I hear the word “apocalypse” in casual settings more than a dozen times each year. It seems that every year there is a “Snow-pocalypse,” by which the evening news means 12 to 14 inches of snow will inconvenience you for about a day and a half.  Or my son might talk about the “Vocabulary Apocalypse,” by which he means a major test that will wreck his grade if he does not do well.  Or, we can think of more popular scenarios like the movie Apocalypse Now.  As a New Testament professor, I find this all very strange. An apocalypse is an ancient literary form in which authors do not often write these days. But nonetheless there’s the word “apocalypse” as part of our every-day vernacular.

What do all these generic uses of “apocalypse” have in common?  It seems people have taken the word to mean, loosely, “cataclysmic end-of-the-world stuff.”  And one can understand why: the most famous piece of literature penned in the apocalyptic genre is The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, written by John the Apostle in the first century.  We know it more commonly as The Book of Revelation.  That word revelation is an English translation of the first word of this book which is “The Apocalypse” (one word in Greek: Ἀποκάλυψις).  So sometimes the last book in the biblical canon has been called “Revelation” and sometimes “The Apocalypse.” Hence our popular definitions of that latter word: the book called The Apocalypse is full of what appears to be “cataclysmic end-of-the-world stuff.”  In it you can find earthquakes, swarming locusts, ravaging hail, war horses, armies, plagues, famines, hell fire, and the great resurrection and judgement of all.  No wonder the adjective “apocalyptic” is regularly attached to anything devastating to our world and society.

This is very regrettable, however, for at least two reasons.  For one, the word apocalypse simply does not mean anything like end-of-the-world stuff, or natural or man-made disasters.  It simply means a revelation of truth that is generally hidden to the eyes of most (more on this in just a moment).  Yet, the widespread misuse of the term has created a feedback loop wherein the prevalent mislabeling of calamities has, in return, reinforced an impression that that is what The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ is all about.  It gives us an intuition that Revelation is chiefly preoccupied with cosmic upheaval that will mark the end of the world as we know it.  While the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the eternal state are certainly major concerns of our last canonical book, they are not the only concern, nor even the leading concern (more on this in just a moment as well).  But the common rhetorical misuse of the term has trained us to expect future prognostication along with world-and-history altering catastrophes on every page.

This leads, in turn, to the second regret.  It commonly results in terribly fantastic, and quite frankly unbelievable, interpretations of Revelation in support of perennial conspiracy theories.  I do not know the source of the popular fascination with conspiracies, nor the oceans to which they run, but I do know that Revelation is a deep well of usefully-cryptic images and just-elastic-enough idioms to provide all the support needed for such bizarre “interpretations.”  And the silver bow on every such conspiracy theory is that it is “found in the Bible.”  See, God has declared it.  It must be so.  If you spin enough verses from Revelation through the loom of recent headlines, dyed with a tinge of anti-authoritarian skepticism, a captivating new cloth emerges that is both convincing and at the same time bewildering.  For it is the frenetic sewing together of apparently unrelated factoids that befuddles the audience and leaves them saying, “Well, I guess that makes sense” – only because they have no other anchor in the sea of images.  Thus, conspiracy theories thrive in the space where most of us are intimidated to go, The Book of Revelation.  We know it must mean something.  But all that “apocalyptic stuff” is too much to bear, leaving the book a playground for childish interpretations.

Just one example will have to suffice.  Most of us refer to the 40th president of the United States as Ronald Reagan.  But think with the “apocalyptic” enthusiast for a moment.  How many letters are in the name Ronald?  Six.  How many letters are in the name Reagan?  Six.  Now, do you know what Ronald Reagan’s middle name was?  Wilson!  Again, six letters!  Put it all together and you get (You saw this coming.) 666, the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13:18.  Now that is red meat to the conspiracy theorist!  If Ronald Wilson Reagan was the “the beast,” then it is a mere slight of hand to attach the things the beast does in Revelation to the things Ronald Reagan did.  As one can easily imagine, such readings sputtered after Reagan left office.  But clever interpretations die hard.  A little over five years ago one of my students showed me a video that did approximately the same thing with Barack Hussein Obama.  A little more work had to be done to make the numbers fit, but for the marriage of Revelation and conspiracy the more cryptic the better.[1]

Both of these regrets are lamentable because as the last book of the canon Revelation serves as the climax of the bible’s great redemptive historical meta-drama.  Think of your favorite play.  How well do you think you would understand any part of it if you walked out with 20 minutes to go in the final act?  The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ is just that final act.  It is the book where so many critical themes reach their denouement—creation, temple, sacrifice, and resurrection are just a few.  How sad, therefore, that Christians are commonly intimidated to read it, or embarrassed to comment that they think they might understand it.

