“When the end of the world comes,” said Mark Twain, “I want to be in Kentucky. They’re twenty years behind everything.”
The word apocalypse comes directly from Greek and only drops one small syllable on its way into English. Apokalypsis to Apocalypse. The literal meaning is “to uncover” or “to unveil.” It originally meant a disclosure, a revelation.
The word can also describe a particular kind of literature. That’s the first meaning in Merriam Webster’s dictionary:
one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.
Webster also gives what it calls the “Essential Meaning”:
a great disaster : a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.
In more common usage, apocalypse is often used as shorthand for “the end of the world.”
From disclosure to disaster. That’s quite a shift in meaning.
Why are people so fascinated with the idea of The Apocalypse, the End of the World? What is it about the human psyche that wants to immerse itself in “end of the world” thinking? And why has our interest in this topic been growing?
I took a look at Wikipedia’s list of Apocalyptic films. It paints an interesting picture. Before 1950, there were only 4 apocalypse movies. The first one was a Danish film made in 1916 called, prosaically enough, The End of the World. And then we went fifteen years before anyone made another apocalyptic movie. That one was a French film made in 1931, also titled The End of the World. American filmmakers got into the Apocalypse business in 1933 with Deluge from RKO Pictures, and then the Brits took a turn in 1936 with a United Artists picture called Things to Come, written by H.G. Wells. So in the whole first half of the 20th century, only 4 apocalyptic movies are listed. Four.
And then they stopped. That’s probably because the world was at war in the 1940s. People were living through an apocalypse, and they wanted their movies to tell them there was a brighter day coming, a time of rebuilding.
Apocalyptic films reappeared in the 1950s, but they were still sporadic enough that it would be stretching things at that point to call them a genre. From 1950 to 1959 there are eleven apocalypse movies on Wikipedia’s list, but things would pick up significantly in the 1960s.
From 1960 to 1969, twenty-six apocalypse movies are listed, including the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. The 1970s gave us 39 apocalypse or post-apocalypse movies. From 1980-1989, producers cranked out 47 apocalypse movies. In the 1990s the stream of apocalyptic films slowed but not by much. That decade gave us 41 apocalypse movies, but the Left Behind series of books hit the market in 1995, smack in the middle of that decade, so maybe people were reading about apocalypse instead of going to see it on the screen.
After slowing just a bit in the ‘90s, the genre exploded in the 2000s. From 2000 through 2009, Wikipedia lists 69 movies with apocalyptic themes showing up on our screens and probably in our collective psyche, because from 2010 through 2019, that number blew up again. In that decade Wikipedia lists 109 movies with apocalyptic themes. It’s too early to tell how “apocalyptic” this decade will be. The pandemic put a serious crimp in film production of all genres, but even with a Covid-imposed lockdown, the first two years of this decade have put 15 apocalypse movies on our screens.
So back to the original question: why are people so fascinated by apocalypse? Why is there such a big market for dystopia and humanity’s grand finale?
I don’t know what the social psychologists would say about that, but I do know what Biblical scholars and theologians say. They tell us that apocalyptic literature appears—and movies are a form of that—when a people is oppressed, or under great stress, or experiencing persecution. The Book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and imagery, appears during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah to give hope and courage to captive and enslaved people who had seen their nation not just defeated but destroyed. The Book of Daniel was written to give hope and courage to the Jewish rebels fighting against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the cruel Greek Seleucid ruler who desecrated Yahweh’s temple by setting up an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it. John’s Apocalypse, which we call the Book of Revelation, was written to give hope and courage to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor who were being oppressed and persecuted by Rome.
Hope and courage for people in dire straits. That’s what all the ancient apocalypses are really all about when you wade through all the fascinating imagery. They use imagery as a kind of code because the people writing them and reading them are living in dangerous circumstances. If the empire is breathing down your neck, it’s not safe to say “Rome is a gluttonous, greedy, selfish pig of a nation that bullies other nations into handing over the best of everything while the rest of us are sucked dry.” So instead you write about a harlot who sits on seven hills. You can’t say that the emperor is a monster, so you write about a monster, a dragon with seven heads.
