The Study of Last Things
Bringing Truths from Different Books of the Bible into Focus, Perspective, and Understanding
The Use and Abuse of "Apocalyptic" Literature
by James T. Bartsch
Bible commentators and expositors have identified a certain type of literature which they have identified as "Apocalyptic Literature." The English word "apocalytpic" comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which occurs 18 times in the NT.
In 2 Thessalonians 1:7 Paul speaks of "the revelation (apokalupsis) of the Lord Jesus." The word apokalupsis is typically translated "revelation." Literally, it means an "unveiling." The most frequent use of apokalupsis occurs in regard to prophetic revelation or unveiling (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:6, 26; Rom. 16:25; 2 Cor. 12:1, 7; Gal. 1:12; 2:2; Eph. 3:3; Rev. 1:1). Almost as frequently, apokalupsis speaks of the revelation or unveiling of Jesus in all His glory when He returns (1 Cor. 1:7; 2 Thess. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:7, 13; 4:13; Rev. 1:1). Revelation 1:1 does double duty, for there apokalupsis is a pun - it refers to the prophetic revelation which Jesus gives to the seven churches and to the Church at large; but it also refers to the unveiling of Jesus Himself in all His majestic glory to John (Rev. 1), to the seven churches (Rev. 2-3), through His wrath to a rebellious world (Rev. 6-18); in deadly judgment to hostile armies (Rev. 19-20); and in sacrificial sovereignty to worshiping admirers (Rev. 21-22).
There is a legitimate use of the term, "Apocalyptic Literature." How is it defined? It has been defined as "Symbolic visionary prophetic literature ... consisting of visions whose events are recorded exactly as they were seen by the author and explained through a divine interpreter, and whose theological content is primarily eschatological." This definition is culled from Ralph Alexander, Abstract of “Hermeneutics of Old Testament Apocalyptic Literature,” doctor’s dissertation, p. 1, as quoted by John F. Walvoord, in his Introduction to his commentary on Daniel: The Key to Prophetic Revelation.
J. Dwight Pentecost, in his Introduction to his commentary on Daniel , The Bible Knowledge Commentary, OT, p. 1323, discussed the "Literary Form" of Daniel, "the first great book of apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The Greek word apokalupsis, from which comes the English 'apocalypse,' means an unveiling, a disclosing, or a revelation." According to Pentecost, "Apocalyptic literature in the Bible has several characteristics: (1) In apocalyptic literature a person who received God's truths in visions recorded what he saw. (2) Apocalyptic literature makes extensive use of symbols or signs. (3) "Such literature normally gives revelation concerning God's program for the future of His people Israel. (4) Prose was usually employed in apocalyptic literature, rather than the poetic style which was normal in most prophetic literature."
Pentecost continued, "In addition to Daniel and Revelation, apocalyptic literature is found in Ezekiel 37-48 and Zechariah 1:7 - 7:8. In interpreting visions, symbols, and signs in apocalyptic literature, one is seldom left to his own ingenuity to discover the truth. In most instances an examination of the context or a comparison with a parallel biblical passage provides the Scriptures' own interpretation of the visions or the symbols employed. Apocalyptic literature then demands a careful comparison of Scripture with Scripture to arrive at a correct understanding of the revelation being given."
I would add one caveat to Pentecost's characteristic #3. While the future of Israel is in view in the Book of Revelation, it is not only the future of Israel that is in view. Revelation records the future of Israel, of the Church, of the redeemed of all ages, and of the unredeemed of all ages. It also reveals God's systematic judgment of the people of Earth and of the planet Earth, and, indeed, of the entire cosmos. It records the unmitigated doom of God's arch-enemy, Satan. It records the eternal horror of the unredeemed of all ages, and it records the eternal bliss of the redeemed of all ages in New Jerusalem and upon New Earth in New Cosmos.
