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Apocalyptic writings in the
Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

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About apocalyptic writings:

"Revelation" is the final book in the Christian Scriptures. It describes a coming period of great danger, destruction, and transition.

"The apocalypse...used a symbolic or allegorical language to convey the message about the imminent End...Christian apocalypses are thoroughly frightening for the sadistic punishments inflicted on the inhabitants of hell, for the inventions of extreme torture and dismemberment. The descriptions of Heaven are scarcely less awesome, with pictures of angel servants in the Heavens, singing eternal hymns of praise to a bejeweled Lord whose face is too bright to be perceived." 1

Apocalyptic literature has been found throughout the Middle East. The first examples of this theme is found in the ancient writings of Babylon and Persia. According to theologian and author Tom Harpur,

"British orientalist Gerald Massey wrote that Revelation really a Christian version of the Mithraic apocalypse 'Bahman Yasht.' Massey says the latter has the same drama drawn out as in Revelation and that all ancient Parsee or Persian sacred books referred to the original scriptures as apocalypses." 2

Apocalyptic literature typically includes a number of concepts:
bullet Time is divided into 2 ages:
bullet the present age is ruled by Satan and his demons
bullet the age to come will be ruled by God.
bullet the transition will occur very quickly
bullet the end of the present age will happen in the very near future
bullet the transition will include wars, plagues, famine, earthquakes and other natural disasters
bullet A general resurrection of the dead.
bullet A final judgment.
bullet Satan's supporters will be annihilated.
bullet God's supporters will enter a period of peace and happiness.

The first suggestions of an apocalypse within the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is found in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah. They discussed the coming "day of Yahweh." Many dozens of apocalyptic books appeared during the period 165 BCE to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE. One well known example is the "War Scroll" found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and probably written by the Essenes. Another example is preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures as the book of Daniel.

Old Testament Apocalyptic Literature: The Book of Daniel

Chapters 1 to 6 describe Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream; the attempted execution of Daniel's three friends in the fiery furnace; the handwriting on the wall of King Belshazzar's banquet hall, Daniel survival in the den of lions, and Belshazzar's feast.

Chapters 7 to 12 describe a series of visions that he experienced: a dream about  4 beasts (a lion with eagles' wings, bear, leopard, and a terrible beast); a vision of a ram and  goat; a prayer of confession to and trust in God, and a momentous vision of Israel's future, leading to the end of the age.

Beliefs differ about the interpretation of Daniel:

bullet Conservative Christians generally believe that Daniel was captured by the Babylonians circa 605 BCE, spent the rest of his life in Babylon, and wrote the book circa 540 BCE. Much conservative Christian prophecy concerning the second coming of Christ is based upon this book and in particular upon King Nebuchadnezzar's dream and Daniel's dream of 4 beasts. The four empires in both dreams refer to the Empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. The Roman Empire exists in two parts. The first is the historical Roman Empire which has since faded from the scene. The second phase has not yet risen to power; its foundation can be seen in the European Community (EC), later called the European Economic Community (EEC), and now referred to as the European Union (EU). As we approached the year 2000 CE, many sermons by conservative Christians interpreted the book of Daniel as predicting the end of the world as we know it in the very near future. It did not come to pass. This book is one of the most important books in the Hebrew Scriptures to Evangelical Christians, next to Genesis.
bullet Liberal Christians generally believe that the book of Daniel was written by an unknown person circa 169 BCE. It was based on stories probably transmitted orally from the time of the Babylonian exile until the 2nd century BCE. The 4 beasts in Daniel's dream (Chapter 7) refer to 4 ancient civilizations:
bullet The lion/eagle vision is a blending of the most powerful land animal and the most powerful bird; it represented King Nebuchadnezzar's Neo-Babylonian empire.
bullet The bear represented the Median Empire.
bullet The leopard symbolizes the Persian Empire.
bullet The terrible beast represents the Seleucid Empire.

Since the book was written after the rise of the final empire, the author had the advantage of hindsight; the book is a history of past events, not prophecy of the future.

More details on the Book of Daniel is located elsewhere on this website.

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New Testament Era Apocalyptic Literature:

Brief passages that reflect apocalyptic themes are found in:
bullet Mark 13, sometimes called the Little Apocalypse. It is also called the Olivet Prophecy, because it was delivered on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. Jesus describes the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, some 40 years in the future. This was to be preceded by many signs: the arrival of counterfeit messiahs, wars and rumors of wars. The disciples will be persecuted, Jerusalem will be devastated, a desolating sacrilege will be set up in the temple, false messiahs and prophets will perform miracles, the sun will dim, the moon will not shine, the heavens will convulse. Jesus will return to earth with his angels to collect the faithful. Heaven and earth will disappear. The author of Mark cautions his followers to be alert, because it will happen to them without warning within their lifetimes. Although this is presented as a continuous sequence of events, conservative Christians believe that the first part of the prophecy relates to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, whereas the remainder refers to Jesus' second coming in our future.  This material is paralleled in Matthew 24, Luke 17:22-37, and Luke 21.
bullet 1 Corinthians 15:20-28: This passage discusses the resurrection, Jesus' return and placing all his enemies "under his feet."
bullet 2 Corinthians 5:1-3: contains a reference to the destruction of the world.
bullet 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18: contains a description of the rapture, when Jesus will return towards earth and believers will rise through the air to meet him in the sky.
bullet 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12: describes how the "day of the Lord" will come after the "man of lawlessness" is revealed and establishes himself in the temple. Jesus will return and the wicked will be destroyed.

Many other Christian Apocalyptic writings have survived, including the Ascension of Isaiah, Apocalypse of Peter, Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of Thomas, and Christian Sibyllines. Although they were very widely used among many competing versions of Christianity during the first centuries CE, they  did not make it into the official canon.

Revelation contains more apocalyptic predictions about the future than any other book in the Bible. It was finally accepted into the official canon, but only after four centuries of controversy "over its authenticity." 2


  1. C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991).
  2. Tom Harpur, "America obsessed with future apocalypse," The Toronto Star, 2003-OCT-5, Page F7.

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Copyright 1997 to 2009, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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