Then what is an “apocalypse?”  As mentioned, the first word of Revelation is “The Apocalypse.”  The term means, simply, something that is hidden is now being uncovered, a truth that is commonly unperceived is now revealed in image-laden writing.  For example, if you’re traveling down the road too fast and suddenly you see red and blue lights in your rearview, you are having an apocalyptic experience!  The police officer had always been there, trailing you for a few miles; only you did not see him.  He was there.  It was true that he was there.  But you were caught up in another reality such that you could not perceive him.  That other reality was your anxiety about how late you are, so you pushed a little harder on the gas than normal.  Or you were so engrossed in your music that you got the car up faster than you realized.  Or you were imagining how you would have concluded that novel you just read if you were the author, and you simply didn’t notice when you passed into a construction zone.  Whatever it was, something very present overwhelmed your thoughts, causing you to overlook the police car behind you.  But your ignorance of the officer’s presence does not affect its reality!  So, the abrupt flicker of lights is enough to bring the otherwise hidden reality into clear view.  Now you interpret reality a bit differently.  Your earlier preoccupation with your destination, your favorite song, or your fictional daydream are suddenly overtaken by a new cogitation: a ticket and higher insurance rates.  Thus, the apocalypse of the police car.  It is a sudden revelation of truth—truth that had always been there—now altering your perception of reality.

I know, we don’t speak in such term today.  I’ve never had a student come late to class with the excuse, “I was caught in an apocalypse on I-65.”  They say, “Sorry prof, I got pulled over.”  But the illustration serves to turn to this point: an apocalypse is a genre of writing where current realities (as the author conceives them) are painted in verbal images so that readers can see the truth they otherwise missed.  Though you think you understand phenomena happening around the world, their true meaning is revealed in the text.

And this is why the last book of the Bible, an apocalypse in its literary genre, is commonly called Revelation.  For that is what an apocalypse is: a revelation, an unveiling, an uncovering.  John is saying, announcing in his very first word of the book, “I will pull back the curtain for you, and let you see the truth of what’s going on in the world, right now, because contemporary events can easily mislead you.  I will pull back the veil of history to show you hidden—through very real—truths that you would miss were it not for this apocalypse.”[2]

The apocalyptic genre allows the author to create a competing symbolic universe.[3]  Here’s what I mean.  If you lived in the first-century Greco-Roman world, as you walked along the road, as you went about your business, as you went to the market, etc., you would have been surrounded by Roman imperial-religious propaganda everywhere you turned.  Large temples spoke of the power of the Roman gods.  Those temples said that their gods had conquered the world and given it to the Romans.  And yet, where is the emblem of the Jewish God?  Where is his temple?  If Revelation was written after 70AD (as is commonly understood), then you would know that the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem had been destroyed.  But the temples of the Roman gods were everywhere, so it would seem they were the sovereign powers of the universe.

Equally, statues of Caesar in victorious poses stood in every major city.  Thus, Caesar had brought peace to the world (the famous, though misleading, “Pax Romana”).  Commonly, these statues of Caesar also had him holding a scroll.  Now, what was the function of scrolls in antiquity?  They were written by leading figures to give instructions to others under their rule.  Once written they were sealed so that no one could open them except the persons for whom they were intended.  A messenger would then deliver one, the recipient knowing it hadn’t been tampered with because the seal was unbroken (or the messenger would be in huge trouble).  Once the seal was broken, the recipient would be expected to do what it requested.  But in Caesar’s case it was no request.  It was a command.  It represented, therefore, his sovereign will, indeed the will of the gods.  So, to have Caesar holding such scrolls in his statues was a reminder of his authority to rule the empire—indeed the entire world—at the behest of the Roman gods.  And his will must be obeyed.  In short, it was a propagandistic billboard of Caesar’s sovereignty.