The writers of the apocalyptic works in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who guided them, never intended to be giving a coded timeline of the end of all things. That’s not why they were written. They were written to give a simple clear message: “Hang in there. Yes, these are scary times. But God is on your side. Nasty empires and oppressive regimes don’t last forever. They either exhaust themselves, or somebody conquers them (see Darius the Mede bringing new management to Babylon), or enough people finally get tired of their rubbish and rise up to throw them out on their ear (see Antiochus Epiphanes versus the Maccabees), or they overindulge themselves to death and collapse from internal squabbling and rot (see Rome). Once more for emphasis: Hold on to hope. Have courage. God is on your side. And God wins in the end.”
That is the uniform, universal message of pretty much all apocalyptic literature.
With one apocalyptic exception: the “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark.
Mark was written during the Jewish uprising against Rome from 66-70 CE. There was tremendous pressure on the followers of Jesus in Palestine to join with the Jewish forces in the fight against Rome. They were told it was their patriotic duty to save Israel. Special emphasis was put on protecting the temple in this appeal to patriotism.
The temple was in particular danger for several reasons. It was the natural rallying point in the heart of Jerusalem, their ancient capitol. That would make it a target for the Romans. It was also the largest temple to any god in the Roman world, something of a point of pride for the Jewish people. It was an important tourist attraction, drawing both pilgrims and tourists. It was the heartbeat of Jerusalem’s economy. It was also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful building complex in the ancient world. Most importantly, though, it was central to every Jew’s sense of identity. The temple was Israel. Israel was the temple. To destroy the temple would be to destroy the nation. That, in turn, would put every Jewish person’s sense of identity adrift. Their spirit and resistance would be broken. For all these reasons, protecting the temple was the rebellion’s top priority.
In Mark 13, when the disciples are gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, Jesus just flatly tells them, “It’s all coming down. Not one stone will be left on another.” A bit later as they gather on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down to teach. The disciples, having just heard a tantalizing tidbit of apocalypse want details. “When is it going to happen? What will the signs be that it’s about to happen?”
Remember, this gospel, unlike Matthew, Luke, and John is being written while the temple is still standing, but in great jeopardy. The questions the disciples are asking in the text are the questions that Mark’s faith community, his companion followers of Jesus, are asking. They are desperate for a timetable. As Mark writes his account, the Roman legions have vacated Palestine temporarily to go fight one of their frequent civil wars, but everyone knows they’ll be back. And with a vengeance. But when?
They want a timetable. They want signs to look for. But Jesus isn’t going to give them one. “Stay on the path,” he says. “Don’t let anyone lead you astray. Others are going to come claiming they’re the Messiah. Don’t fall for it. If people try to tell you that various wars or natural disasters or famines are signs of the end and it’s time to get in the fight, don’t fall for it. All these things are going on always and everywhere. They are not signs of the end. They are birth pangs. Something new is being born.”
When they continue to pester him to be specific about the time of the temple’s destruction, Jesus finally says, “No one knows. Even I don’t know. Only the Father knows.”
This “little apocalypse” from Jesus in Mark is radically different from other apocalyptic writings in one major point. Other apocalyptic writings—those included in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, extra-biblical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the apocalyptic pamphlets that circulated throughout Palestine during the rebellion—all focused on the basic universal apocalyptic message: hang tough, fight the good fight, God is with you, hope and courage. But this homily from Jesus is almost the opposite. Ched Myers and other scholars suggest that he is telling his followers to abandon the temple. He is telling his followers not to join in the resistance. He urges them not to be led astray from their path of nonviolent resistance by charismatic leaders with messianic claims, swords and spears.
Jesus calls us to a different pathway of apocalypse. This is not the pathway of Judas Maccabeus picking up his sword to fight the Greeks. This is not the pathway of Simon bar Giora, claiming to be the new King David as he leads guerilla bands in surprise attacks. This is not Mad Max with a sawed-off shotgun.
Jesus is telling them that the rebellion is not the kingdom of God.
This is the pathway of Jesus, the Way of nonviolence. The way of critiquing the bad by doing the better. The rebellion is not the kingdom. But the kingdom is a rebellion…done a different Way.
In the Gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God, as it is embodied by Jesus, is revealed to us as a nonviolent rebellion against business as usual, economics as usual, politics as usual, government as usual, and religion as usual. It is also very much a rebellion against rebellion as usual. The entire mission of Jesus in the gospels is, in its way, an apocalypse. A revealing. It pulls back the veil to show us the serious flaws in our ways of doing things. It critiques the bad by giving us a vision of the better. Yes, the Way of Jesus does describe the end of the world. It ends when it is gradually, nonviolently reimagined heart by heart, mind by mind, one person at a time until the reign of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.
How’s that for an apocalypse?