Ancient Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and Modern Dystopian Science Fiction

The following is part of a soon to be published book, In the Days of These Kings: The Prophecy of Daniel in Preterist Perspective. In the book, I argue that people who are looking to find “end-times” prophecies in Daniel miss the purpose and context of the book, which was to point the Jews in captivity — under Babylonian, Persian, Ptolemaic, Seleucid and finally Roman rule — to the time when the Messiah would come into the world.

The False Promise of the Strong Man

Fallen man desires a strong man to rule and reign in the form of what the German philosopher Georg Hegel called “the State” – or – “God walking on earth.” In ancient times, this god walking on earth was a literal strong man, a savior figure who would bring order and stability to the whole world. But he always birthed a world order based on paganism and spiritual bondage that robbed individuals of their ability to express the inward spirit of man, the image of God in all of us. This imago Dei exists both the regenerate and the unregenerate. The regenerate will seek the true Savior in the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. The unregenerate will always seek a political solution, but in the end will recoil at the broken promises of human saviors. They will eventually conspire to overthrow the government of their own founding in some manner. Thus the seeds of destruction are always sown into the foundation of every world empire.

From a pagan point of view, the cycle seems to be a dark fate predestined to repeat endlessly in human civilization. The pagan god-king of past history has today become the collectivist state. The battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent among modernists is still the same, but the despot has become the impersonal “State.”

Ironically, in atheistic collectivist societies, such as communist China or the Soviet Union, the founders, Mao and Lenin, were elevated to a god-like status. This paradox has become a common theme in dystopian art and literature. In denying the “god-kings” of ancient times – and religion in general – modern collectivist societies have instituted a state religion.

This was documented in Marx and Satan, a short book by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian dissident and underground Christian missionary to the Soviet Union. Most people do not know that Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square, Moscow bears strong similarity to a pagan altar unearthed by archaeologists in Pergamos. Wurmbrand believed that this altar is the one referred to in Jesus spoke to the church at Pergamos some peculiar words: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13).

Architect Schusev, who built Lenin’s tomb, took the Pergamos altar as the project prototype. This was in 1924. It’s a known fact that Schusev received all the needed information from Frederic Paulsen – an acknowledged authority in archaeology (Richard Wurmbrand, Marx and Satan, translated from the Russian edition).

A friend of mine from Russia showed me a card given to him when he was a student in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, when he was a member of the Pioneers. This was a communist youth group similar to our Boy Scouts. This card says that the owner of it is a member of the Pioneers Organization of Lenin of school #35. Inside there is a poem.

In your hearts a big power is growing. Roads, storm, and wind are waiting for you. Live so that you will not be ashamed to look into the eyes of our dear Lenin. Your name is written down in the Book of Honor. And you have the honor to have your picture taken next to the flag, the banner of the Pioneers Organization of school #35.

There is no doubt that the atheistic communists saw the need of the people to worship a savior figure. The mummification of Mao and Lenin in their respective capital cities is reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh god-kings. The Bible was replaced among the Chinese communists with copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, which practically elevated the words of Chairman Mao Tse-tung to the level of Scripture.

In America, we erect statues and monuments to our past heads of state – Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln – basing the architectural style on ancient pagan memorials to their god-kings. While no one seriously worships our past presidents as gods, I submit that we implicitly worship the State when we ascribe to political figures powers that are greater than the authority God reserves for himself.

Dystopian Science Fiction

In our own day, the popularity of apocalyptic literature – a genre that emerged from about 165 BC to AD 200 – has been recapitulated through dystopian science fiction. The themes of dystopia (or “anti-utopia”) are all around us in literature, film, art and music. For example, it was put simply in words of Pete Townshend of the rock band, The Who, in the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again
No, no

I’ll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I’ll get all my papers and smile at the sky
Though I know that the hypnotized never lie
(Do ya?)

There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Below: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was a song from the dystopian science fiction concept album, Lifehouse, by The Who, which was abandoned. The song was released instead on the album, Who’s Next, in 1971.

