Final Thoughts on the Book of Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature

As a child I accepted the detailed dispensational scenarios of what was to happen in the near future. As I neared adulthood I began to question some of what I was taught but avoided end-time prophecy because it was too murky, even though I studied other areas of theology.

It was not until I completed Bible college that I determined to address the thorny issues of end-time prophecy and began an intensive study of them. Among my last steps was a class on the Book of Revelation in seminary.

I learned a lot and ultimately rejected dispensationalism as a theory without adequate foundation.

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Revelation as Apocalyptic

One significant discovery was that primary documents used to support dispensationalism, such as Daniel, Revelation, and Matthew chapter 24, were examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature rather than God’s revelation of things to come.

Apocalyptic literature was written primarily to encourage Jews (and Christians) in times of great stress when it seemed that outside forces would cripple, or even destroy, the community. Those outside forces were first the Greek empire and later the Roman empire; the destruction of the Jewish temple by Rome a few decades after the death of Jesus was an enormous crisis.

The book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature addressed to Christians under attack.

Daniel and Revelation

Dispensationalists see great significance in the correspondence of imagery between Daniel and Revelation, and by comparing them together they lay a foundation for a time-line of future events. Dispensationalists believe the common imagery demonstrates a consistent message delivered by God.

What they don’t consider is that borrowing imagery and themes from a great variety of sources, including other apocalyptic works, was a characteristic of apocalyptic literature. So it is no surprise that Revelation draws on the earlier apocalyptic book of Daniel.

I intended to write a post on Daniel and Revelation at this point in the series, but the subject is too complex to address here, so I will defer it to a later series on dispensationalism.

However, I contend that neither Daniel nor Revelation gives us a peek into the future.

Problems of Misunderstanding Revelation

If we don’t realize Revelation is symbolic apocalyptic genre, we often misread the text as factual information. This results in seriously mistaken beliefs.

Angry, Violent God

Apocalyptic is filled with grand symbolism, cosmic tumult, and the clashing of good and evil. Those who take this literature as insight into God’s nature come away with an angry, violent God who pours out his vengeful wrath on those who displease him. This is not simply a distortion but a complete contrast to the Father Jesus describes as one who loves everyone and desires reconciliation and peace.

God seems more terrible and frightening when this mistaken view of Revelation is connected with some Old Testament writers who portray God as angry, violent, and vindictive.

But the loving Father Jesus tells us about is not altered by this symbolic book which wasn’t meant to deliver factual information but was simply a message that the church will survive and evil in the world will not ultimately prevail.

Satan and Eternal Punishment in Fire

Symbolic characters in the book of Revelation include, among others, four horsemen, the beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns, a great harlot, angels—and Satan.

Revelation chapter 20 says:

He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.

The devil…was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened…The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.

Many believers ignore the symbolic nature of the Revelation and formulate doctrines on the existence of Satan and eternal punishment in fire, which then create more problems.

Fixation on End Times Speculation

I consider dispensationalism to be one of the seven major religious baggage issues. Understanding the book of Revelation as end-time prophecy distracts many believers from living a balanced Christian life today by focusing on the antichrist, mark of the beast, rapture, and eternal state tomorrow.

Sometimes end-times fervor becomes the overriding concern of their lives.

Benefits of Revelation

The book of Revelation does provide benefits:

  • Encouragement to the original hearers in crisis; Revelation was not written to us but to them.
  • Encouragement to others in similar situations, but even here the impact is limited because our cultures don’t fully comprehend the apocalyptic genre.
  • An interesting glimpse into the history of the early church.

Revelation should not be understood as God sharing details of what is to happen in the future, and its symbolism does not offer insights upon which to develop doctrine or speculate on end-times events.

With the completion of this discussion of biblical genre, we will next look at the role of figures of speech in understanding biblical context.

Photo Credit: BFS Man via Compfight cc
I invite your comments and observations below.
If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please sign up in the column to the right so you don’t miss future posts.
Have a great day! ~Tim
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21 Responses to Final Thoughts on the Book of Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature

  1. michaeleeast says:

    I believe that Revelation is an exaggeration of all the apocalyptic material in the Old Testament..
    The lake of fire which appears to be the inspiration for hell is an exaggeration of Daniel where the body of the beast is given over to fire which merely meant the man’s body was burnt after battle.
    There is no justification for the Rapture at all.

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  2. sheila0405 says:

    Well, you wrapped this up nicely. I’m glad you are saving dispensationlism for its own series. Figures of speech. Now that really sounds promising!

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  3. Marc says:

    Tim, I think in your aversion to the dispensational heresies, you have thrown the baby out with the bath water. To contend that neither the last chapter of Daniel or much of Revelation have anything to do with the future events associated with the Day of the Lord undermines your credibility. I wish you would reconsider your position on this.

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    • Alan C says:

      But isn’t it an even bigger problem when interpreters speculate about the meaning of these scriptures without first trying to understand what they meant to the original audience? I’ve read a pretty considerable amount of dispensationalist literature and this strikes me as a pretty common feature.

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      • Marc says:

        Alan, When it comes to any unfulfilled prophecies in the Scriptures, speculation about their meaning can be very problematic. Adventism and dispensationalism have caused division and confusion among Christians, so they are not credible to seekers of truth.

        The intended audience is probably the people who will live through the events as they unfold. Christians have always had to find a balance between their hope in the Second Coming, and living out their lives in this fallen world.

