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Some Major Characteristics of Apocalyptic (with Responses)
Take up any book on the subject and you will be told that the many features of apocalyptic literature can scarcely if ever be found in one single work. Indeed, a piece of apocalyptic can be absent many of the list of characteristics. Still, it is worth trying to get at the criteria. Brent Sandy has provided a list of eleven characteristics (twelve if one includes pseudonymity) of the genre:1 I have added some comments to temper them a bit.
- “jaw-dropping scenes of animals, rivers, mountains and stars that jump off the page with movielike special effects (Dan. 8:2-14; Zech. 6:1-7)”
A star went before the magi to guide them; it was actual not apocalyptical. While some of the animals, say in Daniel 7, are imaginary, this is not necessarily the case with the visions in Zechariah or Ezekiel. If the prophets could see real spiritual beings (cherubim, seraphim, women with stork’s wings, etc), then apocalyptic is more a category of experience (which includes seeing the supernatural) than has hitherto been admitted.
- “natural catastrophes producing cosmic chaos throughout the universe, ushering in the dreadful day of judgment (Is. 24:18-20; Ezek. 38:19-22)”
These passages describe an epic earthquake; nothing in these passages is figurative.
- “pernicious and disruptive evil contributing to constant crises and producing a seemingly hopeless pessimism with the course of current events (Isa. 57:3-13; Dan. 7:19-25)”
Isaiah 57 has a section full of hope for the contrite (Isa. 57:15-20), and Daniel 7 promises that the saints will possess the kingdom (Dan. 7:22, 27). Sandy has simply ignored the wider context. In point of fact, it is rare to find judgment or crisis passages in the Prophets which do not contain rays of eschatological hope.
- “an underlying determinism resting in the unquestioned conviction that somehow God is maintaining sovereign control (Is 25:1; 26:1-4)”
It is common to identify determinism as an aspect of apocalyptic, over against the more ‘open-ended’ words of the prophet. But while there are prophecies which are contingent, there are many others that are quite deterministic. E.g. Jeremiah’s 70 years’ prediction. The theology of the Bible is deterministic in terms of God’s eternal counsels. It is also deterministic in terms of His unilateral covenants. But it is not deterministic insofar as human decisions are concerned. The Prophets want the people to repent (e.g. Isa. 5:12-13; Jer. 25:1-7; Hag. 1:5-11; Mal. 3:16-18). Few people will read Isaiah 25 and 26 and come away with Sandy’s conclusions. It hardly requires proof that all genres of the Bible stress God’s sovereignty.
- “ecstatic expectation that God will intervene and suppress all evil forces working against his predetermined plan (Zech. 14:3-9; Mal. 3:1-5)”
I am not sure what “ecstatic expectation” means exactly, but I see nothing of the kind in either passage. Zechariah 14 is a description of what will actually occur at the second coming. Malachi 3:1-5 describes the effect of the coming of Christ, particularly upon the Levites. Both can be classified as “literal” descriptions.
- “ethical teaching aimed at giving courage and comfort to the faithful and confirming them in righteous living (Is 56:1-2; Zech 7:9-10; 8:16-17)”
This is such a generic category as to be useless. When does Scripture not give ethical teaching for these purposes? Further, this is to be expected of a people under covenant.
- “visions of celestial scenes and beings with an otherworldly perspective (Dan. 10:4-19; Zech 3:1-10)”
It is not otherworldly according to the biblical outlook. We are informed about spiritual forces operating in history which are to taken as real. The Daniel 10 passage includes a vision of a man in linen who is angelic but real all the same. The “princes” mentioned in the following verses are also real angelic beings. The genre is not the main thing, the literal beings are!
- “heavenly interpreters explaining the scenes in language that may be figurative (Ezek. 40:3-4; Dan 8:15-17)”
Ezekiel 40 is not figurative. It is a literal description. Jesus used figurative language about real things. Speaking about language which may be figurative is hardly a solid base for a characteristic of apocalyptic. Ezekiel 40ff. was not taken figuratively in ancient Judaism. Daniel 8:16-26 provides the interpretation of his vision.
- “a dualistic perspective that characterizes things into contrasting elements such as good and evil, this age and the age to come (Dan 12:2; Zech 1:14-15)”
We should be wary of imputing dualism to the Bible without qualification. There is good and evil, but evil is not eternal as it is in non-Christian dualism. There is of necessity a biblical dualism between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons. We see this in Ephesians 6. “The age to come” is a favorite phrase of Jesus. You cannot be an orthodox Christian without holding to these things. Ergo, how can this represent a genre?
