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The Book of Revelation and the Failure of Apocalyptic Theology

by Steve Kindle


My friend and honored blogger, Dr. Bob Cornwall, wrote a piece about the book of Revelation that encourages us to look at the brighter side of apocalyptic, the new creation. I wrote a response. You can find both (including replies) here: http://www.bobcornwall.com/…/apocalypse-as-message-of…

Spoiler alert: He finds hope in apocalyptic theology; I don’t. My response is posted below.

Dr. Cornwall writes approvingly of the book of Revelation. I offer this post as a caution to jumping too quickly into the world of apocalypticism and accepting the worldview of Revelation as meaningful today. My objections are two-fold. Apocalyptic theology is antithetical to the gospel in that it pits God against the world, and it offers a view of history that stands against the biblical worldview represented in the Hebrew Bible.

Cornwall wants to center the focus of the Book of Revelation on resurrection and creation. Yes, it certainly is about a new creation, but at what expense? Well, at the expense of everyone not named in the Lamb’s Book of Life. That’s just about everyone in the Roman Empire, roughly 4.5 million people. Rodney Stark estimates the total Christian population at the end of the first century at no more than 10,000. So, the ratio of the newly damned to the newly redeemed is 450 to 1. This is a victory worth celebrating? I think not. As the cottage industry of “end times” books reveals, we discount the violence and fatalism inherent in apocalyptic thinking at our peril.

Apocalyptic theology was born out of a crisis in Israel. It stems from a perceived crisis in the life of God. From the call of Abraham where God promises that his progeny will be a blessing to all the world, through the prophetic understanding of Israel as “a light to the nations,” the answer to the world’s violence and opposition to God was to be a people so blessed by God that the world would make its way to Zion and worship as one, Jew and Gentile, together in peace. Zechariah sums it up, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (8:23) This conversion of the world was not foreseen as wholesale destruction followed by recreation, but as an evolutionary process in ordinary time. Apocalyptic thinking, on the other hand, determined that God could not redeem the world in this age and therefore needed to resort to ending the world as we know it and introducing the kingdom by violent overthrow. This was in opposition to God’s promise to Israel and the world.

But, what actually happened to the promise? Beginning with the Assyrians, followed in succession by Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Seleucids, and finally Rome, one empire after another cruelly oppressed Israel. That’s 800 years of anticipation and disappointment in the fulfillment of God’s promise. By the third century BCE, Israel 

had lost hope in the promise. Yet, God must be vindicated, but how? By apocalyptic theology! Apocalyptic literature has this in common: what you see in your world only appears as God’s failure.By allowing a revered person of ancient days to enter heaven and see the actual plan of God to fulfill his promise, apocalyptic theology attempted to reassure Israel that all will soon be made well. Unfortunately, the use of Israel as a light to the nations is extinguished. It’s replaced by God raising a supernatural army that conquers the offending nations, destroys the world as it is, and creates a new heaven and a new earth. The original plan of God is now turned on its head.

People with apocalyptic hope have been universally disappointed down to our own day. The New Testament is filled with assertions that Jesus’ return to set up the kingdom was imminent. That’s why Paul and others (and even Jesus) counseled against getting married (what’s the point?), told slaves to not rock the boat (after all, relief was soon on the way), and be good citizens of the Empire (it would only be a short-lived inconvenience). This failure to materialize is the failure of apocalyptic theology.

One fact is indisputable. Although it brought temporary hope, as a scheme purporting to reveal the immediate future, it was a complete failure. Jews continued to write apocalyptic books for a few more generations, but rabbinic Judaism discarded it. Even though the New Testament is thoroughly apocalyptic in its outlook, it only lasted into the next century before it was abandoned. 2 Peter, perhaps a second-century book, notes a common complaint, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (3:4) The author’s nonsensical response? “One day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.” Rather than dream up fanciful excuses, we should just note that the New Testament writers got it wrong and move on.

Perhaps those who argued against Revelation’s inclusion in the canon were right. At the very least, it must not be a vehicle to thwart Jesus’s “peaceful kingdom” by declaring war against the unbelieving world. It is also a call to the church: are we capable of taking up the call as Abraham’s children to be a “light to the nations,” or will we give up on the world as irredeemable as so many of our conservative brothers and sisters have by embracing an apocalyptic answer? Oh, God, NO!

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