How To Read Apocalyptic Literature Properly

So many Christians find themselves fascinated by the apocalyptic passages contained in the Bible. The imagery is vivid, the descriptions perplexing, and the underlying message elusive. The moment we feel we grasp its meaning, it slips away. How should we read this apocalyptic literature as Orthodox Christians, without falling into error? And how can we safely apply these Scriptures to our lives?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

What is apocalyptic literature?

Apocalyptic literature (Gr. apokálypsis, “to unveil”) consists of Scriptural books or passages that reveal something about the Last Day / End Times through either vision or prophecy. From about 250 B.C. to A.D. 200, close to forty such works circulated within the Jewish and early Christian communities. Only one of all these writings, the Revelation of John (also called the Apocalypse), was accepted by the Church as part of the canon of Holy Scripture. There are, however, other passages within the Bible that are written in that same apocalyptic style, such as Isaiah 24-27, 60-66; Ezekiel 38-39; Daniel 7-12; Zechariah 1-6, 9-14; and Mark 13.

Apocalyptic writings typically describe visions of angels, animals of various kinds, scrolls, lamps, stars, and dragons, as well as battles and various natural disasters. Interestingly, the Revelation of John includes much of the imagery found also in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah (see Ezk 40:1-5 and Rev 11:1; 21:9-17; Dan 7:1-8 and Rev 13:1-5; Zec 4:1-6, 11-14 and Rev 4:5; 11:3, 4). In fact, close to 75% of the 404 verses in Revelation refer to something in the Old Testament.

How can we understand and apply apocalyptic literature?

Christ taught it is impossible to know when He will come again (Matt 24:36, 44). Therefore, we cannot (and should not) try to determine the precise meaning of all the imagery contained in these writings. Instead, we should anticipate the end of time with watchfulness and eagerness, as pilgrims seeking His eternal kingdom (Php 3:20; Col 3:1-4). A prayer by St. Basil the Great says, “Grant us to pass through the night of this present life with vigilant heart and sober thought, in expectancy of the coming of the bright and manifest day of . . . our Lord.”

The apocalyptic writings encourage us in our struggles against sin, the powers of darkness, and the fear of death. More than that, these writings assure us that even in the midst of the “great tribulation” that occurs just before Christ returns (Matt 24:21) – the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Matt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7-10). Referencing Daniel 7 and 12 concerning the end times, St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance – just as He did His prophets and apostles – so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.


Try not to fall into the snare of obsession with the prophecies and visions described in apocalyptic literature. Instead, allow these Scriptures to encourage you, to fill you with hope and prepare you to persevere to the end, no matter what happens. Allow them to help you look through the darkness of the present age and behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride – the Church. And meditate on the closing words of the Scriptures: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).

Keep Reading: 6 Ways To Deepen Your Spiritual Life

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