What exactly is the Apocalyptic Gospel?
Dr. David L. Barr, professor of religion at Wright State University, has recently argued that—although the Apocalypse is radically different from the gospels in style—it should nevertheless be connected to the substance of Jesus’ life and death:
“…It is Jesus who dominates the entire story. At this constitutional level the Apocalypse is like a gospel—it is a story about Jesus. But it is a different kind of story. Whereas a gospel tells a realistic story about a human figure, the Apocalypse projects its action on a cosmic screen, as a fundamental battle between good and evil. In a gospel the birth of Jesus is presented as an historical event; in the Apocalypse it is presented as a cosmic struggle…”
In a similar vein, though with some major departures from Barr’s reading, The Apocalyptic Gospel: Mystery, Revelation, and Common Sense proposes that the bulk of Revelation can be successfully interpreted through constant reference to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as the unexpected eschatological climax of the universe, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
The Apocalyptic Gospel offers Christian readers a biblically authentic means of navigating Revelation without falling victim to the hysterical numerology and prognosticative fear-mongering that marks so much of popular apocalypticism.
It does this by treating the author of the Apocalypse not merely as a prophetic mystic predicting the collapse of imperial Rome or the eventual rapture of a 21st-century church, but as an apostolic evangelist interested in revealing the cosmic import of Christ to an audience already devoted to the historical Jesus.
The Gospels and Apocalypse
As David Barr (and virtually every Bible scholar in recent history) has noted, as literature Revelation is perhaps the definition of “apocalyptic,” clearly of a different genre than the canonical gospels.
The gospels concern the life of Jesus—his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection. They contain moving parables and important sermons. These help disciples realize the vital importance of Jesus’ ministry and message in their own lives.
In contrast, the Apocalypse says very little about the life and times of Jesus, at least openly. There are moments where the crucifixion and resurrection are mentioned, of course, but Revelation is more clearly concerned with the final destiny of the entire cosmos.
The gospels illuminate the first-century Mediterranean world in which Jesus lived and moved and had his human being, while the story of the Apocalypse is universal in scale and eternal in scope.
German scholar Ernst Käsemann observed that “apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.” It certainly seems true that early Christianity was marked by the use of oracular language and apocalyptic culture.
We know this because earlier believers preserved vital Christian literature in the canon of the New Testament. They left for us books and letters replete with apocalyptic mysteries and prophetic oracles.
Chief among these is the book of Revelation.
Resisting the Apocalypse
However, there is wide disagreement about how to best treat biblical apocalyptic today. As Brian Blount has written, Revelation in this present era is suspiciously abnormal:
“Unfortunately, in much of our middle- and upper-class Christian circles, Revelation sounds creepy and misguided, violent and deranged. And so, through its lack of use, the language has been surrendered to extremists like David Koresh or fundamentalist groups who misuse it as a literal plan for their kind of future.”
Because literal apocalypticism now seems so theologically unsavory across a variety of church cultures, there are movements afoot to abandon Revelation altogether. Many historians and scholars suggest that New Testament apocalypticism is the product of apostolic embellishment, a corruption of some purer gospel associated with a non-apocalyptic Jesus. Others argue the opposite, portraying Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet who incorrectly predicted the world’s imminent end and then died. It seems probable that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.
But whatever the “original” Jesus did—and this is not an unimportant question—his followers almost immediately began to understand the events of his life within a prophetic framework.
They preached an evangelical message for the church, and demonstrated crucial similarities between Jesus’ life and the Jewish oracles or scriptures in an effort to convert their listeners.
This is also the essential premise of the “apocalyptic gospel” known as Revelation, which draws on the evangelical message and methods of the apostolic preachers—and the resources of the Old Testament—to orient Christian apocalypticism around the life and person of Jesus, the crucified Christ.