Apocalypses: Those freaky visions in the bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 December 2016
APOCALYPSE ə'pɑk.ə.lɪps noun. Vision meant to reveal heavenly secrets through representative or parabolic images.
2. Any supernatural revelation.
3. [uppercase] Destruction or damage on a tremendous scale, particularly the end of the world.
[apocalyptic ə.pɑk.ə'lɪp.tɪk adjective.]

When people talk about “the apocalypse,” they typically mean the end of the world. “It’s the apocalypse!” means “It’s the End”—and we’re f---ed.

Not even close to the original meaning of the Greek apokalýpto/“to uncover.” It’s just our last book of the New Testament, Apokálypsis Yisú Hristú—or Apokálypsis for short, Apocalypse in Latin and many other languages, Revelation in English—is about the End. So people have come to mix up apocalypse and the End. Stands to reason.

Our word Revelation defines it best. It has to do with revealing. Uncovering. Telling us what’s gonna happen in future. Except… well… not literally.

See, an apocalypse is a type of prophetic vision. Y’know how Jesus tells parables, and explains his kingdom with weird things which represent the kingdom, but aren’t literally the kingdom? Like mustard seeds which grew into huge trees? Lk 13.19 Like yeast which infuses flour? Mt 13.33 Like seed which grows on its own? Mk 4.26-29 Now imagine actually seeing these parables. Not just as a mental picture, like we do when we picture Jesus’s parables. You look in front of you… and there’s one of those images, clear as day.

Zechariah 1.7-11 KWL
7 On 24 Šebát of Darius’s second year [15 February 519 BC]
God’s word came to the prophet Zechariah ben Barukhyahu ben Iddo, to make him say,
8 “I saw this at night. Look, a man preparing to ride a red horse!
He stood between the myrtles in the valley. Behind him, red, speckled, and white horses.
9 I said, ‘My master, what are these horses?’
Giving me the word, the messenger said, ‘I’m letting you see what these horses are.’
10 The man standing between the myrtles answered, ‘These are the horses
which the LORD sent to walk round the land.’
11 The horses answered the LORD’s messenger standing between the myrtles:
The horses said, ‘We walked round the land. Look, all the land sits, and is quiet.’”

The horses answered? Sure. Most translations simply go with “they answered,” and leave it to us to deduce who “they” are. They don’t wanna look dumb by making the very simple logical leap. Ain’t no other group of people there to answer.

Talking horses, man. But that’s the sort of thing we see in apocalyptic visions: All manner of weirdness. Deliberately weird, ’cause God’s trying to grab our attention. You know how you’ll have some freaky dream, and the images in your dream bug you for a good long time after you’ve awakened? (Happened in the bible a bunch of times too.) It’s for the same reason God shows his prophets bizarre apocalyptic visions: He wants this imagery to stay with us, and burrow into our minds. Mere words, even God’s words, won’t stick with us like these visions do.

That’s why so many Christians are fascinated, even obsessed, with Revelation’s imagery. Weird chimeric creatures with multiple heads. Women with strange names. Angels and bowls and trumpets and declarations. Prophets being obligated to eat books which, while tasty, upset their stomachs.

Now. Jesus says the reason he uses parables is to inform those who are really listening, and go over the heads of those who really aren’t. Mk 4.11-12 This is just as true of apocalypses. Those who are truly seeking God will recognize their meaning and importance: What God wants to reveal through them—and just as importantly, what he doesn’t want to reveal through them. Not yet.

In contrast, there’s those who truly aren’t seeking God. Really, they figure knowledge is power, and covet some degree of control over an uncertain future. But their interpretations of these apocalypses don’t produce good fruit. Oh, they sell books, and definitely help Jim Bakker sell loads of overpriced supplies for your End Times bunker. But they don’t spread love, peace, gentleness, patience, and hope. Just more panic and worry, and God knows there’s far too much of that in the world already.

How Christians spin apocalypses.

There are five common ways Christians treat and interpret apocalypses. (I’ll get to the pagan interpretations in a bit.)

Never gonna know what they mean. To these Christians, we’re never, ever meant to understand these visions. God deliberately made them obscure so nobody could understand them. So don’t worry about them.

If they’re not meant to be understood, why are they even in the bible? Three reasons.

  1. They prove God talked to his prophets. True, we can’t understand what he meant, but that’s not important: He did talk with them.
  2. They prove God is way beyond our understanding. ’Cause can you understand him? No? Okay then. Point made.
  3. They demonstrate how impressive God is. ’Cause look at all the freaky supernatural beings he deals with on a regular basis! Angels and monsters and never-ending spiritual battles between them. It’s like Lord of the Rings up in there.

In short, they’re God showing off how mighty he is. Nature wasn’t doing it for you, so he’ll give his prophets some visions about how secretly impressive he is. You thought galaxies were neat; check out these freaky dreams Daniel had.

