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- This article is about the religious meaning. For more uses of the word apocalypse, see Apocalypse (disambiguation).
Apocalypse (Greek: αποκαλυψις, disclosure), is a term applied to the disclosure to certain privileged persons of something hidden from the mass of humankind. The Greek root corresponds in the Septuagint to the Hebrew galah, to reveal. The last book of the New Testament bears in Greek the title Αποκαλυψις Ιωαννου, and is frequently referred to as the Apocalypse of John, but in the English Bible it appears as the Revelation of St John the Divine, or the Book of Revelation (of Jesus Christ, the Messiah). Earlier among the hellenistic Jews, the term was used of a number of writings which depicted in a prophetic and parabolic way, the end or future state of the world (e.g. Apocalypse of Baruch), the whole class is now commonly known as 'Apocalyptic literature'. However, the Apocalypse technically refers to the unveiling of God, in his guise as the Messiah, and not to all of the destruction of the world which will accompany God's Revelation of Himself to Humankind.
An Apocalypse in the terminology of early Jewish and Christian literature, is a revelation of hidden things given by God to a chosen prophet; this term is more often used to describe the written account of such a revelation. Apocalyptic literature is of considerable importance in the history of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, as beliefs such as the resurrection of the dead, judgment day, heaven and hell are all made explicit in it. Apocalyptic beliefs predate Christianity, appear in other religions, and have merged into contemporary secular society, especially through popular culture (see Apocalypticism). Apocalypse-like beliefs also occur in other religious systems; an example is the Hindu concept of pralay.
From the second century, the term "Apocalypse" was applied to a number of books, both Jewish and Christian, which show the same characteristic features. Besides the Apocalypse of John (now generally called the Book of Revelation) included in the New Testament, the Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, and others mention an Apocalypse of Peter. Apocalypses of Adam and Abraham (Epiphanius) and of Elias (Jerome) are also mentioned; see, for example, the six titles of this kind in the "List of the 60 Canonical Books".
The use of the Greek noun to designate writings belonging to a certain class of literary products is thus of Christian origin, the original norm of the class being the New Testament Book of Revelation. In 1832 Gottfried Christian Friedrich Lücke explored the word "Apocalypse" as a description of the book of Revelation, a usage obtained from the opening words of the book which refer to an apocalpyse (prophecy) of Jesus Christ given to John, who wrote the text. In Greek the opening words are 'Aπōκάλυψις 'Iησōῦ Χριστōῦ.
Apocalyptic religious literature is regarded as a distinct branch of literature. This genre has several characteristic features.
Revelation of mysteries
The Apocalypse entails a revelation of mysteries, things which lie beyond the ordinary range of human knowledge. God gives to prophets or saints instruction in regard to hidden matters, whether things altogether foreign to human experience, or merely events in human history which have not yet come to pass.
Some of the secrets of heaven are disclosed, in greater or less detail: the purposes of God's plan for humanity; the deeds and characteristics of angels and evil spirits; the explanation of natural phenomena; the story of Creation and the history of early mankind; impending events, especially those connected with the future of Israel; the end of the world; the final judgment, and the fate of mankind; the messianic age. In the Book of Enoch, the most comprehensive Jewish apocalypse, the revelation includes all of these various elements.
Disclosure through a dream or vision
The disclosure of hidden wisdom is made through a vision or a dream. Because of the peculiar nature of the subject-matter, this is evidently the most natural literary form. Moreover, the manner of the revelation, and the experience of the one who receives it, are generally made more or less prominent. Usually, though not always, the account is given in the first person. There is something portentous in the circumstances, corresponding to the importance of the secrets about to be disclosed. The element of the mysterious, often so prominent in the vision itself, is foreshadowed in the preliminary events. Some of the persistent features of the "apocalyptic tradition" are connected with the circumstances of the vision and the personal experience of the seer.
The primary example of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Bible is the book of Daniel. As Daniel after long fasting stands by the river, a heavenly being appears to him, and the revelation follows (Daniel 10:2ff). John, in the New Testament Revelation (1:9ff), has a like experience, told in very similar words. Compare also the first chapter of the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch; and the Syriac Apocalypse, vi.1ff, xiii.1ff, lv.1-3. Or, as the prophet lies upon his bed, distressed for the future of his people, he falls into a sort of trance, and in "the visions of his head" is shown the future. This is the case in Dan. 7:1ff; 2 Esdras 3:1-3; and in the Book of Enoch, i.2 and following. As to the description of the effect of the vision upon the seer, see Dan. 8:27; Enoch, lx.3; 2 Esd. 5:14.
