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Apocalyptic Literature

Does the Bible Predict the End of the World?

Are these the end times? Why does the Bible use language of fiery judgment? And what is the mark of the beast? In this episode, Tim and Jon answer your questions about how to read apocalyptic literature.
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Episode Details

June 8, 2020
63 min

Episode Details

June 8, 2020
63 min

Show Notes

QUOTE

Living in a world where there are pandemics and death and so on is a sign of a world that is slowly being put to death, so that it can be raised from the dead.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. The biblical authors use the phrase “end times” to describe the period of the New Testament. The resurrection of Jesus marks the beginning of new creation entering the world.
  2. All followers of Jesus have an apocalypse when we see and respond to the message of Jesus. However, apocalyptic literature is a collection of cosmic apocalypses recorded to draw people closer to God.
  3. Language of fiery judgment is used across the Bible to describe moments of destruction and purification on the earth.

Does the Bible Predict the End of the World?

Danielle from Oregon (1:30)

A lot of people like to claim that the Bible predicts the end of the world—that things are just going to get worse and worse and worse, and more natural disasters, and quoting different Scriptures to support this. Especially in this coronavirus time, people like to quote these different Scriptures. I would love to hear your interpretation of this and get a better biblical understanding.

Tim shares that throughout history, every generation has seen itself in some way through the book of Revelation. Tim summarizes Michael Gorman’s chart that breaks Revelation into five interpretive approaches (see the previous episode show notes).

Jon asks where Jesus would have landed in the interpretive grid. Tim shares that Jesus reconfigured the biblical worldview of the Jewish audience of his day. According to the apostles, what was supposed to happen to the whole world happened first to Jesus through his death and resurrection. Jesus introduced the beginning of the end, the “already and not yet” of the Kingdom of God.

Until the Kingdom comes fully on earth as it is in heaven, we’ll continue to have days described like the end of the world. Jesus quotes from Isaiah (who described the fall of Babylon) to describe the fall of Jerusalem. In this way, apocalyptic language serves a metaphorical purpose—to describe one moment in history that happens over and over again until the ultimate fulfillment.

Every generation will have their own experience of Babylon, but it all leads up to a culminating moment. This is why every generation can see themselves as living in the drama of the book of Revelation.

Jon asks whether it’s helpful to use the term “end times” to describe events we see happening in our world. Tim shares that often this verbiage is used to stir fervor in the hearts of Jesus’ people, but this phrase is not only for this generation. Every generation has been living in the end times since the resurrection of Jesus.

Followers of Jesus fall in different places on the spectrum of understanding Revelation, so we should strive to understand perspectives different than our own.

Personal Apocalyptic Dreams?

Brenda from Florida (16:28)

I'm curious about the dreams that Joseph interpreted of the kings while he was in Egypt. They are apocalypses. However, they seem more personal and practical in nature. They don't seem to follow the throne room theme that is of the more Major Prophets’ apocalypses. I'm curious as to what you guys think about that and if maybe there's a parallel theme of more personal and/or practical apocalypses throughout the Bible.

Tim describes the difference between a cosmic apocalypse and personal apocalypse. In this series, Tim and Jon have talked primarily about cosmic apocalypses. However, the Bible is full of other apocalyptic or prophetic dreams where God communicates to people through their dreams.

The story of Joseph contains three sets of double dreams—Joseph’s first two dreams that get him in trouble, the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, and Pharaoh’s two dreams. Pharaoh’s dreams fit into the overarching story of Joseph’s exultation as a cosmic king, and Joseph’s story itself is tied to the larger son of man theme in the Bible.

What About Fake Apocalypses?

Sam from Ohio (24:20)

Are there any specific criteria for an apocalypse to be recognized as being from the Lord? How were the prophets’ apocalypses received with authority? How has the Church historically protected itself from revelations or visions that haven't been recognized with God’s authority, like for example the visions of Mohammed or Joseph Smith?

The challenge of deciding which apocalypses come from God and which come from people goes all the way back to the Bible and is an inherent risk in God’s choice to partner with humanity. The most basic criteria in the Hebrew Scriptures was to ask whether the words of the prophets were leading people toward God or away from God.

Both Tim and Jon acknowledge that these issues are complicated when played out in real life because humans are, by nature, limited and compromised images of God.

Have We All Had an Apocalypse?

