I think one of my most interesting classes this semester will be the elective I'm taking on the book of Daniel. In our first class last week, we discussed apocalyptic literature in general, and I found it really fascinating. So here's a post on what must surely be the most cheerful topic: the apocalypse! (That was sarcasm, people.)
The first important distinction to note is the difference between an apocalypse and apocalyptic. "Apocalype" is a precise genre of literature, whereas "apocalyptic" can refer more broadly to ways of thinking or attitudes which may be present even in texts which are not "apocalypses". The word "apocalypse", which in modern usage is taken to mean "the end of the world" or perhaps "cataclysm", actually means "revelation" or "disclosure". Hence, the most famous apocalypse, the Revelation of John in the New Testament, begins "The revelation of Jesus Christ" (Greek Apocalypsis Iesou Christou). I won't describe the precise definition of "apocalypse" used by scholars, but will note that in the Bible, there are only two books which meet that definition: Revelation and Daniel.
However, there are passages or images which are said to be "apocalyptic", and to the meaning of this adjective I will turn. The simplest definition of "apocalyptic" would probably be "relating to or sharing common elements with apocalypses". However, my professor listed nine characteristics which can be termed "apocalyptic", and these examples will be of more use in understanding the term.
First, apocalyptic is characterized by an understanding of two worlds; one of these worlds would be the one we know and inhabit, the other would be the world to come, however we understand that. It may be an afterlife or a spirit-world, or it may not. The point is the dualism between what we know from our experience, and another, different world we have not (yet) experienced.
Second, this world, the one in which we live, is under the power of evil (or the Evil One) and is unredeemable. That is, it is beyond saving; this world is so far gone, it can never be right again. Third, God has set a limit to this world—there will be an end, and in apocalyptic thought, the end is coming soon. In fact, the immediacy of the end is the fourth characteristic of apocalyptic.
The fifth characteristic is a belief that no matter how chaotic this world may seem (and it usually seems very chaotic indeed, to apocalyptic thinking), God is in control of the course of history. The reins are still in God's hands. This would also imply that the inevitable, fast-approaching end of this world is also in God's control. Likewise, the sixth characteristic is a belief that the future is preordained.
Seventh, the other world, the world to come, is a radically new creation. It will not be like this world; it will be very different. Most importantly, the powers of evil which reign in this world will not exist at all in the world to come. However, the transition will not be easy; the eighth characteristic is a conviction that the coming of the new world requires a catastrophic end to the present world.
Ninth, and serving as a summary of all these characteristics, is the statement that apocalyptic is the unveiling of reality in collapse. The world is chaotic and overrun by evil; it will pass away violently to make way for the world to come; and this collapse and upheaval is the revealing of God's plan for the world.
It is easy to see apocalyptic passages or elements throughout the Bible. The story of the destruction of the flood in Genesis has apocalyptic elements; there is a "little apocalypse" in Isaiah (Isaiah 24) and one in Mark (Mark 13). Chapter 8 of Romans describes an apocalyptic vision: "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
While the whole of the Bible is certainly not apocalyptic in character, the apocalyptic mindset makes itself known frequently enough that it is worth considering. In order to understand Romans, or Mark, or Isaiah, and certainly to understand Daniel or Revelation, we have to consider the apocalyptic way of thinking. It seems dark and depressing, but at the same time it is profoundly hopeful in some sense—God is going to remake creation in order to make a better world. It presents God as immensely powerful, but not arbitrary; God discerns the deep problems in the world around us (think of poverty, disease, hunger, war) and envisions something better. Perhaps when one is in deepest darkness and oppression, it is vital to believe that God can and will make all things new.