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This well-known rock anthem was part of a longer cycle of songs by Pete Townshend that was originally meant to tell a story called Lifehouse, one of many dystopian concept albums or “rock operas” that became popular in the 1970s. It has been interpreted in various ways, from being an anti-war protest song to having specific political and religious interpretations. On a basic level, it is a warning against political saviors and collectivist mind control. The irony is that revolutionaries always promise, “We won’t get fooled again,” but the new political order they fight for never truly brings the change that had to come. “And the world looks just the same / And history ain’t changed.” Songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” have since become ingrained in our culture through licensing for commercials and in numerous TV shows and films – showing ironically that life imitates art.

There is a deeper reason for the burgeoning of dystopian themes in modern art, literature and music. The popularity of this genre goes far beyond entertainment and money making. Do a Google search for “List of Dystopian Novels” and you will find a Wikipedia article listing hundreds of books beginning with Thomas More’s Utopia, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th century and several 19th century science fiction works, such as H.G. Wells The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau. I would hesitate to call these earlier books “dystopian science fiction,” but they might be considered the prototypes or at least an influence on the later genre.

The first true dystopian novel was We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a Russian writer who wrote a satire of life in the fledgling Soviet Union in 1924. We is the grandfather of all dystopian science fiction. It was the forerunner of many novels, such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and literally hundreds of other books and films. The dystopian science fiction genre has also cropped up as the pattern for scores of album-length rock operas, such as Rush’s 2112, which was loosely based on Ayn Rand’s works. It has even spawned a young adult dystopian science fiction subgenre that began with The Giver by Lois Lowry in 1993. This in turn begat a billion dollar industry with hundreds of novels and blockbuster films, such as The Hunger Games, and the Divergent, Maze Runner and Legend series.

In fact, there have been more dystopian novels written in the last 20 years than in the previous 100 years. These novels and their adapted film versions strike a deep chord with teenagers with an almost hypnotic effect. The legion of recent dystopian novels and films includes those with post-apocalyptic themes resurrecting the Cold War paranoia of a nuclear holocaust, the result of natural disasters brought on by climate change or the collision of planet earth with asteroids and comets. Numerous video games are also based on dystopian themes. The common basis of these stories can be boiled down into three broad characteristics.

  1. The use of biblical and mythic symbols which reveals that the work may be better understood as the internal spiritual drama of the conflicted modern “Everyman,” rather than as the external reality of a failed utopia.
  2. A protagonist who experiences a spiritual awakening at the influence of an eccentric character foil who encourages him to rebel against the world order by embracing his individuality.
  3. The use of symbolic words, numbers, colors and imagery representing political power, cultural alienation and hope.

Common themes appear as the protagonist changes over the course of the story, such as collectivism vs. individualism, with the collective being the dehumanizing strong arm of the state that robs the individual of the spiritual side of his personality. The city vs. the wilderness is a similar theme that also plays off the collectivist/individualist conflict.

There is a common plot line in nearly all dystopian stories. The setting is usually a post-apocalyptic society in which there has been a war that threatened to destroy humanity. The protagonist comes under the influence of an alter ego who awakens him to the spiritual side of his psyche. He encounters this character foil at the same time that he begins to discover a love interest in a female character and/or a love for a forbidden type of art, literature, religion or lost knowledge. The protagonist then comes into conflict with a world ruler or world council that controls the whole society. There is always a turning point, which takes the form of a conversation between the protagonist and the world ruler consisting at first of a deep sympathy for the protagonist’s yearnings. There is an admission that these works have not been lost, but actually suppressed because at one time this type of free thinking led to mental and emotional illnesses and eventually wars that threatened to destroy society. The protagonist finally rebels against the world order and the story diverges along one of two paths. Either the protagonist is killed or commits suicide – or he escapes to the wilderness and hope is kindled for a rebirth of the human spirit.