- “visions presented in a very stylized structure, with events and time organized in numerical patterns and repetition of similar sets (Ezek 38 – 39; Dan 9:24-27)”
What does it mean that battle scenes and historical predictions are stylized?
- “foundational to all the above, God’s promise to act in the last days to restore his people and establish a new and glorious world order (Is 27:12-13; Zech 8:1-8)”
If this is foundational, then it is also utterly obvious to any attentive reader of any genre of the Hebrew Bible. Is Isaiah 11 apocalyptic? Or even Zechariah 14? There are in fact numerous cases where the term “apocalyptic” begins to mean very little. Besides this, some prominent voices declare that eschatology is not the most distinctive feature of apocalypses.2
When one steps away from the list for a moment and reflects upon the Bible’s teaching generally there is little new here.3 One should also note that about half of the passages Sandy adduces are not really apocalyptic. At best they are proto-apocalypses. We may wish to ask how many of these passages are not to be taken literally? If we are answered by someone who declares, “None are literal, this is apocalyptic,” we begin to see the real problem. It suits certain positions to deftly consign passages they do not wish to take prima facie to a particular non-literal genre.
Apocalyptic and the Biblical Worldview
Frederick Murphy’s criteria for apocalyptic genre includes, 1. The unseen world, 2. The future, divine sovereignty, 4. Dualism, 5. Eschatological timetables, 6. the eschaton, 7. The world to come, 8. Dissatisfaction with the present, 9. End-time conflict and tribulation, 10. Periodization of history and determinism, 11. Angelology and demonology, and finally, 12. Apocalyptic language. 4
But which of these shall we say is not representative of the Bible’s outlook generally? I want to suggest some alterations to the above characteristics which I believe are much more in line with the biblical worldview and its outplaying in the biblical story:
- The very first thing that has to be insisted upon by a Bible believer is that we do not look outside the Bible at non-inspired materials for help in defining biblical apocalyptic.
- This reduces the amount of texts we have to deal with.
- The field is further reduced once one accepts certain visions, say in Daniel, Ezekiel , Joel, Zechariah, Mark, and Revelation as actual not symbolical.
- Since the themes of the spirit realm, God’s sovereignty, biblical “dualism”, eschatology, and such are encountered everywhere in the Bible, it is only to be expected that one will find them in “apocalyptic”. Therefore, they cannot be necessary markers of the presence of apocalyptic genre.
- Great caution has to be taken when employing adjectives like “imagery” or “symbolic”. Often proponents of the “apocalyptic” school of thought will drop these words into their descriptions of certain prophetic writings. They will assert that, for example, Isaiah or Ezekiel or Daniel use apocalyptic imagery, and will reference texts like Isaiah 13:9-13, which describes cosmic upheavals and destruction witnessed from Babylon. But nothing in that passage demands that it should be construed as non-literal. This is not imagery that must be decoded so that its meaning can be ascertained. And as I have briefly demonstrated above, these “apocalyptic” descriptions are of real phenomena.
We are effectively left with some passages which refer to composite beasts in Daniel and Revelation, and a few strange objects scattered among the prophets (e.g. the seething pot in Jer. 1:13, which is explained in the next verse). It is no great achievement in interpretation to see the beasts in Daniel 7 and 8 as representing kings and kingdoms. Since “the ten horns” of Daniel 7 are “ten kings” (Dan. 7:24) the “little horn” is also a king. The imagery may be arresting, but the meaning is not difficult to understand.5 In the same way the beast rising out of the sea in Revelation 13 is a man (Rev. 13:18); very possibly the same man as the “little horn” of Daniel. When we dare believe that the Bible is its own interpreter the need for indulgent analysis of ancient apocalypticism falls away precipitously.6
1 D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks, 108-109. The standard critical view is stated by Murphy, “All Jewish apocalypses are pseudonymous.” – Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World, 6-7
2 E.g. Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 26
3 One writer adds the observation that apocalyptic seers did not proclaim “Thus says the Lord” since they reported on visionary revelations. See Shaye J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1989), 196. But what about Ezekiel 37 or Zechariah 1? Is Zechariah not apocalyptic? It seems to depend on who you read (especially in evangelicalism).
4 Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World, 8-13
5 Contra the impression given by Aaron Chalmers, Interpreting the Prophets, 123
6 Unless of course the interpreter buys into forms of eschatology that won’t accommodate such a straightforward interpretive approach
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.