Tag Archives: interpreting prophecy

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (2): Apocalyptic Thinking

Some scholars believe that the historical type of apocalyptic thinking (like Daniel 2 and 7) began with Zoroaster, a pagan priest of Persia, but the relevant Persian documents are quite late and may be dependant on Jewish works rather than the other way around. It is more likely that the “dawn of apocalyptic” can be traced to the prophetic works of the Old Testament, like Isaiah 24-27, 65-66, Daniel, Joel and Zechariah. When the prophetic spirit ceased in the Persian period (5th to 4th century BC), pseudonymity (a later writer adopting the name of an earlier, more famous one) became a way that uninspired writers sought to recapture the spirit of the ancient prophets and write out what those ancient prophets might have written had they been alive to see the apocalyptist’s day.

Apocalyptic writers believed that this world order is evil and oppressive, and under the control of Satan and his human accomplices. It would shortly be destroyed by God and replaced with a new and perfect order corresponding to Eden. The final events of the old order would involve severe conflict between the old order and the people of God, but the final outcome is never in question. Through a mighty act of judgment, God condemns the wicked, rewards the righteous and re-creates the universe.

The apocalyptic world view, therefore, tends to view reality from the perspective of God’s overarching control of history, which is divided into a series of segments or eras. It expresses these beliefs in terms of the themes and images of ancient apocalyptic literature. Although this world view can be expressed through other genres of literature, its fundamental shape is most clearly discerned in apocalypses.

While the same scholars who have created such helpful definitions may think of people who hold such beliefs today to be out of touch with contemporary reality, Seventh-day Adventists will recognize that their fundamental beliefs are decisively grounded in ancient apocalypticism. In other words, for Adventists the books of Daniel and Revelation are not marginal works appropriate to occasional Saturday night entertainment, they are foundational to the Adventist world view and its concept of God. Daniel and Revelation provide the basic hermeneutical grid from which Adventists read the rest of the Bible. For Adventists to reject this world view would be to inaugurate a fundamental shift in Adventist thinking.

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic: Defining Terms

As we all struggle with the consequences of COVID-19, many people want to know what the Bible in general, and biblical prophecy in particular, may offer that can guide us in these challenging times. So I decided to offer a series of reflections on the issue of interpreting biblical apocalyptic; the genre of literature to which the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation belong. I have addressed this topic at a scholarly level for nearly forty years now, but my purpose is to keep the blogs readable for the general audience.

John J. Collins of Yale University, whom I count as a friend, has worked with a team of scholars for some fifty years now on how to define “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic.” (Among his many works, I recommend the following as a first read on this topic: The Apocalyptic Imagination, third edition, Eerdmans, 2016.) The term “apocalypse” is drawn from the introductory phrase of the biblical book of Revelation (Rev 1:1) and means “revelation” or “disclosure.” From the second century AD onward, it became increasingly used as a term for extra-biblical works of a character similar to Revelation. So modern scholars are not out of line in applying the label “apocalyptic” to a whole collection of similar works existed in ancient Judaism, such as Daniel, Ethiopic Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch and other works produced before and contemporary with Revelation.

Collins’ team of scholars analyzed all such texts from 250 BC through 250 AD and developed a definition based on their common characteristics. The definition they developed was published in Semeia 14 in 1979 and remains the scholarly consensus to this day: “An 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.”

As I understand this definition, an apocalyptic work like Daniel or Revelation is revelatory literature, which means it claims to communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework.” The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality,” that which is beyond the ability of our five sense to apprehend, about the course of history leading up the God’s salvation at the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

While not present in the above definition of apocalypse, scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. The mystical type of apocalypse describes the ascent of the visionary through the heavens, which are often numbered. While one might be tempted to view these two types of apocalypses as distinct genres, several ancient writings, including the book of Revelation, mix elements of both types in one literary work. For Seventh-day Adventists, the historical type has been of primary interest.

