Midway through the book of Daniel, everything changes.  Nice, well-ordered stories that have fed generations of Sunday School kids suddenly give way to seemingly bizarre visions with strange imagery and uncertain interpretation. Daniel 1–6 are incredibly helpful for us in that they model a kind of belief in God, a type of posture toward the city, that translates well into our context today, a context where belief in God is not the default option, a context where if you hold to a belief in God, there is a constant pressure to keep your beliefs private, a context where you can keep that belief in God so long as it does not conflict with the dominant values, ambitions, and stories of the culture. So, Daniel 1–6 gives six narratives, six case studies, on how God’s people can navigate life in the city while also maintaining their Christian identity and not giving in to the pressures of the city.

And then, chapter 7 hits:

7.1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel saw a dream and visions of his head as he lay in his bed. Then he wrote down the dream and told the sum of the matter. Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.

“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. 10 A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.

11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.

13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

One cannot help but notice the change in key — the genre of the book of Daniel has shifted from narratives in chapters 1–6 to a different genre for which we don’t have a neat category in our world today, a type of writing called apocalyptic literature. We will unpack what that means more fully in a moment, but in the ancient near east, apocalyptic literature was a style of literature that was not written when things were going well. When life is good, when the world is at peace, when things are as they should be, you do not find words like Daniel 7 in the newsstand or at Barnes and Noble. No, words like Daniel 7 appear when things are not going well, and more specifically, not only are things not going well, these words appear to counter the temptation to believe that things will never be well again.

Apocalyptic literature can be incredibly helpful to us today, but only if we understand it correctly. We miss many of the connections. But one way our culture’s understanding of apocalypse does connect with the ancient in our shared belief that the world is ending and that ending is far from storybook — that the ending is not, “and they lived happily ever after,” but, “the bad guys win and we were never happy again.”

But what Daniel chapter 7 (as well as the rest of the book) shows us, is that the seemingly-inevitable ending of the story is not the true end of the story. Daniel 7 has some insane and scary images in it, but Daniel 7 is here not to give us nightmares but to calm our nightmares.[i] If we feel like the world is ending — whether we are overwhelmed by the evil and violence and oppression out there — or whether we feel like our own personal world is ending — whether we’ve experienced a breakup, been rejected from that grad school you want to go to, received a diagnosis, or live in a state where you’re just waiting for the next shoe to drop — Daniel 7 is for us. One scholar Joyce Baldwin goes as far as to say that if we grasp the message of what’s happening in Daniel 7, we’ll possess the key to history.[ii]

To begin, what was an apocalypse then? In order to get at that question, we need a bit of context. First, notice that Daniel 7 is not picking up where Daniel 6 left off. Rather, the timeline of Daniel rewinds and overlaps with some of the narratives in Daniel 1–6. If Daniel were written linearly, we would read Daniel 4, Daniel 7, and then Daniel 5. Why is this important? The book of Daniel is structured not just to group similar genres (the narratives and then the visions) together, but because the two halves of the book contain a shift in perspective and a shift in audience.

First, note the obvious change in perspective. Daniel 1–6 is third person, but in Daniel 7–12, the perspective changes from third person to first person. Daniel no longer interprets the dreams of other people, but now he has his own dreams to make sense of. And with that shift in perspective comes a change in audience. Each chapter in Daniel 1–6 begins with the name of a king — Jehoiakim, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius. In other words, Daniel 1–6 were specifically written for the nations of the world as a way to help the world see that Daniel’s God is the one true God. The book of Daniel is unique in that the majority of the book — chapters 2–7 — is not written in Hebrew (the language exclusive to the Jewish people) but in Aramaic (the lingua franca of the day). That means that those early chapters of Daniel were for the nations and they were in a language that the world could comprehend. But now, in Daniel 7, the audience shifts away from the nations and moves onto the nation of Israel, the people of God. Daniel speaks in the first person, and in a way he represents all of God’s people. These chapters are a word that God has for his people specifically, a people who felt that their world had ended 70 years ago when their nation and temple were destroyed and are wondering if anything is going to change and get better.[iii]

