In the common vernacular, the term ‘apocalypse’ is used to refer to the end of the world or some imagined future in which the present world societal structures have been destroyed or ceased to exist. In fiction, this was typically some sort of nuclear or environmental catastrophe, though in recent years it has tended more toward disease outbreak in general and one which turns humans into zombies in particular. This popular usage has come through a particular interpretation of the final book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse of St. John, or the book of Revelation. Centuries of interpretation which holds that this text, or at least the greater part of it, describes events which will take place at the end of the world have connected its title to eschatological disaster. As the more common English name of the book demonstrates, however, the word ‘Apokalypsis’ in Greek identifies the contents as something which has been revealed. Certainly, the revelation of future events would fall into this category. Also, incontrovertibly, the very end of St. John’s text is describing future events. But there is nothing in the definition of the word which indicates that all of that which is revealed must be about the future. It can as easily refer to a revelation regarding the present or even the past.
Biblical scholars in recent decades have defined apocalyptic as a genre of literature generally considered to have come into existence in the latter half of the Second Temple period in the Near East. It is not entirely confined to the Jewish milieu and due to certain thematic elements (such as dualism of light and darkness, etc.), many attempts have been made to associate its emergence with the Persian period of Judea’s history and the influence of Zoroastrianism. In this respect, however, it is important to distinguish between metaphysical dualism as it presents itself in Persian cosmology of good and evil (the god Ahura Mazda and his shadow self) or in Platonic philosophical schema which will emerge religiously in forms of Gnosticism and ethical dualism as it is present in Jewish literature. In Jewish literature, powers of light and darkness, good and evil, operate not directly in the world in contest or opposition to one another, but rather act through human agents, their children, to bring good and light into the world or, alternatively, death and destruction. The powers of evil are defeated by the defeat of their agents and their inability to then make their will a reality through their agents’ works.
The core of what is considered to be apocalyptic literature is visionary literature. A usually human figure is taken to a heavenly realm and there receives revelatory visions about the past, present, and future which explain events by giving spiritual context. The primary Biblical examples of this type of literature are the Apocalypse of St. John and the central portions of the book of Daniel, though there are elements of it in other latter prophets. Fourth Ezra, part of the Slavonic canon of the Old Testament, is also in this form. In Second Temple Jewish literature, there is a broad range of such literature, the most famous example of which is likely 1 Enoch. First Enoch is a composite text, made up of several sub-books likely compiled over time. This literature continued into the early Christian period with texts such as the Apocalypse of St. Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas.
Apocalyptic is treated, as mentioned, as a genre of literature. This is based on a particular set of presuppositions. The first, of course, is that these texts are literary fabrications. An author has certain ideas which he desires to communicate and can choose to do so in a variety of genres. He can tell a theological history. He can write a work of fiction playing out those themes. He can write a treatise exploring those themes. He can write a tale of some important figure of the religious past receiving a vision which symbolically conveys these ideas. This is not only a matter of presuming that there was no such vision, as even most Christian scholars would tend to think regarding the non-Biblical texts in this category. It separates the composition of these documents from religious experience. It assumes a modern, materialist mindset in which theology and religion in general are primarily intellectual exercises revolving around dogmatic principles or interpretations of same. The lived religious experience of the author is excluded from consideration because the reality of that experience, really of any experience, of a spiritual reality is excluded from consideration.
If we listen to these texts seriously, however, they do not claim to be the revelation of certain ideas or principles of theology. They do not take the form of ‘seven secrets’ imparted to a chosen individual by a divine being. Rather, these texts purport to reveal the invisible spiritual world which is one element of the created order. Encounters with this spiritual realm were regular and accepted in the ancient world. These encounters happened at specific places, both in terms of geography and in terms of temple structures. Religious ritual, which is the primary means by which human persons interact with this realm, was the center of ancient human life, not only religious life. Religion was therefore not an intellectual exercise but a practical one consisting of concrete actions in the world and structures given to the life of human persons. The sum total of these encounters and interactions are what constitutes a person’s religious experience.
