Apocalypse is a Greek word that means "revelation". But in the Bible, apocalyptic writings are a special and complex category of literature, whose purpose is not to reveal actual, future, historical events, but to encourage the reader with a symbolic description of the final outcome of their present trials.
A well-known exegete, Fr.George Montague SM, has pointed out that The Apocalypse is one of the most beautiful books of the New Testament. Nowhere else in Scripture do we find such a wealth of titles applied to Christ: Key of David, Morning Star, Son of Man, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Alpha and Omega, Lion of Judah, the Holy One, the Faithful Witness, the Amen, etc. Also, the image of the Lamb is very well developed, to give us an understanding of who Jesus is: "the Lamb of God, slain yet alive". He is the one sacrificed for our sins, yet risen and living and now sharing the throne of God.
The writer of this book calls himself a prophet rather than an apostle; the 12 Apostles seem to belong to the past since they are described as the foundations of the city wall (21:14); the Greek used here is inaccurate and even crude, whereas that of John's Gospel is exalted and beautiful - for all these reasons, inspite of the belief of some early Fathers that the Apostle John wrote The Apocalypse, today's scholarship prefers the view that it was written by an unknown "prophet" in the early Church whose name was John.
The Apocalypse can be called "the victory song of the Persecuted Church". Using literary techniques of bizarre imagery, visions, voices, and symbolic numbers and colours, it seeks to communicate a message of hope and confidence: "Don't compromise your worship, remain faithful to Jesus even unto death, thus you will gain an eternal reward, and will establish God's Kingdom on earth!"
Unfortunately, fundamentalist Christians choose to interpret the whole Bible, including The Apocalypse, very literally. This gives rise to many conflicting interpretations, and actual timetables have been prepared for the destruction of the world and for the second coming of Christ! Catholics, on the other hand, rather than try to tie the predictions of apocalyptic scripture to particular historical dates and events, accept the interpretation of St.Augustine and other Fathers of the Church, and fruitfully concentrate on the spiritual message the texts contain.
The Apocalypse was written at the end of the first century (about 95 A.D.) to encourage the early Christians in Asia Minor who were being terribly persecuted by the Roman Empire (the persecution was to increase even more), and to assure martyrs of the value of their sacrifice (chs.6-19,20). It was not written to satisfy the curiosity of those interested in predicting the future! Hence, "the Beast" symbolised the Roman Empire, "666" its tyrannical emperor Nero (and Domitian too, the worst among his successors), the number "three and a half" meant a short time, while a thousand years meant a very long time; white symbolised victory and purity, while black was the colour of death; etc...
The Millenium or thousand-year reign (Apoc.20:1-6) does not refer to 1000 calendar years but to "the era of the Church", from the time of Christ's death and resurrection till his Second Coming in glory. It means the victory of the kingdom of Christ in human hearts that have surrendered to him in faith. Christ's kingdom of love, peace, justice and salvation has already become present in believers, through grace, faith, active membership in the Church, and a Christian moral life. (Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Pentecostals, and many Baptists, are among those who insist that Christ will return again to reign on earth for a thousand years).
The message for Christians facing a crisis at the end of the first century was one of encouragement to persevere in a radical discipleship of the Lord Jesus. For example, in 7:1-8, the fact that the faithful were not sealed before the woes of the first six seals "is theologically significant: Christians are not to be spared the tribulations which the entire earth will experience. They will only be preserved from the demonic powers that would lead them to apostasy" (The Apocalypse, Fr.George Montague, SM, Servant Books, USA, 1992). Therefore, Christians who hold that there will be a rapture which will spare faithful Christians from famine, sword, pestilence, etc. (these only the wicked will suffer), have completely missed the point of this book! Rather, God's word through The Apocalypse is that the faithful will suffer, and many will endure martyrdom as well (see also 13:7). For this they will be sealed, not to immunise them or give them escape from suffering, but to empower them with fidelity. (This is also the sense of the last petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Do not lead us to the test").
While we must make efforts to understand correctly what the author of The Apocalypse intended to say then, the book must also speak to us now, since the scriptures have a perennial relevance. From the original meaning of the author, we must derive a meaning for our day, not by a literal and arbitrary transferal, but by a prayerful, Spirit-guided listening to both the text and to our contemporary experience. Take, for example, the Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22); the Lord himself speaks, first to assure the Christian community that he knows their suffering and good works, then to indict them for their failings (except for Smyrna and Philadelphia), then to invite them to repentance, and finally to promise victory to the one who remains faithful. These words of Jesus are relevant for us too, in our own situations! "Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in..."(3:20).
Also, the "new heaven and a new earth" (chs.21,22) we are waiting for does not necessarily imply the physical destruction of the world, but a total remaking of it according to God's perfect blueprint. What is to be destroyed is not the beautiful creation that once came from God's hand but "the chaotic world constructed by human sinfulness and oppressive human structures, the creation marred from primeval times by man's rebellion against God and his violence against his fellow-man" (ibid). All that has turned creation away from its original purpose is to be destroyed, for the sake of the new creation which will fulfil the Lord's prayer: 'Thy Kingdom Come', meaning that God's will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
"Revelation is not escapist theology. It takes seriously the aim and purpose of the first creation. While God intervenes in history, he despises nothing of what he has made" (ibid). Hence the Second Vatican Council too declared: "There is no question of the Christian message inhibiting men and women from building up the world or making them disinterested in the good of their fellows; on the contrary, it is an incentive to do these very things" (GS,34).
Since the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, "this world has become the theatre of God's coming kingdom"! The forces of Good are ranged against the forces of Evil in a continuing spiritual warfare. In apocalyptic imagery, the Harlot seated on the Beast, and the Dragon, were symbols of the political, religious and economic powers of 2000 years ago (the Roman Empire, its petty satraps and lords, priests of the emperor-cult, the traders and corrupt institutions of commerce, etc.). Today too there is systemic sin, well-organised and oppressive systems and institutions in the world, which perpetuate social injustice and religious persecution. The Apocalypse tells us, as it told the early Christians, not to lose hope.
Its central theme remains perennially relevant, that is, the announcement of the glorious coming of Christ in judgement, and that the persecuted who endure suffering patiently will be victorious with Christ.