November 2004

The use and abuse of apocalyptic

Ian Boxall

Ian Boxall, who teaches Scripture in Oxford and is author of Revelation: vision and insight (London: SPCK, 2002), describes here how the apocalyptic tradition has been misused in the past and, in some circumstances, today. He suggests that some decoding of the 'hidden writings' is helpful, but so is understanding the historical situation in which they were composed.

Beware of the Apocalypse which, when studied, almost always either finds a man mad, or makes him so.' So runs a nineteenth-century health warning to those tempted to read the book of Revelation. It is a typical reaction not only to the Apocalypse, but to the apocalyptic tradition generally. And for good reason. History is peppered with the dire consequences of the misuse of such literature, even by Christians. In sixteenth-century Münster, attempts to establish an Anabaptist 'New Jerusalem' on the model of Revelation 21-22 precipitated the expulsion of Catholic and Lutheran opponents. In our own day, fascination with apocalyptic played a key role in the tragic events at Waco, Texas, in April 1993, and the mass suicide of members of the Order of the Solar Temple the following year. Apocalyptic literature is explosive and, in the wrong hands, dangerous.

Yet, for good or for ill, the apocalyptic dimension is integral to our Scriptures. In her Sunday Lectionary, the Church has attempted to 'tame' a wild book like Revelation (which occurs only a handful of times). But neither Revelation nor Daniel may be avoided entirely. Moreover, apocalyptic comes particularly to the fore in the last Sundays of the liturgical year. Our Gospel and epistle readings in the weeks leading up to Advent remind us that apocalyptic thought was central to the vision of the apostolic Church, and even to Jesus himself.

Popular misconception
What precisely are we talking about? To the average person in the street, the word 'apocalyptic' conjures up images of violent destruction and cataclysm, the end of the world as we know it. Film titles such as Apocalypse Now and newspaper headlines threatening 'Armageddon' only confirm such suspicions. Even many Christians would share these 'End-of-the-World' perceptions. This is perhaps not surprising, for the only two apocalypses within the Bible, Daniel and the Apocalypse of John (Revelation), are heavily concerned with 'eschatology', the doctrine of the last things. So too are those other 'apocalyptic' passages scattered through the Scriptures, such as Isaiah 24-27, Mark 13 and 1 Thessalonians 4-5.

But the root meaning of the Greek word apocalypsis, which gives us our English terms 'apocalyptic' and 'apocalypse', is 'unveiling'. In other words, we are talking about a strand of religion ('apocalyptic'), and a type of literature ('apocalypse'), which claim to unveil mysteries normally hidden from our eyes. The bold assertion of the apocalypses is that they record heavenly revelations given to privileged seers, and that these revelations challenge the reader to see the world, and her place in it, in a radically new way. As Daniel puts it: 'there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries' (Dan 2:28). The mysteries uncovered may indeed be about the end of history, but that is not necessarily the case. What all apocalypses have in common, however, is the claim that if we take them seriously, we will be privileged to see things as God does, beyond the limitations of ordinary human perception.

Features of apocalypses
How might we recognise an apocalypse? For all their diversity, apocalypses tell the story of revelation mediated, and often explained, by an otherworldly figure, normally an angel. The manner by which the revelation is received varies considerably. Daniel speaks of 'visions of the night', presumably dreams. Ezra has visions while sitting in a field, followed by an appearance of the archangel Uriel, who explains their significance. Enoch is taken on an exciting journey through the cosmos, including the underworld, rather like a Jewish Odysseus or Aeneas. In the Apocalypse, John receives his revelation in a variety of ways: a vision of Christ while at prayer on Patmos, a journey to God's throne-room through an open door in heaven, and dialogues with an interpreting angel.

