With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Christians turn their thoughts to the apocalypse. Are these the end times? In this new series, I’ll explore major themes in the book of Revelation. The first is the theme of apocalypse.
Removing the Blinders
Author Bill Bright writes about Anne Sullivan introducing her blind and deaf student Helen Keller the concept of God:
Using a unique form of “finger language,” Anne began “spelling” words into the child’s hand, and eventually Helen recognized the link between the words and objects. Once Ann Sullivan had given Helen the names of several physical objects, Miss Sullivan attempted to explain the existence of God. She tapped out the symbols for the name God.
Much to Miss Sullivan’s surprise, Helen spelled back, “Thank you for telling me God’s name, Teacher, for He has touched me many times before.” Even in her darkness, Helen Keller already knew that God existed. With the help of Anne Sullivan, the young blind girl had the ability to “see” and learn more about who God is and what He does for us.[i]
Like Helen Keller, we feel spiritually impaired at times—intuitively knowing God yet needing further understanding. We need a divine revelation, lifting the veil so that we can know God better. Paul talks about God drawing back this spiritual curtain and allowing us to see with unveiled faces (2 Corinthians 4:4-5; 3:16-18.)
Even with this unveiling, Paul says the mirror is still dark, and our image of Christ is a bit foggy at times (1 Corinthians 13:12). Yet there are moments when God lifts the veil completely, when a divine hand cleans our looking-glass and shows God’s glory. We call this unveiling “revelation,” or “apocalypse.”
The word apocalypse comes from the Greek for unveiling. This word often gets translated as revelation. Embedded in the word revelation is the reveal—to lift the veil and show what’s underneath. When a bride walks down the aisle and her veil is lifted, everybody can see her beauty. This loveliness is there all along, but it remains hidden until the groom reveals her. The book of John’s Apocalypse is about God revealing the divine purpose to the world.
This word apocalypse has taken on a negative meaning, evoking fear in those who hear it. People think that apocalypse means worldwide disaster, tragedy, and suffering. Movies depict the end of the world coming through global warming and floods, super-volcanoes, mutated viruses, technology run amok, and asteroids hitting the earth. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the word apocalypse is on the lips of many Christians. They think this means the beginning of the end.
If this is an apocalypse, it is not the kind that they think. It’s not the end of days. It is, however, a special kind of unveiling. The world watches as Putin unveils his greed. We stand in awe, not of Russia’s might, but of the revealed courage of an entire nation willing to die rather than surrender. It’s also an unveiling of the world’s conscience as we watch these events unfold and decide how to intervene. But it’s not an apocalypse in the misunderstood sense of the world’s end.
The Bible isn’t alone as a source of apocalyptic literature. This was a hugely popular genre of Hebrew literature, around the time of Jesus. The book of Revelation is just one example. Other examples of Jewish apocalyptic are found in the books of Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah.
In the New Testament, we find apocalyptic literature in Matthew 24 (Sometimes called the little apocalypse), Mark 13, and 2 Thessalonians 2.
Before the biblical books were canonized, other apocalyptic books were also popular. In that library we find books like Gabriel’s Revelation, The Apocalypse of Elijah, and The Apocalypse of Thomas.
Canonical and non-canonical apocalyptic literature follows themes of persecution and endurance, natural disaster and war, death and judgment, and the Messiah ushering in God’s kingdom on earth. When you talk about the book of Revelation, it’s important to recognize that this is but one of many books of its type—and readers shouldn’t presume it has the final word on the matter.
Fire and Ice
In his poem, “Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost describes the two forces of destruction for the world.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Typical of apocalyptic literature, Frost uses the power of symbol and imagery to communicate truth. As John’s Revelation isn’t meant literally but must be taken seriously, Frost’s warning is dire if unheeded. In the same vein as Hebrew apocalyptic, Frost discusses not the end of the world, but the end of our world. Passions like Putin’s desire and greed may be destructive, but the ice of apathy on the world’s part would also aid that devastation. Fortunately, the planet seems largely unified in its opposition of Russian aggression.
Are We in the Apocalypse? I Hope So!
Many Christians hope for the apocalypse for all the wrong reasons. Misunderstanding it to mean the end of the world and the beginning of a literal millennial reign of Christ, conservative Evangelicals often long for the End Times. As a result, Christians are often icy and apathetic toward issues of climate change, overpopulation, and famine. Some even welcome violence, saying that “wars and rumors of wars” mean Jesus is coming back sooner. But this is a misinterpretation and abuse of the apocalypse.
Apocalypse is all about unveiling. If the current situation reveals the greed of oligarchs so that the world rejects and opposes hostile takeovers of nations, then I pray God will unveil our eyes. May God remove blinders that prevent us from seeing suffering. May we replace our self-interest with compassion for victims and refugees. I hope this is an apocalypse in the true meaning of the word. May we peel off the veil to reveal what we must change. And may God give us strength to stand for right and truth.
[i] Bright, Bill. Discover the Book God Wrote. Tyndale House Publishers: Carol Stream, Ill. 2004. Pg. 4.