BibleProject | How to Read the Bible


Day 16: Apocalyptic Literature

Entire sections of the Bible are devoted to describing strange dreams or visions that reveal something vital to humans in the story. These visions uncover God’s realm and change how the visionary sees their earthly circumstances. The biblical word used to describe these is translated as “apocalypse.” But these passages often get misunderstood because of our current understanding of what an apocalypse is.

In contemporary culture, the words “apocalypse” or “apocalyptic” refer to the catastrophic end of the world. The dictionary definition of the English word describes it as, “the complete and final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation,” or “an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary).

This is not what these words mean in the Bible, and this popular definition leads us to drastically misunderstand and misread apocalyptic literature. In the biblical definition, the word literally means “to uncover,” or to “reveal.” It’s what happens when someone on Earth is exposed to the heavenly, transcendent reality of God’s realm, transforming their view of everything. We see these apocalypses all throughout the Bible, like the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room (Isaiah 6) or Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).

A biblical apocalypse is a moment when God reveals himself in such a way that the observer is overtaken by a divine vantage point on a person’s life or human history. These moments almost always involve altered states of consciousness (dreams, visions) as a result of ascetic practices (fasting, meditating, prayer, isolation). In these moments of heightened awareness, the person comes to realize that their current situation or environment is actually permeated with divine presence and power. In an apocalyptic moment, Heaven joins Earth in the mind and heart of the visionary, and they are able to see reality in a way that others do not or cannot.

Reading apocalyptic literature can be difficult. These passages are filled with strange images, poetic language, and symbolism. The key to understanding biblical apocalyptic literature is to look at the literary design that’s introduced in the book of Genesis and developed throughout the rest of Scripture. We’ll explore this and more in today’s video!