Apocalypticism: literary genre in which a person receives secret information about the nature of the universe.

The word “apocalypticism” is derived from Greek ἀποκάλυψις, apocalypsis, meaning “un-covering”. It is a literary genre in which a person receives secret information about the nature of the universe, typically about its near end. One example is the Biblical book of Daniel, in which the eponymous prophet has nightly visions about the final days and the coming of the Son of Man, who is to judge the nations. Written in c.165 BCE, Daniel is a response to the persecution of Jews by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Apocalyptic texts usually are symptoms of a deep spiritual crisis. What looks like a hostile world, is the comforting message, is in its essence different – and better. The texts deny the reality of this world, which places the readers and listeners outside mainstream life. We can imagine that most apocalyptic texts were written for special communities. In the War Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there is a clear dichotomy between the worldly “children of darkness” and the community of those who understand the universe, the “children of the light”.

Eschatological Apocalypses

Most (but not all) apocalypses are eschatological, which means that they describe events that will take place at the end of times. Daniel is an example; Zoroastrianism has similar ideasnote and something similar can be said about Balaam's vision. Usually, the final days of humankind are violent and terrible, but after that, the universe will return to its paradisical state.

The catastrophic events that are disclosed in an eschatological apocalypse, usually will take place within a generation. The Christian author Paul is explicit:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep [i.e., die], but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.note


Because apocalyptic literature describes things that are essentially mysterious, the authors need to create new imagery. For example, the author of the Revelation of John uses horsemen to describe conquest, war, famine, and death.note This was readily understandable but still a new image. Other examples are the war between the “children of darkness” and “children of the light” mentioned above and the Kittim, the eschatological gentile enemy mentioned in various Jewish texts.

What Apocalypticism is not

Although many apocalypses deal with the end of times, not all of revelations are eschatological. For example the Enochite literature includes visions of the heavens, inspired by older traditions (e.g., the myth of Adapa), but not all of visions of Enoch deal with the end times. 3 Enoch, the Book of Heavenly Palaces, contains an amazing vision that a second god is coronated, given power to rule creation, and named with a name higher than all names (i.e., Yahweh):note a fascinating text, no doubt, but not eschatological.

Nor is apocalypticism the same as Messianism. A Messiah is someone who restores Israel and brings back the glory days of king David. The “Son of David” is a political leader. If eschatology is like bringing back your computer to the factory settings, Messianism is like restoring a damaged file.

Eschatology and Messianism are, of course, combined in Christianity, where the Son of David is identical to the Son of Man, and a Messiah will return at the end of times. This combination can be found in the New Testament and has been very influential, but in Judaism, eschatology and Messianism are separate literary genres, which may or may not be apocalyptic.

This page was created in 2020; last modified on 12 October 2020.