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The Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature

Where Did The Idea of the “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” Come From?

  • Watch the trailer for the Left Behind movie.
  • The origins of the pre-tribulation rapture in the dispensationalist system of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. A scholarly form of progressive dispensationalism is best represented at Dallas Theological Seminary.
  • The rapture doctrine is a corollary of the theological distinction between two covenant peoples, Israel and the church, and the belief that the church must be raptured so that all the biblical promises pertaining to Israel can be “literally” fulfilled in an earthly millennial kingdom.
  • Check out Matthew 24:40-41/Luke 17:34-35, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, and Revelation 3:10. Do these verses in context speak about a secret rapture of the church?
  • Is dispensationalism an adequate hermeneutical lens for interpreting ancient apocalyptic literature? What might be the social,  ideological, and theological implications of a dispensationalist worldview?

What is an “apocalypse”?

  • apokalypsis: uncovering, unveiling, revelation
  • The revelation of Jesus Christ [is Jesus doing the revealing or is he the content of the revelation?], which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1).
  • Distinct from Eschatology: from the Greek term eschatos (last, final) and having to do with the end of the present age.
  • “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” – SBL’s ‘Apocalypse Group’ published by J. J. Collins, Semeia 14 (1979), 9.

Apocalyptic Genre Characteristics: the following notes are taken from David E. Aune, “Understanding Jewish and Christian ApocalypticWord & World 25.3 (2005): 233-245

  • Form: a record of visionary experiences often mediated by a heavenly messenger.
  • Content: visionary tours of the heavens/hell or eschatological prophecies about the end of the age. It is often characterized by cosmic dualism in which the current age is ruled by hostile spiritual forces and, instead of hoping for a resolution through ordinary historical processes, expects a dramatic divine intervention to transform the social order as the only solution to the author’s plight.
  • Function: to encourage a minority group under, or perceived to be under, oppression and to implore the audience to modify their behaviour.
  • Authorship: often ascribed to ancient authorities pseudonymously (Enoch, Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Peter, Paul), with the exception of Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas. This genre seems to have been popular between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
  • Example: The apocalyptic section of Daniel 6-12 seem to be composed around 167-164 BCE, though the visionary is set in the Babylonian and Persian periods. Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” (manifest) came to power in 175 BCE and enforced an aggressive program of Hellenization, transforming Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city (“Antiochia”) with a gymnasium. He forbade Jews from practicing their native customs (cf. 2 Maccabees 7) and attempted to profane the temple by offering a pig on the altar, which was prevented by the priest Matthias. Matthias’s sons, led by Judas “Maccabeus” (hammerer), revolted. Daniel 7 envisions four beasts (=Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece), with the last beast having 10 horns (=rulers) and a particularly arrogant horn (=Antiochus IV), and the eschatological vindication of a human-like figure (=the saints of Israel or their angelic representative).

The Book of Revelation

  • “John”, a seer exiled to the island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). There was debate in the early church about whether the author was the apostle John (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.1-7; 7.25.1-16), but the book seems to refer to the twelve apostles as figures of the past (Rev 21:14).
  • There are some parallels with the Gospel of John (“Lamb”, “Word of God”), but the author’s facility in Greek is very different.
  • “Moreover also among us a man named John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied in a revelation made to him that those who have believed on our Christ will spend a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that hereafter the general and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all will likewise take place.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4)„
  • “For that [vision] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.3). Other scholars date it earlier to the reign of Nero or propose that there might have been an earlier or later edition of the book.
  • Directed towards seven historic churches in Asia Minor (Rev 2-3)

Guidelines for interpretation:

  • The book had to effectively communicate to its earliest audience or else it would not have been preserved.
  • Apocalyptic texts use coded symbolism to refer to political powers in the author’s time. For instance, the condemnation of “Babylon” in Revelation 17-18 (cf. 1 Peter 5:13) seems to be a cipher for Rome as the city of seven hills (cf. Rev 17:9). The beast with a mortal wound in Revelation 13 may be an allusion to the Nero redivivus myth and the number of 666 may stand for Nerōn Kaisar (cf. Ian Boxall, “Gematria“)

Interpretive schemes:

  • Preterist: most or all of the book’s contents correspond to events that took place in the first century CE.
  • Historicist: Revelation covers events throughout Christian history.
  • Futurist: Revelation foretells a yet future eschatological scenario.
  • Idealist: Revelation symbolically represents the battle of good versus evil in a way that is timelessly true.

Interpretations of the millennium (Revelation 20:1-6):

  • Pre-Millennialism: there will be a future 1000 year rule of Christ on earth before the final judgment. Whether the Church or Israel will be the primary participants in the millennial kingdom is a key difference between historic and dispensationalist views.
  • Post-Millennialism: there will be a future time when Christians will experience unprecedented success in their missionary expansion and Christianization of the world.
  • Amillenialism: the prefix “a” stands for “no” and this views the millennium as symbolic of the entire church age as the devil was already bound and defeated in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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