One of the best introductions to visionary writing is J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Fantasy, writes Tolkien, “starts out with an advantage: arresting strangeness.” To enjoy this type of writing requires an “appetite for marvels.” The effect of fantasy writing is to defamiliarize what has become a cliché — “to clean our windows from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”
How does visionary writing in the Bible portray the fantastic? A frequent method is to paint a picture of future events that overturn the current status quo, predicting total upheaval of nations or rulers who are currently in power and prosperity. Case in point: at the very time that Tyre was a prosperous city-state, Ezekiel describes its complete downfall (Ezekiel 26-27).
Visionary writing also uses setting to establish an otherworldly quality. At times, events occur in a supernatural realm that transcends earthly reality (such as heaven and hell). At other times, we are given a vision of our world such as we have never seen it. In the book of Revelation, for example, we shuttle back and forth between heaven and earth, but the earthly scenes are painted with surreal details, such as a black sun, a blood-like moon, and every mountain and island “removed from its place” (Revelation 6:12, 14).
If the settings are fantastic, so are the characters within them. In Daniel 7:4, we find the spectacle of a “beast” that is “like a lion” but that has “eagles’ wings” and is “made to stand on two feet like a human being.” Often in visionary writing in the Bible inanimate objects and forces of nature become actors in the story, such as when a goat’s horn grows into the sky and throws stars to the ground (Daniel 8:9-10).
The events that occur in visionary writing often are as fantastic as the scenes and characters. A flying scroll can destroy wood and stone houses (Zechariah 5:1-4), or the earth can miraculously open its mouth and swallow a river that a dragon spit out to attack a fleeing woman (Revelation 12:15-16).
In this type of writing, anything can happen. The only limit is the human imagination. Once we allow the strange world of visionary writing to move us on its own terms, we are ready to ask what kind of truth or reality such literature represents.