End of the World or the beginning of God’s New World? Biblical prophecy is God-centred. It strengthens faith and assurance by reminding us the God is sovereign in history regardless of increasing chaos in the world. Repent from itchy ears that seek to hear the latest ‘revelation’ from God. Make eschatological hope (concerning end-time matters) a foundation for faithful living and growing conformity to Christ, not an escape from discipleship.
Recent experience of extensive natural disasters and increasing outbreak of deadly diseases has generated a pervasive mood of anxiety. Some readers may be surprised to find such anxiety reflected in religious literature found in ancient Israel. One may refer to the apocalyptic literature in Ancient Israel written during the Inter-Testamental period (from 400BC to New Testament times). A sample passage taken from chapter 11 of the Book of Enoch should help readers get acquainted with the imagery typical of apocalyptic literature.
The Holy Great One will come forth from His dwelling,
4 And the eternal God will tread upon the earth, (even) on Mount Sinai,
[And appear from His camp]
And appear in the strength of His might from the heaven of heavens.
5 And all shall be smitten with fear
And the Watchers shall quake,
And great fear and trembling shall seize them unto the ends of the earth.
6 And the high mountains shall be shaken,
And the high hills shall be made low,
And shall melt like wax before the flame
7 And the earth shall be wholly rent in sunder,
And all that is upon the earth shall perish,
And there shall be a judgment upon all (men).
8 But with the righteous He will make peace.
We can compare this passage from Enoch with a passage from the Book of Revelation:
The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many people died from the water, because it had been made bitter. The fourth angel blew his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of their light might be darkened, and a third of the day might be kept from shining, and likewise a third of the night (Revelation 8:10-12).
The imagery of the passages above is representative of apocalyptic literature. The average reader is naturally overwhelmed by the strange and fascinating images which are certainly unsettling, if not frightening. Whether we read such passages literally or otherwise, they convey something ominous.
The bizarre imagery also pushes some readers to end up with an extremely fanciful but wrong interpretation of such passages. It is therefore vital that Christians know how to avoid having an overactive imagination that leads to distorted interpretation, especially when they encounter apocalyptic passages embedded in the prophetic literature.
Keeping in mind the historical context in which a prophecy was given will set limits to how prophecy should be interpreted. The moral earnestness of the prophets emphasizes that primacy should be given to forth-telling (declaring the will of God) rather than fore-telling (predicting vague possibilities in the distant future). As the Robert Mounce explains in his commentary on Revelation, “A major role of the apocalypse [Book of Revelation] was to explain why the righteous suffered and why the kingdom of was God delayed. Prophecy had dealt primarily with the nation’s ethical obligations at the time when the prophet wrote. Apocalyptic focused on a period of time yet future when God would intervene to judge the world and establish righteousness.”
However, the lack of a clear context in sections of the prophetic writings that are more evidently apocalyptic means that prophetic literature is vulnerable to distorted reading. To gain a balanced perspective, it will do well for us to recall a basic truism of reading, which is simply that the reader must be sensitive to the intention of the writer, and must respect the genre (type of literature) at hand.
For example, when we read the book of Genesis we do not read it as a scientific treatise. Genesis tells us why God created the world, but science tells us how God created the world. The book of Proverbs is not a collection of sayings designed for fortune cookies; it is God’s instruction on how one should conduct one’s life to reflect the order and justice of nature, which in turn reflects the order and harmony of creation. Finally, we read the book of Revelation to gain assurance that God is in control of a world that threatens to run amok; it is not a horoscope forecasting the future.
Readers are advised to keep in mind the following characteristics of apocalyptic literature:
First, apocalyptic exhorts a righteous remnant to remain faithful and to continue serving God despite immense persecution. In contemporary sociological terms, apocalyptic is akin to an ideological pamphlet for the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Second, there is a decisive rejection and denunciation of evil. It is acknowledged that the people of God are poor and insignificant in society. But at least, they continue to keep themselves from the pollution of sin or the corrupting influence of the world and live a morally higher life. More importantly, apocalyptic proclaims the imminent overthrow of the present unjust and evil social order.
Third, the worldview of apocalyptic is one of dualism. The contrast is between the pure and exclusive community of the faithful remnant, and the evil social order at large. According to D. S. Russell, apocalyptic records and reflects the difficult experiences of the faithful remnant. As such, apocalyptic “cannot be understood apart from the religious, political and economic circumstances of the times, nor can the times themselves be understood apart from these books whose hopes and fears echo and re-echo the faith of God’s chosen people.”
