Recent news from scientists--the universe is in decline. It will die out someday, in another couple billion years or so, give or take.
Old hat news from the Bible--our society is dying out, just like every human society before us has.
The apocalypse has already happened, several times in fact.
Apocalypse derives from the Greek word, apokalupto, which basically means to uncover, reveal or to bring out. For most people, apocalypse connotes the unleashing of a great cataclysmic event or series of events that will usher in the end of the world, human civilization or human history.
Talk of “the end” is prevalent, and most people are aware of the apocalyptic perspectives found in the Bible. The problems in the world now seem so daunting and our communities so vulnerable to complete collapse. It is hard to imagine anything on the other side of it other than chaos, violence, devastated landscapes, totalitarian regimes and death.
What I suggest, however, is that the popular notion of a great and cataclysmic end of the world is more populyptic and works against the insight of the biblical, apocalyptic perspective.
Before the Beginning of the End
Biblical writing has its origins in the Ancient Near East. The discovery of a great Mesopotamian library in the 19th century unveiled a vast amount of literature amazingly preserved in carved stone. It contained mythological stories of origins, like Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh, temple texts of hymns, prayers, and petitions, legal material elaborating on the social contract between monarchs and their subjects, collections of short pithy sayings prescribing the secrets to a good life, and lest we leave commerce out of the picture, ledger sheets keeping track of inventory and debts.
All of these ancient documents were created and preserved by ancient elites, mainly to educate their offspring in the eternal values of their culture, conveniently preserving their wealth, power, and influence into perpetuity. In all these texts, which were passed on for several millennia, there is a persistent air of “what has been since the beginning is here now and will always be.” Just as the letters are magically cut in stone (and to the populous, the texts did appear magical), so society’s current arrangement would last forever.
For over two millennia (roughly 3,000–500 B.C.E), this entrenched mythology did not produce any “apocalyptic” perspective. It did have a futuristic aspect to it, but one that is not obvious to us. Our tendency is to understand stories of origins as attempts to explain where a particular group of people came from. Most, if not all, mythological stories of origins, however, are mainly designed to inform a particular group about their current social arrangement and to clarify where it is going. Most mythological stories of origins are quite positive about the future. The creation story of Genesis chapter 1 is a good example. Creation ends with an “all good” assessment that goes on in perpetuity.
For sure, the mythological perspective does present a crisis that threatens society’s existence and indeed the whole cosmos hangs in the balance. It is simply placed in the past and not the future. The sea goddess Tiamat, for instance, goes to battle with Marduk. Marduk kills and dismembers Tiamat and places all of society’s essentials in order using her body parts. Again, the mythological story among imperial societies remains constant—the current arrangement is “all good” and will continue to be so.
From its inception, biblical literature moves away from and in fact works against the mythological. One scholar calls biblical literature “religious opposition literature.” It suggests a story in which there was a crisis in the past that a peculiar god, YHWH, resolved. The story diverges significantly from the cosmic battles of imperial mythology. This god puts boots on the ground. The battle is on earth and in a real-‐ to-‐life situation. It doesn’t end with an “all good” situation, but with an on-‐going venture, one that requires concerted human involvement. Instead of the mythical storyline that repeats, “the way things were, are the way things are and the way they shall always be,” the biblical storyline keeps insisting “the way things were and are now is not the way they should be.”
The apocalyptic perspective that modern American culture borrows from is a particular biblical and Jewish phenomenon. It did not solidify into a distinctive genre until centuries after the formative biblical years. Nonetheless, its fundamental premise is grounded in two notions that weave themselves into nearly every page of the Bible. The first notion is that the world of ruthless and violent domination by a few who control nearly all the resources by enslaving the rest is not right or good. It is not as it should be. This notion leads to the next: the god of slaves did something about it! He intervened. He stepped into and disrupted human affairs to push “the way things should be” into the spotlight.
Seeds of Apocalyptic—Prophet Disaster Thinking
The current situation is not the way things should be, and God did, can, and will “step in” to do something about it. Apocalyptic thinking emerges when those two notions are not only disconnected, but appear to be at odds with each other.
Things are not only opposite of what should be, but it keeps getting worse, really bad in fact. God does not appear to be doing anything about it. The apocalyptic perspective was born in a crisis of hope between these two things, which again are biblical notions. The crisis, in fact, is theological. “If God is so powerful, why doesn’t he do something about our suffering? Or even more accurate: “Why doesn’t he do something about ‘those evil people’ who are causing my suffering?”
