Integrating Apocalpticism Into Modern Theology: An Interview with Adela Yarbro Collins

Jamie L. Manson

Since the fall of 2000, Adela Yarbro Collins has served as Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. One of the leading scholars of apocalyptic literature, Professor Collins has authored and edited numerous books on the topic, including Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism, Early Christian Apocalypticism: Genre and Social Setting, and Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Her current research project is a commentary on the Gospel of Mark for the Hermeneia commentary series. Recently, Jamie Manson ’02 M.Div., editor of Reflections, discussed apocalyptic texts and their modern interpretations with Professor Collins.

Q      What characterizes apocalyptic thought in the Bible?

A      The main characteristics are a contrast between earth and heaven and a contrast between this age and a new age, so that earth and this age are both seen as full of evil, full of suffering. Earth and this age are visible, accessible, but not by any means perfect, and also characterized by death and decay. The heavenly world and the new age are invisible and inaccessible, except by means of revelation through visions or journeys to normally inaccessible places. They are the opposite of the earth and this age: characterized by good, well-being, eternal life, and the overcoming of the imperfections of what we have here.

Q      How is this realized in the New Testament?

A      The New Testament writings have a new twist on the typical apocalyptic view that you get in Daniel, for example. In the New Testament there is an overlap between the two ages. The new age has begun or dawned and brought about a time of partial salvation, or the beginning of the process of salvation. So the present is a time of proclamation and establishing and forming communities, but also a time of persecution, suffering, and conflict, even within the community, but especially with outsiders who don’t accept the proclamation. After that time of overlap, Christ will return and the general resurrection will take place, as well as the general judgment and eternal rewards and punishments. So you can see right away how much Christian theology owes to apocalypticism. Many of these themes and teachings have become doctrine and served as the basis for a group of doctrines that we call eschatology, or the study of the last things.

Q      Since apocalyptic texts, particularly the book of Revelation, communicate such a strong longing for a new age, some scholars have wondered whether they were produced by people who lived on the margins of the society and therefore faced forms of oppression, violence, or injustice. What type of communities, do you believe, produced this literature?

A      It is sometimes the case that communities related to this type of literature lived on the margins of society, but such does not seem always to be the case. The people who actually wrote apocalypses seem to be part of the elite and to be educated. But at the same time, there is evidence that they didn’t feel fully satisfied with the way things were, that they felt marginalized to some degree or relatively deprived. The book of Daniel seems to have been written by an individual or a group of intellectuals who considered themselves to be “the wise,” who teach the many, and yet they were in conflict with the ruling Greco-Syrian king and, presumably, other Jews who collaborated with that king, or who have become too Hellenized and have abandoned the tradition. So they are intellectuals who are also traditionalists. And they are being persecuted.

Q      Does this new age that they envision have to be a cosmic event or can it take place within the space and time constraints of life on earth?

A     The texts usually defined as apocalypses tend to be other-worldly, or oriented toward heaven in their vision of the future. But the issue you raise is part of the debate. There is a work called “The Psalms of Solomon” that has a strong expectation for the renewal of Davidic kingship and the expression of that expectation has eschatological features. Now, most would not call this work apocalyptic. It seems instead to be a revival of an older eschatology, an older prophetic eschatology that’s more this-worldly. And yet, it’s got a strong ideal, even utopian, character. The New Testament evidence is read in different ways. Someone like E. P. Sanders would say that the concern of the historical Jesus was restoration eschatology, which would be, at least to a great extent, this-worldly.

Q     Is restoration eschatology similar to realized eschatology?

