Every time I encounter the word ‘apocalyptic’ in a text, I get scared. But maybe not for the reasons you would expect.
Apocalyptic produces fear because for some scenes from Apocalypse Now, or even worse scenes from one of those tribulation movies so popular at youth group lock-ins in the 80’s, flash before our eyes leaving us trembling at the thought of it all becoming reality. Others imagine scenes from Daniel and Revelation filled with goats and growing horns, stars being thrown down, flying horseman, dragons, seven headed beasts, and seals being broken. In the end, we are left much like Daniel, “And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days…I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.” (Dan 8:27)
Yet, as scary as these images are what frightens me the most is that for many Christians apocalyptic means chaos, wars, judgment and nothing else. In other words, we lack an apocalyptic imagination.
Apocalyptic is a rich term drawing meaning from many different wells and therein lies one of the primary problems; most of the wells are left untapped. Many Christians, including many Christian scholars, have never read (much less studied) the various sources available that can inform our apocalyptic imagination. Multiple sources dating from late BC to early AD offer examples of the apocalyptic worldview prominent during these times. For example, 1 Enoch, Fourth Ezra, Second Baruch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the book of Jubilees, the Sibylline Oracles, and even parts of The Dead Sea Scrolls.* Some of these books do contain scary scenes and other-wordly visions, much like those in Daniel and Revelation, but they also engage in what can be considered a history-making exercise, that is they examine how we got here (past), what is happening (present), and where it is all going (future).
Apocalyptic is not just about the future, apocalyptic is a re-imagining of the world we live in.
Once this is realized and the ideas are given room to blossom, we come to understand that Christianity is most assuredly an apocalyptic religion and not just because we believe Jesus will come again. Jesus announced the kingdom of God is a present reality. Paul declared the present evil age has been defeated. The writer of Hebrews described the good things that have already come. Peter proclaimed God has already acted to cause us to be born again. The past, present, as well as the future have been changed by God’s apocalyptic in-breaking through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. The axis around which all history turns is the first coming of Jesus Christ not the second. It defeated the old. It inaugurated the new. It altered the present. The world has been changed and nothing can be the same again.
And while I hold out hope that this apocalyptic imagination will take hold, the reason I get scared when I read the word ‘apocalyptic’ is because if all we can imagine is a story ending in chaos, war and judgment then the available options for how we choose to live in the present are indeed something to be afraid of.
*For more information on apocalyptic literature:
- John C. Collins – The Apocalyptic Imagination (from which title of post was stolen!)
- Frederick J. Murphy – Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World
- Christopher Rowland – The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity