The Temple of Baalshamin predated Mohammed by six centuries. It was a cultural jewel in the Syrian desert, revealing to the world a glimpse of the pre-Islamic religions of the region; bearing witness to Graeco-Roman myths and standing as a monument to rites and rituals long extinguished by higher powers. It is now a pile of rubble; blown to pieces by ISIS – the satanic Islamic State; the Daesh of devils and demons. When Muslim fundamentalists aren’t inventing new ways of slaughtering the infidel, they’re raping the culture by shattering the antiquities and artifacts which preceded the rise of Islam. Everything before Mohammed must go: it is year zero; the past is darkness and death.
What does it mean? Is this the apocalypse? Is the kingdom at hand? Will our suffering soon cease? Is the Day of the Lord imminent?
The questions aren’t new; nor is the apprehension of tribulation and the feelings of despair. Indeed, Baalshamin was built precisely at that time when Jewish apocalyptics were at their zenith.
Apocalyptic literature belongs mainly to the period 200 BC – AD 100. It developed out of prophecy, mainly as a response to the political situation of the era and the threats surrounding Judaism. The more the Jews felt their faith and culture to be threatened by encroaching syncretism and subsumed to an omnipotent pantheon of Graeco-Roman gods and goddesses, the more they directed their yearnings toward a dramatic intervention by God to restore the Jewish nation to its former glory – to another age of King David (Pss 23-25).
There are numerous examples of the genre throughout the Old Testament (eg Isa 24-27; Zech 9-14; Joel 2f; Ezek 38f), and the New Testament (eg Mk 13, 2Thess 2; and, of course Revelation or The Apocalypse of St John). It is also evident in the inter-testamental writings of the Apocrypha (eg I Enoch). ‘Apocalypse’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’ (of previously unknown or secret things). Examination of these writings establishes certain common features and recurrent themes.
Firstly, then as now, there is a great pessimism. Despair and doom prevail, almost as if Jewish apocalypticists had lost all sense that God could or would act in their present. Their only hope lay in a future intervention by God, who was believed to shape history and bring time to an ordered culmination. When the world appears hopeless, and God’s people are helpless to change anything, then apocalyptic makes its entrance. It is the last straw, the only place left to turn. The world makes no sense and it never will until there is some kind of divine intervention. Only God Himself has the power to remove the forces of evil which have become entrenched in all the institutions of the world. The message is one of perseverance and hope.
Secondly, it is deterministic. History is seen to follow a reo-ordained plan which culminates in a crisis and God’s subsequent intervention. This irruption carries with it the ultimate eschatological consequence: there will be a final judgment, when the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. Unlike prophecy, where the people were called to repent in order to escape impending judgment, apocalyptic eschatology maintains that repentance is no longer possible: judgment is inevitable and the day is fixed.
Thirdly, the literature is replete with symbolism, often using animals to represent men or institutions, and the language is cryptic. There are visions, dreams and heavenly journeys. Thee are numbers, sequences and metaphors of enigmatic essence. Angels fly about and devils ride out. You may interpret, but you are likely to be wrong.
Fourthly, it is manichaean, with good and evil in universal conflict. Spiritual forces are seen to stand behind human activity and history, and Satan’s powers bring immense sorrows and oppression. But God ultimately ushers in a glorious age – new heavens and new earth. The conflict is cosmic, but so is the restoration.
Finally, there is a whole futurist dimension which illuminates the present age, giving a future hope to generations beyond that of the first-century believers. You can quibble over whether the Apocalypse of St John is preterist, historicist, futurist or idealist. He wrote out of his immediate situation: his prophecies would have historical fulfilment. But he anticipated a future consummation and revealed principles which operated beneath the course of history. No single apprehension of the End Times is the whole truth.
And so we come to our present; their future.
Right when the Jewish people were longing for the Messiah to establish a kingdom of justice with God as king, Jesus was born. The preceding centuries’ absence of a prophetic voice had created a vacuum within which apocalyptic writings had flourished, and with them came a high expectation that the messianic age was about to vanquish the rule of Rome and herald the re-birth of a sovereign Israel. Sections of the Gospels (eg Jn 6:1-15) tell of this.
And still they speak.
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel’ (Mk 1:15). Through all the murder, mourning, poverty and pain of the present, Jesus points to a future act of God when the people shall be comforted, satisfied and blessed; when the pure in heart shall see God (Mt 5:8). The Islamist comes to devastate and destroy: Jesus came to instil hope. The kingdom ‘now’ remains one of suffering: the kingdom ‘future’ is the promised desire of ages. The martyrs and witnesses to righteousness will surely go to heaven (Rev 6:9-11), but Daesh will go to damnation (Rev 20:11-15). This is the apocalypse of truth.