Revelation: Understanding Apocalyptic literature

by | Aug 20, 2020 | 04 Bible Study 101, Genre

Apocalyptic literature is a sub-category of prophecy. The name comes from the Greek word apocalypsis which means uncovering or unveiling.

  • apocalyptic literature = a literary category
  • apocalyptic thought = ideological category
  • apocalyptic movement = sociological category

“The apocalyptic genre is a type of revelatory literature within a narrative framework in which a revelation about end-time judgment and salvation and/or about the heavenly realms is given to a human being by an otherwordly messenger.”

Norman Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, page 584

Main literary features

  • Highly stylized language using allegory (the objects stand for something else; e.g. four beasts represent four kings)
  • Symbolic dream visions – unveiling of the future via divine disclosures (e.g. Daniel 7-8).
  • Visions: indication of circumstances; description of vision, introduced by a term such as “behold”; request for interpretation (often because of fear); interpretation by heavenly being (e.g. angelic guide in Ezekiel 40-48); response (reaction of seer, instructions from messenger, etc).
  • Epiphany – appearance of a supernatural figure (e.g. Angel in Daniel 10; Ezekiel 8).
  • Epiphany: less comprehensive than dream visions; angelic discourse interprets content of the revelation.
  • Predictive prophecy: often involves the “periodization of history (e.g. 4 kingdoms in Daniel 7); predicts rising and falling of kings and kingdoms.
  • Eschatological predictions – often with the following features: signs of the end, often with omens designed to evoke response; description of judgment (enthronement of judge and execution of decree); epiphany of a heavenly figure (e.g. Son of Man in Daniel 7).

Central Themes

adapted from Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, page 514

  1. Pessimism about the state of the world and human ability to change it.
  2. Conflict between forces of good/evil, with a final battle for world dominion.
  3. Determinism of a divine plan that assures final defeat of evil.
  4. Confidence in divine intervention on behalf of the faithful who suffer.
  5. Cosmic viewpoint in which the struggle involves the whole universe.
  6. Use of intermediary beings such as angels and demons.
  7. An expectation that old prophecies will be fulfilled for the first time or in a new way.
  8. Hope in the resurrection of the dead.
  9. Hope in the glorious new kingdom in heaven or on earth in which God will reign over the just while the wicked perish.
  10. Radical transformation of the cosmos.


  • Apocalyptic literature flourishes during a crisis; In the Old Testament, in response to events of 587/86.
  • Assures the faithful that God is in control of history (e.g. assure the exiles).
  • Basic question of apocalyptic literature: Who is Lord over the world?

Apocalyptic literature in Scripture

  • Ezekiel 38-39 (vision of cosmic battle)
  • Isaiah 24-27; Isaiah 56-66 (hope for divine intervention)
  • Zechariah 9-14 (visions of paradise)
  • Daniel 7-12
  • Mark 13 (destruction of Jerusalem)
  • Book of Revelation

Major approaches to the book of Revelation


  • Stance: the message of Revelation is addressed to 1st Century events and contains no prophecies about the future. Any allusions to historical events or people reflect the historical environment of the book itself. All the events of Revelation were completed during the Roman empire.
  • Strength: Revelation was intended primarily to speak to a 1st century audience.
  • Weakness: Essentially denies prophetic character of the book, which ceases to be a Word of God for us.

Related Resources

Dr Anthony Garland has a lengthy discussion of various aspects of the Preterist view:

The Importance of Interpretation

Type of Peterism

The Motivation of Preterism

The Beginning of Preterism

Hermeneutics of Preterism

Problems and dangers with Preterism

Jesus: A Preterist or a Futurist? – Richard Mayhue

What is replacement theology – supersessionism?

What is the preterist view of the end times?

Systems of Interpretation – Preterist (Types of, Motivations of, )

What is Israel’s role in the end time?

Why A Pre-tribulation Rapture? – Richard Mayhue


  • Stance: Revelation as prophecy about the panorama of church history from the apostolic era to ultimate consummation. (The Protestant Reformers of the 16th century held this view.) Specific events, nations and people are sought in church history (e.g. Beast and False Prophet are equated with the Papacy). The seven churches are sometimes equated with the seven periods of church history.
  • Strength: Emphasizes continuing relevance of the test for contemporary life
  • Weakness: means the book had virtually no significance for the 1st century; open to wildly subjective interpretations (i.e. almost any outline of church history could be justified by a given interpretation).

