Apocalypticism is a belief that the end of the world is imminent and that a major cosmic battle between good and evil will take place before the end. The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word apokalypsis which means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Apocalypticism has its roots in ancient Jewish and Christian writings, particularly the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelation.
In the Bible, apocalyptic writings often contain vivid symbolic visions of the end times. These writings tend to view earthly existence as fundamentally flawed and beyond hope of reform. Only God can rectify the situation through dramatic, cataclysmic intervention. There are elements of determinism in apocalyptic thought, as the cosmic battle between good and evil follows a predetermined course. However, human beings have a choice to align with good or evil forces.
Key aspects of biblical apocalypticism include:
- God’s imminent, dramatic intervention in history
- A cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil
- Judgement of the wicked and vindication of the righteous
- The restoration of creation to its original perfect state
- Use of symbolic, cryptic language and visions
Apocalyptic Literature in the Bible
Several Old Testament and New Testament books contain apocalyptic themes and imagery. Major examples include:
The book of Daniel contains the most fully-developed apocalyptic perspective in the Old Testament. Daniel 7-12 outlines Daniel’s symbolic dreams and visions of four beasts, the “Ancient of Days” on his fiery throne, and the “Son of Man” figure ushering in God’s eternal kingdom. These visions reveal God’s plans for the end times and the eventual destruction of evil worldly kingdoms.
Ezekiel’s visions, particularly in chapters 38-39, feature apocalyptic imagery and themes. Gog and Magog symbolize evil forces gathering for a final cosmic battle on the “mountains of Israel,” but they will be utterly destroyed by God’s wrath.
Zechariah contains apocalyptic elements, such as visions of four horsemen (Zech 1:7-17, 6:1-8) and the defeat of God’s enemies (Zech 12:1-9). However, Zechariah focuses primarily on the Messianic restoration of Israel.
Isaiah features some apocalyptic portions, such as the prophecy of cosmic upheaval in Isaiah 24-27. Isaiah also envisions the coming Messianic kingdom ruled by the “Branch of Jesse” who will judge the wicked and establish universal peace (Isa 11:1-10).
Joel’s vivid description of locust plagues (Joel 1-2:11) takes on apocalyptic overtones, mirrored by the cosmic wonders and divine judgment portrayed later in the book (Joel 2:28-3:21).
Revelation contains the most extensive apocalyptic perspectives in the New Testament. John’s symbolic visions reveal God’s plans for the end times, including divine judgement, the defeat of evil, and the restoration of all things in the New Jerusalem.
Other New Testament Writings
Apocalyptic themes and language also appear in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), 2 Thessalonians, and portions of the Gospels and Epistles. However, Revelation remains the quintessential apocalyptic work.
Main Apocalyptic Themes
Some of the major themes that characterize biblical apocalyptic writings:
1. God’s Sovereignty Over History
Apocalyptic literature emphasizes God’s total control over human events. He directs the course of history and will intervene dramatically to establish His purposes.
2. Imminence of the End
There is an expectation that the end is near and God will act very soon to bring about a final consummation of human history.
3. Periodization of History
Apocalyptic writings often divide history into distinct periods leading up to the end. For example, Daniel’s 70 weeks (Dan 9:24-27) and the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls in Revelation.
A stark contrast between two opposing cosmic forces, usually God vs. Satan or good vs. evil. Everything falls under one of the two categories.
5. Judgment and Vindication
God will punish the wicked but vindicate and reward the righteous. Judgment often takes the form of supernatural disaster and calamity.
6. Cosmic Upheaval
The end times see astronomical disturbances, natural disasters, and the darkening of celestial bodies.
7. Symbolic Visions
Heavily symbolic imagery and metaphor conveys spiritual truths about the end times. Numbers, animals, colors, and fantastic beings have symbolic significance.
8. New Creation
God will destroy the corrupt old order and establish a renewed creation. This includes the restoration of Israel, the New Jerusalem, and Edenic peace and harmony.
Major Apocalyptic Themes in Daniel and Revelation
As the preeminent apocalyptic works, Daniel and Revelation elaborate on some of the central themes:
Cosmic Battle Between Good and Evil (Dan 10-12, Rev 12-20)
Behind the scenes of earthly conflicts, a larger spiritual battle rages between God’s angels and Satan’s forces. God will be victorious.