The Proper Use of Apocalyptic Literature
Apocalyptic literature frequently contains numerous symbols. It is important to realize, however, that each symbol has a specific referent (that to which the symbol refers). Typically, the surrounding context provides adequate clues to aid the interpreter in arriving at the specific referent of a particular symbol. For example, when John saw Jesus with a sword protruding from His mouth (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), no one believes that Jesus, when He returns, will literally have a sword protruding from His mouth. We understand that the sword symbolizes something something literal. In the broader context of the book of Revelation, the sword in Jesus' mouth stands for judgment and death. And so, when Jesus tells the church at Pergamum that unless those in the church who hold to the teaching of Balaam and the teaching of the Nicolaitans repent, when Jesus returns, He will kill them simply by uttering a command (Rev. 2:12-16). That is what the sword means. Likewise, we understand that, when Jesus returns to this earth leading His heavenly army (Rev. 19:11-21), he will destroy the armies of the world assembled against Him by verbally decreeing their death (see also 2 Thess. 2:8). That is what the sword means. Carnage at this battle will be so great that scavenging birds like crows, ravens and vultures, and birds of prey like hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls will indeed feast on the flesh of the human and animal carcasses littering the battlefield (Rev. 19:17-18, 21). For a more graphic description of the manner in which many of the assembled armies will die, refer to Zechariah 14:12-15. So the sword that John sees protruding from Jesus' mouth in his vision is symbolic, to be sure, but it has a specific and very literal referent - hordes of people will die at Christ's command.
A proper use of apocalyptic literature is to take cues from the OT appearances of an entity. For example, when John saw a beast rising up out of the sea (Rev. 13:1-10) and another beast rising up from the earth (Rev. 13:11-18), we are able to take our cues from the book of Daniel (7:1-8). Clearly the animals in Daniel's vision represent kingdoms and, secondarily (see Dan. 2:36-38), those who lead them. There is a clear correspondence between Daniel's fourth beast and the beast John saw emerging from the sea. So in Revelation 13, the beast arising from the sea is both a future ruler and the kingdom he represents. We do not expect to see, in the eschatological fulfillment of John's vision, a literal animal emerge from the sea. Rather we expect to see a malevolent, murderous, anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-Christian, Satanically inspired ruler gain control of the entire world by means of false worship enforced by an economic stranglehold. So, again, there is a symbol with a future specific fulfillment. The details given in Revelation 13 are substantial enough to enable us to identify who this ruler will be and the character of the global government over which he will rule. His lieutenant, the beast rising from the earth, is identified subsequently as "the false prophet" (Rev. 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).
In one more brief example, John wrote that He saw Christ returning to earth "clothed with a robe dipped in blood" (Rev. 19:13). If this were the only passage of Scripture to which we had access, we might easily argue that Jesus will not literally wear a robe dipped in blood when He returns. We might argue, further, that the blood-dipped robe symbolizes Jesus' sacrificial death for the sins of the world. We are not left without further illumination, however. When we read Isaiah 63:1-6, we discover that someone comes from Bozrah and Edom wearing red apparel, looking as if he had been treading grapes in a wine press. The wine press metaphor has a graphic, literal referent. This one from Bozrah states with ferocity, "I also trod them in My anger and trampled them in My wrath; and their lifeblood is sprinkled on My garments, and I stained all My raiment" (Isa. 63:3). And then he repeated, "I trod down the peoples in My anger and made them drunk in My wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth" (Isa. 63:6). So we conclude that at some point, when Jesus returns to earth to take vengeance on His enemies and on Israel's (Zech. 12:1-9; 14:1-15; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; 2:8; Rev. 19:11-21), His robe will literally be spattered with the blood of His enemies! The robe dipped in blood (Rev. 19:13) turns out to be more literal than figurative, and the blood has nothing to do with Jesus' own sacrifice, but has everything to do with His vengeance upon His enemies!
