Wheels Within Wheels
I looked, and saw a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. … As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all round. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. … Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads.
Not a bad sci-fi opening: it draws us, the readers, into a world that excites our imagination, where the scenario and the physics are impossible by the criteria of the everyday. It’s all the more amazing when we bear in mind its date — it comes from the biblical book of Ezekiel, the text of which goes back to the five hundreds BCE. It’s one of the earliest surviving texts that explores the visionary and the fantastical, so unlike other ancient texts that tell of the heroics of military campaign or voyage. In these opening lines, Ezekiel the priest has the searing experience of a close encounter with the divine: not a vision of God directly, but as Ezekiel describes it with pious caution at a third remove, ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.’
The visionary genre runs through the religious tradition. Ezekiel isn’t the only book in the Jewish scriptures (which Christians call the Old Testament) to encompass it: so do (for example) Daniel, Zechariah, Zephaniah and Joel. The New Testament book of Revelation is an extended visionary text — try dipping into it anywhere and you may see (excuse the anachronism) why it seems to me so like a storyboard for a CGI film (were such a thing possible 19 centuries ago). Revelation is full of quotations from, and coded allusions to, its Old Testament antecedents; and there is a web of other interconnected texts, some with very extravagant imagery, going far beyond the style and canons of what eventually came to be included within the covers of the canonical Christian Bible. Resistant as this long tradition might be to watertight genre descriptions, we can speak of a family of texts, and sections within texts that are predominantly of a different kind, in which something previously unknown, or a hint of what lies in the future, is portrayed as being revealed: and it is from the Greek for ‘reveal’, apokalyptein, that they are collectively called ‘apocalyptic’.
So what do these texts have in common, since they are neither intended to be accounts of historic events, nor descriptions of what might be feasible even in fiction? A recurring theme is that however horrible, unjust and painful daily existence is — especially in times of persecution, defeat or apparent failure — the ultimate, truest reality consists of divine justice and the vindication of the faithful. It’s sometimes thought that apocalyptic is about an alternative reality, heaven as a ‘somewhere else up there’. But that’s an over-simplification, because there is a strand in apocalyptic of showing not an alternative reality but in some sense a reality that is extended beyond what we see here and now, whilst retaining some contact with our perception of the world we know: physical existence transformed, not annihilated.
So let’s look at another, perhaps more familiar, passage from Ezekiel. The writer sees himself carried into a valley of dry bones. He is commanded to proclaim to them:
‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’
Ezekiel does so, and the bones are assembled into a great crowd of living beings. And then the point of the vision is revealed:
Then [the Lord] said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, “Thus says the Lord God: ‘I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.’”’
‘Our hope is lost’, we are as good as dead, our identity is gone, and what we stand for has no more currency: it is to this psychological crisis that apocalyptic responds. It speaks of hope: not in a superficial sense of wishing for the best, but having confidence that (typically, in religious literature, through divine intervention) there will be transformation, and new and better opportunities will be made open. Apocalyptic takes enemies and evil seriously, but sees their power as provisional and ultimately doomed. Right, and divine purposes, will visibly prevail: so the new possibilities include, one might even say depend on, a renewed ethic as the context for human interaction, a refreshed perception of the ideals to which humanity is called.
Hope, with a fresh start, is the life-blood of apocalyptic: it is also a fundamental principle of religious faith that equally, and without being prompted by the colourful mise en scène characteristic of apocalyptic and vision, hope must inform and be translated into the everyday.
Terra Two voyagers, apocalyptic encourages you to have hope in your new start, even to see it as a divine gift, and consciously to leave your despairs behind.
1] Ezekiel 1.4-5, 15-19, 22 (New Revised Standard Version)
 Ezekiel 1.28
 Ezekiel 37.4-5
 Ezekiel 37.11-12
The Right Reverend Paul Ferguson, a former professional musician and teacher, has ministered in Chester, Westminster, York and North Yorkshire. His book Great is the Mystery of Faith (Canterbury Press) explores liturgical text as an aid to spiritual growth. He became Bishop of Whitby in 2014.