An Apocalyptic Worldview

The angel Michael making war on the dragon Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 2

by Reta Halteman Finger

“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back.”

This Scripture verse, Revelation 12:7, challenges our conventional Western Christian theology. There should not be war in heaven! God is in control of the universe, and even though God sometimes allows bad things to happen, everything will work out all right in the end.

No wonder many of us are bewildered by the book of Revelation!

Definitions first

The title, “Revelation,” is translated from the Greek word, apocalypse. It refers to something previously hidden that is now being revealed. “Apocalypse” is a distinct literary genre which uses symbolic language and imagery and is usually written under an assumed name. But dragons and beasts and other symbols reveal little to modern readers, so later lessons will provide a social context for interpretation.

“Apocalypticism” refers to an entire worldview which includes the literary aspects above, as well as an underlying dualistic theology. Below we will consider apocalypticism as a worldview and how it developed in reaction to an earlier Old Testament theology.

The importance of Deuteronomy

The historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings do not assume an apocalyptic worldview. Instead, they are written from a perspective called “deuteronomistic theology,” derived from Moses’s final speech to the Israelites as they are about to enter the land of Canaan. This is stated succinctly in Deuteronomy 30:15-20.  “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…you shall live and become numerous” in the promised land. You will have “life and prosperity” (vv. 15-16). But if the people turn away to other gods, “you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land” you are entering to possess it. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (vv 17-19).

The book of Joshua illustrates the blessings. Moses’s successor obeys God, and the people move into Canaan. The book of Judges, however, proves the opposite point. Quality of life deteriorates as the Israelites fall away from Yahweh, and “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Although Samuel and King David are faithful, 1 and 2 Kings recount how the people and their leaders continually slide into idolatry until at last they are conquered by larger empires. Assyria swallows up the Northern Kingdom, and the Judeans in the South are exiled to Babylon.

Commentators in the NRSV Harper-Collins Study Bible note that these books (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) are part of one long historical work that follows Moses’s farewell address in Deuteronomy 29 and 30. They were probably brought together as a unit during the time of King Hezekiah (late 8th century BCE) or King Josiah (640-609 BCE) in the Southern Kingdom, with final editing early in the Babylonian exile (589-538 BCE). Up to this point, deuteronomistic theology made sense to the biblical writers. Exile was the curse and punishment for their idolatry.

An apocalyptic worldview develops

The Judeans were eventually allowed to return to their homeland, but life was never easy. Prophecy ceased around 450 BCE, after Malachi. Alexander the Great’s military campaign brought Greek culture and language to the known world beginning around 330 BCE. Before long, Jews in Palestine were again dominated by larger kingdoms—first by the Ptolemaic Greeks who ruled Egypt, then by the more oppressive Seleucid Greeks who ruled Syria. By 170 BCE, conservative Jews joined the Maccabean family to revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. They did regain the Temple, but many died in the process.

As law-observant Israelites endured foreign occupations, they began to question deuteronomistic theology. “If we are obeying God’s commandments, why are we still suffering?” Thus, a dualistic worldview developed. There are both good and evil powers in the world, and the righteous can expect to suffer under evil oppression. But if God’s people are faithful, God will “soon” come to the rescue and establish a new age of peace and plenty.

This changing theology provided fertile ground for apocalyptic writing. It explains why the righteous suffer, and why God is at war with the powers of evil. Apocalypses reveal a spiritual reality beyond present earthly existence and create hope that God and God’s people will ultimately triumph.

Apocalypse versus prophecy

Many Jewish apocalypses, besides the book of Revelation, were written between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Among  them are  the book of Daniel;  1, 2, 3 Enoch; 2 and 3 Baruch; and Apocalypses of Abraham, Adam, and Elijah; but only Daniel is canonical.  And all except Revelation are pseudepigraphical—meaning that they are attributed to some great hero from the past. The reason for this attribution is that it is easier to predict the past than the future. For example, the story of Daniel is set in the 6th century BCE, but the events described fit with events taking place in the the 2nd century BCE. Daniel 11:1-45 accurately describes the rise of Antiochus IV—up until verse 40, after which the predictions are wrong. That is why this writing can be dated to about 165 BCE, in which case, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Daniel may be “the latest book in the Hebrew Bible.”

