There is no more confusing genre in the Scriptures than the apocalyptic literature. In a literal sense, an apocalypse is the unveiling of the future. We have charged the word with violent overtones in our culture, although originally the word did not have a negative meaning at all. It simply means “unveiling” or “uncovering.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are a lot of apocalyptic texts, mostly revolving around the fall of Samaria (722 BCE) and Jerusalem (586 BCE). As the Hebrew state was collapsing, the caste of prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah were responsible for speaking for YHWH in explaining why the collapse was happening.
The tradition was continued throughout the period between the close of the Hebrew Scriptures and the beginning of Christian literature, and it reaches something of a crescendo in the last book of the Bible – the Revelation.
Hebrew apocalypse is somewhat different from Christian apocalypse, but the rules I am going to lay out generally work with both.
When reading apocalyptic literature, remember the following:
1. The imagery is deeply rooted in what was current events. The prophets did not invent images. They used existing imagery that their hearers would understand. For example, in the Revelation there is an image of God in chapter 4. The image is borrowed directly from the coronation of a new Caesar. It is magnified and placed in a heavenly context, but the hallmarks are unmistakeable.
2. Judgment in apocalypse serves the purpose of restoration. Everyone focuses on the terrible judgments often listed in apocalyptic literature but they rarely see that it is secondary to the restoration and preservation of God’s people. Sin must be expunged and the people of God identified and redeemed. Don’t read apocalypse as destructive. Read it as reconstructive.
3. Apocalypse is contemporary, not set in the future. Futurism is wildly popular in many Christian circles. The Left Behind books of the 1990’s are great evidence of that fanatical obsession with the coming doom. When the prophets wrote, they were not looking far into the future unless they specifically SAY they are looking far into the future.
Human beings seem to have this judgment-driven obsession with the near future smackdown God is going to lay on whoever happens to be their enemies at the time. This isn’t restricted to the Bible. It is pretty much everywhere.
Don’t be fooled. The Scriptures are about the redemption of mankind and the restoration of Eden, not the complete and total annihilation of everything. Read the apocalyptic literature with hope in your heart, not despair and anger. It will change the way you view things (and demonstrate just how silly much of the apocalyptic fervor of people like Harold Camping really is).