumption is
of an otherworldly reality that dictates the fate of our world.
There is a looking to life beyond death, a life very different
from the life of our experience. There is always a definitive
judgment: the final clash between good and evil, issuing in
the total victory of God and the end of evil.
Eschatology—concern with the "endtime" events—emerged
in biblical prophecy. To put it very simply, the prophets of
Israel, when they looked to the future, envisaged a world that
would find form and shape in history. Some people said that
apocalyptists had opted out of history, but this appears to
be an overstatement. The apocalyptic attitude toward the present
age does not arise from the conviction that the present world
was too corrupt for the establishment of God—s kingdom. Rather,
it is a frank admission that without God—s help the coming of
the new age could never be achieved.
'Them and Us'
In practice, apocalypse is, frequently, a gospel
of the marginalized. It proclaims: God is on our side. Here
we are—the minority—whether in relation to an alien power or
in face of a power-group within our own society. "We" have no
clout. But right is on our side, and a God who looks not to
might but to right has to be on our side. When one takes God
seriously, it is a powerful argument. The question, of course,
is whether one might make God to be whatever one wants God to
It has been generally assumed that apocalyptic
arises from the experience of alienation or in times of crisis.
An apocalyptic group sets up its own symbolic universe or worldview:
a system of thought within which it can live its life. Usually
it does so in protest against the dominant society with which
it is in conflict. The group has a painful experience of alienation
and of powerlessness. Alienation and crisis are of many kinds.
And it may be said that an apocalyptic writer is usually addressing
what he perceives to be a crisis situation.
Reading an Apocalypse
The canon of Scripture is the collection of writings—the
Old Testament and the New Testament—recognized by the Church
as divinely inspired. There were, of course, many other religious
writings in Israel and in the early Church. Among these were
many more apocalypses. We know of some seventeen Jewish apocalypses.
They are of uneven worth, but two of them are of particular
1 Enoch is a compilation of five "books" or sections
of unequal length and of differing dates. In general the work
reflects the historical events preceding and following the Maccabean
Revolt (167-164 B.C.)—the same setting as the Book of Daniel.
The apocalypse of 4 Ezra was written after the
destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. It dates
from about the time of the Book of Revelation. Because we are
unfamiliar with the genre, apocalypse is, to us, strange and
disturbing—when it is not incomprehensible. We should realize
that for Jews and early Christians it would have been part of
their culture. They would have understood its literary conventions
and heard its message.
What It Means
What does apocalyptic mean today? One may, paradoxically,
start by observing that what it has come to mean for many is
a classic instance of what it most certainly does not
An example is "premillennial dispensationalism,"
a brand of fundamentalist eschatology that is notably present
in the United States. An indication of its popularity is the
best-selling book by Hal Lindsay, The Late Great Planet Earth
(1970). This is also the position that underlies the preaching
of the major contemporary TV evangelists.
The term dispensationalism refers to the
theory that God "dispenses" or administers the divine purpose
throughout history in seven distinct and successive stages,
called "dispensations." The seventh dispensation is that of
the millennium (Revelation 20:1-6). Premillennialists believe
that Christ will return before the millennium. After a brief
reign of Antichrist, he will come decisively to destroy the
powers of evil in the great battle of Armageddon.
The concept of a millennium—perceived, literally,
as a thousand-year reign with Christ on earth—and the final
battle of Armageddon, show the influence of Revelation on the
dispensationalist stance. History is rapidly moving to a showdown:
the final, decisive battle of good and evil will be fought in
the valley of Megiddo (Revelation 16:16).
A further refinement is the "rapture"; this time
the single text of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 is pressed into service.
Using vivid apocalyptic language, Paul had underlined the truth
that all the faithful will live with the Lord forever. He spoke
of all being "caught up" ("rapt up") to meet the Lord at his
Coming—hence the "rapture" of the dispensationalists. According
to them, true believers will, at the end, be "raptured" from
the earth and will thus escape the gruesome destruction of the
rest of humankind.
Here we have not only gross misinterpretation
of Revelation (and other biblical texts), but something unsavory
and even dangerous. The idea of an elect minority being shunted
to the safe regions of the upper air while a vengeful Lamb destroys
the inhabitants of the earth is scarcely Christian.
I suggest that apocalyptic is marginal to Christianity.
It is a feature of our tradition, but it must be set in the
context of the broader tradition. I would, tentatively, propose
my assessment of the place of apocalyptic in the Christian world
of today. It is quite negatively slanted.
In apocalyptic dualism, the heavenly world is
the real world. What occurs on earth is repercussion of something
already determined in a heavenly world. This means that human
and earthly life is seriously devalued. The situation is aggravated
by expectation of an imminent end. The sharp division of the
world into good and evil is simplistic. It would seem that an
apocalyptic group is, inevitably, sectarian. It sees itself
as in the right. "We" are the suffering righteous ones. "They"
are the wicked oppressors. There is a marked tendency to demonize
the perceived opposition.
On the positive side, apocalyptic is an emphatic
assertion of the sovereignty of God. It takes a serious view
of evil. It urges that the righteous must take a stand against
evil, no matter the consequence. Apocalyptic is, at its deepest
level, hopeful. There, I believe, is its saving grace.
It is easy to see apocalyptists as alarmist and
hopelessly unrealistic. They may, instead, be reminding us that
only God can bring about a kingdom that is the measure of human
Historically, the Christian churches have striven
to be so many things. Too often the Church has done "as the
Gentiles do." We have suffered much from bad theology. Bad exegesis
has proved even more disastrous. Poor understanding of, and
blatant misuse of, Scripture is not, unhappily, the preserve
With a proper understanding of apocalyptic, we
can rest assured that the year 2000 will not mark the end of
the world. The Church will become kingdom only in God—s way
and in God—s time. In this belief we find the true hope that
underlies the apocalyptic writings in our Bible.
Next: John the Baptist (by Jerome Murphy-O—Connor)