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Doomsday Prophets:
The Difference between Prophetic and Apocalyptic Eschatology

Dennis Bratcher

We have all seen the “doomsday” predictions that inevitably surround national or international crises or notable events. The millennial-bug scare of 2000, which gave good fodder for many end-of-the-world fans, is only one example. We have also heard of the doomsday cults, such as David Koresh or the Heaven’s Gate community. Such outlandish views, as well as incessant predictions about a dire future that do not come true cause many to scoff at any talk of future predictions. And that has even led some Christians to react against much talk of the future.

In many ways, they are right.  Much, if not most, of the popular ideas about God’s work in the future, especially in apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios, arise more from speculation, wishful thinking, or fear than from any solid biblical teaching. Repeated predictions of apocalyptic endings of human history in one cataclysm or another, and the subsequent failures of those predictions to come about, only serve to erode the credibility of Christians and confuse people about Christian ideas (see The Millennium).  With our popular misconception of prophets as predictors of the future it is easy to misunderstand the biblical message (see Prophecy and Prediction). When we combine that with our own sometimes sinful preoccupation with the future and the sensationalizing of so-called prophetic interpretation of present history by poplar media personalities like Perry Stone, John Hagee, Jack van Impe, and Hal Lindsey, many people in the church are left with few resources either to understand the biblical prophetic message of being the people of God or with any adequate means of using biblical perspectives to deal with the present realities of history and living as the people of God now.

 And yet there is a legitimate role for apocalyptic thinking and literature in Christian theology. It is represented throughout Scripture, and therefore we need to take it seriously as part of the biblical witness.

There is a legitimate role for apocalyptic thinking and literature in Christian theology. It is represented throughout Scripture, and therefore we need to take it seriously as part of the biblical witness. And yet one of the most devastating mistakes we have made in looking at apocalyptic thinking and literature is to assume that it is the “norm” of the Christian faith. It is not. It serves a theological purpose that we need to keep in mind. But it cannot be the only or even primary way of viewing the Christian life or present history, simply because it is not that in Scripture.

To bring some perspective into this and to help people deal not only with the biblical material but with their response to present history, we need to realize that there are two basic biblical ways of viewing God’s work in the world. They are not mutually exclusive so that we have to choose one or the other.  They are simply different ways of expressing our understanding of God and his work with human beings. Both perspectives are eschatological, in the sense that there is the expectation of a future in which God will be revealed to the world and the faithful of God’s people will be vindicated (there are more technical meanings of eschatology). Yet they are radically different in how they conceptualize how that will unfold, and what its implications are for present living. To distinguish them, I refer to “prophetic eschatology” and “apocalyptic eschatology.” The details can become complicated, but we can summarize the basic views.

In prophetic eschatology, the expectation is that God will work within human history to accomplish his purposes for humanity. The expectation of a messiah, a new king whom God would raise up to lead his people in proper worship and service to God, is an example of prophetic eschatology. God will work within the structures of human history, perhaps transforming them and working in new ways, but not going beyond them. This is the basic biblical position, and grows from God’s own self-revelation in human history. It assumes that history needs changing because of evil in the world, but that God can transform the present as he works in the world.

The assumption in prophetic eschatology is that the evil in the world lies internally among the people of God. That is, the main problem impeding God’s work in the world is the unfaithfulness and sin of God’s people in being his people. The main problems addressed are idolatry and injustice, and on a broader scale the failure to do torah in the world (see Torah as Holiness: Old Testament "Law" as Response to Divine Grace). The solution is for God’s people to repent and practice righteousness and justice (see Social Ethics in the Prophets). If they do not, there will be unfolding consequences that may lead to a history altering crises brought about or used by God as a means to call his people back to himself (e.g., the exile). The emphasis in this perspective falls on God’s people living out faithfully the principles of Torah, to live in the world faithfully as God’s people.

In apocalyptic eschatology, the expectation is also that God will work to accomplish his purposes for humanity. However, the view of history is different. From this perspective, human existence and therefore human history have become so contaminated and corrupted by sin and evil that it is basically unredeemable, at least from any human perspective. There is not enough in human history worth salvaging. So, in order to accomplish his purposes in the world, and to vindicate the faithful, God must destroy present history as we know it and begin again with something totally different. The images of cleansing and purification are often used, most often in the symbol of fire as a way to talk about ridding the world of all evil influences.

