Can we find hope in apocalyptic times?

I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. The first one was on the phrase ‘Word of God’, and second on ‘Justice’ and the third on ‘Mission’. This one, published in Preach Magazine issue 23 Chaos and Truth, explored the word ‘Apocalypse’.

The coming of the Apocalypse

The apocalypse is at hand! Up goes the cry whenever something chaotic is about to happen. Thus we have apocalyptic weather, apocalyptic economics and politics—and there is even a whole genre of disaster movies known as ‘apocalyptic’. The term indicates a situation where the normal structures of life disappear, overwhelmed by the chaotic and the catastrophic. But where did the term come from, and what does it mean?

It is actually the first word in the last book of the Bible, which begins Apocalypsis Iesou Christou, usually translated ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ’, thus giving its name to the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation. But the idea was a long time in development, and ‘apocalyptic’ has come to refer to a whole genre of ancient literature.

Fractured from God

The biblical narrative begins with the idea that God is the rightful ruler over all of creation, and God shares that rule with humanity made in his image. But with the advent of human sin, God’s relationship with the world has been fractured, and he no longer rules as he should. God calls Abraham to be in covenant relationship with him, and then forms the nation of Israel, in order to re-establish his rule of justice and peace, so that one day ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab 2.14).

But the story of Israel is the story both of God’s determination to restore creation, and Israel’s failure to collaborate with it. This is illustrated starkly in the cycle within the Book of Judges: Israel is oppressed; they cry out to God; he sends a ‘judge’ or leader to rescue and deliver them; they live in peace; then they forget God and end up being oppressed just as before. So the cycle begins again. We therefore see in the prophets a gradual fading of the hope that God will rescue Israel, restore the world, and establish his rule within history, since history itself appears to have become corrupt because of human sin.

The Hope of a New Age

Instead, a hope develops that God will bring this world (or ‘age’) to an end, and begin again by establishing a new order of things. Just as the Spirit of God brought order out of chaos in the beginning, in creating the world, and God formed a people for himself in the Exodus out of the chaos of slavery in Egypt, so God will begin a new creation, with the old order passing away.

All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll…See, I will create new heavens and a new earth…’(Is 34.4, 65.17)

This was a widespread Jewish hope at the time of Jesus. In this ‘age’, God’s people experience oppression by their enemies; the people continue in sin; the worship of God is imperfect. But God’s anointed leader will come, defeat all God’s enemies, and will re-establish true worship. The dead will be raised, and judgement will come, and the Holy Spirit of God will be poured out on all his people. This, for most Jews, that is what they heard when Jesus’ proclaimed ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead signalled the beginning of the ‘age to come’. What was surprising was that the present age continued alongside the breaking in of God’s kingdom, so a future, further hope remains, of this evil age finally coming to an end.

Apocalyptic Signs

This understanding, found throughout the New Testament, is expressed most vividly in the Book of Revelation. It uses imagery from the Old Testament, especially Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, but also from pagan ideas (including Stoic philosophy), to describe this present evil age, alongside the coming kingdom brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and already present in the world in the form of the people of God—no longer merely ethnic Israel, but all those (Jew and Gentile) who follow Jesus (Rev 7.9).

According to Revelation, the chaos of the apocalypse already is here! The violence and chaos of the contemporary world is evident in the ‘four horsemen’ of conquest, war, famine and disease, and death. But the return of Jesus will bring is an end to chaos, and a re-establish the peace and order of the original creation in a new world without sin (Rev 21.1–6). And this ‘new creation’ is something that, according to Paul, we already begin to experience by faith (2 Cor 5.17), as we start to live Jesus’ resurrection life in the present, looking forward to its fulfilment in the age to come.

(You can buy my commentary on the Book of Revelation in the Tyndale series here.)

(You can find out more about Preach magazine and subscribe through its website here.)


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10 thoughts on “Can we find hope in apocalyptic times?”

    • What (I have presumed) Ian is meaning here is that God no longer rules because humans have rejected that rule. The relationship is fractured. It’s not saying anything about the nature of God, but about the practical outworking of God’s nature in the world as we have it.