It is also necessary to note the use of metaphorical indicators in the language writers use. I speak particularly, for example, of John's frequent use of the comparative adverb hōs (5613), meaning "like" or "as." That is the language of simile or metaphor. This word is very important in interpreting the book of Revelation, for John used it 71 times in 39 verses. One encounters this adverb almost immediately in Revelation 1. John was in the Spirit on the Lord's day and heard "a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet" (1:10). This was the voice of Jesus, the Messiah. "His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire" (1:14). "His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters" (1:15). "...His face was like the sun shining in its strength" (1:16) (emphases mine). Note that John was not saying in any of these instances that Jesus' voice was a trumpet or many waters, that His hair was wool and snow, that His eyes were flames of fire, or that His feet were burnished bronze. He was only saying they were like them. This is clearly the language of simile or metaphor. It is appropriate to realize that writers who witnessed visions firsthand were doing their best to describe a phenomenon that was clearly out of the ordinary. In order to describe it accurately, the writer did the sensible thing - he described the unusual entity he had witnessed in terms with which his readers could easily visualize. So in those instances, we cannot say more than the writer did. We cannot say that Jesus' hair was wool or snow, but that it was white like wool or snow. So metaphorical indicators in apocalyptic language serve both as a guide and as a check. They give us some idea of what the eyewitness saw, but they caution us against saying that there is a one-to-one correspondence, in this case, insisting, for example, that Jesus' feet are made of bronze.
It must be observed, however, that in discussing the heavenly city John saw descending from heaven, he exercised remarkable restraint in using the adverbial metaphorical indicator, hōs (5613). He did state that "the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass" (Rev. 21:21, emphasis mine). Nonetheless, that is the only time John used hōs in his entire description of the Holy City. He meant that the street of the city was pure gold, but that it was unlike any gold he had ever seen before, for this gold had a transparency. Indeed, it was like glass. So the interpreter can state with confidence (Beale and Storms notwithstanding, see below), that the city is a literal city with literal measurements, with a literal wall, with literal foundation stones of specific, literal precious and semi-precious gems, with 12 literal gates of literal single pearls, with a literal river of life coursing from a literal throne of God and of Jesus, with a literal tree of life bearing a different kind of literal fruit every literal month. The paucity of metaphorical indicators leads us to believe that what we will eventually see with our own eyes will look exactly like what John saw with his own eyes. In this case, there will be a one-to-one correspondence.
Non-literalists balk at the notion of a city so gargantuan that it measures 12,000 stadia in length, width, and height (Rev. 21:15-17). (12,000 stadia = 1363.63 miles, or 2,200 kilometers, based on a stadion (4712) of 600 feet, or 185 meters.) Those kind of dimensions are outside the realm of anyone's experience here on earth. Typically, non-literalists summarily discount these dimensions. But why should we expect our eternal capital city in the eternal new cosmos to be within the realm of our present experience? The logic of that myopic expectation escapes me! John must have known there would be doubters and nay-sayers. John specifically stated, "The one who spoke with me had a gold measuring rod to measure the city, and its gates and its wall" (Rev. 21:15). John then proceeded to give the measurements: "The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod (emphasis mine), fifteen hundred miles (lit., 12,000 stadia); its length and width and height are equal" (Rev. 21:16). John saw him measure the city! And then, as if foreseeing that some would discount these measurements, John categorically stated, "And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards (lit. 144 cubits), according to human measurements, which are also angelic measurements" (Rev. 21:17). So John clarified that the one who measured the wall and the city itself was not using a celestial measurement unrelated to human understanding. Rather, the one measured the wall and the city used a rod scaled to both human and angelic measurements, which, in this case, at least, were identical. If John meant this to be understood literally, and not metaphorically, how else would he have stated it? The obvious conclusion is that those who wish to take this measurement non-literally are stating that they know more about what John witnessed and meant to convey than John himself did. I doubt that John would take kindly to that sort of rationalization.
Non-literalists balk at the notion that numbers in Revelation are to be taken literally. They state rather that the numbers are symbolic. While I acknowledge that the numbers may convey symbolism (seven stars, seven lampstands, seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders, seven bowls of wrath), I avow that the numbers are literal numbers. Seven churches are not six or eight churches. Seven trumpets do not mean fifty. Six references to 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-7) cannot possibly mean the present Church Age (nearly 2,000 years and still counting). One thousand means one thousand, and any appeal to a totally different context (2 Peter 3:8-9) remains unconvincing. And so 12,000 stadia (Rev. 21:16) means precisely 12,000 stadia. John took it that way, and he took great pains to ensure that we also would understand it that way. To me, it seems, we are treading on shaky ground when we assert that we know better than John what he meant when he said it!