With that context in mind, consider Daniel’s dream and the focus of this apocalyptic vision. This passage is literally “fantastic beasts and where to find them” (sorry for another movie reference!). Daniel has this vision of four beasts rising out of the sea, each is imposing in its own way, but the fourth beast by far the most dangerous. In fact, Daniel struggles to find words as to how exactly to describe what he sees. Each beast brings violence and chaos; they stomp and devour, eat and destroy. But then Daniel sees something else, a throne room, and he sees one called the Ancient of Days sit on the throne and hold court. Books are brought out and he brings judgment on the beasts and takes their authority and dominion away from them. Finally, another figure, “one like the son of man,” emerges, and the Ancient of Days gives him all power and authority, and that “one like a son of man” establishes a kingdom that endures forever.

If this story sounds familiar, that is because it echoes Daniel 2, pretty much the same story — four kingdoms of the world (with the fourth kingdom being particularly evil and violent), followed by a kingdom that will never be destroyed. Daniel 7 is virtually Daniel 2, just retold in an apocalyptic key. Why change the key?

Here we are indebted to the work of Richard Bauckham, a scholar at Cambridge University and one of the most respected biblical scholars in the academic world today.[iv] Bauckham says that when the apocalyptic genre is invoked in biblical literature, it has two goals in mind. The first goal of apocalypse then was to give the original audience a new perspective on the world by pulling back the curtain of transcendence. That’s what “apocalypse” literally means — apocalypse means an unveiling, a revealing of what’s truly there; it’s “the dismantling of perceived realities” as Alissa Wilkinson put it.[v] Apocalypse is used not to give people a different picture, but to help them see the whole picture by giving the reader eyes to see beyond the physical world to the metaphysical world.

But you may be wondering, why is the world we can’t see, the transcendent world, so fantastical? Why talk about these beastly hybrids and cryptic images when you could just say there’s a world behind the world we see, that God is there? And if that’s you, I get that! I wish the Bible was more straightforward at times as well, but here’s where I have been helped by Bauckham. He writes,

To appreciate the importance [of imagery in apocalyptic literature] we should remember that [the original audience] in the great cities [of the ancient world] were constantly confronted with powerful images of the [Babylonian] vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered ‘miracles’ in the temples — all provided powerful visual impressions of [Babylonian] imperial power and of the splendor of pagan religion. In this context [apocalyptic] provides a set of…prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from heaven….The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.[vi]

Biblical apocalyptic literature, like the genre more broadly, gave the people of God a set of counter-images, a different story through which to interpret the world. When the temptation arose to buy into the images of those in power, to bend the knee to the empires of the world, apocalyptic literature comes in to disenchant the worldly images and to remind God’s people what is really true, what is really at the heart of things. Apocalyptic pulled back the curtain and helped the people of God see the world the way that God sees it — that the kingdoms of men are beastly, not sophisticated, intimidating, yes, but limited and not ultimate.

That’s the first reason for apocalyptic — to give God’s people a view of the transcendent. The second goal of apocalyptic then was to answer the question, “Who is the Lord of the world?” Bauckham again:

Jewish apocalypses, insofar as they continued the concerns of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, were typically concerned with the apparent non-fulfillment of God’s promises, through the prophets, for the judgment of evil, the salvation of the righteous, the achievement of God’s righteous rule over his world. The righteous suffer, the wicked flourish: the world seems to be ruled by evil, not by God. Where is God’s kingdom? The apocaylptists sought to maintain the faith of God’s people in the one, all-powerful and righteous God, in the face of the harsh realities of evil in the world, especially the political evil of the oppression of God’s faithful people by the great pagan empires. The answer to this question was always, essentially, that despite appearances, it is God who rules his creation and the time is coming soon when he will overthrow the evil empires and establish his kingdom.[vii]

In other words, apocalyptic literature is meant to assure God’s people that though things are dark now, they will not always be so. God is in control. He will judge the evil in the world. He will do away will all the injustice and oppression and violence and he will set things right. Despite what you see and how you feel in the moment, the storybook ending will be the ending — God’s kingdom will be established and you will live happily ever after.

