Search Google Images for “apocalypse,” and a wildly colorful page will pop up. There are several renditions of the four horses of John apocalypse charging across a fiery landscape. In another picture, a black helicopter buzzes past an Oriental fishing village rocked by multiple explosions – Vietnamese Apocalypse Now -, and elsewhere is a dystopian city whose streets are full of blood-stained zombies.
Tucked at the corners are portraits of the robotic Marvel Comics mutant Apocalypse, arms crossed, his 500-year-old eyes glaring toward the viewer. Fire and storm and vapor of smoke: That is our image of apocalypse.
It was not always so. Ancient Greeks who googled “apocalypsis” found nothing of the sort. The verb form of the Greek means simply “uncover,” and the word is often used in a basic physical sense for uncovering the head or body, or metaphorically for the disclosure of a hidden water source or a hidden wrong.
It verges toward a religious sense in texts that talk about the revelation of secrets or of the mysteries of astronomy or alchemy. Greeks believed that the gods disclosed their purposes in oracles and dreams, but they rarely used the word “apocalypsis” to describe these revelations.
The Greek use continues in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. Priests had to wear undergarments so that their nakedness would not be “uncovered” as they ascended the altar (Exodus 20:26), and “uncovering nakedness” (using the verb apocalupto) is the repeated idiom for sexual sin in Leviticus 18 and 20 (cf. Deuteronomy 22:30).
A woman accused of adultery had to “uncover” her hair at the tabernacle (Numbers 5:18), and when Ruth snuck onto the threshing floor, she “uncovered” Boaz’s feet (Ruth 3:4). “Uncover the ear” means to “share a secret” (1 Samuel 20:2).
In short, the connotations of our English word “apocalypse” almost entirely derive from one use of the word, the introductory verse to Revelation: “The apocalypse of Jesus Christ.”
Interesting as this is as philology, it is also important theologically. According to the last book of the Bible, our God is a God who “uncovers” Himself, a God who “discloses.” And that by itself reveals a profound truth about the God of Israel who is the Father of Jesus.
We can see the full weight of the New Testament use of the word when we ask, Why would Greek speakers have avoided using apcalypsis for divine revelation? There are two reasons, it seems. In Greek usage, “uncovering” is often associated with shame. From the moment of the fall, “nakedness” induces shame and leads Adam and Eve to seek covering.
Greek usage also resisted using “apocalypse” to describe divine revelations because of the ancient commitment to religious secrecy. In the mystery religions that swept through the late antique Greco-Roman world, the gods gave revelations, but not to everyone.
As one scholar has put it, “the dividing line is not really between God and man. It is between God and the uninitiated, in other words, between those who are initiated and those who are not.”
This was not peculiar to mystery religions. Ancient religions in general thrived on secrecy, as Sara Iles Johnston has explained. Rites of passage were kept secret from the not-yet-initiated and from members of the opposite sex. Spartans called their rites of passage the Krypteia (“Hidden Ritual”), and in some ancient societies only the king or priests were told about the rites of the temple and only they had access to the sacred rule book.
Egyptian priests called “overseers of secrets” were the only ones who knew where certain ritual figurines were buried, and only the Pharaoh could read certain mortuary texts. Even in democratic, transparent Athens, the temple of Demeter Achaia was open only to the family of the Gesphyraioi.
Ancient religions were almost never absolutely secret: The uninitiated knew something was happening, knew that somebody else knew something they didn’t. But relative secrecy played an enormous role in most ancient religions.
Israel was already out of step with these tendencies. Yahweh was hidden within the temple, but He was hidden even from the priests themselves. Everyone in Israel was excluded, though to varying degrees. Torah was to be periodically to be read to all the people, and all the people were to know and teach its rules to their children.
Already in Israel, Yahweh had shown Himself to be an apocalyptic God, a God who was willing to uncover the ears of His people and speak His words in the open to all and everyone.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, He drew near in Person. He drew back the veil and stepped into the flesh so that He could be heard, seen, touched, handled. In the Apocalypse of John, we see the climax of that self-unveiling, the good news of the unveiling of Jesus.
Unveiling also brings shame. An apocalypse exposes. Uncovering makes one vulnerable. Greeks and Greek-minded Christians couldn’t accept that: Divine nature was not the kind of nature that could be made vulnerable, not the sort of thing that is susceptible of exposure.
That too is inherent in the gospel: Not only has God of Israel shown His glory without veils, but the God of glory has unveiled His majesty in a baby, in the shame of the cross. That is the gospel of the apocalyptic God.