Persecution of God’s People (Dan 7-8, Rev 6:9-11, 13:1-10)
God’s people suffer and even die at the hands of secular rulers but will eventually be vindicated.
Prophecy of Future Kingdoms (Dan 2, 7, Rev 13, 17-18)
Daniel outlines the progression of earthly kingdoms while Revelation describes a Satanic counterfeit kingdom opposed to God.
Judgment for the Wicked (Dan 12:2, Rev 19:11-21)
Sinners who oppose God face devastating judgement. Divine justice rights every wrong.
Resurrection and New Creation (Dan 12:2-3, Rev 21:1-5)
God will raise the righteous to new life in a restored Edenic paradise.
The Messiah (Dan 7:13-14, Rev 1:12-20)
The exalted “Son of Man” and the glorified lamb enact God’s apocalyptic program and receive universal dominion.
Apocalyptic Expectations in Jesus’ Day
During Jesus’ time, apocalyptic expectation was high in some Jewish circles. The Qumran community who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls held strong apocalyptic views. Several Jewish apocalyptic works like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra also date to this era.
Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God would have resonated with these expectations. While rejecting a militant overthrow of Rome, Jesus nevertheless affirmed God’s coming intervention to establish his reign.
However, Jesus’ twist was that the kingdom would come first through his own passion rather than immediate divine judgment (Mark 8:31, Luke 17:20-21). He initiated the kingdom during his ministry but anticipated a final consummation at his return.
Apocalypticism vs. Millennialism
Christian millennialism derives some key aspects from biblical apocalyptic. Millennialists believe Christ will physically return before his thousand-year earthly reign preceding final judgment. However, millennialism tends to focus more on a literal 1000-year period and the concept of a rapture, ideas not found directly in Scripture.
Additionally, biblical apocalypticism places more emphasis on symbolic visions of ultimate deliverance rather than mapping out a precise end times chronology. The original apocalyptic writings were intended more to encourage and comfort persecuted believers rather than speculate about predictive details.
Modern Apocalyptic Movements
Apocalyptic ideas filter into many modern movements, sometimes with negative consequences:
Some cults like Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate have twisted apocalypticism into justifying dangerous and destructive behavior in the face of supposed imminent judgment.
Some groups such as ISIS and Hamas, as well militant individuals, have employed apocalyptic language to justify violence and terrorism.
Popular prophecy writers and preachers have frequently attempted to interpret current events through an overly literal apocalyptic lens, often distorting the original meaning and context.
Though not directly derived from biblical apocalypticism, some environmentalists describe climate change in ways that resemble cosmic judgment on modern civilization’s misdeeds.
Cautions Regarding Apocalyptic Expectations
While apocalypticism holds an important place in biblical revelation, there are cautions regarding how its applied:
The intent of apocalyptic literature is to disclose theological truths, not construct a speculative timeline of events.
Focus on Present Faithfulness
Jesus emphasized readiness for his return, not endless predictions about how and when (Matthew 24:36-51).
No one interpretation of prophecy has definitive consensus, so humility rather than dogmatism should characterize apocalyptic discussions.
Avoid Fear and Fatalism
Apocalyptic passages aim to give hope and confidence, not provoke paralyzing fear about inescapable cataclysm.
Maintain Ethical Living
Speculation about end times should not distract from moral obligations of justice, mercy and faith in the here and now (Luke 21:34-36).
The Enduring Value of Biblical Apocalyptic
When understood properly, biblical apocalyptic literature offers rich theological value for people of faith:
Sovereignty of God
Apocalyptic writing highlights God’s complete control over history and ultimate triumph over evil.
Meaning in Suffering
The predicted end time vindication of God’s people gives meaning to present tribulations.
The apocalyptic lenses portrays earthly events against the backdrop of an unseen spiritual reality and future new creation.
Evil will face judgement while righteousness will be rewarded. Wrongs will be made right.
God’s coming intervention offers hope of deliverance from oppression, renewal of creation, and the final eradication of sin.