Questions and Answers about the End-Time

I have been asked by a reporter from the Adventist News Service of South America to answer some questions about Revelation, End-Times, and recent speculations. I posted these one by one on Facebook and have been requested to provide the whole in one place. This is that place. 🙂

1. How do you, as a deep student of Revelation, see the current religious and political landscape in which the Vatican has gained increasing prominence with a number of nations, particularly on issues such as promoting world peace and environmental protection?
We live in very interesting times, times full of end-time potential. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that today’s events are immediate fore-runners of the End. Preparation for Jesus’ return is not found in wars, earthquakes, pestilence, and knowledge of papal movements and intentions (Matthew 24:6-8). True preparation is found in relationship with Christ, and is exhibited in how we treat others (Matthew 25:31-46). A focus on the dark side of the spiritual conflict in the world may sometimes be necessary, but is not the basis for true spiritual growth. Focus on Jesus!
I remember a sermon I preached in 1972. Based on some of the latest science, I confidently predicted an environmental apocalypse in 15 -20 years. Jesus was truly about to come! I was well-intentioned but obviously way off. Current events speculation can be very exciting and gather an audience for a time, but when the time passes people are inoculated against the study of prophecy and its true purpose. There is value in paying close attention to current events, and I try to do that, but not at the expense of genuine, spiritual preparation to meet Jesus whenever he does come.

2. Has every apocalyptic prophecy already been understood or there are open gaps that are not understood yet?
In my book What the Bible Says About the End-Time, I studied fulfilled prophecy throughout the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. The results of that study are also summarized in the second chapter of The Deep Things of God. In short, I learned that the fulfillment of many prophecies was quite surprising to those who had studied them in advance, for a number of reasons. God sometimes fulfills prophecies in a spiritual, rather than a literal way. Sometimes the prophecy is worded in terms of God’s past actions and does not fully disclose God’s plans for the future. Sometimes the prophecy is open-ended and depends to some degree on the human response to the prophecy. Sometimes God simply decides to “do a new thing” (Isa 43:16-19)! Prophecy is best understood at the time of fulfillment, not before (John 13:19; 14:29).
This leads me to believe that even when we have fully understood a particular prophecy, events may not turn out exactly as we expect. There will be surprises in the fulfillment of God’s prophecies at the Second Advent, just as there were when the Messiah came the first time. We need to keep on studying, but anticipate that there will be gaps in our understanding of the future right up to the time of fulfillment (1 Cor 13:9-12). Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future, it was given to teach us how to live today.

3. Can we feel safe in thinking that we know the future because we “understand” the prophecies?
The previous answer applies here as well. The Pharisees felt “safe” that they understood all they needed to know about the coming Messiah. We know this because they left books behind that have been preserved (like 4 Ezra– http://web.archive.org/web/20080830063117/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Kjv4Ezr.html). They created “charts” of end-time events leading up to the coming of the Messiah (see 4 Ezra 7:26-31). Yet when the Messiah came most of them rejected him because he didn’t fit their elaborate expectations.
There are two ways to misuse prophecy. One is to ignore it, the other is to be so certain that we have understood it that we miss the real thing when it happens because it doesn’t fit our elaborate expectations. Since no one has more detailed explanations of the future than Adventists do, we are in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the Pharisees. We would be wise to study the prophecies with great care, study current events with great care, yet have a certain godly tentativeness about our conclusions until the day when we see Him face to face (1 Cor 13:12).

4. What is the key to the interpretation of the prophecies?
My research in fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the principle that God meets people where they are, even when it comes to prophecy. In other words, God communicates with the prophet in terms of the prophet’s time place, language, culture, and circumstances. An important aspect of this is that God uses the language of the prophet’s past to describe the future. So, for example, prophecies about the return from Babylonian exile are usually written up in the language of the Exodus (see Isaiah 11:15-16, for example). The messianic prophecies describe the Messiah as a new David (Jer 23:5), a new Moses (Deut 18:15-18) and a new Cyrus (Isa 45:1-4). The Book of Revelation is full of the language of Old Testament characters, places and events. God uses the language of the prophet’s past to describe the future. Each prophecy is written in the context of the prophet’s time and place.
Each biblical prophecy, therefore, needs to be interpreted first in terms of what the words meant at the time they were written. Whatever meaning we may draw for history or current events, our reading today must not contradict what the text meant then. Each prophecy is a natural extension of the prophet’s own time and place. If it were not so, why would God give a prophecy to one people for the benefit of another people in some other time and place? God gives each message at the right time. Other generations can benefit from that message to the degree that they rightly understand God’s original purpose. God had a reason for giving Revelation in 95 AD rather than 1995. Reading Revelation as if it was written directly to us will inevitably lead to distortion.

