Introducing the Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature

This is part of my classroom lectures handouts

The impact of apocalyptic thought in popular culture: Left Behind Series

  • The origins of the pre-tribulation rapture in the dispensationalist system of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. A scholarly form of progressive dispensationalism is best represented at Dallas Theological Seminary. The rapture doctrine is a corollary of the theological distinction between two covenant peoples, Israel and the church, and the belief that the church must be raptured so that all the biblical promises pertaining to Israel can be “literally” fulfilled in an earthly millennial kingdom.
  • Check out Matthew 24:40-41/Luke 17:34-35, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, and Revelation 3:10 in their literary context.
  • Is dispensationalism an adequate hermeneutical lens for interpreting ancient apocalyptic literature? What might be the social and ideological/theological implications of a dispensationalist worldview?

What is an “apocalypse”?

  • apokalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις): uncovering, unveiling, revelation
  • The revelation of Jesus Christ [is Jesus doing the revealing or is he the content of the revelation?], which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1).
  • Distinct from Eschatology: from the Greek term eschatos (ἔσχατος, last, final) and having to do with the end of the present age.
  • “‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” (SBL’s ‘Apocalypse Group’ published by J. J. Collins, Semeia 14 [1979], 9).

Characteristics of the Apocalyptic Genre (see further Aune, “Understanding Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic”)

  • Form: a record of visionary experiences often mediated by a heavenly messenger.
  • Content: visionary tours of the heavens/hell or eschatological prophecies about the end of the age. It is also often characterized by cosmic dualism in which the current age is ruled by hostile spiritual forces and, instead of hoping for a resolution through ordinary historical processes, expects a dramatic divine intervention and transformation of the social order as the only solution to the author’s plight.
  • Function: to encourage a minority group under (or perceived to be under) oppression and implore the audience to modify their behaviour.
  • Authorship: often ascribed to ancient authorities pseudonymously (Enoch, Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Peter, Paul), with the exception of Revelation and the Shepherd of Hermas. This genre of writings seems to have been popular between 200 BCE and 200 CE.
  • Example: The apocalyptic section of Daniel 6-12 seem to be composed around 167-164 BCE, though the visionary is set in the Babylonian and Persian periods. Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” (manifest) came to power in 175 BCE and enforced an aggressive program of Hellenization (i.e. spreading Greek culture), transforming Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city (“Antiochia”) with a gymnasium. He forbade Jews from practicing their native customs (cf. 2 Maccabees 7) and attempted to profane the temple by offering a pig on the altar, which was prevented by the priest Matthias. Matthias’s sons, led by Judas “Maccabeus” (hammerer), revolted. Daniel 7 envisions four beasts (=Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece), with the last beast having 10 horns (=rulers) and a particularly arrogant horn (=Antiochus IV), and the eschatological vindication of a human-like figure (=the saints of Israel or their angelic representative).

The Book of Revelation: Introduction

  • “John”, a seer who was exiled to the island of Patmos for his testimony about Jesus (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). There was debate in the early church about whether the author was the apostle John (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.1-7; 7.25.1-16), but the book seems to refer to the twelve apostles as figures of the past (Rev 21:14).
  • There are some parallels with the Gospel of John (“Lamb”, “Word of God”), but the author’s facility in Greek is very different.
  • “Moreover also among us a man named John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied in a revelation made to him that those who have believed on our Christ will spend a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that hereafter the general and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all will likewise take place.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue 81.4)„
  • “For that [vision] was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.3). Other scholars date it earlier to the reign of Nero or propose that there might have been an earlier or later edition of the book.
  • Directed towards seven historic churches in Asia Minor (Rev 2-3)

Guidelines for interpretation:

  • The book had to effectively communicate to its earliest audience or else it would not have been preserved.
  • Apocalyptic texts use coded symbolism to speak about political powers in the author’s time. For instance, the condemnation of “Babylon” in Revelation 17-18 (cf. 1 Peter 5:13) seems to be a cipher for Rome as the city of seven hills (cf. Rev 17:9). The beast with a mortal wound in Revelation 13 may be an allusion to the Nero redivivus myth and the number of 666 may stand for Nerōn Kaisar (cf. Ian Boxall, “Gematria“)

Interpretive schemes:

  • Preterist: most/all of the events in the book took place in the first century CE.
  • Historicist: Revelation covers events throughout Christian history.
  • Futurist: Revelation foretells a yet future eschatological scenario.
  • Idealist: Revelation symbolically represents the battle of good versus evil in a way that is timelessly true.