For the most part, there is only a small portion of apocalyptic material in the Bible. In each and every case, it has to do with having the shit kicked out of you by some imperial force and left to wonder why the god who was known in the past as one who stepped in, did not do so in this particular case. This is why, we Americans, although thinking ourselves “biblical,” really don’t and can’t understand what an “apocalypse” is all about. We are an imperial force, not the victims of one! El Salvadorians facing death squads in the 80s would have better understood an apocalypse than Americans having to accommodate same-‐sex marriages in the neighborhoods.
The precursor to apocalyptic literature is found in the disaster pronouncements of the biblical prophets. In the formative years of the Bible (roughly 900–400 B.C.E.), “disaster thinking” developed with the prophets of Israel. Beginning in the eighth century, an impressive and violent imperial power was overtaking the whole Ancient Middle-‐Eastern world. Assyria was a particularly violent, overpowering presence in the region and in much of the biblical narrative, especially in the prophetic material.
As much as the Assyrians were feared and despised in Israel as an oppressive imperial force, the biblical prophets ironically devout little space to diatribes of their demise. Instead, they forecast doom upon Israel. The prophets are quite clear as to the cause of the impending disaster—the people claiming to be closest to their god have in fact abandoned him. Rather than being critical of imperial thinking and living out a radical alternative, Israel has become an enthusiastic player in the ancient game of imperial roulette. Who’s empire will come out on top?
As much as we like to think of biblical prophets as tabloid-‐type, mystical future-‐ tellers, the prophets merely applied a bit of reasoned thinking. They were incessantly putting this kind of question to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah: “Do you think the god who rescued slaves from imperial forces desires his kingdom to be an empire enslaving people? Surely not! The prophets insist: the god of Israel will fight against this.
Disaster did come to the people of God. First, the Assyrians destroyed Samaria and seized the territory. For sure, small regional kingdoms like Israel and Damascus experienced the cataclysmic advance of imperial aggression. It was the end of their world (a regional kingdom controlling a territory) as they knew it. All of them were left to wonder why and how this happened and what life will be like after the end of their world. The great irony of biblical prophets is their assessment of that disaster. The violent, imperial aggression of Assyria did not bring on the end of Israel’s world. Rather, Israel brought on its own demise by embracing and not resisting violent, imperial aggression as the norm by which societies should operate. Israel had reverted back to a mythological perspective, which is what the whole issue of idols and bad religion is about in the Bible.
Herein lies one big difference between populyptic and apocalyptic thinking. The prophets repeatedly called for repentance in the face of disaster. God wanted the survivors to rethink, reevaluate, and change the way things were done. Make no mistake here. The prophets primarily called out the controlling aristocracy to radically reverse “the way things are.” It was not the pious poor, humbly asking forgiveness for not paying back loans at 90% interest rates and forced to relinquish their children as collateral.
The prophet Amos had to deal with his own group of populyptic thinkers. They were religious people clamoring for disaster to strike those people—those really bad people, that other empire. Once that occurred, they would take over and life would be grand. Amos retorts:
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear!
Today’s populyptics have not changed much from Amos’ day. Both presume they will avoid disaster by cheating the system somehow, whether by doubling down on religious scrupulosity or by hoarding copious amounts of guns and peanut butter. The biblical prophets believed that the god who rescued slaves offered them a radical yet doable alternative world to the world of “winner takes all.” Populyptics ironically view themselves as the new winners, even in a decimated landscape. For some reason, they convince themselves that “evil will not overtake us” (Amos 9:10)—everyone else for sure—but not us.
The kingdom of Judah narrowly escaped the same fate as Samaria and survived for another hundred years, mainly due to the collapse of the Assyrian empire. The survivors of the Samarian disaster went two different directions as to their assessment of it. For many, they heeded the prophets’ call to repentance. They set out to reject the imperial way of doing things and made serious attempts at constituting a different way more rooted in a god who rescues slaves (See the Ten Commandments and the book of Deuteronomy). They aggressively sought to limit imperial power and economic domination by implementing “just and righteous” laws. Most of all, they dreamed of a viable alternative to violent, exploitative societies. They thought possible a society where all the people were “wise and discerning” and who had just and equitable ways of interacting (Deut 4:4-‐8).
Unfortunately, another group chose the populyptic option. They presumed that since they survived the Assyrian apocalypse, they were the new “winners-‐take-‐all.” God had wiped out the old imperial regime for a new imperial regime. They did not understand that the God who rescued slaves from imperial forces of exploitation was not at all interested in being the next imperial force of violent domination.