Related Resource

Discussion of Historicist Interpretation

Historic Premillennialism – Wikipedia

Idealist (or symbolical)

  • Stance: Revelation does not represent any actual events, but is a symbolic depiction of the spiritual warfare between good and evil. The message of the book is the assurance to suffering saints of God’s final triumph without the prediction of concrete events either in the past or future.
  • Strength: the book does speak of spiritual principles and gives comfort through its message that God is in control of world history.
  • Weakness: denies the significance of the original historical context and foundation for the book.

Related Resources

Discussion of Idealist Interpretation

What is the reason for the 1000-year reign of Christ?

Extreme Futurist: Dispensationalism

  • Stance: makes a sharp distinction between two different divine programs: one for Israel and one for the church. Chapters 2-3 deal with the church and the church age, with the seven churches representing seven successive periods of church history, the final one being apostasy and spiritual apathy. Chapters 4-19 deal with the tribulation period; the great conflict in the book is therefore between the antichrist and Israel, not the antichrist and the church.
  • Strength: ?
  • Weakness: subjective speculation based on dubious theological assumptions; most of the book becomes irrelevant to 1st century readers and the contemporary church.

Moderate Futurist

  • Stance: the seven churches are seven historical churches that are representative of the entire church. The seven seals represent forces in history (however long it lasts) by which God works out His redemptive and judicial purposes in history leading up to the end. The events associated with breaking the seals are events leading up to the end. The events beginning with chapter 7 lie in the future and “will attend the final disposition of the divine will for human history.”
  • Strength: explains the core of the book’s message in terms of judgment of evil and the coming kingdom of God.
  • Weakness: doesn’t adequately explain the significance for those addressed.

Related Resources

What is the futurist interpretation of the Book of Revelation?

Dispensational Premillennialism

Andy Woods: A Case for the Futurist Interpretation of the Book of Revelation

Tony Garland: Criticism of the Futurist Interpretation of Revelation

Theological Systems

Key Passage: Revelation 20:1-10 on the millennium (1000 year reign of Christ)

For a good, balanced introduction, read: Robert Clouse: The Meaning of the Millennium (1977). This book contains essays and responses on each of the views.

Postmillennialism: Christ comes after 1000 years of peace

The church’s teaching and preaching are used by God to culminate in a 1000-year period of peace and righteousness BEFORE Christ’s return. After the second coming and final judgment, there is an eternal reign of Christ. (This view tends to be rather optimistic about human progress.)

Amillennialism: Christ comes whenever he may; there is no literal millennium

Christ’s second coming will be real, but this view rejects the idea of a literal 1000 year reign on earth. This view tends to have an idealist or symbolist approach to interpreting Revelation. This view see Christ’s reign as having begun during his earthly ministry or from the time of his resurrection, citing Act 2:33-36 that Christ now rules from the right hand of God.

Premillennialism: Christ comes before a literal 1000 year millennium

Christ will return before the millennium and will literally reign for 1000 years. There are two variations of this belief:

  • Premill, pre-tributational: There are two different peoples of God (Israel and the church) with two different prophetic programs. The church will be “raptured” prior to a 7-year Great Tribulation. Following the tribulation, Christ will return to establish a 1000 year millennial kingdom centered in Jerusalem and involving the re-institution of the Old Testament sacrificial system.
  • Premill, post-tributional: Christ will return at the end of a 7-year Great Tribulation to establish a 1000 year kingdom, which will end with a rebellion by the forces of evil and final judgment. This approach does NOT hold to the view that the church and Israel are objects of completely different divine historical plans; instead Israel and the church form one people of God.

Related Resources

David Larsen: A Brief History of the Interpretation of the Book of Revelation

David Larsen: Some Key Issues in the History of Premillennialism

David Hocking: The Rapture in Revelation

David Hocking: The Positive Aspects of Premillennial Theology

Gale Heide: Interpretive Models for the Book of Revelation

Arnold G Fruchtenbaum: Premillennialism in the Old Testament (or here)

Series: Bible Study 101

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