      Reply
    • Indeed. That is pretty central to NT eschatology. In ‘this age’ God’s rule is not recognised and his will is not done. That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer…

      Reply
  1. Hi Ian,
    As the word Apocalypse means ‘revealing of’ it must mean it is the vehicle that is doing the revealing. It brings the hope. Without an Apocalypse or an epiphany what do we have?
    The Apocalypse is the fragrance of Christ to those who believe but to everyone else it is the stench of death.

    Reply
    • So if I understand you correctly, Christians actively wish for and would welcome the Apocalypse.

      Covid-19 must be a big disappointment then.

      Would you welcome the appearance of a zombie plague à la The Walking Dead? Or a massive celestial body colliding with the Earth? Does the prospect of so much anguish, pain and death really fill you with joy? And how about the fate to which the unsaved would be consigned? Billions, including me I should think, would burn in hell with no hope of redemption while you reclined on your cloud in heaven sipping piña coladas (if that’s how you imagine paradise to be).

      I can understand the indifference to my fate because you don’t know me from Adam. But I’m sure there will be some among your acquaintance whom you love and who will not be saved. Doesn’t the prospect of their fate make you see the Apocalypse as something to be avoided at all costs rather than something to look forward to and actively welcome?

      You may have guessed that one of the issues I have with Christianity is its seemingly callous disregard for the “other” and its focus on what appears to be an essentially selfish personal salvation. I suppose my real question is “Will you be able to live with yourself in heaven knowing you actively wished for the event that banished your loved ones to hell?”

      Reply
      • Hi Steven,
        Christians should not wish for an apocalypse of destruction but that is not what the Revelation is about. Revelation/Apocalypse simply means ‘revealing’ as one would pull back a curtain, it is about Jesus; who he is, what he has done and what he will do.
        In my reading of Revelation I find it is about a Wedding not a War. In a nutshell it is about The Groom (Jesus); what he has done to win his bride. The Bride (Christians); what they do to make themselves ready. The wedding guests and the enemy of the Bride and Groom.
        For instance Adam was put into a deep sleep and from his side Eve was created. God brought her to him and they were the first married couple. This is a sketch if you like of what God intended all along to happen. Jesus died for us and his side was pierced. From his death and resurrection the church sprang and one day Jesus will return for us his bride. This is not fanciful thinking it is core theology.
        The awful things that happen in the book of Revelation are the result of people not taking up the invitation offered to them. They get shut out of the wedding because they refuse to enter in.
        It depends on how you read Revelation John hears about a Lion early on in Revelation but he sees a Lamb. You may have heard about a Lion, a large dark Barbary Lion and you think it storks you but if you read on you will find that He is the Lamb, The Groom, The Son of God.

        Many Christians see the bowls of wrath (Rev 16) as an image of destruction poured out on mankind and they seem to gleefully gloat on the coming destruction. This is because they do not read the bible for themselves but rely on commentators to give them what to think. Schofield is the main culprit to influence American, muscular, Christinized thought, but I see The Bowls of Wrath as a backward retelling of the suffering poured out on Jesus in his trial, crusifixion and burial. It is the Spirit’s testimony of that awful event. The frogs= Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod. The hail and blood= the contempt and flogging. The hundredweight hail=the shame felt by the perpetrators afterward. The great city split three ways= the Trinity torn apart. ‘It is done(16v17)” = ‘It is finished”John 19v28. The great earthquake. = the crucifixion. (What event in history was more ground breaking?).

        Come Says the Bride. Come says the Spirit. Come says Jesus. Come say I. Come to the Wedding!

        Reply
  2. I’m going to assume your post is an attempt at proselytism. But here’s the thing: when you want to convert someone to your way of thinking, it’s always a good idea to speak to him in a language he can understand.

    Brides and weddings and frogs and spirits mean nothing to me. So if you’re serious in your attempt to make a Christian out of me, you’ll need to present your arguments in a less metaphorical manner.

    Reply
  3. Hi Steven, You are exactly right on both counts but primarily I wanted to counter the impression you seem to have of Revelation being a gory fest. I thought by introducing it’s theme and content from another point of view I may peake your interest. But I over did it, sorry. I have a bit of a passion for Revelation at the moment.

    Reply

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