Apocalyptic literature sets forth images and teachings related to the end times, often in highly symbolic form. A standard definition, developed by the genre project of the Society of Biblical Literature, says that apocalyptic literature is “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality.” The following principles can help us interpret apocalyptic literature according to the literary characteristics of this unique biblical genre.
1. Keep in mind that apocalyptic literature is a subset of biblical prophecy.
Several times in Revelation, the book’s genre is identified as “prophecy” (Rev. 22:7, 10, 18, 19). The Old Testament genre of prophecy involves both addressing the present circumstances of God’s people and predicting the future. Similarly, in Revelation, Jesus has words for the church in His day (Rev. 2–3) and the book canvasses Jesus’ glorious return at the end of time, as well as the events preceding and following it, culminating in the eternal state (i.e., the new heaven and earth). For this reason, we must not diminish the historical dimension when interpreting apocalyptic literature, despite the symbolic content of these books.
2. Distinguish between symbols and their real-life referents.
Apocalyptic literature often depicts graphic, even dramatic, visions of end-time events. But while the visions are real and there is often a historical figure or event depicted, these are portrayed in symbolic form. This calls for a careful distinction between the actual symbol and the referent—that is, the person or event depicted by a respective symbol.
A simple example would be Revelation 12–13, which features two symbolic characters, a dragon and a woman. The dragon depicts Satan (the devil) as a beastly power, while the woman symbolizes the church—or more broadly, God’s people—which gives birth to a male son, the Messiah. In the case of the dragon, the interpretation is supplied in the text itself: “The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Rev. 12:9, NIV). In other cases, the interpretation is not given, and the interpreter must determine the most likely referent of a given symbol.
3. Don’t get carried away by elaborate eschatological schemes and end-time scenarios, but focus on the main purpose.
It’s easy to let our curiosity get the best of us, but as Jesus told His followers, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7, NIV). Rather, the main purpose of Revelation is theodicy—the demonstration of God’s justice and righteousness. God will surely vindicate believers in Christ and judge unbelievers. Apocalyptic literature is designed to reassure believers that while they may face present suffering and persecution, God will bring history to its final conclusion. Jesus will come back in all His glory, judge the wicked, and usher believers into God’s presence where they will live for all eternity. At the same time, Revelation demonstrates that God has given unbelievers every opportunity to believe in Christ. It is only because of their persistent refusal to believe that they will finally be judged.
4. Interpret apocalyptic literature canonically and redemptive-historically.
Apocalyptic literature has an important function within the canon of Scripture as a whole. It provides the final bookend of Scripture, which started in a garden but ends in a city. The biblical story commences with one man and one woman and concludes with an innumerable multitude gathered around God’s throne. In between these two bookends, we see humanity rebel against the Creator, which sets into motion a grand rescue operation culminating in Jesus’ first coming as God’s “Lamb” who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). After a period of mission to the nations, apocalyptic literature portrays Jesus’ glorious, triumphant second coming as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5).
Rather than featuring colorful apocalyptic images of the earth’s cataclysmic end as a sort of nuclear holocaust, Revelation depicts the culmination of God’s covenantal history with His people. Thus, the pronouncement toward the end of the book serves as a fitting conclusion: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3).
This article is part of the Hermeneutics collection.