The apocalyptic genre
Apocalypse (Gr.) = revelation. We use the term apocalyptic for a genre of text found in the Bible and in other Jewish and Christian sources. In apocalyptic literature, the author describes a dream or vision sent from God. Often, there is a heavenly guide (angel) who gives some explanations. This vision shows cosmic events, such as worldwide disasters and wars involving angels and demons. Apocalyptic literature is full of symbolic events and objects, which makes it difficult to interpret.
In the Bible, apocalyptic texts are found in Ezekiel, the end of Daniel, and Revelation.
The author of Revelation identifies himself as John; historically he is identified as the disciple who also wrote the gospel and the epistles of John. (But the style of Revelation is vastly different.) John writes from exile on the island of Patmos. The book must be dated late in the first century, perhaps as late as 90 AD.
The vision begins with the appearance of Jesus Christ in his glory. He instructs John to write down what he sees, the things “that are and those that are to take place after this” (1:19).
First, John must write seven letters to churches in Asia Minor (ch. 2-3), of behalf of Jesus. The churches are encouraged but also admonished to improve in certain areas.
In chapter 4 John sees the courtroom of heaven. The “lamb who was slain” (Jesus) then opens the book of judgment. The rest of Revelation describes various judgments that take place.
An important chapter is Revelation 12. John sees a woman (representing God’s people) who gives birth to a son (the Messiah). The dragon (Satan) tries to devour the child, but he is brought to safety. After a battle between Satan and God’s angels, Satan is thrown out of heaven. Angrily, Satan pursues the woman for a time in the desert. This represents the persecution of God’s people during the church age.
Finally, the last two chapters present the new heavens and the new earth. This describes the final stage of God’s salvation, where he and the faithful will live together in perfect happiness.
The interpretation of Revelation is particularly difficult. Does the vision describe actual historical events, or is it symbolic? If historical, does it refer to the future only or also to the present? Does it tell events in chronological order?
There are four main approaches to the interpretation:
- preterist: Revelation describes events of John’s time, especially the Fall of Jerusalem and the struggle of the church and the Roman empire;
- idealist: Revelation describes the nature of the conflict between church and world, but does not refer to specific historic events;
- historicist: Revelation tells in a symbolic fashion the history of the entire church age (from John’s time until Christ’s return);
- futurist: Revelation consists almost completely of end-time prophecy.
Especially popular among American Christians today is a dispensational interpretation. Dispensationalism is a movement, originating in the 19th century, that reads Biblical prophecy in a very literal futurist manner. As a result, dispensationalist theologians have developed a detailed timeline of the end-time events. This forms the basis, e.g. of the Left Behind series of books and movies.
Revelation 20 is definitely eschatological in nature: it refers to end time events, such as the Parousia or Second Coming (return of Jesus Christ) and the final judgment.
It also mentions a 1000-year period (the Millennium), in which Satan is bound and the faithful rule with Jesus Christ. After this Millennium, Satan is set free temporarily to wreak havoc, until the final judgment takes place.
An important question is how this Millennium relates to the return of Jesus Christ. There are essentially three millennial views:
- Pre-millennialism: Jesus returns before the Millennium. During a (literal) 1000-year period he and the believers will rule on earth. After that comes the judgment.
This was probably the view of most early theologians. In recent times, an alternative dispensationalist pre-millennialism has developed. This view has the following features:
- Before the return of Christ at the beginning of the Millennium, there is a 7-year period of Tribulation.
- Before the Tribulation, all true believers are suddenly taken into heaven (the so-called Rapture).
- In the Millennium, the nation of Israel plays an important role (separate from the Christian church). This belief is the basis for much pro-Israel politics and activism, known as Zionism.
- Post-millennialism: Jesus returns after the Millennium. The Millennium is a future period of time in which Christianity will be dominant, preparing the world for the Parousia.
- A-millennialism: The traditional version of post-millennialism: the Millennium is a symbolic representation of all of the church age.