Existential fear and existential hope:

Reading biblical apocalyptic in an age of anxiety

Laszlo Gallusz, PhD, is a senior lecturer in New Testament studies, Newbold College of Higher Education, Binfield; Bracknell, Berkshire, United Kingdom.

Even before COVID-19, the world had long been suffering a crisis of hope. Forces are at work, it seems, that we have no control over. Uncertainty—the sense that something has gone wrong worldwide—has brought about a general existential fear. Only 6 percent of people in the United States, 4 percent in Great Britain, and 3 percent in France think the world is getting better.1

This current existential crisis should, therefore, have a significant impact on how biblical apocalyptic is preached. Its eschatological outlook provides an important resource for navigating this time of uncertainty because it answers the fundamental questions posed by the crises that we face.

Contemporary eschatological thinking

Secular culture, films, television, games, graphic novels, and literature reveal an interest in the end of the world. Not only is the threat of the end discussed, but it is also envisioned. After Hiroshima, the nuclear threat brought anxiety into our subconscious, and such existential threats as the fear of climate change are contemporary realities.2 In spite of the warning signs, we are not radically altering our lifestyle. Hence the recent caution that human life “is in danger because it is no longer loved, affirmed, and accepted.”3

Polarization and fragmentation in society— hallmarks of the spirit of our age—pose further risks for our planet. Social upheavals, social injustice, and international terrorism are just some of the most visible expressions of this polarization. Despite scientific and technological progress, our era is crushed by a loss of trust, strongly fueled by social media. Institutions that once held society together are undermined, even derided.

Although every age has its dark sides and pathologies, ours seems so broken that we fear for the existence of humanity itself. In an age of fake news and manipulation, people are hungry for authenticity, solidarity, and justice. Driven by the need for moral imperatives, we are shocked by the evil that human beings are capable of. “Ironically, of course, though we live in a universe where we are in charge, all we see on the horizon is our end. This is dystopia.”4

In an age marked by dystopia, the practices of reading and preaching the gospel should be carried out differently now than in past times of optimism and hope of progress. The gospel should, first of all, make us aware that “there is a ‘big picture’ to life—not just a series of disconnected snapshots.”5 It must constantly remind us of the cosmic picture in which the culture of life overcomes evil.6 And above all, it should reassure us that there is a link between this world, even with its terrors, and the one to come, in which we have a place secured for us by God’s own provision for us.

The foundation of Christian hope

The Christian hope is not wishful thinking or blind optimism but is, instead, grounded in the faithfulness of the Creator, who acts in human history and will not let evil have the final word. This created reality is His world, which He never gave up on, despite human rebellion. On the contrary, He launched a plan for its restoration. It is the gospel, called “the good news” for a good reason.

Clearly, the focal point of God’s grand plan of salvation is the cross. That is why any discussion of hope needs to center firmly on the death and resurrection of Christ—the basis for what Christianity has to offer to a world steeped in hopelessness. Christ’s resurrection means that death has been defeated and the future is secure because social or economic progress is not its basis but God Himself, who, through Christ, has linked Himself to humanity with ties that can never be broken.

Biblical apocalyptic is a genre of revelatory insights (Dan. 8:19; Rev. 1:11) that the visionary receives from a heavenly intermediary. However, our interpretations of the visions should never overshadow the Source. God Himself is the primary theme of the apocalyptic. The fact that He, as Creator, acts in human history—according to a clear plan for our restoration—is proof of His faithfulness. Indeed, no better proof of this faithfulness is provided than the fact that He “loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope” (2 Thess. 2:16, NRSV).

Therefore, biblical apocalyptic is to be Christ centered, not beast centered, because the primary emphasis of this genre is the triumph of God’s purposes, not the deceptive agenda of dark and diabolical forces. When evil forces are unmasked, they show the sharp difference between the character of the One who is the Author of life—“the faithful witness,” “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev. 1:5; 5:6, NRSV)—and the one who stands behind all evil: the “ancient serpent, . . . the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9, NRSV).

The problem of distorted worldview

All human beings exist inside a “social imaginary"—the views and practices acquired from our families, communities, and wider society. These ideas and practices are deeply implanted into our being and form our worldview. The current dystopia in Western society reveals how vulnerable the anthropocentric, secular worldview is, rooted in individualism and instrumentalism (a mindset that measures success through maximum efficiency).7 Clearly, humanity is left on its own if the universe is perceived as godless and has no transcendent moral order.

Biblical apocalyptic is a valuable resource for a generation seeking a meaningful alternative to this hopeless scenario. It pictures reality through a theology of two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem, which embody two radically different systems of thought and two different views of human life (Dan. 1:1; Rev. 17; 21; 22). These two systems are based on different sets of values: sacrifice and serving versus violence and despotism.