Ironically, when the new imperial force on the scene, the Babylonians, threatened the tiny kingdom of Judah, the populyptic crowd banked on their God to intervene and rescue them. He did not. The populyptics had forgotten that the God who intervenes in human society expects a radical change of perspective from the saved.
From the biblical perspective, the world ended in 587 B.C.E. when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and killed or exiled its inhabitants. The historical documents of Kings and Chronicles end then. There is no history after that.
Apocalypse Begins When History Ends
Apocalyptic perspectives began when the world had already ended. Biblically, history ends when the dream of a just and equitable world is snuffed out by yet another round of violent, imperial domination and exploitation. God’s promise of a just, righteous, truthful and merciful world that lasts forever seems to be a vengeful lie or ponzi scheme. The current situation is really, really bad, and things are not as they should be. Worse, God who should be intervening is not. Apocalyptic thinking begins here. God is going to let the “really bad” intensify to a point where he is going to intervene in a really bad-‐ass way. He will act in such a way that the revolving door of violent imperial powers will cease forever.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the near 70 year life of either exile in a foreign land or a conscripted “renter” in the land created a crisis of faith for a people believing in an almighty god. The post-‐Jerusalem Jews responded to the extreme breach of reality in a variety of ways. Apocalyptic is but one of them. The prominent biblical response was communal rites of repentance: worship, prayer, fasting and lamentation. This required patient endurance and mindful waiting. But the apocalyptic option countered despair when the tension between what is and what should moved to extremes. The apocalyptic option was of critical importance as a supplemental perspective to faithful waiting. It became folly and fatal if it became the prominent or only one.
The prophet Ezekiel is the father of apocalyptic perspectives in the Bible. As a young Jerusalem priest, his exile to Babylon severely traumatized him. He was supposed to be ministering as a priest of the Most High God in a magnificent temple in Jerusalem. Instead, he was stripped of his clothes, his possessions, and his dignity and marched hundreds of miles to a foreign land. In Babylon, he followed the news of Jerusalem’s continued decline and prophesied of its ultimate destruction.
For Ezekiel and many others, the disparity between what ought to be and his current condition was now extreme. Even worse, God intervened by aiding the Babylonians assault on Jerusalem. Consistent with his prophetic predecessors, however, Ezekiel clearly lays out the cause—Israel’s failure to appropriately respond to God’s call to be a radical alternative to the imperial mythology of “the way things are and always shall be.”
The disparity between what is and what should be was extreme for Ezekiel. He experienced a cataclysmic end of the world. He shares a vision (Ez 1) where the extreme disparity is transported onto a global and cosmic level. Ezekiel sees a great desert sand storm enveloping all things. In the midst of the storm, he sees a great conflation of brilliant light, flashing fire, beasts with human features, whirling wheels within wheels covered with seeing eyes and glittering jewels. Everywhere he sees flashing, darting lights. Boisterous, whirling, and rumbling sounds pierce his ears. Always, everywhere and all about is movement: whirling, spinning, whooshing, flashing movement, all within a great storm cloud mounting a looming approach.
Ezekiel evokes numerous images from Israel’s 500-‐year, anti-‐myth tradition and clashes them together in a compact, storm cloud image. The unbearable disparity between what should be and what is has moved to the extreme. Apocalyptic thinking addresses an extreme crisis of faith. This explains the exaggerated polarization in its literary depictions. Ezekiel makes clear what the storm cloud image means: God is absolutely, resolutely present in Israel’s “end of the world” crisis (Ez 1:28). The more the crisis exacerbates, the more God encroaches.
This is extremely hard to imagine for those in such a crisis of reality, and that is precisely why the exaggerated images collide in compacted space and time. They forcefully enable us to see what is not at all apparent. When we humans make an ugly mess of a situation, God is ever more present, even in his seeming absence. Always, everywhere, and all about is movement. Only in one of these times of extreme crisis does a biblical prophet claim to have seen God. It was when the current situation seemed so ridiculously at odds with what should be, of what is hoped for, and indeed, what is promised (Exod 3, Isa 6, Ez 1).
Ezekiel’s storm cloud image of “the glory of the Lord” converted the “disaster thinking” of prophetic voices past and initiates one peculiar response to a crisis of faith pushed to the brink—apocalyptic thinking. To remind, at the heart of the contradiction is always God’s radical vision of what human life should and can be on this earth, if only He can get the enthusiastic partnership of humanity. Unlike populyptic thinking, it always looks beyond the end of the world to a fulfilled promise from the Israel’s god—sometimes called “the Mighty One of Jacob.”
