Apocalyptic: ancient and modern

Written by D. S. Russell Reviewed By Dick France

This is a slight book, intended to show the interested layman that the strange and forbidding world of apocalyptic literature does have a message for the modern world. It will not provide much grist to the academic mill, nor even to the undergraduate’s essay. But it could well help a theological student in thinking through the contemporary relevance of this aspect of his studies.

Dr Russell first suggests some parallels between the world of the apocalyptists (i.e. the period from the Maccabees to the first century ad: the apocalyptic elements in the prophets are barely mentioned) and the present world situation. Cultural cross-fertilization, pressures to conformity, totalitarian régimes, suppression of human rights, and the debate between violence and pacifism were their concerns as well as ours. This line of thought would bear fuller development than Dr Russell’s space allows, and might bring new life into some of our exposition of apocalyptic (and indeed other) elements in the Bible.

Against this background Dr Russell sets out in very broad outline the apocalyptic world-view (of course there were many, but the generalization is pardonable in a popular survey), showing it as more realistic and workable than its caricatures; it was not an outlook of total pessimism in relation to the present order, nor did it exclude political concern, though its God-centred political concern is tellingly contrasted with modern liberation theology, whose claim to wear the mantle of the apocalyptists is shrewdly disputed.

The importance of apocalyptic thought for Jesus and the NT writers is then properly emphasized, especially in the kingdom-language of the Gospels. But Dr Russell also takes care to point out where Jesus parted company from apocalyptic, in his refusal to set dates for the coming of the kingdom, and in his allowing more scope for a genuine human response as a relevant factor in God’s purposes, as well as in the necessarily distinctive feature of his own role in the fulfilment of the divine plan.

A brief survey of modern attitudes to apocalyptic is more sympathetic to William Stringfellow than to Hal Lindsey, who gets the slating he deserves: ‘Slide-rule theology which calculates times and seasons with allegorical arithmetic and prognosticates with precision what God has reserved for himself alone has no place in the teaching of Jesus and should have no place in the kerygma of his church’ (pp. 58–59).

All this is in very general terms, with minimal reference to any actual apocalyptic text, biblical or otherwise. As such it is mostly unexceptionable, if predictable. But it would be a pity if the uninitiated thought they understood apocalyptic from this book alone. They might get a salutary surprise if they turned from its measured assessment to the vivid colours and violent emotions of Enoch or even of Revelation. Biblical studies may not always be best served by making the rough places plain, even for the layman.

Dick France

Llangelynin, Gwynedd