In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T Wright describes the apocalyptic imagination of second-temple Judaism as being inseparably linked to hope. When Israel speaks about their expectations for the future, it is almost always through this genre. This sounds strange to many of us since the word apocalyptic makes us think of either zombies or a meteor headed for earth. Apocalyptic today means the end of the world. This idea, combined with our Deistic worldview, leads us to commonly misinterpret ancient, apocalyptic texts.
According to Wright, one of Israel’s central beliefs was that God was intimately involved in history. Their God was especially concerned with the plight of his people. The hope of Israel was that one day their God would intervene on their behalf, restore creation, and write the Law on their hearts. They hoped for the day when there God would become king. That day would not be the end of the world (in the sense of the space-time universe), but it would be the end of the present world order, in which evil and injustice currently reign.
How do you communicate such a complex and multi-layered concept? You do it through cosmic imagery. We do this all the time when we describe important events in our history. Wright uses the example of the Berlin wall. We say that the day when the the Berlin wall fell was an earth shattering event. If someone reading this sentence a hundred years from now assumed there was an earthquake that caused the Berlin wall to fall, then this would be a serious misreading of the text.
Finally, Wright describes the apocalyptic genre as presenting a series of dualities. Apocalyptic writings assume a clear distinction between creator and creation, the present age and the age to come. Wright distinguishes these dualities from a cosmological or anthropological dualism, in which the physical universe or our bodies are viewed as evil and separate from our spiritual make-up. That type of dualism is not found in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures and is more characteristic of Gnosticism. The hope of Israel, which the early Christians adopted, was not envisioned as a spiritual, atemporal existence. If God is known as creator, then his creation/material is viewed as good. If his good creation is corrupted, then the solution is not to destroy it but to restore it. This is where we commonly misunderstand key texts in Revelation that talk about fire and burning creation. The fire of God’s judgment is part of the purification and restoration process. It is not proof that God is scrapping his creation, but that he is cutting out the disease that is crippling it.
It is through this lens that books like Revelation and Daniel must be read. When this happens, the hermeneutic of the Left Behind series and the concept of a rapture are simply not convincing. (More to come on both of these topics in a later post).
The church today needs to reclaim the word apocalyptic as a synonym for hope. The mainstream view of Revelation, Daniel, and others apocalyptic sections in the Bible have too long been held captive by a fear mongering minority.
8 thoughts on “It’s the End of the World….As We Know It”
“church today needs to reclaim the word apocalyptic as a synonym for hope”
The problem, however, is that the term has manifested itself into an easy way of making money. People are fascinated by end of the world movies and books. We buy them and seek the, Thus, preachers and folks of various faith-based beliefs have transition themselves into market of economics, not one of historical/biblical interpretation.
I completely agree! Fear and money have too often been used by the church in order to manipulate the masses. Humans like to be afraid. Horror movies and haunted houses make their money off of this reality. The only way to get heard in a media saturated world is to say something crazy or scary (a.k.a. Mark Driscoll). Christians have to resist that temptation and learn to be okay with being drowned out by the noise.
Thank you for presenting this viewpoint. We need more people like to speak up to help counter an obviously distorted view of the word “apocalyptic”.
Thank you for the comment! I agree and hope to be an encouragement to those who view Revelation as scary and confusing.
I once was a Christian. I had a faith of the kind you lament, with its eschatological wackiness and other theological craziness that was quite distinctive to my place and time. Since, I’ve come to learn much about the things you mention here (and many other things too). It’s much easier to be curious and to discover now. Without foundation of fear, I no longer have to feel threatened. Sometimes, I wish I would have been taught a better, healthier, more generous, more scientifically inquisitive, more historically aware faith; I might have even not lost it. But now, I just keep in the closet as my friends and family reside in their parallel-world worldviews, bathed in the tension of another experienced dualism–fear and hope. And fear. And hope, and fear. A rapturous skyhook is the only hope things can ever be better. But not for me, maybe I can take small steps to make things better, where and when I am.
I wish that I could say that your experience is in the minority, but sadly I know that’s not true. It is stories like yours that fueled me to become a Bible teacher. I was taught similar things about Christian eschatology and continually have to break down those assumptions with my own students. This view of Revelation is truly a minority view in terms of the universal, catholic church throughout history. But nothing sells better than fear and so a minority view through the Left Behind series has received a major platform. One of the books that has been very formative for my Christian walk has been the book “Reading Revelation Responsibly” by Michael Gorman. If your interested in learning more about the historical background I definitely recommend it. I apologize on behalf of the church for what was done to you and countless others and sincerely pray that your small steps may lead you into the arms of Jesus, who is not waiting with a sword but with love.
I got saturated by the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay back in the Seventies, the heyday of Hal Lindsay and Christians For Nuclear War. Forty years later, the scars are still there, still capable of ripping into open wounds. To this day, I can only stomach Revelation in small doses and retain a deep deep distrust of the Christ who had nothing better to do than blow up the world (after beaming up His Speshul Pets) and cast as many as possible (except for His Speshul Pets) into Eternal Hell. I am currently Catholic, and have to approach God under the full safety precautions of the Liturgy.
P.S. I am also an SF litfan since 1975. I am very familiar with the concept of using futuristic imagery to reveal truths about the present.
P.P.S. As for “not waiting with a sword but with love”, do you mean like Princess Celestia, the god-figure of the current version of My Little Pony? Benevolent, approachable, and even playful?