So, that’s the point of apocalypse then — to open their eyes to the whole picture, the transcendent view of the world, and to assure them that God is still in control, and he will have the last word.

And so, as we look at apocalypse now, what does that mean for us? What does this vision have to do with us today? When it comes to our own apocalypses — whether the apocalypses we see out there or whether our personal apocalypses — we can take those same two things–recognizing transcendence and remembering that God is in control of history and apply them to our own hearts, recognizing them even more truly in light of Jesus. Here’s how:

First, we recognize transcendence. In his vision, Daniel is pulled up into heaven so that he can see the whole picture, and the focal point of this picture is not the beasts nor the terror they create, but it is the throne room of God, the Ancient of Days, and the son of man. Daniel gets a glimpse of what God is going to do to set the world right, and the “one like a son of man” is at the heart of that plan. In verses 13–14, we read that God gives the son of man “dominion and glory and a kingdom, and that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” and that “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and…shall not be destroyed.” The son of man is this enigmatic character. He’s called the “son of man” and that speaks to his humanity — that this person is a human who will reign with God. But verse 13 also talks about him “riding on the clouds of heaven,” and that image of riding on the clouds is something that in the Jewish tradition was only attributed to God. So, you have this person who is a man and yet somehow divine, someone who reigns with God but who also reigns as God. Daniel gets a glimpse of this person, this son of man, and then the vision ends, and he’s left to wonder what exactly that means.

It would take a few centuries, but who that figure is would soon come into focus, and the world would see it, not because like Daniel we are pulled up into heaven to have a fleeting sight of transcendence, but because God himself, the transcendent One, would come down and write himself into history through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God becoming man. The Catholic writer Dorothy Sayers compared the incarnation to Hamlet looking for Shakespeare. She argued, imagine if Hamlet started looking for Shakespeare, it would be impossible. No matter how far he’d search, no matter how much expense he would incur, the only way Hamlet would be able to find Shakespeare is if Shakespeare wrote himself into the story, and in the incarnation, that’s exactly what we have — God writing himself into the story of the world, becoming like one of us.

When Jesus came into the world, he took for himself the title of “son of man” from Daniel 7. In fact, he uses that title over 70 times in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark highlights this. In Mark 1, Jesus’s first words are that the kingdom of God has arrived, has come near in him. In chapter 2, Jesus is teaching in a room full of the religious teachers and authorities and a paralyzed man interrupts the gathering, and Jesus forgives the man’s sins. The religious teachers in the room are appalled, and they say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And Jesus responds by saying, “Which is easier? To forgive a man’s sins or to tell him to get up and walk? So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins…” he tells him to get up, and he does!

Later on in Mark’s Gospel, in chapter 10, we encounter that title again. Jesus is talking with his followers and he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus is saying there that he’s come to establish his kingdom, not by exerting power but by laying it down, not by forcing others to do his bidding but giving up his power to serve us, to sacrifice himself as a ransom so that we might go free.

