Baker Academic

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Apocalypticism and Chess

The category “apocalyptic” is among the first in need of fine-tuning when students of biblical literature move toward academic study. First, the category does indeed overlap at times with eschatological interests. Second, “Apocalypse” has been popularized in western mythologies within global disaster and superhero narratives. Yes, nerds, Apocalypse is the name of a super villain in the Marvel world and “Apokolips” is a world in the DC universe. Why? Because the name sounds super-duper. Indeed, even when the alternative spelling renders it the Kwik-E-Mart of planets, it has a certain menacing phonetic.

Merriam-Webster illustrates the problem and points to difference between ancient and modern definitions.

Notice the difference between the “simple” definition and the order or three “full” definitions that follow. The simple definition takes from the third as most ambiguous of the list.

While there are both end-of-the-world and mythological elements within apocalyptic literature, the category is not quite satisfied by popular definitions. Add to this the fact that “apocalyptic” is both a literary genre and a larger worldview and you’ve got yourself a recipe for confusion.

In order to fine-tune the category—and here I’m thinking of the worldview within Second Temple Judaism—I wonder if using the game of chess as an analogy would be helpful. Other strategic games might work just as well. I use chess because even if my students are not chess players, most folks have (1) seen a chessboard before and (2) know that it is a game of strategy. The only other thing that it is helpful to know is that (3) the pawn is the least powerful piece in the game. If these three points are in place, I think that the analogy works well.

So here it is.

Rather than envisioning a future, catastrophic event, think of the apocalyptic worldview as an expanded view of a chessboard during a game that is already underway. Imagine that you and your people occupy a particular group of squares on the chessboard. Maybe you see only six squares (i.e. you have very limited vision) and you have just witnessed several pawn exchanges. Now imagine that a prophetic voice reveals a wider vision and explains that a larger strategy is unfolding. This voice claims to have transcended the very limited view of six squares and has glimpsed the whole chessboard. It is now revealed that the military power that seems so threatening from a limited perspective is actually just a pawn in the larger scheme of things.

What do you think? Does the analogy work? Does it help to better situate Jesus, Paul, or John’s Apocalypse?



  1. I like the chess analogy, but instead of a live game, maybe the apocalypse is like replaying a match found in a collection of classic chess games. I say this because the outcome is predetermined, and maybe there's only one actor here with complete free will, playing the moves for both sides.

    1. I think Anthony's chess metaphor is good, but I like this wrinkle even better.

      Of course, it adds a level of complexity (classic chess games) which most people might not be familiar with, which makes me wonder if something like classic sports games might be an equivalent. If I were teaching about apocalyptic in, say, the south, I might tell students they are a football team in a tied game and the opposing team is about to kick a field goal to win it with one second left on the clock. I might ask students how they feel about the outcome. Then I would reveal that this is actually the 2013 Auburn-Alabama "Kick Six" game, and the field goal is going to fall short and be returned by Auburn for the winning score. (Although at this point this threatens to move beyond a metaphor and into the field of comparative religion.)

      Anyway, I like the chess idea, too. Good line of thought to pursue.