The Apocalyptic (Wrong) Turn, Part 2

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The “Apocalypse” of John and Picking Sides

The first composition to call itself an “apocalypse” was the Book of Revelation, written by the Apostle John circa 95 A.D.1 “And even there” says Collins, “it is not clear whether the word denotes a special class of literature or is used more generally for revelation.”2 But right here at the start I believe we are misdirected. John expressly tells us that his book is a “prophecy” (Rev. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19), and is “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2), which “is the spirit of prophecy” according to Revelation 19:10. So every indication within the Book of Revelation itself is that it is a prophecy. Hence the term apokalypsis as John uses it does not refer to a special class of literature, but rather does stand generally for a revelation from Jesus Christ.

After the time of the dissemination of John’s Revelation, other writings used the term,3 though arguably in service of the genre. The decision that modern readers have to make therefore is whether to interpret Revelation as if it were self-consciously penned as a piece of “apocalyptic” literature in a continuum with a genre established in the inter-testamental period, or as a straightforward account of what John thought of as a prophecy. What goes for John’s Apocalypse also goes, for example, for the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. The decision will inevitably divide one group of interpreters off from the other.

If we take a sketch of the two sides, the “prophecy side”4 will declare that only the Bible is needed to decipher the writing and its message, while the “apocalyptic side” will generally see such an approach as obscurantist “biblicism” which disregards the cultural setting in which the writing was given.5 This thorough-going biblicist has no difficulty in laying aside the partial understandings of the ancient mindset and listening with both ears to the Bible’s own interpretation, which it provides with reassuring regularity. As one commentator of the “prophecy” school put it,

In interpreting visions, symbols and signs in apocalyptic literature, one is seldom left to his own ingenuity to discover the truth. In most instances an examination of the context or comparison with a parallel biblical passage provides the Scripture’s own interpretation of the visions and symbols employed.6

But that is a naïve way of looking at the literature according to the apocalypticists:

Biblical scholarship in general has suffered from a preoccupation with the referential aspects of language and with the factual information that can be extracted from a text. Such an attitude is especially detrimental to the study of poetic and mythological material, which is expressive language, articulating feelings and attitudes rather than describing reality in an objective way. The apocalyptic literature provides a rather clear example of language that is expressive rather than referential, symbolic rather than factual.7

Of course, Collins et al do not believe that works of apocalyptic literature are describing actual events. He views Daniel for example as ex eventu prophecy, written centuries after the protagonists were dead. Neither does he hold that books like Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah record genuine predictions.

From this starting point it is a foregone conclusion that Collins and those who agree with him will entertain very different opinions about the nature of apocalypses than the biblicist. The effect that presuppositions about dating, divine inspiration, predictive prophecy, and borrowing from Canaanite myths8 has upon one’s understanding of the genre is very profound. But many conservatives have bought into the conclusions of such scholars while trying to hold on to traditional dating. Moreover, those evangelicals who have drank most deeply from the liberal wells are the ones who end up sounding more and more like their critical mentors.

To say the least, the way many evangelicals have seized upon the conclusions of liberal scholarship without realizing the dominating influence of their working assumptions upon those conclusions, reveals an attitude which can only be described as sloppy.

For example, Collins, who is a critical scholar, writes,

It should be clear that a mythological allusion does not carry the same meaning and reference in an apocalyptic context as it did in the original myth. If the “one like the son of man” who comes on the clouds in Daniel 7 alludes to the Canaanite figure of Baal, this is not to say that he is identified as Baal, or that the full story of Baal is implied. It merely suggests that there is some analogy between this figure and the traditional conception of Baal. In the same way, the “Son of Man” passage in Mark 13:26 alludes to Daniel, but the figure in Mark does not have the same reference as it had in Daniel, and the full narrative of Daniel 7 is not implied.9

Of course, Jesus believed Daniel was a historical figure and plainly implied that He Himself was the Danielic Son of Man (Matt. 24:15, 27, 30; 26:64). Furthermore, He clearly viewed “the abomination of desolation” as prophetical. So much of what the leading scholars on apocalyptic write, from the Persian and/or Cumaen origin of the four-kingdom motif10, to overly ascetic fasting and meditation11, to the myth-borrowing of the later prophets, is built upon a second century dating of Daniel. It comes through persistently in Collins’s work. But if we stick to just the Bible the conclusions can look very different.