This pattern was first set out by Zamyatin in We in 1924. George Orwell, author of 1984 (1949), critiqued Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) by noticing that it must have been partly derived from We. However, in a letter to Christopher Collins in 1962, Huxley wrote that his novel was written long before he had ever heard of We. Just as ironically, Louis Lowry, author of The Giver, has written on a blog to fans that she had never read the short novel, Anthem by Ayn Rand, when readers noticed that her story bore a strong resemblance.

This begs the question as to why this genre has become so universal and popular. The simple answer is that these authors are writing about the world around them using satire and symbolic references that their contemporary audience understands. Dystopia is a phenomenon of our age. Others have written on this enigma claiming that young people are subjected to pressure brought on by regulations in government, an overemphasis on standardized testing in public schools, politically correct speech, socialistic worldviews and expected behaviors. The pressure to be defined and molded has produced an attraction to break-out characters in stories set in repressive worlds.

It is as if today’s young people intuitively know that a changing of the guard is occurring on the world political stage. These paradigm shifts take place every so often, but exactly when they are meant to happen. It is part of God’s plan for the progress of the Gospel in history. God brings the collapse of a world order often with the destruction of attending cultural symbols in order to pave the way for His kingdom. God always has His remnant people, like Daniel and the Hebrew children, ready to take advantage of the displacement of those in long held positions of authority. Into such cultural upheavals, Christian awakenings take place.

Another dystopian story is a TV series called Dark Matter, a futuristic space allegory in which corporations control entire planets. In one episode, as the corporations are headed for war with each other, a minor character succinctly explains the concept of the paradigm shift that is similar to that which is currently embroiling western culture.

It’s times like these, when longstanding patterns are disrupted, that things become more fluid. That’s when a small group of people, or even a single individual, can change the course of history (Dark Matter, “Forever Dreaming,” season 2, episode 6).

Barna Donovan, a graduate program director at St. Peter’s University, commented on this phenomenon in an article published in Forbes magazine.

“Dystopian novels are merely all speaking to these anxieties of young people today,” said Donovan. “In all of these books, young adult protagonists must somehow learn to struggle through and survive in a world that has been exploited and defiled by previous generations and a world that is now ruled by dictatorial regimes that have eradicated all semblance of a democracy. What better metaphor could anyone create for the life of a teenager who knows he or she has no choice but take on a crushing amount of debt to go to college, to gain an education that will make it harder than ever to establish a career, all the while existing in a world of endless foreign wars and watched over by intrusive government bureaucracies and corporations that constantly spy on them on monitor all of their electronic communications?” (“Why Young Adults ‘Hunger’ For The Hunger Games And Other Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian Fiction,” Forbes, 11/20/2014).

The article goes on to describe young people’s fascination with heroes who struggle against dystopian societies in a post-apocalyptic future.

Yet the term “post-apocalyptic” in itself is an oxymoron based on a misnomer. “Apocalyptic” comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, which literally means an “unveiling” or a “revelation.” Using the word to mean the “end of the world” is a misnomer that has come into popular usage due to a premillennial futurist interpretation of Daniel, Matthew 24 and Revelation. Furthermore, the term “post-apocalyptic” is an oxymoron because it implies that history continues after the end of the world. It is a bleak agnostic view of the destiny of the human race.

The use of the term “apocalypse” to mean the end of the world precisely illustrates the error that the prophecies contained in Daniel, Matthew 24 and Revelation were given to correct. It is exactly because modern Christians lack a covenantal worldview that many do not see Jesus Christ as the presently reigning king over all creation. Unfortunately, many Christians have fallen prey to the twin phenomena of dystopian hysteria and end-times madness. The word “apocalypse” instead means the unveiling or revelation of King Jesus in all His majesty and glory – not in a future dispensation – but in the present.

Jewish Apocalyptic Literature

A similar phenomenon was going on with the Jewish nation in the 200 years prior to the birth of Jesus – and for some time afterward. From about 167 BC to AD 200, there were several dozen apocalyptic works written whose manuscripts have survived to our day. Some experts believe that this genre was represented by perhaps hundreds of books written in this period of messianic fervor. Modern dystopian science fiction shares many of the same characteristics of the ancient apocalyptic genre.

