Portions of our Christian gospels can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and this is one of them. Passages like this one are called apocalyptic texts. We find them in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the books of the Prophets Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel. In the Christian Scriptures, we find them in the entire Book of Revelation, and in certain passages in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Apocalyptic texts share a number of characteristics. They’re future-focused, especially toward the “Day of Yahweh” or the end of time. They’re written in and about times of suffering or trial, or they predict immanent suffering. They’re often written in the form of a mystical vision where the seer envisions the heavens joining the earth in cataclysmic battles, famines, and plagues accompanied by celestial signs and portents like the darkening of the sun and moon and earthquakes. These passages are meant to provide the promise of divine intervention that’ll overcome disasters and suffering. They offer hope to the weary that God will come to save. Some even call it “resistance literature.”
So, why do I call apocalyptic literature “dangerous”? There are two reasons. First of all, it’s a specific kind of literature which flourished at a specific period of history bridging the Jewish and Christian eras and which went out of fashion during the second and third centuries after Christ. We can compare it to some of the different types of literature we have today. For example, scientific literature, historical literature, poetic literature, dramatic literature, inspirational literature, and a wide variety of fictional genres. Each has its own rules of formulation and exposition that allow us to recognize, interpret, and understand the kind of text we’re reading. Apocalyptic literature, however, is extinct. We no longer pick up the imbedded cues that tell us how to interpret it. When that happens, our natural instinct is to try to squeeze it into one of the other categories that we’re familiar with—a category where it doesn’t fit. Consequently, we misinterpret it. That leads us to the second reason why apocalyptic literature is dangerous: we apply the wrong criteria for “truth” and “falsehood,” either considering as true what was meant as metaphor or dismissing the whole as fantasy.
How can this be? Isn’t something either “true” or “false”? I only wish it were that simple. Let’s talk about some different kinds of truth. How about scientific truth? These are “facts” that are the result of successful scientific experimentation. Science is a collection of theories that seem to work in practice—until they don’t. As our practice expands in scope and depth, theories expand and change with it, and therefore our “facts” evolve. When we’re dealing with scientific truth, we know that the facts we’re exposed to are merely our best explanations to date. What was true before Einstein is an entirely different matter after him.
How about historical truth? Historical facts are at best estimations. There can’t ever be an accurate record of every moment of every event from every possible perspective. History is a collection of observations, recollections, and artifacts all filtered through a variety of selections and interpretations, all with their own biases. It’s said that history is the story of events written by the winners. The histories of the war in Ukraine will be very different depending on who’s writing it. Is the Bible history? Most assuredly so. Is it true? That depends.
Throughout history, inspirational or spiritual writings have been governed by their own set of rules. They use symbolism, metaphor, myth, analogy, and even poetry and song to access non-physical realities and to express deeper, more fundamental truths of human existence. We discover spiritual truths not by comparing them to observable reality, but through the recognition that they resonate with something deep within, clarifying and expanding our understanding of it. It’s in spiritual writings that we encounter the divine Spirit who resides there.
We create confusion when we apply the wrong type of interpretation to any genre of literature. It happens all the time. We’re bombarded with nonsense when people attempt to apply scientific or historical thinking to Biblical literature. The most obvious examples are the stories of Adam and Eve and that of Noah and the ark. Some have used genetics to try to find connections to Eve, and others are searching the mountains for the remains of Noah’s boat. The trouble people get into with apocalyptic literature comes from imagining that it’s some kind of history in reverse. You can’t use apocalyptic literature to predict the future, especially the date of the end of the world.
Oddly enough, that’s exactly what Jesus was warning his disciples about in today’s gospel reading. In Jesus’s time, apocalyptic predictions were all the rage. He listed off all the popular symbols of the end times: wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues, awesome sights and mighty signs in the sky. And what does he say about them? “See that you not be deceived.”
In this passage, we see another characteristic of apocalyptic literature. It projects the present backwards, creates what looks like a prediction, and puts it into the mouth of a prophetic figure. There’s little doubt that what we find in today’s gospel as a warning about the persecutions to come was a reflection of the world when Luke wrote the gospel. By placing the current situation in the context of Jesus’s teachings, Luke gave the gospel readers reassurance that this was all part of God’s plan, and they would prevail. Did Jesus warn of persecutions to come? Probably…but it’s almost certain that the words Luke used were strongly influenced by what was actually happening around him: the Church in Jerusalem was being publicly accused of heresy, and the gentile Church was being charged before the Romans with treason.
If we understand today’s gospel in the context of apocalyptic literature, we can come away with three lessons. First, never to take apocalyptic imagery as scientific history. It’s a colossal waste of time to read into current events cataclysmic meaning that they never had and never will have. Second, it’s actually contrary to the gospel message to be looking for so-called signs of the end of the world. Apocalyptic literature’s purpose was to console and encourage, not to scare gullible people to death. Third, apocalyptic literature—and today’s gospel reading—was meant to combat discouragement when we’re faced with difficulties and suffering. It tells us that, despite all the signs to the contrary, the victory over them is assured, if we but persevere and remain steadfast and faithful.
One final note… Here’s a reminder that the “Day of Yahweh,” “that day,” “the end of time” as shown us in apocalyptic literature has already come. Remember that mobs and soldiers, swords and clubs, trials for heresy and treason, the darkening of the sun and moon, earthquakes and even the opening of the tombs of the dead have already happened. It’s the apocalyptic story of Christ’s crucifixion. It’s all right there. And it’s that “Day of Yahweh,” that end of the age of sin and death that reveals the resurrection—for Christ, and for us.