What is the Apocalypse?

"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

  The Book of Revelation  (circa 95 A.D.)

The Book of Revelation (circa 95 A.D.)

Apocalypse is a word which will normally stir feelings of anxiety and dread in our hearts. This is particularly true if the term is connected to the Book of Revelation, especially for those who have not read the book or who might have read it with little knowledge of the text’s rich history and literary context. To begin with, ‘apocalypse’ is from the Greek which means revelation, that is an “unveiling” of things not previously known. Apocalypse does not mean cataclysm or catastrophe, albeit the apocalyptic genre is also concerned with those subjects.

Traditionally apocalypses are created during periods of great upheaval and unrest, during times of natural disasters and war. The literature reflects the fears and hopes of its author and recipients, they have a dread that the world is coming to an end and they want to be saved from the impending doom. But there is much more to John’s apocalypse, more correctly the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1), than his references to seals, and plagues, and beasts, and final conflicts, and that infamous “666”. Importantly, too, apocalypses are not only about prophecy. And in John’s case his revelation is also a letter addressed to the seven churches which are in Asia (Rev. 1:4). This not only has the intent to announce the document’s universal significance, that is, its ‘catholicity’, but also to create a sense of intimacy which comes through the epistolary form. Unfortunately, it is the backdrop of the apocalyptic which will normally transfix readers and keep them anchored to the prophetic or ‘end-times’ scenarios alone. There is, however, something else happening in John’s book as well, outside its tempered use of the apocalyptic symbology (in contradistinction to the non-canonical apocalypses rejected by the early church), that the apocalypse is also a personal address. And it is this marvellous aspect to the book which we too often lose sight or fail to acknowledge as a community of believers.

How then can this ‘fantastic’ prophecy be read on an intimate level? We should remember that it is also a letter, and that in addressing church communities it is at the same time speaking to the individual members who comprise that community of believers. Whether in John’s times when the first Christians were undergoing persecution, or during the Great Wars and other global conflicts when we could destroy each other, or today when it seems unless we concede (if not directly contribute) to the deconstruction of religious faith, the book continues to speak to us. On a personal level most of us will have to live through our own little apocalypses and final judgements, we will enter into our own conflicts and battles and often enough feel that we cannot go on. The Book of Revelation can speak to us, revealing that however hopeless things might appear there is always a deliverance. Whatever the ‘beasts’ or ‘dragons’ we are dealing with, irrespective of any prognosis whether real or of our own making, however dark things might appear, an “overcoming” (Rev. 2:17) over any obstacle is not outside our reach. This does not necessarily mean that things will work out as we might want them, but that the Creator has seen to a better way to “wipe away every tear” (Rev. 21:4). For both the history of the world and our own little smaller individual histories, there will be redemption and unveiling of what it was all about and why it had to be that way.

Look at those who have achieved true greatness and who have brought joy and beauty and hope into the world. Have any of these men and women been exempt from the purgatorial fires of life? Have any of these souls been spared from suffering even of the worst kind? No. Viktor E. Frankl who survived the horror of the Nazi concentration camps sums it so very well, “What is to give light must endure burning.”