Consider also Roman coins.  Coinage has always been a means of power projection.  Every time you reached into your pocket, out would come another piece of Roman religio-political propaganda.  For all the coins said something exultant about the Caesar, the gods, or both.  One even read, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” on heads and “Chief Priest” on tails.  Nothing subtle there!  Another pictured the goddess Roma, patron deity of the city, as a beautiful woman riding on a chariot.  Again, the point was to slowly grind away at your imagination such that you were captured by ideas of the strength, stability and deity of the Roman system, complete with its state-gods.[4]

But none of this was conspiratorial.  It was blatant.  It was plain.  It was simple.  It did not operate in dark corners of secret schemes but in the open arenas of worldview.  And it all created a religious, political, economic, etc. coherent vision of history where the Roman gods were in control and they had given dominion of the world to the Roman Caesar.  These symbols were just there hovering over your life, in small increments, but not so subtly, indoctrinating you to this: The Roman gods were supreme; they had installed the Roman Caesar (who was himself divine) to rule the world; you must fall in line with this religio-political system.

Do you see how The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ creates a competing symbolic universe?  New images placed before readers’ eyes open up the conceptual space to another reality—the true reality—and help readers understand their own place therein.  For example, chapter 4 shows us that Yahweh’s temple, far from being destroyed, is a cosmic temple (see also 11:19).[5]  He does not reign and rule in one city.  He reigns and rules from heaven, and that means he reigns and rules over all.  He is receiving worship in heaven, and his priests serve him everywhere on earth (1:6; 5:10).  Equally, in chapter 5 this sovereign God has designs for history sealed up in a scroll—with seven seals no less—and yet no one can open it (5:1–3).  Any wonder John weeps at this in 5:4?  It is not simply because his curiosity with the scroll must go unsated.  Rather, the lack of anyone worthy to open the scroll means God’s will cannot be accomplished on the earth![6]  It is a tremendously dramatic moment, therefore, when “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” steps forward to open the scroll (5:5–7).  The rest of the book, then, is what comes out of scroll as Jesus opens its seals one by one.  The point is that Yahweh is the true Creator and he executes his will from heaven through the sovereign ministrations of King Jesus.[7]  For Jesus is the divine son of God (2:18) and chief priest for all who desire true worship (1:18).

And what of Rome?  What of Caesar?  Well, these are pretenders.  Chapter 13 unmasks them: they have not brought peace, but war and destruction and persecutions to the earth.  And again, they only have power on the earth as long as King Jesus allows them to (13:7).  The goddess Roma?  She is not a beautiful woman riding a horse-drawn chariot.  She is a whore sitting on the ravenous satanic beast (17:1–3).  Do not be fooled by her appearance with gold and jewels and pearls (17:4); her name is “‘Babylon the great (a terror that needs little explanation to the biblically literate), mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations’…drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:5–6).  Thus, the Roman propaganda machine is shut down, the imposters called out as “John’s images echo and play on the facts, the fears, the hopes, the imaginings and the myths of his contemporaries, in order to transmute them into elements of his own Christian prophetic meaning.”[8]

With this new competing symbolic universe readers can literarily conceive of reality in a new way—the true way—which, in turn, provides evocative interpretive frames for the rest of life.

Most importantly, this is the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ.  In its entirety this book is revealing truths about Jesus.  The last time the world saw the Jewish Messiah, he was crucified, and that is how he came to be known.  That too is an image that carries specific connotations: He was defeated; He was shamed.  And his people received the same treatment.  Not only did they have to breathe the Roman religio-political air, but they also faced persecution for their dissent.  Even those who were not persecuted themselves (It was neither consistent nor empire wide.), nonetheless heard of the persecution that other Christians faced.  And more to the point, even their King Jesus was crucified.  So this was very bewildering.  If Jesus was the King of kings and ruler of all, why was he slain and why were his people treated so poorly?  That is what people saw (and see!) in the world.  One would think that if Jesus had all history under his sovereign control, he could protect his own.  The thought surely lingered: “Did we sign up with the wrong potentate?  Is Caesar lord after all?  Are we on the wrong side of history?”