Moreover, the revelation is generally conveyed through symbols. Indeed, the Apocalypse tells us that the revelation it contains will be 'made known through signs' (Rev 1:1). Although the accompanying angel often explains the significance of these images, this is not always the case. But then ancient Jewish and Christian readers were much better attuned to the symbols and the stories they evoked than we are. Perhaps that is why we find apocalyptic writings so difficult: what are we to make of beasts emerging from the sea and women turning into cities? How are we to understand stories of the stars falling from the sky or exploding mountains? What do the cryptic numbers mean, and how literally are we to take claims that history is divided into periods of a thousand years, or 1260 days?

Finally, most apocalypses are pseudonymous: they are attributed not to their actual author (Revelation being the one probable exception) but to an authoritative figure, normally of the distant past (though Christian apocalypses adopt the names of more recent heroes such as apostles). So we have writings attributed to Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses and Ezra. Pseudonymity may have enhanced the authority of the book, at a time when new prophetic revelation was generally thought to have ceased. What looks like deliberate deception to us may not have been so viewed by our ancestors. Indeed, it is possible that the writers believed they had actually witnessed the activity of these ancient heroes, or even assumed their persona, while in visionary trance.

Engaging with the symbols
What of those symbols evoked by apocalypses? Engaging with them may not come as naturally to us as it did to our ancestors in faith, but we haven't lost the ability entirely. After all, our imaginations are still supple enough to respond enthusiastically to the cinematic recreations of Tolkien's Middle Earth or J.K. Rowling's Potterworld. Moreover, most of us still recognise instinctively that apocalyptic imagery requires a different set of skills from those we employ when reading a parish newsletter or a bank statement.

So, for example, we wouldn't expect to encounter Revelation's seven-headed dragon on a visit to London Zoo, any more than we expect to run into an orc or a dementor on the way to Mass. We know that they are describing something only too real, but not literally so. And what of this saying Mark attributes to Jesus: 'the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven' (Mark 13:24-25)? Don't we sense that this is not a matter-of-fact prediction of the weather, so that we would rightly be shocked to hear such words coming from the lips of Ian McCaskill or Penny Tranter? Apocalyptic simply asks us to use our imaginations a little more than we are used to.

But greater familiarity with the apocalyptic tradition also helps. When John describes a terrifying beast emerging from the sea (Rev 13), it helps to know that Daniel saw four such beasts years before (Dan 7), and that John's one monster bears the worst traits of all four. Moreover, when we know that the tradition often uses beasts to symbolise oppressive kings and empires (and Daniel has explicitly identified its beasts as such), then John's vision becomes a shocking political cartoon. It is a sharp reminder that even apparently benevolent rulers and political systems can become beastly, and challenges readers to ponder where the beast is currently located.

Playing with numbers
And what of numbers? Apocalypses are full of them, and many people think you can use them to plot the end of history, or count the number of the elect. But the symbolic nature of apocalyptic numbers makes for much more interesting readings than taking them literally. The apocalypses' liking for seven is probably due to its being the number of perfection (the number of God [three] plus the number of the universe [four]). There are four creatures (the cherubim) around God's throne, because they represent all earthly creatures in heaven. Twelve, being three multiplied by four, is also a number of completion (hence twelve tribes and twelve apostles). This means that the famous number 144,000 is symbolically a number of inclusion: twelve multiplied by itself, multiplied by a thousand (signifying a large number). This is in sharp contrast to its common interpretation as a number of exclusion (only 144,000 will be saved, or will participate in Christ's thousand-year reign). Incidentally, even these 'thousand years' (Rev 20:4-6) are probably symbolic rather than literal.

But there is another number which never ceases to fascinate, the number of the beast (666). Revelation itself encourages speculation about it, stating that it is the number of a human being (Rev 13:18). Catholics are particularly prone to attack here, for there is a long-established tradition identifying the beast with the papacy, or particular occupants of Peter's Chair. In fact, many have managed to fit 666 to the name of their enemies: both the thirteenth-century Pope Innocent IV and his political rival, Emperor Frederick II; from an earlier period, Julian the Apostate; from a later, Napoleon and Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, with Adolf Hitler, Ronald Wilson Reagan (whose three names each have six letters) and Saddam Hussein bringing us up to date.

