Predicting the Future with a Present Purpose

Apocalyptic literature is a land of vivid dreams, other-wordly visions full of heroes and villains. And very few read them as is they have no meaning, but many read them looking for the wrong meaning.

In teaching Old Testament, one of the things I try to emphasize with my students is that these books are history written for a purpose. Did they record history? Certainly, but the writers of the Old Testament were not primarily objective historians recording Israel’s history for the sake of future generations. Rather, they were ‘theologians’ interpreting God’s activity in time and space to urge Israel to place their absolute trust in God. Their primary focus was how particular events from the past could shape their audiences’ view of the present world and actions in the present world. In other words, they were not simply retelling history to explain past realities, they were interpreting history to create a desired present reality. Or as I repeatedly say to my students, writing history with a present purpose.

I share this example because I think it relates to how we should read apocalyptic literature (apocalypses).[1] Jewish apocalypses differ from the Old Testament’s historical books in one main detail they focus on future events not past ones, but they have a similar purpose. Do some apocalypses offer actual visions of the future?[2] Certainly, but most writer’s of apocalypses were not primarily focused on recording the future for the sake of future generations. Rather, they offered glimpses of God’s future activity in time and space to urge Israel to be faithful to God in the present. Anathea E. Portier-Young writes, “Their visions portrayed reality in a new light in order to change now only how their audiences saw, but also what they did.”[3] Apocalyptic writers ‘predicted’ the future not to provide a map to find the treasure, but to create a desired present reality. In other words, apocalyptic literature is predicting the future with a present purpose.

This view of apocalyptic literature can have a profound effect on the way we read and interpret these great writings. Instead of reading them as treasure maps, where we escape into a world of dreams and visions with the primary purpose of identifying the markers of God’s future activity (e.g. answering questions like, Who is the anti-Christ? or Is this the war to end all wars?). I believe we can return to reading them as they would have been intended, as calls to present faithfulness to God.

Apocalyptic literature is not an excuse to abandon reality but a challenge to engage reality. They are not an excuse to focus solely on the magnificence of God’s future coming, but a challenge to look for places where we can work to make his kingdom a reality in the here and now.

 

[1] Apocalypses are found among the literature of many nations in the Ancient Near East.

[2] We must also recognize that many apocalypses were actually written after the events being ‘predicted.’ In these cases, the future is a literary device but it does not change the fact that they used ‘future’ events as a means to give meaning to present events.

[3] Portier-Young, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, 217.

 

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