Just imagine, therefore, how liberating and reassuring this message would have been for first-century Christians.  Such doubt is redressed by The Apocalypse because the book is not about any-and-all things of generic religious interest.  It is designed to reveal things about Jesus particularly: who he is, how he reigns, what he is doing across history, how he cares for his people.  It is a vision of Christ that reveals who he is now and how we should think of him now.  He is not beleagued nor abandoned.  He is not ashamed.  And most importantly, he is not dead!  He is alive and glorious, pure and powerful, “like the sun shining in full strength” (1:12–16).  It is this Christ who walks among “the lampstands,” which means he is with his people (1:13, 20).  It is this Christ who sovereignly rules history and redeems his people (5:5, 9–10), who even has sovereign control of the church’s enemies (13:7; 18:1–24).

The entire book must be read, therefore, primarily as a revealing of who Jesus is and what he is doing in and through history.  That is, Revelation is not a collection of disconnected theological maxims or future predictions.  Rather, everything is some kind of revelation about Jesus, his person and his work.  He is revealed in one way or another in every verse.

This revealing of Christ occurs in two ways throughout the book.  First, Christ has this sovereign dominion now (1:6).  That is the truth that is veiled by Rome’s propagandistic claims.  But Revelation’s competing symbolic universe reveals that Jesus is currently Daniel’s “Son of Man” (1:13) “to whom was given dominion and glory and a kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:14).  Second, he will be revealed at his second coming.  Those who refuse to adopt John’s competing symbolic universe will still have the truth shown to them in due time, only not in writing but in history when every eye beholds him coming on the clouds of heaven (1:7; 19:11–16).  So, there are two kinds of revealing of Jesus in his book: One is revealed apocalyptically, in that literary genre; the other is to be revealed historically when he comes again.  So the book, in its entirety, provides that competing symbolic universe so that Christians can “see” (with the eyes of faith in reading) that Jesus is Lord of all now, and when he returns it will be revealed to all what had always been true—then unrivaled into the ages.

How does the understanding of this book as a revealing of Jesus help Christians interpret the rest of history and their own lives?  Just one example for now: it causes us to redefine what it means to conquer.  Again, the symbolic universe of the Greco-Roman world indoctrinated people to think that death was defeat and victory was in strength.  Just look at Jesus; he was crucified.  But Caesar reigned supreme.  Just look at Jesus’ followers; they were martyred and Jesus could not protect them (6:9).  Within the prevalent symbolic universe of the time that was the definition of being conquered, subdued by Rome.  All who resist will be dealt the same fate.

The apocalyptically revealed truths about Jesus, however, give a new understanding.  For he was slain not in defeat but in his own act of love to free us from our sins (1:5).  He declares, “I died, but behold I am alive for evermore” (1:18).  Indeed, that death for his people, turning them into a kingdom of priests (1:6), was actually his very act of conquering (5:5).  He was not dispatched from history by big bad Rome, but the cross became his steppingstone by which he then ascended to become the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5).

In turn, his people’s sufferings do not mark their vanquishing.  For it is Christians who “conquer [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11).  Thus, when the forces of darkness persecute the Church, even death is not defeat for Jesus-followers.  For even in death they are triumphant because in that moment they are translated to heaven whence they reign and rule with the resurrected King Jesus (7:9, 13–15; 20:4).  Defeat for the Christian would be vacating one’s testimony to Christ in the face of persecution.  That is what the dragon and the beasts would prefer.  But the stubborn persistence that Jesus is Lord of all is what enrages that ancient Serpent (12:9–11).  “Why won’t these Christians just bow down to the world system and worship the beast and his image!?” (13:15)  Thus, to value one’s witness to Christ and his universal dominion even more than one’s life is the very act whereby Christians conquer the dragon and his beasts.[9]  And so even death is reimagined, reinterpreted in accord with the competing symbolic universe revolving around Jesus Christ’s person and work, for the life of the Messiah is the paradigm for his people: he was persecuted, so we will be persecuted.  Yet such persecution was triumph in his salvific mission that eventuated with resurrection and indestructible life.  So too, Christians triumph in persecutions (not despite them) because in them they reflect their savior when they abandon not their testimony.  And still, like Jesus, death is the gateway unto life, both now and in the great resurrection (22:1–5).