5. In your opinion, what can be done so that more people understand the message of hope, love and redemption that is the essence of Revelation and not that of a terrifying future?
When it comes to Revelation, a challenge I often face is that people move directly from the symbols in the text to specific nations, ideas and events of history. So in a sense Adventists no longer read the story of Revelation itself, but rather a parallel story that has come down to them from decades of interpretation. This parallel story has been very inspiring and helpful to many, but it is hard for everyday people to reproduce it from their own study, because it requires knowledge of history, philosophical trends and more to fully piece together (for example, how many people today can explain why the date of 538 AD is important in history?).
A simpler approach is to begin with the story of Revelation itself, what it meant to John, and how the various parts of the story hang together in the text of Revelation. I find that when I share Revelation in this way, contemporary audiences (who are trained in understanding stories through movies and comic books) can follow more easily and see the powerful, spiritual implications of Revelation without difficulty. When read in this way, the centrality of Christ is more readily apparent and the book’s outline of a God of hope, love and redemption is exposed. Graeme Bradford and I have attempted to do this in our published evangelistic materials entitled “Revelation Hope Meaning Purpose” (published by South Pacific Division of SDAs and available from Advent Source). I have also attempted to expose the basic stories of Revelation in my book “Seven Keys.”

6. Why is there a certain alarmism among some who study and read the book of Revelation, seeking answers in newspapers, conspiracy theories and the Internet?
This answer depends to some degree on all of the previous answers. Adventists first studied the prophecies in the Nineteenth Century, and their reading of those prophecies connected powerfully with the Nineteenth Century context, particularly in North America. Ellen White confirmed many of these readings by including them in her powerful book “The Great Controversy.” As with the biblical prophets, her outline of the future made perfect sense in her time and place. When God tells a prophet the future, it is always a natural extension of that prophet’s time and place. But over time each prophet’s picture may speak less and less directly to new situations that arise.
Out of respect for Ellen White, Adventists have been reluctant to revisit and reshape their understandings of prophecy as time passes and the world changes dramatically. The scenario of Great Controversy made powerful sense at the time when the book was written, but that scenario seems more and more foreign in a world of automobiles, air travel, world wars, nuclear weapons, space travel, television, the internet, cell phones, a South American pope (who expected that?), islamic radicalism, Facebook and much, much more that is not described in early Adventist prophetic literature. More change has occurred in the last hundred years than in the previous 6000. In the words of Ron Osborn, the Adventist prophetic scenario (developed in the 19th Century) has become a “degenerating paradigm” that explains less and less of what we experience today (one example is that back then Turkey was a major power in world affairs and was mentioned frequently in Adventist literature, but today plays only a minor role and is largely ignored).
Many Adventist lay people around the world have become frustrated with how little traditional SDA prophecy interpretation seems to speak to a post-Soviet world. They are casting about desperately to find clues that the traditional scenario is still active in the world behind the scenes. Thus the fascination with conspiracy theories and questionable analyses of current events. These conspiracy interpretations are usually based on both poor exegesis of prophecy and poorly substantiated readings of current events, but if they seem to support our traditional readings of prophecy in some way, they can have a powerful impact on Adventist thinking. But while most of such interpretations are well-intended, they will be quickly out of date and can undermine people’s interest in genuine prophetic interpretation.
How should we interpret Great Controversy today then? I have made an attempt to answer this question at length in my book “Armageddon at the Door.” We need a double exegesis, one that looks carefully at the prophecies in their original setting and the other that looks carefully at the realities of today’s world. Careful exegesis of the prophetic stories combined with sound, verifiable analysis of history and current events is the antidote to speculation, conspiracy theories and alarmism. In addition, the difficult texts of the Bible (like the seals, the trumpets and Daniel 11) must be interpreted in light of the clear texts of the Bible (the gospels, for example) or they can easily become an exhilarating ride into nonsense. When Jesus and the gospel are central to prophetic interpretation, there is much more hope that we can get it right.