Fourth, apocalyptic sounds the clarion call of imminent divine judgment to unrepentant believers. In contrast, the faithful will experience a salvation that is both universal and transcendent (deliverance to an other-worldly order). Apocalyptic gives meaning to life by relating it to the imminent end of the world, with the promise of a new and total solution to the human problem.
G.B. Caird’s succinct summary on the purpose of apocalyptic is most pertinent:
“…to encourage Jewish resistance … by showing that the national suffering was foreseen and provided for in the cosmic purpose of God and would issue in ultimate vindication … against a background of world history, the present struggle as part of the age-long struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, and victory over the immediate enemy as the embodiment of the final victory of God.”
Apocalyptic literature may serve as a source of inspiration to resist evil. Unfortunately, it can also be perverted to justify a pessimism that leads to withdrawal from the world. Significantly, apocalyptic has proved, historically, to play a crucial role in the rise of millenarian movements. Apocalyptic denounces the evil in the social order and spawns rebellion by the poor and underclass. Unfortunately, these millenarian movements have proved to be more destructive than constructive.
Sociologists have identified several factors that give rise to such millenarian movements.
- There exists widespread malcontent among the poor.
- This social group holds to a common set of beliefs exemplified by apocalyptic literature.
- A calamity brings extensive suffering and intensifies the discontent, which finds articulation by a charismatic leader who claims spiritual empowerment and has gained unquestioned allegiance.
- Some leaders may suggest that the community wait passively for divine intervention to save the exclusive community.
- More dangerously, the leader manages to persuade his followers to rebel since his spiritual power assures them success in overthrowing an evil and unjust social order.
Sadly, some churches have been vulnerable to manipulation by so-called experts in matters of endtimes who claim to have the special key to unlock the mysteries of the book of Revelation. Their influence in recent times has tended to lead Christians to withdraw from constructive social engagement. The consequences could be worse.
How can Christians avoid been misled by distorted reading of Biblical prophecy? First, we must bear in mind that apocalyptic elements found in the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation are subordinate to the overall purpose of biblical prophecy, which is to reveal the will of God.
Second, we must avoid any purported claims to new revelation that is man-centred, where the focus is on the supposedly extraordinary experiences of the recipient of new revelations. I have in mind new age books like the Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield) or A Course In Miracles (Helen Schucman).
Interestingly, the elements of apocalyptic have gain prominence in contemporary films. We may enjoy the special effects we get in films like The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, The Core or the remake of H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds, but the pessimism is undeniable since man is left on his own. The Hollywood twist in celebrating the eventual triumph of man over the threat of his extinction does not hide the fact that humankind is perceived as vulnerable to extinction.
In contrast, biblical prophecy is God-centred. It strengthens faith and assurance by reminding us that God is sovereign in history regardless of the appearance of increasing chaos in the world. In this regard, the book Revelation ultimately offers a positive message of faith and assurance. It portrays not an imaginary ‘Never-Never Land’ but God’s ‘Ever-Ever land’.
Finally, Christians must remember the warnings given in the book of Deuteronomy chapter 18—if a purported prophecy or revelation does not come to pass, or if it leads the community away from true allegiance to God or distracts God’s people from obeying God’s revealed word (as preserved in the Bible), then the community should vehemently reject such teachings.
In conclusion, it is hoped that the following suggestions will serve as an antidote to the trivial pursuits of an apocalyptic age.
- Maintain without compromise, the blessed hope of Christ’s physical return. Any talk about an invisible Christ who has supposedly already returned, is often exploited to cover-up wrong prophecies, and immunizes pseudo-prophets from being taken to task for their mistakes.
- Reject decisively any date setting or countdown to Armageddon. Such actions are not very different from the way ancient pagans resorted to the reading of animal entrails to divine the future.
- Acquire some basic understanding of apocalyptic and prophetic literature through systematic reading. A palate that is nourished by a wholesome diet of sound theology can instinctively identify unhealthy junk food served by false prophets.
- Admonish and correct anyone who exploits the fears and anxieties of people with speculative predictions. Christians should repent from having itchy ears that seek to hear the latest so-called ‘revelation’ from God. Above all, make eschatological hope [concerning end-time matters] a foundation for faithful living and growing conformity to Christ, not an escape from discipleship.
Link to End of the World Part 1 LINK