Apocalyptic theology implies that humanity is caught in the conflict between these two worldviews, behind which two forces stand: the “one sitting on the throne” (Rev. 4:3, NLT; cf. Dan. 7:9) and the one who resists God’s plan by violence and deception (Rev. 12:9; cf. Dan. 10:13). The cosmic conflict motif, centered on the issue of power and human allegiance, provides a foundational framework for understanding reality.8 In our age of twisted values, fake news, and manipulation, an authentic revelation about the true character of God, in contrast to humanity’s deceiver, is of utmost importance.

Practical dimensions of hope:
Our place in the world

Apocalyptic tells us not only about who God is and what His intentions in human history are (communicated through the prophecies) but also about who we are and how we ought to live. God is revealed in the apocalyptic as the One who loves life and will not allow it to be extinguished. That is why apocalyptic theology intensively engages the problem of evil and suffering.9

Humanity is not perceived as a creation of a detached or semidetached cosmic ruler but as worthy of the Creator’s own love and self-sacrifice—a creation whose restoration is in process, even now. Humanity’s response to the divine work of restoration is of interest in biblical apocalyptic. That is why, in the heart of Revelation, we find the call to “fear God and give him glory” (Rev. 14:7, NRSV).

If preached in an informed and sound manner, biblical apocalyptic has great potential for shaping the worldview of Christians and stimulating their commitment because it calls attention to the hidden dimensions of our reality and the tireless work of God behind the scenes. But it is to be preached in a way that life is affirmed against terror and threat since so much in our world denies it. It is to be preached in a way that the notion of hope overwrites despair and God triumphs over the chaos caused by the forces of death. While calamities take place around us in our age of dystopia, the gospel is to be heard as the “ ‘good news of the kingdom’ ” (Matt. 24:14, NRSV), which will generate living hope that is so needed in our uncertain world.

The promised end

Our world is full of issues, seemingly unresolvable, that fuel this universal sense of hopelessness. On the other hand, biblical apocalyptic offers a big-picture solution. Though that solution is grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ, it reaches its ultimate fulfillment in the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness, preceded by the eradication of evil. For this reason, the “ ‘stone . . . cut out, not by human hands’ ” (NRSV) in Daniel 2:34, 35, 45 is a “stone of hope,”10 and the city of Revelation 21:9–22:5 is an embodiment of the newness brought by God’s work of restoration.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the foundational event from which God’s work of a new creation has begun. God “became flesh and lived among us” temporarily (John 1:14, NRSV). At the end of human history, however, He “ ‘will dwell with’ ” us permanently, and redeemed humanity “ ‘will be his peoples’ ” (Rev. 21:3, NRSV). In a world in which restoration through human work is incomprehensible, the gospel is about restoration through the work of God Himself. Existential fear is overwritten by existential hope—and the culture of terror and death is overcome by the culture of life.

Biblical apocalyptic is often preached like a Christian crystal ball for reading the future. The value of prophetic-revelatory insights into apocalyptic is not disputed, but in our age of anxiety, biblical apocalyptic should be taught and preached as a literature that inspires hope. This necessitates a Christocentric approach and close attention to the practical motifs of the heaven-offered promise of redemption. The apocalyptic prophecies will be heard more clearly if presented in ways that resonate with the existential needs of our age. Keep Jesus and His second coming in front of your people at all times.

  1. See Max Roser, “Most of Us Are Wrong About How the World Has Changed (Especially Those Who Are Pessimistic About the Future),” Our World in Data, July 27, 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/wrong-about-the-world.
  2. Philip Jenkins, Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  3. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2019), 4.
  4. Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 5.
  5. Alister McGrath, The Christian Life and Hope, Christian Belief for Everyone (London, UK: SPCK, 2015), viii.
  6. On the “culture of life” as an alternative to the “culture of death” in our society, see Moltmann, Spirit of Hope, 3–14.
  7. For an extensive discussion of this problem, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
  8. On the cosmic-conflict motif, see Sigve K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation, Library of New Testament Studies 337 (London, UK: T&T Clark International, 2006); Laszlo Gallusz, The Throne Motif in the Book of Revelation, Library of New Testament Studies 497 (London, UK: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014); Steven Grabiner, Revelation’s Hymns: Commentary on the Cosmic Conflict, Library of New Testament Studies 511 (London, UK: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).
  9. It perceives evil and suffering as related to one’s choices and allegiances in the world rather than merely experiences called “natural evils” (natural disasters, diseases, or catastrophes). For a detailed treatment of Revelation as a theodicy, see Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering (Mumbai, India: St. Pauls, 2013).
  10. Timothy Keller, Hope in Times of Fear (New York, NY: Viking, 2021), x.

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Laszlo Gallusz, PhD, is a senior lecturer in New Testament studies, Newbold College of Higher Education, Binfield; Bracknell, Berkshire, United Kingdom.

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