The problem with this interpretation is obvious: Apocalypses are visions. The prophets say as much. Even when they’re doing physical things in the visions, they’re still visions. And anyone can have weird visions which mean nothing. Heck, you have one every night, when you’re asleep and your brain goes into a REM cycle. How are these visions relevant, if they share no more significance than a typical dream about being at work and suddenly realizing you forgot to wear clothes?

True, if we don’t understand what the visions mean, it’s hard to assign any importance to them. (The apostles said as much when they wrote about tongues. 1Co 14.6-12) But that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. God gave ’em for a reason, and it’s not to show off he has the power to give ’em. Nor to make us think he’s powerful… with our only proof being, “I had a vision,” and not a testimony of God actually doing anything.

We only understand the interpreted visions. In the Zechariah passage, you might notice there was a messenger (malákh, usually translated “angel”) or two who told Zechariah what was going on, and what it meant. Or sorta what it meant. Sometimes these interpretations are clear as mud. Sometimes not.

The Christians who take this tack, point out the only apocalypses we can really interpret with any accuracy are the ones with interpretations attached. If the prophet or God’s angelic messengers already explained them, we can hang their hat on those interpretations. The rest… well, we’ve gotta treat as if we’re never really gonna know what they mean. Because we don’t wanna guess, guess wrong, and wind up in some End Times cult. (And if you think I’m jokingly exaggerating, obviously you don’t know Christian history: There have been tons of Christian End Times cults out there. Some Christian denominations even started as one—before they straightened out. Others are turning into one. But I digress.)

They’re a code. And, these Christians figure, they’re a code we can crack by connecting a few dots.

According to this theory, the apostles, or ancient schools of the prophets, or some conspiracy of early God-followers, developed a code so they could talk about End Times events. ’Cause if the Persians, Greeks, Romans, or any authority got hold of their writings, they wanted plausible deniability: “No, no, we weren’t writing about you guys. We were writing about Babylon!” Nobody should be offended by all the slams against “Babylon”; it’s a dead empire, a defeated foe, one the Jews kinda held a grudge against ’cause of that whole exile thingy.

So the terms in the apocalypses are supposedly code-words only these prophets could understand. “Babylon” represents whatever evil government is in power. “Jerusalem” would be God’s kingdom. “Stars” are angels. Rv 1.20 Beasts represent evil spiritual beings. So do birds, ’cause Jesus used ’em to represent the devil in a parable once. Mk 4.4, 15 (Apparently Jesus knew the code, and used it in his parables too.) Numbers have special meanings, gemstones have special meanings, the tribes of Israel have special meanings, and so on.

Unfortunately, we lost the conspirators’ codebook, and now we gotta piece it back together on our own. But we can!—and various End Times experts claim they’ve got a handle on it.

Okay, where do I begin?… This codebook idea is entirely hypothetical, one spun by these End Times experts because they figure it’s way more logical and consistent to believe so, than believe we’ve gotta interpret every apocalyptic vision on its own. And that it’s better to use a codebook than follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit… who for some reason doesn’t wanna take ’em down the crazy conspiratorial trails they wanna blaze, but wants ’em to bear good fruit.

The codebook idea sounds clever, but it’s actually dumb. If all it takes to interpret parables and apocalypses is a codebook, anybody could do it—including all the people God doesn’t want to have interpret these things, ’cause the kingdom isn’t for them. Mk 4.11-12

Follow the expert. When new Christians first discover apocalypses, most of the time we either give up on them as unknowable, or naïvely try to tackle them ourselves: Maybe we can figure it out, where so many others have come away confused. Of course, we eventually get pretty confused ourselves. Surely somebody knows what these passages mean…

…And that’s where we stumble into following an expert. We find an End Times website which explains what these visions mean, in a way we really like. (Note I didn’t say “in a way we really find comfort in.” Some of us don’t like comfort; we prefer a siege mentality, where it’s us fighting the evil, sinful world.) We find a book which explains how the seven years of tribulation will go—but don’t worry, we’re getting raptured first! We find a podcaster or YouTube channel (or, for you old-school folks, a radio or TV preacher) which answers all our questions. We buy all their resources, and get really knowledgeable about the way they interpret the End.

Really, it’s another form of giving up on interpretation: Too deep for us, so we’ll go with the guy who seems to understand everything. But since we’re reading all their stuff, it feels like we’re doing something. That’s why this route is so popular.

But aggravating. Because every time I’ve taught on the End Times, I get people who insist on regurgitating the wackjob theories of some “prophecy scholar” instead of reading the actual bible. Why do I say wackjob? Three reasons.

