Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament: Insights into End Times and Eschatology

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

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Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: September 15th, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

Is the end of the world upon us? Recent polls suggest that 39% of adult Americans believe they are living in the end times. It's a staggering statistic that raises questions about the origins of these beliefs and what they mean for our understanding of the future.

These apocalyptic sentiments, shared by a significant portion of the population, are not new. They can be traced back to Jewish apocalyptic literature that emerged in the 2nd century B.C.E. This ancient worldview has had a profound and lasting impact on religious and cultural thought, especially in the context of the New Testament.

But why has this ancient belief persisted and resurfaced so strongly in modern times? What is its presence in the New Testament? This article will delve into the origins of apocalyptic views and their manifestation in foundational Christian texts.

Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament - Insights into End Times and Eschatology

Apocalyptic Literature: Unpacking the Origins and Influence

To comprehend what is apocalyptic literature, we must delve into the ancient history of the Jewish people. The cornerstone of their faith and heritage was the sacred covenant with God. Jews regarded themselves as the chosen people, bestowed with God's promise of a homeland and a kingdom, rooted in the lineage of David, destined to reign forever. 

By the time Jesus of Nazareth was born, much of this was no longer true. The Jews didn’t control the land that God promised them. Romans did! Moreover, most Jews didn’t live in the land of Israel but were dispersed from Spain in the West to Persia in the East. 

Furthermore, the Son of David didn’t ascend to the throne in Jerusalem. Herod the Great assumed kingship as a Roman client with questionable lineage. Adding to the complexity, a few decades later, the Romans subjected Judea to direct rule by a Roman governor.

Except for a brief period of autonomy lasting about 80 years in the 2nd century BCE, spanning from the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BCE through the era of Jesus and beyond, Jews endured foreign rule. Within the tumultuous political landscape of these times, we find the roots of Jewish apocalyptic literature.

Why is that Happening to Us? Oppression and the Emergence of Apocalyptic Literature

The disparity between the promises of God and the prevailing political realities prompted profound theological inquiries among certain Jews:

  1. 1
    Why was there no Son of David on the throne of Israel?
  2. 2
    Why do foreigners control the land that God promised to us?
  3. 3
    Was God not keeping his promises?
  4. 4
    Are the covenants no longer valid?

One important way some Jews made sense of this situation was a mode of thinking historians call “Apocalyptic eschatology” or just “Apocalypticism”. 

The word “Apocalyptic” comes from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις which means “to unveil”. Eschatology arises from the Greek word “ ἔσχατος” meaning “last”. Eschatology, therefore, is the knowledge about the final or last things. 

Jewish apocalyptic thinkers and prophets believed that God would intervene, crush the forces of evil, and set up a new Kingdom of God.

The heyday of the Jewish Apocalyptic literature began around 165 BCE at the time of the Maccabean Revolt. And during Jesus’ life, an apocalyptic worldview represented an important element of the Jewish world.

Don't Miss Bart Ehrman's New Webinar: 

"Will You Be Left Behind? A History of The Rapture"

50-minute lecture by critically acclaimed Biblical Scholar & 6 NYT best-selling author, Dr. Bart Ehrman, to be turned into an online course

Will You Be Left Behind - Online Course

Apocalyptic Books in the Bible

We find apocalyptic eschatology in numerous Jewish and Christian writings from the centuries before and after Jesus’ birth. While the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible follow distinct paths of development, they both share common elements of apocalypticism. 

Several Old Testament books such as Isiah, Zachariah, and Ezekiel contain some apocalyptic eschatology as do nearly all the books of the New Testament. Others, however, are entirely apocalyptic. In other words, they completely consist of revealed information about the coming end of the current world order. 

In the Old Testament, the Book of Daniel (2nd century B.C.E.) is the prime example. It contains apocalyptic fiction and prophecies, especially in chapters 7-12, which deal with the rise and fall of empires and the ultimate triumph of God's kingdom.

The Book of Revelation represents the only fully developed apocalyptic book in the New Testament. It’s traditionally attributed to the apostle John and is filled with vivid visions and prophecies about the end times, the final judgment, and the establishment of God's eternal kingdom.

Apocalyptic Literature as a Genre and Its Distinctive Features

Forms of Jewish apocalyptic literature are diverse but most texts share some common ideas:

  • The world as we know it is wrong. Non-believers are in charge and the faithful people are marginalized or even persecuted. In other words, the wicked are prospering and the righteous are suffering.
  • This is the case because the world is under the control of evil cosmic powers led by Satan and his demons.
  • Thirdly, the bad situation is only going to get worse. In The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, Dr. Bart Ehrman explains: “Jewish apocalypticists maintained that those who sided with God were going to suffer in this age, and there was nothing they could do about it.”
  • Another feature of apocalyptic books is the idea of vindication. God will dramatically intervene in world history and bring the current world order to an end. He will judge all people. The wicked will be punished, the righteous will be rewarded.

Did You Know?

Satan makes only rare appearances in the Hebrew Bible, and when he does (like in the Book of Job), he doesn't play a prominent role? With the rise of Jewish apocalypticism, Satan emerges as a formidable adversary of God!

For the Jewish apocalypticists, the vindication of God was going to happen soon. As Jonathan Goldstein explains in an excellent essay: “The authors of Israelite prophecy were seldom if ever interested in the remote future, and the audiences who preserved their work were chiefly interested in the present and in a future that included little if any more than their own lifetimes.”