In the end Revelation provides a philosophy of history, one that understands that Christ alone rules supreme and that his purposes in all things are particularly redemptive.  That is, the reason history exists is so that Christ can bring his redemptive God-glorifying purposes to pass.  This is seen in the interpretive loadstar that is 5:9–10.

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain,
and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

Why is the sacrificed Lamb the only one suitable to open the scroll containing the Creator’s will for history?  He is worthy because he has done the work necessary for creating a kingdom of priests out of every tribe, language, people and nation.  Thus, the creation and commissioning of such a God-glorifying kingdom of ransomed priest-kings is history’s raison d’être.  The redemption of this people and their sovereign protection through the ages is God’s will around which all else revolves.[10]  In other words, Christians are not the least of the peoples.  They are the gravitational center around which Christ is sovereignly working in all things—quite mysteriously to be sure, but no less surely—making them faithful witnesses, and bringing them finally to eternal rest.  To defer to another New Testament author for just a moment, Paul fittingly asks, “What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, will he not also give us all thing with him?…But in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:31–32, 37).

In turn, this provides a theodicy.  A theodicy is an explanation for evil in the world.  Revelation teaches us that evil is not haphazard.  It is not the result of the timeless battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.  It is not the necessary red tooth and claw of evolution.  It is not structural racism.  It is satanic forces (literally) at work against Christ and against his people as “the dragon…went off to make war…on those who keep the commandments of God and bear the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).  But again, Jesus has all things under his control and even the forces of darkness must revolve around Christ’s purpose to do good to and for his people.

In all, this takes the edge off the scariness of Rome; it is not an all-powerful empire but a beast with a mortal wound destined to fall.  For even Christ who was crucified was raised to rule, and so will we.  This vision should, therefore, unite Christians.  We need to remember that we are conquerors over unbelief and death together through Christ.  Our enemy is not within the Church.  But we are fellow workers in the same vineyard, co-heirs together with Christ.  This should give us a common focus and a common allegiance.

Just think for a moment about the symbolic universe we ourselves navigate every day.  We may not have temples, but we have malls—collections of shrines beckoning you to the good life through the sacred offering of your “Almighty Dollar.”  We may not have statues of Caesar, but we have these things called televisions that incessantly preach that the most important news is political news.  In fact, this is the most important election of our lifetime (again).  We may not pull coins from our pockets with indoctrinating slogans on them, but we have “social influencers” who do seem to show up every day in our palms.  Surely their views are superior to yours, just look at their catchy platforms!  The great conspiracy of our age, therefore, is that neither politicians nor economists, neither athletes nor “celebrities,” neither diseases nor vaccines rule history or direct our lives; it is the devil’s work to disguise himself.  But Christ rules history and directs it along paths for the redemption and eternal protection of his people.  Revelation gives us the competing symbolic universe to see the real truth behind our lives.

[1] Because this is an election year, we can go further.  Just this week I’ve received two pieces of mail and an entire book “explaining” all the recent headlines.  And even today I saw that to support Biden/Harris you can text to the number 30330.  Obviously this too is a mark of the beast.  Just take the year, 2020, and divide it by 666.  What do you get?  That’s right, 3.0330 is the quotient.  You see the devil wouldn’t come right out and say, “Text support to 666.”  But the year divided by 666, that is a beautifully cryptic and conspiratorial message!

[2] John J. Collins has provided the thorough definition worth repeating here: “An apocalypse 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 which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (“Introduction: Towards the Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 [1979]: 9).

[3] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (NTT; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), esp. 17–22, 146–59.

[4] See helpfully David Nystrom, “We Have No King but Caesar: Roman Imperial Ideology and the Imperial Cult,” in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, eds.; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 23–37.

[5] G. K. Beale with David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 97–98.

[6] Ibid., 114.

[7] Ibid., 33, 96–98.

[8] Bauckham, Revelation, 19.

[9] William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker , 1940, 1967), 8–9 et passim.

[10] Says Beale/Campbell, “Once the seals are opened, the readers can understand the decretive nature of the book and therefore the purpose of history” (Shorter Commentary, 112).

Nicholas G. Piotrowski (PhD, Wheaton College) is the president and academic dean at Indianapolis Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he also teaches hermeneutics and New Testament studies. Piotrowski is the author of Matthew's New David at the End of Exile.

Meet Dr. Nicholas G. Piotrowski