Apocalypse, Revelation, the End Times, the Second Coming

Apocalypse or Revelation

What is the future of the world? Is time moving towards the apocalypse, an event which will wind up history as we know it? Biblical writers suggest that during the present age, good and evil, God and Satan, are in conflict, but a time will come when evil will be overthrown, both in terms of the world's kingdoms and the spiritual world. The existing ‘heavens will be destroyed and the elements will melt in the heat'. Christ will return to judge the world, and there will be ‘a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells' (2 Peter 3:12-13). Heaven is portrayed as a place of joy and peace, where death, disease and sorrow have been banished for ever (Revelation 21:1-4). It is also the place where those who have responded to God, and lived in obedience to him, will be with him and worship him forever (Revelation 7:9-17).

The Greek word Apocalypse means ‘unveiling' or ‘disclosure' and apocalyptic writings claimed to provide insight into a hidden spiritual world. Apocalypse is an alternative name for the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament in the Bible, which begins with the words:

‘The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to show … what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John' (Revelation 1:1-2).

Characteristics of apocalyptic literature

The tradition of apocalyptic writing goes back to the Old Testament, and there are other similar writings from the period between the two testaments.

Disclosure through a dream or vision

In these accounts, events are narrated in the first person by the one to whom the vision is given.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel records visions given him in dreams in the night, and one particular vision which he saw, after a prolonged period of fasting, while he was standing by the River Tigris:

I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. (Daniel 10:2-6)

Similarly the apostle John, (who is described in the King James Version of the Bible as ‘the divine', meaning one who sees hidden things), recounts in Revelation 1:12-20 his vision of Christ.

The visions cause great fear in the narrator, but this is gently dispelled by the heavenly messenger (Daniel 10:11-14; Revelation 1:17).

Concerned with the future

Daniel's visionDaniel is given foreknowledge of a succession of worldly empires, beginning with Babylon, each of which is overthrown by the next – Persian, Greek/Egyptian, Roman. There are prophecies of the desecration of the Temple and the coming of the Messiah (see Big ideas: Temple, tabernacle; Messiah, Christ, Jesus). In Revelation, John is shown cataclysmic conflicts before the final overthrow of Satan, the judgement of souls and the glories of heaven (see Big ideas: Judgement; Soul).

Characterised by imagery

In Revelation chapter 5 the Lamb (Jesus) is declared to be the only one worthy to break the seven seals of a scroll in God's right hand. In Revelation chapter 6, as he opens the seals, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear, first a conqueror on a white horse, then one on a red horse, bringing The four horsemen of the apocalypsewarfare, one a black horse carrying scales and lastly Death riding a pale horse. These and other apocalyptic figures have inspired many artists. (See also Big ideas: Serpent, Devil, Satan, Beast; Lion; Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Bride and marriage).

Full of symbolism

Numbers, measurements and indications of time feature widely in both Daniel and Revelation, among them 144,000, the number of ‘those who were sealed' (Revelation 14:1) and 666, ‘the number of the beast' (Revelation 13:18). This Beast or Anti-christ is described as gaining authority over all the world and persecuting followers of Jesus. Revelation 13:16-17) says ‘He also forced everyone … to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell without it.'

Armageddon and the Millennium

Armageddon is the name given to the final terrible battle to overthrow the forces of evil (Revelation 16:16). It has inspired films such as Armageddon, Apocalypse Now and The Day After Tomorrow. At the time of the First World War, many believed Armageddon had come. Because Revelation 20:1-6 describes a period of 1000 years during which Christ will reign on this earth prior to the final judgement and life in heaven, the turn of both the first and second millennia CE was awaited with anticipation by some groups.

The Second Coming of Christ

Matthew 24 describes Jesus speaking about ‘signs of the end of the age'. Some of his words have been taken as predicting the desecration of the Temple and the sufferings and dispersion of the Jews which happened when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD 70.

In addition, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man (a name he uses elsewhere of himself) ‘coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory', to gather those who have believed in him and to judge humankind. The time of this event is known only to God the Father.

Jesus' warning, echoed in letters included in the New Testament, is ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come' (Matthew 24:42; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). The writers believed that God was delaying the day of judgement in order to allow everyone time to repent (2 Peter 3:8-13).

Related topics and other cultural references

Big ideas: Temple, tabernacle; Messiah, Christ, Jesus; Judgement; Soul; Serpent, Devil, Satan, Beast; Lion; Sheep, shepherd, lamb; Bride and marriage

Films such as Armageddon, Apocalypse Now and The Day After Tomorrow

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