  • A final judgment includes another important aspect of the apocalyptic literature: The resurrection of the dead. When the end times come, past generations will be resurrected so that they, with others, can stand judgment and receive reward or punishment. 
  • Based on all of the features mentioned above, Jewish apocalypticism instructs people to remain loyal to God despite the evils of the current world. The faithful will eventually enjoy peace and eternal life in the coming Kingdom of God.

Apocalyptic Literature in the Bible and the Messiah Figure

Rarely does apocalyptic literature convey its concepts systematically and straightforwardly. Instead, these revelations often unfold through intricate and symbolic visions. Consider the Book of Daniel, for instance, where apocalyptic fiction introduces us to a world inhabited by a lion with wings and a fearsome beast with a horn.

The scenarios depicted in these visionary experiences are diverse. However, they commonly revolve around one or more human or superhuman figures tasked with aiding God in the defeat of malevolent forces and the establishment of His Kingdom on Earth. Such a figure is frequently referred to as the 'Anointed One,' known as the Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek.

As highlighted in John J. Collins' 'The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls,' these Messiah figures were envisioned differently. They may assume the mantle of kings, lead battles against God's adversaries, serve as priests by instituting rightful worship in a new Temple, or even embody the role of prophets, exhorting people to lead righteous lives.

Ever wondered why resurrection isn't a big theme in the Hebrew Bible? If you're curious about the evolution of the afterlife in Jewish and Christian traditions, dive into Bart's illuminating study, “Heaven and Hell”!

Jesus as a Jewish Apocalyptic Prophet

The degree of importance attributed to the assertions of apocalyptic eschatology varied among ancient Jews. A significant number of its proponents were not affiliated with any organized Jewish group. Instead, they operated as independent prophets who believed they were chosen by God to herald the imminent arrival of His Kingdom and to implore people to repent. 

Take, for example, a Jew named Theudas (1st century C.E.). He claimed he was a prophet who would cause the Jordan River to part just as Moses had parted the Red Sea. When his followers showed up for the event, however, Roman soldiers met them and killed many. They also beheaded Theudas. 

John the Baptist was a similar figure. He urged people to repent. They should do so in preparation for the coming judgment and kingdom of God. He baptized people in the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance. In the end, he met the same fate as Theudas. 

The Romans didn’t appreciate Jewish apocalypticism. After all, its prophets proclaimed the end of the world order that the Romans ruled and the establishment of a new order. 

Jesus of Nazareth was one of these eschatological prophets. He accepted John’s message of repentance in the coming Kingdom. At some point, however, he became convinced that God had called him to preach alone. During his public ministry, Jesus urged his fellow Jews to repent and anticipate the arrival of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ famous violent act in Jerusalem Temple probably indicated that he considered the current Temple corrupt. 

But, just like Theudas and John the Baptist, Jesus was executed - in his case by crucifixion on the order of a Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

Apocalyptic literature in the bible

The Early Church as the Apocalyptic Movement

To the best of our historical knowledge, the Romans did not attempt to apprehend and execute Jesus' most devoted followers. Their intention in crucifying Jesus was likely to underscore that he held no claim to being a king of the Jews, with the anticipation that his disciples would come to recognize their error and scatter. Nevertheless, history would prove them wrong!

Based on the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, some of his followers proclaimed that he was, in fact, God’s Messiah, the King of the Jews, the one “like a Son of Man (Dan. 7:13)” who will come again on the clouds of heaven when the judgment day comes.

The first Christians believed that Jesus would return soon. This is precisely what Paul tells Christians in the city of Thessaloniki (modern-day Greece):

For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thess. 4:15-17).”

In other words, Paul's original message was that Jesus would soon return and judge the living and the dead. However, the first Christian community was not without doubts and certain questions:

  • Why did Jesus the Messiah have to die?
  • When exactly will he come back and establish the Kingdom of God?
  • Why didn’t he return already?
  • Who will be included in the coming Kingdom of God? Only Jews or Gentiles as well?

These are the questions the writers of the NT books wrestled with. They are the source of early Christian diversity. But, beneath this diversity we can discover the fundamental conviction of the Christian faith: Through Jesus the Messiah, God has acted definitively to change things for the better. 

This was a profoundly Jewish message that originated within the Jewish apocalyptic literature but would lead to the birth of a new religion made up mostly of non-Jews.

Conclusion: The Apocalyptic Literature and the Rapture

In the labyrinthine corridors of history, the echoes of apocalyptic literature resound with tales of divine promises, prophetic visions, and the enduring human quest to decipher the enigmas of existence.

From the covenant with God and the oppression of the Jewish people through the emergence of the apocalyptic prophets to the crucifixion of Jesus and the apocalyptic beliefs of his followers, the early Christian world is a tapestry woven with apocalyptic threads.

For a deeper dive into the world of apocalyptic literature and to explore the historical analysis of the Book of Revelation and the concept of the Rapture, I invite you to spend an enlightening 50 minutes with Bart Ehrman's lecture, 'Will You Be Left Behind?' This scholarly exploration promises to unravel other mysteries within this captivating genre. 

Don't Miss Bart Ehrman's New Webinar: 

"Will You Be Left Behind? A History of The Rapture"

50-minute lecture by critically acclaimed Biblical Scholar & 6 NYT best-selling author, Dr. Bart Ehrman, to be turned into an online course

Will You Be Left Behind - Online Course

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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