Interpretations of the millennium (Revelation 20:1-6):

  • Pre-Millennialism: there will be a future 1000 year rule of Christ on earth before the final judgment. Whether the Church or Israel will be the primary participants in the millennial kingdom is the major difference between the historic and dispensationalist view.
  • Post-Millennialism: there will be a future time when Christians will experience unprecedented success in their missionary expansion and Christianization of the world.
  • Amillenialism: the prefix “a” stands for “no” and this view interprets the millennium as symbolic of the church age as the devil has been bound due to what Christ has already accomplished.

„„Further resources:


5 Responses to Introducing the Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature

  1. Reading Paul alone how clear is it that he believed in physical bodies living on a “new earth?” Or did he believe that Christians would spend eternity “in heaven?”

    Paul mentions being resurrected in a “spiritual body” without claiming it has “flesh and bone” (compare later writings like the Gospel of Luke where the resurrected Jesus denies being a “spirit” at all, and claims he is “flesh and bone” and EATS a piece of fish as demonstration. You don’t find that in Paul. Instead you find Paul’s notion of a “spiritual body,” along with Paul’s statements that “Flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” and, “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them” 1 Cor 6:13 & 15:50.

    Paul’s “spiritual body” view seems less “flesh and bone” than what appears in later New Testament writings concerning Jesus’ resurrection. It also fits the way Paul despised the “flesh” (fleshly aspects of existence) throughout his writings, even looking down on the fact that people “burned” for one another, giving physical marriage this backhanded compliment, “It is better to marry than to burn,” a passage rarely quoted at Christian weddings. Paul even taught Christians that it was good to “never touch” a woman, and to remain as he was, celibate, and that married couples should live celibate lives if they can, so they can concentrate on “serving the Lord” rather than each other. The only form of marriage Paul endorses unequivocally is the church’s marriage to its heavenly bridegroom, the Lord–the marriage of believer with their beliefs, specifically with Paul’s beliefs about the Lord. All others be cursed. Paul’s “spiritual body” view also fits with his mention of Christians being taken up to heaven.

    Keep in mind that the Pauline idea of a “spiritual body” is the earliest formulation of the “resurrection” according to the earliest documents we possess:

    1 Thess 4:13-18, “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

    Paul seems to indicate not just in that verse but in others that the Kingdom of God will be in heaven:

    2 Cor 5:1 “we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven…”

    Philip 3:20a “But our citizenship is in heaven…”

    Gal 4:26a “the Jerusalem which is above is free…”

    Paradise is in the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4).

    That is where the Christian elect will wind up in their “spiritual bodies,” to be in the company of Christ (1 Thes 5:9-10).
    Even in the non-Pauline letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, Christians are expected to be live in the heavenly Jerusalem, with no mention of it coming down to a new earth. In fact the author of Hebrews mentions that the patriarchs are “foreigners and strangers on earth.” Heb. 11

    Paul’s view resembles Philo of Alexandria’s, who also put heaven as the destination of the righteous after death. According to Philo: “And the proselyte… has received as a most appropriate reward a firm and sure habitation in heaven” (On reward and punishment”, ch. XXVI, 152) “looking upon the heavenly country in which they have the rights of citizens…” (On the confusion of tongues, ch. XVII).

    Also consider the way Paul used every rhetorical method at his disposal, reasonable or not, to try and convert people, which included stretching the meaning of Old Testament words and stories, even utilizing odd readings of the Old Testament in inter-testamental works like the late apocryphal work titled, The Wisdom of Solomon–not to be confused with the Book of Proverbs, but instead, a late non-canonical apocryphal work attributed to “Solomon.” And scholar James King West adds, “Among the characteristics of Wisdom as depicted in The Wisdom of Solomon, one is of particular interest. The afterlife is described in terms of the Hellenistic dualism which debases matter in contrast to the immortality of the soul, rather than the Judaic concept of the resurrection of the body (cf. the remarkably beautiful passage in 3:1-9, also such vss. as 8:13):

    1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. 2 In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, 3 and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. 4 For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. 5 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; 6 like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. 7 In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. 8 They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them for ever. 9 Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.
    Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9

    Because of her I shall have immortality, and leave an everlasting remembrance to those who come after me.
    Wisdom of Solomon 8:13

    Plenty of additional examples can be shown of Paul’s ideas and teachings paralleling those found in The Wisdom of Solomon (and other inter-testamental works):


    See also this discussion of N.T. Wright’s understanding of Paul’s “flesh” and “stomach” comments:

  2. blop2008 says:

    Thank you Mike! Timely, since I’ve been reviewing the pre-tribulational rapture (which I dont hold) and the book of Revelation from Gregory Beale’s commentary (1998) and the most recent Anchor Yale Commentary by Craig Koester (2014).

