When things get dire, as in our current, terrifying pandemic, I hear the word “apocalypse” come up a lot more often. “Religious” people start saying, “Here it is” or “No, this isn’t it” (often you can guess which based on their given political or cultural background).
The “it” they mean is the cataclysmic “end of the world.” And they aren’t the only ones. When many of us think of what is already here and what is yet to come, it’s hard not to feel like the strings holding the world together are slipping.
Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami, himself a recent survivor of COVID-19, recently looked at the dwindling resources of his poorest citizens and suggested more government action was immediately needed. Without it, he thought, the best word to capture the situation would be “apocalyptic.”
“If we don’t take dramatic steps to make sure that we alleviate some of the more significant financial burdens in people’s lives, my fear is it could get apocalyptic.” he said.
“Apocalyptic? You really mean that?” queried the interviewer.
“Yes, I mean, you have to understand that, in a city like Miami, we — after nine days, you know, without power, when there’s a hurricane, it gets — it can get pretty apocalyptic.”
Most of us reading blogs are well aware that our relative levels of peace and prosperity are not available to everyone in our communities or around the world. We work hard to create a world where those left out have increasing access to food, shelter, justice, and security.
But when a massive, seemingly-unstoppable force—especially one that is unseen—like this virus hits us, it can feel like everything we know is coming undone. We think we’rethe hope for others,who rightly want to know the kind of health and security we have. And if ours is falling apart, what’s going to be left? Will we see death and suffering like the world has never seen?
“Apocalyptic” feels like the only word for it.
My wife is an ICU nurse, and for weeks now our collective heart rate has been revving at a higher level than usual. Thankfully, unlike many others, her hospital seems relatively well-supplied. She has her PPE, and she is well-trained. But every day that she goes to work, caring for COVID and non-COVID patients alike, I can’t help but feel a keener awareness of our mortality. On her days off, I feel a little more reason to “count our days” (Psalm 90:12) and let the little everyday joys “soak in” a bit more. We never know when they will be our last ones.
This is of course true for all of us, all the time, and the Coronvirus pandemic has got us all thinking just a little bit more about what our time on this earth is for—and how long it might last. But, it’s just at this point that I think the world “apocalyptic” has something else to say to us. One that I have been leaning into these days. One I would like to share:
For those who wrote them, apocalyptic writings were a comfort. And what they knew about God can comfort us, too. Since it’s Holy Week, let me explain by starting with Jesus’s version of this.
Jesus’s “Little Apocalypse”
Somewhere during this Holy Week some 2000 years ago (between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper), Jesus took a moment to sit with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Jewish Temple. There, Jesus gave one of his famous sermons, often called his “Little Apocalypse” by scholars (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21). My students laugh when I tell them the title: “How can you have a ‘little’ end of the world?”
What I get to explain to them is that an apocalypse is different from the apocalypse.
Apocalypse (from the Greek word apocalypsis) actually means “revelation.” (Yes, like the book of Revelation.) It doesn’t just describe an event but a specific kind of prophetic writing.
The Book of Revelation, by the Christian prophet John, is just one example of a much wider genre of biblical (and even extra-biblical) literature known as “apocalyptic.” Most famously represented in the Bible in Daniel 7-12, apocalyptic literature is (to borrow from Yale expert, John J. Collins) an ancient Jewish form of writing that depicts a “transcendent reality … intended to interpret present earthly circumstances in light of the supernatural world.”
This emphasis on the transcendent can also be seen in earlier forms in places like Isaiah 24-27 and Joel 2:28-32 and in non-biblical texts like 1 Enoch. In each case, the language there will sound strangely familiar for anyone who has read or heard Jesus’s words in places like Mark 13:7-8 (NRSV),
7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
It’s language from this kind of writing that Jesus is using in his sermon. (See Ian Paul’s video here for more.) We often think of Jesus as the one prophesied about, but in the early days of the Jesus movement, his role as one who prophesiedwas arguably even more important. But why is Jesus prophesying in this way and how could it help us now?
