Understanding Apocalyptic Literature
by steve langella
Of all the books in the Bible, the one described as most intriguing and perplexing at once, is the book of Revelation. With it’s mystical imagery, strange creatures, and ferocious beasts, it often reads more like an epic fairytale than it does biblical literature. Arguably however, there is no other book in the New Testament like it. Revelation is filled with a combination of three different genres: epistolary, prophetic, and apocalyptic. It is the latter which, due to its unique style of imagery and symbolism, causes the most confusion when attempting to interpret the book. A simple search on the Internet will yield an overwhelming potpourri of speculations, and best selling books consisting of charts, maps, and the identity of the Antichrist. In order to clear up the perplexity surrounding Revelation one needs first to understand the genre of apocalyptic literature. Once we understand the characteristics of this genre we will be better equipped to interpret this important book and clear up many of the misinterpretations that are sadly, so prevalent today.
Apocalyptic literature became popular during the 2nd Century B.C. when Israel found itself under the oppressive rule of foreign powers. From this time up until the 3rd Century A.D. books began to emerge with titles such as, 1 Enoch, The Assumption of Moses, and 4 Ezra, to name a few. The author of these letters claimed to be passing on heavenly mysteries received from angelic beings speaking on God’s behalf. Robert Mounce states that:
“The term apocalyptic refers to a group of writings that include a divine revelation, usually through a heavenly intermediary, to some well-known figure, in which God promises to intervene in human history and overthrow evil empires and establish his kingdom.” 
These apocalyptic letters for the most part are pseudonymous, meaning “false name”, they were written in the name of a well-known historic figure such as Enoch or Moses. One major difference regarding the Book of Revelation that sets it apart from other apocalyptic literature is that it is not pseudonymous, but an inspired text written by the Apostle John himself. The same is true for the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, which is also apocalyptic in nature.
The term apocalypse can be defined as a “revelation” an “unveiling” or a “pulling back the curtain”. The very first sentence in the book of Revelation tells us that what we are about to read is a “revelation” (Rev. 1:1). It informs the reader that something previously hidden is going to be revealed. But what makes Revelation stand out from other apocalyptic writings is that the book is also epistolary in nature, it is a letter addressed to a specific group of people, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev. 1:4). The “pulling back the curtain” is addressed to 1st Century Christians living in Asia Minor under Roman rule who, at the time of the writing were facing severe persecution, heretical false teachings, and a strong temptation to adapt to the surrounding pagan culture. But Revelation is also a prophetic book, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 1:3), and “And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:7).
The prophetic aspect is more of a proclamation than a prediction. It is not just an encouragement but also an admonishment. The means whereby God’s accomplishes this is through the genre of apocalyptic literature that contains the use of visual imagery and symbolism, which if not understood correctly, resembles more fantasy than reality. Examples of this are found in passages such as Revelation 9:7-8:
“In appearance the locusts were like horses prepared for battle: on their heads were what looked like crowns of gold; their faces were like human faces, their hair like women’s hair, and their teeth like lions’ teeth”. 
Are these strange and bizarre images to be taken literally? Did John actually see locusts or was he trying to describe, to the best of his ability, Cobra helicopters? How do we make sense of this kind of literature?
In order to understand Revelation we must understand how to read apocalyptic genre. A literal reading of this genre will open the door to fanciful and bizarre interpretations:
“The most conspicuous element in apocalyptic literature is the use of symbolic language. The symbolism is most often quite bizarre in which the images usually transcend and violate our normal conception of the way things ought to be. The concrete objects in our everyday life are presented in an almost grotesque and often distorted manner.” 
Much of what is found in Revelation is symbolic imagery that cannot be taken literally, for example:
“what happens when we try to take the reference in Revelation 17:9 to the woman who sits on seven hills literally? To force this image into a literal mold results either in one very large woman or in seven very small hills.” 
That is not to say that there is no room for a literal reading, since Revelation is a mixed genre there are elements that must be taken literally, but seeing that the majority of the material in this genre is symbolic, the main approach to understanding Revelation then depends on a nonliteral interpretative method.Therefore, since Revelation consists of apocalyptic, prophetic, and epistolary genres, written to a specific group of people living in the 1st Century, interpretation of any given passage must take into consideration the genre of that passage, the context of that passage, and the historical setting of that passage. And when it comes to apocalypse it is the nonliteral interpretation that best represents authorial intent.
By understanding how apocalyptic literature works, the reader has a better understanding on how to interpret the book and avoid the strange and literal interpretations that are so prevalent today. The main theme of the book is not the beast, the harlot, the false prophet, or the antichrist. The purpose of the book is not to figure out who the 144,000 or who Gog and Magog are. The purpose of Revelation is to strengthen and encourage the churches to stand strong against the onslaught of persecution (the Beast), immorality (the Harlot), and false teachers (The False Prophet) and to remain faithful to Jesus until the end.
The message of Revelation is about Jesus the conquering King who will, in the end, wield the sword of God’s judgment on all the wicked and on those who are persecuting God’s church. The message is that in the end it is not the Roman Empire, or Nero or Domitian or any other ruler that wins, but it is King Jesus who wins, and all of those who remain faithful and conquer will share in Jesus’ victory. It is in light of this that we interpret the apocalyptic passages in the Book of Revelation and in doing so we avoid the gross misinterpretations of our day.
“The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:7-8).
 Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005, pg. 713, Logos Bible Software.
 Ibid, pg. 714
 Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (p. 1) Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.
 Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second Edition. (p. 714) Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Rev. 9:7–8) Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
 Storms, Sam Apocalyptic http://www.samstorms.com/allarticles/post/apocalyptic#sthash.NSQ6VPMH.dpuf
 Duvall, J. S., & Hays, J. D. (2005). Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (p. 291). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (p. 52). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.