Angels bear revelation
The introduction of Angels as the bearers of the revelation is a standing feature. God does not speak in person, but gives His instruction through the medium of heavenly messengers, who act as the seer's guide.
There is hardly an example of a true Apocalypse in which the instrumentality of angels in giving the message is not made prominent. In the Assumption of Moses, which consists mainly of a detailed prediction of the course of Israelite and Jewish history, the announcement is given to Joshua by Moses, just before the death of the latter. So, too, in the Sibylline Oracles, which are for the most part a mere foretelling of future events, the Sibyl is the only speaker. But neither of these books can be called truly representative of apocalyptic literature in the narrower sense (see below). In another writing which has sometimes been classed as apocalyptic, the book of Jubilees, an angel is indeed the mediator of the revelation, but the vision or dream element is wanting. In this case, however, the book is not at all apocalyptic in its nature.
Deals with the future
In the typical compositions of this class the chief concern of the writer is with the future. The Apocalypse is primarily a Prophecy usually with a distinctly religious aim, intended to show God's way of dealing with men, and His ultimate purposes. The writer presents, sometimes very vividly, a picture of coming events, especially those connected with the end of the present age. Thus, in certain of these writings the subject-matter is vaguely described as "that which shall come to pass in the latter days" (Dan. 2:28; compare verse 29); similarly Dan. 10:14, "to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the latter days"; compare Enoch, i.1, 2; x.2ff. So, too, in Rev. 1:1 (compare the Septuagint translation of Dan. 2:28ff), "Revelation . . . that which must shortly come to pass." Past history is often included in the vision, but usually only in order to give force and the proper historical setting to the prediction, as the panorama of successive events passes over imperceptibly from the known to the unknown. Thus, in the eleventh chapter of Daniel, the detailed history of the Greek empire in the East, from the conquest of Alexander down to the latter part of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (verses 3-39, all presented in the form of a prediction), is continued, without any break, in a scarcely less vivid description (verses 40-45) of events which had not yet taken place, but were only expected by the writer: the wars which should result in the death of Antiochus and the fall of his kingdom. All this, however, serves only as the introduction to the remarkable eschatological predictions in the twelfth chapter, in which the main purpose of the book is to be found. Similarly, in the dream recounted in 2 Esd. 11 and 12, the eagle, representing the Roman Empire, is followed by the lion, which is the promised Messiah, who is to deliver the chosen people and establish an everlasting kingdom. The transition from history to prediction is seen in xii.28, where the expected end of Domitian's reign -- and with it the end of the world -- is foretold. Still another example of the same kind is Sibyllines, iii.608-623. Compare perhaps also Assumptio Mosis, vii-ix. In nearly all the writings which are properly classed as apocalyptic the eschatological element is prominent. In fact, it was the growth of speculation regarding the age to come and the hope for the chosen people which more than anything else occasioned the rise and influenced the development of this sort of literature.
The mysterious or fantastic
The element of the mysterious, apparent in both the matter and the manner of the writing, is a marked feature in every typical Apocalypse. The literature of visions and dreams has its own traditions, which are remarkably persistent; and this fact is unusually well illustrated in the group of Jewish (or Jewish-Christian) writings under consideration.
This apocalyptic quality appears most plainly (a) in the use of fantastic imagery. The best illustration is furnished by the strange living creatures which figure in so many of the visions--"beasts" in which the properties of men, animals, birds, reptiles, or purely imaginary beings are combined in a way that is startling and often grotesque. How characteristic a feature this is may be seen from the following list of the most noteworthy passages in which such creatures are introduced: Dan. 7:1-8, 8:3-12 (both passages of the greatest importance for the history of apocalyptic literature); Enoch, lxxxv.-xc.; 2 Esd. 11:1-12:3, 11-32; Greek Apoc. of Bar. ii, iii; Hebrew Testament, Naphtali's, iii.; Rev. 6:6ff (compare Apoc. of Bar. [Syr.] li.11), ix.7-10, 17-19, xiii.1-18, xvii.3, 12; the Shepherd of Hermas, "Vision," iv.1. Certain mythical or semimythical beings which appear in the Old Testament are also made to play a part of increasing importance in these books. Thus "Leviathan" and "Behemoth" (Enoch, lx.7, 8; 2 Esd. 6:49-52; Apoc. of Bar. xxix.4); "Gog and Magog" (Sibyllines, iii.319ff, 512ff; compare Enoch, lvi.5ff; Rev. 20:8). As might be expected, foreign mythologies are also occasionally laid under contribution (see below).