  1. Eisegesis: They start with a premise, then cherry-pick scriptures out of context till they can prove it to their satisfaction.
  2. Selective literalism. Most of the time they interpret the apocalypses as something else, as they should. But if it suits their premise to not interpret it—to claim it’s literally gonna happen, exactly as described—they’re quick to go that route. The locusts in Revelation 9.7-10 don’t represent some sort of plague; they’re the black helicopters! (Or so goes Hal Lindsey. Tim LaHaye preferred to think they’re literal locust-shaped spirits.)
  3. Fruitlessness. Their followers don’t look forward to the End. They fear it. And anyone who might bring it about. Fear, distrust, anger, hostility, quarreling, dissension, division… and a bit of idolatry, ’cause they shall abide no End Times teachers who teach different. If loving our sisters and brothers in Christ come a distant second to our End Times views, it ain’t of God.

Like any other parable. You know how we interpret Jesus’s parables? That’s how we have to interpret apocalypses. Not literally: We recognize the events they’re describing aren’t precisely gonna happen that way. And some of the items in the vision actually don’t have a meaning; they’re in there because God’s trying to make the vision memorable. But there is a main point to it, and that’s what we focus upon.

As for skeptical pagans, they can’t abide a supernatural explanation for these visions. So any natural explanation will do:

  • The prophet was suffering mental illness.
  • Or was poisoned by funny herbs 2Ki 4.39-41 or something, and saw all this stuff in a euphoric near-death state, much like the ancient Greek oracles who’d huff natural gas.
  • Or had discovered hallucinogenic drugs.
  • Or had psyched themselves into an altered state of consciousness.
  • Or other prophets were writing in apocalypses, so they figured they’d give it a whirl.

The skeptic’s premise is the prophet invented the apocalypses in some way. You know, like John Bunyan invented The Pilgrim’s Progress—apocalypses are fiction, and we’re all dupes for believing otherwise.

Well, this may come at pagans and Christians sideways, but they’re not wrong: Apocalypses are fiction. They’re not literal, remember? They represent the literal. They’re allegories. Parables. Analogies. Which God composed, same as we humans compose analogies, to teach a bigger idea better. Where the skeptics do go wrong is they presume if it’s fiction, it’s not true. The whole point of an apocalypse is to reveal truth. We can’t help it if twisted people use ’em to reveal their own phobias. What we can do is avoid doing likewise.

How to interpret apocalypses.

When you come across an apocalypse in the bible—whether it’s Daniel’s description of freaky beasts coming out of the water, Da 7.1-8 or Jesus’s bit about stars falling out of the sky Mk 13.25 (which we all know is physically impossible; we’d fall into them)—we gotta recognize we’ve stepped away from reality, and stepped into metaphor.

Metaphor’s a legitimate middle eastern way of teaching truth. Literalness is a western mindset. Don’t confuse the two. Don’t use western philosophy to interpret middle eastern teachings. When Jesus uses metaphor, parable, or apocalypse, don’t take him literally. His students recognized this, Jn 16.29 ’cause that’s the culture they grew up with. The rest of our cultures value storytelling in different ways.

So our first step is to put ourselves into their culture. Jesus taught first-century Palestinian Jews. John wrote Revelation to Asian Romans. What would those people-groups think about these visions? When the Lamb sits on God’s throne, opening seals on a double-sided scroll, what’d that mean to an Asian Roman? What does their culture think of—

  • lambs?—what significance was it that Jesus is represented by one?
  • thrones?—when did their rulers take their thrones, if ever?
  • sealed scrolls and the sort of stuff you seal in one?—especially one with many seals.

These aren’t questions where we can just sit down, meditate really hard, and answer them for ourselves, using our own imagination. There are actual historical answers to these questions. Look ’em up! You are on the internet, after all.

Yeah, in studying apocalypses, we’re gonna develop questions which historians can’t answer with any certainty. They’ll have educated guesses though. We can work with those. But let’s be honest: They’re guesses. We could be wrong. And it’d be stupid to defend an educated guess to the death. (Though that’s what we too often see people do.)

So we have to study history? Yes we do. It’s the only way to figure out what a first-century person would think of the New Testament, or what a sixth-century BC person would think of Daniel or Zechariah. We study the historical, textual, and grammatical context, and come up with the best interpretation of how the author’s audience would’ve understood this vision.

We don’t try to wedge it into our End Times timeline, and bend or shave off the edges to make it fit better. It’s never about making it suit our existing beliefs. Scripture is meant to change us, not the other way round.

You will be tempted to fall back on the interpretations you already know and like. Or to borrow someone else’s clever interpretation. Happens to the best of us. But because so much guesswork goes into the way Christians interpret apocalypses, there’s a way-better-than-average chance this’ll lead you nowhere, if not astray. Resist that temptation. Figure it out for yourself. Double-check with knowledgeable Christians afterward. Make the effort. God rewards effort. Rv 1.3