I am intrigued with how many OT prophecies have been fulfilled literally just as predicted. The Messiah was born a literal descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:1-17; Luke 1:26-38) in the literal town of Bethelehem (Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-20) of a literal virgin (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38). Literal soldiers literally gambled for the literal clothing of the Messiah (Psa. 22:18; Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:24). We could go on and on. Why cannot the hermeneutic of fulfilled prophecies be used as a guideline to interpret prophecies that presently remain unfulfilled?
The real issue at stake is hermeneutics. Dispensational premillennialists employ, as much as possible, a literal hermeneutic even in prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Amillennialists and, often, historical premillennialists do not. I agree with the following mantra, "If the plain sense makes common sense, seek no other sense." A favorite "whipping boy" of the non-literalist is Isaiah 55:12, which states, "For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." I do not believe God will provide mountains and hills with larynxes and mouths, nor trees with hands. But that passage has to mean something. I believe that humans will be able to hear audible sounds of joy from the mountains and hills, and audible, observable reactions of trees to redeemed Israel during the coming kingdom. I have walked among the firs and aspens in the mountains of Colorado. I have heard the wind whispering through the firs and listened to the "clattering" of the leaves of the aspen. It doesn't take too much imagination to contemplate that even inanimate creation will respond with joy when the Creator is ruling here on earth and all is right with the world.
The Abuse of Apocalyptic Literature
Unfortunately, I have seen the term "Apocalyptic Literature" misused and abused. I have sometimes half-jokingly defined apocalyptic literature as "A genre of literature invented by amillennialists as a justification for not taking prophetic literature at face value." "Apocalyptic" becomes a code-word. Any time the word "apocalyptic" is used, readers and listeners nod their heads wisely with a knowing glint in their eye. They say, "Aha - apocalyptic. That means we don't need to take this text at face value." A good example is G. K. Beale in his commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians. Beale, in a footnote on 1 Thess. 4:15, pp. 138-139, writes, "I am grateful to Tom Wright for reminding me that parousia in 1 Thessalonians 4 might have the notion of 'presence' and that 4:15-16 contains figurative apocalyptic language (lecture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)." After explaining the nuances of parousia, Beale continues in that same note, "This fits admirably with an apocalyptic notion of Christ's final coming as a sudden appearing from a formerly invisible dimension to all instead of some kind of directional return from a literal sky to the earth." But Beale is in error, I believe. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 does not meet even the minimal definition of apocalyptic literature. (1) Paul is witnessing no vision. (2) There is no guide to interpret the (non-existent) vision for Paul's benefit. (3) It can reasonably be argued that the elements Beale interprets as symbols were meant by Paul to have been taken literally. Now, let us observe how Beale treats as metaphors elements that I strongly suspect Paul meant as literal.
"There is some question about whether or not Jesus literally will come down from heaven (4:16). The description of a descent from heaven here has been referred to in 4:15 as the coming of the Lord. The word for coming is parousia, which ordinarily means either 'presence' or 'coming.' The former appears best in this context. Comparing other descriptions of Christ's coming, it is apparent that motion from heaven down to earth may not be the precise way in which Christ manifests his end-time presence." (Beale, p. 138). So we learn from Beale that "descend" does not mean descend.
Beale continues (p. 139), "Likewise, the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16) should not be conceived as a physical rising upward from the grave but a transformation of an old-world body into a new creational body that can inhabit the dimension of the new world in Christ's and God's presence." But precedent-setting Scripture, it would appear, is against Beale's conclusion. At Jesus' death, Matthew recorded (27:52-53), "The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many." That sounds very literal to me. Which brings me to another observation. Even if one concedes, for the sake of the argument, Beale's post-tribulation take on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, people resurrected when Christ returns to earth will have at least a thousand years in their resurrected bodies to cope with the present world in the present dimensions (see Rev. 20:1-7 - which thousand years, however, Beale, predictably, does not take literally, either - see his commentary on the Book of Revelation, pp. 972-1021). Resurrected Church-age believers existing among and mingling with people in their natural bodies during the Millennium will be no problem, of course, for our resurrected Lord set the precedent for us when He lived for forty days on this present earth in His resurrected body among people with mortal bodies. He even ate!
