As we hear predictions of the End Times, and as people compare the President to Jesus (or certain apocalyptic characters from Daniel 7), it’s important to examine how we read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible. These works are not easy to read. They are heavily symbolic, confusing, and easy to misconstrue. For example, over least a thousand years, people of each generation have tried to apply the events of Revelation to their own time. So far, Christ has not returned.
Ian Paul, in a thought-provoking post, describes the conventional view of the book of Revelation:
The Book of Revelation is a divinely inspired prophecy of the end times in which we now live. Although John didn’t understand what he was seeing or describing, events which were far distant from him in time, we now know that he was accurately predicting events that are happening in our lifetime. Because of this, we need to get ready for Jesus’ imminent return.
Yet, while Paul debunks some of the flaws in our reading of Revelation in particular and apocalypses in general, his interpretation still has some shortcomings. There are particular themes and methods in apocalyptic writings which we easily miss, and this leads to flawed interpretations.
As human creatures, we experience a linear existence. We thus expect the Bible to provide a linear narrative. This experience of time was called by the Greeks chronos time, or sequential time.
But God isn’t linear. God is all, including past, present, and future. Early Christians described God’s time as kairos time–experienced by us as the moment when God breaks into chronos time. The apocalyptic writers understood this concept well. We can see it clearly in Revelation’s references to the fall of Babylon:
“God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (Rev 16:19b). Here, Babylon seems to have fallen already.
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2). Here again, Babylon appears to have fallen. The Greek uses the aorist tense, which indicates a past action or an element of a continuing action.
“Render to her as she herself has rendered, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (Rev 18:6). This appears to put the fall in the present tense, even though previous passages suggest it has already happened.
“And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning… And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore…” (Rev 18:9, 11). The Greek uses the future tense in the first passage, and the present tense in the second. Here, the lament over Babylon is both future and present.
“Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, ‘With such violence Babylon the great city will be thrown down, and will be found no more…‘” (Rev 18:21). Here again, the Greek (like the English) uses the future tense.
In this narrative, then, the verb tenses to the opposite of what might be expected: Rather than being seen as future, then present, and finally past, the events begin as being described in the past, then move to the present, and finally the future. In a linear sense, the story is moving backward. But the writer is not envisioning a linear sense of time. This is God’s time, kairos time.
Related to the apocalyptic sense of time is the apocalyptic sense of history. In biblical writing, one can trust God in the future because of what God has done in the past. The Exodus is, of course, the pivotal narrative: the God who saved Israel from Egypt will save Israel again. Nearly every Old Testament book references the Exodus as proof of God’s love. We can see this also in the psalms: Even the plaintive Psalm 13, “How long, oh Lord?” ends with the recollection of God’s favor in the past as assurance for the future. “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Ps 13:6).
Apocalyptic writings take this one step further. Daniel, for example, is set in Babylon during the Exile, but its prophecies are not about Babylon. They are about the Seleucids, several centuries later. The message is clear: as God destroyed the historical Babylon, so God will destroy the oppressive Seleucid regime.
Likewise, Rome was referred to as Babylon because, despite Rome’s apparent power and its destruction of Jerusalem (like Babylon before it), God had destroyed Babylon, and thus God will destroy Rome. We can see, as Robert G. Hall writes, that the apocalyptic author “is clearly interested in the future, and in how the determined plan of God touches his present…” But more importantly, John J. Collins notes, “The emphasis is not on the uniqueness of historical events, but on recurring patterns.” What has happened before will happen again.
This suggests a cyclical rather than linear view of history. And it helps explain the verb tense confusion in the Babylon narrative. Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall– because, so long as history endures, there will always be a Babylon, and God will always intervene.
As we read Revelation, Daniel, or the apocalyptic sections of Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, we should keep these characteristics in mind. Apocalyptic writers do not see God’s time as linear. They see history as cyclical. Yes, there is an end to history toward which God’s plan moves. But their concern is not the imminence of that plan’s fulfillment, but its meaning for us today.
As we read Revelation, we ought not to interpret the events of our time as portents of an imminent Second Coming, nor of the New Jerusalem appearing in our lifetime. Rather, we might interpret events and divine interventions consistent with God’s character and what God has already done in human history.
Above all, the message of the apocalypse is that what appears to us as chaos does actually have order to it– and it is an order instituted by God. Yes, we should be concerned when our actions (and those of our nation) are destructive and oppressive. This is what “Babylon” and “the nations” were judged for. Yes, we may expect divine intervention. It may even be the end of the world as we know it– just as the fall of Rome was the end of the world as many knew it. But the end of time is probably not yet here. As Jesus said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36).
Babylon may fall, but we still must plan for the future.
 Robert G. Hall, Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 43.
 John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2016), 62-64.