  1. These intertestamental works were influenced by earlier “proto-apocalyptic” passages of the Bible, especially portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel and Zechariah.
  2. The pseudo-prophecies contained in these books are often delivered or interpreted by an angel or a biblical patriarch seen in a vision by the author.
  3. The visions in the book are often carefully arranged and are usually dependent on sophisticated numbering schemes, colors and other cultural symbols.

The unifying theme of both apocalyptic and dystopian literature is oppression by a world empire. In apocalyptic writings, the oppressor is often symbolized by a beast. In dystopian novels, there is a world ruler or world council that represents the collectivist state.

The liberal view of the Book of Daniel is that that it must have been composed late since it shares so many of the characteristics of this later apocalyptic genre. The prophecies of Daniel are so highly detailed and accurate, that modernists and rationalists do not accept that the book could have been written by a Hebrew prophet in the sixth century BC. Instead they suppose that it is a “prophecy after the fact” – detailing past history as a commentary on current events in Judea around 167 to 165 BC when the Jews were struggling against foreign oppressors and hoping for a warrior king to restore the glory of David’s kingdom.

There are some essential differences between apocalyptic literature and biblical prophecies such as the Book of Daniel. The most obvious difference is that biblical prophecy points to the true “apocalypse” or revelation that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Although there are some shared characteristics of the later apocalyptic writings with biblical prophecy – such as the admonition to stay faithful in times of crisis and persecution – the message proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the central and monumental difference.

The intertestamental apocalyptic writings also miss the mark in teaching Jewish chiliasm, or the idea that the millennium is an earthly kingdom that will be centered on the earthly city of Jerusalem ruled by a warrior king who will bring a full restoration of the glory of the Tabernacle of King David and the Golden Age of Israel. Chiliasm is a synonym for premillennialism and was a term used by the early Church Fathers as they eventually gravitated after the second century to what we now call the amillennial or postmillennial view.

The Apocalypse of John is rightly called the Book of Revelation. The Apostle John was writing a true revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ that rightly interpreted the prophecies of the Old Testament including Daniel and the words of Jesus in the Mount Olivet Discourse. John was no more influenced by the false Jewish apocalyptic writings of his era than Lois Lowry was influenced by Ayn Rand. However, he was using well-known cultural and biblical themes understood by his generation of readers.

Are politics redeemable?

The pagan looks for a strongman in the form of a human dictatorship to bring salvation. The chiliast looks forward an earthly kingdom with a heaven-sent warrior king sitting on an earthly throne at Jerusalem for a literal one thousand year reign someday in the near future, while at present politics are unredeemable because the kingdom of God is “not of this world.” The postmillennialist sees the kingdom of God as having its authority from His throne room in heaven, yet working itself out progressively in the earth as Christians advance Christ’s victorious kingdom in every area of society.

My friend and co-laborer, Jeff Ziegler, who unfortunately passed away in 2014, said in an interview we did for a video series called, God’s Law and Society, that the mandate for Godly dominion as a present task is often missed by contemporary Christians.

The retort you often hear revolves around the time period when Christ is before Pilate’s inquisition and says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Christ was not saying that His kingdom was not manifest in the world. He was saying to Pilate, “My kingdom does not gain its authority from Rome or the Sanhedrin. My authority comes from on high.” The irony is that the pagan tyrant Pilate understood this, but Christians today do not.

So the authority of Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but nonetheless, the kingdom has invaded this realm, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26). Every aspect of society is touched by the kingdom of God.… The kingdom is manifest in the world and Christ’s Lordship is manifest in the civil realm, in the family, in every aspect of society – economics, science, etc.… Christ’s kingdom is comprehensive in scope and absolute in its authority (Jeff Ziegler, God’s Law and Society).

Or as Howard Phillips, the founder of the Constitution Party, once noted:

Throughout history, there have been only three political parties. The first is every party that believes in the sovereignty of the state, that the state is a god walking on earth; the Democrats, Republicans and every European party is of that view. The second is a party that believes in the sovereignty of man and man’s reason; the Libertarians are of that view. The third are those who believe in the sovereignty of God, and the rule of God’s moral law (Howard Phillips, God’s Law and Society).

