Apocalypse When?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the end of the world.

I used to wait for it, in a confused anticipation born of a youthful interest in the utter chaos it promised and the fear that I would be subjected to it, as one of Christ’s more inferior subjects. Years later, I still can’t quite banish the idea.

Certainly, this fascination about the end of all things isn’t limited to the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood. An entire subgenre of science fiction plays with the idea that either by accident or human malfeasance, life as we know it ends. But in these stories, life itself doesn’t altogether cease; it mutates, or struggles forward into the future. Humanity rebuilds, after a fashion. Sometimes things are better, sometimes they’re worse.

But what I find really fascinating about the Christian apocalypse is that even though life endures, humanity doesn’t. We get this gauzy vision of an eternal future in faultless bodies. There aren’t many details. Is there love after Armageddon? Hate? Any emotion at all?

And yet we’re still supposed to long for it, in the absence of any real detail. We’re supposed to take joy in the prospect of losing our humanity.

I found the Revelation account of the Tribulation to be far more compelling than anything that came after it. It’s bloody but it’s real. There’s something tangible about it, despite all the metaphor. On some level, I understood the rage. It’s palpably human. Were I God, the creator of all life and the earth upon which it scrabbles, I would be furious.

Can you imagine? You create a race of creatures in your own image and what’s reflected back at you but constant war and petty evil broken only by the occasional glimmers of kindness and hope and courage. I’d annihilate the world too. I’d just take myself out along with it.

But I am not God, obviously, and I don’t believe that anyone else is either.

And that brings me back to the apocalypse.

The apocalypse is catharsis. It’s the logical conclusion of the way things are, the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that’s why it still captures my imagination as much as it does. Every day on earth is somebody’s end of all things.

Maybe the apocalypse is really a process. Maybe it trickles in, one blow after another after another until finally, the end breathes into silence.

That requires no deus ex machina and is therefore more likely, I think. But a fundamentalist would disagree, and there’s a mutant hope in their point of view. For fundamentalists, the end has to be a bang, not a whimper; it’s a great ripping of the cosmic bandaid. Sure, there’s seven years of tribulation but after millennia upon millennia of horrors great and small, that’s just a sneeze. And perhaps that’s why people can commit themselves to such a restrictive way of life. You look at a broken, groaning world and pick the dogma that promises to put it out of its misery. It’s the ultimate justification, not only for the pain you’ve witnessed in the world, but for your reaction to it.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

In leaving fundamentalism, I sacrificed that for a life free of restrictions. Or so I thought: I haven’t completely moved on from that indefinite wait for the end. Too often, the mere fact of being human still feels dangerous. Every sleepless night, every ache, every kiss is one step closer to the edge of an abyss that’s pressed on my mind for as long as I’ve been aware.

We leave so little behind, if you really think about it. That’s the great paradox of abandoning fundamentalism. You are still the same person you are when you left, with the same dents in your brain.

But I don’t think that’s a permanent state any longer, and maybe that’s evidence I’m finally letting go of Armageddon. If I can believe that people change–that I change–then the world’s problems don’t need to be solved by annihilation but by the act of living deliberately well.

The apocalypse might be catharsis, but it’s also a cop-out, and it’s not worth the cost of my humanity.


3 thoughts on “Apocalypse When?

  1. “The apocalypse might be catharsis, but it’s also a cop-out, and it’s not worth the cost of my humanity.”

    Well put! I have to agree. Better try to change the world for the better than wait for it to be destroyed.

    I sometimes wonder if the ‘Image of God’ business was the real reason for the flood. God suddenly realized he was a monster and couldn’t stand looking in the mirror anymore.


  2. It’s a death wish, this apocalyptic thinking in Christianity, like Freud’s “death drive.” Since I am a Humanist, I know that this life is all I will ever have. So I try to make the best of it, to live well, to do kindness, to harm none. Evangelical thinking has us “half in love with death” with the assurance that bliss in heaven follows. I don’t believe that; never did.

  3. “Christian apocalypse” is a theological construct. The origins of the book of Revelation are Jewish, and it is extremely unlikely that they were meant to be a prediction. It’s a book of Jewish mysticism, the apocalyptic genre is a warning script, like saying “this is what can happen if you don’t take your responsibility”. Believers, of course, are not supposed to be longing for its fulfilment (“oh god, you promised us an armageddon – you can’t deny us the favor now!”), real Christians – as Nina Hagen said a couple of years ago in a debate (in German), rather pray for these things NOT to happen.

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