And finally, in Mark 14, Jesus is on trial before those same religious rulers and leaders, and he’s asked point-blank, “Are you the Messiah (God’s promised redeemer-king)?” And he responds by saying, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Jesus takes the words of Daniel 7:13 and puts them on his lips — he says that he is the one who reigns with God and as God, because that is who he is — fully God and fully man — and that confession sealed his fate. The religious leaders saw that statement as blasphemous and condemned him to die. But it was actually through that death on the cross that Jesus was able to accomplish what he came to do — to rip away from the beastly kingdoms of men the authority they possessed and to claim it for his own, so that even death itself would be under his authority. Jesus died but rose again three days later to vindicate and validate his claims, that he truly is the Son of Man that God had promised, and that if we put our trust in him, that if we look to Jesus and place him at the center of our lives, we will be delivered from all the apocalypses of the world, and we will reign with him in his kingdom forever. As we navigate our own apocalypses, recognize that Jesus has come to deliver us from the ultimate apocalypse, the ultimate judgment day, and that even now he is able to walk with us in whatever we might be facing.

Second, remember that God is in control of history. Daniel needed that vision to reorient his imagination, to give him a set of counter-images through which he could navigate life in exile, life in the beastly kingdoms of men, in such a way that neither turned him into a cynic nor caused him to be detached or indifferent to the world, but empowered him to live for God in the city, and we can take what Jesus has done for us and do the same thing.

There is, of course, a New Testament book that’s written in the apocalyptic genre — the book of Revelation — and in that book, we get a glimpse of who is in control of history, and it is Jesus. And in that apocalyptic vision, we see that Jesus one day will set all things right, that he will make all things new, and that all evil, violence, sickness, death, and brokenness will be done away with and be no more. With that vision of the end, we can stand firm following Jesus in the city, remembering that the arc of history is long, but it does bend toward justice, that for the Christian, our best days are always ahead of us and never behind us, that our worst-case scenario is resurrection and everlasting life.

We don’t have to live lives of despair, cynicism, inaction, or detachment. Rather, we can be filled with hope — hope that God will judge all evil and make everything sad come untrue, hope that the world will be made new, and hope that we will reign with Jesus in his kingdom forever.

Ⲧⲟ end on a practical note on how to move forward: since there have been some movie references sprinkled throughout this article, one filmmaker said that when it comes to apocalypse movies, there are two kinds: “stop the apocalypse” (think James Bond movies, Armageddon) and “survive the apocalypse” (think Day after Tomorrow, Hunger Games, or Zombieland). In “stop the apocalypse” movies, the plot is driven by people who take action to save the day, and in “survive the apocalypse” movies, it’s about hiding and making it to the end. Both of these responses to apocalypse can be found in our culture, especially in the church. There are churches that try to stop the apocalypse — to fight the culture wars, take over the cultural institutions, and grasp for political power. Other churches try to survive the apocalypse — to withdraw, hunker down, and just bide our time and pray for a new Great Awakening. And while both these strategies have grains of truth in them, I think they miss the mark of what the book of Daniel is holding out to us.

Daniel is saying that the apocalypse is not something that we need to stop or survive, but the apocalypse is something we should allow to break us of our illusions of the world — to, in a healthy way, disillusion us — of our own strength and ability as well as helping us see that our worldly systems of salvation — whether in government, the culture, and even in church leaders or denominations — are limited and finite. Those things are not ultimate, but Jesus Christ and his kingdom is. Russell Moore writes, “You can’t choose whether you will experience apocalypse. But an apocalypse can be an Armageddon or an invitation. Choose the latter. You can’t choose whether you will be disillusioned, you can only choose when you will be disillusioned. Choose now.”[viii]

[i] Iain M. Duguid, Daniel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 112.

[ii] Joyce G. Baldwin, Daniel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 153.

[iii] Do note, slightly complicating this thesis, that the book switches back to Hebrew only at the start of chapter 8.

[iv] See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (London: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-22.

[v] Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra, How to Survive the Apocalypse (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 2.

[vi] Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 17.

[vii] Ibid., 8-9.

[viii] Russell Moore, Losing Our Religion (New York, NY: Sentinel, 2023), 60-61.




Matt Lietzen is the pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church, a downtown congregation serving urban and university Madison, Wisconsin. He is also the Content Strategist for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. He is married to Kelsey, and they have a daughter, Emery.

Meet Rev. Matt Lietzen