The apocalyptic quality is seen again (b) in the frequent use of a mystifying symbolism. This is most strikingly illustrated in the well-known cases where gematria is employed for the sake of obscuring the writer's meaning; thus, the mysterious name "Taxo," Assumptio Mosis, ix. 1; the "number of the beast," 666, of Rev. 13:18; the number 888 ('Iησōῦς), Sibyllines, i.326-330. Very similar to this is the frequent enigmatic prophecy of the length of time which must elapse before the events predicted come to pass; thus, the "time, times, and a half," Dan. 12:7; the "fifty-eight times" of Enoch, xc.5, Assumptio Mosis, x.11; the announcement of a certain number of "weeks" or days (without specifying the starting-point), Dan. 9:24ff, 12:11, 12; Enoch xciii.3-10; 2 Esd. 14:11, 12; Apoc. of Bar. xxvi-xxviii; Rev. 11:3, 12:6; compare Assumptio Mosis, vii.1. The same tendency is seen also in the employment of symbolical language in speaking of certain persons, things, or events; thus, the "horns" of Dan. 7 and 8; Rev. 17 and following; the "heads" and "wings" of 2 Esd. xi and following; the seven seals of chapter 6 of Revelation; trumpets, 8; bowls, 16; the dragon, Rev. 12:3-17, 20:1-3; the eagle, Assumptio Mosis, x.8; and so on.
As typical examples of more elaborate allegories -- aside from those in Dan. 7, 8 and 2 Esd. 11, 12, already referred to-may be mentioned: the vision of the bulls and the sheep, Enoch, lxxxv and following; the forest, the vine, the fountain, and the cedar, Apoc. of Bar. xxxvi and following; the bright and the black waters, ibid. liii and following; the willow and its branches, Hermas, "Similitudines," viii. To this description of the literary peculiarities of the Jewish Apocalypse might be added that in its distinctly eschatological portions it exhibits with considerable uniformity the diction and symbolism of the classical Old Testament passages. As this is true, however, in like degree of the bulk of late Jewish and early Christian eschatological literature, most of which is not apocalyptic in the proper sense of the word, it can hardly be treated as a characteristic on a par with those described above.
The end of the world
In recent times the designation apocalyptic literature, or apocalyptic, has commonly been used to include all the various portions of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, whether canonical or apocryphal, in which eschatological predictions are given in the form of a revelation. That the term is at present somewhat loosely used, and often made to include what is not properly apocalyptic, is due in part to the fact that the study of this literature as a distinct class is comparatively recent.
In English, the word apocalypse now commonly refers to the end of the world. The current meaning may be an ellipsis of the phrase apokalupsis eschaton (apocalyptic eschatology), meaning "revelation of knowledge of the end of time". This ellipsis in common usage echoes the ellipsis in the title of the last book of the Bible, Book of Revelation, which is commonly interpreted as prophesying the end of the world in graphic detail. See also eschatology and millennialism.
The eschatological end of the world was often accompanied by images of resurrection, judgment of the dead in apocalyptic literature, and ineffective people going to hell. Interestingly, these ideas were not explicitly developed in the pre-apocalyptic books of the Hebrew Bible. So the existence of such beliefs in Judaism, Christianity and Islam may all be traced to apocalyptic writings.
The history of Christianity is peppered with Millennial sects almost from its very beginning. The modern Christian movements are concentrated in the 18th and 19th Centuries and include the rise of Apocalyptic sects such as the Christadelphians and Jehovah's Witnesses of note.
- Apocalypse of Abraham
- Apocalypse of Peter
- Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter
- Apocalyptic literature
- English Apocalypse Manuscripts
- Kali Yug Hindu view
- Kalki Hindu prophetic figure
- Qiyamah Muslim view
- Dajjal Muslim prophetic figure
- Unfulfilled historical predictions by Christians
- Summary of Christian eschatological differences
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Field Guide to the Apocalypse
- Belief in the last days
- 'Lifting of the Veil'
- Islam and Second Coming
- A Brief History of the Apocalypse - Very extensive timeline of apocalyptic prognostication
- Revelation13.net The Book of Revelation, the Antichrist, and the Apocalypse may come soon.
- The End Time Pilgrim - A scriptural guide into the climactic final seven years of this age.
- the Apocalypse cave The cave of Apocalypse on Patmos island.
- Biblaridion magazine: Revelation: Historic and interpretive investigation