But all these readings divorce the number from the time of John and his first audiences. Given the practice in both Greek and Hebrew to use letters for numbers (A = 1; B = 2 etc.), John is most likely urging his fellow Christians to associate the beast with Nero Caesar (this explanation also works for the variant 616). But perhaps again we shouldn't forget the symbolic significance. Six, one less than the perfect seven, is the number of imperfection: 666 then would be an intensification of imperfection, an appropriate number for the beast!

A variety of mysteries
We noted that apocalypses unveil far more than the mysteries of the 'End of the World'. This may provide a clue to apocalyptic's origins. The apocalypses offer answers to basic human questions which could not easily be answered by reason or observation of the world, and for which even scriptural exegesis might not provide definitive responses. Some of these are about the nature of the universe: how did the world come to be? Others are more concerned with the sense that our cosmos is out of kilter, if not spiralling out of control. How does one account for evil in the world? And why do the wicked always seem to succeed? Moreover, for Jews, a particular theological problem was the periodic persecution of God's people, and the occupation of the Holy Land by pagans. How could Israel's God allow this to happen? Or more personally, as concern for individual destiny became more prominent, what will happen to my departed loved one?

These wide-ranging questions are reflected in the diversity of heavenly mysteries revealed. Visionaries are taken to heaven to gain understanding of the structures of the universe, or the rudiments of astronomy and astrology. Accounts are given of the origins of evil, suggesting that what is wrong with our world is far greater than the totality of human sins. Visions of God not only uncover something of God's nature, but also hint at what is still in store for God's creation. Scenes of the angelic liturgy enable readers to put their own local difficulties in a larger perspective. Past history is reviewed and contemporary political events interpreted in order to provide a guide to the likely course of the future. Reassurance is given that the innocent and faithful have not suffered or died in vain. As the rabbis put it, even as they attempted to discourage their use, apocalypses describe 'what is above, what is beneath, what was before time, and what will be hereafter'.

On the fringes
The rabbis were not alone in seeing the dangers. After all, claims to additional or even rival revelation, validated by visionary experience, can represent a challenge to established Scriptures or hierarchies. Some indeed have proposed that the esoteric Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) represents a rival strand of Israelite tradition more ancient than that which now dominates the Old Testament. Other sectarian forms of Judaism also seem to have had strong apocalyptic influences. The Qumran community is a good example, believing that its worship was a participation in the angelic liturgy, and expecting a final great battle, led by angels, between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness.

The same could be said of early Christianity (perhaps because of Jesus himself), and it was within Christian circles that many Jewish apocalypses were preserved and continued to be used. Yet when it came to the formation of the canon, the status of these texts (some of which were of fairly recent origin) was hotly disputed. 1 Enoch, although quoted in the New Testament and referred to positively by certain patristic writers, only made it into the canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 4 Ezra (also called 2 Esdras) survived as an appendix to the Vulgate and was relegated to the Apocrypha at the Reformation (though the Russian Orthodox Church regards it as canonical). This is an illuminating parable of the precarious place of apocalypses within the churches: often at the edge rather than the centre. On the fringes, like the prophetic tradition to which they are related: disturbing, challenging, and occasionally, as we have seen, highly dangerous.

Attitude to creation
I want to suggest two ways in which the apocalypses deserve that nineteenth-century health warning. First, they are susceptible to what we might call world-denying readings. Their strongly dualistic language - the tendency to divide the universe into good and evil, God and Satan - and their descriptions of cosmic cataclysm means that they are often read as literal predictions of how God wishes to destroy his creation. Popular interpretations of apocalyptic, especially Revelation, influencing millions of Christians across the world, are dominated by this pessimistic outlook. Locate places like Armageddon on a map of the Middle East, add a degree of political influence and the conviction that God needs a little help from his earthly friends, and you have a very dangerous cocktail indeed.