The assumption in apocalyptic thinking is that evil in the world is external to the people of God. That is, the main problem impeding God’s work in the world is the evil and wickedness of empires and rulers and systems that control human history. The main problems addressed are arrogance, pride, abuse of power, and on a broader scale lawlessness and tyranny. The solution is for God to destroy the evil empires, bring down the wicked rulers and tyrants so that God’s people can live out being his people free of such oppression. The emphasis in this perspective falls on God overthrowing that wickedness in the world so that God’s people can live faithfully in the world as his people.

Each of these perspectives arises from a particular historical and social context. Prophetic eschatology is the perspective used when God’s people are basically free from external oppression and have the capability of making choices in how they live as God’s people. It arises from times of relative stability in which God can be easily marginalized because there is no real pressing need for him to defend the people. Injustice and internal oppression of the weak as well as religious syncretism are the most obvious symptoms of this context. Throughout Scripture, throughout most of Israel’s history, prophets cry out against these abuses.

On the other hand, apocalyptic eschatology arises from times of crises, when larger powers and forces dominate God’s people and so remove much of the capability of making choices about how to live. It arises from times of great uncertainty about the future, times in which there is no indication that things will ever get any better. It arises from a mood of pessimism about the future, even a sense of fatalism in terms of what can be accomplished in the world. Rather than God being marginalized, it is the people who are marginalized, and that often leads to deeper piety as they cry out to God for deliverance from oppression.

Apocalyptic eschatology arose in the Old Testament as a theological response to Israel’s oppression by world powers, perhaps as early as the Assyrian dominance in the eighth century BC but certainly by the time of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. It flourished and came into full flower in the Greek wars of the second century BC, and had become a staple way of thinking with a corresponding literary form by the time of the Roman occupation in the middle first century BC. By the time of Jesus, it was a dominant way of expressing hope in God.

Part of the uniqueness of Jesus’ message was to counter the apocalyptic thinking that was pervasive in his day. Even with the occupation and oppression by the Romans, a scenario that fit perfectly with everything that had developed in apocalyptic thinking, Jesus largely returned to the perspective of prophetic eschatology. While the people expected Messiah to fulfill the apocalyptic expectations of the total destruction of the oppressive world order, Jesus talked most about justice and righteousness, about fulfilling the essential requirements of torah expressed as loving God and neighbor (see Torah as Holiness). He advocated no wholesale slaughter of Romans to help God in his destruction of the evil empire. Instead he talked of loving enemies and turning the other cheek, of carrying a soldier’s pack two miles instead of one, of giving to Caesar what is his while also giving to God what belongs to him. He even healed the servant of a Roman Centurion and commended him for his faith (Matt 8:2-13).

In other words, amid all the apocalyptic expectation of the times, Jesus returned to an emphasis on prophetic eschatology in which God’s people were to be faithful to torah even amid the crises of Roman dominance and the prevailing evil in the world around them. Even the book of Revelation, while it picks up many apocalyptic themes, differs from previous apocalyptic writings.  It incorporates into the apocalyptic images of vindication and judgment on evil the figure of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the redemptive element of innocent suffering (see Interpreting the Book of Revelation). That is a new element in apocalyptic thought that serves to modify the harsh perspectives of judgment on evil in light of Jesus’ own teachings and life. There is still the idea of accountability for sin and the vindication of the righteous, but it is set in the context of Jesus and the principles of faithfulness to God as the governing concept.

Still, while apocalyptic theology is not the norm for the Christian faith as many assume, there is a place for apocalyptic expressions of the faith. One example from recent history that provides a very graphic example is the uprising in China that climaxed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. To a Chinese Christian living under the oppression of a communist system of government in which freedom and religion are systematically controlled by a godless state, apocalyptic faith may be a valid expression of the Christian hope. They can see no way that God can work beyond the present structures of oppression and evil. The lone figure of the man who stood before the column of tanks may inspire us with his courage. But a better picture of the actual situation, and a video not shown nearly as often, is the man who was killed by a convoy truck as it swerved deliberately to hit the man as he stood at the edge of a group of protestors.

