Apocalyptic Literature: Purging the Imagination and Refurbishing It with Alternative Visions

James K. A. Smith provides a concise overview of apocalyptic literature:

Apocalyptic literature—the sort you find in the strange pages of Daniel and the book of Revelation—is a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment, in order to see them for what they really are. Unfortunately, we associate apocalyptic literature with end-times literature, as if its goal were a matter of prediction. But this is a misunderstanding of the biblical genre; the point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. So apocalyptic literature is a genre that tries to get us to see the world on a slant and thus see through the spin.

I imagine it as a bit like the vertical louvered blinds in my room: if the blinds are tilted to the left on a 45-degree angle, then from straight-on they’ll appear to be closed and shutting out the light. But if I move slightly to the left and get parallel to the louvers, I’ll find that I can see right through them to the outside world. Apocalyptic literature is like that: the empire (whether Babylon or Rome) has something to hide and so tilts the louvers just slightly to cover what it wants to hide. But apocalyptic is revealing precisely because it gives us this new perspective, just to the left, which lets us see through the blinders. Thus Richard Bauckham observes that the book of Revelation was meant to provide a set of “counter-images” to the official image purveyed by the Roman empire:

Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of the cleverly engineered “miracles” (cf. Rev. 13:13-14) in the temples—all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendour of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven to which John is caught up in chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.

—James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 92, quoting Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 17.

For several talks and resources on interpreting and preaching apocalyptic literature, go here.