The word apocalypse has become associated with death and destruction. The post-apocalyptic world of books and movies present a desolate earth where humanity has decimated itself. This notion of the apocalyptic stems from startling imagery of the Book of Revelation. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalupsis which is translated revelation. I remember as a child reading Revelation and being frightened by the bizarre imagery of the monsters in chapter 13. Many people, including Christians have not graduated from these ideas of doom and gloom. Admittedly the Book of Revelation does contain many tremendous scenes of devastation. However, these things are not the point of the book.
The conclusion of Revelation is not the destruction of the world but rather a new heavens and earth where God lives with his chosen people on earth. Instead of death being the end, it was eternal life.
The Apocalypse gives us symbolic snapshots of the future that God intends for his creation. Eschatologically speaking the last book of the New Testament is pivotal. (Eschatology is the study of the end.) There are many theological debates regarding the eschatology of the book. Many of the questions we ask are not necessarily the right questions or at least we are not asking them in the right way. The book draws upon imagery from various apocalyptic texts in the Bible synthesising them in a new and surprising way. Apart from drawing on the Former Writings it has a distinctly Christian flavour because Jesus is seen as equal to God by virtue of his resurrection (Revelation 1:17-18.) The Book of Revelation is a part of the biblical narrative yet it forces us to reinterpret what was written formerly in novel ways.
If Genesis is the book of beginnings then Revelations is the book of endings. The New Testament in certain places says we live in the last days. If this is true then the Apocalypse is very significant to us. It has been two millennia since those authors penned those words. Some in their day began to mock and ignore the Christian idea of the end since everything seemed to go on as usual (2 Peter 3:3-4.) What do we make of this millennia old declaration of the end today? What did they mean?
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. – 2 Peter 3:13ESV
As in Revelation 21 the believers were looking for a new creation. A new implies an old and it was this old creation they declared was coming to an end. They did not think, however, that the old had to completely come to an end before the new began. They saw it as an overlap. They declared the old world was coming to an end because they had seen glimpses of the new world in the present.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come… – Hebrews 6:4-5 ESV
They had seen remarkable signs that a momentous change had indeed occurred in the creation. The chief of these signs is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:4-5 ESV
In the new world order death has been destroyed and Jesus’ resurrection is our prime example of this future. In fact his resurrection launches God’s initiative to renew the world.
The last days implies a transition state from the old to the new. The world is in many ways the same. The radically transformed life of the believer is evidence that things are not the same and will never be the same again because of Jesus.
In terms of the biblical narrative it serves as an important finale to the drama that started in Genesis and in Eden. In Genesis we are given the story of creation. In the Book of Revelation we are told how God recreated the world anew. The former distinctions of heaven and earth, sea and dry land, night and day are drastically redefined yet they are familiar. Heaven and earth are joined together, the sea is no more neither is there any night. Cosmic geography, ecology and chronology are different. There is a new physics at work.
After God had made the world he placed Adam and his wife in the garden to keep it. The serpent tempted them and they disobeyed God and so they were ejected from the Paradise of Eden. They no longer access had to the tree of life. In Revelation Paradise comes on earth again in the new City of God. Trees of life are present in this new Paradise and the river of the true water of life courses through the Garden to the entire world. Instead of access being barred Paradise is open all the time to the new Adam and Eve, Christ and his Church. The ancient serpent who tempted the first couple and the rest of humanity is defeated and judged. Even the story of the tower of Babel where human civilization at the height of its hubris tried to bring God down to earth has its resolution. Instead of humanity being dispersed they are brought together in the universal language of worship and praise to God and his son Jesus. Instead of the monument they tried to erect, God brings his own temple-city down to earth where he lives.
I could go on but what one needs to note is that Revelation serves as the resolution of the divine narrative that starts in Genesis. We need to recognise that eschatology cannot be understood without cosmology. We cannot know where we are heading until we recognise where we came from.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. – Revelation 5:1-7 ESV
Tackling the symbolism and imagery of the Apocalypse is often daunting but it is still doable. It is this particular episode in the book that explains its opening, “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…” The scroll that lies in the hand of God represents the plans and purposes of God. I always found it curious why it was lying there yet no one could take. I believe an idea that it is carrying across is God is the giver of all things. No one can actually take from his hand. Jesus taking from the hand of God signified he was equal to God. The scroll contained the revelation of events that God gave to Jesus. Jesus is portrayed in the book as YHWH, the same God who revealed himself to the prophets of old, was now speaking to and through the Church (Revelation 22:6.)
As its title suggest Revelation gives us a sneak preview of events leading up to the new creation. Jesus is encouraging us to have faith and not fear, hope and not despair. No matter how tumultuous events will be or how strong the opposition to the people of God we are assured the victory. The Apocalypse is ultimately not about a cruel end but rather about a new genesis.