Those who believe in the sovereignty of God over the whole universe are currently the vast minority, but this view was held by many of the Church Fathers, the Reformers, Puritans and is once again growing in popularity among Christians of every stripe.

The natural urge of every fallen human being is to assume autonomy – that we may rule ourselves without reference to God’s authority. Modern paranoids who are fearful of the all-powerful state rightly seek to overthrow tyranny. Ironically, in seeking to defeat the “strongman,” they substitute the rebellion of tyrants who rage against the Lordship of Jesus Christ for the autonomous rule of the individual who is no less rebellious against the rule of God.

Religious conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, have always looked for a cataclysm that will be ushered in by the Antichrist. The faithful will happily be rescued through a rapture or will persevere until the end. Jewish chiliasts of the intertestamental period committed the error of looking for a Jewish “strongman” to overthrow the oppressive reign of the Romans. Christian premillennialists of our day are looking for a strongman in the form of the Antichrist to arise out of the stormy sea of world dictatorships. They view human political systems as hopelessly corrupt and predestined for God’s cataclysmic judgment. Chiliasm or premillennialism is based on a false worldview that presupposes that the present political systems are separate from the rule of God and God’s law. They cannot be reformed unless they are crushed by God himself.

Biblical prophecy, on the other hand, teaches us that the earthly expression of David’s kingdom, both the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, passed away forever in favor of a heavenly spiritual Temple made up of living stones and a kingdom that was not only preached to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The nations of the world began to stream into the kingdom of God at the first preaching of the Gospel. This kingdom began in the first century and is gradually working itself out as God’s people are covenantally faithful to preach the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith and to teach the nations to obey God’s law. In time, the blessings of God will overflow and enrich the human personality as each and every ethnic culture becomes part of the kingdom of God.

The postmillennial and preterist view is that the kingdom of God appeared on the earth when Jesus first began to preach, “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17, Mark 1:15). Note that this view is that the “kingdom of God is at hand” in a literal sense. It is not for some future dispensation. However, the kingdom has its outworking in the whole world over a long period of time. We see the “millennium” as a long period of time, not literally 1000 years, when the Gospel is being preached and the kingdom is forcefully advancing against the gates of hell. We see Satan as a defeated foe, one that is alive but not well in the planet earth. Satan no longer has the power to “deceive the nations anymore” (Revelation 20:3). Jesus has provided the antithesis to Satan’s deception – the Truth and Light of the Gospel.

Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” The people of God are not merely to work to save souls, but shall also “make disciples of all the nations … teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:18-20). The kingdoms of this world are passing away – not in the sense that they will be annihilated – but they “have become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15).

The natural inclination of our guileful hearts is to resist God’s grace. We would rather look to human effort. In politics, we look for a strongman to vanquish evil. We see this in the comparison between the popularity of the early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings and modern dystopian fiction. That is, people see the nations being shaken and they fear that their world order is coming to an end.

And they are right!

The premillennialist can have some hope that Jesus will deliver them out of the awful mess that has been wrought by the vain rage of rebellious nations. However, the postmillennialist possesses the hope that the words of Psalm 2 are a present reality.

Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?

The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.”

You shall break them with a rod of iron;
You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.

Now therefore, be wise, O kings;
Be instructed, you judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,
And you perish in the way,
When His wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him (Psalms 2:1-3; 9-12)

Jesus Christ is pictured here as the present ruling King, the Son of God the Father, who has been given the nations for an inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession. It is important to realize that Jesus Christ is portrayed here as the present King ruling with a rod of iron over the kings of the earth and who – through His death, resurrection, ascension and glorification – is now the locus of all power and authority, both in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).

The good news for the Christian is that although the nations of the earth are being shaken by the sovereign power of our God, what always remains is His kingdom. Recognizing and defending the “Crown Rights of King Jesus” in time and history is how biblical prophecy finds its fulfillment in the Great Commission.

And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever (Daniel 2:44).

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