Daniel from England (30:14)

In Epesians 2 Paul talks about how no one can come to faith in Jesus except by God himself making him known. So does that mean by definition that every single believer in Jesus has had an apocalypse?

Tim agrees that Paul makes it clear that every follower of Jesus is given new life by the generosity of God, and this is an apocalyptic moment by the biblical definition. In Ephesians 1:15-19, Paul prays for an apocalypse for all followers of Jesus.

The word apocalypse means “to uncover or reveal.” Many things can be an apocalypse, but this is different from apocalyptic literature, which strings together several of these cosmic apocalypses in a recorded work.

Apocalyptic Moments and Tests

Katy from New York (34:50)

Is there a relationship between testing and apocalypse? Since testing reveals what is in a person and apocalypse reveals what is hidden, does it follow that these ideas are closely linked in the Bible? I'm thinking specifically of Jesus being tested after the Holy Spirit descends on him at his baptism. What do you think?

Stories of testing in the Bible reveal what is in people, whereas apocalypses reveal something about God and his purposes. Many times in the Bible, a testing narrative is accompanied by an apocalyptic moment. Tim gives four examples of times where God appears at high places at moments of testing—in Eden with Adam and Eve, at Mount Moriah with Abraham, at Mount Sinai with Israel, and at Mount Zion with David.

The Coming Fiery Judgment

Leo from Oregon (40:10)

I'm just a bit curious as to how the imagery and language of fire, or fiery judgment play out in biblical apocalyptic from the Old into the New Testament? And what are the implications of this for future reality since the hope is renewal and not cosmic destruction?

Tim mentions that the use of fire is a fascinating theme that can be traced through the Bible. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah show us moments when humanity has become so evil that God hands it over to the destruction of creation on a local level. The fire destroys the wicked, but it preserves a remnant from the fire.

In the prophets, fire is both destructive and purifying. Paul picks up on the analogy, as does Peter. The language used by Peter that is often translated as “elements” in 2 Peter 3:10-12 (Greek: stoicheion) could be used to refer to the basic elements of the world or the rebel heavenly beings (see Isaiah 34 in the Septuagint). Purifying fire is one of the images used by the apostles to talk about the transition from this age to the age to come.

Jon mentions the three sets of divine judgments in Revelation and how these are connected to previous moments of judgment and deliverance in the Hebrew Scriptures. Tim says that John the visionary is communicating the meaning of God’s judgment in any generation.

Tim quotes from Richard Bauckham.

“It would be a serious mistake to understand the images of The Revelation merely as timeless symbols. The character of John’s images in The Revelation conforms to their context as a letter—a real letter to seven churches in Asia in the first century. The resonance of these images and their very specific social, political, cultural, and religious contexts need to be understood if we are to appropriate their meaning today. However, if the images are not timeless symbols but relate to a real work of the author and readers in the first century, we also need to avoid the opposite mistake of taking the images too literally, as descriptive of the real world and of predicted events in the real world. The images are not a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate the source of these images in the Hebrew Bible and in current Greco-roman culture of John’s readers, then we can realize they are not meant to be read either as literal descriptions or as secret, encoded descriptions. The images must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.” ── Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation

Bauckham believes that all of the images in The Revelation are meant to help us understand the meaning of God’s work in history when kingdoms rise and fall.

Bonus: Coronavirus and Microchips

At the end of the episode (55:59), Jon gives Tim a scenario and then tries to answer it as Tim would answer it. What would Tim say if someone came up to him and warned him that the coronavirus vaccine contained a microchip that was the mark of the beast from Revelation?

Jon reflects first that this question would come from a person who views Revelation as a code that predicts a specific set of future events. And Tim would take the images in Revelation as a lens to help us see our world more clearly. Plagues show us the corrupt nature of creation and are a part of God’s judgment against autonomous humanity. The world is experiencing a slow death so it can be raised from the dead.

Jon mentions that the mark of the beast is the “anti-Shema.” It uses much of the same language as the Shema, which is all about allegiance to God with all your life. If what we’ve seen about Revelation is true, then the mark of the beast isn’t describing a physical mark but is instead describing an allegiance to what Babylon represents—systems of socioeconomic oppression. When we look for present day circumstances that fit the mold of Revelation, we can miss the broader meaning that John was trying to communicate.

Additional Resources

  • Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, p. 64.
  • BibleProject, Tree of Life podcast series
  • Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation

Show Music

  • Defender Instrumental by Tents

Show produced by Dan Gummel and Camden McAfee.

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