'Apocalyptic' comes from the Greek term apokalypsis, meaning 'revelation', 'unveiling', or 'disclosure', the word with which the Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse, opens. What distinguishes that which is ‘apocalyptic’ is that it is primarily about understanding, of God, the human condition and society, which does not come by analysis and the application of established interpretative techniques, but by revelation. As in dreams which are often mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 36 and Daniel 7), the apocalyptic dreamer and visionary, has a sense of something being ‘given’, even of ‘standing outside’ themselves (so in ecstasy, cf Acts 10:10). John of Patmos describes it as ‘being in the spirit’ (Revelation 1:10; 4:2). A visionary or dreamer does not deliberately create, therefore, for the mode of reception is passive. Dreams and visions and auditions were recognised as constituting liminal moments when the boundaries between the human and the divine could be crossed and understanding of things in different, and more imaginative ways, could take place.
But in common parlance ‘Apocalypse’ has come to be synonymous with catastrophe or the end of the world. A glance at newspaper headlines after the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/11 or the Japanese tsunami shows the way in which such terrible, sudden events are captured in the word APOCALYPSE. The explanation for this is because the Book of Revelation, ‘the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ’, includes among its visions, terrible cataclysmic events as well as the ultimate period when heaven comes on earth.
So, it is important to recognise that there are two major approaches to the understanding of this apocalypse. Firstly, if one considers the contents of a text like Revelation, we see much material which in highly picturesque language depicts the terrible events which must precede the coming of a new age. But we should never forget that just as important, there is the form of revelation, its visionary mode, therefore. Without consideration of this aspect we cannot understand John’s visions fully. The visionary mode includes not only what must happen in the run up to ultimate redemption but also the oppressive and unjust character of present political arrangement, e.g. Revelation 13 and 17, both of which chapters owe much to the earlier political theology of Daniel 2 & 7.
The concept of the millennium has its origin in Revelation 20 where reference is made to a rule on earth by the messiah for a thousand years. It is one example of a widespread set of beliefs which emerged in the centuries immediately preceding the Common Era and have their origin particularly in the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, concerning the coming of a future age on earth, when social and ecological harmony will prevail (e.g. Isaiah 11). As these beliefs evolved, it became common to expect a period of woe preceding and ushering in the coming new age. Such ‘wars and rumours of wars and … nation rising against nation, and earthquakes, famines are explicitly mentioned or hinted at throughout the New Testament, e.g. Mark 13: 7-8. Typically, in the vision of the Book of Revelation and in contemporary apocalyptic texts this period of tribulation and suffering is divided into periods (Revelation 6-16 cf. 4 Ezra and Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch).
One component of this hope for the future is a time-limited period for a messianic reign on earth, the Millennium, in Revelation 20 and also found in contemporary Jewish text such as 4 Ezra 7: 28-9 and the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 29, though the period mentioned in the Ezra text is four hundred years (when the messiah dies). What is crucial about these passages that this period of messianic peace takes place on this earth. There is no question of some transcendent world, if that is what the new heaven and new earth predicted in Revelation 21-2 involves, though it should be noted that this asserts heaven on earth also, as the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth and God’s dwelling is in this renewed creation. This kind of belief was widespread in ancient and Judaism and early Christianity but was marginalised and deemed heretical in subsequent Christian thought, though making an appearance from time to time in fringe movements over the last two thousand years.
The coming of a divinely appointed agent of change is a key item of the future of hope in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Judaism and Christianity the belief was that this was an anointed figure (hence the title messiah, who might be a descendant of David but also an anointed prophet and occasionally a priest. This figure had a role in removing unrighteousness from the word and in fulfilment of Jewish prophecy presiding over an age of justice and peace. This was explicitly stated with regard to the descendant of David in Isaiah 11 though it is part of a wider set of beliefs about hope for the future evidence in passages like Isaiah 2 and Micah 4. Early Christian belief was indebted to Jewish beliefs about the coming of the messiah. The major difference with Christianity is that the first Christians believed that the messiah had now come, even if the final consummation when the new age would come was still future. Meanwhile they believed Jesus had been vindicated as the agent of the advent of the new age by his resurrection, the latter event itself being a key ingredient of hope of the future when the dead would be raised (cf. Daniel 12: 2).
Christopher Rowland retired in 2014 as Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford, after teaching at the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Cambridge.