In that kind of world in which hope for a different future is systematically and ruthlessly crushed by tyrants and despots, in which God is not a factor in the thinking of those who assume they control human destiny, there needs to be some hope that God is God beyond the hopelessness of present history. There needs to be some way to express a faith in God that the world will someday reflect his purposes for his creation, that someday human beings will be able to live as his people free of the oppression and tyranny of evil. That is the power of genuine apocalyptic. It is that purpose that biblical apocalyptic serves, whether the evil in the world is the tyrant Antiochis IV Epiphanes, the Emperor Nero, or Stalin.

Our mistake is to assume that this way of thinking is the dominant theme of Scripture. In some ways, the New Testament reflects such a world situation of hopelessness under the cruelty of tyrants. Yet, understanding that context as well as the diversity of how biblical faith is expressed raises questions as to whether that apocalyptic eschatology should be the main way we express our faith as Christians.

Even more incongruous, and more dangerous to us as the people of God, is an approach to the world that confuses the contexts in which either prophetic eschatology or apocalyptic eschatology can be validly expressed. Today, in most of the world, we live in an era of unprecedented prosperity and stability. We enjoy freedoms and opportunities that have been rare in the course of human history. So the question we must seriously ask ourselves is whether this is the time to articulate our Christian hope in terms of apocalyptic. Should we, who have the freedom and opportunity to shape our world by how we live, really resort to an apocalyptic mode of thinking that assumes pessimism about the possibility of influencing history? Or should we hear the prophetic message that challenges us to practice justice and righteousness and be the people of God in the world in order to be a light to the nations? Should we despair of God working in our present history and long for him to come and destroy all the bad people? Or should we take seriously the prophetic message of Amos that warns us that our longing for the day of the Lord when we will be vindicated is only an expression of our own arrogance and self-centeredness?

I suspect that we like apocalyptic thinking so much simply because it is easier to accept than the prophetic message that calls us to justice and righteousness. And perhaps that is why we have tended to pervert the prophetic message to prediction of the future, often in an apocalyptic mode (see Prophecy and Prediction). Apocalyptic thinking is about all the evil people “out there” beyond what we can control. It is easier to long for God to intervene to make us even more comfortable, than it is to hear the prophetic message that the problem lies in our own failure to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God! It somehow never occurs to us that while we wait for God to vindicate us, we might be failing to live as the people of God, and might in fact be the oppressors of others as we wait for God to deliver us from what we see as oppression against us. And in so doing, in confusing the contexts in which we live, we fail to be His people!

There may come a time when we need to express our faith in an apocalyptic mode. Many people in the world do that today, simply because that is the kind of world in which they live. If I were a Chinese Christian today, or in the Sudan, or Iraq, I think I would be crying out for God to bring an apocalyptic deliverance! Many in the past decade did that in places like Russia or Eastern Europe. There are times and circumstances for that. Done properly, it can become a powerful witness to our faith, and hope. And God does come, even when the people want an ahistorical apocalyptic ending, and works in the course of human history to bring deliverance. It seems that even apocalyptic expressions of our faith most often end up in a prophetic mode. Even after the Israelites cried out for deliverance from the Egyptians and God delivered them, they had to learn to listen to the prophetic message of how to live in the world as God’s people after the deliverance!

But to claim apocalyptic eschatology as our view of the world in contexts that call for a prophetic perspective becomes an exercise in self-delusion, and an expression of our own self-importance and arrogance. If there is anything that most people, especially in the Western world need to hear today, it is the prophetic message.  It is not the “word of prophecy” hyped by popular books and TV preachers who try to divine events that will unfold in the future to fulfill our insatiable human curiosity.  It is the core message of the Old Testament prophets, reiterated even more strongly by Jesus: live as God’s people in the world! Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and those in prison. Preach the Gospel to the poor. Bind up the broken hearted. Give cups of cold water in Jesus’ name. Proclaim the Good News of reconciliation to God. Love God with all your hearts, and others as dearly as your own life.

To have the capability as empowered by God to change the world by being faithful to his call through the prophetic word that sees God at work in human history, and yet retreat to an apocalyptic mode of thinking that denies our and God’s ability to redeem even the darkest history is to squander a precious treasure. I think God expects more of his people!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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