1 Osborne notes that other writings did not begin calling themselves apocalypses until the 2ndcentury A.D. – Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 221

2 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 3

3 Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World, 5

4 Some writers opt for what they call a “prophetic-apocalyptic” approach. See Alan S. Bandy & Benjamin L. Merkle, Understanding Prophecy, 55, following Ladd. The authors state that “Not all prophecy is apocalyptic, but all apocalyptic is prophetic in nature.” – Ibid. While this is well taken, their conclusions line up with those we have called the “apocalyptic side.”

5 This is overwhelmingly the way evangelical treatments of Apocalyptic present it. E.g. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 228-229; Andreas J. Kostenberger & Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2011), 520.

6 J. Dwight Pentecost, “Daniel”, in BKCOT (Victor Books, 1997), editors, John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, 1323

7 Collins, Ibid, 17

8 Ibid, 19

9 Ibid

10 E.g., Ibid, 93f

11 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 286-287

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There are 9 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul, I think your points are right on.

I do think, however, that I need to make the following observation.  Many of us have used the term "apocalyptic" to refer -- not to a late dated, Canaanite mythological mix -- but inaccurately -- to refer to prophecy rich with weird visions.  We use it to describe the difference between Zechariah and Malachi, or the difference between the Olivet Discourse and Revelation.  This may not be technically correct, and it may not coincide with how the academics define things, but it does seem to be a pretty common usage, even if inaccurate.

We could invent another term, I suppose, for prophecy connected to visions and representations.

When you explain the difference, I see the point.  But I have long described these weird visions as "apocalyptic" because saying "weird visions" lacks class!

The term "apocalyptic" derives itself from the Greek word by which Revelation is titled, as you pointed out. So are we wrong to try to redeem it?  Or is it to late. There is a saying about he who controls the terminology wins the argument -- is it that the terminology is too far out of our control?

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture


Ed wrote:

But I have long described these weird visions as "apocalyptic" because saying "weird visions" lacks class!

I've done the same thing. However, if you can look past the "weirdness" of the visions and ask what the vision is actually communicating, and if you are aware of the parallel references from the OT, the meaning is not nearly as cloudy as so many suggest. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Your third paragraph made me chuckle.  But your question is a good one.  For my money it is fine to use the word "apocalyptic" and I occasionally do so.  I agree with you (and Tyler), but I do think it is important to explain how one is using the term.  That is why I cited Pentecost.  Tommy Ice once told me the same thing and it has stuck with me.      

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Jeff Howell's picture

the terminology "weird visions." I just laughed out loud, Ed. I am enjoying this study immensely, Paul. I have a friend who has often warned against the same type of dangers from the 'academy' that you are mentioning. For me, when I minister the Word to my folks here in Northcentral PA, they are more interested in seeing the connections and correlations, so I can get away with "weird visions" as a definition of apocalyptic. Thanks for the thinking and research.

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks Jeff, 

behind much of what I write is the stubborn view that God knows how to communicate to people, not just the academic high priesthood.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Jeff Howell's picture

I love the doctrine of the clarity of the Scriptures, or as some refer to as the perspicuity of Scripture. It is comforting, encouraging, and humbling, and it eliminates excuse making. When I was having my ordination council, a dear friend helped me out during an intermission by directing me to Deut. 29:29. It is a tremendous reminder to me that God communicated in such a way as to be understood at face value, and the proper responses would be love, faith, and faithfulness/obedience. Still true today.

josh p's picture

Perspicuity is a much neglected doctrine. I am reading, “A Clear and Present Word” right now. Excellent book. I’m going to do a book review for my school’s website when I get done. Maybe I can try to post it here.

Paul Henebury's picture


I have Thompson's book, and I would love to read your appraisal of it.


Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

TylerR's picture


I've been planning to read that book for a while, too.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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