One important aspect of this writing (sometimes overlooked or unknown) is that it was often written as a form of comfort to those enduring great trials, especially oppression and persecution. The writers of ancient apocalypses wanted their readers to know that God is merciful, but He is also determined not to let evil win (cf. Exodus 34:6-7). Right when the goodness of God seems questionable—or downright absent—an apocalypse says, “This is hard, but in the end, everything will be ok. I am not finished, yet.”
In Daniel’s world (no matter how one parses the dating of that book), it was hardship under an oppressive empire. The prophet John of Revelation was speaking to churches who were undergoing various but widespread persecutions in their communities (hence, the letters in chapters 1-3). In the Gospels, Jesus takes up this kind of language before his Last Supper in order to comfort his disciples ahead of the destruction of the Temple which would strike them in just a few decades’ time in 70 CE.
While on the Mount of Olives, Jesus once again reiterated an important claim of the last week of his earthly ministry (cf. Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 19:43-44; 21:5-7): Under God’s judgment, the Temple is going to fall.
The thing is, this had already happened. Some 600 years earlier, under the Babylonians, the famed Nebuchadnezzar had come—not once but twice in 597 and 587 BCE—and plundered the Temple’s wealth and Jerusalem’s populace (2 Kings 24). And like most Jews of their day, the disciples probably felt like this wasthe Lord’s judgment on them. The “day of the LORD” (cf. Zephaniah 1; Amos 5), as it was known, was already behind them. Maybe “the nations” still have “theirs” coming to them (cf. Isaiah 13; Jeremiah 26; Obadiah 15), but not “us,” right Jesus?
But, according to the Gospels, Jesus knew a worse day was coming, a day that would be completely disorienting to the disciples and to the whole Jewish nation. He also knew it wouldn’t be the last one. In each of these Gospels’ accounts, he goes on to describe, in apocalyptic language, the pattern of the times to come, when not just Israel, but the whole world would rock and reel under the sufferings of pestilence, war, and famine. But in the end, he would come and then there would be “the end of the world” as we know it. As Luke 21:25-27 puts it (NRSV):
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.
Jesus knew that when we hit what we are now going through, what we would need is not fear but comfort. But that comfort could not come through confidence in ourselves; instead, we would need to have something truly transcendent to hope in. That’s why he preached the way he did. When we think the strings holding the world together are slipping under the strain of our creaturely frailty, it’s then that we can get a glimpse of what really holds creation together in the first place. And it’s not us.
When the world looked disorienting and unpredictable, apocalyptic writers took up their pens to describe the earthly chaos as a mere outworking of more powerful “heavenly” forces. Things may look bad “down here,” but that’s only because we don’t see what’s happening “up there.” Battles between God and the forces of evil have not yet resolved in the favor of the One who will win; that’s why things are harsh right now.
“On that day the LORD will punish the host of heaven in heaven,” says Isaiah 24:21 (NRSV), “and on earth the kings of the earth.” The battle isn’t over until the God of heaven sings His victory song. Sensing their own prophetic burden to speak this comfort, the biblical prophets write to reveal what’s really going on “behind the scenes.”
And yet, readers of books like Revelation and Daniel often have a much more befuddling reading experience. The text doesn’t seem to explain “what’s really going on” as much as make things confusing: Daniel describes “four great beasts [that] came up out of the sea … the first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings [but] its wings were [soon] plucked off” (7:3-4, NRSV). Joel 2:30 talks about “portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke” (NRSV). Some of Revelation’s images are too unclear to depict visually (e.g. How are Revelation 13:1 ’s “ten horns” distributed across “seven heads” anyway?). The intensity of the visual imagery is often matched only by its incoherence to our material sensibilities.
