As a 90s kid, I grew up in the era of “Left Behind” books and discussions about the Rapture drawing ever nearer, as the rapid fulfillment of “end-times prophecies” clearly indicated. Though I never read the books, the descriptions of believers being taken from Earth at the sound of trumpets and the tales of coming wars and blood moons was enough to arrest my imagination and spur my heart to worship just a little bit harder and maybe even utter a prayer or two…anything to avoid not being “rapture ready.” However, as I have come to learn now, these ideas and these interpretations of Biblical symbols make a mockery of the genre of apocalypse. The question of how one should read apocalyptic literature, and, more specifically, Revelation, is of utmost importance when understanding those “hell verses” of fire and smoke and of brimstone and torment. For those unfamiliar with the literary genre and/or caught up in popular-level end-times nonsense, this is your beginners’ guide to the apocalypse.
Intro to Apocalyptic Literature
Among the literary genres found in early Jewish literature, apocalypse is, without question, the strangest. The works normally consisted of visions given to a human recipient through a mediator, a supernatural, and sometimes angelic, being. Most of these works were written during times of distress, especially during Seleucid oppression and following the destruction of the temple by Rome. They sought to bring comfort to suffering Jewish communities by providing a heavenly perspective on past, present, and future events. Often employing elaborate symbolism, these visions anticipated the eventual end of evil and political oppression. “Jewish apocalyptic literature begins with the book of Daniel, though apocalyptic tendencies can be seen in Isaiah 24-27, Ezekiel 38-39, and Zechariah 9-14, where there are frequent references to the approaching “day of the Lord.”
Bruce Metzger, the late New Testament scholar and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote that most apocalypses have two basic features. The first feature is that “the authors of such books view the universe as divided into two camps, one good and one evil. These camps are engaged in a long and fearful struggle. Behind the conflict are supernatural powers (God and Satan) at work among people and institutions[…]The final separation of the two is the meaning of judgment.” The second feature is that they “usually contain predictions about the final outcome of human affairs, focusing on the last age of the world, when good will triumph and evil will be judged[…]In the final battle the powers of evil, together with the evil nations they represent, will be utterly destroyed. Then a new order will be established, when the End will be as the Beginning, and Paradise will be restored.”
Though apocalypses may anticipate and predict the future, they are ultimately grounded in human history and are concerned with present human events. The authors of these works did not write about the future in detail as though they were seeing visions of 21st century wars and modern technology but could not describe them without the use of symbolic language, as some recent interpreters have suggested. These authors were concerned with the here and now: ‘how can I encourage my family and my neighbors that their suffering at the hands of political oppressors will soon end?’ Thus, the apocalypse often describes current powers and institutions in symbolic and figurative terms. All of this remains true for the book of Revelation, as it “was composed and sent to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia at some point between A.D. 69 and 96 in order to encourage them with the assurance that, despite all the forces marshaled against them, victory was theirs if they remained loyal to Christ.”
Apocalyptic literature frequently employs symbolic literature. Sometimes, the meaning of a symbol is self-evident. Other times, the author takes the liberty of explaining a symbol as though he or she were interpreting a dream or vision. Regarding Revelation, both of these symbolic interpretations are found, yet the best way to understand the symbolic imagery is to understand the symbolism of the Old Testament. In the words of Metzger, “other symbols in Revelation can be understood in the light of the symbolism used in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. It is clear that John had studied the Old Testament very thoroughly. Of the 404 verses that compromise the 22 chapters of the book of Revelation, 278 verses contain one or more allusions to an Old Testament passage. John had so thoroughly pondered the Old Testament that when it came to recording the import of his visions of God and of heaven, he expressed himself by using phrases borrowed from the prophets of Israel.”
This symbolism seems utterly bizarre to us today, yet we often use symbols to describe our current realities too. Though John’s description of the Roman Empire as a beast like a leopard with bear feet and a lion’s mouth (Rev. 13:2) may sound strange to us, I do not doubt that the Romans would consider our American political cartoons as equally alien. For example, I saw the other day a cartoon depicting an Elephant and a Donkey, both of which were standing on their back two limbs and possessed human hands complete with boxing gloves. On the elephant’s glove were the letters “GOP.” On the donkey’s glove were the letters “Demos.” To the everyday American, this would easily be recognized as a cartoon suggesting the political fight between the Republican party and the Democratic party. Now, take this image and drop it in the middle of a 1st century Christian community. I am willing to bet that the image would be regarded as bizarre and un-interpretable, at least without further information and clues.
A question that needs to be answered is why would anyone in possession of sanity and sobriety write an apocalypse? For starters, the language appeals to the imagination in ways that simple writing cannot do. The point is to engage both the intellect and the heart. “Such accounts combine cognitive insight with emotional response. They invite the reader or listener to enter into the experience being recounted and to participate in it, triggering mental images of that which is described.” According to Edward Fudge, the symbolic language, rather than “satisfy our curiosity” or “write history in advance,” are used to “grab our attention, stir our blood, arouse our fervor. They challenge us, warn us and inspire us.” We modern people observe this in our everyday lives, whether it be a cartoon or a flash-forward to a potential doomsday in a book or movie. Though a book such as Revelation may seem unintelligible to us due to our cultural differences, the genre itself is not an unknown concept.
Moving Forward: Interpretation
Interpreting the symbols in apocalyptic language is difficult, but not impossible. The Old Testament serves as our interpretive guide, and the parts that are clear can help us understand what is unclear. Chris Date at Rethinking Hell summarizes in one question what our approach to an apocalypse such as Revelation should be: “The question is not what is depicted in the imagery; the question is, What does it mean?“(emphasis mine) This is the question we need to have in the back of our minds when we read those “hell verses.” Yes, the imagery describes the torment of certain individuals…but what does it mean?
 Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston, Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism. pg. 26
 Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. pg. 17
 Metzger, pg. 17-18
 Metzger, pg. 18
 Metzger, pg. 15
 Metzger, pg. 13
 Metzger, pg. 13
 Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. 2e, pg. 293
 Chris Date, “Annihilation in Revelation, Part 1: Worth a Thousand Words”