A   Those are distinct issues, whether it’s prophetic (restoration) eschatology or apocalyptic eschatology, and whether it’s realized or not. The whole idea of realized eschatology came about as a reaction to scholars like Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, who rediscovered eschatology and apocalypticism in the late nineteenth century. They were reacting against the liberals who said, “The kingdom of God is a just society on earth that we are called to build.” Scholars like Weiss and Schweitzer disagreed, arguing that if you look at the gospels, that’s not what Jesus and the evangelists are talking about. Rather, they’re talking about a divine intervention that is going to change this world radically. But, as often happens in debate, they over-stated their case. They made the eschatology entirely future. Then C. H. Dodd came along and basically interpreted eschatology in Platonic terms. He argued for a totally realized eschatology. Bultmann’s reading of John was similar: whatever salvation is, we have it now, and death is unimportant, the future is unimportant. Then Joachim Jeremias and Werner Georg Kümmel said, “Well, wait a minute. It’s neither totally future nor totally realized.” The texts describe an overlapping of the two ages. For example, for Paul, those who believe in Jesus are justified, but they have not yet faced the final judgment. They have the Holy Spirit and are being transformed into spiritual people, but they have not yet been raised from the dead. Some eschatological events have already taken place, but others have not yet occurred. The death and resurrection of Jesus began a process that is not yet complete. One should not conclude, however, that the idea of an overlap of this age and the new age is unique to early Christian texts. The Dead Sea Scrolls also have the idea of an overlap of the two ages. This notion is expressed especially in the Thanksgiving Psalms, where the speaker implies that the members of the community related to the texts are already worshipping with the angels and experiencing life on the height, that is, in heaven.

Q      Were any of these movements in thinking about apocalyptic theology impacted by dispensationalist theology?

A      No. The whole dispensationalist approach to scripture is a kind of fundamentalist, conservative appropriation of the Enlightenment in a way. The dispensationalists adopted the values of rationality and systematic thought from the Enlightenment. They tried to read the Bible as a unity in a new, highly rationalistic way. I see two problems with that approach. One is they take the whole Bible as the undifferentiated Word of God; they think you can put any two passages together and make a system out of the whole Bible. That is historically problematic because it doesn’t recognize the diversity of the works and their different social settings and their different rhetorical aims. The other problem is literary. They take all of these texts as simple predictions of the future, and they take them very literally. Not only do they take each one literally, but they combine them. For example, they can take the idea of the “rapture,” people being taken up to meet Jesus in the air, from First Thessalonians and combine it with the idea of the tribulation in the book of Revelation. I think this way of interpreting the texts misses the poetic nature of apocalyptic language and overlooks the way in which such language sees the difficult and mysterious aspects of life through a glass darkly. So to make a system out of all these partial visions is very problematic.

Q      Do you have any sense on what the psychological reasonings might be behind this vision of God being violent and having this terrifying end? What about the notion that the end times are upon us and that, somehow, the book of Revelation has skipped 2,000 years and is speaking directly to this generation?

A      The notion that the end times are upon us stems from an intellectual tradition that has roots in the theology and biblical interpretation of the Puritans. They revived millenarian readings of biblical texts, taking them to refer to their own immediate future. This kind of reading has been updated and maintained until the present in some circles. The question of psychology relates to the audiences of such interpretations. Why do people accept them? In part, it’s a very human intellectual and emotional need for meaning, and for closure. Mircea Eliade talked about the terror of history. The terror lies in the apparently random and meaningless character of events. Eliade argued that myth overcomes the terror of history by finding patterns in it. If there’s no large framework of meaning and it’s all random, many people find it hard to go on, especially in the face of disease and death and terrible disasters. So to have a framework like that, a master narrative, is very consoling.

Q      There must be a reason that apocalypticism was part of the imagination of the biblical authors and reasons why it has remained in the theological imaginations of believers even to this day. How have theologians in the twentieth century, and in the present time, thought about the apocalypse? How have they interpreted it for our times in a way that isn’t fundamentalist, but rather integrates apocalypticism into a modern theological understanding?