Apocalyptic is neither an intellectual exercise of conveying meaning through symbolism nor a purported religious autobiography. Rather, it goes further to claim to be removing the cover or veil from the spiritual realm in order to fully reveal it to the reader. It purports to describe the reality behind religious experience, but also to fully reveal reality itself. Spiritual beings and events stand in cause and effect relationships with events in the material, physical world. Apocalyptic, therefore, claims to not only give religious truths or explain religious practices but to reveal the world, the created order, as it truly is in all of its fullness.
When apocalyptic is treated as a genre, the genre is generally defined by scholars in terms of certain features. These include the aforementioned dualisms, visions, journeys to the heavens or the underworld, etc. It has become increasingly popular to then look for these features in other Biblical texts and describe apocalyptic elements in the Gospels, St. Paul’s epistles, and elsewhere. This understanding of apocalyptic literature has led to the Johannine literature, particularly St. John’s Gospel, moving from being considered the least Jewish of the Gospels to now being considered possibly the most. This is still, however, described in terms of apocalyptic features or apocalyptic influences being presented in the works of certain Biblical authors. because the presuppositions regarding apocalyptic authors are also held for Biblical authors.
So, for example, St. Paul is understood as an interpreter of the Hebrew scriptures and theological thinker who makes certain intellectual connections based on interpretations gained through study. Scholars study St. Paul’s intellect to attempt to understand how he thinks. This is not, however, how St. Paul presents himself. St. Paul bases his self-understanding in his prophetic call, his direct encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. This was not an isolated incident. Twice more in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul directly interacts with Christ who appears to him (Acts 22:17-21; 23:11). He describes at least one more visionary experience (2 Cor 12:1-4). He is adamant that the gospel which he preaches, involving past, present, and future events in the life of Christ to which he was not an eyewitness, was communicated to him by Christ himself, not by men (Gal 1:11-12). For St. Paul, the gospel is a revelation of invisible spiritual reality grounded in his direct experience of the spiritual realm.
What is true of St. Paul’s epistles is true for all of the scriptures. What are Genesis 1-11 if not visionary material revealed to the author regarding the spiritual realm at the creation of humanity and the beginnings of human civilization? Portions of Numbers and Deuteronomy, all of Joshua, and portions of Samuel/Kingdoms describe the gigantomachy, the spiritual reality underlying ancient wars. The remainder of Samuel and Kings (Kingdoms) pays scant attention to many of the most historically important regents, pointing to other official texts which recount these things, in order to focus on the spiritual dimension, including a lengthy digression from the royal narrative to follow the lives of Elijah and Elisha, two itinerant prophets. The book of Acts recounts the appearances of Christ to St. Paul in some detail, but ignores the reign of terror of Caligula, even where that reign created controversy surrounding the Jerusalem temple.
All of the scriptures are apocalyptic in that they describe the otherwise unseen spiritual realm as it encountered and interacted with the history of the people of God. It is this fact to which the Fathers refer in their mode of exegesis. When they speak of the spiritual and material levels of interpretation of the text, these correspond to the material and spiritual realms of reality. As they so often point out, if the material level of the text is read and the spiritual disregarded, as is de rigueur for modern interpretation, the text becomes incoherent. The spiritual interpretation of the text is not a flight from the text, an attempt to move away from or beyond it. Rather, it is an attempt to interpret and apply the text’s revelation of the spiritual realm, which is the primary level and focus of the text. What is often mistaken for allegory is, in fact, a literal reading of the spiritual sense of the text.
Finally, it is for this reason that the text of scripture is treated as it is within the Orthodox Church. The one who is prepared to read scripture is not the one who has done advanced linguistic or historical study. Rather, the one who is prepared to read scripture, its reader par excellence, is the one who shares the religious experience of the authors of scripture in encounter and interaction with the spiritual realm. For those who do not share this experience, scripture is read and proclaimed within the structure of ritual as a central point of interaction with the spiritual realm. The Divine Liturgy is an apocalyptic act and the scriptures are there read as apocalyptic.