Ezekiel’s initial burst of apocalyptic thinking subsided within his own lifetime for one critical reason—the Babylonian empire began crumbling even before it had reached its height. This revived the hope of Israelites, both in exile and still in the land, of what could and should be. The last third of the book of Ezekiel is dedicated to describing a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem and a radically reformed priesthood.
Disciples of the great prophet Isaiah envision an end to exilic suffering and a “voice in the wilderness” calling: “come home, come home.”
The extreme disparity between what is and what should be greatly diminished as the Persian emperor, Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their temple. God had intervened (albeit through a foreign imperial power.) The reconstitution of a people of Israel in the land began and for several centuries occupied the literary activity that produced large portions of the Bible nearly devoid of Ezekiel’s fantastic imagery.
Daniel—Apocalyptic Thinking Come to Fruition
Apocalyptic thinking slowly revived as the hope of what should be increasingly bogged down under foreign imperial over-‐sight. It created an intense internal conflict in Jerusalem brought on by an extended economic crisis. That crisis can be simply and clearly identified, and it only grew as time went on. The “religious” impulse toward a world infused with God’s presence was constantly suppressed with the ever-‐increasing marriage between imperial force and market demand.
The book of Daniel brings out the fullest and most influential expression of apocalyptic thinking in the Bible and for good reason. It comes in the aftermath of the fall of the great Persian Empire, which had lasted for over two centuries. This did not bring on renewed hope of a reconstituted Israel as the fall of Babylon had done previously. The Persians oppressively still enforced “the way things are, are the way things shall be”—violent and merciless seizure and control of resources. When the Greeks took charge, they only doubled down on that thinking. Their control over conquered territories was even more centralized and discriminatory. Indigenous identities and cultures sensed the oppressive, downward pressure.
The dream of what should be once again went underground. The crisis of faith was now exacerbated by time. It had been two hundred years since the promise was revived. With yet another imperial presence now fresh up, it looked like another two hundred plus years of patient endurance.
The apocalyptic perspective in Daniel attempts to answer the tortured question: “How long, O Lord, will you remain silent?” It is an emphatic NO to the mythic stance of “the way it will always be.” It is a subversive text created by indigenous elites struggling under a massive imperial presence for the way things should be. The promise is even more compounded by time. It seems like it will never be! This is why there is a preoccupation with time, calendars, and numbers. As confused or mysterious as this is made out to be in populyptic thinking, there is one thing that is clear about it: it radically affirms God concern for “the way things are.” It is an exhortation of hope. Oppressive imperial domination will end. The calculation of numbers points to God’s deliberate and watchful oversight over “all the earth.”
Jewish writers employed the common ancient strategy to envision the future by projecting it onto the past. Hence, the book of Daniel transports believing Jews under Greek domination back to the Babylonian captivity, and it focuses on a saint of that time who did not give up on the promise even when it was completely overpowered by “the way things are.” Daniel speaks with authority in the book because he knows. He’s been there.
The book also carries authoritative weight because it compacts allusions to Israel’s anti-‐myth traditions into visions and amazing stories of rescue. For those hearing the stories behind closed doors, Daniel and his friends create a composite image of God’s intervention. To those who know the ancient traditions, God’s counter-‐ revolution experienced by Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Hannah, Ruth, David, Elijah and a host of others is conjured up in such a way that the community relives those experiences and renews the hope of “the way things should be.” Even in the communal reading of the story, struggling Jews realize God’s victory over the current imperial power.
Daniel elaborates even more than Ezekiel on the global stake the God of Israel has in the “should be” revolution. Daniel’s wild, cosmic clash of images in his visions pronounces a judgment on all nations who have succumbed to the imperial illusion. The crisis of faith is now global. It goes beyond anyone’s world. All imperial worlds will come to an end to make room for the should-‐be world.
Always and everywhere, apocalyptic thinking is a reaction and a resistance to the imperial thinking of “might makes right” and “winner takes all.” It is an ingenious vehicle to carry forth the promise of the way things should be even and especially in a world dominated by the same old imperial myth. It keeps God’s hope of an “all-‐ good” world (kingdom) open and viable even in the worst of times.
Apocalyptic literature and thinking intensified in Jewish culture when Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to convert the Jewish temple in Jerusalem to a Greek temple (167 B.C.E). The crisis of what is and what should be hit boiling pitch. The hope and promise of a better world appeared on the verge of extinction by brute force. The Maccabean revolt staved off that extinction. God did intervene, and for a few decades the hope was resurrected and apocalyptic fervor subsided.
Next Empire Up—Rome
God’s unrelenting vision of the way things should be was kept amazingly vibrant through apocalyptic literature and by the liturgical acts of communal worship even as the next empire up, Rome, seized power.