But Beale has not finished. "Accordingly, also figurative is the portrayal of the saints who are still alive and are left and who will be caught up together with the resurrected dead in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Again, the point is that their bodies will also be transformed into bodily new creations fit to inhabit the new creation (see further 1 Cor 15:35-54)" (Beale, p. 139). A sentence later, Beale writes, "The figurative nature of the language is also pointed to by reference to the trumpet call of God (1 Thess 4:16), which is like the blowing of the trumpets in Revelation or like God's throne in heaven or Christ as a heavenly lamb or like the book in his hand or like the various other objects mentioned in Revelation's visions that are certainly figurative (on which see Beale 1999a:311-69, 472-520)" (Beale, pp. 139-140).
So we learn from Beale, if he can be believed, that virtually nothing in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, a portion of which he has mistakenly labeled apocalyptic literature, is to be taken literally. Jesus' descent from heaven is not literal. Deceased believers' being raised up from the grave is not literal. Christians' ascent upward is not literal. The clouds are not literal. The trumpet is not literal. I'm sorry, but I am unable to defend that non literal kind of hermeneutic. If Paul had meant everything in the passage to be taken literally (and I think he did), how else would he have stated it?
Why do Beale, and many other scholars like him, choose to depart from a literal hermeneutic in prophetic Scripture? I do not know. I have spoken personally with none of them about their motives. Sometimes, I wonder if they have a built-in anti-supernatural bias. If they have seen nothing supernatural happening in the realm of human experience today, perhaps they are unable to contemplate how something in the supernatural realm could happen in the future. But candidly, I do not know why they reason as they do.
And so, people use "Apocalyptic Literature" to explain away everything that, to them, doesn't make sense. So there are no literal walls in New Jerusalem measuring 12,000 stadia on a side. There are no literal gates consisting of a single pearl. ("How big would the oyster have to be?" they chuckle.) There are no foundation stones; the city is not 1363 miles high, long and wide, there is no tree of life bearing 12 different kinds of fruit, nor is there a river of life. In fact there is no city. We can just be happy that we will be with God, and that's all we can know or need to know about eternity. That's what the abuse of apocalyptic literature ends up concluding. For a good example of the metaphorical misinterpretation of Revelation 21-22, see Sam Storms' A Study on Revelation 21:1-22:21, Part II, where he refers extensively to Greg Beale's commentary on Revelation. See also Storms' article on Apocalyptic.
As for me, I choose to interpret prophetic and apocalyptic literature as literally as possible, based on the reasons and constraints given above. To me it is not a a matter of pride, but a matter of protecting and defending the integrity of God and His prophets and the Scriptures they have written. I expect Jesus to descend literally from heaven with a literal shout, with a literal voice of a literal archangel and a literal trumpet blast. I expect to be caught up literally into the literal air and meet Jesus among literal clouds (1 Thess. 4:13-18). I expect Jesus to return to earth just as literally as He left it (Acts 1:9-11). I expect Jesus' feet to land literally upon the Mount of Olives as Jewish people flee through a literal valley created at that time (Zechariah 14:1-5). I expect there to be literal physical changes in the land of Israel, with literal water flowing from a literal temple (Zechariah 14:8; Ezek. 47:1-12). I expect one day to worship King Jesus in that literal temple in literal Jerusalem in the literal land of Israel that has been literally altered (Ezekiel 40-48). I expect Jesus' literal reign from Jerusalem over the entire earth (Psa. 2:4-12; Isa. 2:1-4; 9:6-7; 11:1-16; Zech. 14:9-21) to last literally one thousand years (Rev. 20:1-7). And I expect to spend the rest of eternity in a literal city of literal gargantuan proportions likely orbiting a literal new earth inhabited by literal redeemed nations with 24-hour access to their capital city situated in a literal new cosmos (Rev. 21:1-27). I expect to eat literal fruit from a literal tree of life and take literal drinks of water from the literal water of life flowing from the literal throne of God and Jesus (Rev. 22:1-4). And I expect literally to reign with Jesus and other saints forever and ever (Rev. 22:5).