Question: "Why is apocalyptic literature so strange?"

Answer: Apocalyptic literature is a specific form of prophecy, largely involving symbols and imagery and predicting disaster and destruction. Apocalyptic literature frequently contains strange descriptions and bizarre imagery: the terrible, iron-toothed beast of Daniel 7, the long-haired locusts with men’s faces of Revelation 9, the four-faced creatures of Ezekiel 1.

Apocalyptic literature involves descriptions of the end of the world and typically depicts grandiose, cataclysmic events. In the Old Testament, books such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah contain elements of apocalyptic literature. The same is true of certain passages in the New Testament, such as 2 Thessalonians 2, Mark 13, and Matthew 24. And, of course, the entire book of Revelation is apocalyptic; in fact, the Greek word apocalypse means “revelation.”

Some of the strangeness of apocalyptic literature may stem from the difficulty of explaining events that the observer simply did not understand, or perhaps the writer’s visions really were as unusual as they are described. Another reason for the strangeness of apocalyptic literature is the subject matter itself. By necessity, “the end of the world” is going to involve abnormal events. This is particularly true in apocalyptic works where there is a final reckoning or balancing of justice. As divine power interferes with nature in order to bring about this reckoning, things on earth will become extremely abnormal.

Another reason for the weirdness in apocalyptic literature is the heavy use of symbolism. In both biblical and non-biblical apocalyptic literature, symbols are an important means of conveying the message. For this reason, many events are described in metaphors, rather than in literal terms. For instance, in the book of Revelation, John describes a woman clothed with the sun, in childbirth pain, with a dragon waiting to attack her child (Revelation 12:1–4). Elsewhere, John describes a beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns (Revelation 13:1). Readers of the genre would recognize these as symbols, not as literal creatures. The otherworldly descriptions serve as clues pointing toward some future person, thing, or event.

Another possible reason for strange language in apocalyptic literature is the difficulty inherent in explaining the future. If, for instance, John actually saw things such as tanks, airplanes, nuclear weapons, or televisions, how would he explain them? What would he call an air-to-ground missile, using only his own vocabulary? Would he even know what they were or how to tell others about them? More than likely, John’s descriptions would be of what those things might look like to someone of his time, such as animals, stars, or spells.

More than likely, whatever visions an apocalyptic writer had were literal visions, faithfully recorded, but the visions themselves were conveyed metaphorically. That is, God chose to show the writers symbols rather than literal people or things. Perhaps John really did visualize a woman wearing the sun, and he really did see a dragon with multiple heads, since those were the symbols God wanted him to relate in Revelation.

Biblical apocalyptic literature is generically similar to other works of its type, but with some important differences. Most writing of this type is anonymous and vague about whom it addresses. This was often due to the purpose of apocalyptic writing: to send a subversive message from a fictional prophet of the past. But in the case of John, the writer explicitly identifies himself (Revelation 1:1–2), directs the message to particular people (Revelation 1:9–10), and writes many centuries before the fulfillment occurred (Revelation 22:8–10). The content of apocalyptic literature is certainly strange, but no stranger than one would expect for that genre and subject matter.