A      There are three major ways in which people have done that, and the first one is what you might call a liberal theological approach. It started in the nineteenth century, but it’s still alive today. Early representatives of this approach would say, “The descriptions of this age and the age to come in the apocalyptic texts focus on material things, transient things.” The theologian ought to derive abstract (general, universal) truths from those texts, such as spiritual and ethical truths. For example, the idea of resurrection is very concrete and material and bodily. What it’s really saying is that life will triumph over death.

The second option is reflected in the thinking of traditionalists in the nineteenth century and the neo-orthodox theologians, for example, participants in the biblical theology movement in the twentieth century. They would admit that Jesus and many of the writers of the New Testament had an imminent expectation of the end and that proved to be wrong. But they would, at the same time, try to recover and update the traditional idea of the biblical story’s being connected with history. In other words, they interpret apocalyptic texts in terms of a theology of history. Pannenberg would fit here, and, to some degree, Moltmann and Karl Barth.

The third way of integrating apocalypticism into modern theology is what Bultmann did: to say that these texts express myths and mythic thinking and that those myths belong to a different time and a different age. And yet they have something to say to us today. So what he did was translate those myths into concepts of existential philosophy, which he believed to be more accessible to modern people.

Q      But you still can’t escape the fact that Revelation is filled with very horrific images, some of them generated by God. How does one deal with these sometimes graphic and violent images?

A      The world and human experience include horrific events and terrible violence. That’s real. I think that the book of Revelation gives us language and a framework of meaning to deal with those events. Now we may not agree with the interpretations that the book offers, that God sends plagues upon the world, God causes these things. But I think that having a book like that in the Bible and in our tradition leads us to confront those events and ponder them, wrestle with Revelation’s interpretation of them and come up with our own understanding as theologians and as people of faith.

Q      How do you wrestle with these images? Especially as someone who teaches this to ministers in formation.

A      Of the three main options, I’m attracted most of all to the third one—to Bultmann’s way of wrestling with these images. One reason is that he took the ancient language seriously. He used the best historical critical understanding of apocalyptic texts in their cultural contexts available in his time, and his heirs have updated his work on that score. At the same time, he took very seriously the cultural difference and the historical distance between us and the world of those texts. For a long time, I ad- mired Krister Stendahl’s hermeneutical model. He argued that you have first of all to say what the text meant, and only then ask what it means for us—that it’s dangerous to collapse the two. I agree that it’s dangerous to collapse the two, and the main danger there is special pleading. I’ll come back to that is- sue in a moment. But then I realized that Stendahl had actually set out that model against Bultmann. I think part of the power of Bultmann’s way of dealing with these texts lies in the recognition of the cultural gulf between text and interpreter. But in his actual reading and interpreting of a text, he picked out those elements that are most open to being expressed meaningfully in our time. For example, the apocalyptic texts talk about a divine intervention that’s going to create a drastic change in the world as we know it—the end of this world, the beginning of a new age. As Bultmann realized, many modern people are not able to believe that events like that will actually happen. But we are each faced with our own death. For each of us, death is equivalent to the end of the world and anticipating it is equivalent to being faced with the judgment. Facing death, like facing the general judgment, has an impact on how we live, the choices we make, the decisions we make. Now, of course, the weakness of his system is that it tends to be very individualistic. So it needs to be corrected. It needs to be more communal, and to take into account more fully the natural world. But no scholar has done that in a way that I think really does justice to modernism. It’s hard to bring in the natural world because we can talk about meaning in history in a poetic way, but not in a literal way. By “special pleading” I mean trying to read the book of Revelation in such a way that it says what the interpreter thinks it should say. I think that Barbara Rossing and David Barr sometimes do that. David Barr published an article entitled “Reading the Book of Revelation Ethically.” Sometimes reading a work ethically means making it conform to the interpreter’s ethical values. An example is the interpretation of the role of Christ in the book of Revelation. There is tension between the image of the lamb in chapter 5 and elsewhere and the image of Christ as warrior in chapter 19, with the sword coming out of his mouth. Barbara Rossing, David Barr, and M. Eugene Boring want to say that the lamb is the controlling image, that the only way that Jesus conquers is through suffering and through his spoken word. In my view, that is reading too much against the grain for chapter 19. They are right that the battle is not described. But in ancient literature, terrible, bloody events happen off stage. The text mentions the sword, the robe dipped in blood, and corpses being eaten by birds. The image of the robe dipped in blood comes from Isaiah 63:1–6, where the blood is that of the enemies of Israel. How can Rev 19:11–21 not be meant to evoke a real battle? The book of Revelation speaks about arms. In Revelation, one great battle is waged by an evil figure, modeled on the emperor Nero, who defeats Rome, portrayed as an unjust imperial power. The other battle of the End is waged by divine power and divine intervention. So I agree that the book of Revelation should not be used to justify and advocate preemptive strikes or any kind of war.

