Theological Mistakes: “Apocalypse Now”

One of the most famous films from the 1970s is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” It is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella, “Heart of Darkness” to a fictional situation during the Vietnam War. It is a disturbing film, full of insanity and graphic portrayal of evil. My purpose today is not to critique the film, but to use it as an example of the fallacy of transliteration.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a (mild) obsession with the mischief created when Bible translators “transliterate” a Greek or Hebrew word rather than “translate” it. To me, when they opt for transliteration, they create a new word that is immediately unhitched from the original Bible word, and (like any English word) can now take on its own meanings and connotations. I recently blogged about a new, supposedly “transliteration-free” Bible,The Voice, that failed the transliteration test when it came to John the Baptist and his baptizing. I have thought since then that it was to much to expect them to render this guy’s tag as “John the Dunker” or “John the Immerser.” We wouldn’t want to lose John’s Baptist heritage, after all.

What about the word “Apocalypse?” This is a transliteration of the Greek noun apokalypsis. This word and its verbal counterpart appear over 40 times in the New Testament, so this is not a rare or unusual term. It also is found over 70 times in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament). Its meaning is simple: “uncovering.” In the LXX it is used for the concept of “nakedness,” the state of being uncovered (see 1 Samuel 20:30).

When it comes to the New Testament, this word is expresses the idea of things about God that are “uncovered.” Jesus, in Matthew 10:26, says,

So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.

The parallel construction of this saying shows that the author considered “be disclosed” (apokalypsis) to be equivalent to the idea of “be made known.” In other words, he uses the word to describe a revealing, an uncovering of something that had previously been hidden.

This brings us to Revelation 1:1:

The revelation (apokalypsis) from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John …

This is the only place in the book of Revelation that this word is used, and it is given in the opening to describe what kind of book it is. It is an uncovering of God’s secrets, a revelation of things soon to take place, an apocalypse for the benefit of its readers.

Why is this important? Unlike Coppola’s highjacked use of the word, there is no connection between “apocalypse” and “horrible, evil, bloody war.” To refer to nuclear holocaust as an “apocalypse” is a misnomer fueled by the fallacy of transliteration. Yes, the book of Revelation does portray cataclysmic events, both as figurative expressions of the wrath of God and as perhaps as predictive of some type of gigantic war against the forces of evil and the conquering army of the Lamb. But the idea of the book is not war, it is victory for those who remain faithful and true. It is full of worship and promises for those who were being persecuted under the Emperor Domitian, some even dying for their faith. We have allowed the book of Revelation to be synonymous with the horrors of war in popular imagination.

So, to all of you apocalypse = war folks out there, find your own word. And yes, I’m talking to you, video game creators.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College