In New Testament times, anxiety over “how long” renewed. The gospels accurately portray the heightened anxiety of the times when Jesus appeared on the scene. There was not only the sense of “how long, O Lord,” but even a sense of “this can’t go on.” In the inconspicuous activities of a Galilean preacher, many Jews saw in Jesus a radical renewal of what should be.
The New Testament reflects divergent communities that believed Jesus was the kind of profound intervention longed for. Even after the Romans executed him as a subversive, the early Christians proclaimed that God had profoundly reasserted his “should be” agenda. By raising Jesus from the dead, they insisted, God dealt a mortal blow to “the way things are.”
This belief came under severe stress for the early Christian communities. Rome executed a steady stream of pretentious Caesars like Jesus and utterly crushed Jewish revolt by destroying the Jewish temple in 70 C.E. Even more so, Christians (still mostly Jews) were being expelled from their communities and treated as traitors or foreigners. By the end of the century, most of their revered leaders had been executed and their communities marginalized and vulnerable.
The last book of the Bible, Revelation of John, employs the apocalyptic strategy of previous generations to once again address the crisis of faith when the disparity between what is and what should be moves to an extreme. God’s “all good” vision of the world is forcefully suppressed, and God appears dormant.
The book employs the conventional literary tactics of the apocalyptic tradition. Allusions to the thousand-‐year tradition of a just, righteous, truthful, and merciful world are compacted into wild, clashing images. Coded time and number references indicate God’s intentional design and sovereign oversight. Images of splendor and glory remind the weak of heart of God’s presence. Even though the community feels marginalized and isolated, they are reminded that they are a part of a global, even cosmic struggle. Always, everywhere and all about is movement. When it most appears as if God is absent, silent and unresponsive, God is near and active.
Apocalyptic Meets Populyptic
We have plenty of reasons to sense that we are in some kind of ending phase in human history. As Phyllis Tickle asserts in her book Emergence Christianity, ending phases in human history seem to go in 500 years cycles. Much that is meant by the term “post-‐modern” refers to the ending of the Enlightenment phase in the Modern Era. There is the clear sense that this era is winding down or unraveling. This leaves all of us with a strong sense of unease and uncertainty. Many of us feel our world disappearing. The world I am raising my children in has increasingly little resemblance to the world I grew up in even though it was only 30 years ago!
Yes, even when America is the dominant economic, technical, and military force in the world, I can understand how we as individuals can feel the loss of power and control of our personal lives against imperial-‐like and immovable powers. My wishes and dreams for a better world are pushed to extreme opposites and clashing in irresolvable conflict.
But many of the feelings of “the end” merely signal the decline of America as a dominant, imperial force in the world. We are panicked that we are loosing our place of privilege in the world and within our own country. We can no longer control, manipulate and force our will on others. Somehow we feel persecuted because we now have to share and not control resources. When we buy into the winner-‐takes-‐all strategy, we can feel quite anxious when we sense the end of our winning streak.
Populypticism, however, is a bastard child of biblical apocalyptic thinking. Apocalyptic thinking has always been about a particular subjugated group whose tradition tenaciously clings to a new kind of world where justice, righteousness, truth, and mercy reign. It imagines only this kind of world in the future and only here on this planet with flesh and bone human bodies.
Populyptic thinking never imagines the world as it should be. It panics when it can only see the decline of its own power and the rise of another. Populyptics only seek to procure their own salvation and view God as either waiting up for a massive and violent retaliation or as strangely uninvolved. Of course, in this scenario the future looks bleak, but it is still holds on to—desperately in fact—a future of might makes right and winners take all. It also desperately holds on to the past, especially its glorious victories that brought it to power.
Prophetic and apocalyptic perspectives also look to the past, but they radically reappraise the past in light of the current crisis. It realizes that our glorious past wasn’t quite like what we fashioned it. It renounces our false constructions of our history that have led to our current crisis. It is a scary evaluation of the failures of one’s tradition in order to get at its core. Only this kind of reversal, this kind of repentance can lead to a positive, world-‐saving view of the future.
Apocalyptic thinking affirms God’s active and engaging presence not just in good times, but especially in times of crisis. Always and everywhere there is movement. It humbly accepts the shattering of our “normal” world and faithfully waits for a new world where God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Apocalyptic thinking subverts imperial imagery even as it employs it. It does envision—on earth—an imperial presence of God, but one that embraces all, includes all, and ends the infliction of suffering and the end of violent exploitation. It does envision the use of force, but one that does not kill. It is the force of love that moves forward in cooperation, not subjugation.