Q      Do you think that the existentialist culture of Angst, produced in large part by the anxiety, death, and destruction brought about by the two world wars, helped thinkers like Bultmann understand apocalyptic literature with greater insight?

A      Yes, it probably did. Much of his insight into the ancient texts was gained in the usual historical 63:1–6, where the blood is that of the enemies of Israel. How can Rev 19:11–21 not be meant to evoke a real battle? The book of Revelation speaks about the suffering of Jesus in the past and the suffering of his followers in the present. But this suffering is to be followed by great battles, punishment of the wicked, and then the new age. I agree with Barbara Rossing that the book of Revelation should not be read as calling for the followers of Jesus to take up kind of critical way, for example, by reading lots of other texts from the time. But existentialism must have gripped him. Bultmann’s method is usually described as demythologizing the Bible. I think what he did was re-mythologize it. And that’s what we need to do. Another feature of our situation is that much of the interpretation of the Apocalypse and other apocalyptic texts that’s going on today takes place in the context of secular religious studies. Such readings can be powerful. Harry O. Maier brings an autobiographical insight to the Apocalypse. Both of his parents were immigrants to Canada from German-speaking communities in Eastern Europe. He grew up with apocalypticism as living language that his family used when they talked about the horror of their experience at the end of the war. No provision had been made by the German government or army for ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe. So they fled westward when they realized the Germans were losing the war, but they were sent back. The Russians and the local people just took everything they had. It was a terrible time for them. I think that’s an example of how the language of the book of Revelation gives people a way of dealing with experiences like that.

Q      Even with works of depth like Maier’s, so much psychological and spiritual damage has been and continues to be done through fundamentalist understanding of the book of Revelation. Do you ever think that Bible would have been better off without apocalyptic literature?

A      I think the Bible would be, literarily speaking, a lot poorer without the book of Revelation. It provides a grand, poetic finale to the Bible taken as a book or as one great narrative. And it corresponds nicely to Genesis. You have protology (the first things) and eschatology (the last things). Theologically and ethically speaking, I think it has a different role to play for the disadvantaged than for the privileged. For the disadvantaged, I think it does two things. It gives them language to understand their suffering and to protest their suffering. But at the same time, it gives them a horizon of hope. Marx said apocalypticism, or religion in general, is the opium of the people. I think that’s not true. If you look at slave religion in this country, and if you look at blacks in the time of apartheid in South Africa, you see that the book of Revelation, like the spirituals, did provide consolation and comfort in the present: “We don’t have now. We will have by and by.” Yet at the same time, it kept alive the consciousness that the way things are is not how they should be, or not what is to be desired. So it didn’t make the oppressed passive. There were seeds of protest and change there. For the wealthy and the powerful, it is important to listen to how people are using that book—not so much the authors and readers of the Left Behind novels—but rather how it is used in liberation theology. The way liberation theologians and members of base communities read Revelation allows us privileged people to hear where they’re coming from, to hear how they experience the world. We can take that as a prophetic admonition to try to share wealth and power more equitably.