The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek meaning “an unveiling” of things or the revelation of things that weren’t previously known. It is used to describe the revelations understood at the end of the world or convey information from another source, such as an angel, who is delivering the important message about the apocalypse to Earth.
Apocalyptic literature depicts a writer’s vision of the end of the world. The term is applied to both contemporary and classical literature. But, in the world of literary analysis, it is most common as a descriptor for religious end times writing, such as that found in The Book of Revelations.
This genre of literature has its origins in the religious writing of early Christianity as well as Exilic Jewish culture. The Book of Daniel, for example, contains a collection of the writer’s visions for the future. This includes future kings, the end of the world, and more.
Examples of Apocalyptic Literature
The Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation is the best-known source of information, as created by religious authors, about the Christian end times. It is the final chapter in the New Testament and is incredibly important to the broader concepts in Christianity.
The book begins with John on an island creating the famous “Seven Churches of Asia” letter before delving into a series of visions. These include the best-known images of the book, such as the seven-headed dragon and the Second Coming. Or the return of Jesus Christ to Earth. Here are a few lines from this passage:
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.
The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.
One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was astonished and followed the beast.
Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?”
The only information scholars have about the author is that he’s a Christian prophet. The imagery in The Book of Revelation has led to a variety of interpretations of its meaning and how much can be taken at face value. Most scholars believe the images were meant to be interpreted allegorically.
A few other famous lines from this same section of the Book of Revelations read:
He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead,
so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.
The Book of Daniel
The Book of Daniel is another well-known source of apocalyptic literature. Sections 7-12 of the book contain the apocalyptic visions. Chapter Eight, for example, which is commonly referred to as “The Ram, the Goat, and the Horn,” is difficult for modern-day readers to interpret. Daniel describes receiving this chapter (as he did the others) as a vision. This one was particularly taxing on the prophet. It left him “exhausted and six for days,” he writes in Daniel 8:27. Here are a few lines from 8:3-4:
Then I lifted my gaze and looked, and behold, a ram which had two horns was standing in front of the canal. Now the two horns were long, but one was longer than the other, with the longer one coming up last.
I saw the ram butting westward, northward, and southward, and no other beasts could stand before him, nor was there anyone to rescue from his power; but he did as he pleased and magnified himself.
In Daniel 10:4-7, another interesting section of The Book of Daniel, the prophet writes about seeing a vision of a man, who readers usually interpret as an angel.
On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris,
I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist.
His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.
I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; the men with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves.
Apocalyptic fiction, as a contemporary genre, is sometimes called dystopia, end of the world literature, and categorized as science fiction or science fantasy. Other apocalyptic stories might fit better into the horror genre.
The term “apocalyptic” refers to the end of the world. It is used to describe novels that depict what’s going to happen in the future regarding civilization, religion, and more.
Often, apocalyptic literature is interpreted as allegorical rather than factual. Contemporary readers usually find meaning in The Book of Revelations but are less likely to take the passages literally.
An apocalyptic situation is a situation where the world as we know it changes for the worse. For example, a plague that wipes out most of the world’s population, a meteor that’s headed toward Earth, a series of volcanic eruptions that quickly change the landscape of the planet, and many more.
Related Literary Terms
- Horror: a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based on science.
- Fantasy: a literary genre that includes talking animals, magic, and other worlds. It includes plots that couldn’t take place in the real world.
- Carol: a song sung during a festive period, such as Christmas, although not exclusively. They are usually religious in nature.
- Devotional Poetry: refers to poems that express worship or prayer. They’re most commonly religious in nature.
- Homily: a speech delivered by a religious person, usually a priest, in front of a group of people.