In this lesson, we will discuss what apocalypticism is. We will look at both the characteristics of an apocalyptic worldview and literature within the apocalyptic genre. And we will discuss some reasons why studying apocalypticism is relevant to our modern world.
Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature. 2nd ed. The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.
The concept of the Devil, that is, personified evil, evolved from about 200 BCE at a time when Apocalyptic Judaism was becoming popular. You don’t find much of this in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) – with an exception being in the book of Daniel – but you do find it in the Book of Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls and within the early Christian community. The last book of the Bible is called Revelation, but sometimes also The Apocalypse, and this is the predominant Christian example of the genre.
When we talk about apocalypticism, we are talking about three different things.
There is often dualistic language, so everything falls into one of two opposing camps: good vs evil, the righteous vs the wicked, light vs darkness, truth vs deceit. There aren’t gray areas here, you are either in one or the other.
Generally, you find that there are different periods of time or ages of history. For instance, we are currently living in a time when Satan rules the world. But this period will end when God intervenes, often with a cosmic drama that has the good and evil angels fighting one another. Evil will be defeated, and God will establish a new age, which will involve some type of peaceful era where evil no longer exists.
So, to unpack this a bit, generally in this type of literature, you have some kind of revelation being revealed by a vision or otherworldly journey. The seer usually engages in dialogue with an otherworldly being or the seer is allowed to read a heavenly book, which reveals heavenly secrets and hidden events of the future. The format usually is something like “I saw this. Then I saw this. Then this.”
There is almost always an angel that acts as an interpreter of the vision or serves as a guide during the journey, implying that the revelation requires some kind of otherworldly aid to be interpreted correctly, and the seer almost always pseudonymously takes the name of a figure from the past.
There are two types of visions: first, there is the historical apocalypse that describes historical events in apocalyptic terms. They may do this because writing bad things about historical kings tends to have bad consequences so they cloak their outrage in imagery that could have varying interpretations.
The second type of vision involves a heavenly tour or otherworldly journey where the mysteries of the universe are revealed. This often involves an eschatology – which is how the end times will play out, such as if there is a cosmic battle, punishment of the wicked, and a new era of peace.
So to summarize, the term apocalypticism can mean three things: it can mean an apocalyptic worldview, it can refer to a social group who holds these worldviews, or it can mean a genre of literature that expresses apocalyptic characteristics. You don’t always get the three together.
For instance, sometimes it can be difficult to determine if a specific apocalyptic writing was written by one lone individual or if a social group also believed the writings. You have to look at what evidence we have to see if the author mentions a social group or has some interaction with a social group such as if the writings were found in different places and translated into different languages.
First, if you want to understand the context of early Christianity, it’s useful to understand what these ideas were that were circulating at the time. Most of these concepts are not found in the Old Testament, where Satan is barely mentioned, and when he is, he is part of God’s divine council and acts in the role of an Adversary or Prosecutor. He does nothing without God’s permission.
However, by the time the New Testament is written, clearly, the idea of Satan and demonic forces play a large role in the everyday lives of Jesus and his early followers. The New Testament authors never explain what demons are – they assume their readers know. So if we, as modern readers, want to understand how they understood these concepts, we have to look at some of the other literature circulating at the time.
Second, millennialist movements and apocalyptic beliefs are still popular in modern times. The end times still play a looming role in many Christian denominations. Radical doomsday sects like Heaven’s gate make news every few years with groups believing the world will end on a specific date. Within Judaism, there are Zionist and other modern Jewish messianic movements that predict the coming of a new age.
Third, our popular culture loves to think about post-apocalyptic times. From the Walking Dead to The Road to HBO’s The Leftovers, we wonder if we could survive in a different world. What might that world look like, and what skills would we need to survive?
So to summarize, apocalyptic thought is still quite popular. By studying the development of these ideas, we can gain more critical insight into religious and popular beliefs within our modern world.
What are your personal beliefs about the end times?