Apocalypses draw ideas and imagery from some of the Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah 24–27, Ezekiel 38–39, and Zechariah 5–6 and 9–14. But apocalyptic and prophetic writing are not the same. Apocalypses are always written— not originally spoken, as is the case with the oracles of most Old Testament prophets. These prophets reacted to current events and warned Israel or Judah of punishment for idolatry or mistreating the poor. Their scattered oracles were later reduced to writing and do not present a narrative the way apocalyptic literature does.

The next lesson will highlight the apocalyptic worldview of the New Testament.

Questions for discussion and reflection

1.  How might today’s “prosperity gospel” compare with the Old Testament deuteronomistic theology?

2.  Conservative Christians assume Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE. How would this affect the above understanding of an apocalyptic worldview?

3.  What further questions arise for you from this discussion?

 

 

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks. Yes, I agree about the environment and my gut ( having also read LeEngle, Lewis, and Tolkien) says Cosmic struggles beyond our comprehension are likely. I also ponder how much we as pots talking back to our Potter might influence events. If we are made in God’s image, we are more than just pots without will or creative energy. Abraham did attempt to influence God on behalf of Sodom, although I don’t see why he was not more assertive in protecting Isaac. Maybe he was, but rather late in the game.

    • It’s obvious that humans influence events in the world.
      But I don’t think that your examples of Abraham bartering with God and Jeremiah’s pots and Potter are examples of an apocalyptic worldview.

  2. Mary Ann,

    It sounds like your questions could stimulate a great group discussion! I’ll just take a stab at a couple of them.

    First, an apocalyptic worldview, as I understand it, is much broader than some of the violent drama that we see in the book of Revelation. It attempts to answer the question of, why do bad things happen to good people if God is good and loving? If there is only one ultimate power in the universe, why does God let these things happen?

    One common response from people who have suffered some great loss is to reject God as not truly loving.

    But another answer for some is that there ARE other powers in the spiritual world that we cannot apprehend with our normal senses. Evil exists, and it is not coming from God, but from spiritual beings God created, but who challenged God’s power and are now working against goodness and love and to promote their own power.

    An example of this is in Daniel 10, where, after 3 weeks of mourning and fasting, Daniel has a vision of a huge and glorious man. The man says he has come to help him and would have come sooner, but “the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me 21 days” (10:13). So finally Michael, a more powerful angel/prince came to help him help Daniel.

    I think many Christians today would find such visions and intrusions from another spiritual world bizarre. They would assume God is the only real power in the universe and that somehow all the bad things that happen are God’s will in some sense and that it will ultimately turn out for the good. We also see this among Muslims, who often say, “if God wills,” such and such good things will happen.

    Your question about the garden of Eden: I don’t know how others might answer this, but it was only in later Jewish and Xn writings that the snake represented the devil. This story could just as aptly describe the development of free will and of selfhood, which can have both good and bad results.

    From a broad apocalyptic and biblical viewpoint, I would see the movement to save our planet environmentally as very important because it is aligning ourselves with the Creator God who works for the welfare of all people and of nature, over against human greed. The idea of some End-Times people who think we should just let the world deteriorate b/c that means Judgment Day is coming sooner is, in my opinion, to align themselves with the destructive power of evil. (All this can get very tricky, of course, and we need to seek great wisdom and discernment.)

    Thanks for reading this and for your provocative questions! Keep on asking them!

  3. 1. Prosperity gospel, yes, deuteronomistic. Manifest Destiny… native genocide… bring them the Bible, but take their land. Are people today more deuteronomistic than Apocalyptic in their views?
    2. If Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE, the writer would assume the Hebrews in captivity were there because they deserved it, but the writer has a different agenda of showing their struggle as part of the good-evil clash beyond Babylon and of the rise of Antiocus IV from whom the writer hoped God would deliver them. (Don’t know if I make sense here even to myself)
    3. * Is Genesis apocalyptic, with its snake in the garden introducing evil?
    * Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic/dualistic world view. Even the Lord’s prayer includes the plea for deliverance from evil. Can a person even BE Christian without an apocalyptic view?
    * Is the movement to save our planet primarily deuteronomistic? If we have a more apocalyptic view, would we be less concerned about global warming?

    * Do people create their world views (or God for that matter) or does a Creator reveal to those who seek Her/Him?

    * Does only an apocalyptic view include a last judgement?

    Reta, you had better get cracking on #3. You don’t have time for Christmas.

    Mary Ann

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