        The traditional approach is reflected in the Nicene Creed: “He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead,” and ” We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

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        • Alan C says:

          I agree about adventism and dispensationalism, but in the case of Revelation, I think it’s pretty clear that the primary audience is the churches to whom John wrote. And that a lot of the text makes sense in the immediate context of Roman persecution of Christians. I find also that that’s a good starting point for what lessons we as modern Christians can draw from Rev. I think without that foundation you get a lot of questionable stuff like playing pin the tail on the Antichrist.

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  4. len says:

    perhaps I can help

    OPINION

    After reading Revelation Chapter 1. verses 1 through 3 which ends with
    ‘for the time is at hand”: The conclusion for me is that this book which was written almost 2000 years ago was addressed to a select (elect) group of people who would be born and living during the so called end times when the events recorded therein would begin to be revealed.

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    • Len, it seems to me that in these three verses the writer suggests that it was written for the people of his time. He says that it is given “to show his servants what must soon take place.” And then the author says, “the time is near.”

      There is nothing in these three verses to suggest it is for some ‘future’ time or generation.

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  5. Pingback: The Apocalyptic Book of Fourth Ezra and the Book of Revelation | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. len says:

    As with my previous post, my reference is the kjv bible.

    As a layman who has been studying the bible for over a decade, I would very much be interested in your learned response to the following:

    I’ve noticed that, as humans, we tend to impune human emotions on God’s spirit and the Godly spirit.
    In this context God has stated the following: Malachi 3:6 and Isaiah 55:9.
    I read the following as a diminishment or muting of the Godly spirit.

    Zechariah 6:8
    Then he cried upon me, and spake unto me, saying Behold, these that go towards the north country have quieted my spirit in the north country.

    Thank You

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Len,

      I am reading the passages you mention in the KJV. Thanks for reminding me; if you continue to remind me in the future, I will respond to the KJV translation rather than the NIV.

      I am not certain what you are asking. I agree that we often think of God, and the Spirit of God, in terms of human emotions when we really have little grasp of what God is really like; the Bible itself does this. Though this seems to be the best way for humans to relate to God (how else can we relate?), we should realize that it is not necessarily accurate.

      The first two passages you mention state ‘I change not’ and ‘My ways [are] higher than your ways. I assume that you are noting that God is different from humans, to which I agree.

      The third passage mentions that these who go toward the north have quieted my spirit. I assume this is the aspect you are asking about. However, I am not sure what you are asking. How do you think this relates to your observation that we think of the Spirit in terms of human emotions?

      If you can clarify your question, I am happy to respond further.

      Have a great day! ~Tim

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      • len says:

        I am proposising that the two going toward the north are anything but good guys, but are more of an earthly anti-God nature; This is in opposition with the commentaries I have read; This opens, in my mind,the overall interpretaion of Zechariah and the nature of the horses and chariots.

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Len, this passage from Zechariah is apocalyptic in nature. It is highly symbolic and I don’t know if we can establish any actual event that it refers to. It was written during a Jewish crisis period.

          Frankly, I haven’t read it in many years because it doesn’t seem very applicable to us today. I don’t think the book has any prophetic significance for our future. Is this what you were asking?

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          • len says:

            Tim
            I certainly appreciate your timely and enlightening responses. My studies have been of a very personal nature and as such I have many times found my interpretations of biblical passages in direct conflict with accepted interpretations. As you have stated, this apocalyptic in nature, and I find I must agree. Thank you so much for your input.

            may God bless

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  7. len ostopowicz says:

    Hi Tim
    ( kjv len)
    this is the last time I will be visiting your websites. I felt the need to give you a heads-up on the book of revelation. I’ve found in my journey through the whole bible; that our creator loves riddles and likes to hide things in plain sight.

    Several months ago I read that pope Francis said that money was the god of this world. That immediately brought to mind Rev. ch 11. After much research (book of Zechariah); I found it feasible to interpret Rev. 11 vs 3 as God appointing the gentiles who would do the trampling. I then had available, through the internet, specific dates and events of the Iraq war to compare to the timeframes of Rev. chs 11 and 13. My conclusion was that ch 11 and 13 were covering the first 2520 days +1 day of the Iraq war. Tim, the seventh trumpet has sounded.

    And finally I will prophecy for you.

    Book of Revelation CH 17 vs 10 reads as follows:

    And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.

    In the history of the united states presidency, there have been three occasions when a president took office, five preceding presidents were still alive. The last time this occurred was when Bush (Jr. 43) took office. This would make Mr. Obama the seventh king. When Mr. Obama finished his first term, there was no doubt in my mind that he would be reelected (since he must continue a short space). Mr. Obama’s premature departure from office is directly referenced in the Book of Daniel Ch 11 (last two verses) and Ch. 12 verse 1.

    May God Bless

    .

    Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Len, thanks for sharing your thoughts in this comment, and you are welcome to continue visiting the blog any time.

      The problem with puzzles is that there can seem to be many answers to them. Those who believe prophecies are about the end-times rarely, if ever, say the end-times might be far away; instead, they think the end-times are coming very soon. They apply the ‘prophecies’ to their own lifetime and situation.

      I can’t count the number of times during my lifetime that someone set a specific date for the return of Jesus, based on figuring out the prophetic puzzle, and each time they were disappointed. And I wish I had kept a list of people who had been positively identified as the anti-Christ, but most of these ‘anti-Christs’ are now dead.

      It makes sense to me that these types of warnings and encouragements that we call prophecies of the end-times were really addressed to the first readers in stressful situations. Why would writers to people under stress speak of things that were to happen thousands of years later and would never affect them?

      However, when we are in similar circumstances to those audiences, we might draw comfort from what the writers told their contemporaries.

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  8. wlburnettejr says:

    I wonder what Len has to say about his “prophecy” now…

    Like

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