Most of the time, this is because what the author is depicting are symbols (Daniel even explains his later in the chapter, Dan 7:15-27), and often the symbols are piled one upon another. Their obscure nature does not mean we cannot know what the passages intended to communicate but that one must read, reflect, observe, and think about the text before one can understand.
More to the point, these are the virtues the reader needs not only for making sense of the text but for making sense of their perplexing, terrifying times. Rather than fear—or rather because of our fear—apocalypses say we ought to stop and consider why our world is in the state that it is. The prophets would argue that the kind of reflection we need is not more data (as helpful as that might be in some immediate care-giving and decision-making contexts) but more prayer. God alone knows and has given—and is giving—revelation, if we will seek him.
But perhaps even more comforting than this is the Bible reader’s experience if one just keeps on reading. There are indications that apocalyptic literature was not just written to be read silently but to be performed aloud (notice Revelation 1:3 “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy…,” emphasis added). I often recommend that my students listen to the Bible using a quality audiobook. One of the benefits of hearing a text read in its entirety is that you can become more aware of the text’s own emotional highs and lows than your own questions and curiosities. In the case of apocalyptic works, the consistent result is that the reader/hearer can’t help but be drawn through the ups and downs and then to their ultimate conclusion: God always wins.
At first, this affirmation, however, seems to leave us out of the picture. What comfort or hope is there in God winning if we’re left out in the cold? But, this problem is overcome once we get to know the Bible’s God. The prophetic literature of the Bible, in general, and maybe the apocalyptic literature in specific, emphasizes God’s absolute solidarity with his creation (e.g. His Spirit poured out on “all flesh,” Joel 2:28).
Indeed, the great Jewish philosopher and biblical scholar Abraham Heschel has persuasively argued for “divine pathos,” that “the God of the prophets cares for His creatures, and His thoughts are about the world. He is involved in human history and is affected by human acts.” (This, of course, has to be balanced with a proper understanding of divine impassibility, one that supports Scripture’s clarity on God’s “divine passion,” despite it not being fully analogous to our own.) As much as it depends on Him, and often despite our mistakes and sins, the God of the Bible will notlet us creatures go. “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands,” Isaiah 49:16 (NRSV) reassures us, and Christian theology sees this verse fulfilled in Christ’s Cross whenever we join by faith in the climax of hope in His Easter victory over death.
It was this sense of assurance of God’s commitment to His creation, confirmed to her by her Christian faith, that filled mystical writer and anchoress, Julian of Norwich. Born just before the first wave of the Black Death and writing in the midst of its continued recurrence, Julian had a confidence, through prayer and apocalyptic visions, to see the whole world including her beleaguered corner of it, from God’s perspective. Her writings are the oldest surviving book of any woman in England, and in them, she sounds a lot like the prophet Joel. In God, she has a reason beyond reason to be hopeful. “All shall be well,” she extols, “and all manner of thing shall be well.”
In these days, we need this kind of comfort, the apocalyptic kind. During our current COVID-19 lives, some of us will meet unremitting loneliness, fear, and grief. Amid these, we will undoubtedly find ourselves praying with the Psalmist, “LORD sustain her on her sickbed! In her illness, restore her to full health!” (Psalm 41:3, modified), or shivering in our closets (where our children can’t see) in utter terror of the “pestilence that stalks in darkness, … the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand [falling] at [our] side, ten thousand at [our] right hand” (Psalm 91:6-7, NSRV). When we do, the experience will be new to us, but the biblical prophets tell us, that as a people, we humans have been here before. And they would want us to listen to the birds in the trees, watch the clouds roll past, and know—as they did—that in the end, our future is not just with God, but God himself has pledged: His future is with us. He will not give up on us.
“The home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3, NRSV, emphasis added).
There is comfort in that apocalypse.
Dr Jonathan Parker teaches Bible and theology at Berry College, Georgia, US. He completed his Ph.D. in Old Testament at the University of Durham (England), with special emphasis on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. He is an ordained priest in the Anglican Church in North America.
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