By Ben Witherington III
I was riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1968 with my friend Doug, when my dad's '55 Chevy blew a clutch, and we had to coast off the road into a Gulf station. The mechanic at the station was clueless about what to do. So Doug and I found it necessary to hitchhike back from the mountains of North Carolina to our hometown in the center of the state.
The people who picked us up were an elderly couple in an old Plymouth. As we got going and the conversation picked up, we discovered that the couple were both Christians; indeed, very conservative ones. My friend Doug mentioned the recent Apollo missions orbiting Earth, and it was at that juncture that the driver, the husband, said, "The world is not round."
This dumbfounded Doug. "Why do you think the world isn't round?" he asked. The answer the old man shot back was simple. He said, "Because it says in the last book of the Bible, 'The angels will stand on the four corners of the earth,' and if the world has four corners, it can't be round, can it?"
What was wrong with the old man's answer? It wasn't his faith in the Bible that was the problem, but his assumption that a piece of apocalyptic literature like Revelation was intended to teach us about the shape of the world. In other words, the man had made a fundamental mistake about the genre of that last piece of biblical literature.
The term "genre" means literary type or kind. It involves a sort of compact between an author and an audience in which it is understood that a certain kind of information will be conveyed and not other kinds of information. For example, it would be a genre mistake if one went to a dictionary to look up directions for how to travel from North Carolina to Mississippi. Or again, it would be a genre mistake if one went to a phone book to find the definition of a word. Different types of literature intend to convey different kinds of information. This is why it is so important that we treat the gospels as gospels, the epistles as letters, Acts as ancient history, and Revelation as apocalyptic literature. Each type of literature operates under different conventions.
Let us consider the most difficult of these literary types-- apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is one part prophecy and one part wisdom literature, a hybrid that began to appear on the scene during the period of Israel's exile in Babylon and thereafter (confer Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel). This literature involves the use of vivid images and hyperbolic descriptions to convey messages about the interaction of the human and the divine in human history. It is a highly metaphorical kind of speech, involving visions, oracular prophecy, elements of letters, and a variety of other things.
In a sense, apocalyptic literature is coded language that requires a decoder to understand it. It is indeed referring to real persons and events in human history, but it is doing so using metaphorical rather than literal descriptions. The author does not really believe there is a literal beast with several heads and multiple horns roaming the Mediterranean crescent. But he does believe the Roman Empire, with its hostility toward Christians, is like such a beast. Thus, when the author speaks of the angels standing on the four corners of the earth, he is speaking metaphorically to refer to the fact that God's messengers will be coming from all points of the compass.
When I was a child, one of the things I used to enjoy doing was picking up the doormat outside the front door of our house to see what was under it--usually, little bugs and spiders and other crawling things. In a sense, apocalyptic literature seeks to peel back the tapestry of history and show the underlying spiritual forces, both good and evil, at work in space and time.
Apocalyptic literature is also meant to comfort a persecuted minority religious group; while everything seems to be going wrong, God is nevertheless still in his heaven and in control, and all things will ultimately turn out well for those who love God and are called unto his purposes.
In sum, apocalyptic literature is visionary in character and deals with either the other world (that is, heaven and hell) or the future or, often, as in the case of Revelation, both. But the conceptual framework within which it treats such topics is metaphorical, using images to describe a transcendent reality. One would not know any of this unless a person had studied Revelation in the context of other early examples of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature.
At the end of the day, the problem with the elderly couple's worldview is not that they took the Bible seriously. It is that they tried to interpret figurative literature literally, and so violated the genre conventions or rules of interpretation that the inspired author took for granted when he wrote the work. Revelation does not intend to teach geography, but it certainly does intend to say important things about history, theology, and theological cosmology.
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