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.