Yet there is another, more satisfyingly Christian, reading. It recognises, first of all, the poetic, mythical nature of apocalyptic language about cosmic disaster. It knows that apocalyptic is utterly serious about evil and injustice in our world. Things have got so out of hand that only dramatic divine action can bring a halt to the self-destructive course on which our world is embarked. But it understands that this calls for a divine renewal of the world, not its violent destruction. For all their apparent dualism, the apocalypses retain the Judaeo-Christian conviction that this world is God's world, a fundamentally good creation, even if they regard it as temporarily hijacked by demonic forces. The real protest that apocalyptic makes is against the oppression of God's people and other vulnerable human beings, the folly of war and conquest, and the plundering of the earth's resources. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew understood this well when, to mark the 1900th anniversary of the writing of John's Apocalypse, he convened on John's island of Patmos an international symposium on the environment.

Plotting the end
The second warning relates to the use of apocalyptic to plot the details of the world's end. This is a favourite pastime for many, apparently oblivious to the Lord's warning that not even the Son knows the day or hour (Mark 13:32). But it runs into difficulties for at least two reasons. First, it often involves piecing together diverse biblical passages (especially from Daniel, Revelation and 1 Thessalonians) in an artificial framework, rather like creating a picture from pieces of several different jigsaw puzzles. The problem here is that the various pieces can be made to fit together in a number of different patterns. Who is to decide between them?

Second, it treats apocalypses and other biblical writings as codes to be cracked through attention to world events, rather than texts to inspire insight and wisdom. But as history moves on, apparently rock-solid solutions are found wanting: does 'Wormwood' really refer to Chernobyl? Are the ten horns of the beast the ten member states of the proposed European Community in the 1970s? This reading was sadly undermined by the resounding 'No' vote in Norway's referendum! Every previous century has its own trail of failed interpretations.

This is not to deny that some decoding is possible. Almost certainly the authors of Daniel, 1 Enoch and Revelation expected their readers to detect allusions to particular historical characters in their visions. But these are figures of their own present or past, not of some dim and distant future: Antiochus Epiphanes, Judas Maccabeus, the emperor Nero. Overemphasis on 'the End of the World' misses the extent to which apocalypses, like shrewd political commentary, lift the veil on the world of the author's own time, unmasking its injustices and challenging its complacency.

Unveiling the truth
The alternative is to acknowledge the apocalypses' historical particularity (thus restraining the excesses of decoding), while recognising sufficient fluidity in their images to allow them to speak to new circumstances. Thus it is important to know that Daniel was completed during the persecution of Jews by the Greek Antiochus, and that the Greeks were at the forefront of the author's understanding of the fourth beast. Yet that image was potent enough to assume new forms in John's vision, with Rome as the dominant power, and can continue to unmask 'beastly' rulers and governments in subsequent generations. To know that 4 Ezra grapples with Jerusalem's fall to Rome in AD 70 places some constraints on the interpretation of its visions (e.g. the Eagle = Rome; the Woman-City = Jerusalem). But the issues it addresses have continued applicability, not least to those in similar circumstances.

And what of the so-called 'Synoptic Apocalypse', Mark 13 and its parallels in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 (the latter appearing in the Lectionary as this liturgical year draws to its close)? Not only do these passages teach Jesus' followers about the future. More importantly, recorded as they are with hindsight, they help subsequent readers make sense of traumatic events and suffering in the intervening years. In other words, they not only look forward; they also look back. In Luke's case, many believe his rereading of Jesus' teaching helped him make sense of the trauma of Jerusalem's fall, setting these devastating events on a much larger and hopeful canvas. But that is yet another example of the apocalyptic claim: to lift the veil not simply on a shadowy future but upon an only-too-real present, making sense of difficult circumstances, comforting the threatened and challenging the complacent by turning their world upside-down.




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