  3. Thanks blop2008, I hope you find those two commentaries helpful.

    Thanks Ed for your comment, though the post is about the worldview of the author of Revelation rather than Paul’s views on the nature of the resurrected body and the eschatological inheritance. I might challenge some of your points. I think Paul sets up a contrast between living according to the desires of the “flesh” (sarx) or the “spirit” (pneuma), but I would argue that Paul probably expects the transformation of material (flesh and blood) bodies into pneumatic bodies. I am also partial to N. T. Wright’s reading of 1 Thessalonians 4 inasmuch as Christ followers meet the new emperor (=the Lord) in the air in order to accompany him on his triumphal entry. It also seems to me that there is an expectation of the redemption of all creation in Romans 8.

  4. Yes, transformed into spiritual bodies.

    But if the body has long turned to dust, or been eaten by other organisms and incorporated into bacterial or worm bodies, there is nothing left to transform. Such bodies would have to be all spiritual then.

    Even Paul’s analogy of the seed dying raises questions, since seeds don’t literally die, and they also leave behind their outer husks when they come alive and burst out of their casings. Anyone who has grown any type of seed can see the casings left behind.

    ‘As to the doubtful jargon ascribed to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, which makes part of the burial service of some Christian sectaries, it is as destitute of meaning as the tolling of a bell at the funeral; it explains nothing to the understanding, it illustrates nothing to the imagination, but leaves the reader to find any meaning if he can. “All flesh,” says he, “is not the same flesh. There is one flesh of men, another of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.” And what then? nothing. A cook could have said as much. “There are also,” says he, “bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial; the glory of the celestial is one and the glory of the terrestrial is the other.” And what then? nothing. And what is the difference? nothing that he has told. “There is,” says he, “one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars.” And what then? nothing; except that he says that one star differeth from another star in glory, instead of distance; and he might as well have told us that the moon did not shine so bright as the sun. All this is nothing better than the jargon of a conjuror, who picks up phrases he does not understand to confound the credulous people who come to have their fortune told. Priests and conjurors are of the same trade.

    ‘Sometimes Paul affects to be a naturalist, and to prove his system of resurrection from the principles of vegetation. “Thou fool” says he, “that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die.” To which one might reply in his own language, and say, Thou fool, Paul, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die not; for the grain that dies in the ground never does, nor can vegetate. It is only the living grains that produce the next crop. But the metaphor, in any point of view, is no simile. It is succession, and [not] resurrection. The progress of an animal from one state of being to another, as from a worm to a butterfly, applies to the case; but this of a grain does not, and shows Paul to have been what he says of others, a fool.’
    –Thomas Paine

    Is Wright correct about 1 Thes.? Paul says lots about winding up in heaven and being with Jesus there forever. He says nothing about redeemed humans in spiritual bodies spending eternity on a recreated earth. That is as true of 1 Thes. as it is of Romans 8, which likewise says nothing about humans spending eternity on a recreated earth.

    It looks like Paul is so caught up in his rhetoric about the sons of God being revealed that he assumes for rhetorical purposes that creation itself is likewise groaning for such a transformation, employing a rhetoric in the style of the Psalmists who invoke all creation as necessarily praising the Lord.

    Psalm 96:10-12
    Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
    Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
    Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
    Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy

    Psalm 148:6-8
    Praise the Lord from the earth,
    Sea monsters and all deeps;
    Fire and hail, snow and clouds;
    Stormy wind, fulfilling His word;

    Psalm 148:1-3
    Praise Him, all His hosts!
    Praise Him, sun and moon;
    Praise Him, all stars of light!

    Now read Romans 8
    19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

    So there’s nothing in Paul about living for eternity on the earth.

    There is of course Philippians 2:9-10, “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” But it is all-encompassing rhetoric about every knee bowing everywhere in the tripartite cosmos of the ancient mind, rather than a firm declaration that the sons of God will be spending eternity on the earth rather than in the paradise of the third heaven.

  5. Both preterism and dispensationalism are attempts to keep Jesus and the NT inerrant, by avoiding the obvious conclusion that it is filled with false prophecies of the Son of Man’s or the Lord’s soon coming. For relevant passages see

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